Ketambe and Kedah

In Ketambe there was Johan, and in Kedah there was Mr Jally.

I went trekking for 2 days with Johan, with Rachmin carrying the tent and food, and had the most amazing time. We set off about 8.30am, after banana fritters and local black coffee for breakfast, and by 10.30am we had already seen 12 orangutans, a whole troop of clown-faced Thomas Leaf monkeys and hordes of macaques, many of these while we were still within ear-shot of the road. A chainsaw buzzed in the distance and Johan told me the forestry department were always chopping down trees, which seemed pretty hopeless, considering they are the only government department supposedly at all concerned with stopping the complete devastation of Indonesia’s tropical forests. He said he didn’t know why they do it, but he knew somebody was making money. Corruption is endemic in Indonesia, to the extent that as much as 75% of logging is being done ‘illegally.’ I hadn’t yet seen for myself the tragedy of large scale destruction of tropical forests – often planted instead with palm oil trees – so the figures had no meaning for me. [Later I witnessed the effects of this man made tragedy, and the blatant greed, stupidity and subsequent ruination now makes me sick to the bottom of my stomach.]

We had to take off our boots to cross a wide river and I picked my way nervously across, stumbling over the stony bed. The stones were mostly smooth but my feet slipped sideways and jammed painfully between them. The water came up to my hips in places and there was a strong current. I worried I would fall over and be carried down river, soaking my daysack and destroying my camera, but I made it over. At the far side we passed a place where a tiger had been eating – the remains of its deer dinner were still fairly fresh. Then we stopped for lunch ourselves, on a small stretch of beach. Rachmin made a fire and Johan caught small, silvery fish using a throw net. These were quickly gutted and cooked over the fire by impaling them on sticks through their mouths and poking the sticks into the ground around the fire. Delicous. As we ate three more orangutans came into sight on the opposite bank, swinging a tree vigorously back and forth. ‘

This jungle is just alive with creatures,’ I said to Johan. I didn’t realise how lucky I was, as many people only see a few orangutans on a day’s hike. It’s not yet like Bukit Lawang here, thankfully – there aren’t hundreds of tourists and the orangutans are wild, although many of them have seen humans before. I was impressed by how relaxed they seemed, sitting in the tops of trees and unhurriedly munching fruit. Their hair is so bright orange it looks almost fake, and their arms seem too long for their bodies as they swing along. They mostly hang out, literally, in family groups, which is why my tally of sightings rose so quickly. The orangutans on the far side of the river were more shy, because even wilder, and they kept to the tops of the high trees, but we still saw another three. Jonah has over twenty years of experience as a guide and ranger, and he is incredibly attuned to the forest. Even when he was pointing directly at an orangutan it would often take me some minutes to locate it myself, often resorting to sighting directly along his arm. There is still primary rainforest in the Gunung Leuser around Ketambe, which means that some trees are centuries old and reach up to 50m high. One disgruntled orangutan pelted us with half eaten fruit and branches as we stood far below it looking up at it. Late in the afternoon we caught sight of a black gibbon, which is a rare and beautiful sight.

On the second day we came within 100m of a leopard, which was about as close as I wanted to be. We didn’t see it but we could hear it’s deep coughing close by, and held our breath when it went silent, not knowing where it had gone. The jungle was full of sounds – the trill of crickets, the grunt of a honey bear and the weird bark of the ‘helicopter bird’ – actually a hornbill. It grew cloudy and threatened rain but we pressed on, creeping around and scanning the forest. After a while I felt slightly dazed from staring at such unrelenting green, but we were finally rewarded with another family group of five. We were directly beneath a young male and he, like the female the day before, threw down fruit peel and sticks at us. A mother held tightly to her tiny baby and a slightly bigger baby clambered playfully around the branches. I felt incredibly lucky to see them.

Trekking near Kedah

I arrived, two days later, in Kedah, to find that Mr Jally and five of his guides were already out trekking. I had not given them any notice, but Mrs Jally and the group of women with her brought me tea, with sugar and slices of lime, and found me a young guide called Udin. He didn’t speak any English but he was enthusiastic, and quietly respectful, and I liked him from the first moment. I was carrying an Indonesian phrasebook and it was a good chance for me to learn more of the language. We spent the night in Mr Jally’s Jungle camp, which is a group of huts beside a river in the forest, about half an hour’s walk from his house, itself on a country lane above a small village, surrounded by forested hills. Udin cooked vegetables, rice and noodles, while I washed in the river, and we spent the evening having a slow conversation – there was plenty of time – during which he told me he was Mr Jally’s grandson and was 24 years old. Not yet married and ‘still having fun’. He was sweet and good looking, but I made sure he slept in a separate hut!

Udin turned out to be an excellent guide and we crept around the forest next day and were rewarded with the sighting of a brown gibbon and her baby, and two orangutans. Nothing like as many as in Ketambe, but when I later met some Germans who’d trekked for five days and only seen two orangutans, I thought I hadn’t done too badly. Besides, the scenery was stunning, and there were orangutan nests everywhere in the trees.The area is much more mountainous than Ketambe and we emerged from the forest into a cleared area, where the slope flattened out a little, into the full glare of the sun. In the forested hills around us black baboons were making unearthly noises, calling to one another, and the sound drifted loud and distinctly through the hot air, but Udin said they were far away. Tobacco was planted all over this cleared area, as well as some chillis and onions, and three tobacco huts formed a cottage industry on the hill. From here there were hazy views down to Kedah and Blankejjeren.

Tobacco hut near Kedah

We rested in one of the tobacco huts and I watched as two men rolled up wilted tobacco leaves and shredded them with a knife. The hut was stuffed with leaves and their task was endless, so they were in no hurry to try and finish it. The sun was hot and the thick, heavy air slowed down all movement. A woman languidly gathered up the shredded leaves and spread them over a mat to dry. There were already at least 15 mats covered in tobacco, raised above the ground on wooden poles and in various stages of dehydration. It’s a very simple process. Everyone smoked constantly, except me, and the conversation was in Gayo so I couldn’t follow it. There are at least seven different languages spoken in the Aceh region alone!

Tobacco production, near Kedah

I was relieved when we entered the forest again, as it was several degrees cooler under the canopy, and the ground was beautifully dappled with sunlight. I felt serenely discombobulated as I walked slowly after Udin, staring up into the trees. We didn’t see any more orangutans in the afternoon, but there were plenty of monkeys, and it was lovely just being in the forest. There was also plenty of adventure, crossing and recrossing the river, on logs, or jumping from rock to rock, and battling through undergrowth. I wore walking boots and thick socks and felt like a clod next to Udin, who spent the entire day in a pair of flip-flops! He crept around soundlessly, light and careful as a cat, while i stumbled and slipped on the muddy ground, catching my feet on creepers and tripping over roots.

Mr Jally

Back at the Jungle Lodge later, we found Mr Jally, three Germans, an Argentinian and all the guides. They had all returned at the same time, so there was quite a party atmosphere. Chickens were impaled on sticks and roasted on the fire in the same manner as the fish at Ketambe had been. The meat was then chopped into pieces and we gathered around a large table to eat it from banana leaves, with large wodges of boiled rice and a fresh tomato and chilli relish. It was wonderfully primitive, tearing at the food and shovelling it into our mouths with greasy fingers, as if we were at some ancient feast.

Later everyone left, except Udin, Mr Jally, Mr Happy Happy, and me. Mr Jally smokes marijuana from morning until evening and I accepted the joint when it was passed to me and proceeded to get very stoned indeed. It was local grass from Kedah and excellent quality. My mind was left clear and unfugged, yet all my senses and thoughts were heightened, almost to the point where it was hallucinogenic. We played about 20 games of dominoes, in an increasing frenzy, with everyone fiercely competitive and Mr Happy Happy completely carried away!  Later he plaited me a bracelet out of a long spear of ordinary grass, which he stripped into three thin strands with his knife. Mr Jally played the flute, fairly badly, but we all clapped and pronounced it bagus.

3 thoughts on “Ketambe and Kedah

  1. Hey there, thanks for your story. I am planning to visit these guys this month and do a trek! I was just wondering how you went about travelling to Ketambe? Did you go from Medan? Also, I cant seem to get a hold of the guys, would it be alright if I just showed up there? Thanks!

    • Hi! I went to Ketambe from Berastagi, after Lake Toba, but you can just as easily go from Medan. Just show up in Ketambe as there are loads of people offering tours, although the quality varies so you will have to ask around and try to assess who is most environmentally sound. I don’t remember the name of Johan’s operation now but he’d been a guide for at least 20 years and really knew and cared about the forest. Sorry it wasn’t a v informative post – more of a sketch. Kedah is a bit different – much smaller, and fewer guides. You can just show up but there may not be anyone to guide you (although they will probably find someone). No doubt you can find a number in the Lonely Planet. Mr Jally is a legend and well worth trying to seek him out. Have fun!

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