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Food Feature: Apes au naturel

Trekkers slog the jungles of Sumatra in search of simians

How about Indonesia? With that simple query, our next destination was settled. We had been enjoying our visit to Malaysia, yet were wrestling with where to head next. The exotic Indonesian island of Sumatra is one of only two places in today's world where you can see orangutans in the wild (the other is Borneo). Since we were unable to see chimps and gorillas in Africa, the prospect of an encounter with these endangered creatures was enticing.
From Penang, Malaysia, we boarded a hydrofoil to Sumatra. The winds were howling and the seas angry. The smell of peppermint oil darted through the air as locals dabbed it behind their ears and beneath their nostrils, hoping (to no avail, it turned out) to stave off motion sickness. Meanwhile, attendants handed out plastic bags. We had just boarded the upchuck express.
After five hours of hearing, seeing and, yes, smelling people get sick, we arrived in Sumatra. The village of Bukit Lawang, our first Sumatran destination, was still five hours away by bus. Treks in the surrounding jungles of Bukit Lawang provide visitors the opportunity to see orangutans in the wild. But for one hour each morning, deep in the jungle at the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, recently released orangutans often find their way to a feeding platform for a free meal. Founded in 1973 by two Swiss zoologists, the mission of the Rehabilitation Center is to rehabilitate injured or captive orangutans for reintroduction to the wild. The daily feeding is part of the gradual process whereby released orangutans resume a truly "wild" existence.
So during our first morning in Bukit Lawang, we made the arduous trek to the feeding platform. And just when it appeared that the feeding hour would pass without a sighting, a long-armed and very orange ape came lazily swinging toward us through the thick vegetation. There is no mistaking the awe we felt at seeing this spectacle.
The ape, named Abdul, made its way to the platform. He drank milk from a cup and peeled and ate bananas as though a small child, while we quietly enjoyed the all too human expressions and mannerisms of this beautiful animal.
After this inspiring sighting, we were hungry for a less staged experience. We arranged with a local guide to go trekking through the jungle. If we were fortunate, we would again see orangutans in the wild. And the next day, six hours into a daylong jungle slog, we were rewarded with the sighting of a family of orangutans. Extraordinarily peaceful and passive creatures, they swung playfully in the branches just above us, while we stood and observed. As we took it all in, we agreed upon one inescapable truth: It's worth smelling the vomit of others to see the magnificent orangutans of Sumatra.





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