In search of the Sumatran Orangutan

It’s roughly an 8 hour journey from Medan to Ketambe, although that can be quite variable on traffic conditions and depending whether you go by private taxi or bus – I decided on the taxi. It felt like a very long trip to me anyway as I was still recovering from a few days of being rather ill. This was very frustrating as I would have liked to have taken lots of images on the journey, but I felt too much under the weather and just wanted to get to Ketambe as quickly as possible.

Thousand Hills Guest House

Ketambe's newest guest house Thousand Hills Guest House. Blog by

Ketambe is a very small village, a couple of small stores (and I mean small), a school and half a dozen guest houses. I stayed at the Thousand Hills guest house, a new guest house but one I would certainly recommend: clean, tidy en-suite rooms (shower and toilet) and good food. Here’s a link if you would like more details link

Into the Jungle in search of Orangutans

That’s enough introduction as I’m sure you want to see what’s in the jungle, just as I did. The climb into the jungle starts almost immediately as you leave the village, but it’s an hour or so before you leave the small plantations and vegetable gardens on the lower slopes and enter the National Park and the jungle itself.
Within seconds of our ascent up the slippery slopes I was soaked to the skin in sweat. I remember thinking at the time, “What the hell am I doing lugging all my camera equipment (over 20kg) up these steep slopes into the hot and humid rainforest?!”A baby Sumatran orangutan peers through the vegetation while clinging onto mum. www.trevorpenfold.comTwo hours later I knew exactly why – the unmistakable mass of orange fur in the trees right in front of us, the truly wild Sumatran orangutan. For me this is what wildlife photography is all about, seeing and photographing animals in their natural environment, on their terms not mine. I’m just a visitor hoping for a small glimpse into their world, and having as little impact on it as possible.A Sumatran orangutan in its natural environment, hanging from a branch by one arm. www.trevorpenfold.comWe counted nine orangutans, which was quite a coup as they are normally solitary animals, but as my guide Jhonny (his spelling not mine) pointed out sometimes females with young travel together. With this first encounter I had pretty much seen as many orangutans that I was expecting to see in the whole trip, so the adventure was already a success, and I had only been on it for a few hours.A Sumatran orangutan holds onto a vine as her baby climbs up to meet her.

A Sumatran orangutan studies her observer as she sits peering down from the treetops. www.trevorpenfold.comAfter a while the orangutans moved on, eating their way through the canopy – and so did we, moving on that is, to our first campsite. The trekking after our encounter seemed much easier. It probably had something to do with the large grin on my face, as it was my first wild orangutan encounter and one I shall remember for a very long time – or even longer!

The porters had gone on ahead to set up camp which was how it generally worked throughout the 10 day trek, except when we were going into new areas, then we tended to travel together between camps. Wherever we stayed though the team were very effective at building tents from thin clear plastic sheeting, which was very light to carry and was amazing to sleep under as you could see through to the canopy, which all added to the sleeping in the jungle experience.
First nights camp site. www.trevorpenfold.comAs you can see, even when the sun is out it’s still quite dark in the jungle. The low light, as you can imagine, made photographing the orangutans rather difficult.
Looking up into the rainforest canopy.
This image looking up into the canopy is what you see when you’re lying in the tent. It’s such an amazing feeling. I was a bit dubious when I heard we would be sleeping under plastic sheeting, but I’m so glad I did (I had the option of sleeping in a normal tent but opted for the plastic with the rest of the team).

We were lucky to find orangutans on most days at the beginning of the trek, but as we climbed higher the sightings were becoming less and less. By day four we had climbed to eleven hundred meters. And I really do mean climbing. The terrain became so steep we often had to use our arms to pull ourselves up the steep slippery slopes. It was seriously hard work and I was pleased to see that the much younger porters were now sweating nearly as much as I was. Although the humidity levels were still quite high the temperature was dropping, which for me was great, but the animals I think preferred the lower altitudes, because sightings were dwindling. I discussed options with my guide and we decided to head back to lower altitudes to hopefully find more animals.Hot springs in the Sumatran rainforest mix with the cooler waters of the river in the early morning as steam fills the air. www.trevorpenfold.comOne of the sites we stayed at was where the hot springs mixed with the river water. Plunging into the warm waters after several hours of trekking was just heaven.Armansyah looking into the jungle as we head further into the rainforest. www.trevorpenfold.comAlthough I was in the jungle primarily looking for orangutans you can’t help but stare in wonder at the beauty around you as you travel through this truly magical place.

I certainly couldn’t of kept going without some decent food inside me, so I was pleased to see, and taste, how well the porters could cook. Here’s Udin preparing breakfast. Talking of which, one of the remarkable things of the whole 10 day trek had to be that these guys carried in about 4 dozen eggs and I believe none of them got broken on the way. It’s a good job I didn’t have to carry them otherwise we would of had a lot of scrambled egg to have eaten on the first day. Udin cooking breakfast. www.trevorpenfold.comThe last shot of the whole team on the last day before heading out of the jungle. I feel like a bit of a giant, but these guys are extremely fit, worked hard and were fantastic at supplying me with lemon tea.Last day in the jungle just before we head back to the village of Ketambe.

As we headed out of the Jungle I took one more photo of the Sumatran landscape. Just a reminder of the jungle before it disappears and all that is left are plantations, which are already knocking on the door of the  Gunung Leuser National Park.Looking over the Sumatran Landscape and the Gunung Leuser National Park. www.trevorpenfold.comReaching out to get a better look this young orangutan still can’t resist playing with his food.

An inquisitive young Sumatran orangutan looks down from the trees while holding fruit between its lips as though playing with its food.

Orangutans are critically endangered like many of the other larger Sumatran mammals, tigers, rhinos etc. If you would like to help with wildlife conservation please think about entering the Hamilton Zoo photo competition I’m organizing. It’s aimed at raising funds for Hamilton Zoo’s wildlife conservation fund; you could also be in with a chance of winning some fantastic prizes.

The final snippet of my Sumatra trip will take a brief look at Bukit Lawang where I go in search of a gibbon.


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