Deep in the Sumatran Jungle

Deep in the Sumatran Jungle

A vibration rattles your entire body, a physical resonance mirroring the drone of the engine that fills the void left by the silence of the jungle.  The guide’s small orange-and-white dog sits alert on the bow, a thin length of nylon twine tied around his neck to signify ownership. Intently watching the gently swaying canopy, he embraces the role of chief monkey spotter with anthropomorphic passion and dedication.

For just under an hour, you relax on the wooden deck of the small sampan (boat) as you wind your way deeper into the South Sumatran rainforest, to the border of the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Guided expertly by Anton to where the river narrows and the boat can continue no further, you disembark onto a grassy bank and set off into the jungle by foot. As you stroll under snaking vines and sugar palms, the small orange-and-white dog races off in front, sniffing out any monkeys who might be up for a quick game of “I chase you, you run away”. Thankful that you packed your all-terrain flip flops, you slide gently off their rubber soles with the dark mud oozing between your toes. It’s much more humid here under the canopy, where tropical thunderstorms—heavier, louder and more violent than you’d ever imagined while hiding under your bedclothes as a terrified child—release their life-giving bounty. The rains evaporates so slowly over the course of the following day that your shirt becomes wet with sweat and your camera becomes useless with a fogged lens, even though you tried to hold it away from your body.

You brought a dry bag for the trip down river, but it’s so humid that there’s condensation on the inside of it, slowly seeping into the holes at the bottom of your phone. It’s blinking at you, but you can’t seem to turn it off. It’s obviously broken and you regret bringing it with you, but it’s far too late now.  You look down and see a small brown leech that’s just latched onto your shin. Covering the initial reflex to scream quite nicely, you casually try to flick it off with a small stick. When that doesn’t work, you ditch the stick as you feel a panicked gargle rising in your throat, disrupting the nonchalant expression of the intrepid surf explorer you’ve been so carefully cultivating the further away from medical assistance you drove. Four hours. Five hours. Six hours. Then an hour-long boat ride followed by a trek deep into the jungle, home of tigers, malaria, dengue and leeches.

But it’s cool, man.

You’ve borrowed the guide’s cigarette lighter ‘cos you’ve heard they hate fire, but as you hold it next to the wriggling leech, it actually just burns your skin and the leech just hangs right on, so you give up on that pretty quick, ‘cos it burns like fuck.

That’s it. Gritting your teeth and going slightly cross-eyed so you don’t have to look right at it, you dig the nail of your index finger in right next to the little sucker and scrape the flat of your nail down over it, flicking the leech away into the nether regions of the undergrowth. Surprised that it didn’t actually hurt at all to get the little guy off in the end, you wear the trickle of blood making its way down your leg with pride, an intrepid explorers’ badge of honor. You’re pretty sure the leech isn’t dead, but you don’t care.  You’re just quietly grateful you chose the boat trip with the 20-minute walk instead of the four hour epic as you stroll forward with a slight swagger, ‘cos you’re pretty much Lara Croft right now, while trying to stop your eyes from darting to every leaf that might be another leech waiting to get you.

Anton stops abruptly and reaches into his white rice sack, pulling out a handful of inner tubes and a tire pump. Handing them to you, you realise that you have to pump up your own tire to float down the river, and clumsily set to work. Sweating now more than ever, you’re stoked when your friend takes over and you can open up one of the beers that you brought with you for the float down. It’s not really that cold anymore, but you’re stoked for whoever had the brilliant idea to bring beers, but not that stoked that they forgot a bottle opener ‘cos using Anton’s lighter again is actually really breaking his lighter and really hurting your finger ‘cos you’re not really that good at opening beers with a lighter and it takes five goes to get the lid off.

Handing your extra belongings that you carried all the way through the jungle and didn’t use and your now wet-with-sweat clothes to Anton to carry back to the boat, you awkwardly clamber down the bank of the river with your tube under one arm and waving your beer around in the other hand, you get into the cool fresh water and do a kind-of hop-thing to land with your bum in the right place, without sticking yourself on the inflation valve, without overbalancing and without spilling your beer. Not so graceful, but you’re in. Result.

Then you look down and see that these tire thingies really don’t let you sit at a very flattering angle and you start feeling a bit self-conscious, but you cover that rolly softness of your belly with a bent arm so you don’t have to look at it and you’re away, drifting down the river that no one told you was a nursery for juvenile crocodiles, scraping your bum on the smooth rocks as you try and pass over rapids that looked way deeper on the approach, sipping on Bintang and scanning the treetops for the Siamang that you can hear whooping in the distance, wondering if this was how Jane Goodall did her exploring, ‘cos it should’ve been.

tubing

Cover by Rohit Tandon, inset by the author