The Abominable Sumatran
“Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty apes!”
A shaggy American with a Yankees cap and soul patch spat out the words haltingly, photographing a rust-colored simpering simian with a winsome pout who looked vaguely human.
Unfortunately, the American was me.
It was a fair imitation of Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. Except we weren’t extras in a futuristic flick where evolution goes awry. (As you’ll remember, in the film, apes up their IQs and take over the planet, while humans fall a few rungs and run about like savages in loincloths.)
No, we were a barrelful of primates planted firmly in the present on good old terra firma: face to face not with an apocalyptic Lady Liberty half buried in sand but with a playful Pongo pygamaeus–a creature better known by its Malay name: Orangutan, a “man of the forest.”
However, this was no zoo. We had happened upon the ape in the wild.
Two hominids on holiday, my girlfriend and I had arrived in the remote jungles of Sumatra to check out Bukit Lawang’s Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Here domesticated orangutans–pet monkeys were once all the rage in Indonesia–are retrained to go ape and survive in the rainforest. On my travels, I often ended up surrounded by simians: I’d been pelted with fruit by furious black monkeys in Java, attacked for alms by macaques haunting a Hindu temple in Mauritius, and peed upon by cantankerous howlers in the Costa Rican rainforests.
Now here was a new breed to add to my list of close encounters.
The creature, whom we’ll call “Cornelius,” belonged to an endangered species, found only in small numbers in Sumatra and Borneo. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only about 30,000 left, further threatened by forest fires and farmers who kill them for eating their crops. But the ape seemed to be unaware of the danger. Hanging by one arm from a branch, Cornelius spun from side to side like a Bulgarian Olympian taking five from the parallel bars.
More mischievous monkeys emerged on the scene, their heads poking through the canopy leaves like startled coconuts. “Dr. Zaius” whooped it up, brachiating, shaking the branches with long muscular arms. “Zira” pitched a hissy fit, baring her teeth, with a sparsely-haired baby (“Caesar?”) suckling at her breast. They were gathering for the main event.
At 3 p.m. sharp, the rangers hauled buckets of bananas onto a makeshift platform, feeding the orangutans with Fossey-like finesse. Stroking the red fur of an apathetic female splayed out on the platform, a ranger told us she was grieving for her lost baby. “Like human mother. No eating. Very sad.” There seemed to be an understanding between ranger and orangutan, a trust that was almost telepathic.
Another ranger, an Indo Indiana Jones in camouflage and an explorer’s vest, then offered to take us into the jungle for a week. “Selamat Siang! We go into jungle where no man go and see many wildlifes.”
Tempting. But something was keeping me from plunging too deep into the jungle.
I’d heard rumors of another beast haunting these parts.
Like the American Sasquatch and Tibetan Yeti, Indonesia has its very own version of the Big Foot Legend. Or rather, “Little Foot”. The Abominable Indonesian Ape Man, known as Orang Pendak (“little man”) or Orang Letjo (“gibbering man”) is purportedly a shy hairy biped, three to five feet tall, spotted infrequently since the turn of the century fringing the forests of central and western Sumatra.
In 1924, for example, a Dutchman named Van Herwaarden encountered an orange ape man of very human appearance, but with a mouthful of sharp canine teeth, who uttered a hu-hu sound. He raised his rifle to shoot at it, but balked, deciding it would be like comitting murder.
Unlike the arboreal orangutan, this mysterious manimal, known locally as Sedapa, has long since come down from the trees and ambles about on two legs. In my mind’s eye, I pictured a shaggy ginger-haired devil with syrupy eyes, slouching posture, and lumbering gait, capering around on the fluid borders between dream and reality. I never imagined, though, that I might actually come into contact with one of these legendary beasts.
On our last night in town, we celebrated by drinking far too many Bir Bintangs with some local long-haired lads. Then we made our way by flashlight to our traditional thatched hut and crashed out, soothed by the narcotic noise of the Bohorok River bubbling over the boulders outside.
“Did you lock the door?” I asked per usual, not that it needed locking, we being out in the middle of nowhere and all.
“Yep. G’night,” Girlfriend assured me.
Strange visions assaulted me. I dreamed my girlfriend had metamorphosed into a wind-up German articulated monkey, with glowing eyes and gnashing teeth, rhythmically crashing her symbols. I awoke with a start, heard a scuffling sound. Probably, I thought, a rummaging rodent. Again, I drifted off.
The door flew open. “What the ffff–?”
A small shadowy figure, maybe five feet tall, yelled and leaped about in the most frightful manner. He, she, or it then darted out the door and off into the jungle. The Boogie Man? I bolted out of bed, disentangling myself from the mosquito netting, and started yelling for help. Girlfriend woke up and joined in on the chorus: banshee-shrieking loudly.
How did he get in?
Our screaming roused the couple in the cabin next door. Together we assessed the damage. A daring escapade. The intruder had dropped in after breaking the bamboo near the roof, attempted a stealthy escape via the bathroom window by prying loose its wooden bars, then instead somehow found the key in the dark and left right through the front door. All without waking us! It was lucky we both slept with our money belts, containing our passports, traveler’s checks, and credit cards.
But something had left with our visitor: my day wallet. We woke up the manager, who seemed at a loss about what to do. A bearded German, awoken by the ruckus, piped in, “Why don’t you help them?! They’ve just been robbed!” He then added he’d heard the same thing had happened here just a few weeks back.
Conveniently, the police station didn’t open until eight, and our bus was to depart at seven. Could this have been an inside job? Completely snookered, we left without informing the police.
What else could we have done?
Out here in the wilds of Indonesia’s largest and most mysterious island, after all, could we be absolutely certain the thief, whom I’d only half glimpsed in retreat, was in fact human? The Missing Link? In any event, I chose to believe the abominable burglar was indeed the fabled Indonesian Ape Man, who’d just committed the perfect crime only to vanish once again back into legend.
As easygoing orangutans were “rehabilitated” and trained to survive in the wild, ornery ape men were “civilizing” themselves and learning to rob from the rich. Apparently, greed is common to all species, not subject to Linnaean classification. Yet for all his efforts the artful-dodging anthropoid had made off with only fifty U.S. dollars, several thousand Indonesian rupiah, and a New York driver’s license, not to mention my library card.
I wonder if even now the Abominable Sumatran, like a shaman in the light of his crude campfire, is still puzzling over these mysterious manmade objects, trying to discover their use.
John M. Edwards is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His work has appeared in such magazines as Salon.com, Escape, Grand Tour, Islands, CondÃ© Nast Traveler, Endless Vacation, International Living, Trips, Big World, Coffee Journal, Literal LattÃ©, Artdirect, Richmond Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He has just written a novella, Move: History of the Royl World, and a travel book, Fluid Borders.