We were genuinely sorry to leave Bukit Lawang with our little turret of a room overlooking to river and the friendly guys that run the place. Like we’ve said, Bukit Lawang gets bad marks for being too touristy and putting too fine a polish on ‘nature’ with the semi-wild orangutans and well-trodden paths, but it would take a cold heart indeed that couldn’t find the charm in the simple little bungalow rooms with river views, hammocks and part-time electricity. We were finally on a timeline and had other dates with other places so we hefted our heavier-than-ever backpacks and struck out for the bus.
There are two ways to get from Bukit Lawang to Tangkahan. The first is on the back of a scooter driven by a local young man on unpaved, rutted roads through the jungle while clutching onto all your luggage for about two hours. The other is to take two long bus rides for a total of about 5 hours (not including wait time) with your bag comfortably stowed beneath the bus. After 10 minutes of hell on the back of a moto-taxi in Sulawasi with all of my stuff, I swore that I would never do that again. We took the bus.
It was a long, hot, bumpy slog and the last 30 unpaved minutes tried our sanity. We stepped off the bus into a dusty parking lot where we tried to orient ourselves. Eventually, we figured out that the hotels listed in our guidebook were all on the other side of the river, which is only accessible by a kind of floating raft on a cable. We hopped on with two middle aged ladies and a toddler (who helped out by steering the rudder) and were deposited on the other side. There was a bit of scrambling to figure out how to get up the hill to where the hotels were and quite a bit of wandering around to find the hotel that we actually wanted. When we finally found it, we were rewarded with a beautiful wooden bungalow with a giant deck overlooking the water, a couple of hammocks and a private bathroom, all for $15. It’s lucky that our room was so comfortable since there was absolutely nothing to do besides climb down to the river to splash around (not so attractive at our dusk arrival when the mosquitoes were just revving up for a night of finding pale skin to irritate. In fact, we were lucky that one of the hotels was actually still serving food. We ordered fried rice, which was just about our only option, then called it a night.
The room, the food, the home-made ferry, none of that mattered because we were in Tangkahan for one thing only: to frolic with elephants. Several years ago, some locals took it upon themselves to control looting and poaching in the forest by using elephants to patrol the interior of the jungle. Tourists found out about the operation and began coming to the base in Tangkahan to see the elephants in action. The locals fleshed out their operating budget by offering elephant treks for a modest price and allowing visitors to get up close with the elephants by helping scrub them at their daily morning bath. As the program became more popular, prices increased to the point that we could only afford to wash the elephants (for about $10 per person for about an hour). It was a very cool experience and great photo op, but I was a little troubled when I asked one of the mahouts(elephant trainers) where the elephants came from. I expected that they were rescues or descendants of working elephants from other parts of Sumatra, but he told me that when they conceived of the program, some guys from the village just went onto the jungle and caught some young elephants. Which, I guess was not considered poaching? Anyway, new additions to the pachyderm team are born into it- the program has one male and a whole harem of ladies and it is not unheard of for wild males to make their way to the riverside and donate their services to the gene pool.
After our hour of fun with the elephants, we had to head right back to our room to collect our bags and hightail it out of town. The bus schedule goes like: almost always there is a bus in the morning, but not on certain days, and then there is usually a bus in the afternoon, too, but no one really knows until it shows up, which sometimes it doesn’t. We didn’t have a day to spare in case the afternoon bus didn’t show (the ‘almost-always’ morning bus left during our frolic hour) so our options were to take a motorbike taxi (again with the bumpy road and teenage drivers and me having waay to big a backpack to make the two hour ride without soiling myself or just toppling right off the back). Miraculously, a guy knew a guy whose cousin was a driver who happened to be coming in from Medan with two tourists. Since the trip was already paid for by the tourists and we were just catching an otherwise empty car on its return trip, we could hitch a ride for a small fee. This turned out to be awesome. The driver was reluctant to talk price and we ended up getting in the car without settling on a price (usually a big no-no), but he told us that the price wouldn’t be a problem and indicated that basically whatever we chose to give him would be fine. We ended up paying him what we would have paid two motortaxi drivers (about $10 between the two of us) for comparative luxury (a vehicle small enough to actually go around potholes, AC, and a non-stop ride to our destination).
The fun stopped when we got to the bus station along the highway where we were to catch a bus heading north to Banda Ache. We had it in our heads that buses from Medan to Banda Ache would be passing by at least hourly. We didn’t count on the fact that most were express buses and the ones that weren’t were often full by the time they got to us. We must have waited for almost four hours in a bus station that had nothing going on except a fruit stand and one young local guy who took a liking to us. We tried chatting with the guy for a while, but our conversation ran out pretty quickly as he only speaks Indonesian. After there was nothing left to say, he just sat with us and watched us eat our fruit-stand apples. When the bus finally arrived, they found seats for us wedged in the back, right next to the ‘smoking section’, which was a row of seats closed off from the rest of the bus with plexi-glass. It was shockingly effective in keeping the smoke out of the main bus cabin, but we got a lot of foot traffic from people going in an out to smoke or use the toilet (also, smartly, in the sectioned off area).
Our bus arrived in Banda Ache in the very early hours of the morning. We figured that we’d just get in and go straight to the ferry for it’s first boat out to Pulau Weh, but we arrived before the sun came up and were told that boats didn’t start until about 8am. We were surrounded by taxi drivers and becak drivers from the second we stepped off the bus, but we decided to just wait for the sunrise at the bus station before heading into the city where we figured there would be nowhere for us to go to wait for the ferry. After about 45 minutes of fending off drivers, we finally negotiated a price to get into town and hopped in a becak with a very friendly Ache man who was delighted that we could speak a little bit of Indonesian. He taught us some words in the local Ache dialect and then dropped us off at a supposedly 24-hour internet cafe that was closed until 7am. We literally wandered the streets with our backpacks on until it started to rain, when we found a bubur (rice porridge) stand and had some breakfast. Finally, it was time to head to the marina and we ended up paying another becak driver about $1.50 to take the two of us to the ferry. We hadn’t slept since the night before last when we woke up early to see the elephants. Since then, we’d been traveling, usually by the seat of our pants, from the desolate little jungle village of Tangkahan to one of the slickest regional capitals in all of Indonesia. And we were heading to paradise.