Gunung Leuser National Park

September 2008: I have been obsessed with tigers for as long as I can remember. There stealth, power, elegance and beauty is beyond compare and I have tracked wild tigers in Siberia, India, Nepal, Southeast Asia and finally here in Sumatra, the furthest south that tigers can be found in the wild now that they are extinct in Java. To see one or to just see their habitat where I know they can be found in the wild, my friend Tim and I went to one of their last bastions in Gung Leuser national Park in Aceh State of northern Sumatra. To increase our chances of seeing a tiger, I had the not so intelligent idea of bringing a live goat with us on our trek into the jungle to hopefully bait the tiger into appearing before us. This is the story of our experience of spending a week in Sumatra.

 

 

Where is Gunung Leuser

Location of Gunung Leuser

Gunung Leuser is a mountain rainforest reserve in the north of Sumatra in one of Indonesia most conservative Islamic states, Aceh, where Sharia law is practiced. Aceh is also known for being devastated by the 2004 tsunami, which left almost 200,000 people killed.

I chose Gunung Leuser because it is one of the largest wilderness areas left in all of Southeast Asia and it has some of the last remaining wild populations of all of the best tropical animals left in the world; tiger-2oo, orangutan-7000, Rhino-20-previousky believed to be extinct until spotted in camera traps recently and the elephant.

 

Getting There Via Singapore & Medan

I used Singapore as our transit point to and from Medan, the largest city in northern Sumatra. Singapore was a good place to recover both after the long flight from California and after a long week in the Sumatran jungles. Large cities are not really interesting to me in most cases, but I did appreciate how developed Singapore is. The English-speaking mega-city, a melting pot of ethnic groups that consists of citizens of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British descent despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, has one of the highest per capita GDPs of any country in the world. It is beyond clean and orderly and had great food and hotels. Tim and I stayed one night in a cheap guest house near India town and another night in a 5-Star hotel that we received a great deal on. Tim and I visited China and India town and explored as much of Singapore as we could on foot during the two days we were there. From Singapore, we flew to Medan, a night and day difference from Singapore, which is 1st World compared to the impoverished, and under-developed city of Medan, which has a dirty and gritty feeling to it. But if I had to choose between the two, I preferred Medan. I found the people and city to be more interested than Singapore.

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China Town,Singapore

China Town,Singapore

Hindu Temple, Singapore

Hindu Temple, Singapore

Hindu Temple, Singapore

Aceh State, Sumatra Island, Indonesia

To reach Gunung Leuser, I hired a car and driver to pick Tim and I up at the airport in Medan and from Medan we had to drive almost all day to get to Kedah, a small town that is a base for exploration into Gunung Leuser. Since the ATMs were not reading our cards right, we had to stop and change USD at a bank, which slowed us down, and we had a vehicle breakdown on the horrendous road, which we eventually through a system of jimmy rigging were able to fix the car at least temporarily. The scenery along the way of rural rice farming villages was amazing and after having realized we didn’t have our guide, Mr. Jolly’s correct phone number or address, we eventually arrived in Kedah at his house late at night.  Tim and I slept on the floor of his house in our inflatable mattresses. These are a few photos from the drive to Kedah.

 

Man in local dress in Aceh

Typical farm scene of a rice fields with water buffalos

Some friendly villagers we met during a lunch stop

Nothing but smiling faces in the marketplace

Equaivalent of a village cargo truck

Indonesian Independance Monument in the War Against the Dutch

Typical Village we passed Through

Tim and I having lunch in a village

Aceh State, Sumatra Island, Indonesia

Once in the village of Kedah, our next order of business was to secure a goat and food for our trek. Mr. Jolly suggested it would be best if we didn’t go to the market with him since this would likely drive the price up on account of us being foreign, so we let him handle the purchase of the goat. A few hours later he returned with a spry young Billy goat. He was a rambunctious goat, and we knew immediately that we would like him and felt a little guilty that we were going to use him to lure a wild tiger out of the jungle so that we could see one. We named the goat after our friend Daniel, and to make sure that it walked alongside of us and didn’t run off, we had a leash for it. From Mr. Jolly’s house, which was located on the edge of the rainforest, we started hiking with our goat, and a few porters walking alongside of us. We didn’t have an exact plan, or trail to hike on. We were just going to hike for as long as we needed to before feeling like it was enough, and our plan was to possibly hike up to 5 days.

 

Mr. Jolly, Me and Daniel the Goat and one of the Porters

Tim and the crew right before we entered the rainforest

The Mysterious rainforest Reserve of Gunung Leuser

Walking a Goat into the Jungle to Bait Wild Tigers

It was my idea to bring a goat into the jungle to hopefully lure a tiger out of the thick jungle so that we could see one and I could photograph it. I didn’t actually intend to feed the goat to a tiger. I love tigers and had spent a lot of time in several different countries tracking tigers in the wild and I have come close to them on a few occasions on foot and have a photo of one from an open top jeep in India. Although I never had any hostile encounters with a tiger, they are dangerous animals and do kill a lot of people in Sumatra every year. Before my trip I read about a few poachers who were hunting tigers had to be rescued when the tiger they were hunting chased them up a tree where they remained for a few days while the tiger waited at the bottom of the tree for them to come down. They were rescued and arrested by rangers. They were lucky because there are accounts of other poachers in Gunung Leuser being eaten by tigers. Additionally, most locals we met have stories of tiger encounters and even one dog we met had battle scars from a tiger attack. So, bringing a live goat into the jungle isn’t recommended and don’t do what I did because if the idea works and the goat does attract a tiger, the tiger is likely to attack more than just the goat. But nonetheless, we had Daniel the goat attached to a leash, and we trekked through the jungle with him walking by outside like a loyal pet dog. Except for he didn’t always walk alongside us like a loyal pet dog and on occasion he would just sit down and refuse to move. This especially happened every time we had to cross a creek or small river and walk over a fallen log. One of the porters to try and speed up the process, just started carrying Daniel the goat. After an hour of carrying the goat, we realized this isn’t going to work, and we just took the leash off of the goat and to our surprise he just followed alongside us willingly and we never had any more problems with him. I never really had a plan for how I would use the goat to lure a tiger out, but I just figured that at some point a tiger would just come sniffing around but in retrospect tigers are ambush hunters and if one were to actually attack the goat, we would probably never even see the attack, so my plan didn’t really make any sense.

 

Tim with Daniel the Goat ona Leash

The porter carrying the goat

Taking a break on the trail. The goat is always on the hunt for snacks from our packs

Our guide was very proud of the goats large testicles and decided to display them for my camera

Tigers on the Prowl

Throughout the hike, we saw numerous signs of tigers and fresh tiger tracks, animal remains from fresh tiger kills. We knew they are in the jungle, but the jungle was so thick that it was almost impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you. On one occasion, I was separated from the group and found myself off trail standing in patch of impregnable forest calling for the others and thinking of how lost I would be if the group didn’t come back to find me and how vulnerable I am to be attacked by a tiger that could be watching me with me never knowing. It was a humbling experience to be in the jungle with these formidable beasts.

Hiking through the thick jungle

Fresh tiger kill

Tiger pug marks in mud

We came across a cave that I wanted to explore but there was a fresh tiger kill and pug marks outside of the cave which meant there was a good chance that a tiger could be inside, and a cornered tiger is a dangerous one, so I decided to avoid entering the cave.

Tiger hideout

The forest was amazing and the trees enormous. Aside from tigers, there were plenty of other animals in the forest. We heard Gibbons shrieking in the canopies above us but never saw one close enough to photograph. We came across a large lizard that was a foot or so long that just paused in front of us and stared up at us before finally running off after a minute of being frozen. Tim also stepped on a cobra, that hooded up very quickly and just darted off into the jungle before we could even register what just happened. 

Curious lizard

Tim in front of a huge tree

Camping in the Forest

Our campsites were in the jungle, and we would clear a small space for our tents with machete. We slept two nights in the forest and our guide and porters constantly smoked marijuana that they had rolled up in leaves. They were Muslim and it was Ramadan, when they weren’t supposed to even eat little alone smoke weed but they were definitely pretty relaxed with their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.  Our goat was playful and would pretend to head butt us with his little horns. he had a lot of personality and everyone even the porters found him amusing. We tied Daniel the goat to a tree on the outside of our tent but when it started raining Tim and I felt bad for him, so we brought him in from the rain and out him on the inside of our tents rain tarp to keep him out of the rain. Daniel slept on the outside of our tent for both nights and instead of being our tiger bait, he became our friend and pet.

 

Campsite

Campsite

Rainshelter we set up for our goat

Orangutans 

After we just hiked to the bottom of a steep and muddy hill one of our porters yelling for us caught up and urgently told us follow me-orangutan, come now. I didn’t hesitate, and I ran all the way back up the steep hill and it didn’t matter that I was exhausted, and we were running into the thick forest oblivious to snakes, we were going to see a wild Sumatran orangutan. There before us only about 20 feet up in a tree was a mother orangutan with baby. We stayed back to avoid frightening her, but it was too late. She was breaking sticks and throwing them along with feces at us. She wasn’t happy and we didn’t want her to harm the baby. We watched from below for a few minutes before she disappeared, and we stopped following her. This was one of the unique wildlife experiences I came to Sumatra to find.

Baby orangutan

Angry mother orangutan

Hunting a Forest Antelope

One day when Tim and I were resting during the trek, there was an elevated level of excitement among the porters. One of them suddenly emerged from the jungle carrying a wild forest antelope he captured. Evidently, he set a snare during a previous visit and the antelope had stepped into the snare. The porter intended to kill and eat the antelope. Our guide explained the antelope wasn’t rare and that they were allowed to hunt and eat it. We watched as the porter slit the antelope’s throat, bleeding it out and then he carved it up and we ate it for dinner that night. The remaining meat was packed up by one of the porters and taken back to the village to share with others.

Forest Antelope

Varrying the forest antelope 

Visiting a Different part of Gunung Leuser at Bukit Lawang

After three days in the rainforest near Kedah, we decided to try our luck in Bukit Lawang, another section of Gunung Leuser, where we were told we would be guaranteed to see more wild orangutans. We decided to give this a try and said goodbye to Daniel the Goat and sold him to our guide, Mr. Jolly for 50% less than what we paid for him with the promise that Mr. Jolly wouldn’t eat him. Mr. Jolly claimed that he would instead use him for mating and making new goats, but we had suspicions that Daniel likely became part of the end of a Ramadan feast.

To get to Bukit Lawang, we hired a motor taxi and Tim, and I sat on the back of a moped with a driver and drove hours through the countryside until we arrived at Bukit Lawang.  Tim and I organized a trek into the forest there and aside from a few macaques, we didn’t see any orangutans. We went for a swim in a waterfall and at the end of the week hired a taxi to take us back to Medan, before heading back home via Singapore.

Me traveling by motor taxi

Macaque

Bukit Lawang Jungle

Swimming in a waterfall

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