February 1 Elephant Ride in Tankahan

Tankahan is not far from Bukit Lawang on a map, so you might think that it would not take very long to go from one place to the other. In reality, it took about four hours, in a bumpy ride over very bad roads. All the roads that we traveled on were poor (rocks, dirt and potholes) or very bad (jungle mud). Jeeps are recommended, but our driver Tian managed to get us there in the van.

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Baby Amelia and her mother in Tankahan

During our drive, we passed lots and lots of palm oil and rubber trees. We saw palm oil trees of all sizes, from recently planted to large trees over 40 years old.

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A grove of older, larger palm oil trees

In many places along the road, they stretched for as far as we could see over the horizon. Palm oil production is important to the economy of Indonesia, as the country is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of palm oil, providing about half the world supply. Palm oil plantations stretch across 6 million hectares of Indonesia.

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Hills covered with palm oil trees. The closer trees visible in this photo are medium size, and about 20 years old.

There were also lots of cows in the palm oil groves. They are the “natural lawn mowers”, keeping the vegetation under the trees trimmed and under control.

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A herd of cows walking alongside the road in a palm oil tree grove

In some places, we did see workers cutting the bunches of palm oil seeds from the trees. According to our guide, most of the workers in the palm tree groves earn enough to have a decent standard of living in Indonesia. This is part of the reason why there is often lots of local support for cutting down the jungle forest and planting palm oil trees. Indonesia plans by 2015 to add 4 million additional hectares towards oil palm biofuel production

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A truck carrying palm oil seed clusters on its way to a local factory

The seed clusters are taken to local factories where they are cleaned, and pressed for their oil. Much of the oil is exported  China and India are the major importers of palm oil, accounting for more than a third of global palm oil imports..

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Close up photo of palm oil seed clusters

This is what the palm oil seeds look like when they are removed from their husks. They are actually quite pretty!

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Palm oil seeds with their husks removed

We passed through many small villages among the palm oil tree plantations. These villages had a mixture of traditional looking houses and more modern ones.

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A tradition style house in a village

According to our guide, these are the homes of the plantation managers and workers.

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A modern style house in a village

And there were chickens everywhere in the villages.

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Chickens on a porch railing in a village house

We also passed some rubber tree plantations. But there were far fewer rubber trees than palm oil trees. According to Erwin, our guide, this is not necessarily a good thing. Rubber trees need far less water, about 40 liters per day versus 80 liters per day for palm oil trees. Many people think that all the water being used by the palm oil trees is making Indonesia both dryer and hotter.

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Rubber tree plantation alongside the road

We were interested is seeing how the rubber is harvested. So we stopped and watched in a grove where workers were cutting the trees to collect their sap.Rubber seedlings were smuggled out of Brazil in the late 19th century, and became the parent planting stock for all rubber plantations developed in Malaysia and Indonesia. The most important rubber producing countries today are in Southeast Asia.

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Jeff and Harmony examine a cutting slash on a rubber tree

Tapping of rubber trees starts in the fifth to seventh year after planting, and then continues for 25 to 30 years. A special knife is used to incise the bark so as to wound the resin canals without damaging the cambium.The latex is a sticky, milky liquid dripping off the  incision into the bark of the tree. It is collected in containers. The latex is gathered and then refined into rubber ready for commercial processing in local factories.

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Latex from a rubber tree dripping into a cocoanut shell container

After 30 years a decline in latex production makes further tapping of the trees uneconomical. The trees are then removed and replaced with new rubber tree seedlings, or palm oil tree seedlings

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A coconut shell container collecting rubber tree latex

The trees will drip latex for about four hours, stopping as latex coagulates naturally on the tapping cut, thus blocking the latex tubes in the bark. So they have to be tapped frequently, usually every other day. All sorts of different containers are used to collect the latex, including coconut shells

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Harmony is holding some rubber tree seeds

We finally arrived in Tankahan. When I went inside the visitor center to register, we were the only visitors there at the time.

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Tankahan visitor center

We checked in, ate lunch, and got ready for our elephant ride through the jungle. It was amusing to see the first elephant arrive with the trainer on her back talking on his cell phone! I am certain that there are no laws prohibiting talking on a cell phone while riding an elephant!

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Indonesian elephant with a trainer on her back talking on a cell phone

The elephant that Jeff and I rode on was named Ardani, and she was a 46 years old female. She was the second oldest of the eight elephants in the herd at Tankahan. Harmony rode on the oldest one, a 48 year old female.

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Ann and Jeff riding on Ardani in the jungle at Tankahan

It was amazing to ride through the jungle on a elephant! The elephants mostly walked up the river, as they like being in the water, and it is easier than walking along jungle trails.

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Harmony and the guide on the back of an elephant riding through the jungle at Tankahan

All of these elephants were born in captivity in other parts of Sumatra, like Aceh. They were rescued and brought to Tankahan when they were no longer needed.

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Harmony sitting on an elephant in the jungle

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Jeff sitting on an elephant in the jungle

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Ann sitting on an elephant in the jungle

Baby Amelia was the only elephant born in Tankahan. She was about one year old, and adorable! The elephants went down to the river for a bath and a good scrub after carrying us through the jungle. This is actually how  the trainer led the elephants down to the river! Baby Amelia grabbed hold of his hand with her trunk, her mama grabbed her tail, and all the other elephants followed, each grabbing onto the tail of the elephant in front of them. Just like in the Disney movie “The Jungle Book”!

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A trainer leads baby elephant Amelia and all of the other elephants down the trail to the river


The trainers need to make sure that the elephants poop before they get into the river. I would not want to do this job! Most of the six female elephants pooped right away, but the male elephant needed some help.

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Trainer helping the male elephant to poop before going into the river to bathe

We were offered the opportunity to help scrub the elephants, if we wanted to  I did, so here I am scrubbing Ardani in the river while her trainer watches.

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Ann is scrubbing Ardani in the river

It is just like washing a dog, only there is much more to scrub! It took a while to scrub her down! harmony also scrubbed an elephant.

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Harmony is having a quiet moment with her elephant after she finished scrubbing her

After we scrubbed them, they repaid the favor by spraying us with water to cool us off.

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Harmony getting sprayed with river water by an elephant

All I will say is that an elephant can get you very wet with just one spray from their nose!

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Ann is getting sprayed with water from Ardani

Afterwards, we got to feed the elephants treats of bananas and sugar cane. I had lots of fun feeding Amelia and her mother treats.

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Ann is feeding bananas to baby Amelia

When the elephants went back to their fenced yard for the evening, two of them were put to work carrying in their food for dinner.

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An elephant being loaded with palm leaves to carry home for dinner

We crossed the river to go back to our guest house in this interesting ferry boat. You walked up a plank to the boat, which was attached by a line to the shore, and the boat man used a long oar to guide the boat across the water.

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Ann is getting on the ferry boat to cross the river at Tankahan

We went swimming in the river when we got back. It was hot and humid, the river water was refreshing, and two of us were already wet from the elephant “bath! Harmony found lots of beneficial insect larvae in this river, so it had healthy water according to Harmony’s insect larva test. Maybe because they make sure that the elephants don’t poop in it. Or more likely, because there were just not that many people living near this river.

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Harmony swimming in the river at Tankahan

But there were a couple of young boys from a nearby house on river bank also swimming in the river.

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Indonesian boys swimming in the river at Tankahan

In order to get to our guest house at Tankahan, we had to walk quite a distance from where we were dropped off by the driver. First we went down the riverbank to a suspension bridge over the river.

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Suspension bridge over the river at Tankahan

I was happy to see that there were no missing plank sections on this bridge!

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Harmony crossing the suspension bridge at Tankahan

Then we walked along a trail through a section of jungle that had at one time been cleared and planted. There were some fruit trees remaining, but the native plants were starting to take over again.

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The trail through the jungle and garden to our guest house

Our guest houses had electric power only from 7 pm to 5 am, provided by a generator. There was no internet, but we weren’t expecting to have it here.

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Harmony climbs on the natural rock formations in front of our guest houses inTankahan

There was no fan, but we did have pretty mosquito nets over the bed, so we could have left the windows open at night. But I did not, because there was still a lot of monkeys around, both macaques and Thomas monkeys!

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Mosquito net over the bed in Tankahan

There was running water in the bathroom, but it was another river water shower with  no hot water. And what worried me was that the ceiling above the shower in the bathroom was open, with just a screen over it. And there was a big hole in this screen, large enough for a monkey to get through! So I told Jeff that we needed to sleep with the door to our bathroom closed at night.

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The shower in the bathroom of our guest house in Tankahan

This turned out to be very good advice! Their were some local Indonesians staying in a few of the other guest houses when we were there. They made a big campfire that night, and left trash it. Jeff and I woke up in the middle of the night to a loud scratching noise on the roof of our guest house. It went on for quite a while, making it hard for me to fall back asleep. I thought that it might have been a large rat, until I woke up the next day and saw the trash scattered everywhere. And then I saw a Thomas monkey with a cookie wrapper in its paw sitting on a tree near our roof! monkey on our roof. So, yes, we might have had monkeys in our room, if that door was open and they thought there might be something worth eating inside! And, according to our guide, monkeys can be active at night!

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