This was one of those minivans where there are 12 seats but the driver’s taking however many people need a ride; and it’s the last bus of the day, and a lot of people need a ride! Leaving Medan we have a good 18 butts on our 12 seats, and the van stops at town after town, picking up more passengers at each, the extra people clambering on the roof to sit on our luggage which was lashed up there, or clinging to the back and sides of the van. We estimated there to eventually be about 30 people in total riding on and in that 12-seat van. Obviously, that was pretty ridiculous in and of itself and absurdly uncomfortable to boot – but that wasn’t the crazy part.
The crazy part was that our van didn’t have functioning lights, which soon became apparent as we drove into the gathering darkness on a terrible road through the palm plantations (the Sumatra rainforest is already sadly mostly a thing of the past, fallen victim to the palm oil companies supplying the world’s taste for cheap cosmetics and confectionary).
I asked the driver if he was going to be turning his headlights on soon – no, he said, he didn’t have any, but it was okay because his friend was going to help at the next village.
Oh, ok, good. But our assumption that this meant his friend would be fixing the lights proved to be well wide of the mark. Rather, his assistance took the form of riding on a motorbike just in front of the minivan, with the van driver navigating by way of the motorbike lights out in front!
So there we were in convoy, a bike out in front lighting the way closely followed by a headlightless minivan with a dozen people clinging to the roof, bouncing along over the ruts and swerving round the potholes as we rattled through the night. It was completely ridiculous and I was simultaneously laughing at the stupidity of it, shitting myself when we kept almost crashing, and cursing the painfully cramped position in which my body was contorted what with all the extra people on board.
This madness went on for several hours (the supposedly 2.5 hour journey took us 4 hours), it was totally crazy, and yet it worked – somehow we made it to Bukit Lawang in one piece. The same can’t be said for my phone though – for some reason I’d made the schoolboy error of leaving it in my big backpack which was strapped to the roof (instead of in my small bag on my lap as usual), and one of the passengers up there must’ve taken it, probably alighting at one of the villages en route. Ah well, lesson reinforced.
The heavens opened just in time for our arrival and we walked through a veritable wall of tropical rain to find a guesthouse, arriving soaked, hungry, and exhausted. But it was one of those nutty journeys that despite leaving you feeling like shit, also leaves you feeling a victorious sense of achievement to have successfully reached your goal, and this goal was well worth the effort – the next day we did a jungle hike in the beautiful Gunung Leuser national park, one of the last surviving tracts of virgin Sumatran rainforest, to see the magnificent yet tragic population of displaced orangutans living there. These beautiful creatures find sanctuary in Gunung Leusur national park after being rescued from the palm plantations which have destroyed most of their natural habitat – the alternative solution to these ‘pests’ is the guns of the oil palm farmers. Seriously, fuck palm oil; screw your cheap chocolate bars and screw your cheap shampoo – if you give a shit about the continued existence of the orangutan, avoid products containing palm oil if possible, or at least opt for products using RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. Unfortunately avoiding palm oil is easier said than done, as it’s in most popular confectionary and cosmetics, but see here for more on how to do so and also details on visiting the orangutans of Bukit Lawang (and Malaysian Borneo’s Sepilok orangutan sanctuary).
Visiting Bukit Lawang and coming face to face with orangutans should definitely be on your Sumatra itinerary and was an unforgettable experience – and I’ll also never forget that ridiculous journey to get there!
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Also see my Indonesia overland travel guide