Sumatra is one of the largest islands in Indonesia, it's 3 times the size of the UK, and unlike its neighbouring islands of Bali and Java, sees hardly any western visitors. It is also one of the most biodiverse areas on earth, known for its extraordinarily rich flora, fauna and wildlife. I had the great fortune of going to check it out; here is the low-down on North Sumatra.
Stepping into the unknown
Even back in the 18th century the Javanese had to be bribed by the Dutch (who had colonised Indonesia) with huge sums of money to go and work on the plantations because Sumatra was infamous for its tigers and cannibals. Two centuries on, Sumatra is still very much an unknown quantity to the western world. It was an amazing opportunity to visit somewhere in Asia where I felt like more of a tourist attraction than the actual island itself; the people there are just not used to seeing westerners, and this was in the main city of Medan which has an international airport! Medan is very much an entry and exit point but there are palaces to explore if you do want to have a culture fix.
Welcome to the jungle
Next I headed to Tangakhan, located a five hour (and rather bumpy) drive from Medan up in the thick jungle. This beautiful small village was so charming with its clear river worming its way through the jungle. You could always hear the rush of water which complemented the luscious green rainforest surrounding you as far as the eye could see below and above (added sense of excitement with tigers in the jungle). I stayed in a basic jungle lodge which actually turned out to be one of my favourite places on the whole trip. The food was to die for and in the evenings, the families who work there whipped out a couple of guitars and sang for their children, who happily danced around. They could see our beaming faces and kindly joined us, it was a great opportunity for them to sing the classics including Angels, 'I'm wuvin angles instad' was the translation, but we all got the gist and sang along. This progressed to Bob Marley and some interesting renditions of 'hotel of California'.
Hey, hey we're the monkeys
Next stop, Bukit Lawang, a more popular tourist area with 2 hotels. This is the place to go and see wild orangutans and I just loved it. The jungle trekking was authentic with a capital A and we went through rivers, up vertical tracks on our hands and knees, holding onto the trees to ensure we didn't fall down, in search of a mother and her baby orangutan. This was one of the most amazing experiences; we got so close to the orangutans that we were all watching each other - my eyes to the mother's and then the baby, and theirs back to me. After this, I didn't think it could get much better but we then headed to a river, jumped into a rubber tyre and floated down the river. This not only cooled us off but washed off the mud I had acquired all over from the trekking - perfect.
Lakes and cannibals
Lastly we then went to Lake Toba, the largest crater lake in the world. Hugely impressive and incredibly beautiful, it was so refreshing to be by such a vast stretch of water that was not the ocean and have lovely small local villages to explore. Not only is it stunning but the small island, Samosir, was home to cannibals which gives it a nice edge! Now, the cannibals have gone (we hope) but it makes an exciting day trip to visit the traditional villages. There are great boat trips, cycling tours and traditional dances to watch. A couple of days here was a relaxing end to the trip, at a really stunning location.
I would highly recommend Sumatra for a family with older children looking for some adventure, nature and wildlife or couples wanting a holiday with a difference. This island is simply beautiful with its vast stretches of jungle, greenery and plenty of bumpy roads to reinforce the fact that tourism is not rife here and it is just you and the locals making your way through the country.