SUMATRA! The name itself oozes exoticism, yet I knew nothing of the place itself when I arrived on a whim from Malaysia. And I wasn’t disappointed by the rainforest clad island with misty mountain peaks. But the spectacular scenery was just a bonus. What I wanted was a rare, face-to-face bucket list encounter with a wild orangutan. In late 2002, I headed deep into the rainforest…before it was too late.
From my base in the village of Bukit Lawang, my guide Sonny and I set off on our 2 night, 3 day search for the wild men, though he warned me that my chances were slim. Of the last six groups he’d guided, Sonny said, none were lucky. Not good odds. But, ‘Never try, never know,’ was his catchphrase, and we pushed on with confidence. His words became my life’s mantra.
The forest terrain was tough going, and intense heat and humidity took their toll. Parrots squawked high above, and unseen monkeys quarreled noisily. Mist swirled round rocks as big as houses, and the scene was real life Jurassic Park. We set camp beside the turbulent river, but come nightfall on Day 1, no wild men.
Late afternoon on Day 2, Sonny ‘ssshh’d’ me with his fingers. My heart raced, and it was an anxious hour before I sensed movement high above. And perhaps, a flash of orange? The anticipation was palpable. And then…
…she emerged into view. Very slowly, about thirty feet away, a large female made her way toward us. Her color was like fire against the forest greens, and I was amazed she’d remained concealed so long and so easily. Sonny’s smile grew wide…he didn’t expect this. He motioned for me to hold out a banana. I did, nervously. She was just three feet away now…and then I saw the baby. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The mother and I shared a look. I couldn’t know what she was thinking. Fear? Anger? I know we humans are destroying her homeland, killing her species, and all for profit. Orangutans are intelligent, graceful and gentle creatures, and we should respect them; after all, we share 97% of the same DNA. Their habitat is among the most inspiring and important on the planet. Both their future, and ours, depend on it.
She took the banana, and in seconds, they were gone. The entire interaction, from first glimpse to last, spanned just ten minutes. I was searching for a Wild Man…instead I met a not-so-wild woman. It was a wonderful experience, and I was privileged to be there.
What wild animals are on your ‘to see’ bucket list?
Here are a couple of links to here we can LEARN ABOUT and HELP the orangutans of Sumatra.
If you’d like to read more by Steven, check out Twenty First Century Nomad