Last month, travel writer, Petra Shepherd ticked another country off her bucket list when she set off to explore the highlights of the lesser-visited region of North Sumatra with Rickshaw. From swinging with the apes to climbing lofty volcanoes and meeting the Batak Karo people, there wasn’t a dull moment! Read all about her adventure…
“I like to think that I’m pretty well travelled (well at least my friends think I am, as they jealously comment on my various exotic Facebook posts). I’ve travelled to well over 100 countries; criss-crossing the globe for The Travel Channel, but I’m also a die-hard back packer (or at least I was until I discovered Rickshaw Travel). I first explored Asia nearly 30 years ago and every year since have spent at least a few weeks on my tod, planning my own itinerary and getting seriously off the beaten track.
However, there gets a time in your life when you like things to happen, you no longer appreciate the thrill of the unexpected and unknown, you want to have a rough idea of what you might be doing and where you might be going and again- most importantly- that it’s all going to actually happen. And of course there’s the time factor. If you’re time poor, who wants to spend days planning your own route either pre or during a trip when, for a small price, it can all be taken care of.
This is where Rickshaw Travel comes into its own. I was thrilled to find a company that appreciates the kind of travelling that I love; the authentic experiences that I crave. I loved being able to string together several of the peg itineraries to create my own journey. There’s the initial thrill of being met at the airport by a driver holding a board with your name on it, knowing that he will be with you for the duration, no trying to figure out how to get in to town and where to stay.
My sister lives in Bali and I’ve visited Indonesia several times, spending time in Bali and then tagging on a new island to explore on the way home. I’ve done Lombok, Java, Flores and Komodo but never Sumatra. Sumatra is not as well visited as the others but I’d heard tales of the thrill of jungle treks and orangutans, mythical Lake Toba and climbing volcanoes, and was keen to see it for myself.
Rickshaw Travel offers various short trips in North Sumatra with enticing names like “Swinging with the Apes” and “Fairy Tale in Samosir“and I was able to combine three to make up the classic tour of the highlights of the region.
Looking at the sign in the tourist office in Berastagi, brought home to me the importance of having a guide (again all arranged in advance by Rickshaw Travel). Berastagi is where you leave the heat of Medan (the capital of Sumatra) behind and try your hand at a spot of volcano climbing. Climbing another Indonesian volcano Mt Batur in Bali I was overtaken by about 200 people, climbing Mount Sibayak in Sumatra, there were only two others.
You and the guide feel as though you have the path to yourselves, it’s a steep climb and at times very slippery but plenty of opportunities for breaks as the guide points out the flora and fauna – Passion Fruit flowers and ferns with a life of their own, curling up on a single touch. There’s a treat in store at the end of the climb as you wallow in the natural volcanic hot springs. I’m not normally a fan of the latter, wondering how many people are actually using for their daily wash but these were clean, 5 different pools of varying temperature from hot to seriously hot and again deserted.
If there’s one absolute must-do on a trip to Sumatra, then it’s a visit to Bukit Lawang and a trek in to the jungle to see orangutans in the wild. Like swimming with Dolphins or going to the Galapagos, it’s on everyone’s bucket list and more than lives up to any expectations. Having been on various safaris lacking in animals and a tiger spotting trip in Chitwan National Park in Nepal, notable by the absence of tigers, the cynical traveller in me wondered whether we were actually going to see any of our ginger friends.
Imagine my surprise when less than 100 yards from the Eco Lodge where we were staying a big male orangutan came crashing through the trees. The guides were also somewhat shocked, they’d never seen one come quite so close to the village, as one pointed out we hadn’t even got to the entrance gate to the national park. If that wasn’t enough excitement, the guide then nonchalantly pointed to a tree, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at (the orangutan was rather obvious), “snik” “snik” he smiles, out comes the camera but its back in its case pretty pronto when I’m told it’s a highly poisonous moon snake!
After this there were no shortage of orangutans to see, mothers with babies, playful teenagers, greedy males that we fed with chunks of carrot and banana before getting fed ourselves with a delicious lunch that the guides magically produced from their rucksacks. You need to be reasonably fit to do the day trek, at times there’s no clear path through the jungle which only adds to the thrill as you play at being a bush whacking explorer for the day. The journey home, a roller-coaster ride sitting in a rubber tube, hurtling through the rapids along the Bohorok River is also not for the faint hearted but not one guest arrived back at base without having the broadest smile on their face and also very, very wet!
Much gentler is the trip entitled “Fairytale in Samosir“. Samosir Island on volcanic Lake Toba is one of those magical places, not only stunningly beautiful but atmospheric and fascinating at the same time. I’d recommend hiring a bike and exploring the island this way, there are few hills and plenty of villages to lose yourself in, exploring the Batak culture that the island is famed for.
The term Batak was first used by Malay settlers to describe any non-Muslim in this part of Sumatra and although they have many traditions, the Batak are probably best known for the richness of their architecture.
The bale (“meeting hall”), rumah (“house”), and sopo (“rice barn”) are the three main buildings. The rumah has traditionally been a large house in which a group of families live communally.
One of the houses I visited was home to 8 families, spotlessly clean, each with their own fire place (the kitchen), the children all sleeping on a mat with a small curtained of area giving the parents some privacy. The lake is warm enough to swim in whilst Taba Cottages (the place to stay) has a beautifully located swimming pool on the lake’s shore, a great spot to relax, exhausted after biking around the island and have a welcome sundowner.
Another major plus on my trip was having my own car and driver, gone are the days of firstly finding the bus station, then the right bus to take and then hours squeezed into whatever ramshackle local transport is on offer, no matter how atmospheric, it’s still only taking you from A to B. With a car and driver, you can obviously stop whenever you want to take photos, spend as much time in a place that you want and when you come across the odd surprise as I did witnessing a Karo Batak funeral, stop to join in the celebrations.
The latter was a surprisingly joyous occasion, the people welcoming me to join their feast and one of those holiday highlights that you can never plan but only adds to what was already a memorable trip. This part of Indonesia is relatively undiscovered with most people opting for the beaches of Bali and temples of Java instead. However, I can highly recommend – the warmth of the people, the Batak culture and especially the orangutans get the big thumbs up from me.”
Petra Shepherd is a freelance travel writer and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and Travel Writers UK. You can read more about her Sumatra trip on The Huffington Post and follow her adventures on Twitter (@petra_shepherd).