All Around the Mulberry Bush…

by Will Sanders on September 23rd, 2010

So, anyone ever ran for their lives down and up part of a mountain in the jungle from a wild and batshit crazy primate?  Sure, sure.  did it a month back.  Here goes:

Two months have seen me on three new islands, well, two new islands and Sumtra.  Sumatra is an old friend of mine, the first glimpse I ever had of the paradise I have called home this past year and change. The start of a life that I really am really coming to dig.

And this time in Sumatra was so special.  Of all the great trips I have done in Asia this was my new favorite.  I went with two of the most wonderful people I ever had the glowing privilage of gigling with.  The tallest and shortest of all smiling Australian girls, the great Annie and the great Tabi are both former teachers in Surabaya.  Annie sat next to me in the teachers room for my first 6 months in Indo and employed me as bordom relief, a job I preformed with aplum.  And Tabi who is back after some sad, sad times still smiling and trying to figure things out, poor old thing.  She is a powerball of wonderful and makes everysingle room a little bit more fun.

It seemed to me that my lungs were not working the way they should, day two of climbing up mud cliffs along mountain passes in the jungle was causing me to gasp and weez, and for some damn reason I couldn’t feel my feet.  Asthma, cheese burgers, and whatever else, but glad to say I quit smoking five months ago and still going.  But for whatever reason I was in a bad way with the climbing.  A sweaty mess.

So I tried to stay in the lead with the Indo guide, a strong stone faced man who looked 15 years younger than the truth, patiently introducing me to a limitless pharmacy in the different leaves and tree bark and dirt of the jungle.  This one for malaria, that one for snake bites, sap that makes rubber, cloves from clove cigerettes, nutmeg, asprin all here hanging from vines, you name it.

For an hour we had been ascending the spine of a great dragon of a ridge.  Had the ridge not been covered with thick jungle trees and brushon all sides it would have been a horrific fall into nothing a few feet away on either side, but the canopy nicely hid the distance down along with the distance up to the top of the ridge which was still in need of climbing, niether of which you really wanted to know anyway, if you know what I mean.  So up and up we went.  And like the little engine that could I think I can I think I can.

The Danishcouple had taken forever to get ready, then a long lazy breakfast, then a 30 minute conversation with the travel agent about onward transport.  The stone face guide told me in a sort of hush that we wouldn’t be seeing many animals in the jungle as they are usually doing their thing in the morning, which was a bummer.  She actually didn’t carry a bag, her poor boyfriend (an enormously cool guy) labored under a huge bag for two as she hoped around like a gezel snapping photos.  And sure enough, we hadn’t seen much in the way of anything.  We had a far away glimpse of an oranutan which could sort of be made out by squinting, and at lunch a whole troup of Thomas leaf monkeys invaded our area to steal fruit.  The stone faced guide was very angry at the other group of trekers for allowing their fruit to be stolen.  His point was that normally these monkeys would be too scared to come anywhere near us, but lately they have become braver and braver with the snatch and grabs from tourists.  The stone faced indo guide had grown up in these jungles, he told us those monkeys were less and less able to do for themselves now that they could swoop down and grab goodies.

The stone faced Indo guide had a gaping gash on his leg from a run in with Mena, the worlds most dangerous orangutan.

Near the foot of the jungle is an orangutan rehabilitation center.  All the fucked up orangutans come here, some from bad zoos, some had been kept as pets as babies and discarded when full grown for obvious reason.  It was a half way house on the jungle edge for orangutans ruined by people.  And like a half way house they are hopefully returned to the jungle when they are ready.  But also like a half way house a lot of them seem to get too into the daily feedings and spend the rest of their life at the rehab center living off the rehab dole, shiftless hopeless oranutans hanging around without any hope of taking care of themselves like monkey whinos, each with a hard luck story, each with the same tired sad ape face.  They have one who was there since 1989.  A lifer for sure, they figure.  A wild, majestic creature so messed up by people that he just can’t hack it back in the wild.

Mena was one such orangutan.  She was a single mother, (daddy ran off into the brush, claiming he would be right back after buying a pack of smokes and a banana) so after having been subject to mistreating zoo handlers she wound up at the rehab center, not an unusual story.  What was unusual was that she left on her own.  Usually, the rangers assess the progress of the animal and once ready they capture and release back into the jungle.  In Mena’s case she decided to pack up the kid on her back and make for the woods.  Since then she has become famous in the hills of Bukit Lawang for brutal attacks against tourists.  If the tourists don’t make with the free food she is known to jump and chomp on backpackers.  Mena’s rein of terror on backpackers has made it’s way to warnings in mulitple guide books.  It is completely unlike typical orangutan behavior.  Imagine if koala bears were giant orange apes, tree dwelling recluses who do not socialize with other orangutans and pretty much dig doing their thing and being left alone.  They are a reculive bunch indeed.  But, in rebellious defiance of all preexisting orangutan protacal, Mena is waging war on all humanity.  She figures after the hard life she has had, folks owe her a banana and she ain’t afraid to resort to violence to meet this end.  This is her Jungle, and the other hundreds of orangutans are happy to hide, tolerating occasional glimpses from the ground, Mena takes her fight to the man, her rage and thirst for revenge resulting in a war waged against the hateful humans.  Gorilla warfare, (pun intended.)

Hence the gash from one week previous on the stone faced Indo guide.  And I mean you could see the deep teeth marks, many were infected and aweful.  The stone faced Indo guide had had to get between Mena and a hapless backpacker, Mena sank her teeth into the guides leg and he started punching her in the face till she let go and ran off.  No shit, this guy can fight orangutans, AND WIN!!!!

So an odd pair we made, he and I.  Me gasping for air and wheezing, and Indonesian orangutan Dundee trucking along this ridge, the front of the line.  Behind us somewhere were Tabi and Annie, a couple from Denmark, and a super nice 19 year old German kid out for a post highschool pre college world wide gap year.

Orangutan Dundee (the stone faced guide) was letting me take the lead, pitty I guess.  And I remember pushing some trees aside, and


I would guess about 8 feet away, sitting dead in the middle of the trail was a full grown orangutan female with a baby.  The stone faced guide was having none of it.  He screamed frantically for me to run, and he was screaming it in Indonesian, fear forcing the English from his vocabulary.  We ran back down the hill, and over my shoulder I could see the orangutan following.  Following at an effortless clip, us running as fast as we could, jumping from steep drop offs down trail to gain ground.

Here we come barraling out of the puckerbrush hollering to run.  Everyone runs.  After a short time we all duck behind a giant tree with roots half as tall as a person sticking out of the ground, the roots covered with giant nature channel ants like every single thing else in any self respecting rain forest.  Thick clouds of mosquitos buzzing along with the scream of the birds and monkeys and insects faded into silence, all of us huffing and puffing.

Everyone wanted to know what had happened, and I blurted out what I had seen and how cool it was.  Now everyone else frowned at me.  The dude from Denmark said he sure would like to have seen an orangutan up close, and I feel like a jerk for bragging.  So I turn and advise my fellow hikers to direct their attention uphill, where anywhichwaybutloose was running at us full speed.

oh shit!

The stone faced guide hollers to run.  We run.  God we ran.  The German teen thinks it’s bullshit, it’s just an orangutan after all and clearly we are a bunch of sissies was his deal.  Have you SEEN the bite marks on that guys leg?  He shrugged and ran with the rest of us.

We stop just up the trail the orangutan did too.  The guide is so freaked out by now he can’t remember even rudimentary English.  Fear was an odd thing to see on his stone face which had been so stoic so far.  He must have been remembering the pain of the animals teeth, how could any of us possibly know what it feels like to fight a full grown ape hand to hand.  He explained frantically for us to go first, with which we all took issue.  No No No, he is going to throw bananas to apese Kong and then we run past, and we run like hell while the orangutan was distracted.  So the whole line ran past her, the trail was so narrow that my bare leg brushed against the corse orange ape hair.  And we ran.  We got to a sheer cliff and ran.  Everyone lost me, I was once again huffing and puffing for air.  The guide saw me and kept going up.  Now in my mind I was climbing for dear life.  Had the orangutan followed it would have jumped in seconds what had taken me minutes to climb.  I tried not to look down, hanging on from tree root to vine.  Climbing with everything I had, no people in sight above me and so far no orangutans below.  Half way up I wanted to stop, I wanted to give up, let the damn thing come, but I couldn’t.  In my mind I was a caveman running from a brontasauris.  And I could not give up.  And I made the top, where everyone hung around nervously.  We had made enough distance we figured, and Indo Dundee had thrown plenty of bananas and carrots, and we looked nervously at each other, the adrenaline started to slow, breath was caught, and we all smiled.

And by the way it could have been any orangutan.  But it did have a baby the same age as Mena’s, and it was acting aggressively, and it could have ripped my arm of if she wanted to, so you go ahead and judge my fear anyway you please.  I don’t care.

The point is that it could have just as easily been a random orangutan fitting the Mena profile looking for a hand out.  Maybe it was all over nothing.  Sure felt like running was a good idea though.

The rest of the time we all mock complained to the stone faced Indo Dundee that we wanted to see an orangutan up close, which made him laugh.

The rest of the day we spent hiking uphill, it was around 8 hours total, just about killed me.  The second morning of the trek the laces in one of my boots snapped and the sole of the other started to come off all together, I fixed both with twine and part of a plastic bag.  We slept in a shelter by a river, then hiked another five hours the next day to a river raft made of tubes and shot rapids down river to our hostels.  The water was cool and forgave all soreness.  That was the end of the trip, we spent the next day nursing sore legs with beer and books before heading back to the airport.  And wow, what a trip it had been!  We had been remote island exploring by boat and snorkeling and beach lazing in Padang for a few days.  We had done the dreadful 18 hour bus trip all day all night and all day, which with great effort we managed to giggle and laugh through all of.  And a couple of days back in Toba, once my all time favorite spot but I find you can’t really go back and expect it to be the same.

So that was last month.

This month?

Rainbow at Gili Meno Beach

Rainbow at Gili Meno Beach

A week ago was the Gilis, a chain of islands east of Bali.  We first went to Gili T, which was a god forsaken tourist trap shithole.  Bars filled with Germans in speedos, pumping house music and zero peace or quiet.  So we went to Gili Meno which was empty.  Andrew, Sarah, Zac and Dani and I found ourselves with nothing to do but lay on a beach, read a book, drink beer, or snorkel.  Very blissful bordom that was just what humans need.

I saw 7 sea turtles, one seemed to want to play with me.  He surfaced for air near me and his little head poked out of the water and looked at me.  Then the head disapeared and a fin went flappy flap above the water for just a second and then we were back underwater.  I followed him, he didn’t seem to mind.  We went to a trench that went straight down into dark, dark blue nothingness god knows how deep.  The trench was covered with fish of colors that didn’t even have names.  One day I was snorkeling with Zac, he held his breath and swam to the bottom and found himself face to face with a lion fish who spiked it’s fins, a teratoral “fuck off”, which we did.  We swam away quickly, but not nearly as quickly as I had run from the crazy orangutan.

Now I have moved to a small town called Malang.  Life is slower and the streets are safe for walking without fear of suicidal motorists.  I will be here for a month and so far I like it.  The first night here the guy I live with announced that I would not be allowed go back to Surabaya, I was never to leave and would be kidnapped.  That made me feel super good.

And that sums up the highlights of the past two months.  Sorry to let so much time and so many adventures go unwritten for a while.  And so, once again, not to be imodest and not to be boastful, but this is my life.  Smile for me.

And write to me, it will make my day.  Send me an email from home or where ever you are and tell me a cool story that will make me laugh.  I miss you all, the homesickness never goes away and maybe never will.





One Response to “All Around the Mulberry Bush…”

  1. Vanessa says:

    Will, I’m very happy that you didn’t get clobbered by Mena! And boast all you want. I wish I was on the Indonesian adventure with you!

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