How the biggest killer of the rain forest saved our lives

Sanne van Oosten

How to save the rapidly receding rain forest of Sumatra? We asked this to a passionate nature preserver at Bukit Lawang. An owner of 80 hectares of rain forest we spoke to, Aca, has some pretty interesting ideas about this. “Make the rain forest profitable instead of dependent on aid.” He works on eco-tourism, showing people the beauties of the rain forest, but he also suggests to bring back the paper factories enabling the rain forest to be used to produce paper. Wait a minute, is this really coming from a passionate nature preserver? Yes it is, and this is the underlying rationale: In order to produce paper,  forest have to be planted first. This can lead to the expansion of the rain forest, albeit for the production of paper. That is a much better alternative than what is happening now. Millions of hectares of rain forest are being destroyed to build palm oil plantations, an important ingredients for products such as shampoo, cooking oil, chips, margarine and soap. Meaning that palm oil is a much bigger threat to the rain forest than paper is. Whereas most people feel guilty about printing unnecessary amounts of paper, it makes more sense to feel guilty for squirting out too much shampoo.

The next day we were off to see the beauties of the rain forest. The group consisted of 4 people. Davey, myself, a Balinese tattoo artist and the guide. The guide was supposed to be our leader turned out to be somewhat inexperienced. What should have been a jungletrek of 4 hours, turned out to become a hell of 3 days. We didn’t have any food, no clean water, nothing. In retrospect we figured out he must have been lost after 2 hours already (he kept proudly saying “virgin trek” when we were walking through thorny bushes off the trail, but now we know he was just trying to hide he was lost). He sent us down an extremely steep mountain with the only grip being trees, of which many were rotting away. The guide fell down the cliff for about 10 meters (busting his toe quite badly) before he caught on the a tree and decided not to go that way anyway. At that point we realized something was wrong. It was taking so much longer than expected and all our water was gone. We were so thirsty we needed water. We could hear a waterfall in the distance so we followed the sound. When we were at the water we decided that we could follow the water, water always goes somewhere, right? Our guide claimed that this particular river didn’t go anywhere, it just stopped at some point. We tried to explain that water always goes to the sea. But he didn’t listen and/or understand. Davey had a compass in his bag. And of course our guide couldn’t read a compass. Anyway, he claimed we had to go west. Meanwhile we were being attacked by leeches and it was starting to get dark.

It was dark and raining so we decided to find the highest point of the mountain so we could build a fire so the rescue team could find us. We climbed up a steep hill in the complete dark, with the help of a flashlight. Meanwhile a thunderstorm started. We built a hut and lay in it and waited until the rain was over. When the rain was over the tattoo guy and guide started building a fire, but this didn’t last long. After we had burned almost everything we had, we went to “sleep” in our hut made from leaves. Soaking wet, while bugs were eating us, this was probably the longest night of my life.

The next morning I was pretty positive. We would just walk back the way we came. We ate a quarter passion fruit for breakfast and all would be good. But it turned out the guide had any idea where we came from. The plan was to walk east, for some reason unknown to anyone probably. Anyway, the sun had just come up, so that was a pretty good indicator as to what might be the east. But the guide kept on asking Davey to check his compass. The tattoo guy kept on explaining to him that the sun rises in the east, but he just didn’t understand. Nobody had any idea where we had come from or where to go. And we were so hungry. So, we just kept walking, walking walking. Rock climbing without any idea where we were going, walking down crumbling ridges with ravines down below and holding on the roots that were often rotten. Half way through the day we decided that walking along the river was our best option. Rivers always end up somewhere, a concept that was new to our guide. We kept this up for the rest of the day, swimming as much as possible and climbing steep rocks when waterfalls emerged. At the end of the day we set up camp along the river.

We woke up hungry and discouraged. We had no idea where we were and where the river was going to lead to. Maybe it would take days to reach anything and by that times our bodies might have given up on us. To keep going, we ate some leaves the guide claimed were edible. We had to trust the man who didn’t know anything that our breakfast wasn’t poisonous. We were so hungry we just had to. The third day we walked along the river. Every time a waterfall came up we climbed up steep slippery rocks with swirling water beneath us and went back down where the water was calmer. Davey and I swam as many parts as possible whereas the Indonesians preferred climbing.

By this time we had accepted our fate. We were just walking and walking. Taking it easy, as we were quite weak. We ate berries and fruit the monkeys didn’t get to. We heard gibons and saw a makak. But most animals were gone since we were yelling tolong (help) all the time. Nevertheless, the scenery was absolutely stunning. Stark blue river, with waterfalls here and there, mountains looming above the water with trees that seemed to grow endlessly to the sky. Maybe we could just become jungle people. Who cares about city life? Just let it all go and learn to live with the rough nature instead of making nature live with us rough human beings.

Then things started looking up. We saw chalk signs on stones along the water. They were fresh! One day old. We found a camp for the workers of plantations. I broke into the kitchen using a rock and found a bag of salt. Then we found a palm oil plantation. Walked along the path for hours without seeing anybody. We ate some coconut and wondered if there would come an end to this palmoil plantation. Or was it just as seemingly endless as the rain forest itself? Then we saw a motor cyclist who ended up bringing us to the palm oil village. They had a stand with mie and krupuk, and we finally ate some food we were fantasizing about for so long. Once food filled our stomach our bodies allowed ourselves to feel the pain we were in. Even though hunger and weakness had dominated our mental state when we were lost, our bodies now allowed us to feel the other more trivial pains we had. My body finally allowed me to feel my bloody feet, detached toenail, scratches, bruises, mosquito bites and most importantly, muscle pain as it knew we were safe. Our guide explained that this is thanks to the spirits of the jungle who keep you safe, we smiled and were glad to be safe again.

It was ironic that palm oil, the biggest threat to the rain forest, saved us from our biggest threat, the rain forest. Next time you squirt out a handful of shampoo, realize you are using a product that is responsible for the demolition of the rain forest, but you can also realize that this same product saved our lives.

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4 responses to “How the biggest killer of the rain forest saved our lives”

  1. Bob Skocpol says :

    I’m delighted you survived, not only because you are my daughter. This is a story your grandkids will not only hear but remember!

    Palm oil is not only for shampoo, but is also an excellent diesel fuel. You can pretty much use it pure as diesel and with minor treating in a refinery it is great stuff, stable, etc. This gets into an ethical quagmire. Bio diesel is supposed to be renewable, not contributing to CO2, so good for the environment. But destroying the rainforests to plant it doesn’t sound particularly good for the environment does it. And now, palm oil,as well as other biofuels, are starting to link the prices of oil and food. It is hard to know if it is true, but the press was reporting in the last year or two, that rising food prices due to biofuels were leading to more starvation. Europe is pushing biofuels with subsidies. Good for the environment? Maybe. But cynics, including some smart and honest folks I know in the oil industry (yes, there are some of those there) believe that is looks and feels like the real goal is a farm subsidy for European farmers to grow rapeseed and other crops.

    But I’ll appreciate palm oil for rescuing my daughter and Davey.

    You ever stop to think? Maybe you two saved the guide’s life, too, with your choice to follow the river.

  2. efi says :

    how are you guys right now?

    well, I couldnt help it, sorry, but you guys are cool got lost and survived. get well soon.

  3. Marloes Meuzelaar says :

    Good story, love reading it! What an adventure! Glad you made it.

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