Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lost in the jungle of Sumatra

Lately there has been a boom of news and TV programs about people getting lost in the jungle, dying, or just barely surviving.  That made ​​me think back to one of the most perilous experiences I've had myself.  I am blessed with a decent sense of direction, but getting lost in the jungle can happen more easily than you think.

November 2000. We had planned to cross Sumatra from south to north. I had travelled a lot in Asia, but I had never been in such a vast and sparsely populated area. Besides long-distance night buses (which I avoided) there was hardly any public transport. And if there was, it was slow and unreliable. In one town we waited three mornings in a row along the side of the road before a van actually left. And three times we got off a bus at dusk, well before our destination, in order to find a hotel by daylight.

Sparsely populated it was.
So we progressed with difficulty and slower than planned and were spending more time on the go, than enjoying the beautiful places. But in the town of Sungai Panui (Sungai Penuh) in the Kerinci valley we allowed ourselves a break for a couple of days.

View from the valley to the hills

Around the Kerinci valley was the Kerinci National Park, an area of hundreds of kilometers. A walk in the jungle would be great, but we did not do irresponsible things, so first we went to inquire at the NP headquarters. Where could you take a nice walk, and what about transportation to the starting point and a guide? A group of rangers explained the different possibilities. The area where we had driven through on the bus from Tapan, appealed to us. One of the rangers said he had a car to drive there and was willing to be our guide. For him it probably was a little extra on the side.
He went home to get a car, his brother's blue mini pickup truck, that had no first gear and hardly any brakes.
We parked 15km away, at a small eatery along the way. At 10 o'clock we went out, first ten minutes on the road, and then onto a path. The path soon became worse, and the forest thicker. There were so many branches, ferns and thorny bushes on the path that I had to walk with my head bent down, sometimes it was almost crawling. It seemed a kind of tunnel between / among dense fern bushes. Being the tallest of the three I suffered most, and it took away the pleasure in the walk and the surroundings.

After an hour we had a discussion: to return or to find better trails? I didn't want to be a spoilsport and stop too soon, so we tried to make clear to our guide that he should find us better paths; he seemed to understand.
But after another 30 minutes, he seemed less and less sure of himself, retracing his steps regularly. We made it ​​clear that now we really wanted to get back to the main road. Yes, follow me, this way, he gestured. We asked explicitly whether he knew where the road was, he said we must trust in Allah. That is when I lost faith in him. Where we walked couldn't be called a path. All the time we had to push our way through the creepers, brambles and undergrowth.  When I saw on my compass that we constantly changed directions and were just zigzagging, I began to worry. I knew he did not know the way back, but I had not paid attention myself how we had walked. Normally I would always know the same way back, but not now. After all, we had an official ranger of the park management organization with us. Can you do better?

Not knowing what else to do, we followed our guide again. He pointed to a hill top, and said over there he would certainly be able to see the road. Meanwhile, this was absolutely not a path, it was a battle with the vegetation that was giving us bleeding scratches and torn clothes. It was really scary when we ended up on top of a layer of ferns covering the underbrush, meters above the ground. Every now and then a branch would break or you'd stumble, and drop down a meter. The idea to break or even just sprain your ankle was terrifying.

Our guide admitted that he was familiar with another part of the forest, but in fact had never been in this area. If only we had known sooner! He talked about sleeping in the woods, hoping that they would come looking for us tomorrow.  But who would actually miss us and who knew in what area we had gone for this walk? And how much of an operation would a possible search be? By now I was really worried how this would end.
After a tough journey of about three quarters of an hour that covered about 100 meters, we were on the hilltop where the guide had put his hopes on. In vain. We saw the rain arrive over the next ridge.
Kerinci National Park


Now it was clear that our guide had no clue, it was time to take matters into our own hands. And our guide was grateful for that. In the sand we drew the mountainside west of the valley. If we would walk steadily to the east, we had to encounter something somewhere. Weak point of the plan was that it could be 10 or 20 km, and we might cover just 250m per hour through the bush. That could take 4 to 8 days. Four days we should be able to keep going without food, shouldn't we? I chose the direction, south east, because I thought the road had to be south of us. In any case, it seemed a straight line had to be better than running around in circles. However hard it was it by now, we took turns cheering each other up.

After a while, again we were standing in front of fern forest that we would have to cross high in the canopy. A horrible prospect. We heard water and planned to follow it downstream - that had to lead somewhere, didn't it?. The descent was very dangerous, the lower we got the muddier and more slippery it got. So either you slid down or you were sucked into the mud. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the river, a narrow, fast-flowing stream, and I was happy to wash the blood off my face. But the vegetation was so dense that it would be impossible to follow. Moreover, it ran to the north, intuitively the wrong direction.
There was no other choice than to climb back up the slope. Clinging from one trunk to the other. After roughly an hour we were back at the place where we had come up with the river plan.  So we had to switch back to the original plan: the straightest possible line to the south east. Our guide had long ago switched to "follow" mode. Personally, I felt already better to at least have a plan, and not aimlessly drift after him. When we rested on a soft heap of fern leaves, and forgot that it was going to rain soon, it felt we could hold on for a while.

In the meantime I was pretty exhausted. We were, after all, fighting through scrub and up and down steep slopes. Lianas grabbed you all the time: sometimes around your feet so you stumbled, sometimes around your body so you had to pull them apart to detach yourself.
The guide searched for broken twigs, so sometimes we walked on a relatively passable animal track (but always lost it again) while I was overseeing the predominant direction to remain south, as far as the terrain allowed. Actually we had developed a good division of labor.

At one point I saw a beautiful single mushroom in the grass, which I was certain to have seen before. If that was true there would soon be a thorny tree trunk on the right, on a place where we were still on some sort of path, many hours ago. Indeed came the spiked stem, and although the guide had already passed it, I called him back and insisted to turn left, to go south. Suddenly it looked as if we were going to come home today! What a relief!  Almost immediately the long-awaited rainstorm erupted. Had that come before I thought that we would get out, I don't think I had managed to keep up my spirits.
Thorny tree trunk

Soon we recognized the tunnelled path that had been so uncomfortable, but where we were not yet lost. We even found the sunscreen I had lost that morning when my backpack was stuck in the branches. Drenched, and sometimes half crawling and always slipping on wet branches and leaves, even our guide was cheerful. When we finally got back to the road he kissed the tarmac.
Back to the diner, I took off my clothes and hung my shirt to dry by the fire while we drank a cup of hot coffee.

Our guide took us back to town. We insisted to go by the now almost deserted office. Although we knew not to expect western standards, we were outraged by the irresponsible and dangerous situation in which the guide had put us, so we wanted to complain to the NP office. If only to prevent future recurrence. To what extent we succeeded in was doubtful, but the message that we were very unhappy came about.
Like vagabonds we walked through town back to the hotel. Dirty, wet, wounded and in torn clothes. The hotel staff came running with thermos of hot water to our room! The scratches on face, arms and legs remained painful for days.

Really, you do not need to do very strange or very stupid things to get lost in the jungle. The vastness and desolation is easy to underestimate.

* November 2000 - August 2001 - April/June 2016 *

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