Tangkahan is a remote village in Northern Sumatra where you have the opportunity to sleep in the jungle with the ‘big five’ of Indonesia – the Sumatran elephant, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Sumatran orangutan, and the clouded leopard.
There were only two ways to access my bed for the night at my jungle accommodation. One was by fording a river by elephant and the other was via a high swing bridge linking Tangkahan Village with the deep jungle. I chose the elephant. As I climbed the tall staircase to a hanging platform, I felt both excited and nervous to see my elephant and mahout (elephant keeper) ambling towards me. The elephant moved very slowly and gracefully, which calmed my nerves a little. After clambering on the sturdy padded made-to-measure bench on the elephant, I hung on tight as my elephant started its walk.
Meeting the Mahout
From my lofty position, I could see the tops of some of the lower trees as we entered the forest. I breathed in the pure air and was cooled by the water droplets falling from the giant tree ferns we brushed past. I soon felt energized and alive. Here I was, deep in the jungle in Northern Sumatra. My mahout rode bareback, straddling the large fan-shaped ears which regularly flapped and kept time with the deep, low sounds that emerged from my elephant’s chest. She was quite a chatty elephant and I loved listening to her language.
“This elephant is 46 years old,” my mahout said, “She trumpets quite regularly – especially when a wild elephant calls from the forest asking for a date, but she is not interested in sex at all. So she tells him in her loud manner that it’s ‘game-off’.”
As we made our way to the river, I received a fascinating running commentary on the variety of medicinal plants we passed along the way. “Here, smell this one, its Siri Kayu or eucalyptus. Used for mosquito repellant and colds”, and on it went.
Part of me was fascinated with this botanical mini-lecture and the other part of me was focused on the challenging terrain before me. I was amazed that the huge feet of my elephant could so readily negotiate the tricky narrow trail, which would rise steeply only to then descend for 45 degrees to some tiny stream before rising sharply again. My mahout casually told me, “Oh sometimes, when it’s a bit wetter, she decides to slide down this part”, and I held on just that bit tighter.
The River Crossing
It was at this point, however, that I realized just how exciting this venture into the jungle really was. Sliding with an elephant – just the thought of it made me feel like I was taking on the world. Next, we crossed the river, which flowed very swiftly around the elephant’s legs, next reaching up to her belly, until soon it seemed only her floppy ears were visible.
“Elephant riding income is what helps feed the 13 elephants that we care for and it pays their health care bills. These are rescued elephants. Some were maimed (by illegal hunters), some were orphaned and some were rescued from inhumane treatment in work camps. Elephant riding is our best source of income and, without it, how would we survive?”
Decisions about raising funds through offering elephant rides (which can get negative press but is conducted with great care here) and about other conservation efforts and strategies are carefully considered and implemented by The Conservation Response Unit (CRU) in conjunction with local communities and NGO’s, including some grassroots organisations.
RAW Wildlife Encounters
One of these independent organisations is RAW Wildlife Encounters whose director, Jessica McKelson, long ago fell in love with the village of Tangkahan and its people. She decided to work with the local villagers to find a way for them to make a living that was both sustainable and legal. At that time, thirteen years ago, the village’s tourism potential was untapped. Over the years, RAW Wildlife Encounters has helped to develop a variety of sustainable community and conservation programs to support Tangkahan’s development as an ecotourism destination.
A new programme sends out team patrols to monitor the buffer zone around the Tangkahan forests, which borders the Gunung Leuser National Park. This includes visits to four communities. One activity is to remove snares from the community side of the National Park and educate the villages on alternative livelihood practices. The ranger team of 10 men from Tangkahan acts as role models for other communities addressing conservation and sustainable living.
“I am so passionate about working with the local community here,” Jessica said, “These people I now call family, and I am thrilled to watch their hard work pay off. They are finally getting the support they desperately need for their community and to protect these critically endangered ecosystems that they so deeply care for”.
Another way to get intimate with the jungle environment and explore nature at its most pristine is to go river tubing. This involves being carried along on five tubes tied together with rope. You sit yourself in a comfortable rope cradle strung across the inner tubes and bounce merrily down the river at a very exciting pace, now and again taking on a few rapids.
“I made this oar from forest bamboo,” our boatman told us proudly, “You sit back for the ride and relax. Let me show you our beautiful jungle. I steer from the back here,” and off we went, soaking in the jungle river vibes. The Buluh River is perfect for tubing, as it’s flat, with just a very few rapids and flows with a swift current. “Tiger footprints were spotted just over there on the riverbank,” the boatman pointed out, “That was only two weeks ago. Many of the villagers spot the tigers regularly. I personally have not seen one, but I am told they come down to the river to drink and then they quickly retreat into the jungle – but they are here. We all get excited when we hear of a sighting,” he said with a wide smile.
Just knowing I was sharing this space with wild tigers was enough for me but, as we cruised smoothly down a flat section of the river, we also sighted orangutan nests high in the trees. Orangutans make a new nest every night and then move on. These huge hairy jungle primates are a common sight around the buffer zone of Tangkahan and are also found in the adjoining Gunung Leuser National Park. If one or more is in close proximity to the lodge, word spreads quickly as the rangers and guides are in constant phone contact, so there is a good chance you will see wild orangutans.
After floating down the river for 30 minutes, we were in for our next highlight. We tied our tubes to a tree and walked up a shallow river to arrive at our picnic spot at a waterfall. Somehow, by divine magic, when we entered the waterfall area, a beautiful picnic setting had been laid out, complete with red hibiscus flowers in a tall shrine-like tower and a delicious array of local food including a rich tomato eggplant dish, hot rice, marinated tempeh and spicy chicken.
Deep in the jungles of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a pristine forest environment awaits you. Run away, explore and soak in the pure pleasure of a gentle place with a local community who cares about the future of the forest.
The Five Senses
Sounds – At dawn, you can hear the shrill hooting call of the gibbons across the jungle canopy. This signifies territorial ownership and it’s a way of warning other gibbons to stay out of their territory and away from their particular source of food (local fruit trees). Gibbons co-exist in family groups and live in old-growth rainforests. The calls last around thirty minutes and are usually started by the adult female.
Feel – Elephants are very social and love to play in the water. The elephant washing activity at Tangkahan is an opportunity to feel what it is like to be kissed on the cheek by an elephant. They are very affectionate and gentle and, with their mahout nearby, you have no need to worry about anything. However, do watch your feet. If a baby elephant steps on your toes it hurts, and they are super playful – and a little clumsy.
Sight – As I sat at a little wooden table in front of the tourist office in Tangkahan, perched high above the river, a magical moment unfolded. Two elephants came into view, ridden by their mahouts. They graciously glided through the emerald green water carrying an air of poise and elegance with them. The relationship between an elephant and his keeper is one based on mutual trust and a special bond that is formed over time, involving strong emotional ties on both sides.
Touch – A baby elephant’s skin is bristly and tough, and elephant washing is one way to get closer to these wonderful animals. Elephants love contact. They allow you to scrub their backs, legs and tummy and the older elephants like to roll over and spray water out of their trunks. They will also shower you if their mahout asks them to. It’s one of the best showers you will ever have. They wait, seemingly aware of your anticipation, and then let you have it.
Story by Stephanie Brookes. Photos by David Metcalf.
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author –“Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage; Cultural Journeys of Discovery”
David Metcalf is a photographer and runs cultural photography tours in Bali, Kalimantan, Toraja, Mongolia, Alaska, Japan and Vietnam
HOTEL – Gateway City Medan, Sumatra
Santika Premiere Dyandra Hotel
The 4-star Santika Premiere Dyandra Hotel & Convention Hotel is centrally located in Medan. The vibe is friendly but also professional, and a full concierge service is offered. It’s a smart hotel with a gorgeous swimming pool, free welcome drinks in the lobby, free newspapers delivered to your door and a great indoor/outdoor café – Singapore Kopitiam style. The Benteng Restaurant serves Medanese local cuisine, reflecting the six Batak cultures of Sumatra and has a fabulous intercontinental and international menu.
Raw Wildlife Encounters – Contact: Jessica McKelson for accommodation, tours, conservation, and community programmes.
https://www.facebook.com/rawildlife – Facebook and Instagram
The Tangkahan Effect – animal welfare and conservation initiatives in Tangkahan
Local Community Tour Operator of Tangkahan (CTO)
Contact Person: Wiwan / Darwin / Rilly / (Sales & Marketing CTO)
Mobile: +62 813 6142 3245, +62 852 7560 5865
How to Get There – Garuda fly daily into Medan from major Indonesian cities. It is 3. 5 hours from Medan to Tangkahan by road.