Ever washed an elephant in a thunderstorm? The thick, coarsely haired skin, playful splashing by trunk and ears, a comparatively tiny eye looking on passively as it is lying side-on in the river. As us tourists sit astride said pachyderms, we make easy progress through flooded rivers, near-virgin (and fiercely protected) forest on one side and endless palm plantations on the other. This is Tangkahan.
How did I get there? A late-night motorcycle journey, aborted when sudden thunder turned the already bumpy roads into a torrent of water. Then, a tiny thatch-roofed ferry complete with 3-piece band floated guests to riverside huts.
Here resides Nan-ta, local gossip and perennially happy extrovert who spends non-guiding time proudly (and generously) displaying local hidden delights, like butterfly beach (unfortunately without butterflies…) and hot springs so tiny you need true local knowledge and slender physique to enjoy them. We try to out-compete each other with logic puzzles, wrapped in our own world as the lodge restaurant buzzes, me narrowly winning with a successful translation of my favourite puzzle.
Image by E-Mate Volunteer Program
On one last Sumatran stop (the visa police to be soon on my tail) – I braved the not-quite notorious tourist trap of Bukit Lawang. Only three hours from Medan, it borders Gunung Lesseur National Park. Its reputation is for ‘concrete’ jungle, parties, poor guides, domesticated orang-utan and local tourists disregarding national park etiquette. But for the chance of the orang-utan money shot…
The back road had me clinging to the four-wheel drive, panicking with every crunch of the undercarriage and thinking of my 12 year old washing machine on its spin-cycle death rattle. My driver, amused, assures me; ‘Hey, we not yet dead!’
His name? Budi. His story? Bukit Lawang local, I first met him at Danau Toba, where I expressed disdain for the circus that is Bukit Lawang, and he was equally horrified to learn that I intended not to go. We met again in Berastagi. Then as I waited for my ride from Tangkahan, which shiny-cheeked guide turns up with an ear-to-ear grin when he finds out he is escorting me to Bukit Lawang?
Image by Stefanie Weijsters
Our rapport grew as Budi served me tea with his gorgeous wife, then cancelled work the next day – my own personal guide! Ketambe far out-ranks Bukit Lawang for peace, with its untouched forest, sheer lack of concrete and delightful but messy local tourists, but you know what? Hiring a guide in Bukit Lawang can make all the difference. We snuck light and low away from gaggles of tourists to spend almost two hours tracking a cheeky and misleading peacock, thirty minutes entranced by the biggest male orang-utan casually chewing while gazing straight at us, and another half hour filming the hilarious attempts of a dung beetle to mount or circumvent a tree root (with a load double his weight). Sudden rain then found us on the floor of a village cafe amid tea, games and more dodgy jokes.
Image by Stefanie Weijsters
Saturday night, and with a pink woven skirt giving a dash of glamour, I found myself to be a much sought-after “handbag” to escort to the local BL night spots. In a rare burst of Aussie tourist conformity, with the cool fizz of beer down my chin, I belted out well-worn favourite songs, until 1am saw the locals and myself attempt an amusing, disoriented stumble home. Farewell Sumatra, I swear I’ll return soon…
Main image by kenner116
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Category: Guest Post