The drive from Berastagi in a tourist bus took about 5 hours, along bumpy roads and through a lot of palm oil plantations which was pretty depressing. We arrived at night, and Bob from Green Hill Guest House met us and walked with us (for about 15 minutes) to the guesthouse.
We stayed in treetop, wooden bungalows, with a balcony, hammock, comfy beds and semi-outdoor bathrooms overlooking the jungle and the river. They cost us £5 each a night.
The guesthouse clearly promotes sustainability and is against the feeding of monkeys, which is vital to ensure the animals’ health – diseases can be passed from humans to monkeys. And… the monkeys are meant to be wild right?! They can find their own food in the jungle easily.
We stayed in the guesthouse for two nights before we started our trek. On the first day, we went to the local market where Sam & Emma got some second-hand trekking shorts for only £1.
The food at Green Hill was delicious and really reasonably priced. The juices were beautifully decorated with flowers from the garden and the curries, especially the potato rendang, were sublime.
Green Hill offer a variety of treks, varying in location and duration. We opted to do a two day, 1 night trek in two locations – the popular Bukit Lawang and the remote village/rain forest area of Bukit Kencur. Our guide, Bob, was really knowledgeable, passionate about preserving nature and against palm oil plantations.
We started the trek at 9am and walked to the Bukit Lawang rainforest, about 25 minutes from the guesthouse, through rubber plantations. It was really interesting to see how the rubber is harvested. Bob told us that many people are cutting down their rubber plantations and replacing them with palm oil which is bad for biodiversity – as palm oil plantations are mono-cultures, meaning other plants/trees can’t grow alongside them as it reduces the palm oil yield. The rubber plantation was right on the edge of the national park and I hope it stays that way!
There is a huge sign as you enter the national park that explains the work of the nearby orangutan rehabilitation centre, the types of animals in the park, facts about orangutans, appropriate distances to stay away from the animals and a huge sign that says not to feed any animals. All rubbish, including fruit peels, must be removed from the rainforest.
We didn’t visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre or their feeding platform – Bob said that the work they did was good and really helped the orangutan polulation, but he (and Green Hill) did not support the feeding platform. He believed that it makes the orangutan’s even more semi-wild than they should be, and encourages them to interact with humans. Orangutans share almost 98% of our DNA, so even a cold or a chest infection can be passed onto them which could kill them (this is why fruit peels must be removed from the jungle).
As we walked into the rainforest, up and down slippery slopes, over and under trees/branches and through rivers, the sounds of crickets and cicadas intensified around us. After about an hour, we managed to spot a troop of Thomas’s Leaf Monkeys that are only found in North Sumatra. They are beautiful creatures with long tails, mohawks and funny tufts of hair on their faces. We sat for about 20 minutes, mesmerised by the way they moved and the little babies playing in the trees.
We were distracted by a huge leech on Ste’s stomach, so we removed that and moved along the path to take a rest and eat some passion fruit.
As we were sitting there, minding our own business, the cheeky monkeys came closer to eye up our fruit. Our guides were really good at keeping the fruit away from the animals and making sure the fruit skins weren’t left behind. The monkeys were obviously very used to humans, as one landed next to me, giving me a huge fright!
Another tour group came to sit about 10 metres away. The tourists saw there was a monkey near us and proceeded to walk right up to it, putting cameras and go-pros on sticks in it’s face. I really hoped the monkey would break their cameras, but sadly it didn’t. Their stupid guides also started feeding the monkeys, which is when Bob got us to leave. We then saw a male pigtail macaque, strutting through the bushes towards the other group. Unfortunately, it didn’t bite them or destroy their cameras either.
After another hour or so of trekking, and meeting several other tour groups, we came across two orangutans – a mother and a baby. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who had. There were about ten people, crowded around them, way closer than the advised 10 metres, again shoving cameras in their faces. Their guides sat back, not saying anything, basically encouraging their appalling behaviour. Bob kept us well back, then after a couple of minutes took us down the path for our nasi-goreng (fried rice) lunch.
He told us that although the guides are all official, some are just looking to make money so take groups of 10/20 people at once and don’t bother enforcing the rules that actually protect the wildlife, because they are either not local and/or don’t really care enough. Apparently June/July/August are peak months and on a trek in Bukit Lawang you can see over 100 other tourists in 1 day – sounds like hell!
After lunch, we went back to the spot where the orangutans were, and watched the fascinating creates from a distance, with no other tourists in sight. We followed underneath them and watched them climb right up into the tree tops, out of sight.
After another couple of hours, we reached the river, changed into our swimming stuff, strapped our bags to the dinghies and rafted in the rain for about 20 minutes along the bumpy river back to Green Hill. It was a lot of fun!
We had a coffee and a quick change of clothes, before heading out on motorbikes for about 30 minutes to reach the village of Tualang Gepang/Bukit Kencur. The village was where a lot of the Green Hill staff were from, including Bob. Andrea, the English owner of Green Hill, visits the village each week to teach the children English and about sustainability. It’s really good to see a business truly supporting a local community – by employing them as staff and guides, and teaching the future generation about the importance of the nature surrounding them.
After chatting to the kids for a while, we walked about 40 minutes to camp, through a small palm oil plantation, then back into the national park which was virtually untouched rainforest. We arrived just before dark and were introduced to our cook and local assistant guide (who would accompany us the following day) over a cup of coffee and some biscuits.
Dinner was delicious – a variety of vegan rice, curries, vegetable dishes and some very spicy sambal! After dinner, we taught Bob how to play the card game ‘shit head’, watched fireflies dancing above the river and listened to frogs croaking.
The camp was basic but great. We all slept under an open bamboo and plastic sheet shelter on roll mats. It wasn’t the comfiest, but we all managed to get some sleep.
After a swim in the river and a breakfast of pisang goreng (fried banana) and a sandwich, we started our trek literally through the river, then up into the rainforest. Green Hill are the only people that trek in Bukit Kencur and it was very different to Bukit Lawang. The paths were overgrown and it was much more wild, natural and full of leeches! Bob rubbed wet tobacco on my shoes and socks – apparently it deters the leeches and it seemed to work well. Emma on the other hand welcomed the leeches – she had about 10 on her at one time!
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any monkeys but the sounds and scenery of the rainforest was amazing. The assistant guide (oops – I’ve forgotten his name) made us some really cool jungle jewellery from mushroom fungus and made me a ring from a naturally twisted branch. He also made me a leech stick that I used as a walking pole, and it had a sharp point to flick leeches off my shoes when necessary – what a hero!
We stopped for lunch by an amazing cave and waterfall and had a swim to cool off, before carrying on trekking. We (literally) crossed through another river, out of the National Park, and walked uphill back to the village where our motorbikes were waiting. By the time we got back to Green Hill in the later afternoon, we were very sweaty and pretty knackered but we showered and had several beers with Bob, playing cards and chatting.
Our trek cost us about £80 each and included our meals, snacks, a great guide & assistant guide, transport to/from Bukit Kencur and sleeping mat & blankets. I think it was money well spent, considering the guide’s knowledge and the fact that they really care about preserving the biodiversity of the jungle. I’d 100% recommend the second day trek in Bukit Kencur because it’s so different, but it was nice to see the monkeys in Bukit Lawang too.
Because we loved the rafting so much, we decided to do a 2 hour rafting trip the following day which was great fun but… I think the best part was actually coming back! Our guides hailed a public bus, strapped the raft to the top then got us to sit on top of the raft. It was pretty terrifying, but once we got used to ducking from the trees and holding on extra tight around the corners it was hilarious!
Bukit Lawang is an amazing place and we didn’t want to leave. I’d really encourage people to visit the jungle, but make sure that you choose an ethically responsible guide. The animals should be treated with respect – they are endangered, wild animals after all.
Thank you to Green Hill for the amazing experiences!
Next stop: Medan (then flying to Singapore!)