I have taken a lot of risks in my travels, but this move beats out bungee jumping in India and almost cost me my life. I had spent a month backpacking across Indonesia and ended up in Bukit Luwang. This small village is the main access point to the Gunung Leuser National Park, famous for having the last stronghold of wild orangutans. To access the park, we had to use their water taxi system which involved sitting in a hollowed out log and being pulled across a river while clinging for dear life.
The day started off wonderfully. We woke up in our jungle camp and were ready to trek through the Sumatran wilderness in the hopes of seeing a Great Ape in the wild.
Our plan was to hike across two mountains in six hours where we would meet our white water rafting guides by a river and float back to camp. We hadn’t been hiking more than 45 minutes when we came across a female orangutan with her baby. The mom came down to see if we were going to give her any food.
Some guides will promise their group that they will see orangutans, but they do this by carrying around bananas. It’s an awful thing to do, because their DNA is so close to ours, a common cold could kill them. The babies born in the park have a high mortality rate and this could be why. My friend Heather spent three months in Africa with the mountain gorillas. She said it was so strange for her to see, because Rwanda has such strict rules when you are in the presence of gorillas- no smoking, talking or eating. If you break the rules, you are thrown out. Here, a group of tourists beside us were talking loudly, smoking cigarettes and throwing food around with complete disregard to how fortunate they were to be in the presence of such an animal.
A couple hours later, we were very lucky to see “honeymooners”- a male and female traveling together. As solitary animals, they only come together for a few weeks out of the year. The male came down low and peered over the branches at us. They stared at us with as much curiosity as we had for them. It was an amazing moment that took our breath away… the magnificence shattered only by the sound of chainsaws in the distance.
A female traveling from tree to tree stopped at a termite nest. She broke off a chunk of the nest, shook the contents into her other hand, and tossed them into her mouth like they were peanuts.
We climbed up to an amazing vista. The calls of hornbills echoed across the valley, still taunting me. A dark cloud was rolling in and we had to get off of the mountain. We took cover and had lunch by a waterfall. The most precious soft shell turtle swam over to eat with us.
And then the rain came. It was incredibly steep and the rain was quickly transforming our muddy path into a waterfall. It was precarious work climbing down a muddy slope on the edge of a precipice, while also being careful where we put our hands as blood thirsty leeches writhed around like groping fingers, sensing our body heat.
We were using lianas for handrails and at one point I slid down a muddy bit, but my jacket got caught on a branch above my head. Instead of helping me, Jonathan cracked up and took a picture of me hanging from the tree by my jacket.
We had to continue trekking down off the mountain to reach the river. When we reached the camp where the rafting guides were, we immediately started laughing, convinced it was a joke.
The “raft” was made up of five inner tubes tied together with rope. There were no life jackets or helmets and the guide “controlled” the raft with a bamboo stick. The guides started shouting at us to hurry because the water was rising so quickly. The river gorge cut through the mountains collecting all of the rain water like a giant gutter and the water ran orange with all the mud that the current was kicking up.
They put our things in plastic bags and tied them to the raft. I asked Heather why she was loosening her boots and she said if we ever capsized, the weight of your boots could drown you.
We knew this was an extremely stupid idea, but our only other alternative was to hike back six hours in the dark. Sure, we weren’t sitting in tubes with drinks that had little umbrellas sticking out of them, floating down a slow meandering river as we had imagined, but these guides were experts, right? People did this every day, right?
Heather and I shared the second tube right behind the guide and we set off into class three rapids in a river that we knew all too well had taken the lives of hundreds of people.
We went off 3-5 foot drops and hit waves that sent us completely airborne, the splash hazing us with water each time we landed. When we were headed directly for huge rocks in the middle of the river, the guide did his best to use his bamboo stick to push our raft out of the way. Everyone screamed and then laughed when we realized it was ok. I was actually starting to enjoy it. We even saw a troop of pigtail macaques that came to the river bank to see what the insane humans were doing.
The water level continued to rise and the river became more fierce with every turn. The laughter died out as the rapids quickly grew to a class 5. I wish I could explain in words how ferocious this river was. In an attempt to do so, I will give you the definition of Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering (Skill Level: Advanced Whitewater Experience). I knew from the little rafting experience I had that this was serious business. But my experience was in Montana, where we had hours of safety classes, maneuvering lessons- not to mention a state of the art raft with safety equipment to go with it… and that river was nowhere near as brutal as this one.
We were approaching a huge bend in the river and we knew we were in trouble when the guide turned to look at us with an almost apologetic look on his face. I remember hitting a big wave that felt like a car crash, then a second almost immediately, but the third wave sent the raft sailing straight up, twisted in midair, and landed face down. We were dragged along the rocks under the water and we struggled to get free. Everyone popped up on the left side of the raft and was able to grab a hold of it. That is, everyone except me.
I came up on the right side of the raft and the river took me in a flash. As I was being pulled away, I grabbed a large rock, but all of my strength couldn’t hold me there. I hit a second rock, but immediately slipped away again. I was being pulled backwards with such force, it felt like a monster had grabbed a hold of my feet and was pulling me toward it. Michael Phelps didn’t stand a chance in that river.
The current spun me around at one point and I caught a glimpse of the raft already in the far distance. I don’t ever recall feeling more fear in my life than I did in that moment because I realized just how fast I was moving and that I was all alone. I was being sucked under immediately and I fought as hard as I could to stay at the surface and take a breath, but water filled my mouth. I remembered what Heather said about her boots and was fighting to get them off, but could not manage to do it as I was tousled erratically, like I was on the spin cycle of a washing machine.
I thought if I could reach the rocks on the opposite bank, I may be able to climb out… but was quickly realizing that this unsympathetic river was the only player in this game. I was just along for the ride. Each time I went under, I never knew how long it would last. Sometimes it was 10 seconds, the next 30 seconds before I popped up gasping for air. The river continued to tease me in this evil manner.
At the bend in the river, the deepest part, it creates a vortex. It was a bit like being flushed down a giant toilet bowl. It pulled me straight down like a lead weight. I kicked as hard as I could, but continued steadily downward. I remember the silence. The further down I went, the darker it became. I was trying to swim, but in such a state of panic it was more like thrashing. People always say that when you have a near death experience, your life flashes before your eyes. I was just pretty pissed off about the whole thing. I couldn’t believe I was going out this way. I remember thinking “This is it. I’m done.” And I took a deep breath of water.
Heather later said she had never been so sure someone was dead before. She saw a wave go over my head and never saw me again. She thought she saw me floating face down in the water and screamed to the guides. It was her hiking boot.
If the following bit hadn’t happened precisely as it had, I would not be alive right now.
I resurfaced further down river just as the raft passed me. Carrie grabbed my hand, but I wasn’t responding and quickly slipped out of her grasp, like a scene from Cliffhanger. As the raft swung around, Jonathan hooked his arm around my waist. I remember hearing him say “I got you, I got you” over and over. He slung me over the raft and I choked up the water. The raft continued down the river with everyone in the water, but holding on to the raft. Another wave hit and Jon was thrown off. As he grabbed for the raft, he grabbed me by accident and we were both in the water again. He was able to grab on again and as the river snaked the other way, we hit a rocky beach area. The river was so powerful that even when four guides were holding the raft, Jon and I couldn’t get out of the waist-deep water. Jon tried pushing me up to the guides who pulled me out, but in doing so, almost got swept away again.
We lay on the rocks crying and holding each other. I threw up. As the shock wore off, we realized we were in pain. Our legs were purple from the rocks. Carrie pulled her pant leg up and I thought the bone was sticking out. It was a huge clot that the guides had to put pressure on as she screamed in pain. We also began to realize our new dilemma. We were stranded on this beach, soaking wet, and the sun was going down. We were next to a steep embankment and the only way around, was to climb over it. The guides claimed we had to get back in the raft to cross the river and then it would only be a 20 minute walk back. The only other option was to hike for two hours through the wilderness in the dark. Jon looked at the guides and sternly shouted “Can you guarantee our safety?” They all shook their heads no.
So we began our hike with one flashlight between the group. These weren’t well worn trails… we had to machete our way through a jungle. Jon lost his only pair of glasses in the river which rendered him legally blind, so we had to lead him. We were trudging along when we heard the sound of branches breaking over our heads. We looked up to see a wild orangutan looking down at us. Tomin, who knows all of the orangutans by name, yelled “Mehna! Very aggressive! Run!” and he took off. Poor Jon, completely blind, had his arms straight out like Frankenstein trying to run without hitting trees. I looked back to see if Heather was ok just as she face planted in the mud. We couldn’t see Mehna, but we could hear her crashing down after us. Apparently, she has attacked over 70 people in the park.
Just as we were recovering, we felt something hitting us in the head and looked up to see a troop of leaf monkeys pelting us with acorns. I guess the animals were not happy about our after hours excursion through the forest!
Hours later, I could see a clearing ahead and knew we were almost out of the park. We walked out of the tunnel of thick vegetation to an open field. I had never been so happy to see deforestation in my life. We were so excited, we ran out yelling and jumping around and totally forgot about our blind friend. He came walking down the steep muddy bit to see what we were yelling about and slid. It was like slow motion, he went over to the side, and got caught in the arms of vines, that supported him like a hammock. This six foot tall man immediately went into the fetal position screaming, wanting to know if he was about to go off the edge of a cliff. We were such bad friends, we were on the ground laughing so deliriously we couldn’t even tell him he was laying in the middle of a field.
That night, we joked about what had happened that day. We laughed about how Jonathan saved me, almost killed me again, and then re-saved me. But the realization of how close I actually was to dying also set in. The timing had been perfect. If I hadn’t popped up just as the raft passed me, I am 100% sure that I wouldn’t be writing this story right now. I called my mom, and as soon as I heard her voice, the tears came.
In the shower that night, I tried rinsing the shampoo out of my hair, and jumped out gasping for air. Every time I closed my eyes to sleep, I was under the water. I dream about it almost every night and wake up gasping. I think I might have issues.
Later that night, I read this in the Lonely Planet… “Inflated truck inner tubes are used to ride the Sungai Bohorok rapids. Don’t underestimate the river though; currents are extremely strong and when the water is high, tubing is officially off limits, though few will tell you this.”
That little tid bit of info might have been useful had I read it in the morning.
In fact, in 2003 a flash flood killed 239 people and destroyed over 400 houses. Much of the blame has been placed on illegal logging and deforestation.
We recuperated in the Jungle Inn, a beautifully rustic retreat up river. My body was purple with bruises and felt like I had been used as a human pinata. I started a dose of antibiotics to get a jump start on the typhoid, cholera or whatever else was about to wreak havoc on my insides from drinking so much of the water. We sat at the outdoor bar, with a poisonous pit viper resting on the beam above our heads, waiting for a mouse to happen by. We drank whatever hard alcohol they presented us with in the the hopes that it would kill the bacteria swimming inside of our bodies.
We had an outdoor shower, so I could watch the monkeys while I bathed. The only problem with being open to the elements is that the elements come in. A German couple warned us about the rats and not to have any food in our room. We went back to the room and were so tired, we completely forgot about the energy bars in our bags. Now here is the funny part… not only did the rats go in our bags and pull them out, but they dragged them across the room, into our beds and ate them by our heads as we slept. We woke up with crumbs and rat poop on our pillows. I guess they don’t like to dine alone.
As we sat having tea in the morning, looking out over the river that almost claimed our lives, we were rewarded with a sighting of Susu, the orangutan who had been caged at the park. They had set her free and she wasn’t alone. Trailing behind her was an orphan. The baby orangutan had lost her parents and Susu adopted her. The unlikely pair came to the river, startling a man who was bathing himself and then carried on up the rocks. It was the perfect ending to our Sumatran adventures.
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