I am looking at a small mossy pond filled with clear water 2,870 metres above sea level. “Yes, that’s the spring,” shouts Mr. Isa who is busy lighting a fire. I immediately fill the 5 litre canister with water which is to be used for cooking our lunch and drinking water. While returning to our resting place, I take a look at the surrounding view. The view from the peak of Angkasan Mountain in the afternoon light is amazing. Below us, the green jungle is blanketed in mystery. A long valley divides the mountains. It is the beginning of the Alas River, the heart of the Gunung Leuser National Park. And that is our destination this time. I’m dizzy imagining the difficulties we might face in reaching it.
Two days ago, we arrived at 11.00 at Kedah in Penosan Sepakat Village by minibus from Medan. It usually takes 12 hous to reach Blangkejeren, the capital of Gayo Lues regency. However, it now takes 15 to 16 hours due to the poor road conditions.
This time, Inside Sumatera was accompanied by two fellow travelers, Dwi Narso, a member of the Nature Lovers Student Association at STIE Bhakti Pembangunan, Jakarta (PALABA), and an amateur photographer from Medan, Ratni Hardiana.
Our fatigue begins to wane as we enter the paddy fields of the inhabitants of Penosan Sepakat Village. The beauty of the village, the cheerfulness and friendly welcome of the villagers provides new energy to weary travelers like myself.
The village of Penosan Sepakat used to belong to Southeast Aceh, but in 2006, a promising new regency, Gayo Lues Regency, was born. There are 6 districts in this area. Kedah, the district closest to the foot of the Leuser mountain range is one of them. From about 220 families inhabit the 4,500 hectare village of Penosan Sepakat, 30 of which live in Kedah.
In order to make a living, most of the inhabitants are farmers. The main commodities are chilies, lemon grass and tobacco. However, recently, due to the directions of Bupati Ibnu Hasan, the villagers have started to plant corn which has a high demand.
Tobacco has been planted since the eighties. The glory times of tobacco planting can be seen along the mountain trail about one hour away from the village, the Tobacco Hut. This place is a flat, open area used for planting since 1983. The place was so named by a western investor who was visiting the place.
Our aim of the journey was somewhat different to most climbers in the area. We told our guide, Mr. Jali, “We want to go the heart of the Gunung Leuser National Park (GNLP). To the River Alas Spring,” I said while drinking the hot coffee he had served. This was the famous gayo coffee. This coffee, which is grown in the Gayo Highlands, has attained global acknowledgment.
In fact the real reason for our trip was that we had obtained information that we would have lots of chances to see different flora and fauna endemic to the Gunung Leuser National Park, and was a shorter and certainly less tiring trip than the 14 days it took to reach the peak.
Mr. Jali was pleased to fulfil our request. He introduced us to Mr. Isa, a well-known guide who knew the paths of the national park like the back of his hand. Apart from that he was an expert trapper. This man would be accompanying us along the mountain trail towards the heart of the national park. “It so happens that I set a trap about a week ago. So I’ll be able to check it at the same time,” he said.
After that, we walked to our bungalow. This building stood on a glen above Kedah district. Bungalow in this case was a group of simple huts on stilts. A narrow, icy- cold river ran past the complex.
In the bungalow, we checked the things we would be taking on the track in our back packs. Even though we were not aiming for the peak, it would be about 4 days there and back, not including the 1 to 2 days we would spend exploring the slopes. So we had to ensure we were taking enough to eat.
Early the next day, we set off for Pucuk Angkasan, the first peak before continuing the trail towards the Peak of Leuser Mountain. Pucuk Angkasan was where we would leave that trail in order to follow the Alas River valley. But before we could reach Angkasan Peak, we would have to pass Tobacco Hut and Simpang Air. According to climbers who had reached Leuser Peak, this first part would be the most challenging part of the trek.
From Tobacco Hut to Simpang Air, the trail was so steep that the gradient almost reached 80 degrees. Without any “bonuses” either-bonus being our term for any flatter areas in our climb. After Simpang Air, we passed Camp 1 before finally encountering the steep narrow trail that would lead to Angkasan Peak.
After staying overnight at Angkasan Peak, we turned to the left to descend towards the bottom of the valley. At the bottom of the valley we would be using a hunter’s cabin as a base camp. Indro, one Mr. Isa’s assistants, estimated that we would arrive there on the second day of our journey.
Despite all of us being seasoned climbers, this climb left our hearts thumping. It’s not surprising as Leuser has the closest vegetation in Indonesia due to its 2,544 mm of rain on average per year. This tropical mountain range has the longest trail in Indonesia. Imagine, 14 days of going up and down to reach the peak. Secretly, I’m relieved that we chose a different route this time. But will that mean that tomorrow’s climb will be less tiring? I very much doubt it.
We realise our mistake after only 15 minutes climb. Our bags are too heavy. After discussing the matter with Mr. Isa, I realise that we have brought too much food. Even so, it’s too late, we’re in the middle of our trek.
“Better too much than too little,” comments Mr. Isa. Fortunately, Mr. Isa and Indro are willing to take some of Dwi’s and my load. Nevertheless, it feels like it’s not helping. So, like an overloaded aeroplane, I wobble from right to left climbing the Tobacco Hut trail. Torturous!
The rain from the previous night has drenched the path, inviting hundreds of leeches to stick to our legs, transferring from the surrounding trees and mud to our shoes. Indeed, the tropical rainforest is an ideal environment for leeches.
The leeches consist of a number of parts. Their length varies from 2 to 20cm. Colouration varies from black, red to brown, some with lines and spots. Leeches are sensitive to light, touch, temperature and weather. These parasites have both female and male sex organs. Most of all, they are an annoying to humans because they love human’s blood.
Ratni swears and screams alternately while pulling these bloodsuckers from her calf, ankle and even inside her shoes. Meanwhile, I don’t have any choice but to wobble along the path watching the creatures sneak into my shoe, one by one.
At around 12.00 we reach the Tobacco Hut. Out of breath, our chests heaving up and down heavily, I throw myself and my backpack onto the grass. Ahead, the view hides behind the clouds. “Welcome to Leuser!” I say to myself. My body is tired, even more so when I think of the path ahead. Ratni makes use of the break by immortalising Tobacco Hut on camera, taking in lots of detail, from the view of Penosan Village, the flowers, insects, to pictures of us counting the numbers of leeches sticking to us. Not wanting to waste time, Mr. Isa invites us to continue the journey to Simpang Air.
After Tobacco Hut, we continue towards the base of this mountain range, protected from the sun by the Sumateran pine trees (pinus merkusii). Indro leads at the front, followed by Ratni, Dwi, Mr. Isa, and I. As soon as we reach the forest at the bottom of the mountain range, our trail seems to rise up vertically, making me crawl like a coward.
The trail is steep. Slippery. Mossy. Wet. Damn. I have to find a place to hold on to before pulling my body upwards. However we must be careful finding a hold for our hands. The higher we get, the more wild rattan there is. Soon it is the most dominant vegetation. One wrong grasp and our hands will be injured by the poisonous rattan.
Mr. Isa is behind me, looking at me with pitying eyes. “Abang, you go first. I’ll follow,” I say while despising this situation which places me as the weakest team member. I feel like dropping my backpack and running after the others.
After climbing for about two and a half hours, we arrive at Simpang Air. This place is the crossroads for three trails: from Kedah, Buih, in Penosan Sepakat Village, as well as the path leading to Angkasan Peak. Simpang Air is a flat area shaded by trees. There is a small spring which is used for refilling water bottles. Dwi’s altimeter shows that we are at a height of 1,700 metres above sea level. We eat Indomie Instant Noodles here. Ratni lights her camping gas to cook.
Colder and Colder
The higher we get, the less vegetation there is. Moss sticks to the tree trunks. The temperature sinks. We shiver and have to keep on moving. Soon after this, the natural roof of the trees opens. The rainforest vegetation gives way to sparse vegetation, a sign that we are now over 2,000 metres. At 16.45, we reach Camp1. As before, I am the last to step foot in the shelter. “Let’s stay overnight here. If we try to reach Angkasan Peak, it might be dark before we get there,” says Mr. Isa. Dwi and I put the tent up. Meanwhile Mr. Isa quickly collects branches and leaves for the fire.
Mr. Isa knows which leaves and branches burn best, even without petrol. Before the tent is up, he is sitting in front of the fire waiting for the water to boil while enjoying a cigarette rolled from corn leaves and tobacco from the village.
Despite it being freezing, the evening is so clear that we are able to sit under the open sky warming ourselves in front of the fire. Our menu tonight is chicken nuggets, dry fish and soup served with a sprinkling of moonlight and star shine.
Woke up late again. When I wake up, Mr. Isa and Indro are already enjoying their coffee. It feels late, because the sun is shining through the few trees. The mist rises slowly. We enjoy the sun while we eat breakfast.
We are now in a humid, mouldy forest. The temperature begins to rise. My backpack keeps getting stuck on the branches of the low vegetation on either side of the path. But this time, I am entertained by the panorama of mushrooms, orchids, pitcher plants and many others.
Ratni and I use this opportunity to take photos of the various florae that greets us along the way. We are so consumed by this activity, that we lose track of time so that our fellow travellers are forced to wait for us.
After the mossy forest, we arrive at a narrow path which follows the mountain ridge. In single file we are able to see both sides of the mountain. In some areas it seems as if part of the forest has been burned. Wearing shorts, I feel tortured every time we go through the bracken which reaches up to our chests. The branches are sharp. I only realise the extent of my injuries when we take a rest. There are many red scratches all along my legs.
The canyons which are about 100 to 200 metres deep gape on either side of us. Mr. Isa shouts, “Look there, a bird!” He points towards some bushes in front of us. We see two baby birds opening their mouths wide, waiting for their mother to feed them. “So cute…” says Ratni while taking a photo of the nest and baby birds.
We arrive at Angkasan Peak at 14.30. We cook while admiring the marvellous view. From here it feels as if the whole of the National Park has been laid out just for us. The Gunung Leuser National Park is an example of the beach forest ecosystem and tropical rainforest which reaches to the mountains. Nearly the whole area is covered in Dipterocarpaceae forest with a few rivers and waterfalls to break the monotony.
A number of protected species are found here, such as orang-utan, siamang, sumateran elephant, sumateran rhinoceros, wild goat, hornbill, deer, and flat- headed cat. I begin to imagine how cool it would be to get the chance to capture one of these rare animals in the wild on film. “Just not the sumateran tiger, Bang,” comments Ratni.
Despite the fog, we are able to see some of the other peaks, such as No-Name Peak (3,455 metres), Leuser Peak (3,404 metres) and a waterfall which looks like a little white line on the bottom of the valley.
According to Mr. Isa, there used to be a path which led to the water fall in the River Alas, but the trail has since disappeared because nobody went there anymore. “We will aim for the river near below the waterfall,” he explains.
After eating lunch, we begin our descent towards the heart of Leuser. The bush gives way to amazingly close and humid vegetation. The foot-wide path looks dry and is covered with leaves which are actually covered in mud and are extremely slippery underfoot. I fall a number of times until my backpack and my body are covered in mud. Fortunately there are not too many leeches here. Finally we decide to walk slowly in order to avoid injury.
At 16.47, we arrive at a flat area at the foot of Pucuk Angkasan which is known as Bujang Hill. Mr. Isa looks at the sky again and again. “I think we’ll just camp here. The hunting cabin is still 3 hours away.” Our target to reach the hunting cabin in three days fades away.
Seeing that the sky is bright and that it’s relatively warm in comparison to Camp 1, Dwi decides to use the fly sheet as an alternative to using the tent. But it is a mistake.
Suddenly black clouds appear from behind Angkasan Peak. As soon as the fly sheet is in place, rain pours down from the sky. This, in fact, was the reason Mr. Isa had asked us to stay here. This middle-aged man had known that it would rain by the movement of the clouds. His ability to forecast the weather is amazing.
The fire Mr Isa has made, is put out by the rain. The rain continues for a long time. We are forced to cook under the fly sheet while protecting our goods from the rain. That evening we are forced to sleep, shivering due to sleeping under a fly sheet without walls.
In the Arms of the Forest
We awake early. It is bright. The black clouds have turned into the previous night’s rain. The mist rises up mysteriously as morning fog. At 8.00, we have eaten breakfast and are ready to continue are journey towards the bottom of the valley.
The weight on my shoulders feels lighter after eating some of the food. From Bujang Hill, we enter the forest at the heart of Leuser. The vegetation gets closer and is dominated by sharp rattan trees. I repeatedly catch the skin on my hands and legs on the thorns. The lower we get the more types of fungi, pitcher plants, and orchids we encounter in a multitude of colours and variety. The trees are taller and taller, telling us that we are returning to lower ground.
The tiny trail is unclear. If it were me at the front, our team would get lost for sure. But Mr. Isa’s feet seem to have eyes. He moves some bushes under the trees. A few times we arrive in open bushy areas, similar to a small field. “This field was used as a hunting cabin but is now not used anymore,” explains Mr. Isa.
Our hunting cabin is situated on an area of flat ground, about half a hectare in size. Next to it there is a garden where Mr. Isa has planted some vegetables and herbs, such as ginger, salad and spring onion. “We will stay here for 2 days. After lunch, we will walk to the beginning of the river to the small stream of the River Alas and tomorrow we will visit the main part of the River Alas,” says Mr. Isa.
Mr. Isa has kept some of last week’s catch, the bones of a wild goat. He has kept them safe in part of his 3 by 4 hut, so that wild animals are unable to get them. The bones are brought out and smoked over a fire in front of the house. “This evening we will eat wild goat soup,” says Mr. Isa.
While we are busy cooking, Mr. Isa digs in the field. “What are you doing, Mister?” I ask. “Looking for worms, Ky. We’re going to catch a fish,” he answers.
The worms are then tied using string and bits of roots found on the land. The worms look like bundles filled with string and roots. “We’ll tie these to a short piece of wood and go fishing,” he says, smiling at my confused expression.
“What kind of fishing is this?” I think to myself.
After lunch, we leave the hunting cabin with next to nothing. Only a camera and a daypack filled with snacks, clothes for changing and cooking tools.
A small unclear path descends steeply. It is slippery and wet. Mr. Isa walks down in a relaxed manner, holding a jack-knife in his hand. He swings the knife a number of times to remove the thorny plants in his path. At one flat area he suddenly slows down and looks at a tree in front of him. “Oh, we are unlucky. My trap didn’t work,” he said while moving on.
About 50 metres ahead, a small tree stands on our left. The tip of this tree is incredibly flexible and is tied down with a rope. At the bottom of this is a small hole covered with twigs. A trap. This is what had made Mr. Isa slow down earlier. He wanted to see if an animal had been caught there. From the condition of the trap he concludes that he nearly caught something. “From the tracks, I think it was a deer,” he concludes while observing the path ahead.
Guides and hunters from the villages at the foot of Gunung Leuser usually use a very flexible tree for catching deer, mountain goats and others. The tree is bent close to the ground using a rope with a loop in it. If an animal passes by and treads on the loop, the foot of the animal will be stuck. The more the animal struggles, the tighter the loop will be.
“The secret is in choosing the place to lay the trap. If we are able to read animal tracks, we can find out where animals usually pass. Normally near water sources,” explains Mr. Isa, pointing to a small wallow on our left.
Despite being a little disappointed, we are still excited continuing our journey because soon we can wash in the Alas River. We can hear the sound of the water. We arrive at a steep decline, which we climb down by holding on to tree roots. Below, a small river flows past, about 3 metres wide. The water is amazingly clear.
“This is the small stream of the Alas River. Some of the water originates from Angkasan Peak,” says Mr. Isa. Less than hour later we arrive at the stream. We take turns crossing. As soon as my foot touches the water, brrrr. “This is too cold!” I shout, making Mr. Isa and Indro crack up with laughter.
Indro lights a fire next to the river and Dwi starts to boil water for tea and coffee. Ratni returns to her favourite ritual, taking photos. Meanwhile I follow Mr. Isa in looking for a piece of wood. As soon as he finds one, he ties the worm balls to it. Then he walks to the river and dangles the worm ball in the shallow water.
Less than a minute later, he suddenly pulls up the fish. Two fish, the size of an adult’s middle finger are hanging from the wood. “I got it! Yeaaah! I got it!” he shouts enthusiastically. The others all run over and crowd around Mr. Isa to see what he has caught. He explains to us that it is a kind of jurung fish that lives off the algae (tor tambroides).
Despite the water being so cold, it is near impossible to fight the desire to swim. Dwi, Ratni and I jump into the arms of the Alas River. After shivering, hot tea and coffee awaits us together with our afternoon snack, barbecued fish. And a real feast awaiting us at the hunting cabin, mountain goat soup-yummy!
At 9 am the following morning we head for the main stream of the Alas River. Today we follow the narrow trail to the left of the hunting cabin. About 15 minutes later, we arrive at a small stream. A small river that is near to drying out pours downwards at a 70 degree angle. Below us the crashing of the river can be heard. “That’s the main part of the River Alas. Let’s just follow this dried out river bed,” suggests Mr. Isa.
I am curious to see what the main part of the Alas River looks like, so I follow Mr. Isa down the riverbed. Jumping from one stone to another. Near the mouth of the river, we see a wild goat’s nest in the cliffs above the river, a track of foot prints leads to it. “This is a wild goat’s nest,” says Mr. Isa, then continues to explain that wild goats and mountain goats usually make their nests in the cliffs along
The main stream of the Alas River is 6 to7 metres wide. The water doesn’t run too fast, but due to being cluttered with rocks of many different sizes from large to small, there are parts with white water and parts with calm pools, making it ideal for swimming.
The river is so clean and clear that we swim again. Mr. Isa gets busy with his fishing rod again. He moves from one part of the river to another. He catches even more jurung fish than the previous day.
The Alas River runs from the top of the Leuser Mountain Range splitting it in two and ends in Kutacane. Like a heart pumping life into the National Park, it provides the water to the animals here.
The further downstream we get (starting from Ketambe Research Centre) the less big rocks we meet, making the river ideal for the adrenaline rush of white water rafting. River Alas has been famous for white water sports since the early 90s when an expedition team Sobex Expedition began running white water rafting here. Since that time, white water teams and nature loving students from all over Indonesia have come here to enjoy the white water here.
I begin to feel one with my surroundings. Lunch. Jurung fish. The rushing of the river. The whoop of primates from the jungle. Memories of Wild Goat Soup. God. Clouds. Love. Pain. Thorns. Trap. Suffering. Happiness. Sweat pouring down cuts. Wearing praise. Life. Death. Nostalgia. Worms. Coffee. Stars. No, no. I haven’t been smoking dope. I promise, Mr. Policeman!
To reach Kedah in Penosan Sepakat Village which is located in Blang Jerango, Gayo Lues Regency, you will need to choose one of the many bus services that run from Medan to Blangkejeren, such as BTN, Karsima and Borneo, which cost Rp 100,000 one way.
If you wish to travel more comfortably, you can use the car services such as Taxi 88 and Gayo Express, costing around Rp 150,000 one way.
Most of the bus services can be found in Jalan Bintang in Medan. However, all of the services have branches in Padang Bulan area.
If you want to avoid the Medan--Brastagi--Kabanjahe--Tiga Binanga--Kutacane Blangkejeren route due to the bad road conditions, you can reach Blangkejeren by Bus Pelangi going to Takengon. From Takengon, there are a number of bus companies who will take you to Blangkejeren for Rp 90,000.
Which ever route you choose, just tip the driver and ask him to take you to Mr. Jaly’s house in Kedah. After you meet Mr. Jaly, you just have to negotiate the price for a guide. There are a number of different routes you can choose. Well, have fun with your adventure in Leuser!