The road to Bukit Lawang

I did not come to Indonesia to do road trips. But now that I’ve done half of one, I can say at least they’re educational. If like Dorothy, you want visceral assurance you are NOT in Kansas, a drive through parts of Sumatra delivers. Our experience Sunday afternoon also solved a mystery for me, namely I had been unable to imagine how it could take four hours to go 65 miles in a nicely maintained Toyota SUV. Now I know.

We wound up on the road trip because we wanted to see orangutans in the wild. Steve and I have tracked both chimpanzees and gorillas (in Uganda), and we’ve hung out with bonobos in a sanctuary in the Congo. There’s only one other species of great ape in the world — orangutans — and they live only on two Indonesian islands. My first impulse was to seek them in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, recommended by Lonely Planet as the best choice for observing the hairy orange guys in the wild.

When I started planning this trip back last October, it looked like we could easily fly to giant, exotic Borneo from Java (the island that has long been the center of power in this country). Connections on one of the best of the many small domestic airlines were good, and I found a trekking outfitter who seemed respectable. This all fell apart, however, when the flights on the good airline vanished from the Internet (and for the month or two in which I was obsessively checking, they never reappeared. Who knows why). We could only fly to Borneo on a mediocre airline at an inconvenient time. Frustrated, I shifted gears and set my sights on the jungles of Sumatra.

I learned we could fly from Jakarta on one of the better outfits (Citilink) to Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra (and the third largest city in all of Indonesia). I also connected with a well-reputed outfitter just outside Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the richest rainforest ecosystems in the world. (It’s home not only to orangs and other primates but also tigers, rhinos, elephants, and leopards.) I booked a room in the Orangutan Discovery lodge ($23 per night). For an extra $50, the manager said a driver would pick us up at the Medan airport and transport us the 65 miles to the lodge. This seemed reasonable.

Happily, all our travel connections went flawlessly, until we walked out to where the driver was supposed to be holding a sign with our name. There was no sign of him…

Sadly, we were not from the Fuso shop.

…but he did show up after an hour, apologizing and explaining that a truck had overturned on the highway. We piled into Hari’s small SUV, and he announced the drive usually took four hours. This sounded astonishing but also kind of fascinating. How could it?

At first the mystery deepened, as Hari bombed along at 60 miles per hour or more on a well-maintained tollway. But it wasn’t long until we left that and turned onto the main (maybe only?) highway to Bukit Lawang, our destination. The asphalt wasn’t in horrendous condition but it threaded through one human beehive after another; moreover most of the bees appeared to be buzzing around on some kind of wheeled contraption: bicycles and cars and trucks and buses and a vast army of motorbikes, each carrying between one and five people between the ages of newborn and ancient.When you’re all barreling over two narrow lanes, driving becomes vastly more freestyle than anything you ever see in the US or Europe, People thread their way up the wrong side of the road. Many folks favor straddling the faded middle divider line, probably to enhance their readiness for passing. Not passing is NOT an option. You simply must get around all the barely motorized vehicles carrying improbable loads.All this chaos feels remarkably dangerous, and we saw direct confirmation that, yes, it is. We passed the large truck whose crash had delayed Hari. Someone had somehow got it upright again, but it was still stuck by the side of the road. Further along, we whizzed by a demolished motorbike whose driver was still struggling to get up from under it.

Apart from all the scary bits, it was an interesting ride. At times we drove through palm-oil forests. Vast tracts of native rainforest have been torn down to make way for these squat, heavy-crowned trees bearing seeds from which oil is squeezed to fry all the zillions of tasty Indonesian tidbits. If I hadn’t know that Indonesia contains more Muslims than any other country (and Sumatra is known for its especially religious ones), the ride would have educated me. Every minute or two, we passed another roadside mosque — many topped with amazingly colorful and/or flashy domes that contrasted sharply with their homey bases. My head swiveled, too, at all the broad rivers we crossed, most the color of coffee with cream.

The further we drove, the more the road condition deteriorated until at times we had to slow to a cautious creep over the most busted-up sections. Around 5:35 the light was starting to dim and I cringed at the thought of it vanishing altogether as we rattled along for another 75 minutes. But then Hari piped up that we were almost at our destination! Indeed we bounced over dirt road for only a few minutes, entered a jungly stretch of road, and then stopped at a sign for the lodge next to a dirt path leading into a thicket of green. The sun still hadn’t set when we greeted the owner.

For all the ruined stretches of pavement and the death-defying traffic, just a bit over three hours had passed since we left the airport. So why had Hari told us it usually takes four? I suppose it’s possible he was trying to prevent our being disappointed if an eastbound truck turned over like the westbound one that had delayed him. I think it’s more likely, however, we’re in a part of the world where people relate to the interval between numbers on a clock differently than they do in San Diego. I suspect time is vaguer here; less precise. If so, that’s a good thing to be reminded of at the start of our sojourn.

4 thoughts on “The road to Bukit Lawang

  1. Ann Patch May 16, 2023 / 3:48 pm

    Excited to be

  2. pwk4871 May 16, 2023 / 4:31 pm

    Thx so much for sharing your excellent works and photos!

  3. czatkin May 17, 2023 / 12:36 am

    When your blog started, i was visualizing you driving the 65 miles in a rented car. I was so relieved to find out you had a driver! The traffic sounds like Cairo, the roads like Mexico 60 years ago. I’m glad you’re off to a good start.

    • jdewyze May 17, 2023 / 3:45 am

      Thanks, Christy. And now we have made it back to the airport. The road trip made me feel really comfortable with flying!

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