Three enchanting weeks in sultry Sumatra
The young orangutan swung on a vine like an Olympic gymnast. From the look on his face, it was clear that he was having a great time performing for the sweaty hikers who had trekked through the Sumatran jungle to catch his show.
My wife and I were in the orangutan reserve on the edge of Bukit Lawang in Northern Sumatra on a trip hosted by Eldertreks — an adventure travel company specializing in exotic trips for mature travelers (www.eldertreks.com).
The young primate was just the opening act in a three-week adventure exploring the wildlife, culture, natural history and scenery of one of the most interesting places on earth.
We watched the playful youngster and his mother, then took a two-hour drive on a rutted, dusty road to an elephant reserve.
For an hour, a herd of elephants, including two babies, frolicked in the river as my wife scrubbed one of the them with a brush. I got as big a kick watching her wash the “little” guy as I did watching the elephants.
Our next destination was the village of Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island in Lake Toba. The biggest lake in Southeast Asia, Toba was formed about 75,000 years ago following the largest known volcanic eruption of the last 25 million years, many times greater than Vesuvius or Krakatoa.
We took a leisurely boat ride to explore nearby villages of the Batak people, the largest ethnic group in the region.
The next two days featured a walk through Tuk Tuk, once a popular stop on the hippie trail. (Many shops still sell magic mushrooms.)
At 3,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by three volcanoes, Bukkitingi has more to offer than cooler temperatures and dramatic scenery: surprisingly friendly locals.
Soon after we checked into our hotel, we took a short walk. It was Friday, after the weekly Muslim services, and the plaza was full of people enjoying the early evening. As we strolled through the plaza, young Muslim girls in hijabs approached us, shyly giggling, and asked us to pose for photos with them.
Everyone was friendly, welcoming and curious, asking, “Where you from?” I felt like a rock star. I guess they don’t see many fat, old white men in that part of the world.
Over the next three days, we walked through rural villages outside the town, and got a dose of Minangkabau culture — the ancient matrilineal people who dominate this part of western Sumatra — with a visit to the beautifully restored king’s palace and to a family in a local village.
On our last day in Bukittinggi, we explored nearby tunnels, built with local slave labor during their occupation by Japan in WWII. The tunnels end in Sianok Canyon — not a Grand Canyon by any stretch of the imagination, but a pretty good canyon nonetheless, and one that is considerably easier to hike.
Krakatoa and pygmy rhinos
Our next significant stop was Krakatoa, the legendary volcano off the southern tip of Sumatra. Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883 was probably the single greatest destructive force in modern history.
All that is left of that volcano is an arc of islands that were part of the rim of the original caldera (the crater formed when a volcano erupts and collapses).
Our destination was Anak Krakatoa (“child of Krakatoa”), a volcanic island that emerged in the middle of the original caldera from an eruption in 1927.
After a rough two-hour ride in speedboats, we landed on a black-sand beach, then hiked through the tropical brush to an exposed expanse on the volcano’s flank.
A few more minutes of hiking through the rocky lunar landscape granted us a view of steam and smoke drifting out of the caldera at the top, as well as the remnants of the original caldera, now steep jungle-covered islands, not far away.
Our last day included a visit to the Rhino Breeding Center in Way Kampas National Park. There are fewer than 100 pygmy rhinos in the world, and all of them are in Sumatra. At the time of our visit, seven were in the breeding center.
For almost an hour we were able to watch one of the “residents” devour bananas, branches, brush and almost everything else in sight in his protected compound.
Then on a boat ride up a jungle river, we saw monkeys, birds (blue herons, kingfishers, fish eagles) and crocs slithering into the water.
Bumpy but scenic road trips
Our trip spanned the 1,110-mile-long island of Sumatra almost from end to end. That meant that we spent a lot of time on rough, twisting roads.
Yet these drives were usually scenic, winding through dark, green tunnels of overhanging trees, and past rice paddies, tropical forests, volcanic cones covered in tangled jungle, and terraced fields of coffee, beans, corn and chili peppers.
From our mini-bus we glimpsed everyday life in Sumatra — mosques with shining domes, women in colorful head scarves sweeping their stoops, children in school uniforms waving to us, men repairing trucks in their front yards, and people selling all kinds of wares from stalls in front of their homes.
At one point, we crossed the equator and stopped just long enough to take photos, straddling the imaginary meridian with one foot in each hemisphere — a symbol, perhaps, of the complexity and diversity of this sultry, magical place.
ElderTreks.com offers trips to Sumatra at $5,495; they also offer excursions to Europe, Africa and Antarctica.
Don Mankin, an award-winning travel writer, will be leading a trip to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in October. For more information, visit adventuretransformations.com.