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Laying some Groundwork in Sumatra’s Hadabuan Hills.

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Camp palm oil

Camp palm oil

We woke up around 6:30am after a night of “tuak” or “palm wine” at the edge of a vast palm oil plantation, right on the side of the cliff, in fact, that dropped down to a river that was backed by yet more palm oil. And beyond that plantation below us, way out in the distance, were mountains covered in primary rain forest, among them the “Hadabuan Hills,” which translates to something like “Falling down hill,” our target for the next day. But our present location did not seem like the kind of place one would visit if one was looking for wildlife. After all, the Rantau Prapat district of North Sumatra province is basically one giant carpet of palm oil plantations. That is, until you reach the starfish-shaped massif that juts up from the sea of agriculture like a lodestone beckoning those in search of nature. I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down to the river below, and then I saw a family of Long-tailed macaques hunting in the river for crabs and other meals. Moments later I heard something crashing around in the palm oil to my right and lo and behold another macaque was staring right at me. Could there be wildlife in the palm oil plantations?

Long-tailed macaques hunt along the river's edge in Rantau Prapat province.

Long-tailed macaques hunt along the river’s edge in Rantau Prapat province.

In an hour we were in an old jacked-up Daihatsu 4×4 riding through yet more palm oil and finally we arrived at the last village. According to Mr. Haray Sampurna Munthe, leader of the Bukit Barisan Sumatran Tigers -a local Indonesian NGO- only one foreigner had ever been here before, Mr. Phil Davis of Tiger Awareness. This was evident in the reception we received, with virtually every man, woman and child emerging from their homes to have a look at the group of four “Bule’s” or “foreigners” who had just jumped off the pickup truck.       We had to switch to another even more dilapidated truck to take us to the trail head, but when the driver cut the engine were were almost immediately greeted by the sound of a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills calling from the Hadabuan Hills. I always take hornbills as an auspicious sign on my treks, be it in Cambodia, Thailand, or Indonesia. A few minutes later we were on our way up the mountain when yet another auspicious signal greeted us: Siamang Gibbons calling from the same hills…!

The Hadabuan Hills area of Rantau Prabat province, Sumatra.

The Hadabuan Hills area of Rantau Prabat province, Sumatra.

We were treated to Rhinoceros Hornbills and Siamang Gibbons calling from the hills for the entire 1-hour walk up to the camp site. Our new campground featured a tree house platform built about 15 meters off the ground. The views from the top are simply stupendous. I tried to sleep up there but with the breeze I felt too cold and had to make my way down the tall, rickety ladder at 2am with only the moonlight to illuminate the rungs. I didn’t sleep well in my tent but that meant that I was back up in the tree house by 6am waiting for gibbons to call. White-handed gibbons began the morning chorus, but only one Siamang added the occasional lonely hoot. As I stared out over the mountains onto the mixture of forested hills and patches of palm oil that made up the misty lowlands coming to life beneath a beautiful sunrise, I tried to imagine what Sumatra was like 50-100 years ago before the lowland forests were annihilated and replaced by monoculture plantations. I envisioned a huge island of steaming jungles running from north to south and from east to west, blanketed in forest from the tops of the peaks all the way down to the mangroves on the coast. Every morning, the entire island came to life with the calling of millions of gibbons and hornbills, a nature cacophony like nothing else the world has ever known and will ever know again: White-handed gibbons with their mournful yet delirious wails; Siamang gibbons with their ear-splitting hoots and manic cries; Helmeted Hornbills  with their mocking cackles; and so much more.

Tree house platform on the top of Hadabuan Hill. Climbing up it is not for the faint of heart.

Tree house platform on the top of Hadabuan Hill. Climbing up it is not for the faint of heart.

We were in search of what remained of that natural wonderland, to see what kind of undocumented fragments still existed in this forgotten corner of Sumatra where not a single international NGO had any presence. I also had 5 Reconyx camera-traps with me, and after a breakfast of plain white rice and coffee we were on our way.

This unnamed valley might look beautiful at first glance, but look more closely and you'll see that the bottom portions of those mountains have been carved up by palm oil plantations -the curse of the curse of the tropics extends its reach into the most remote corners of Sumatra.

This unnamed valley might look beautiful at first glance, but look more closely and you’ll see that the bottom portions of those mountains have been carved up by palm oil plantations -the curse of the tropics extends its reach into the most remote corners of Sumatra.

Argus pheasants, Rhinoceros Hornbills, Oriental Pied Hornbills, White-handed gibbons, and Siamang gibbons called throughout the morning and afternoon–all good signs of a healthy forest ecosystem despite the agricultural encroachment on the lower slopes of the hills. We were now trekking along the mountain ridges, which usually form natural trails favored not only by humans but also Sumatran tigers and tapirs-both of which have been camera-trapped by Haray with cameras donated to him by Mr. Phil Davis. As for the tigers, Haray estimates there about 17 in the area, and there are enough Tapirs that my friend Kurt Johnson and I chipped into to have a fence built around a rubber plantation late last year because a farmer was threatening to poison the animals because they enjoyed raiding his farm to dig up rubber seeds.

The fence we paid to have installed to keep Tapirs out.

The fence we paid to have installed to keep Tapirs out.

We trekked until about 4pm and made camp on a rare chunk of spacious flatland. There was, however, no real water source here and all of our bottles were empty and our mouths parched. The answer came in the form of a rain shower. Speaking of showers, I was afraid that we wouldn’t be having one for a few days. The rain came down so hard that Dr. Andreas Neunert and I got the idea that we could simply shower in the rain, and that’s exactly what we did. One of guides, Mr. Raja Rambers, a university student in Medan and a volunteer with Bukit Barisan Sumatran Tigers, informed us that this was called Mandihujan or “showering when it rains.” I enjoyed every minute of our mandihujan, which included using soup bowls to scoop water off the roofs of the tarp to help rinse off. We even drank some of that tarp water, and we never felt sick.

The "Bule" portion of our team plus Mr. Haray.

The “Bule” portion of our team plus Mr. Haray.

The next day saw some tough trekking, with a lot of steep uphill bushwhacking along ridge lines that hadn’t seen a human visitor in quite some time. At one of the most difficult uphill stretches we came very close to a troupe of Siamangs-which the locals call “black gibbons”- singing very close by. They sang loudly and joyously until they saw us. But at least we saw them too! All of our team caught a glimpse of the Siamangs making a brachiating escape away from this strange group of human intruders. They went silent after that, though I could still hear another family calling from across the valley. They cry out with such abandon and delirium that, despite whatever the experts say, I believe that gibbons sing for the pure joy of it, for the fun of it, in a celebration of life.

Haray Sampurna Munthe

Haray Sampurna Munthe

Shortly after arriving at the top of a steep, narrow mountain ridge, we got pinned down by a sudden and very cold rain storm. The guides threw the tarp up over us and we got it tied to the trees for safety. We decided to set up camp right there for the night. With the weather seeming to have taken bad turn over the past 12 hours or so, with the food having run out, and the with trail disappearing ahead, it was decided that the next day we would explore a “short cut” down the side of the mountain that we were now on and try to make it down to the plantations, where a road would lead us back to the village. No one among us had ever tried this before so it was terra incognita for all of us and maybe all but a handful of the very most determined poachers.

We came down from the mountains in the distance.

We came down from the mountains in the distance.

The going was slow, steep, slippery, and a bit dangerous, but we all made it down in one piece. We saw gibbons again, and judging by their size I would say there were White-handed gibbons, not Siamangs. At the sight of us they remained silent. In the same area I watched two Rhinoceros Hornbills fly straight out from their high perches to some other safe place. It was a vision of paradise for me: two huge black-feathered birds with bizarrely long, curving yellow beaks with a red upturned hook on the top that gives them the name “Rhinoceros.” We had stumbled upon a secret hideout, a remote fastness, where gibbons and hornbills came to rest in the afternoon -a place we and other humans didn’t belong! A stream trickled down the drainage and formed small pools and waterfalls in areas. We stopped at one of these to cook lunch, and named the stream the “Bule River.”

Out through palm oil.

Out through palm oil.

At around 4:30pm we finally found our way to the bottom of the valley and came upon the first signs of man: a deforested hillside, banana plantations, and soon enough, palm oil. We will be keeping in touch with Mr. Haray and we have high hopes for what our camera traps might turn up in the mysterious Hadabuan Hills!

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