Sunday, 28 October 2018

Adventures with the apes

 Sumatra holiday part 1: Adventures with the apes

‘Watch out,’ the guide in front of me yells over his shoulder when he suddenly stops in his track. ‘It is Jackie. Jackie loves to hug. But don’t worry, she is not dangerous like Mina.’ In this jungle we are not alone, we hike with some p
henomenal creatures: orang-utans. 

We are in Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, more specifically in the environs of Bukit Lawang. For years I have wanted to do a proper jungle trek with the children, camp out it in the bush, and this place offers something that I hope will entice my offspring to hike six hours a day without moaning: the chance to encounter both semi-wild and wild orang-utans. 

And we are not disappointed. First we run into Ratna, a semi-wild female and her baby. There used to be a rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang, which closed years ago as the forest is fully populated. The reintroduced orang-utans stay close to the village, and humans, creating an excellent opportunity for eco-tourism. The rehabilitated apes are mostly females, who mate with local wild males. But unsurprisingly, there are also problems with human orang-utan interactions. 

Up the hills!
Hungry for lunch, but we have a follower!
Thankfully our guides (unlike some…) are very responsible and explain how we should never get too close to the orang-utans, and they never feed them or leave trash behind – in fact, on our second day we have to postpone our lunch for hours when a wild orang-utan kept following us and we could not sit down and dig into our excellent fried rice and noodles. The children weren’t sure whether to be annoyed with hunger, or amazed by the attention.

Mina and Tara
But, as out guide Tara explained, there was one exception to his no-feeding rule: Mina. If we met her he might have no choice but to feed her, as she was known to become aggressive. He had scars to show for that. So when we entered her territory (orang-utans are solitary animals that stay in a set area), lo and behold, there Mina was, standing in the middle of the path with upheld hand to demand her toll. Tara carefully doled out sunflower seeds whilst the other guides herded us past swiftly and safely. Mina with her scarred face, looked imposing and to be honest, rather scary. 

Karien grabbed by Jackie

Karien being forced to stay by Jackie
So later that day, when we approached Jackie, I was a bit apprehensive about this ‘hugging’. And rightly so, as when the guides cautiously herded us past her, Jackie grabbed me firmly by the arm and pulled me to her. Orang-utans have amazing strong grip! The soothing voice of Tara told me to sit still, and not worry. Jackie pulled me down, forcing me to sit on the floor next to her. The guides tried to distract Jackie with snacks that did not interest her in the least, so I sat there, with the rest of the family laughing at me. Jackie, looked at me with big pleading eyes and it took me a lot of restraint not to give her a full bear-hug. Human attention was clearly what this lady craved. 

Through the river!
First night Indonesian dinner
After I was finally released we saw several more wild orang-utans and their nests high up in the tree. But of course orang-utans are not all there is to see in Gunung Leuser Park! During our three day trek we saw lizard, giant ants, butterflies, all sorts of greens and sceneries. Our first evening camping by the river we spotted a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys (called Beckham by the guides, can you guess why?). 

Thomas Leaf Monkey
Down the hill!
We were unimpressed by the long-tailed macaques (we can see these in our own garden), but the baboon-like pig-tailed macaques were exciting, if not a tad intimidating. Building dams whilst washing up in the river, eating the most amazing Indonesian food cooked by our guides, and sleeping in the sounds of the screeching jungle – it all made an amazing experience. 

A much needed break

Tijm's favourite thing: building dams

The second day Tara, impressed by the speed and endurance of our children, decided we were fit for the long steep way. It is beyond me why, but on a normal road my children lag behind needing constant urging, yet on a steep mountainous jungle trek, with only tree roots and lianas to pull you up, they rush up leaving me short of breath. The steepest of climbs offers the highest rewards: from the top of Orchid Hill we had an amazing view over the Gunung Leuser Reserve and its flowing hills. That evening we had just arrived at our new camp and were having a quick bath in the river when the skies broke; a big thundering storm made the river we had just swam in bulge from of its course into a thundering rage. 

Arrival at camp 2
Breakfast by the river - morning after the storm

Second day river camp
Storm! The river 2 meters higher than before...

It was a simple tropical storm, one we are used to in Singapore, but deep in the jungle we were sill in awe. Not long ago flash floods caused by illegal logging upstream had swept away most of Bukit Lawang village – a story that makes us firmly aware of the brutal forces that get unleashed when we humans interfere with nature. We sat in our mostly-dry shelter munching snacks and drinking sweet hot tea and kept our fingers crossed it would eventually stop – if the river would not calm down we would it be able to tube down it the morning after. Thankfully we woke up to yet another beautiful day and we swiftly tubed back to a day of relaxing in the village. 

Tubing home!
Our experience with the magnificent Mina and Jackie left me with mixed feelings. These semi-wild orang-utans were spoiled for life when they were taken from their mothers as a baby and raised by humans. After rehabilitation they lead good lives; they roam in their natural habitat and by reproducing with local wild males help preserve the species. They have become a tourist attraction, which has its complications, but at the same time eco-tourism can play an important role in providing income for the local community. Eco-tourism promotes awareness on the importance of nature conservation and I hope in that way Mina, Ratna and Jackie can all continue playing their part in reserving all the important species that live in the Gunung Leuser Nature Reserve. In any case, we had a great time and learned so much. 

Kings and queens of the bush

View from Orchid Hill
Best breakfast ever

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Pipsqueak and Squeakpip

One morning before school the cats dragged in something that at first sight looked like a naked rat. Closer inspection showed the tail too short, the nose too blunt for a rat. This was more exciting: this was a babys quirrel. Linde, who considers anything tiny ultimately cute, was instantly there to declare we had to keep it. Then the other cat dragged up a second little creature from underneath the pineapple plants and we all looked up. There, in the jackfruit tree, on a hanging branch, hung a cluster of sticks. I’d seen it before but only now realised what it must be: a rather ill-designed squirrel nest.

Linde, holding the tiny ones in cupped hands, urged me to google the care of baby squirrels. Heating them up seemed to be the first step, so Roel cradled them, blew warm air onto them, until they woke from their stupor and started wriggling. By now, the kids had to go to school so we put them on a heating pad in a cage safe from cats and took off.

It turns out squirrels are cute but rather stupid; according to local wildlife charity Acres that I consulted babies falling from nests are a common occurrence, likely as newborn baby squirrels - as I now know - are rather wriggly little creatures. Therefore many websites were dedicated to what my daughter had ordered me to do: the great squirrel rescue. Despite Linde’s loud protests I knew the best thing to do was to reunite them with mummy.

Google told me never to give them cow’s milk, so I hydrated them with some warm sugar-salt solution, made a make-shift nest near the tree where mum could see them, and went grocery shopping. When I came back, sporting an eighteen dollar tin of special mammal formula, I was not sure what to hope for: That mum had picked them up and my purchase was pointless, or that I would now have to spend the next few weeks syringe-feeding two baby squirrels. My mixed hopes were both rewarded: one baby was gone, the other still there. 

That afternoon the rain was too deep to put a naked baby out, so to Linde’s utter delight we got started with feeding the newly-christened Pipsqueak. 

But when I found out that 3 hourly feedings, just like with human babies, mean day and night, that baby went back in the tree as soon as it was dry. But sadly, no mum showed up. In the morning, groggy as any new baked mother that has been up too often in the night, Tijm woke me up holding something brown and wriggly.

“Mama, Pipsqueak escaped. Pepper got him.”

The thing could barely crawl, let alone climb! How was that possible? The cage revealed Pipsqueak soundly asleep, and Tijm was holding his sister, Squeakpip, fallen from the nest once again. This mum was one lousy nest-builder indeed!

In serious doubts now about the feasibility of my reunion plans, tiredness still won over: I had to get them back in that nest! That day, mum picked up Pipsqueak, leaving us with smaller, weaker sister Squeakpip, who stayed with us all that rainy weekend. With a weeklong trip to Sumatra on the horizon, I started Monday with more tiredness and resolve, and I am please to announce that finally, on Tuesday afternoon, Squeakpip too has been reunited with her mother.

Linde has been searching hopefully underneath the jackfruit tree morning and afternoon, but I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed and hope they won't fall out yet again!