The Gunung Leuser National Park is situated in the northern end of Sumatra, an island of western Indonesia. It forms an incredibly large and complex ecosystem with a biodiversity hardly found anywhere else on this planet anymore. Where on this planet do you have the chance to find wild elephants, rhinos, orangutans and tigers in one place? However, it suffers from rapid deforestation due to palm oil production, which makes it a rather high-priority destination if you still wish to enjoy its vast beauty (see the Rainforest Action Network for more info).
You will mainly hike through the Gunung Leuser National Park, the largest wilderness area in South-East Asia and an UNESCO world heritage area since 2004. It is further part of the tropical rain forest heritage of Sumatra, allowing for spectacular experiences in this fortunately still widely untouched nature.
The hike itself is a unique experience for several reasons:
- No trails are available and one totally has to rely on the guide to find the way through the jungle (mainly following former rebel trails).
- 4-6 porters accompany you and provide you with the most delicious hiking food you’ll ever get to taste (don’t forget to tip).
- You will not see ANYONE other than your party during the whole hike.
- The wilderness of the jungle and its inhabitants is just breathtaking.
- The river crossings are an adventure itself.
Gunung Leuser National Park – General Information
DAYS/NIGHTS: 8/7 – no hiking on the first day
TOTAL LENGTH: Nobody knows 😉 (our GPS ran out of battery eventually)
START – Finish: Hike from Kutacane to Bukit Lawang
SLEEPING FACILITIES: Bring your own sleeping bag and mattress. The guide and porters carry tarps to build a camp each night.
BEST TIME TO GO: Not possible during peak of the rainy season.
WHERE TO REGISTER: Entering the Gunung Leuser National Park is only possible with guide – We recommend ExpeditionJungle.
DIFFICULTY: Challenging hike, especially when it is humid. Depending on the weather and river conditions, a lot of climbing and descending trough slippery terrain involved.
IMPORTANT NOTES: Apart from hiking boots, bring RIVER SHOES! We do not recommend hiking sandals, since they don’t protect your toes and will slow you down (based on our own painful experience ;)). If you don’t have time to buy them in advance, contact ExpeditionJungle and they will do it for you. Put EVERYTHING in dry bags since you will basically walk (or swim) in a river for a few days. Bring some electrolyte solutions, you will sweat a lot thanks to the very humid and hot weather. Bukit Lawang, the final destination, is a nice little village with good food, clean hotels, and beautiful surroundings. It is definitely worth staying one or two more days to recover from the hike.
TRANSFER DAY: MEDAN TO KUTACANE – Already the transfer the Gunung Leuser National Park proved to be an adventure itself. We were picked up at 6 am and driven through the suburbs of Medan. In the middle of nowhere, we stopped and waited, and waited, and waited (Indonesian punctuality :)) until 4 other guys arrived. It turned out that our driver was our well-experienced guide and over 40 years old, whereas the other 4 were our porters carrying ALL our food during the hike. They were all super nice, although due to their very basic English skills and due to our lack of Indonesian language knowledge, conversation with the 4 porters was pretty difficult. Nevertheless, when they heard that I was vegetarian, they made an extra stop and bought a whole bag of tempeh, a famous soy based Indonesian dish.
We were then told that we are heading toward the starting point of our track into the Gunung Leuser National Park, a small Muslim village in Aceh where we would spend the night. To get there, it would take roughly the whole day. Great news for me who loves sitting in a car. Indeed, the ride was HORRIBLE. Very curvy roads, high temperature and humidity and NO air condition made us both feel sick in the car. Luckily, the landscape was already very beautiful and recompensed a bit for the upset stomach. In the far, we could even see the volcano “Mount Sinabung” surrounded by a black cloud of ash. In the early evening, just in time before I really would have had to throw up, we finally arrived.
We were to home-stay with friends of the guide. Again, an experience one should undergo oneself since it is difficult to describe everything there. For one, there were no real bathrooms. You could wash yourself with water coming from a water pipe lying around in the backyard. A small wood plate could be used as cover in case of some privacy needed for a shower or a pee. However, if you were planning on a “big one”, you had to walk out of the village to find a common “big toilet” with no running water. Chickens, goats and cats were just running freely around. Women were tending to the house chores, whereas in my impression, men were mainly smoking and talking :). Babies were looked after by their older siblings while they were crawling in the sand. Such a different world. Also, since it was a Muslim community, I was nicely asked to exchange my short hiking pants for long ones before arriving in the tiny village. Although none of the villagers spoke English, they were still very nice to us. They smiled a lot and offered sweet tea, snacks and cigarettes (cigarettes only for Basti, of course not to me, a woman). They invited us for dinner which was supper yummy and very cozy. We all sat together on the floor of the house (chairs and tables don’t exist there, apparently). To my great pleasure, we all ate with fingers – we just washed our hands beforehand with cold water which was given around in a small pot. Since we were guests, we had the privilege of sleeping on the floor inside a little hut while our guide and the 4 packers just slept outside in the front yard.
KUTACANE TO FORMER REBEL HUT – We had an early start the next morning and poor Basti was very tired since the air went out of his sleeping mat during the night and the heat and mosquitoes didn’t help either. After the excellent dinner the night before, the breakfast was somehow disappointing. Not regarding the taste, but the size! Only one sandwich per person. Though I am very little, I am very hungry in the morning. Apparently the German saying about “you should eat like an emperor in the morning” doesn’t apply to Indonesian culture. But we would learn a lot about the differences during the following days.
Already in the morning, it was crazy hot and humid. We didn’t need to walk for more than 10 minutes to be completely covered in sweat. For the first 2 hours, we followed the guide through a bushy green hill. Due to the heat it was so exhausting that we could only advance slowly. At some point, I thought I would faint. I started to see black dots and my vision began to blur and my only thought was “OH no, OH no, I won’t make it, the humidity is killing me! OH no, I have to abort the hike! The very embarrassing part of all of this was that Basti and I only carried our backpacks filled with clothes, sleeping mat and personal items. In contrast, the packers didn’t even have proper backpacks which distribute the weight comfortably over their body. No, they had old rice bags with two thin straps filled with all the food and that easily were heavier than 30 kg! Still, they were able to advance much faster than we did. We were forced to have a lot of little breaks to stop me from fainting :). Basti still took a lot of pictures of the spectacular surroundings, but my only thought was survival. When we finally reached our destination, an abandoned rebel hut (The Gunung Leuser National Park formed a excellent hiding place during the civil war), I just collapsed on my mattress and didn’t move anymore except for dinner. I was convinced that only rest could help me survive the next day.
ABANDONED REBEL HUT TO RIVER – After the long rest and awesome dinner, I felt great in the morning. Besides, the temperatures had cooled down a little. As a lovely surprise, we were awoken by coffee and pancakes. A dream comes true. Here again the huge differences between our culture and the Indonesian one. We, the Westerners, would usually try to carry as little food as possible – the lighter the better. So any experienced hiker would agree that dried fruits, nuts, oats, mashed potatoes, dried bread and cheese are common food during a hike. NOT here in Indonesia. Even in the middle of nowhere, they would cook real food! They carried more than 4 dozens of eggs, several bags of FRESH vegetables and fruits, some kilos of rice, FRESH milk and cheese, and so on. It was unbelievably heavy to carry. Anyway, I wouldn’t complain because it always tasted delicious. Unfortunately fresh drinkable water was not available around the hut, so we had to boil water from a old oil barrel. This was a bit disgusting since a lot of insects were swimming inside. Basti claimed later that this was the reason for his fever.
Before starting to walk, the guide wanted me to change in a shirt with long sleeves. First I thought he was out of his mind with this temperatures and humidity, but after a short while I understood. There was literally NO path we could follow. The guide had to cut through the small bushes and little trees with his machete to actually make a path. Incredible! For one, that he knew where to go and for the other, that he had the stamina to clear the bush and climb uphill. After some time, we arrived at a nice clearing with an amazing view around the area – a good spot for a photography session. Once out of the open and into the forest, we had to wait for the other 4 porters so that they wouldn’t get lost.
We still had to continue uphill. The atmosphere in the forest was magical. To my very liking, it started to rain a bit so that the temperature dropped further and chased away the headache. Unfortunately, Basti started to get cold and became feverish. When we stopped on top, he couldn’t really enjoy the great lunch (rice, vegetables and a fried egg on top). The rest of the afternoon we descended down the hill. It was very steep and often quite slippery due to the rain. I think everybody fell down several times and the curses echoed through the woods. Now we all looked so pretty, covered in all the mud ;).
In the early evening, to Bast´s relief, we finally reached the river where we would stay for the night. Some branches were still standing there forming the base of our “tent”. Our guide and packers reinforced it with more wood and put tarp around to build a shelter protecting us from the rain. It was fantastic! Next to them, we felt like “wannabe” hikers who didn’t know anything. This feeling only deepened when they didn’t allow us to help with anything – wood collecting, fire making, placing mattresses etc.
After serving a hot tea, we were allowed to rest in our sleeping bags and enjoy the rhythm of the rain dropping on the plastic roof. Our 4 porters again prepared a delicious meal (and smoked all of us with the fire made of wet wood ;)) and we chatted a bit before sleeping. Unfortunately, Basti really got sick with strong fever and we had to wrap him in several blankets and the porters prepared some fresh ginger tea. Unluckily for me, I had to give him the “good” mattress with air while I had to sleep on the airless one – #sad
ALONG THE RIVER: We had a promising start in the day – no rain and also not so humid (we were also at higher elevation). In addition, we spotted a beautiful lizard after the first meters of walking. Today’s hike was mainly walking along or beside the river and countless river crossings – how the guide managed to find the right path over and over again remained again, a mystery to us. I also learned in the hard way why one should have brought “river shoes” – basically sneakers to protect your toes from hurting on the rocks beneath the water. Since I only had “hiking sandals”, I, for one, could only advance slowly and, for the other, bruised my toes a lot. Some river crossings were a bit crazy. We had to wade in the water hip-deep and almost fell several times-which was both funny and freezing cold at the same time. We also passed several little beautiful waterfalls which Basti took great pleasure in photographing.
During lunch break we learned that during the tsunami in 2010 and the subsequent flooding, our guide had been sent to Switzerland and stayed there several months. However, he admitted that he preferred living in Indonesia since the cleanliness of streets and houses scared him quite a bit. He couldn’t believe that one’s floor in the kitchen could be so clean that one could eat from it ;). Besides, he found it amazing that time tables for buses and trains actually worked. We had a good laugh about our two different cultures.
Later in the afternoon, when we came to a less deep section of the river, the guides found a “flying snake” sitting on one of the stones looming out of the water. During the day, we also marveled at the size of the plants growing in this area – it was spectacular. Standing next to them, we appeared like dwarfs. For dinner, we had a great surprise – some of the porters had been advancing a bit faster and waited with dinner for us. This day was a bit more relaxed than the first two, which gave us more time to soak up the amazing atmosphere of this untouched wilderness, unique to the Gunung Leuser ecosystem.
RIVER CROSSINGS: Basti’s fever had vanished in the morning and he was back to normal. Luckily, since this day proved to be quite exhausting in terms of river crossings. Due to the rain, the water level had risen and turned into a torrential river. As a result, at some spots, the river was too deep to be crossed normally by foot. Instead, several times the guide or packers “swam” to the other side (against the current!) to put a rope across it. We then had to cling to the rope and pull ourselves like little monkeys to the other side. It really looked easy when they showed us but turned out to be quite difficult once. Nevertheless, I it was one of the best adventures we had on this hike.
At some other spots, despite the hip-deep water level, we still tried to cross the river on foot. Of course, clumsy me fell several times, so that the current and my big backpack dragged me under water. One of the guides had to jump after me and rescue me since I couldn’t get out anymore myself. They found it hilarious that my only reaction to nearly drowning was a never-ending laugh attack (But I guess everybody who knows me has already witnessed one of those :)). The whole day consisted of river crossings and we were literally soaked in water the whole day. Hence, we only had short breaks in between right on the river bank in order not to get too cold and to get rid of the leeches that constantly attacked us. Despite the rain, the guys were able to make a big fire where we could warm up with hot tea. Since Basti was feeling better, we took advantage of a rain break in the evening and did a little night excursion to look for all kind of exotic animals of the Gunung Leuser ecosystem. We found several frogs, spiders, moths and all kind of other critters. It was really impressive.
FURTHER ALONG THE RIVER: In the morning, we were already a bit afraid of another day of river crossings and being constantly soaked in water. However, we were lucky and the sun came out shortly after we started walking. It was actually pretty warm. Today, the river was not so deep and wading through it turned out to be quite “easy”. Hence, we had more strength to admire our surroundings – the dense rain forest in all its shades of green. The Gunung Leuser ecosystem is truly a unique place.
During our lunch break, we even “swam” in the river to clean and refresh ourselves. In the meantime, a lot of colorful butterflies were gathering around our backpacks to enjoy our salty sweat. It was a lovely picture. At some point, it was so hot again that Basti just sat down in the middle of a small side river stream :). From there, it was only further 30 minutes to our overnight destination. It was the only day where we arrived early enough to still enjoy the sun and stroll around while our guides prepared everything for the night. A really great day! And the highlight for Basti was still to come – our guide found a big tarantula for him!
UP AND DOWN: Once we had finished packing our belongings, our guide told us that we had to deviate from the original route. Due to the high water, we could not walk along the river anymore, but had to climb over a mountain instead. Unsurprisingly, the climb turned out to be again very exhausting and steep. Luckily, we hiked right through the forest so we could hold on to little trees and branches on the very slippery spots. It is hard to believe what we found on our way up – a bright green viper holding on to a little twig right onto our path. I was really scared that it could attack me and I gave a wide berth around it. Of course, Basti found it rather attractive than scary. He approached so closely to take photographs that I nearly got a heart attack.
On top of the hill, we had a well earned and very delicious lunch. We were tired but super happy. What followed was a never-ending difficult descent to the river. At some point, Basti was so upset I thought he would just refuse to move any further. (It was on this part of the hike that I tripped over and fell into a thorny plant. These very thorns let to a surgery due to an infected index finger and a hospital stay a few weeks after we came back home. So be careful, the plants in Gunung Leuser are very dangerous and try to avoid touching them!). After countless times of stumbling over roots and muddy stones, we finally arrived again at the river which we had to follow for another 90 minutes. Suddenly, it started raining so heavily that the porters just sprinted away to reach the overnight place before us to set everything up.
It was again such a luxury! Once Basti and me lastly got there, the camp was already prepared, hot tea boiling and cookies waiting for us. Just awesome! Later, while making our bed, we found two more visitors – a beautiful stick insect and a big brown huntsmen spider! Basti was thrilled 🙂 and I thoroughly searched my sleeping bag to be sure that no more insects were hiding inside to cuddle with me during the night!
TO BUKIT LAWANG: The last morning was a bit sad since we knew we would finish our hike and would separate from our new friends. Despite the language barrier, we really enjoyed each other’s company and laughed a lot together.
We only had to walk a few hours to reach our final destination – Bukit Lawang. It was an easy walk. First again along the river (which was not deep at all here), then through some small villages and rubber plantations. The only difficulty was not to walk right into the big spider webs hanging along the path :). We also passed a orangutan conservation center/orphanage. Lots of them lots their parents due to poaching and ever faster approaching palm oil plantations. It is crazy how they climb through the trees, even when having a little baby one on their back. At a small playground in Bukit Lawang, our future driver was waiting with hot food and a big car for us. We had a final lunch together and then left to the guest house to have the first hot shower in over a week. Bukit Lawang is, though quite touristic, a really nice place to rest and relax after the hike. People are very friendly and the food is amazing – we can only recommend the special banana pancakes :)! The small town also serves as entrance point to the Gunung Leuser ecosystem. For the less adventurous the are plenty of organized day hikes available from several tour agencies in town.