Sunday 30 December 2012

Holidays in Tangkahan – Part1: Setting the scene

Tangkahan is a beautiful jungle area in Sumatra, Indonesia, offering a wonderful eco-holiday experience including elephants, wildlife, hiking, tubing, caves, waterfalls, great food and wonderful people.

RAW Elephant Odyssey, July 2011
Now: South East Asia might sound a little bit scary for the rather inexperienced traveller, I however am sure that almost everybody feels a little bit of a tingle going down the spine, thinking: I wish would just dare going there…

I am one of those people. Up until summer 2011 I only had travelled to the USA, safely accompanied by my husband. Yet, travelling alone to the jungle, facing heat and humidity, creepy-crawlies, and uncertain food and bathroom situations was not really my idea of holidays.

There however was that tingle when I stumbled across that website advertising a 14 day Elephant Odyssey with a prospect of seeing wild Orangutans. One and a half years on, I not only did this beautiful guided tour - and I did see a wild Orangutan mum with her baby in the jungle, and a hornbill, and an eagle flying high up above my lodge why I was lying in my hammock - I went back twice, travelling on my own account. Thus I now feel enabled to give sound information and during the next few posts I will hopefully be able to rope you in. Who knows? One day we may even meet in Tangkahan.

Travel always bears the question: What will it cost me? And the answer is: There is always a trade-off between ease and price.

The easiest way is to book a tour with RAW Wildlife Encounters. On their website you find different tours  and they are always happy to tailor a tour for your needs (please note that the prices on the RAW website are Australian Dollars). As far as I know they are now able to help with flight bookings when you are Australian, if you are travelling from Europe or America you will have to book your own flight, but just ask to see with what they can assist. They expand and tailor their services all the time.

Tours booked with RAW of course have to be more expensive than travelling on your own account. Firstly, you will be paying for their service – and what a service that is – and secondly, the company has a strong corporate responsibility scheme, running sustainability and conservation projects in the area. However, if you are organising everything yourself you might find that prices are not as cheap as one might expect from basic South East Asian jungle lodge living. ... and rightly so, they aren't! Tangkahan is special in many ways.

The History
A good decade ago the villagers were illegal loggers and the area was about to lose the rainforest for good. Bamboo River lodge was the first in the area and the owners raised awareness to convince the villagers to rather find their business in eco-tourism and preserve the rainforest rather than destroying it. The paper company fought back, wrecking the place forcing the couple, an English lady with her Indonesian husband, to go back to England. Their message however had been received, the villagers drove the paper company out, Bamboo River lodge was rebuilt and still exists and others followed. The rainforest has recovered and the tourist business is the tool to give people a living without palm oil, rubber and logging. Travelling to Tangkahan is active conservation.

Accommodation is simple, usually a room with a bed with mosquito net, small table and a chair. Bathrooms have sitting down toilet, some lodges have sinks but at my favourite - Green Lodge - you only will find a tap with a bucket from which you will take the used water with a ladle to flush the toilet.

my bathroom 2011 - in the meantime I got a proper toilet seat, amazing with how little water one can survive quite comfortably

Electricity is still provided through generators during evening until bedtime. Bamboo River lodge was the first to be connected to the power grid just now – we had a big party to celebrate – so there is hope that the others will get power as well during the next year or so. Mobile access is available but not strong enough to load some websites, or to send big emails, so communication is slow.

Apart from the conservation aspect you might ask: 'Why would I want to pay for something so basic at all, why should I visit a place like this?' And I would answer: because you would be sitting on a beautiful restaurant terrace in the middle of amazing foliage, overlooking the river. 

walk to the restaurant
You would be drinking strong Sumatran coffee and if you would get lucky it would be from the area of Aceh, you would eat fantastic food cooked and served by lovely people, you would be faced with challenges just big enough to make you proud when accomplished and after only a short while you would feel like family. I in the meantime have a daughter and two brothers and I am proud that they chose me as their mother and sister.

And I am asking back: Why would one want to not pay a decent salary for all of this? If we travel in Europe, North America or Australia we expect service cost to be high, we accept that people have to make a living and that tipping 12% is the norm. Why would we think that only because the houses in East Asia are basic and chickens are running between them, the common rule has to be that labour is cheap? The season for business only lasts three quarters of a year at its best and ever so often staff does not even earn enough to make a living during this period. Tangkahan is different. The prices are appropriate to give people a decent living and to support community projects like rubbish collection and the rainforest conservation.

A lot needs still to be done! Like in Europe, fees are added to certain services and activities to sustain community projects. The people of Tangkahan are working hard to develop a sustainability concept for the villages and the rainforest, and they need the help and support of their guests. You however will get your moneys worth of holiday: If you allow it to happen, then visiting Tangkahan will be a life changing experience.

Coming up: Some more info about money

Friday 21 December 2012

Location Scouting in Sumatra – Samosir round trip

Eventually! I am travelling again! 

This is my third trip to Indonesia and you may remember that I got completely hooked to Tangkahan on my first trip in July 2011. I then went back in April 2012 to help drive forward the ‘English Club’ into ‘Tangkahan Education Centre’ and now I am back to see how the projects evolve during the wet season. I however never got round to write a comprehensive travel diary, so lets see if I will manage to that this time.

After my first trip I decided to compile the diary into an eBook to sell for charity in support of the ‘English Club’, then things at home got busy and it didn’t happen. For the April trip the plan was to use Tangkahan as writer’s retreat, but the mood took a bit on a downturn when two of the elephant baby died. I at least met Jess again, who had some troubles of her own, needing to take some tough decisions for RAW. All this didn’t really help to lift the writing spirits. Although I felt that the community quite appreciated my support I could not do a lot more than inspire during this short period of time. I knew needed to be on location to turn the ‘English Club’ into the Tangkahan Education Centre’, so I booked the next flight for December 2012, an here I am.

Tangkahan - Augustines wet kiss!

Oh, and what a change I see! The mood has completely changed. The elephants are healthy and happy, and RAW has taken initiative again: Jess brought her friend Sonya into the game who has a strong background in sustainability. She drives things with ease and encourages people to see and take opportunities. Due to employing more of the guides with RAW they have grown from a group of friends into a real team, with each member taking full responsibility in their role. They are strong role models for the younger guides and thus the future is looking safe and prosperous for Tangkahan.

That does not mean that things are easy, though. There is still a lot of work to be done to be sustainable. One of the actions which RAW is taking in this respect is to find alliances. They are extending their tours to sustain the RAW profits to maintain the company healthy, and to be able to run and extend their corporate responsibility schemes of giving grants, paying fair wages, rubbish management and many more. And that is were my current trip comes in: I am travelling with the team to scout for new locations.

Samosir Island, Lake Toba - West coast
They already had made initial contact within the Lake Toba region, a volcanic lake, which was created by one of the biggest eruption that ever happened. We now are travelling around and finding out more details so that at the end we can plan a tour from Medan, to Lake Toba moving on to Tangkahan. The Lake is about a day drive from Medan and has the absolutely beautiful island Samosir in the middle. As I type we are driving along the North coast towards the West side of the island where there is a to reach the mainland without the ferry, we however want to go further South down the West coast. We were told that at one point the road gets bad and 4-wheel drive is needed, which we don’t have. So we feel like explorers. The road we are on does not look like being able to take two cars, at least it does not have a white line, yet we are dashing along with 80km an hour at times not really knowing what is around the next corner, people walking, animals crossing, potholes usually a bit deeper than expected - ok, now we are crossing a little bridge of wood I would be careful to walk on…

Samosir Island, Lake Toba - Water buffalo at the South coast

One gets quite used to this sort of driving, though. In the UK I would have an adrenalin shock by now, clinging to something to hold on to. Oh, and the music is howling louder than in a disco. I feel more relaxed than ever in my life, and I am learning again to type without looking at the keyboard so that I don’t miss too much of the scenery. So many traditional Batak houses, each different, water buffalos everywhere, flora changing from fruit trees, to rice terraces – no palm oil nor rubber plantations, beautiful churches and the island seems to be mainly Christian, and graveyards with mausoleums taking the prime spots of land to honour the spirits of the ancestors and make them watch over their children. I quite like that idea to have the graveyard so close to the community – the Western view point of strict separation between life and death and the denial that we all have to go one day, does not seem to exist here. 

Samosir Island, Lake Toba - Sunset in the mountains

The task for today is to find out where the ferries go, how the streets are, how much time one needs to get round and if there are attractions we don’t know of yet. The coastline of the mainland is absolutely beautiful here on the West side, very close to the island, with a shimmering strip of water in-between.

I had to interrupt my writing for taking as much pictures as possible; we a had coffee break at the ferry, followed by a strip of bumpy road in the south of the island and then turned up North into the mountains which truly are a secret treasure. After every turn we were surprised by an even more beautiful view to then find at the perfect spot for a beautiful sunset.

Now however we are in another adventure; we need to get off this mountain in rain and fog. Weather is changing quickly. We could see the big cloud closing in on us, almost sitting on the surface of the lake. We could see it from above and all of a sudden this wall of grey had overtaken us and we became like blindfolded. As I write the driver is negotiating a small road with a sight of not more than 50m. We already have passed a small slippery bridge made from strips of wood, which had just the with of the car with the mountain on one and a steep fall on the other. Basically: If you are reading this then we made it!

I will close my story now, we are going downhill and the sight is starting to clear at least a little bit. I guess we will have at least another half hour to go and I suppose a toilet brake is out of question. Some focus from my side is required!

PS: The music seems to be on ‘shuffle’ – it did not stop for a single moment