The trekking to the Orang Utans in Ketambe was like a dream. Suddenly he was hanging in the top of the tree. An orangutan! Our red-brown, hairy relative shimmied peacefully from branch to branch and did not let us disturb him in any way. The fact that we were able to experience this long-awaited encounter on our first evening and then in the immediate vicinity of our guesthouse in Ketambe on Sumatra made the whole thing even more exciting.
This was the perfect start to our jungle trekking adventure on Sumatra. But let’s get back to the beginning: We deliberately did not start our jungle trekking in Sumatra in Bukit Lawang, but instead drove further to Ketambe. Why we have decided so, what we have experienced in the jungle and how to get to Ketambe at all we would like to tell you in this travelogue.
We are Sabrina and Andreas, two adventurous travelers who never miss an opportunity to discover the world. Whether by plane to distant countries or with our campervan Bruno, we just love to travel. We hope to give you helpful tips for your next trip on our blog.
Sabrina & Andreas Globetrotters, Travelers, Adventurers
Orang Utans in Gunung Leuser National Park
Our red-brown relatives from the ape kingdom are probably the main reason for most tourists to go to Gunung Leuser National Park. Wild orangutans are only found on 2 islands in the world and both belong to Indonesia: Sumatra and Borneo. In Sumatra, the apes are protected in the Gunung Leuser National Park in their natural habitat from excessive human interference.
The national park is almost 9,000 km² in size and is one of the largest nature reserves in Indonesia. The park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an important refuge for many endangered species. In addition to the orangutans, the Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran rhinoceros are also among them.
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Orangutan habitats are severely threatened by the clearing of rainforests for palm oil plantations and by illegal poaching. This makes a protected habitat for the endangered apes all the more important. Approximately 14,000 animals are still believed to exist in Sumatra, 75% of which live in the Gunung Leuser National Park. The park thus makes a decisive contribution to increasing this number in the future.
Our experiences during the jungle trekking in Sumatra
Sumatra was to be the last destination on our Indonesia trip. After about a 7-hour drive from Medan, we arrived at our accommodation around 5pm. Immediately after our arrival, the spirit of adventure grabbed us and we quickly moved into our room, threw our backpacks into the corner and wanted to get out into nature to use the last hours of daylight for a little exploration.
Maybe we’ll be lucky and see something amazing, we thought. Since our accommodation (the Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse – more on that below) is located directly in the jungle and on the river running through the park, the start of our hike was very easy. We first walked towards the river and then up a small hill. Suddenly there was a rustling above us.
Immediately Sabrina looked up. Was there something? Or was it just the wind? There was a flash of something reddish-brown and furry at the very top of the tree and we quickly realized: That must be an orangutan! We just thought: Wow! Directly on the first day our first orangutan. What luck we have! We could not get out of the amazement. We quickly took some pictures and when he disappeared from our sight after a few minutes we continued our hike.
Arrived at the top of the road we slowly made our way back, since it was already starting to dawn. Right next to the road some macaques were still making a loud noise. So we went back to the guesthouse very satisfied and ended the day with a delicious dinner.
The next morning, after our breakfast, we left around 9am for our first day of trekking in Sumatra. After crossing the road we entered the jungle. The first time we heard the cars passing the road, but gradually the sounds of the rainforest prevailed. The rustling of the leaves, occasional birds flying by and the rapidly flowing water of the river we were approaching.
On our hike it went constantly up and down, always following lightly trodden paths. When the guide spotted orangutans, we craned our necks and admired the monkeys gymnastics above us. The hike itself was quite strenuous because of the heat and high humidity. Since we walked a lot, we unfortunately had far too little time to admire the beautiful nature. You have to constantly look at your feet to not stumble, and therefore has the view far too rarely free to let it roam.
Around noon, we stopped for lunch at a makeshift camp right on the river. We ate Fried Noodles with great hunger and were happy to give our legs a short break. We also took a refreshing bath in the cool river. In the break you have time to breathe and to notice the surrounding. I lay on the ground, looked up at the sky and the canopy, watched the butterflies.
Enjoying the peace and quiet of nature, which is not really nature at all. It’s actually quite noisy… the rushing river, the screaming cicadas, the incessant chirping of crickets, the screaming of monkeys and the singing of birds. You are surrounded by the sounds of nature…. so one rather enjoys the silence from the human sounds of the city.
After noon, the hike continued towards another camp where we had an extensive dinner and also spent the night. On the way there we had to cross the river. In the dry season this might not be so difficult, but in the rainy season it is a bit more adventurous. Good swimming shoes would have been very helpful here, because you had to very carefully put one foot in front of the other to not end up in the river.
The special thing about our overnight camp were the hot springs that pour into the river not far from our camp. Here, almost boiling hot water flows from the ground directly into the river. Through the sulfur-smelling fog, you can even see the water bubbling from the heat in some places. If you go into the water at the wrong place, you will scald your feet! So be careful! But if you go into the water at the right place you can take a hot and relaxing bath. We really spent several hours in the hot springs and found it to be super relaxing after the hours of sweaty hiking.
The nights in the jungle
Unfortunately, the overnight stay in the camp was anything but relaxing for us. We had the choice of sleeping on rather thin isomats in a makeshift tent or in hammocks. The hammocks seemed to be the more comfortable option. Even if our hammocks under a provisional plastic tarpaulin had already something very idyllic, so the night in it was unfortunately rather uncomfortable and also cold.
We had thin silk sleeping bags with us and it doesn’t get really cold at night (estimated 20 degrees), but still we were freezing and therefore couldn’t really recover well. When it got light, the very first thing we did was to lie down in the hot springs again and warm up! We would recommend you at least to organize good sleeping bags or, if you want to sleep in a tent, to take good sleeping pads with you. The ground in the rainforest can be quite hard.
After an extensive breakfast the next morning, our hike continued. We first went back to the camp of the previous day for a short lunch break. Since we wanted to take another way back to the guesthouse afterwards, we had to cross the river again. This time, however, we did not walk directly through the river, but balanced on an overturned tree trunk across the river.
This was quite a slippery affair and our guide not only took our backpacks for this, but also held our hand so that we didn’t fall off on the way. During the two days in the jungle you will walk a lot and of course you will always look for orangutans, other monkeys, crazy insects or strange plants. All the time you will stay near the river and cross it – as described above – even several times.
Since the orangutans in Ketambe are really wild, it depends on chance or the skill of your guide if and how many orangutans you will see. We had already 2 encounters with them on the first day of our trekking, but unfortunately none on the second day. But we saw macaques and many interesting insects and trees.
During the trek you only have your personal things (camera, change of clothes, water etc.) with you while your guide or the porter carries the rest of the things like food, cooking utensils and sleeping mats. You can also choose not to carry water, but then you will have to drink boiled water from the river, which you should avoid. The taste is said to be not so intoxicating.
In the rainforest of Sumatra there are unfortunately also a large number of the bloodthirsty pests. And they do not live in the water, as I had suspected, but infest you, quasi like ticks in our country, from the bushes or from trees. For this purpose, our guide gave us overshoes for our socks, which reached almost to our knees.
These are to prevent that the small beasts can suck themselves unnoticed to your feet. Nevertheless, it happened to us several times that we had a leech on our hand, neck, back or belly. Caution is therefore advisable. If a leech has been able to attach itself to your skin – a few minutes is enough – it will not only be difficult to remove, but will also leave a wound that will not stop bleeding for a long time. So take enough plasters with you.
Bukit Lawang or Ketambe? What are the differences?
When researching orangutans and jungle trekking in Sumatra, you will inevitably come across Bukit Lawang. This place attracts the most tourists who want to visit orangutans in the wild. This may be because you are almost guaranteed to see an orangutan there and can even see our hairy relatives up close. Overall, this is due to 2 reasons:
- The orangutans in Bukit Lawang are partly reintroduced and therefore not really “wild”
- Many guides feed the orangutans and make them even more trustful
We were rather put off by it, though. Even though it seems tempting to be able to really see the apes up close and even interact with them. After much deliberation, we came to the decision that we would rather experience this unique experience in an authentic and as natural and species-appropriate environment as possible.
The atmosphere of a jungle tour in Bukit Lawang had too much of a “zoo-like” character for us after much research of blog articles and Youtube videos. If we plan such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then we don’t want to have a guarantee to really see an orangutan, but it should depend on luck and coincidence. I think only then you can be really happy about it and appreciate what you have experienced. The higher number of visitors in Bukit Lawang also influenced our decision.
The idea of encountering countless other tourists on our hike through the rainforest did not quite match our image of a unique jungle adventure. Therefore, we decided against Bukit Lawang and after further research we came across the place Ketambe on Sumatra. This small place is located a bit further north, not far from the town of Kutacane. Ketambe is far less touristy than Bukit Lawang and unfortunately it is also a lot more difficult to get there. But you will be rewarded with a much more authentic experience.
In Ketambe the apes are not fed by the guides and, what was much more important for us, the orangutans are really wild and not released. This means that they are not used to humans and therefore do not seek contact with you(as a counter-example, search for “Bukit Lawang Mina” on Youtube).
So if you also want to have a natural encounter with orangutans and don’t want to share this encounter with many more tourists and don’t want a guide feeding animals that are used to humans, then you should also choose Ketambe. But if you don’t want to have a difficult journey and a “guarantee” of an encounter with our monkey relatives, then you should go to Bukit Lawang.
In summary, we have the following advantages and disadvantages of the two options for jungle trekking in Sumatra:
How do I get to Ketambe?
The arduous journey into the rainforest. The starting point of a trip to Ketambe is (as with Bukit Lawang) the big city of Medan in the east of Sumatra. But there is also a possibility to travel from Banda Aceh. In general, it is quite expensive to get to Ketambe and you can choose from the following means of transportation:
- Private Car or Taxi | fast & expensive
- Public Bus | cheap & slow
- Airplane | expensive, fast & a bit inconvenient
Getting from Medan to Ketambe
Since Medan has an international airport, it is relatively easy to get there from different places in Indonesia.
By public bus
If you want to get to Ketambe for jungle trekking as cheaply as possible , you will have to take various buses and will be on the road for about 8-10 hours. From Medan airport you have to use the following connections:
- Medan Airport Kuala Namu Medan City | 0.5 to 1.5 hours
- Medan City Medan Padang Bulan | 30 minutes
- Medan Padang Bulan Kutacane via Berastagi bus station | approx. 7 hours
- Kutacane Ketambe | approx. 45 minutes
For more information about the different means of transportation, please visit the following website: http://ketambe.com/from-medan.html
By Private Car
Much more expensive, but also faster and less inconvenient is to take a private car (a private cab). Your accommodation in Ketambe or your tour guide (if you have already organized one: we can recommend Jhony Jungle Trek) can organize a private driver who will pick you up at the airport or your hotel and bring you to Ketambe in about 6-7 hours. We paid IDR 1,000,000 (about 60€) for this and found the price for 2 people pretty okay.
If you divide the money by 4 people, I think it is hardly worth it to use the public bus. Unless you already see the time-consuming journey as part of the experience. Especially in the first hours of the trip it goes steeply up the mountains in serpentines. Here a car can play its advantages well, because buses often have problems to overtake the very slow trucks.
By plane from Banda Aceh
Here you have generally the same possibilities (Public Bus and Private Car) as from Medan. But there is the additional feature of an irregular flight connection between Banda Aceh and Kutacane (about 1h away from Ketambe). Every Monday and Wednesday and every second Saturday of the month there is a direct connection from Banda Aceh to Kutacane with the airline Susi Air. Currently (as of December 2018), you cannot book these flights online via the airline’s website, but only by email.
However, this only applies to the route to Kutacane. If you want to return to Banda Aceh, you have to look for a ticket on the spot.
More information and the flight schedule can be found on the following website: http://ketambe.com/files/SusiAir-FlightSchedule.pdf
Information about public transportation to Ketambe can be found here: http://ketambe.com/from-banda-aceh.html
Accommodation in Ketambe
There are not many accommodations in Ketambe and only a few are listed on booking platforms like Booking.com. Therefore, we can recommend researching on Tripadvisor or booking through your tour guide. Here is a small selection of guesthouses in Ketambe:
- Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse – Unfortunately, the provider seems to no longer exist.
- We spent the night there. Lies off the road and very idyllic directly on the river in the national park. Near this accommodation we have already seen our first orang utan on the first day.
- Friendship Guesthouse(http://ketambe.com/guesthouse.html)
- Well-known guesthouse, which also offers a lot of information on its website:
- Thousand Hills Guesthouse(Thousand Hills Ketambe)
- Unfortunately it is close to the main road, but it has good reviews
We would recommend you to contact the accommodation directly or to book your accommodation through your tour guide (see next section). Each accommodation is happy to help you organize a tour to the orangutans. By the way, during your trek you should leave your big backpacks at your accommodation and take only your daypacks with you!
How do I book a tour to the orangutans in Sumatra?
As described in the previous section, you have two options:
- You contact an accommodation and ask for a tour package to the jungle
- Or you can choose a guide (e.g. on Tripadvisor), who will be happy to organize your accommodation for the first and last day.
We came across Jhony from Jhony Jungle Trek (https://www.jhonyjungletrek.com) during our research on Tripadvisor. We found his offer and his reviews very good and so we contacted him via Whatsapp (our first contact attempt via email was unfortunately not so successful.) After a short back and forth we had clarified everything and he also organized our transport from Medan to Ketambe.
Arriving on site, we were accommodated in the Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse and packed our backpacks for our upcoming adventure. We would recommend you to check Tripadvisor and the websites of the guides and get in contact with several guides. If you like the offer of a guide and the chemistry is right, you can coordinate the details of your tour with your guide. It is important how many days you want to spend in the rainforest. From 1 to 5 days (and much more) everything is possible.
We initially wanted 3 days with 2 nights in the jungle, but unfortunately had only 2 days for various reasons. But this was enough for us. Especially I found the hikes through the extremely hot and extremely humid rainforest incredibly exhausting. And also the overnight stay was anything but relaxing.
What equipment do you need?
Actually you don’t need much for your jungle trekking, because your guide already carries a lot of stuff with him and you don’t want to carry too much with you. However, we have found the following things to be important:
- Good outdoor clothing: You will be sweating and getting very dirty so get some good clothes. Be sure to wear long pants to protect your legs from the leeches.
- Good closed hiking shoes: sandals or even flip flops are out of place here
- Flashlight: Important if you have to go to the bathroom at night
- Swimming trunks: So you can swim in the river or in the hot springs
- Swimming shoes: Several times you will have to cross the river or walk along the rocky shore. We always find swimming shoes very helpful for such activities
- A good camera with a lot of zoom
- A change of clothes
The jungle trekking in Sumatra was certainly one of the highlights of our Indonesian vacation. To be able to visit wild orangutans in their natural environment is a unique experience and even if we could only see the apes from a distance, we will certainly remember this experience for a long time. It has a certain magic in itself its head in the neck to stretch and thereby know that there are no longer many places in the world where these animals can live without human influence. And who knows how long this will remain so.
We found the experience of walking through the rainforest of Sumatra and seeing interesting insects, unknown plants and gigantic trees indescribable. Had it not been so strenuous due to the heat and the many ups and downs, we certainly would have enjoyed it even more. But we are certainly not a benchmark with our lack of condition. If you want to have an unforgettable experience with the last remaining wild orangutans on this planet, then you should go to Sumatra. You will certainly not regret it! Here is the vlog of our Sumatra experience: