Indonesia, Sumatra: Gunung Leuser National Park – 9 Day Jungle Trek!

by Kelly

Jungle trek in Sumatra, Indonesia – Mike has long wanted to see orangutans in the wild. We’ve read so much about the palm oil industry and deforestation that we decided to see it for ourselves while we still could!  What we never expected was how much this trip would challenge us and ultimately make us question our everyday choices.

Getting there:

We accessed the Gunung Leuser National Park via the town of Bukit Lawang. The first thing you notice when you step foot in town is the national park! It is huge, overwhelmingly so. I definitely questioned how on earth we were trekking in it!

To get to Bukit Lawang you will take a bus or car, there is no other way to get there. I wrote in detail about how to get to Bukit Lawang in this blog.

Once you are in Bukit Lawang you literally just cross the river and follow a path up into the national park. It is illegal to enter the park without a guide however so don’t head up their on your own. There is a stop where rangers will check you on entry, so there’s not much point.

Organising a jungle trek in Sumatra Indonesia:

You can organise your jungle trek before you get to Bukit Lawang or while you are there if you prefer. There are so many companies that run treks of all sizes but make sure to find a licenced one as you will be approached by touts offering you treks. It is easiest to say you have already organised one to buy you time to decide what you want. It is also easier to have researched before you arrive so that you have an idea of what you are looking for. A couple of great tours are Orangutan Expedition from Bukit Lawang or Mount Leuser National Park Full-Day Trip. We booked with Expedition Jungle.

Mike and Eddy our jungle trek guide

This is Mike and our guide Eddy. Eddy was incredible, his knowledge and skills in the jungle are second to none. He is a kind and experienced guide and I strongly recommend him. I felt safe knowing that he was leading us, he showed over and over that he knew this land well. In true Mike fashion he decided that he would be the new guide and lead. Eddy had a laugh and let him, until Mike ‘let’ him take back over…it is not as simple as it looks!

How long should you book a trek in Sumatra, Indonesia for?

We booked the nine day trek. It is six days in the jungle and three in the town (two before the trek and one after). We figured that if you are going all that way to do a jungle trek you should make it worthwhile and go deeper into the jungle. I thought I had asked enough questions to be prepared but was I wrong! You really can’t prepare for something like this. If you have trekked before you are probably going to be okay, if not then there is the chance that the 6 day might be too long for you.

We met a lot of other people who had booked a one or two day trek and they had said that the 2 days were a little long. The thing is that it isn’t just a lot of walking. The deeper you go into the jungle the steeper the terrain. The majority of the time we were literally pulling ourselves up a vertical mountains by the trees that were around us…or the tree roots sticking out of the ground.

Fitness is important!

The same for going down, they were very steep mountains, covered in mud and hopefully enough trees that you could hang on to so you didn’t slide down the side of the mountain. It was very strenuous and you need to be at a very good fitness level to find it manageable. We had people on our trek that were not in the best shape and really struggled. Bad knees, ankles and cardio became an issue.

One of the ladies was a very very experienced hiker, trekker and had climbed the Mt Everest base camp. Even she came unstuck, falling and dislocating her wrist. Luckily there was an emergency nurse on the trek who attended to her but otherwise I am not sure what would have happened. We were very deep in the jungle!

If any of this sounds concerning then maybe consider a shorter trek they start from 3 hours to 1-2 days and from all accounts are pretty do-able. We hadn’t prepared fitness wise, and it was a challenge.

What to take on your Sumatra jungle trek?

It will really depend on how long you trek for. See my detailed post on what I recommend taking for any trek longer than 2 days.

If you are doing the 3 hour trek you are fine, just take some water, mosquito spray and wear long socks. Hiking shoes make things easier but for this amount of time you really don’t need to invest in them unless you are planning on doing more trekking later on.

For a 1-2 day trek you will want a few more from the list. Trekking pants and walking poles will be useful,. Definitely mosquito spray and possibly water walking shoes although cheap ones will suffice. Generally the treks that are shorter get more comfortable mattresses than yoga mats so maybe ask what the bedding situation before going as you could save yourself the cost of an air mattress. A proper water bottle, one you can reuse and really just the essentials from my jungle trek packing guide.

If you are going to trek for multiple days please read this post as I have detailed all the things you will really wish you had once you are there!  It’s surprising what I really needed and what I valued once we were out there….I thought I would regret not taking snacks but they were the last thing on my mind!

What is the jungle trek like?

Honestly it was like nothing we have ever done before. I knew it would be challenging but it pushed me beyond all the limits I had and I still can’t believe that I survived it and didn’t hurt myself! Anyone that has ever met me knows that I am pretty anxious and also petty klutzy…so the scope for injury was huge!

We saw incredible nature, animals, learned how to ‘read’ the jungle, ate incredible food cooked over a fire, made friends with our guides and other trekkers and honestly I grew in confidence. I now know what extremes I can handle and how tough I can be mentally and physically.

I’m going to detail our trek day by day so you can get a real sense of what is ahead…

Day 1:

Day one was lovely! We were picked up at the Medan airport and driven the bumpy four hours to Bukit Lawang. After walking to our hotel and eating a good meal we relaxed on the balcony of our room at the Garden Inn. The views of the jungle just across the river were stunning although I did start to question how we were going to trek in it. It was huge and dense! Check out our quick room tour of Garden Inn on our YouTube Channel!

Day 2:

We met our guide and another couple outside our hotel just after breakfast. Together the five of us walked through the town and across the river. The bridge is intimidating as it feels like it could fall away under you but is actually pretty strong. Once we crossed the river we met up with the rest of our trekking group. A group of eight and all Australian (except for one French/Polish couple, but they have lived in Australia for 20 years so naturally they are Aussies!). It was great to meet the group and get to know everyone.

Intro to hiking

We set out for our three hour introduction trek. At the start of our adventure I really didn’t understand why we did this. Now I realise that it is so you can decide to quit before you are too far in! This little intro is a small challenge, it is steep but nothing like you are about to experience. There are orangutans here and you should take photos of them as they are semi wild and not as scared of humans. They are not in cages and can leave the area at any time they want, they come and go as they please. However as this is the place that most people come to the animals are more used to seeing them here.

There were rules about our behaviour, such as don’t look them directly in the eye, don’t make loud sounds, move slowly, no food. Our guides were watching them to see if they became hostile, at one stage telling us we needed to leave as one male was challenging another. I almost didn’t take a photo as I wanted to wait for the fully wild ones, however I’m glad I did as seeing a fully wild orangutan is extremely difficult.

Thomas Leaf Monkeys are the punks of the jungle! Super cute with their mow hawk haircuts.

You need to have a good guide

You will see many other groups here with their guides. While you are supposed to stay approximately 10m away from the animals but there were a lot of guides encouraging their guests to go closer. I was glad that our guide did not and showed us how to sit in the jungle completely still so you are less of an impact on the animal.

It was at this point I realised the importance of a good guide. It was later reiterated when we saw a larger orangutan and our guide stopped us. Apparently there had been another group before us that had gone past and come too close to it wanting better photos or worse, photos with it. This was a large dominant male and he was not happy. He was making threatening noises and displaying behaviours which our guides knew meant keep away. They listened, we saw from afar. We also appreciated that they cared enough about the stress of the animal to change their plans. All of my photos are taken with a telephoto lens.

Large male orangutan in the wild jungle
Orangutan in jungle

Seeing the animals

A dominant male orangutan swings through the trees on our 3 hour practice trek, witnessing the strength and power of the male orangutan is incredible! We were left feeling very small and insignificant, also it really made us appreciate the natural jungle that had been left untouched. There is a lot of logging and palm oil being planted in the area which is taking the natural habitat of the orangutan. It was life changing to see them in the wild, not a zoo, and I don’t think I can buy products with palm oil in them again! We were also lucky enough to see this cheeky baby orangutan who climbed down to check us out, he started pulling faces at us until his mother came to pull him back up and away.

A cheeky baby orangutan climbed down to check us out

After the three hour intro trek was over we headed down and out of the jungle. Stupidly I thought the next six days trekking would be this easy!

Walking in to town

Mike and I went for a walk into the village to get some supplies for the trek. I thought maybe taking some lollies or bars might be a good idea and there is an Indomaret in the village. In Bukit Lawang there are little corner shops set up but we thought the walk would be good to see some of the village as well. Others used this time to go on a village tour or to rest up for the trek. (I’ve detailed how we walked to the Indomaret in my Bukit Lawang blog post)

Unfortunately that night the heaviest storm I have ever witnessed struck. It was a massive downpour, thunder and lightning. All of a sudden the enormity of what we were doing hit me and I started stressing out! Mike was chilling in the hammock enjoying the storm and I was packing like a madwoman to try and distract myself!

Mike relaxing in the hammock

Day 3: The trek begins!

After a good five hours of walking up sheer mountains and then back down…and then back up and down again we reached the river. What a sensational feeling. There were kitchen porters with us also who carried all the food and equipment to make camp each night, they had bought lunch for us from town. We gobbled down this nasi goreng super fast, it was amazing!

On day three we met up again at the base of the national park. We were all a little wary after the storm and excited for what lay ahead. Entering via the same route we took the day before and kept on going. We walked up hill for a good couple of hours. The ground was complete mud which was really slippery and you had to hang on to trees and pull yourself up. There were two very clever ladies who were not only experienced trekkers but had smartly hired porters to carry their large bags and they only had their small packs on their backs. The rest of us had to lug all our gear with us making each step even harder. They also had walking poles which were great for stability and giving yourself another point of contact with the ground.

We found leeches

Mike and some of the rest of the team wandered into the river and skimmed stones while the rest of us chilled out on the makeshift bamboo benches along the river. It was here I discovered that leeches are everywhere as there was a huge amount of blood on my sock. I thought I had cut myself but it was actually a leech that had been feeding and had fallen off after eating enough. It was sickening but I was glad not to see it.

We walked up the river a little bit and came across our first camp. It was a bamboo structure and the porters quickly covered it in black plastic and rolled out thin yoga mats for us to sleep on. There were two huts for us trekkers and one for the staff. This is where they cooked and slept.

The food was incredible!

That evening we had the most incredible spread of food. I had asked if I should bring all my own food as I couldn’t eat gluten and didn’t know what would happen in the jungle. I was told that they could work around this but I was pretty dubious. The food was amazing! They porters and chefs were very conscious of what I couldn’t eat and would tell me “no eat” when it was something they wanted me to stay away from.  We were served up 3 different foods at dinner time on most nights and always rice. The first night there was chicken, vegetable curry and  tofu. The meals were amazing and we constantly couldn’t get over how they were putting out such great food cooking over a fire.

Jungle dinner is served! Chicken, vegetable curry, rice, tofu! The trekking staff are amazing cooks, even looking after this coeliac!

We went to bed exhausted. It had been a long and tiring day, however we really didn’t know what we were in for on day four!

Day 4: Dislocation Day on our Jungle trek in Sumatra Indonesia

 We woke up early and had breakfast. The non-coeliacs had pancakes and I had rice which was great. We started off on our days trekking. With all the rain the ground was again just slippery mud. We had to climb up really steep mountains and there was no footing.

There were thin trees that were thankfully much stronger than they looked because for the next few days they were what I used to pull myself up and down these mountains. Those camo looking trees were a lifesaver and I desperately looked for one with each step I took. My heart was pumping and I was breathing hard-not from the physicality as I have decent cardio fitness but from the terror. Each time I tried to climb up my feet slipped out.

Its not easy!

Mike was behind me and I was terrified I would fall on him and cause him to fall on the next person until we all tumbled down the mountain. Right in front of me there was a really lovely young guy who was in the army and he had proper army boots on. Each time he stepped he tried to kick his boot in and make some sort of a foot hold for me and everyone after me. 

I realised at this point that this is what our armed forces do for practise. They do tasks like this and I am sure far harder in real life situations. I honestly don’t know how they do it and have a deeper respect for them after experiencing this trek. I have so much family in the forces and never really had a close understanding of what they endure and this really made me feel like I could begin to imagine it.

What goes up must come down!

We got to the top of the mountain and had to go down. This sounds easier but really wasn’t. Unfortunately this involves the same slippery mud and no foot hold situation. So while you are leaning forward trying to take a step you are also falling toward a tree and hoping that it will hold you as you slide down.

This continued all day. It was dangerous and treacherous and I was scared. I had no idea that this was the level of trekking we would be doing. At times when we were crossing the ridges it was beautiful, we were high up in the mountains. The air was clean and fresh and we were following a leafy path up and down more regular slopes with time to absorb the stunning nature around us.

part of the river deep in the jungle

The group splits up

After a good four hours of trekking we stopped for lunch and again the cooks whipped up a delicious nasi goreng. Once we had eaten we were told that there was a choice we were all going to walk up the next hill together and there we could decide to go on an extra three hour trek or just head back down the mountain on the other side to the camp. Mike and I decided to head for camp with one of the other trekkers and the rest decided to go with the guide on an extra trek around.

We got to the top of the mountain, steeper than the last and began our descent. It was again incredibly dangerous. Free falling toward trees to grab and swing around as there were no foot holds in the mud. At times we fell and slid down the mountain until we could catch a tree or root to stop us. I am still surprised that none of us broke a bone or fractured something coming down that mountain.

Trusting our guides

We had gone with the apprentice guide and a porter. They were brilliant and so helpful. At one point the apprentice guide told us to stop, he heard something. After a bit of a wait he found some black gibbons in the trees ahead. Completely wild this was a really rare sight. There was a baby and an adult gibbon above playing in the trees. We sat and watched for a while until they moved on. To see animals in the wild without any form of human interaction is a once in a lifetime experience and I really loved it. Our guides were respectful and did not encourage us to move closer or to interact in any way. We all melted into the jungle and sat staring at them! I couldn’t even take a photo as it was too magical a moment to disturb!

When we finally got down this mountain we walked through a dense rain forest and found the river. The river is the life of everything in the jungle and in the town. It is the clearest river I have ever seen in my life. I grew up on the Murray River in South Australia which is really muddy. This was pristine and I couldn’t get over it. The guide and porter headed to make coffee, boil water and set up camp. We jumped in the river and washed off all the mud and dirt from trekking.

Our idyllic campsite by the river

The camp spot on the second night was incredible, an idyllic place to enjoy the river in our jungle trek Sumatra, Indonesia

Then the trek turned serious

After swimming for a while I saw the rest of the group start walking out of the jungle ahead. Immediately we could tell something was wrong. One of the ladies had her arm strapped up and everyone was looking worried. Racing up to them we found out that they had started cutting back along the river and she had fallen dislocating her thumb seriously. This is not the place you want any medical issues and up to that point it hadn’t really crossed my mind. But I started to wonder, what would happen if you were seriously hurt out here. Spider bite, snake bite, break a limb, heart attack, stroke…there was no help. There was no phone reception. I’m still not sure what would happen.

Luckily two of the ladies were nurses and one had put it back in place. The army guy had a first aid kit and they had strapped it up. The poor lady looked exhausted and I’m sure she was in shock. We all swam and tried to work out what was best to do. Finally considering ending our trek, taking her back to the town and getting her to a doctor.

We were told that it would be better to carry on, she couldn’t easily get back and going forward was the best idea. So we made camp, ate dinner, played cards and went to bed.

Cards and chess games in the afternoon once camp was set up, our incredibly brave and injured team member looks on. Jungle trek Sumatra Indonesia
Cards and chess games in the afternoon once camp was set up, our incredibly brave and injured team member looks on.

Day 5: River Walk

The river walk. I had been told by the head guide that this was the hardest day. Well, for Mike and I it was the best day! I loved walking up the river, it was mentally draining as the rocks are incredibly slippery and the water is not just running but gushing with strong currents in most places. We were not just crossing occasionally but constantly, and at times just walking up the river itself waist deep. Massive trees had come down in storms blocking the river so we would either climb back into the jungle and go around or climb over them and in between them. I had not brought strong enough water shoes for this task, please check my packing list blog for the jungle trek and get some decent ones-it is worth it!

Mike walking up the river on the third day. It was a draining 8 hour trek but I loved the views of the river
Every bend in the river took us deeper into the jungle and the scenery just became more breath taking

One of our guides resting, on the Jungle trek Sumatra Indonesia
This lovely guide got me a jungle walking stick, jungle trek Sumatra, Indonesia

Starting the walk

Before we started the guide offered me a stick that he found on the ground. He cut the bottom of so it was a better size for me and with that stick I was able to test the depth of the water, give myself a point of contact to have some stability and to test the rocks to see if they were slippery. I loved that stick! It made the day so much easier than it could have been. Top tip-get a stick if you haven’t brought walking sticks.

My jungle walking stick, definitely necessary! Jungle trek Sumatra Indonesia
Get a stick to do the river walk if you didn’t bring walking poles. You need it for the jungle trek in Sumatra Indonesia

We walked up the river for eight hours. It was long and draining but every corner took us deeper in to the jungle and revealed another incredible view. It was hard to focus on staying upright and take it all in. I don’t know how our injured trek member made it. You really needed both hands, one of the guides walked with her the whole way but it was ridiculous that she had to continue like this. This day was strenuous and we had so far to go.

Around every corner was another incredible view. Thick jungle overhanging the river, boulders and lush plants everywhere, it was a spectacular trek.

Deep in the jungle

When we finally got to the the end of the river walk and reached the camp we were so deep in the jungle it was overwhelming. It is dense and vast. You feel so small and suddenly realise that you aren’t that important at all.

We rounded the corner and I looked up to see blood all over Mike’s shirt! I thought he had cut himself climbing over the last tree but it turned out to be a massive leech! Disgusted he pulled it off, which led to way more bleeding.

When the rest of the group caught up to us we washed off in the river, had dinner and went to lay down in the tent. We were told not to go behind the tent because it was full of leeches. The toilet was just anywhere you could squeeze in nearby. In the morning we learnt that the guides had been doing checks all night as there were actually snakes in the jungle behind us and that is why they didn’t want us back there.

Jungle camp was a rough set up, Jungle trek Sumatra Indonesia
Camp for the night, little did we know the jungle behind our tent was filled with snakes!

Day 6: Moving on in our jungle trek Sumatra, Indonesia:

As a group we decided that we would rather move on the next day. We were supposed to camp in this spot for two nights but it was cramped with eight people and there wasn’t a great spot to swim.

The day involved another six hours of steep up hill and down hill trekking. Each day the severity seemed to get worse. This day we found that there were too many large trees fallen and blocking the way. Our guide had to make a new way by cutting a path with his machete. He was slightly worried and we could see it. At times massive trees were balancing delicately and he would tell us to not talk and be as quiet as possible as any excess noise could make the tree fall on us as we passed underneath. Another time there was a huge mass of trees blocking the way and we had to scramble over them hoping they wouldn’t come loose and start sliding down the mountain.

 Views Jungle trek Sumatra Indonesia

Last night on the jungle trek

There were so many leeches that kept attaching to Mike. At one stage he sat down on the ground to rest and we could see them, like slinkys, moving toward him. They were in our shoes, our socks, anywhere they could get to. I began dousing my shoes and socks in mosquito repellent as they apparently don’t like it!

Again I don’t know how we all made it through, there were times I really doubted that we would. When we finally got to the river and the camp we were very glad. It was where we would be catching the tubes back to Bukit Lawang. We had met up with the main river and it was running incredibly fast.

We made camp and had dinner, my favourite mashed potato cakes were on the menu with curry and tofu. Over dinner and a chat the group decided that we wanted to head back a day early. We were only going to stay in that spot and hang out for a day. There was no more trekking left and we thought it was better to get back for our injured trekker. The guides got word to the tube men to come a little earlier via some other guides that were rafting down the river.

Evaluating our life

At our camp site for the night everything was wet and really doesn’t dry. We tried hanging up shoes to try and dry them out but nothing really worked. Just be prepared to be smelly, dirty and wet for most of the time you are trekking. The ladies with the porters had fresh clothes everyday but everyone else had 2 alternative tops and wore the same pants each day trekking.

When we finished for the day we would swim in our boardshorts and singlet and then change into our “camp” clothes that were not as dirty and we slept in those. By the end everything was just awful. I discovered a new pair of socks I hadn’t realised I had packed and even though my feet were not clean those socks felt like the best things every! It was like Christmas morning, to have a clean pair of socks. It made me appreciate the small things and how donating to those in need is so important. To get so much pleasure from such a small thing made me think of how I value the things in my life.

Day 7: Rafting back to Bukit Lawang!

We woke up and prepared to head for Bukit Lawang from our jungle trek in Sumatra Indonesia. We packed up and waited for the tube men to get to the camp. The cooks served us up our last breakfast and then lunch in the jungle. The tube men came and the guides organised all our bags into plastic bags so they were kept dry from the water and loaded us all on.

The cook was also our lead rafting guide! He was excellent and when our back guides bamboo pole broke he was able to keep us off the rocks in the rapids.

This was incredibly fun! The stresses and the dangers of the days trekking started to melt away and we went down the rapids. The cook was at the front of our raft and the young apprentice on the back. Both had a bamboo stick to push us off the rocks we hurtled toward…until the apprentices stick broke and he had half a stick left!

There was a guide on the side to help kick us off rocks. The rapids were really fast and there were moments of calm water where you could appreciate the jungle for the last time. It was like being on a jungle book ride at Disney World, completely surreal.

We got stuck!

Halfway down the river there was a massive tree that had come down in  a storm. We couldn’t climb over it so they guides wanted us to swim under. Mike led the way, a natural in the water he was fine. After watching a lady get stuck and have to be shoved back and forth a few times I started to panic!

Growing up on the Murray River my childhood was filled with river safety lessons and this was everything I had ever been taught not to do. I started to have a panic attack, there was no way I could handle that after seeing her being trapped under the log. The lady who dislocated her thumb couldn’t swim and she wasn’t prepared to go under either so we went over the hill through the jungle! Clambering down the hill and slipping into the water I was so glad to see the lady who had to be shoved under the tree. She was absolutely fine and had no idea I’d been so concerned!

We finished our rafting and landed back at the hotels. Unpacking our bags and making plans to meet up with the rest of the team later that night for a drink. We found our rooms and honestly I have never appreciated a shower, clean clothes and a comfortable bed more than in that moment!

My final thoughts –

If you have booked a trek into the Sumatra Indonesia jungle you probably have some idea of what it will be like in your mind. Honestly triple that. It was so so much more dangerous than I ever dreamed. However it was also one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I overcame so many limitations and fears, and learnt how much I can handle and how strong my relationship with Mike is. I experienced a natural and pristine environment like I have never seen before and met amazing people-our trekking group was filled with the most impressive group of people I think I have ever been a part of. The trekking staff were incredible! I learnt a lot about the jungle, how to be a part of it and about their culture and what was important to them.

Our awesome trekking group in  Sumatra Indonesia

I have always tried to be as environmentally conscious as possible throughout my life. This experience changed me in a way that I can’t forget. It made me appreciate all of the things that come so easy for us in our lives, the options and choices we have and how every choice we make can affect our environment, from recycling, wasting food and water use. If you are looking to experience a massive challenge, be swallowed up and overwhelmed by the denseness of the jungle this is for you. Just go in prepared for how extreme it is…if you let it, it will change you forever!

Beautiful Indonesian jungle

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