Words by Stephanie Brookes – Photos by David Metcalf
Tangkahan is a remote village in northern Sumatra where you can sleep in the jungle that the Sumatran elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, orangutan and clouded leopard call home.
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 tightly as my elephant started its walk.
From my lofty position I could see the tops of lower trees as we entered the forest, and as I breathed in the pure air I was cooled by the water droplets falling from the giant tree ferns we brushed past. I soon felt energised and alive here, 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. 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 repellent 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 at a 45˚ angle 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 more tightly.
It was at this point, however, that I realised 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,” my mahout explained. “These are rescue 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 is conducted with great care here) and other conservation efforts and strategies are carefully considered and implemented by the Conservation Response Unit (CRU) in conjunction with local communities and NGOs, including
some grass-roots organisations.
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, 13 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 programmes 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 act 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 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 are 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 tempe 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 that cares about the future of the forest.
5 Senses – Sight MAHOUTS
As I sat at a little wooden table in front of the tourist office in Tangkahan, perched high above the river, a magical momentunfolded. 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 its keeper is one based on mutual trust and a special bond that is formed over time, involving strong emotional ties on both sides.
5 Senses – Sounds GIBBONS
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 rainforest. The calls last around 30 minutes and are usually started by the adult female.
5 Senses – Touch ELEPHANT WASHING
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.