Indonesia 2012 – Part 2 – Bukit Lawang

Fri 15th June 2012

After a day of rest on Thursday in Pasie Lembang village I am due to head back to Suaq Balimbing research station and the mosquito’s. I am to be there for another week taking photos, writing down my experiences and looking for chelonia. I had nowhere near enough luggage after leaving more than half of it in Banda Aceh and they will ferry it to me, should make life better at the station.

In the village I took pictures of a cat. Most cats in Indonesia are manx or have half tails. The cat in the picture was particularly mad as it spent the whole day and night walking around the village meowing, very tuneful meowing though.

First thing before the boat I go to a Muslim college for ‘working’ though I thought Ilyas said walking, with BPKEL staff sort of doing a big job of gardening. When we sit and take refreshment the group have jokes with me, always when I say my name is Justin they say: “Oh Justin Bieber!” I don’t have any idea who Justin Bieber is, but I laugh and say “Yea”. Then they were having a joke asking if I am circumcised but I pretended to not understand(!) Indonesian men like to have jokes.

About midday I get back on the boat to Suaq, the sun is on us all the way so of course I get burnt. In the afternoon there is a call to camp on the radio that they have found an orangutan. My ‘assistant’ and I head into the forest, join the rangers and do indeed see a orange male ape sitting in the trees being very big and gently feeding.

Sun 17th June 2012

Yesterday evening a boat turned up full of equipment, a little later another turns up with a BBC crew, Ilyas, Mahmuddin and Mike. Early this morning they conduct an interview with Mike about BPKEL and the Leuser Ecosystem down by the river. By 8am they are all back in their boats and leave and the camp returns to quiet. Before he went I had a chat with Mike, we are the same wavelength and I was able to give a good positive report of time well spent here. Hopefully everyone will be able to see him talk on the BBC soon.

The others keep on at me about baths and swimming. There is no shortage of water in Indonesia so people take a shower everyday, some twice a day. Being both British: where we have a water shortage, and a smelly hippie: hey man… they don’t like my level of cleanliness. Which is a bath every second day, I also hate swimming and don’t want to go in the river. The shower (chucking water over yourself from a pot) water is just river water piped into a big tiled tank. So I give in and follow suit, when in Rome etc. Being a non-sweaty type I do find a shower everyday a bit much, but they say I am now a handsome English man as I don’t smell now. In my defense Shashwat in India always commented how I hardly sweated, I joked that it was from my Chinese sign being the dog: no sweat pores.

We all love Aceh Coffee here, though the others have a lot of sugar with it. I talk often of the others, there are a few who have been here all along, but a lot of rangers come and go. In the evening a couple of orangutan researchers from National Geographic arrive. That seems to be the way in Suaq.

Tue 19th June 2012

Yesterday Dolah my ‘assistant’ and I poked around in the undergrowth of the forest looking for tortoises. No luck. This morning when we are sitting having breakfast the orangutan chap from National Geographic come in saying there is an orangutan right behind the station. We all go out and take photos of the ape who is having a good eat. He feels threatened by us and makes big sucking noises, like slapping his lips or sneezing. After a bit he starts to break branches of trees and throw them about having a bit of a paddy. Finally he moves away from us. Nice to see another one, though this is probably the same male as before.

Did you know that ‘orang-utan’ translates as ‘person of the forest’

I then head to my boat back to the village. Not far from camp the engine breaks down and for some distance we pole the boat along like a punt. Finally he gets the engine to go again and we cruise back, passing a crocodile on the way. Back at Samsuah’s house (Mahmuddin’s dad) I wait for a bus back to Banda Aceh tonight.

Sun 24th June 2012

Yesterday after a night of tricky sleep on the bus from Banda Aceh to Medan I met Joko Guntoro. We had been in email correspondence for sometime via T.S.A. As Joko is very knowledgeable on chelonia and is in the process of starting a conservation initiative:

We went to a crocodile park/zoo where they have some tortoises which were in a sorry state. Joko has tried several times to interest the owner in making life better for them, even offering to buy them himself. The tortoises (Manouria emys emys) are quite unregarded stuffed up the corner away from the crocs. The crocodile experience was a little disturbing as they take cute ducks live and feed them to the crocs to entertain the visitors.

After this we visited a pet shop where they have several species of turtle illegally, diamond back turtles in particular. Joko asked them if he were to buy one if they would give him papers, obviously the petshop were happy to overlook necessary documents. From my own point of view I loved seeing the turtles, extremely cute. They had no tortoises there.

It is good to meet someone like Joko who cares about chelonia, so often they are an unregarded creature in conservation. There is very little tortoise and turtle work being done in Indonesia. He had many ideas and advice.

Thur 28th June 2012

Spent three nights in Singapore and back in Medan today. Had to go and come back for another 30 day visa. It is expensive there, about the same as England. The only reason I mention it, and something that interested me, is that it used to be lush rainforest, a long time ago, but Singapore got built over it. They have kept a lot of trees, unlike some places where the trees vanish completely.

Returned to Banda Aceh to collect my luggage and say goodbye to BPKEL staff.

Wed 18th July 2012

Heading to Kuala Simpang with Joko Guntoro. We started early boarding a cool mini-bus. Three hours later after passing though endless palm oil plantations we arrive back in Aceh and swap transport to drive to the police station to get a permit, well, a permit basically for me. Being a non-tourist area, and me being here on a tourist visa means paperwork. Luckily my previous BPKEL permission to travel permit helps matters.

We then goto a fishing village Seruway which has a very Dutch feel for some reason. The group is made up of some of the staff of SatuCita Foundation, supriydai (staff of forestry office), parmin (local journalist/public relation), Ambar Wangi, datuk laksamana (community leader), me, syafril and Joko.

We board a fishing boat and head down the river to the sea. I notice straight away an abundance of life on the river banks. As we arrive at the sea I see a flying fish for the first time in my life. The noisy engine bangs away as we forge out to to sea and then dog leg to an island. This is a sandy island where turtles lay eggs. Which, unfortunately is becoming a little of a tourist destination for the beach, not the wildlife.

We then board the boat and follow the river to the main area for the painted terrapin. I am so taken with the amount of wildlife to see, much more than the river trip to Suaq. Some of the creatures I had only ever dreamed of seeing. Soon our boat starts to ground on the mud and we have to turn about. We return to the village, the tide is out and presently we all have to get out of the boat and waid ashore as it grounds in the mud.

Once we clean our muddy feet at the fishermans house we drive to the SatuCita Foundation’s headstart facility. Joko shows me the concrete breeding pens and two Malayan box turtles (Cuora amboinensis). Unfortunately it is dark and raining now which makes photos hard. The facility looks impressive even in the dark and rain and I see this is an exciting venture.

Fri 20th to Mon 23rd July 2012

I visited Bukit Lawang which is a popular place to do a jungle trek. It is a bit like Goa with market stalls and restaurants with the possible jungle trek. A river threads through the town. From the town you walk down the river and would not know of the massive palm oil plantations that butt up to the Gunung Leuser National Park. The journey from Medan was a 3 hour bus ride through the endless palm oil owned by massive corporations.

I join Joko for a jungle trek and night. We unfortunately do not find any turtles or tortoises. The guide found two the day before. At the end of the trek we arrive at his house to see them, before releasing them back into the wild.

On the last day here we take one more look for Kura-Kura in the waterfalls along the river. No luck.


I see great potential for the projects in India and Indonesia and am encoraged by the progress and awareness. Hopfully they will bare fruit and can save, for example, Burmese Brown tortoises before China eats them all.

For myself I am not sure yet where I go from here, am planning and researching at this time.