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Indonesia is a string of 17,000 islands, with one of the last rainforests in the world and a record number of native animals and plants. Its biodiversity, the gentleness of its people and their love of children make it a perfect destination for families seeking to experience ecotourism. While you probably already know about the island of Bali, there are two alternative islands that have lots in store for travelling families.
The orang-utans of Sumatra
Sumatra, one of the biggest islands and located at the edge of the Indonesian archipelago, is the place to visit if your children are fascinated by orang-utans. These intriguing creatures, whose name means “person of the jungle” in Malay, can be found on the northern side of the island.
The trip starts in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. From the airport, itʼs easy to find a private car and driver to make the comfortable, two-hour trip to Bukit Lawang. This picturesque little town is built on both sides of the Bahorok River and is famous for its orang-utan sanctuary, founded in 1973 to preserve the endangered orang-utan population, which has fallen victim to deforestation, trading and hunting.
The town – the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park – attracts both national and international tourists, but has managed to keep its authentic Indonesian character. For one of the best views of the jungle and a chance to see wild orang-utans swaying in the trees, stay at the Jungle Inn (www.jungleinnbukitlawang.com). This well-established inn offers several rooms overlooking the river and, from the inn’s restaurant, it’s not unusual to spot orang-utans coming to the edge of the forest. The friendly staff lead tours and spend time with guests, playing guitar or chess, or just talking about the area. They’ll happily amuse children and design the most beautiful headdresses for them from palms, leaves and wild flowers.
Orang-utans are free to roam around the national park, but daily feedings at 8am and 3pm attract them to a feeding platform where visitors stand a high chance of seeing them. You will have to follow the experienced rangers into the jungle to the feeding platform and wait patiently until you spot one of these red balls of energy swaying from branch to branch. When the orang-utans choose to get very close to the visitors, it is a truly amazing spectacle. Their manners and facial expressions, so similar to ours, are fascinating. You will see other monkeys too, including the Thomas’s leaf monkey, hilarious with its Mohawk hairstyle.
Families can also enjoy a gentle jungle trek with a guide. Shorter treks last a couple of hours and the walk is accessible and easy. Tubing on the river is another fun activity. Seeing the jungle at river level, watching life on the banks, while floating through small hamlets and plantation areas is peaceful and enjoyable. Very small rapids add some excitement, but even families with young children can embark on this gentle adventure.
Another destination for breathtaking views in North Sumatra is the majestic Lake Toba. Although public transport is an option, it is more convenient and comfortable to hire a private car and driver to travel from Bukit Lawang to the little town of Parapat. A stopover at the hill station of Berastagi is worth the detour to enjoy the mountainous panorama, the cool temperature at night and the unique atmosphere of this lively market town. Stop at the Sipisopiso waterfall and at Lingga, a traditional Karo village with thatched-roof longhouses adorned with buffalo horns and the 250-year-old king’s house.
The first glimpse of the lake when approaching Parapat is impressive and gives an idea of its immensity. Created by a super-volcanic eruption approximately 70,000 years ago, Lake Toba is 100 kilometres long, 30 kilometres wide and 450 metres deep, at an altitude of 900 metres. The sky, the water and the hills all offer unique shades of blue and create a soothing sense of tranquillity and peacefulness which belies its eruptive beginnings.
From Parapat, a ferry carries passengers to Tuk Tuk on the island of Samosir, where most accommodation options can be found. This island, the size of Singapore, was formed when the cone of a new volcano rose up from the lake floor. Activities include swimming in the fresh water of the lake, trekking along the crests of the hills, and discovering Batak villages and unique culture. Children will love exploring the traditional Batak houses scattered around the island. Batak people are incredibly friendly and will likely welcome you to enjoy their singing and guitar-playing.
If time allows, extend your trip to the village of Tangkahan, two hours from Medan, to visit the modest elephant rehabilitation centre. This small outpost lies on the border of Gunung Leuser National Park, at the meeting point of the imposing river Batang Serangan and the smaller river Sungai Musam. Crossing the main river on a raft pulled by a clever system of ropes is the only way to access the four lodges, which occupy an amazing spot overlooking the river. This area is less developed and nature lovers will enjoy swimming up and drifting down the current, listening to the sweet birdsong. The elephant camp has seven trained adult elephants that patrol and protect the national park from illegal logging and poaching. Visitors can watch the elephants bathe twice daily, and going on an elephant ride is a highlight of a visit to the area.
Sumatra is all about its vast landscapes, the friendliness of its people and the opportunities to experience the wonders of nature. It is a destination of choice for families willing to travel slightly off the beaten track.
Lose Yourself in Lombok
Lombok Island is located east of Bali and west of Sumbawa Island. From Hong Kong, take a connecting flight via Jakarta, or if you’re already in Bali, you can take a four-hour ferry or a quick flight. This lesser-known destination offers a wide range of new experiences and natural attractions. Many people say that visiting Lombok is like stepping back in time to the Bali before tourists and expatriates. Nowadays, tourists enjoy Lombok’s peaceful environment, its beautiful nature and the many wonders of the underwater world. If you and your family find it exhilarating to swim in waterfalls, climb mountains or simply contemplate breathtaking countryside, and if you want to be fair to local communities, then an eco-tour to Lombok is definitely for you.
Trekking, kayaking, diving, snorkelling, horse riding, cycling, swimming in crystal clear waters and waterfalls: Lombok has it all! These activities are not only fun, but they also allow you to meet people from the Sasak culture. Local people involved in ecotourism are proud of their birthplace and will show you how best to protect the environment.
Lombok boasts many great spots to explore on foot. Several companies, such as Sunda Trails
(www.sundatrails.com/en/), specialise in small-scale sustainable tours and offer treks off the beaten track in unspoilt areas of Lombok. On some trails, women guides lead trekkers through bamboo forests and stunning rice fields, allowing them to observe traditional potters and Ikat weavers.
If you are travelling with small children, you can opt for an easy half-day option offered by Rinjani Trails (www.rinjanitrails.com). Their guides will take you to the two famous waterfalls of Sindang Gila and Tiu Kelep, and to a traditional Sasak village. This is an easy trek, but kids will be thrilled with jumping in natural pools under powerful waterfalls. Locals like to say that each time you swim behind the main waterfall of Tiu Kelep you become a year younger! For more extreme trekking, you might want to push to Betara Lenjang, but this waterfall should be reserved for rock climbers accompanied by a local guide and carrying proper equipment. For the ultimate challenge, experienced trekkers can climb Mount Rinjani volcano. Over the course of two to five days, climb 3,726 metres to the summit, visit Lake Segara Anak in the crater, bathe in hot springs and visit caves – a registered and experienced guide is essential for this trip.
Horse riding is an eco-friendly activity that offers you the freedom to explore remote beaches and countryside. In South Lombok, Kuta Horses (www.villa-lombok.com) offers idyllic horse riding treks to deserted beaches, traditional Sasak villages, mangroves, rice fields and forests, for both beginners and experienced riders. The early-morning ride to the summit of Mount Prabu to admire the sunrise is unforgettable. At sunset, riders can climb Mount Nyale and take in the grandiose panoramic view of the beaches down below. On all the treks, you will meet friendly local people and be able to observe village life and traditional ways of working in the fields. Swimming with the horses in the shallow waters of the lagoon is a highlight and a delightful moment of relaxation.
Cycling in Lombok is another way to discover untouched areas. Mountain Bike Lombok (www.mountainbikelombok.com) offers day trips and longer mountain bike trips to explore the most attractive areas of the island, and they fully adhere to ecotourism principles.
For accommodation in Northeast Lombok, Rinjani Beach Eco Resort (www.rinjani-beach.com) in Tanjung is a charming hotel, located on the black sand beach with gorgeous views of the Gili Islands and Mount Rinjani. It is the perfect place to relax and recharge your batteries. The comfortable bamboo bungalows were made entirely of natural materials and no trees were cleared to build the resort. They adhere to sound ecological principles, not only in the resort’s construction, but also with their wastewater gardens, and hiring staff from the local community.
From there, tourists can go to Gangga waterfall and hike in the forest to find coffee, vanilla and cocoa plants. Their on-site PADI dive shop offers certification programmes and dive trips to the Gilis and other spots along the coast. The friendly family who run the resort care about the environment and offer excellent advice to their guests.
Indonesia, in addition to being a fun place to visit, offers great opportunities to introduce your children to nature, to allow them to experience a more natural life and to start them on the journey of reflecting on the beauty and fragility of our surroundings.