An eco-tour in North Sumatra captivates Kate Orgias.

When I booked my North Sumatran Raw Wildlife tour, I had no idea I would return home saying it was "life-changing".

From the city of Medan and its four million people to the majestic Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP), a Unesco World Heritage site, every part of it affected me in some way.

Before this trip, the very idea of trekking through the jungle was outside my comfort zone. But fairly soon, I became aware that I was in expert hands. As evidenced by my tour, Raw caters to everyone - from the adventurous single traveller, to families, honeymooners, couples - and me.

Our tour guide was Auckland Zoo primate team leader Amy Robbins, who has been leading eco-tours for four years. She has a wealth of knowledge and an infectious enthusiasm for North Sumatra.

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The moment we touched down in Medan we were greeted by a guide who gave us the low-down on the city, skillfully leading us through the chaotic yet strangely organised traffic. By the time we arrived at the hotel I was hooked.

After a day touring the city we were driven to Bukit Lawang, on the edge of the GLNP - the largest wilderness area in Southeast Asia, and a truly magical and unique place. It is also the last place on Earth where critically endangered Sumatran orang-utans, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros co-exist.

We checked in at the eco-lodge at Bukit Lawang. It felt like a movie set with its curved roof huts, drooping plants, tropical flowers, lanterns and a soundtrack provided by the flowing Bohorok River and Thomas leaf monkeys.

From here, we set off for our first jungle walk, where we saw a wild endangered orang-utan with its baby. It was breathtaking.

TUBING ON THE RIVER, NORTH SUMATRAN JUNGLE. Photos: Grace Watson
TUBING ON THE RIVER, NORTH SUMATRAN JUNGLE. Photos: Grace Watson

From there, we ventured into a cave with thousands of bats and dramatic lightbeams, before swimming in the crystal-clear water surrounded by dragonflies. Tangkahan, also on the edge of the GLNP, is often called the hidden paradise of Sumatra and its treasures are abundant.

Eco-tourism is now a major source of income for these communities around the GLNP. Before tourism, local communities logged illegally in the forests, poaching or destroying the wildlife.

The people of Tangkahan recognised the harm being caused and embarked on a mission to protect the forest.

When there, you can see how effective eco-tourism can be as an alternative to illegal forest activity and palm oil labour.

It is sustainable, environmentally sound and allows communities to retain their cultural heritage and identity.

Raw works alongside these communities in different ways to highlight the importance of caring for their wildlife and environment.

An elephant in North Sumatra.
An elephant in North Sumatra.

When our guides aren't guiding they are patrolling the forest as rangers, dismantling and documenting illegal activities such as poaching.

In Tangkahan we became immersed in the Karonese culture.

We fed and bathed the majestic Conservation Response Unit elephants who have become guardians of the forest, tubed down the glistening rivers past the mistrustful eyes of macaques as they jumped from rocks into the shallows, swam under waterfalls and comfortably camped in a cave after trekking through the rainforest.

Every meal is a fabulous feast, from a delicately arranged lunch on a rock in the river or by a waterfall to a delicious Karonese buffet. We never went hungry.

Trekking through the jungle, the only sounds I heard were the crunch of leaf litter beneath my feet, the siamang gibbon duets echoing through the forest, the powerful hornbill wings cutting through the air.

Then there was the thump of discarded fruit skins dropped on us by an orang-utan from the top of a very tall tree and the percussion section of insects and frogs playing their parts of this sumptuous Sumatran symphony.

During our night-walks, I was delighted to discover that once the lights were out, the darkness came alive with fireflies and glowing bioluminescence.

As we sat among the black nature I was almost hypnotised by the night songs of the jungle and brought to mind films like Avatar, or stories such as The Jungle Book.

North Sumatra.
North Sumatra.