Sometimes you get to a place that immediately feels right. I had it before with Don Det in Laos. And with Gili Trawangan. Or the Perhentians in Malaysia, where we just came from. It’s the combination of a stunning location and a relaxed vibe. From the moment you arrive you get the feeling you never want to leave again. Bukit Lawang in the northern part of Sumatra is another one of those places.
Or maybe I should say Sumatra is one of those places. We have only seen a small part of this huge island but I sort of fell in love with it. We arrived in Medan after two weeks on the Malaysian peninsula where Cefas, a friend from Arnhem, joined us to travel together for a while. In contrast with reasonably well-organized Malaysia, Sumatra felt like we were truly traveling again. The chaos on the road, the rubbish on the streets, the school kids on the roof of the bemo, the poverty and the hassle, it almost feels like we’re back in India.
As said, our first destination on Sumatra was Bukit Lawang, only about 90 km from Medan but still a 5-hour journey by bus, ojek (motor taxi) and bemo (public minivan bus). It was well worth the effort. Bukit Lawang is a small village set on a beautiful spot along a river on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The orangutans living in the park are the main attraction here but the place on itself is already worth going there. It has an incredible relaxed vibe and the first few days we did little more than swinging around in our hammocks while gazing at the jungle all around us. Well, maybe the local spliffs added to the experience too 😉
Our first encounter with our famous red-haired cousins was at the feeding platform. Orangutans from rehabilitation centers are released here and until they are fully used to find food from the forest on their own, they are fed twice a day by the park rangers. Still, it’s fascinating to see these semi-wild apes (“monkeys have tails”) emerge slowly from the jungle to get their breakfast bananas.
Better even than at the feeding platform was seeing the orangutans during our 2-day jungle trek. A bit of a sweaty undertaking climbing up and down steep hills in the damp jungle but that’s soon forgotten when you see these elegant creatures swinging seemingly effortless from tree to tree. Just a couple of meters from where we were standing. A few minutes later we saw a family of black gibbons. Much to the surprise to our guide as well.
On the last descent to the jungle camp we could truly outlive our Tarzan fantasies climbing down roots and swinging around trees. Nevertheless we were happy to reach our camp where a jump in the river finally brought us the highly needed refreshment.
No more trekking on day two. After breakfast on the riverbank and a shower under the waterfall our guides took us back to Bukit Lawang on the raft they had constructed from a couple of inner tubes. There were quite a few good rapids on the way down so it was good fun. Although Carina saw her Nepalese white-water experience coming back and was relieved when we had reached our endpoint.
After a week in Bukit Lawang we were up to a change of scenery even though I felt like I could have stayed there another month. Next destination was Lake Toba, the largest lake in Southeast Asia which was created by a volcanic eruption some thousands of years ago. Actually it’s a super volcano filled with water.
A bit worrying though, and something we only found out after we had arrived on the island, is that scientists have recently discovered a huge magma chamber under Lake Toba that might possibly erupt again. But in that case the catastrophe would be so big that it causes a decade-long winter or even a new ice-age and life would no longer be possible. Maybe better sit right on top and go with a bang.
The Lake Toba region is home to the Christian Batak people who practiced ritual cannibalism until about 200 years ago. It was common to eat the flesh of an enemy or person found guilty of seriously breaking their law. We were welcomed with a chorus of “horas” (welcome) but I guess they haven’t always been this friendly.
In the middle of this lake is an island as big as Singapore called Samosir. The main backpacker hangout on the island is Tuk Tuk which is where we were staying. There isn’t actually much to do in Tuk Tuk. While the Indonesians come here for karaoke, the main activities for foreign tourist involve eating magic mushrooms and touring around the island on a motorbike (a combination is not recommended). So after we had perfected our hammock-swinging skills for a few days it was time to explore the rest of Samosir island.
To get around the island on a motorbike you will have to make an early start to be back on time before the daily thunderstorms roll in. The island is huge and on some parts the roads are in bad condition. But there isn’t much traffic so zipping through the scenic countryside is a good way to get a glimpse of the rural life of the Bataks. Picture fishermen in small wooden canoes, people working in the rice paddies, women doing the laundry on the lake’s shores and kids playing around on compounds surrounded by old Batak houses. Life here is simple, slow and peaceful.
Our last stop before we would fly to Java was Berastagi, a hill station at 1300m originally created by the Dutch to escape the heat of Medan. Nowadays it’s a busy town and on itself not very interesting to hang around for too long. The reason we came here is to climb the volcano Gunung Sibayak. Normally you can also climb the higher Gunung Sinabung but since last February’s eruption that’s a no-go area right now.
It’s a fairly easy climb up. We first took a taxi that dropped us at the end of the road and then it’s about an hour to get to the top. Hearing the sizzling fumaroles as you approach the crater makes you aware that this is indeed an active volcano. From Sibayak you have nice views on the neighboring Sibanung and when you see the amount of smoke coming from that volcano it’s easy to understand why you’re not allowed to climb that one.
We decided to follow another path to go down. It was described as being steps but we spend two hours climbing down rocks and roots through the jungle. By far not as easy as our way up but the good thing is that we now ended up in a village where we could take a bemo back to Berastagi. Altogether the hike took us about 4 hours.
I didn’t know what to expect from Sumatra and it surprised me. We had good fun and it was adventurous at times. The people are friendly and it’s extraordinary beautiful. But above all it was a very relaxed and pleasant experience. Whether I was gazing into the jungle, watching the impressive thunderstorms over Lake Toba or simply saw the daily life go by from the back of a bemo, I often sat there with a big smile on my face.
For the traveller Sumatra is like being on a natural high.