Our Indonesia Travel Specialist Chloe and her partner had been dreaming about the untouched island of Sumatra for many years, and their time had finally come. They spent 2 weeks on a whirlwind tour spotting swinging orangutans, staying in lush jungles, travelling through remote villages and relaxing on soft sandy beaches. This is their story…
Swinging with the Apes
After one of the best flights we have had with Singapore Airlines, my boyfriend and I arrived in the sticky heat of Medan – Sumatra’s bustling capital. After some tasty local cuisine and a good night sleep we travelled over bumpy roads to one of North Sumatra’s famous towns of Bukit Lawang.
Bukit Lawang is a small village nestled on the side of the river and the Gunung Leser National Park. The National Park is nearly 8000 square kilometres and home to many different types of wildlife and over 7000 wild and semi wild orangutans. Bukit Lawang used to house a feeding platform where rehabilitated orangutans (semi wild) came twice a day for food, but now they have closed this down and are slowly trying to wean the orangutans off feeding, so you will still see many of these around when trekking.
Setting off early with our guide, the jungle was buzzing with insects and animals waking up to the sun. Our guide spotted our first orangutan within minutes awaking from her nest – with her baby! She gently swung down from the tree with curiosity and perched herself on the tree above us to suss us out. This was just the beginning of the exciting wildlife spotting that was about to come.
Three different mothers and babies came to meet us on our trek, as well as an inquisitive pig tailed macaque, friendly Thomas Leaf Monkeys with babies and a trumpeting hornbill that we saw from afar. Our guide was very knowledgeable and knew when to keep our distance, especially when we came across a wild male orangutan!
Exploring remote villages
Next on our travels was the remote village of Tangakahan, where the local community have created tourism for nearly 14 years. After recognising there was a real problem with illegal logging and animal poaching, the community have come together to protect the Gunung Leser National Park by patrolling the jungle atop elephants that have mostly been rescued from Banda Aceh in the North.
The quickest way to get here from Bukit Lawang is by jeep – through rivers, jungle and extremely remote and simple villages where the people will yell and wave with big smiles as you drive past. We were lucky enough to witness the Sinabung volcano erupting from afar in the nearby town of Berastagi and when driving through the small villages it really felt as if we were in another world.
Our stay in Tangkahahan was spent in a rustic jungle lodge with limited electricity but very friendly locals on the tall banks of the river. The glimmering opal rivers are extremely inviting, and there are waterfalls and hot springs galore to explore. Our free day was spent bathing with elephants, floating peacefully down the river on a tube, and getting a free massage while sitting under sparkling waterfalls. The community feel was strong here, and the lodge in the evening was alive with local guides singing on guitars.
Exploring Samosir Island
After a spot of nasi goreng for breakfast and hugs with the lodge staff, our driver ushered us to our SUV for our long drive to Samosir Island via the bustling capital of Medan and through local villages and rice paddies. Our accommodation for the next two nights had a swimming pool and was perched on the edge of the lake which is just what we wanted after our adventurous couple of days…
Samosir is a large island on Lake Toba about roughly the size of Singapore and is great for exploring by motorbike. Travelling round the windy roads and hills covered with coffee plantations, we had spectacular views over South East Asia’s largest crater lake. Our top experience here was seeing the Batak houses and also enjoying freshly made coffee from a local crater side café with its stunning views.
Leaving the emerald hills behind, our driver took us further South towards West Sumatra stopping at pineapple, coffee and avocado plantations, rural villages and rice paddies where the rice harvest was in full swing. There was a small town called Sipoholon which is famous for its bubbling hot springs, and yellow sulphur covering a lot of the ground. It stunk of rotten egg and reminded me of Rotorua!
A foodie’s paradise
Following a night in Padang Sidempuan – a crazy little city with trendy locals and streets lined with street food vendors, we set off again en route to Bukkitinghi. One of my favourite stops on this drive was at a small plant nursery where they were growing many different spices and herbs; as a foodie this was exciting for me! I bought one of each as gifts for friends and family and was nice to have a story about how they all grow as well.
Another highlight was crossing the equatorial line overland! There are not many people who can say they have done this, as a lot of the places where you can are quite remote. Our driver gave us a certificate and all and we have the photo to prove it… Further down the road we stopped along the river where a local man was panning for gold, and were able to buy little rocks flecked with gold which was a nice way to help with his income as gold panning in the area has become pretty scarce.
Learning all about Minangkabau culture
Arriving in Bukkitinghi we could see why it is a tourist hot spot; it is nestled in 930m above sea level and surrounded by 3 volcanoes, one of which is active. It is the centre of the Minangkabau culture and is also famous for the large Sianok Canyon that runs alongside of the city. Our driver was actually from Minangkabau heritage himself, so insisted he took us on a tour around the local villages.
The Minangkabau houses resemble large horns which jut out from the rooftops and there are a few set up for on show so tourists can visit. Part of the tour was to a replica of the Minangkabau King and Queens house which sadly burnt down a few years ago due to a lightning strike! Locals poised around the building with selfie sticks and due to our blond hair we were celebrities most of the time!
At the end of the tour or driver took us to Lake Maninjau, another crater lake but much small than Lake Toba. It was incredibly peaceful and we sat at the lakeside restaurant sipping Bintang and listening to the evening prayer and enjoyed fresh grilled fish for dinner. The water on the lake is crystal clear, and if it wasn’t late when we arrived then swimming would definitely have happened!
Cubadak: A taste of paradise
In the morning we set off early for our driver to drop us at Padang where we would say goodbye and he would drive back up North. This part of the trip was well needed as it is where we could relax and unwind on a tropical beach! With a sad goodbye and many thanks we left the bustling city behind and drove a couple of hours to the jetty to catch our boat to paradise.
Our time spent on the Cubadak island consisted of eating, swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing and we couldn’t have wished for more. All meals were enjoyed around the main table in the restaurant with the owners and other guests, and we shared travel stories and passed around some of the best food we had had in Asia. On one of the days we were able to head out on a boat trip to a neighbouring island where they bought us a picnic lunch and we snorkelled in the clear azure waters. It was absolute bliss and perfect! It’s great to know Cubadak is able to be travelled to all year round and I can’t wait to go back.
Our last day was spent in Jakarta as a quick city stop before heading home. Our minds were blown by the friendliness of the people of Sumatra, the diversity of different landscapes and experiences that were to be had.
Out of all of the places I have visited, Sumatra was the one that took me most by surprise and I would certainly recommend it to everyone who wants that little taste of undiscovered territory and adventure. Next time I want to go back to West and South Sumatra and I am already planning my next trip…