My Sumatran adventure begins after three luxurious days on the island of Sabang, north of Banda Aceh, a region sadly put on the map by the 2004 tsunami. A short crossing brings me back to town where I am welcomed by Matt Linkie who runs the Aceh Fauna & Flora International office.
Unfortunately, the original plan of joining the tiger camera trapping team is not possible because of bad roads. However, Matt suggests an alternative which would involve a trek in the spectacular Ulu Masen rainforest.
The next day, after a five-hour drive, we arrived at a centre called Mane on the edge of the rainforest. A group of community rangers were in training before taking up duties. I learnt more about FFI’s projects, including the Conservation Response Unit (or CRU), a rapid response team of elephants and their mahouts managing human-elephant conflict mitigation by escorting crop-raiding wild elephants back to the forest. I’m told this CRU model is so successful it’s now being copied by other NGOs the world over.
I was introduced to two locals who would guide me on my trek into the forest for the next six days. Supplies were sorted and we set off – in very hot conditions, with me only carrying water and camera. After the first hour I was already suffering. Much to my surprise, a truck came up the hill, offering us a lift. The drive was among the worst in my mountaineering experience, but clinging on was still preferable to doing it by foot! Eventually we were left with a short hike to an abandoned hut, which provided shelter for the night.
On day two it was hard keeping up with the guides. The trail was now in the shade but was quite muddy, with several streams to be crossed. Five hours later we reached a wooden structure – bed for the night. It was interesting to see the guides cooking dinner – fried eggs, spicy noodles and the inevitable rice, with the utensils consisting of a spoon and wooden stick for the rice.
My third day started with a lean breakfast and by 10 I was feeling quite weak. It would take another eight hours to reach camp – I knew this was not going to be possible! Rather than turn back, I was persuaded to continue to an alternative camp – only five hours away – so I agreed to carry on.
I am so glad I did. The forest came alive with evocative gibbon calls. Some of the trails were used by elephants whose large foot-prints became obstacles. Despite having to pick off leeches, each short break was eagerly awaited. Eventually the rainforest gave way to a savannah, until finally we emerged on top of a huge grass slope with beautiful views of green hills. Below we found a simple river camp with a tarpaulin for rain cover.
The fourth day was spent relaxing, with the river invigorating my tired body and aching feet. After this recuperation, the two-day return trip was less arduous once the first steep hill had been conquered and by then I’d become used to the primitive menu, and actually enjoyed the meals that were prepared with consummate skill.
On return to Mane, I was fortunate to attend the closing ceremony of the ranger training – ending with an elephant placing a floral wreath over the head of each student.
Several high officials had travelled far for the celebration, which added significance to the importance of conservation. For me the consolation prize (given my dream was to see a wild tiger) was seeing film of a captured tiger released by helicopter in the area I had just visited. My journey had taken me through the best rainforest in the world and, thanks to FFI, I was apparently the first tourist to see this pristine region.
I left Aceh and headed for Bukit Lawang, a rehabilitation centre for orang-utans in North Sumatra. Here I did an overnight jungle trek which was also hard work, but I was rewarded by several encounters with the cute Thomas’s leaf monkey. My first sighting of a wild orang-utan was dramatic. Although truly wild, the known dominant male approached us closely allowing time not only for pictures but also to admire his truly impressive display of strength.
Coming face to face with this giant who is our distant cousin proved the highlight of my trip.