(Photo of abandoned Fish House in the middle of a coffee field near Lake Toba Sumatra)
It is funny really, because when we departed California in Oh9, I didn't even drink much coffee. And as a result, Lori really didn't drink much coffee either even though she always loved coffee. However, when we reached Vanuatu, we discovered Tanna Coffee which grows on the volcanic mountain sides of that unique little island that we love and have such fond memories of our hectic approach to from Fiji.
We bought several kilos of Tanna Coffee before we sailed for New Calidonia and later onto Australia. While in Australia we started drinking lots of coffee. We even investigated the idea of importing Tanna Coffee into Australia, but unfortunately someone else beat us to it and had locked-up the market.
Over the past couple years, we've become fond of Sumatran Coffee that we buy from Starbucks in 250g vacuum bags and hand grind every morning then French press two very strong cups of seriously nice JO. So, when we decided to make a trip to Lake Toba Sumatra, we wanted to visit the coffee fields and see the coffee growing and drying process in person. What we saw was thousands of small farm growers picking their own beans and drying them on their front porches and then shipping large bags to the city of Medan where they perform the final hull parching and grading before shipping around the world where they are finally roasted and sold. The primary realization was that unlike most coffee growing regions, Sumatran Coffee is made-up of hundreds of small family owned and operated farms where depulping, drying and most uniquely "wet Hulling" is done.
It is also important to note the highlands of Sumatra are purely rich volcanic soil at 1000 meter altitude. And in a time when the world of coffee only wants Arabica beans, Sumatra grows both Arabica and Robusta with wonderful flavors.
Now, Robusta is not typically known for flavor, but rather 2X higher caffeine than Arabica which is why it is generally used in espresso blends. Arabica generally has higher lippid and sugar content which probably gives it that smooth flavor instead of that caffeine kick. Vietnam and Sumatra are known for their high quality Robusta beans.
So what makes Sumatran Coffee so unique? Coffees in Sumatra are traditionally processed using a method called Giling Basah, or wet-hulling, which results in a coffee that leaves the farm with a much higher moisture content than other methods used more popularly worldwide. Coffee processed this way tend to be described as herbaceous, spicy, wild, mushroomy, earthy, and other things that may or may not sound good to you. But for a coffee lover, it means a full robust flavor.
While in Sumatra, we bought 2 kgs of roasted Arabica Danua Toba (Lake Toba) and 2 kgs of Robusta Sidikalang (North Sumatran). We only bought 4 kgs because that was all we could carry. When we returned to the boat, we mixed the two bean 50-50, then vacuum bagged it and placed it in the freezer for our morning hand grinding and French Pressing ritual. Life on a boat is always better with rituals.
The Awesome Sumatran Orangutan Jungle Trek and River Ride
After a long days drive down from the North Sumatran highlands on a horribly rough and narrow road through the jungle, we were glad to finally reach Butik Lawang. Bukit Lawang is a small Sumatran village located on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bukit Lawang offers a relaxed atmosphere alongside the banks of the Bohorok river with many rope bridges crossing from the village to the jungle giving it a waterpark appearance.
We got a room at the Ida Guest House which we would later find is not only located next to the peaceful Bohorok river with wonderful views, but it also backs-up to the local Muslim Mosque. And when I say backs-up to, I mean it shares a wall with the Mosque. Now this wasn't an issue until we wanted to get some sleep and be well rested for the jungle trek the following day.
The Butik Lawang Mosque has a minaret equipped with two new loud speakers that are used for call to prayer 5 times a day starting at 4-f-ing-AM. These speakers were 20 feet from our room! Now, in addition to the 4-fucking-AM adhan (or Call to Prayer), it is also Ramadan where all good Muslims fast during daylight and the Adhan at this Mosque ran a 3 hour Ramadan special Adhan using young children to scream the call to prayer nonstop from 8PM to 10PM. I can't tell you how much joy this brought us.
So, at 4-f-ing-AM, we were wide awake having had our fillings rattled from our heads. Our trek guide "Muhdi" was there at our door waiting for us and ready to march into the jungle just as the sun was rising over the river. The weather forecast was for 93F & 87% humidity...this is seriously like doing a 7 hour hike in a steam room. In an effort to be prepared, we took 4 liters of water which is pretty darn heavy when you include 2 large bunches of bananas for the Orangutans, 3 cameras, towels and change of clothes for the river raft trip scheduled for the end of the trek.
At about 7am we were crossing one of the foot bridges into the jungle and up steep trails through a rubber tree plantation. Muhdi described the latex rubber extraction process and how the tree bark is carved and tapped to flow sap latex into coconut pots. He also told us about the tricks used by the collectors of sap to increase their daily collects weights by adding tree bark to the latex pots. Small incisions are cut into the trees' bark at night so that latex sap will drip longer before drying out in the tropical sun. Workers collect the tapped latex the following morning. Progressively lower cuts are made in the rubber trees, allowing them to be tapped for many years. After sufficient amounts are collected, basins of latex are processed with an acid to coagulate it, making the latex more solid. The acid is then removed by rolling the latex under pressure into thin sheets, which are smoked over a fire to stabilize the rubber. In that form the rubber can be exported. Rubber trees originally were a New World plant originating in Central or South American forests. Now 90% of the world's rubber is produced in Southeast Asia.
After getting our science lesson for the morning, we continued to the edge of the Gunung Park where the rubber tree plantation abruptly stops and the jungle starts. The trail suddenly became very narrow and steep with lots of vines and roots growing across the path making the trek a bit challenging for the stability challenged (I'm not naming names here). We continued along the trail for about 2 hours with our guide making all kinds of howling and whooping sounds in an effort to locate the orangutans. As the trees in the jungle started to get taller and thicker, we began to see orangutan nests high up in the branches. Muhdi told us that the orangutans make their nests fresh every night before sunset making it was easy to tell when you were getting close to an orangutan by the color of the leaves in the nest. The fresher and greener the leaves, the more likely the orangutan is nearby. Muhdi said there are approximately 50 local orangutans and they constantly move through the trees 2 - 3km per day. They very rarely touch the ground. It is estimated that there are over 7000 orangutans in the Gunung Park. The males are very rarely seen since they come down from the deep jungle to visit the females only to mate. The females, with their children, seem to hangout closer to the edge of the jungle where they interact with humans for free food handouts in exchange for photo ops.
After about 3 hours we still hadn't spotted a single orangutan when suddenly Muhdi told us to be quiet and move slowly. Up ahead in the trees we could see a couple other people and a guide looking up into the trees at a female orangutan and her 2 year old baby. As we got closer we could see the baby about 100 feet up hanging upside down while the mother was slowly making her way down to the humans who were offering her peanuts. She was very slowly approaching the humans with caution while reaching out her long arm and extended fingers beckoning some peanuts. The guides would only give her one peanut at a time and she would take the peanut and retreat a bit to eat it. After about fifteen minutes the baby began climbing down and getting closer to its mother in an effort to share some peanuts. The agility of the baby was amazing as it could hold a branch and rely on its bending just so to bring it down to the level of his mother. At one point he came within inches of hitting my camera while swinging on a narrow branch with one hand and holding food in the other. The mother hardly kept an eye on the baby apparently knowing he was capable of taking care of himself.
At some point our Muhdi pulled out some bananas and the orangutans took note of the sudden change in offerings. Apparently bananas are like drugs for these guys. They will come out of the tree and walk on the ground to get at them once they know who has them in their backpack. As the day progressed and we started encountering more orangutans and their babies, Muhdi told us that they all have a very unique personality. One female has hospitalized 48 people thus far. Another one will come down from the trees and hold hands with you and walk with you. Others will take your backpack from you and run off to the tops of trees with it and pull stuff out one piece at a time looking for food. They are very human like and full of mischief in their eyes. When they come down from the trees to interact, it is like their play time and they will fuck with you in one way or another just for their entertainment.
In addition to the orangutans, we encountered dozens of Macaques, White Gibbons, Thomas Leaf Monkeys a.k.a. Funky Monkeys and Baboons. The Macaques roamed around on the trails in large troops and would walk within feet of you. They wouldn't pay you any attention unless you made a sudden move towards them and then they would go nuts making growling and hissing noises and showing their teeth while flashing their eyebrows. If you pulled out a banana, suddenly they loved you and were their best friend. The Thomas Leaf monkeys were the coolest because they are calm and very human like. They will sit down right next to you and be your best friend as long as you had bananas. They would hangout, hold your hand, and even take bananas from your mouth with theirs. All this behaviour was predicated on the presence of bananas. As soon as the bananas stopped coming, they would lose interest and head back to the trees. The baboon male that we shared our lunch with was an impressive looking chap. He had huge teeth, big flashing eyebrows and massive shoulders. He would sit about 10 feet away and never get any closer, but he would happily share you extra bananas and pineapple. The baboon seems to like the leftover pineapple skins which he is quite able to pick clean. And like the others, as soon as the food runs out he retreated to the jungle...we felt so used.
Now, after 7 hours of hiking up and up and up, we were faced with a really steep down hill climb, one comparable to our Bora Bora adventure, but without the mud. By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain, we were exhausted and dehydrated as our water had runout and hour ago. Up in the distance, we could hear rushing water from the Bohorok river where we would take rubber tire tubes lashed together to make a raft and float down the river for an hour in the nice cool water back to Butik Lawang. The cool water was a welcomed change after being exposed to the thick dense humid jungle heat for over 7 hours. However, as soon as I hit the cold water my leg muscles started cramping and I couldn't bend my legs without cramping for about an hour.
Our trip down the river was exhilarating for me and icy cold for Lori-bird and the only drama we had was that one of our tire tubes got popped by a rock on the river bank.
All-in-all another AWESOME experience!
We travelled a long distance in very heavy traffic coming down from the highlands to see the wild orangutans in Bukit Lawang. There was an accident on the narrow road between a water truck and a van which backed up traffic for 7 hours. We were lucky and only caught the last hour of the backup.
We are now in a small river village across from the jungle where we will find wild orangutans and river rafting back down from the jungle...quite adventurous for us old farts! Videos to come.
Yesterday we took the ferry back across lake Toba from Tuk Tuk and Samosir Island to the small town of Parapat where we met up with our driver and tour guide Ben. Ben is a Batak and speaks perfect English which is hard to find here in Sumatra.
Ben took us on a wonderful drive along the upper cliffs above Lake Toba and through miles and miles of coffee plantations where they grow some of the best coffee in the world. In fact, Starbucks is selling Sumatran Lake Toba coffee.
Batak house of the local "king" who had 24 wives...therefore a very long house was required.
Photo of the village elder...he is 95 years old and still spry as can be. What a face.