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TANGKAHAN–THE HIDDEN PARADISE
Text and Photos by Teguh Sudarisman
An elephant ride along a jungle path by the river, a cave with a thousand passages, natural hot springs, river rafting – Tangkahan has it all.
The sounds of monkeys calling to one another and the leaves of oil palms rustling awakened me. I opened the window of the big tent, the headquarters of the Tangkahan Community Response Unit (CRU), where I was sleeping, and saw a lot of long-tailed monkeys jumping through the palm branches to the right of the tent, near where the elephants were tethered; they were probably looking for food. I could also hear the distant sounds of hornbills from the forest across the Batang Serangan River, to the left. A perfect way to start the day, and different from any I’d ever experienced.
I leapt out of bed as soon as I heard someone giving orders, followed by the sounds of heavy footsteps. Pak Suparman, one of the seven mahouts (elephant trainers), was steering Sari, a female elephant, to the river for her morning bath. The other six mahouts followed with their elephants. These elephants are part of the CRU team, comprised of local youths, mahouts, and forest police, which conducts routine patrols around the Gunung Leuser National Park (Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser, TNGL). Of the seven elephants here, only one is male. The youngest, Olive, is only eight years old; the others are between 20 and 35.
Tangkahan (the name means “transit place”) is a 1,800-hectare ecotourism area managed by two villages – Namo Sialang and Sei Serdang – that are the last villages before one enters the TNGL area from Langkat Regency, North Sumatra.
In the past, local residents cut down many trees and used the river and the oil-palm plantation roads as facilities for transporting their illegally cut logs. But the floods that struck the villages downstream made them aware of the error of their ways. In 2001, people from the two villages gathered and passed village regulations prohibiting illegal exploitation of the forest and its contents and establishing the Tangkahan Tourism Institute (Lembaga Pariwisata Tangkahan, LPT). Assisted by NGOs such as Indecon and Fauna and Flora International, LPT manages the Tangkahan ecosystem. It has a Community Tour Operator (CTO) that provides accommodation and tour guides – young people from the area – and the CRU, which patrols to protect the forest.
From January 2004, Tangkahan was declared by the North Sumatra Tourism Service as an ecotourism destination, in addition to the existing Bukit Lawang orangutan rehabilitation center. It’s fair to say that no more logging is being done in the Tangkahan area; most of the local people live from plantations (rubber, oil palms, and limes) and raising cattle, as well as benefiting from the ecotourism activities.
Bathing the elephants is a daily routine, every morning and afternoon. The tame elephants’ bodies are scrubbed with brushes, and their toenails are manicured. The elephants are also trained to follow their mahouts’ instructions: Lie down on one side, walk backwards, stay, sit, raise a leg – even shake hands and kiss a visitor on the cheek with their trunks. I helped bathe Eva; an elephant’s skin is very thick. When we were finished, her mahout, Pak Kliwon, told Eva to kiss my right cheek. The snorting breath from her trunk tickled and made me nervous.
The previous day, guided by Ika Sitepu, head of the CTO, I visited the villas for tourists along the shores of the Buluh River, a subsidiary of the Batang. To get there, I had to cross the river on a raft; some of the other villas are reached by walking through a dense rubber plantation. Near the villas is a small waterfall that is often used for water “acupuncture” therapy, as well as a small hot spring. In the evening, I saw the Rubber Market, which occurs on the 1st and 15th of every month. The local residents sell the rubber they have tapped to collectors, who then sell it on to rubber processing factories.
Today, after their bath, several of the elephants were going on patrol. With two elephants, Ika, Hendra, Putra and I planned to cross the river, trek through the forest, then walk and explore the Bat Cave (Gua Kelelawar).
Twin seats made of rattan were affixed to each elephant’s back. Ika and I rode on Sari with her mahout, Pak Suparman; Hendra and Putra rode Yuni with Pak Dolah. We brought along two truck tire inner tubes; for the return trip, we planned to float down the river on these tubes.
I had once ridden an elephant at Borobudur, and it was no fun at all; my neck and back all got really sore. But Ika, who was sitting behind me, gave me some advice: “Try and follow the rhythm of the elephant’s body; don’t resist it. If she sways forward, our bodies also sway forward. I promise you, it will feel better.” So I tried it, and it was fine; riding on the back of this 35-year-old elephant was actually quite comfortable.
Sari and Yuni took us across Sungai Batang and headed upstream. The river is not very deep – only knee-deep (for an elephant) at the deepest points. On both sides of us was forest full of damar, meranti, raja, keruing, and candan trees, some up to 40 meters tall, and some with diameters greater than one meter. Some trees with orange branches were growing along the riverbank.
“Those are bambu lemang,” Pak Suparman said, pointing out a cluster of tall, green bamboo. This type of bamboo is used for making lemang, a traditional cake popular in North and West Sumatra. Lengths of the bamboo are filled with sticky rice, steamed, then roasted.
The dense green forest, the cool fresh air, and the sounds of the elephants’ feet splashing through the clear river water all created a very relaxing atmosphere. It’s no wonder that many Indonesian celebrities have come here. Last year, the actor Nicolas Saputra came and went trekking by elephant. More recently, Australian celebrities Rove McMannus and Tasma Walton visited Tangkahan.
The forest provides habitat for Sumatran orangutans, Thomas’s leaf monkeys, wild elephants, Sumatran tigers, wild boars, small squirrels, drongos, and hawks. Rare plants are found in the forest as well: the notoriously smelly giant flowers, Rafflesia atjehensis. Near the end of our trek along the river, we were surprised by a hawk flying low and then dropping something next to the river. We went to look; it was a fresh river fish as big as a man’s arm. Pak Suparman took it, saying “All right! We can grill this when we get home.”
We then started our trek through the forest, and I was impressed by Sari’s strength. The weight of her own big body, with three adult humans on her back and neck, gave her no trouble at all on the steep trekking trail. If I had been walking up it myself, I would have been out of breath before I reached the top.
The deeper we penetrated the forest, the darker it got, and the trees were taller and more densely packed. Several times Pak Suparman had to hack away branches blocking our path with his machete. The mahouts established this trail for their forest patrols. One trail heads to Goat Cave (Gua Kambing), which has a nice view of a waterfall, where tourists can have dinner and then spend the night. But the trail we were taking was the one to Bat Cave, which can be explored within one day.
After about an hour of trekking through the forest, we came to the upstream part of the Batang River. Ika, Hendra, Putra and I got off by the river, and the two elephants returned with their mahouts to the CRU post. We forded the river and came to a place where the two sides of the river formed a kind of gate.
After a short rest, we climbed the hill to the south of the river and headed toward Gua Kelelawar. The dense forest and muddy ground, wet from the previous night’s rain, tired me out quickly. We then came to the mouth of the cave; we had to duck our heads to enter it.
We were greeted by the characteristic smell and squeaks of bats. The sloping floor of the cave was wet and slippery, so we had to walk very cautiously. Water was seeping and spurting from the cave wells as we entered the area where the bats congregate. Thousands of small bats were hanging there in the dark; all we could really see was the reflection of their eyes.
But only this damp part of the cave served as the bats’ nest. As we went in further, there were no more bats; the cave was dryer and warmer, and the only creatures were crawly things – cockroaches and the like. There were no notable stalactites or stalagmites; what did impress me, apart from the cave’s great length, was the huge number of passages in the cave, creating a complex labyrinth. With every step we took, we saw new tunnels to the left, ahead, and to the right. Some were high and wide; others you could only enter by twisting your body and crawling. Some went up; others went steeply down. Several times, going into narrow passages, Hendra and I were “rewarded” with bumps on our heads.
I asked Ika, our guide, how he could be sure we would come to the other end of the cave without getting lost. But he was completely confident about the passages he led us into; he said she always takes exactly the same route. “You’ve never tried going into other passages?” I asked. Ika shook his head. “I’ve come into this cave many times, but I only go into the passages I’m used to taking. Honestly, I’d be afraid to go any other way.”
And even taking the usual route, Ika almost got us lost. Just about fifty meters from the end, we came to several very similar looking passages; Ika went into one, and it didn’t actually lead to the exit. We repeatedly went into wrong passages, until finally we saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I was so relieved – we weren’t lost anymore!
I then realized that this exit was that same “gate” in the riverbank we had seen earlier when we started our trek to the cave. The second surprise was that from another small cave nearby, hot water was flowing into the river. Why hadn’t we taken a hot bath earlier, before we started our trek, I asked. Ika just laughed. “Consider it a bonus for managing to get out of the Bat Cave.”
And so we lay there in the cave for quite some time, soaking in the hot water that soothed our tired, aching muscles. And as the sun slipped down to the west, Hendra and I climbed onto an inner tube, were pushed into the river flow by Ika and Putra, and carried by the current of the Batang back to the CRU post. What an amazing day!
How to Get to Tangkahan
Tangkahan is around 100 km northwest of Medan. You can get there by private car, or take the “Pembangunan Semesta” bus from Pinang Baris terminal in Medan. The three- or four-hour trip features views of oil palms and some rather rough bits of road. For transport and accommodation, contact Sidik (tel: +62 813 76607551) or the Fauna and Flora International office at Jl. Garuda 61A, Sei Sikambing, Medan, tel. +62 61 8452203.