When you first step out of the airport at Medan, in North Sumatra, the humidity smacks you in the face and the realization of working in a hot and humid country sets in. On top of that, a touch of jet lag and lack of sleep meant I was pretty zoned out.
This was my first trip to Indonesia and I was very pleased I had arranged a driver to pick me up from the airport, especially with all the kit I had, and one that could speak and understand English. The traffic in and around Medan felt quite alien to me, not because of the volume of traffic I might add. I had lived in the UK for most of my life and was used to the congestion you get in major cities. What really stood out was the lack of, or what seemed a lack of, any road rules or Highway Code. On first impressions it seemed absolute chaos, but it soon became apparent that there are unspoken road rules in Sumatra. Red lights didn’t mean much due to the fact they very rarely worked, so when they did work people had already got used to ignoring them. Giving way and stopping at intersections also seemed unnecessary. Basically you just edge out into the flow of slow moving traffic and force someone to let you out. The use of the horn is very important, not used in anger like in many countries; it’s more to let others know you’re coming through.
Fortunately my driver, Edo, knew exactly what was going on and amazingly it all felt quite safe. After being in Sumatra for a month it was interesting that in all that chaos I saw no accidents – remarkable considering four on a moped is common place. No road rage either!
Before we head off to Tangkahan I thought I would just mention that if you’re thinking of heading out to Sumatra pick up one of their Sim cards for your mobile. I got unlimited texts (local only) but more importantly unlimited data, all for just $15.00 for the whole month, amazing. I picked one up before I left the city.
My trip was all based around Gunung Leuser National Park, in North Sumatra, and my plan was to access it from three areas, Tangkahan, Ketambe and Bukit Lawang.
When you finally get through all the palm oil plantations (more on that another time) you arrive at the small village of Tangkahan. It’s situated where the Buluh and Batang Rivers meet and sits on the edge of the National Park. To get to the main centre where most of the guest houses are you need to cross the river either by the small ferry or the suspension bridge; I used the latter method.
One of the neat things about Tangkahan is that it’s a very small village and not swamped with tourists. Most come to see and ride the elephants and then they’re off again. I was after smaller animals on this trip though and my base, the Bambu River Guest House, was situated in a perfect spot to get access to the animals, most of which come to the river at some point.
Photographing the Primates
My main goal on this tour, as you may know, was to photograph wild orangutans, but I also wanted to photograph as many other primates as possible. I found Tangkahan was a great place for the long-tailed macaque, especially early evening. They would feed in the trees along the river bank, often coming down to ground level collecting the fruit they dislodge from the trees above, or sometimes just to drink.
There are real challenges photographing in this environment, low light being just one of them. Fortunately the 1DX came into its own in these dark conditions. The image above is of a long-tailed macaque collecting fruit: shot at f/4, ISO 5000 and I had no real noise issues that couldn’t be dealt with.
I spotted this handsome fellow peering over the leaves, as he sat at the top of a tree keeping an eye on the rest of the troop.
This macaque has just dropped out of a tree to cross the river. The light was fading fast so the reflected light from the river helped, but I still had to up the ISO to 6400 to keep the shutter speed up.
It’s always nice seeing animals with their young and on one occasion I had the privilege of photographing one female long -tailed macaque with her baby when she came down to feed by the river.
Some of the primates were easier to spot in the morning, which was when I got my first glimpse of a wild silvered leaf monkey (below). They seemed very wary, never coming close and often taking cover when humans approached. I don’t think I managed to get any photos of these guys with a focal length of less than 700mm (full frame sensor).
Local knowledge is priceless and after chatting to one of the guides he mentioned that early evening is a good time to see the water monitors as they come down to the river scavenging for food. True enough, as I got myself comfortable on the river bank they appeared from the jungle.
I loved watching these large lizards – they seem almost prehistoric to me. They’re amazing swimmers and seemed to have no problem going upstream against the current. I did have to stay very still and low while watching them, as like some of the monkeys they are very wary of humans. They also have very long forked tongues that they taste the air with as they try to locate any food in the area.
During the Day
As you can see most of the larger animals tend to be seen mornings and early evening but if you want to make the most of your time, like I did, then during the day you can spend time photographing some of the smaller reptiles, if you can find them, and a variety of insects. I’ll leave you with just that, a few images of some of the smaller critters you’ll find at Tangkahan.
This is just a small excerpt of what I got up to in Tangkahan. If you want the full story and many more great images you’ll have to wait for the e-book I’ll be working on.
Next stop Ketambe and the 10 day trek into the Sumatran rain forest – make sure you’ve signed up to my newsletter if you want to be notified of the next installment.