As we checked into our flight from Krabi (beach capital of Thailand) to Medan (gateway to Sumatra), via Bangkok, the Air Asia check-in assistant looked a little blank. “You’re going where?” she queried. It looked like she had never heard of Medan, so I clarified. “Sumatra…” (nothing). “Indonesia?” She then pulled an expression that said “OK, you’re a bit weird”, and proceeded to check us in.
We had never heard of Medan either, until we booked a two week trip around Sumatra with gadventures, which started in this little-known city. When I looked up Medan on Tripadvisor, I read some reviews describing the city as “more polluted, chaotic and full of traffic than Jakarta” (joy), and saw that the number one ‘thing to do’ was the train which runs from the airport to the city centre. One review of the train, written in October 2017, read:
“This is unexpected of Medan. When I first got in, I was shocked and really happy that finally Medan had such clean transportation. Lol #nooffence.”
With this in mind, I didn’t have high expectations when we finally landed in Medan’s international airport.
While waiting for our bags, we spotted one blonde head of hair, and the one and only backpack that didn’t belong to us. When the blonde hair and the backpack belonged to the same girl, we made a stereotypical presumption that she might also be on our gadventures tour, so we decided to check and see whether she wanted to travel with us to our hotel in the city centre. The blonde hair and backpack belonged to Claire, an animated and excited Australian, and together we worked out that yes, we were on the same tour, and that at 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah (£8) for the three of us, sharing a taxi would be the cheapest way to get to the city centre. Unfortunately, this meant we missed out on Medan’s star attraction, but we did get our first taste of Indonesian driving conditions instead.
Later that night, we met the rest of our gadventures group. There were twelve of us altogether, plus our guide, Hendri. Shane was grateful not to be the only man this time, but ended up standing out anyway as the oldest member of the group. There were also two other couples, one of which had only recently met on a gadventures tour in Thailand over the previous two weeks, cementing the idea that travel really can be a great way to meet people if you are looking for a relationship!
After a brief tour of Medan’s highlights (a very extravagant Mosque and a less extravagant Palace), we took a bumpy, windy five-hour drive to the jungle paradise of Tangkahan. We had been pre-warned that our accommodation for the next few nights would be basic, with no wifi, hot water or air conditioning, and when we arrived we discovered that to get to it we would need to cross a river using a slightly wibbly-wobbly hanging bridge.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed the peace and quiet and getting up close and personal with nature. We swung around in hammocks, swam in the river and sang songs while Hendri played his guitar. We looked like an advert for typical nauseating, hippie, happy backpackers… until I tried to sleep and found giant ants in my bed and hair.
The next day we continued our jungle adventure by tubing down the nearby river. Shane and I have been tubing before in Laos so thought we knew what was involved: a relaxing ride down the river, right? Wrong. Tubing in Tangkahan was more extreme in every sense: from the good (making way for a herd of Sumatran elephants to walk up the path to the river), to the bad (taking our shoes off to wade through squishy mud on our way to a waterfall), to the terrifying (who doesn’t want some white water rapids with the odd shallow rock to go along with their tubing?!). Thankfully, we just about survived the experience and made it back to our jungle lodge in time to scramble into a few 4x4s for a bumpy journey through muddy roads to the next stop on our jungle tour: Bukit Lawang, the only home of wild orangutans outside of Borneo.
We woke up early to start our jungle trek and orangutan search, and despite being told our trek would follow a ‘trail’, it became clear that the trail was not well-trodden, or even particularly visible. This was not your typical forest walk – it was a very serious trek through the jungle, which involved climbing over trees, climbing through gaps, and sliding down muddy walls. It looked like a real life version of the Jungle Book: the most ‘jungly’ jungle I have ever seen.
It wasn’t long before we spotted two orangutans – a mother and baby swinging through the trees high above our heads. We craned our necks and glimpsed their orange fur amongst the green leaves, trying (and failing) to get a decent picture. While we continued to search for the best spot to get a good view, our guide beckoned us to follow him to another part of the jungle. He had found more orangutans, and this time they were much closer.
In total, we managed to spot nine orangutans in the jungle, as well as a handful of gibbons, dozens of thomas leaf monkeys, some macaques, a weird brown peacock (a ‘great argus’), and millions of mosquitoes. Trekking through the dense forest, falling in the mud and getting bitten to death had been well worth it. Unbelievably, the day got even better when we returned to the edge of the jungle and found an ‘ecolodge’ made entirely of bamboo, where we could sip a drink and take a nap in a hammock (or in my case, a swinging egg).
From the jungle at Bukit Lawang, we headed to Berastagi, a small town with a large fruit market, in order to climb the nearby Sibayak volcano. This involved waking up at 3.30am and hiking in the pitch black up steep, uneven paths which were covered with various obstacles, including giant overhanging branches that we couldn’t see, and the odd bees’ nest. With an incredible stroke of luck, we managed to arrive at the perfect time: an instant after the sun started to rise over the surrounding mountains below us and around half an hour before we, and everything around us, were covered in a blanket of cloud and mist. As well as the view of our surroundings and the crater, we also got to see some live volcanic activity! Like the tubing and the jungle trek, a walk up such a steep path in the dark to the top of a volcano would never be on offer at home on the (admittedly, legitimate) grounds of risk to health and safety, so though these weren’t experiences I’d repeat, it was interesting to well and truly get ‘off the beaten path’.
On our last few days in Sumatra we travelled South and West, stopping at the beautiful volcanic Lake Toba, and Samosir ‘island within an island’, where we swam in the clear, fresh water, sampled the local nightlife, explored a real-life cannibal village and continued to bond with the rest of our group. We were starting to grow attached to many of the characters, especially Intisar who lived in Ealing, not far from my home town of Harrow, who hilariously stole Shane’s camera for a while (after he stole her shoe), Dr Georgina from the Netherlands, who unfortunately didn’t get much of a holiday as she was constantly called upon to solve various medical issues, and the most mature and sensible member of the group (despite being the youngest), Petra from Germany, who looked at us in disbelief when we visited KFC and ate the chicken using our hands instead of cutlery.
As the trip continued, the good luck which had helped us to spot nine orangutans in the jungle and catch a beautiful sunrise over Mount Sibayak seemed to evaporate. First, four members of the group realised they had had money stolen from a hotel room. In the case of Mollie and Carlos (one of the couples), it had been a very large amount of money, and neither the local Police nor their insurance company were particularly helpful. Then to make matters worse, Mollie sprained her ankle badly and had to miss out on several of the later trips.
Unfortunately, the new run of bad luck found me too.
One night, we were delighted to find a restaurant that served something other than the Indonesian staple (‘nasi goreng’, or fried rice). I excitedly ordered a Mexican burrito, but as I started munching away, felt that something wasn’t right. My burrito consisted of a large tortilla wrap, some chicken cooked in a tomato sauce, and lots and lots of hard, presumably undercooked beans. I did my best to eat it, but then started to feel a tingly sensation in my throat.
I suffer from a mild peanut allergy. When I eat peanuts, or bits of peanut (though food that has been in contact with peanuts seems to be OK), I usually get a tingling sensation in my throat and lips, and sometimes a slightly swollen and red face. As the tingling sensation I experienced when I ate the burrito felt a lot like the beginning of the peanut allergy symptoms, I stopped eating and tried to find out the cause. “Are there peanuts in here?”, I asked Shane, but he couldn’t see any. “The beans aren’t actually peanuts, are they?” I asked. He didn’t think so, but then Hendri stepped in. “Yep, those are peanuts,” he said, eating one just to make sure.
Shane rushed off to get me something else to eat and drink to take away any remnants of the peanuts, while I looked at my plate in wonder. “Who puts peanuts in a burrito?” I asked, to no one in particular.
It seemed as though I’d escaped the worst of any peanut-allergy-symptoms, and I went to bed happily.
Then, at 2am, I woke up with some serious vomiting and diarrhoea. Often at the same time. Morning came, and it wasn’t stopping. While Shane went out to explore the surrounding town of Bukittingi, I crept from my bed, to the toilet, and back to my bed. When it came time to leave and board a bus to Padang, our last stop of the tour, Shane had to pack and carry my bag, and help me on to the bus. Dr Georgina prescribed a concoction of medicines, which helped, but didn’t stop me needing to ask the bus driver to stop in the middle of the journey so I could use one of the worst toilets I’ve seen so far on our trip (and definitely the worst since the Pamir Highway).
‘Toilet’ was in fact a rather loose description. Unfortunately I was too busy trying to use the thing to take a picture for this blog, but you will have to trust me when I say it was a tiny hole dug into the side of a wall. It didn’t resemble a toilet in any way. I tried to find some examples online, and let’s just say it was worse than anything I could find.
After suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea for too many hours to keep track of, my symptoms finally started to improve, and I was able to sleep. The next day, I stayed in bed to rest, recover and eventually ate my first ‘meal’ in 48 hours (a delicious digestive biscuit, which I’d kept with me since England just in case the need for one should arise), while Shane went off to explore the beautiful beaches of Padang and the surrounding islands. He helpfully informed me that these were the best beaches he’s seen so far on our trip, with long stretches of empty white sand, crystal blue water, a myriad of marine species (snorkellers saw cuttlefish, lobster and a variety of other creatures) and absolutely no other tourists whatsoever.
I’ll have to take his word for it.
On our final morning we said goodbye to our group, many of whom were off on another gadventures tour around Java and Bali, while we prepared to fly to Kuala Lumpur.
Sumatra is truly an adventurer’s paradise, which is barely touched by tourism. White-water-tubing, exploratory jungle treks and empty pristine beaches are all par for the course. Unfortunately, so are plentiful mosquitoes, questionable toilet facilities, lax health and safety standards and bizarre burrito ingredients. We were lucky to explore Sumatra with our gadventures group, who gave us support, laughter and all-important medication when we needed it, and made Sumatra a ‘challenging’ rather than ‘impossible’ destination to navigate.
For more on the benefits of independent vs group travel, see our blog post: what sort of travel is right for me?