In early 2012, I was looking at a school holiday trip to the Victorian zoos with my teenage daughter, hopefully with an overnight stay at Werribee Zoo. Scrolling through the zoo website, I came across Raw Wildlife Encounters link and as they say, the rest is history! Short version, sent an enquiry, got a reply, asked a question, got a phone call, talked to my hubby and booked a jungle holiday instead of an overnight stay at a zoo!
In July 2012, my daughter Chelsea and I travelled to the island of North Sumatra in Indonesia that included an amazing side trip to the volcanic region of Lake Toba with our guide Bimbim, where we trekked over 2000 metres in height to the summit of Mt Sibayak. After exploring around and in the crater, observing the steam vents, sulphur deposits and boiling water seeping to the surface, we then travelled to the capital, Medan, to continue our mother/daughter adventure of a lifetime.
Chelsea and I knew this would be the beginning of some incredible experiences but we didn’t realise it was also the beginnings of a new school, a football club, local employment, being accepted into local family structures and being a part of a village that is trying to save their native animals, their jungle, their heritage and their medicinal knowledge for future generations.
To move on, after meeting our other guides Ika, Jack & Darwin in the city and having a day to rest and recuperate we bundled into 2 cars along with Bimbim, Dane our Australian leader & Angela, another guest from Melbourne for the 4 hour journey to Tangkahan. We were in for a fantastic week of washing elephants, talking to the elephant mahouts, jungle trekking, river tubing, watching wild orangutans feeding and nesting, jungle trekking on elephant back, sleeping in caves in the jungle and in campsites alongside the river. We scrambled through pitch black caves, walked and climbed through rivers, waterfalls and some of the most perfect mountain ridges and valleys.
Just off track a bit but we actually spent an afternoon with Ika’s mother, a traditional medicine woman, who showed us different plants and explained their uses while Ika translated for her. Although Ika’s attempts at translating somehow ended up with him in the kitchen eating Mums cooking, I think this is a worldwide mother/son conspiracy! Mum & Aunty helped us to grind down the plants, roots, seeds & bark to make a little chalk-like ball that worked wonders on our sunburn from the river tubing in the morning!
All the while, our guides were keeping us safe, removing the leeches from our arms, legs and other areas, carrying our food & water, cooking for us, setting the most beautiful eating areas for us and spoiling us rotten. They also shared their stories, their history, their beautiful singing and their wicked sense of humour with us. Every single night there was music, guitars, harmonicas, drums and the boys singing, it was something we looked forward to as much as the rest. I think by about day 3, they were just our boys, we had met their wives, kids and families and I trusted them to lead us safely into the jungle and get us back out in one piece, which they did, numerous times!
In amongst all the adventure, there was a little visit to the English Club, about 30 – 40 kids attended sporadically, it was a small, dark airless little building with rough hand cut tables and benches. We had bought over reading books, pencils, crayons and texta’s for the school and we spent some time reading, drawing and singing songs with the kids. This is where we met Siska & Shree, 2 whip-smart 8 or 9 year old girls who’s English, reading and writing were excellent compared to some of the other kids. We ran into the girls a few times over our time in Tangkahan and they were always practising their English and asking questions. As in most third world countries, these girls will probably never have the opportunity for a proper formal education beyond 12 or 13 years old, they will possibly never have the opportunity to go to University and I know without a doubt that their families could never afford to send them.
We said a sad goodbye to Tangkahan, the people, the kids and the elephants. On our way to Bukit Lawang, we dropped Jack off to catch the bus to visit his new born son. Jack’s wife Abi had given birth while we were in the jungle for 3 nights and Jack had yet to see them. There were a few tears shed when we farewelled Jungle Jack. As a measure of how good our guides were, Dane and Angela flew out to Australia the next morning and the boys were meant to catch the old bus back to Tangkahan at 9am. Their job was done, the tour over and their pay finalised. Chelsea and I still had another day & night in Medan, Ika & Bimbim stayed in the city at their own cost because there was no way known they were letting two women, let alone their new sister Chelsea, be left unchaperoned. We had a ball that day, we hurtled around Medan in bechuks, visiting the Grand Mosque, the Royal Palace, eating out and then went to the Rahmat International Wildlife Museum, tip – don’t visit it, he went around killing endangered animals to tick off his kill list.
Needless to say, there were more tears shed when it came time to say goodbye to Ika & Bimbim. The boys had made a huge impression on us, they had cajoled and cared for Chelsea when she was unwell, had made us feel incredibly welcome into their lives and it felt like we were saying goodbye to family.
So as you do when you return from holidays, we talked to everyone about how great it was, what an amazing time we had and how you really should try to get there one day. Unlike some holidays, Tangkahan stuck with both Chelsea and myself. We found ourselves asking what was going to happen to kids like Siska & Shree, surely there’s something that can be done to help them and maybe we could look at personally sponsoring one of them to a better education and therefore hopefully a life not ruled by the damaging palm oil business, illegal logging or poaching. We made some enquiries with Jess McKelson, RWE Managing Director, about this but the kids were not up to standard for a formal country school, let alone a city one. What was needed in Tangkahan was a different system to bring the kids into and a more welcoming area for them to learn in.
That initial enquiry led to a flurry of emails, phone calls, questions, answers, new acquaintances who are now firm friends and the purchase of a block of land to build a better facility for the kids and families of Tangkahan. Sonya Prosser was appointed the Community Coordinator for RWE in Tangkahan in 2013 and set about getting this vision up and running. Sonya was instrumental in pulling everyone in, she now has the Park Rangers taking classes of kids and teaching them about their environment. In early 2013, the plans were drawn up, the building of the school commenced using all local tradesmen and supplies and it’s been onwards and upwards ever since.
I returned to Tangkahan in November 2013 for 2 weeks with two cases full of donated goods from Melissa Little and the wonderful staff and families of St Anthony’s Catholic Primary School in Millicent. Melissa knew about the school in Tangkahan and offered to donate a few things and maybe have her class make some items, who knew she would end up with 100kg’s of school supplies? These supplies are still the foundation of the schools learning and I can’t thank Melissa enough for her help with them. Sumaraja was employed as a teacher to get the kids and the school into good working order and he is wonderful to see in action, an engaging man who relates well to all the kids and also to the wider community. Sumaraja’s employment was possible thanks to a great group of people here in Mt Gambier who collectively donated 6 months wages, they are angels who have helped change many lives for the better!
It was wonderful to catch up with everyone again and I spent a happy fortnight with an ever expanding group of friends, a few long and loud nights and days where people would just stop by the school, grab a shovel or a machete and help clear and tidy the area because it’s for the kids. I also got to meet Jack’s young boy Nawi, who was born while we were jungle trekking in 2012, he is just adorable but absolutely terrified of the white buleh, me.
Although the Tangkahan English Club officially opened in November 2013, there was still some work to be done, clearing the front area, finishing the well so there is fresh water available, making a shaded area outside, building shelves to hold the supplies and sourcing more tables & chairs for the students. We also talked about the kids being active and healthy and trying to include all the children in a structured activity or sport. It was decided to clear a large area across the path from the school and make a soccer pitch and a volleyball court. I left Tangkahan in December very happy with the ideas that were tossed around and what had been accomplished so far.
In April 2014 Chelsea & I returned to Tangkahan with close family friend Julie Walker. We were taking over the last of Melissa’s donated school supplies as well as sports uniforms and equipment. Julie had also been given donations from family and friends. To see the changes at the school in those few short months was amazing. There is now an outdoor class area and a thriving school that’s colourful, airy, and bright, it has electricity and even has running water. There are 190 registered kids, 4 enthusiastic teachers, many helpers and a community who are coming together to teach the kids about their environment, culture and heritage as well as the English language. The school is also being used for English classes to help the Rangers, local guides and mahouts to improve their language skills and therefore improve their alibility to communicate with tourists.
We did a bit of community work while in Tangkahan this time. A special day was the Rangers Birthday, similar to Father’s Day, where we accompanied the Rangers, guides, families and the kids into the jungle to plant native trees, to show and explain to the kids about the Spirit Tree’s and what you can and can’t eat amongst other things. It was followed by a huge lunch on the riverside where some of the women had been cooking for hours. There would have to have been well over 150 people gathered together to celebrate the day. The afternoon was spent chatting, swimming with the kids, listening to stories and relaxing. We also helped in the community to make bins to encourage the villagers and kids to put their rubbish in them. The next day we helped to distribute the bins throughout the area and then participated in a large scale litter pick up within the village for a few hours. More chatting, stories and getting to know everyone’s family connections.
I think the highlight of the trip was an invitation to attend Darwin’s wedding ceremony, Darwin is been a point of contact in Sumatra, my shopping guide & chaperone in the city, my tubing & exploring friend and is a very gentle and quiet young man. He and his beautiful wife Wiwin had been married at her village but had not yet had a ceremony in Tangkahan. We were honoured with being welcomed as Darwin’s family, sitting with Darwin’s Mother and Aunts to eat and were in the reception line to greet and thank well-wishers at the wedding. We also had the honour of being dressed in the traditional Karo wedding style reserved for female members of the family. We were honoured to be called up to dance, Karo style with an emphasis on your hands, with the women of the family although we were not at all graceful and elegant in our movements. This might have had something to do with it being about 2.30am by then and we were still greeting people, talking and eating. We danced with our friends for Ika’s scheduled dance just after 4am and then pleaded exhaustion at 5am and headed back to Green Lodge on scooters, we could still hear the music from 2km’s away. The thing with Karo weddings is they go non-stop for 2 days, we hadn’t even finished the first 24 hours!
The only disappointment at the school is the 3 metre deep x 3 metre wide trench that has been carved right along the pathway in front of the school by the palm oil company to stop access around the area. This is slowly filling with water, rubbish, dead animals who cannot climb out because of the steep sides and no doubt soon with malaria, cholera or some other deadly disease. We can only hope a person or child doesn’t fall in there, there are no fences and no way to get out of the trench. Not only do the palm oil companies set about destroying the protected National Park with no fear of authority or repercussion, they also land grab and destroy people’s homes, vegetable gardens, sources of food and means of income. Unfortunately, what they have also done is cut the kids off from an area that was to be used for the soccer pitch & volleyball court.
There is a soccer field, Sumatran style, closer to the entrance of the village where the men are now playing but it’s about a 25 minute walk from the school. A junior football team has been established there and trainings are being held twice a week. It now can’t run in conjunction with the school because of the distance but trainings are held later in the afternoons. We bought over our excess junior uniforms from Saints Netball Club as well as a few coaches tops for the team and watched as the kids trained and then lined up to be fitted and receive a uniform. The coaches have also been given club polo shirts and they are very excited to help teach the kids how to play. Unfortunately, there is nowhere safe nearby to put a volleyball court for the girls so we are looking at a few different options for them.
On a lighter side - I know I’m a local now, while trekking in the jungle this last trip looking for orangutans with Jack, Beni, Meddi and Lemir, the boys helped Jules over rocks, fallen trees and creeks. They held her hands as she walked along dead drop ridges, climbed down steep valleys and they put her between them for safety on the more challenging parts of the walk in case she slipped and hurt herself. All I got was ‘are you right Mum?’
Never in a million years would I let my teenage daughter take off on a motorbike with someone I didn’t know in Australia but in Tangkahan, she does it every day. She just asks one of the boys and it’s off to the school, off to the soccer or off to the village to visit Jack’s wife Abi and the boys! I have watched my daughter stroll down the river with the mahouts and elephants and spend more time talking to the mahouts about their family and where they have come from. She has sat with the mums and kids while they are preparing or cooking dinner, played cards with the boys and helped out with a ranger English class. Traveling with RWE has opened Chelsea’s eyes to a bigger world, most times it’s not a fair world but it has helped her to appreciate how we can’t just sit back, happy in our own back yard while someone else’s is decimated by greed and corruption. It’s also helped her to realise that ‘from little things, big things grow’. I think it is the best life lesson Chelsea will ever have, a pencil, a book and an education can lead to a pen, a computer and a university degree.
Chelsea wanting to help Siska or Shree has snowballed to a new school, the junior soccer club, English classes for the adults and hopefully awakened an urge in the kids to want an education and an opportunity to help their community in the future. In a nutshell, Tangkahan are a community who want to help themselves, they are a community that want their children to prosper and they are a community that cares what happens to their environment. I think being a mum and watching how Chelsea was treated, not only by the boys but the wider community put me at ease but also had me wanting to help with the vision they have for the future. Tangkahan is a community I would like to see move forward with their dreams and hopes for the future and the futures of their children.