The Sumatran jungle may just be one of my favourite places on earth.
There are astonishing moments of awe and there are gut wrenching challenges when you spend 6 days in the massive expanse of land that is the rainforest, but there are no negatives, as all the parts come together to create an experience I wouldn’t change one bit.
So what is it really like spending six days in the jungle?
I’ll start by saying my body was unrecognisable when I came out. For all of the bites, bruises, cuts and mud, I looked like I’d been subjected to some sort of torture. So many bruises I look like I’ve been beaten with sticks and I have leech bites oozing blood all over, not to mention the mosquitoes and other insects. The skin on my inner thighs chafed so badly with a day of walking through the river that they look like they’ve been attacked with a cheese grater. The peeling skin and scabs are vile.
I mentioned the leeches. I wish I didn’t have to mention the leeches, but they were one of the most memorable parts of camp life. The slimy, sticky creatures attach themselves to bodies, searching for a vein and sucking the blood. They grow larger and larger as they fill up, but often go unnoticed for sometime, particularly if they find an awkward crevice.
Picking them off is relentless; there are always more. If they are sucking blood when you try to remove them, their bodies will stretch as they leave their teeth behind in your skin. Once you have prized them off, they will then try to attach to your fingers. Leech management is a key jungle skill. The little creatures are harmless, but annoying beyond belief and their bites leave itchy sores.
There was the gravelly river bed, which made a day of stream walking in sandals a solid 5 hours of powering through with pebbles in my shoes. Eventually, I would relent and stop to empty said shoes, and they’d be full of pebbles again in two minutes.
The gruelling hills covered in tree roots made the climbs and descents slippery and dangerous. There was a point where I slipped and fell on a downhill with a steep drop, and as I went tumbling down I managed to throw my legs around a tree, painfully, but undoubtedly saving me from falling off of the edge.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that I was ill throughout the entire trek, first with a cold, then with a stomach bug that made me sick and weak. I had to press on because I was living a lifelong dream, but I was dizzy, tired and fragile.
Being on my period without the luxury of toilets and sanitary bins was another challenge I had to contend with.
My big toenail on my right foot ripped almost entirely off. My belly bar rubbed constantly against the straps on my backpack and poured blood for a whole afternoon. I got sunburn on my ankles.
This trip was real and gritty and I needed to stay tough and resilient, but trudging through that jungle covered in mud and blood, dripping with sweat and river water, I felt like an absolute Spartan.
On the flip side, there were moments of perfection.
I don’t think I could ever tire the sounds of the jungle. That glorious cacophony of crickets and cicadas and birds and the call of the white-handed gibbon. It was constant and deafening and so synonymous with the rainforest.
When I was about 8, I went on a school trip to a fake jungle in greenhouses. Even then I was entranced by the sound, and seeing the real thing 20 years later, those incredible noises are what will stay with me.
In those six days, I didn’t tire of the jungle’s aura, and it made me feel comforted and peaceful each morning when I woke up with the rising sun.
The dramatic views were also something special. Hills towering either side of a river with tall trees as far as the eye could see. Closer up, along the river bank were banana plants with their enormous leaves. And the way the light shone was always spectacular- slightly misty.
There was the feeling of accomplishment when we arrived at camp each afternoon. We had some challenging trekking which made the experience even more rewarding. I’m not that confident on hills but I surprised myself.
Tubing back down the river on the last day to get back to our start point with all our gear tied to the rubber rings.
Our guide, Wanda, feeding us bits of information, from the diet of orangutans to how best to spot a deer to the centipede who will cause 15 hours of agony if it bites.
Collecting jungle vegetables like ferns and banana marrow and eating them later in curries cooked on the campfire.
The delightful range of butterflies, from ice blue to lime green and black spotted. They were beautiful.
Seeing signs of the rarer wildlife, like the wake of destruction and piles of poo left by wild elephants was a highlight. We were lucky enough to see some tiger footprints not far from camp one night. Wanda has been guiding since 1989 and has never seen the tiger itself, as they respect humans and don’t show themselves. He has heard the growling and roaring before though. The footprints are less rare, but still quite unusual. Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world and there are only 500 tigers.
For me, the orangutans were the pinnacle. The way they move is fascinating, there is something so human about them. The way they hold the branches in their long fingers and observe their onlookers. They’re curious characters. They’re enormous, but manoeuvre themselves through the trees so well.
If you want to see nature in its truest form, the Sumatran jungle is where to go. It was constantly surprising and delighting me along the way. An adventure like this is truly life changing. As a city girl glued to my iPhone half the time, nothing has done more for my wellbeing than those six days in the jungle.