But nothing prepared me for the thick choking smoke that overwhelmed us as we stepped outside the international arrivals in Medan. I was gutted. It was true, the forests were on fire. Fortunately the smoke dissipated the further from the airport we drove towards the sprawling city of Medan.
A few days later we headed out for the jungle of Bukit Lawang, the entry town to the National Park. It wasn’t long after we left the city limits of Medan behind that the landscaped changed from hustle and bustle of city life into rural pastures and colourful villages. That all was nice but soon that changed too into the domineering palm oil plantations that lined both sides of the highway – mile after mile.
The palm oil plantations featured out our van window all the way to Bukit Lawang. It was a sad reminder of what was once there, lush tropical habitat for the wildlife that called it home. Fortunately the National Park is a wildlife haven and is teeming with all sorts of critters from the biggest centipedes you have ever seen to our orange fuzzy furred cousins the orang-utans. Also living in this pristine jungle is the Sumatran Tiger – extremely endangered – and the Sumatran elephant and rhino.
While walking around the village of Bukit Lawang we noticed the palm oil plantations encroaching right up to the National Park. We learnt that the fruit sells for 10 cents a kilo and the tree produces fruit after 4 years and will live approximately 25 years, using a ridiculous amount of water and draining the soil of nutrients.
Yet looking around on Sumatra I did not see any wealth: it’s a third world country. Looking at all the palm oil that Indonesia produces (approx 54% of the worlds production – 2017) you have to ask: ‘who is making all the money?’ Certainly not the poor farmers.
After leaving Bukit Lawang we headed to Lake Toba, which was a long full days drive. For the first three hours we drove through palm oil plantations – again – until they eventually thinned out. We drove through a forested area where we were supposed to have a chance to see a Sumatran Tiger. Needless to say we did not see one.
Nor did we see any other wildlife.