Thursday, June 10, 2010

Gunung Leuser National Park

Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the world’s most important and biologically diverse conservation areas. It is often described as a complete ecosystem laboratory because of the range of forest and species types.

Within the park’s boundaries live some of the planet’s most endangered species - tigers, rhinoceros, elephants and orang-utans. Although your chances of seeing these celebrity animals are extremely remote, you can be sure of encountering plenty of primates. The most common is the white-breasted Thomas Leaf monkey, which sports a brilliant, crested punk hairdo.

Habitats range from the swamp forests of the west coast to the dense lowland rainforests of the interior. Much of the area around Ketambe is virgin forest. Above 1500m, the permanent mist has created moss forests rich in epiphytes and orchids. Rare flora includes two members of the rafflesia family, Rafflesia acehensis and Rafflesia zippelnii, which are found along Sungai Alas.

More than 300 bird species have been recorded in the park, including the bizarre rhinoceros hornbill and the helmeted horn-bill, which has a call that sounds like maniacal laughter.

The park faces a great number of challenges. Poachers have virtually wiped out the crocodile population and have severely reduced the number of tigers and rhinoceros. According to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, a fifth of the park has been adversely affected by illegal logging and road construction. A highly controversial road project, called Ladia Galaska, has been on the government agenda for years and when completed will link the eastern and western coasts of the province through the park. The progress of the project has been slow and embattled.

This park receives a lot of rain through-out the year, but rain showers tend to lessen in frequency and duration from December to March.

Orientation & Information
Gurah, in the heart of the Alas Valley, is one of the main access points to Gunung Leuser National Park. Directly across the river is Ketambe, home to a world-renowned conservation research station, which is off limits to tourists (see the boxed text on below ). Kutacane, 43km from Gurah, is the closest town of any note and is the place to go for transport, supplies and post and telephone facilities.

You are not allowed to enter the park without a permit and a guide. Both are available from the PHKA office in Tanah Merah, about 45 minutes from Gurah, and 15 minutes from Kutacane. Permits cost  about 20,000Rp (plus 500Rp insurance) per day. In theory you will need three photocopies of your passport but this is rarely required. Guides can be hired from the PHKA office or from any guesthouse in Gurah. If you have a certain plant or animal objective, ask around for the guides with that specialty.

For serious trekkers and jungle enthusiasts Gurah offers a much more authentic experience than the trekking near Bukit Lawang. Be prepared for hordes of leeches, swarms of stinging insects and extreme terrain. The PHKA office in Tanah Merah has information about a variety of treks, from short walks to 14-day hikes through the jungle to the tops of the park’s mountains. Here are a few options; guides can also tailor a trip to specific requests:
Gurah Recreation Forest The hutan wisata (recreation forest) at Gurah is a park within the national park. The forest’s 9200 hectares have walking tracks and viewing towers; the most popular walk involves a two-hour (5km) hike from Gurah to hot springs by Sungai Alas. There’s also a 6km walk to a waterfall. Gunung Kemiri At 3314m, this is the second-highest peak in Gunung Leuser National Park. The return trek takes five to six days, starting from the village of Gumpang, north of Gurah. It takes in some of the park’s richest primate habitat, with orang-utans, macaques, siamangs and gibbons.
Gunung Perkinson Allow seven days for the return trek to the summit of Gunung Perkinson (2828m), on the eastern side of the park. There are wild orchids, lady slipper and other flowers unique to Aceh, as well as a spectacular moss forest along this route.
Gunung Simpali The trek to Gunung Simpali (3270m) is a one-week round trip starting from the village of Engkran and following the valley of Sungai Lawe Mamas. Rhinos live in this area. The Lawe Mamas is a wild, raging river that joins the Alas about 15km north of Kutacane.
Gunung Leuser The park’s highest peak is, of course, Gunung Leuser (3404m). Only the fit should attempt the 14-day return trek to the summit. The walk starts from the village of Angusan, northwest of Blangkejeran.

Sleeping & Eating
Accommodation is scattered along the only road through Gurah. Each guesthouse has its own small restaurant.
Pondok Wisata Ketambe. Coming from the south, it is the first option with forest bungalows. More expensive rooms have hot water.
Guesthouse Sadar Wisata. Next door, this has a range of good-value bungalows from basic older models to newer, more comfortable rooms across the road.
Gurah Bungalows. The only upmarket option, 4km up the road. Clean, spacious rooms are set deep in the forest, right on the bank of the river.
If you arrive in Kutacane too late to reach Gurah, you might have to spend the night at Wisma Rindu Alam (Jl Besar).

Getting There & Around
SMAC flies from Kutacane to Medan and to Banda Aceh.
Long-distance buses leave from the terminal in Kutacane for Medan’s Pinang Baris terminal (6 hours) and Berastagi (5 hours). Along the way there are fine views of Gunung Sinabung and the Alas Valley.
From Kutacane there are countless labi labi to Tanah Merah (15 minutes) and Gurah (1 hour).
There are also buses heading north to Blangkejeran and beyond.

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