Having fun with elephants in Tangkahan

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – Tangkahan has recently become popular on social media pages, famed for its natural beauty. Here too, was the shooting of the video clip for the hit single entitled “Adu Rayu” by the trio of Yovie Widianto, Tulus, and Glenn Fredly, featuring two celebrities who were no less famous as clip models, Nicholas Saputra and Velove Vexia. 

Hidden among the lush tropical rainforests of Sumatra with the dominance of resin and ironwood trees, combined with the gurgling waters of the Buluh and Batang Serangan rivers that flow clear to the home of a group of forest guard elephants imported from Aceh, has made this place an ecotourism destination. appealing to visit when visiting Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. 

Several decades ago, the name Tangkahan seemed to have lost its popularity to its formerly famous neighbor, Bukit Lawang. But since the elephants from Aceh came to help the Rangers in fighting illegal logging in the forest around Tangkahan, slowly but surely, this place has finally “gone global” and gained a place in the hearts of travelers who are crazy about tropical wilderness. 

The massive arrival of local and foreign tourists to Tangkahan in recent years has finally enabled Tangkahan to support various inns, ranging from semi-resort classes to homestays scattered along the side of the entrance, to the outskirts of the Gunung Leuser National Park. 

Generally, local low- or medium-budget visitors who want to fully enjoy Tangkahan’s nature will usually choose to camp around the banks of the Buluh or Batang Serangan rivers, where the water flows clear on weekends. 

Tangkahan itself is located about 95 kilometers from Medan City and its position is in the middle of a maze of oil palm plantations that stretch across Langkat Regency, North Sumatra, to be precise in Batang Serangan District. 

To get here from Medan City, besides being able to use private vehicles such as cars or motorbikes, you can also use public transportation such as minibuses from Pinang Baris Terminal in Medan. The operational schedule for the minibus itself can be checked regularly at the bus office located at Terminal Pinang Baris Medan. 

Tangkahan is directly inside the Gunung Leuser National Park, which since 2011 has been included in the list of World Heritage Sites protected by UNESCO, along with other tropical rainforests that stretch from north to south of the island of Sumatra, such as Sembilang National Park., Kerinci Seblat National Park, and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. 

To be able to enter the Tangkahan region, which covers an area of about 3,837.77 hectares, visitors will normally pass along poor-surface roads, some of which are not yet smoothly paved, in the middle of a jungle of oil palm plantations. Small pebbles and sometimes river stones the size of eggs will become “travel companions” to this place. 

Usually, visitors who come to Tangkahan want to enjoy the excitement of getting up close to cute, tame elephants deliberately brought from the jungle of Aceh to combat illegal logging in past years. 

The initial mission of these elephants in Tangkahan was indeed noble, to become forest guards, so that the trees in the tropical rain forest of Gunung Leuser National Park would not be felled by illegal loggers, some three decades ago. 

After almost a decade of illegal logging, those activities were finally halted in Tangkahan, and the elephants are today bred and protected by mahouts or elephant handlers as attractions for travellers when the elephants are free or not on duty patrolling the forest. 

Mahouts usually bring elephants of various ages to bathe on the banks of the Batang Serangan River starting at 8 am. At that time, travellers can help bathe the elephants by paying a package fee of around IDR 150,000 to IDR 250,000 for 1 hour. The amount of this fee depends on the agreement between the visitor and the attraction broker, who may also serve as guides for trekking in the forest around Tangkahan or swimming in a waterfall in the middle of the jungle. 

“The cost of the elephant bathing package is entirely for elephant care as well as the daily cost of the meal for the elephants themselves; you understand that they eat many kilos of fruit,” said one guide, who did not want to be named. 

One of the popular elephants today is Theo, a male with two intact tusks between his trunks. In addition to his huge body, Theo is also a favorite of travellers because he is most handsome. 

The elephant bathing takes place 2 times a day in Tangkahan, namely, in the morning and evening, starting around 8:00 when the elephants go to work, while the afternoon starts at 4, when the elephants return from patrolling the forest. These two schedules allow travellers to arrange their time to enjoy Tangkahan and meet the elephants, which are indeed icons in this place. 

Apart from bathing the elephants, other tour packages include riding through the forest around Tangkahan on an elephant. Although originally tasked with fighting illegal logging, now the elephants patrolling the forest have more of an instinctual sense as wild animals so, always aware that their environment needs to be protected from the hands of those who want to destroy it. The fee for a tour around the forest on the back of an elephant starts from IDR 700,000 per person and lasts approximately 5-6 hours, including lunch in the middle of the forest. 

Hardy travellers who like to roam in the wild may choose a half-day trek; this costs around IDR 350,000, including a guide service. The forest contours of Gunung Leuser National Park are unique and the climate is sometimes quite extreme, which is a fun challenge for a trekking session. visitors will frequently come across endemic animals of this forest area such as hornbills and long-tailed monkeys or gibbons, sometimes even the legendary Sumatran tiger. 

The Tangkahan jungle trekking package itself is classified based on the interests of the traveller, consisting of family trekking, medium trekking, or full-day trekking. 

Trekking packages may also be bundled with river-tubing, an exciting session wading through a clear river while sitting relaxed or lying on a tire tube. The current, which is not too heavy, is indeed relaxing. Perfect for a break on the weekend. Apart from the river flow, Tangkahan forest also has a topography in the form of natural caves that are still virgin and scattered several points throughout the forest. Indonesians like to bathe in the natural sulphur hot springs. 

Don’t miss the suspension bridge called Nini Galang, made of natural wood piles with a simple yet sturdy cable; it is optimal for taking selfies or simply crossing to the other side of Gunung Leuser National Park. 

Two years ago, a modern suspension bridge with silver shades was opened, stretching over the Tangkahan elephant sanctuary, commonly known as an “elephant cage”. This bridge is around a kilometer long, and can be an interesting alternative to see Tangkahan from another angle. Treks through the wilderness of Gunung Leuser National Park normally start from this bridge. 

Some important points in Tangkahan that visitors need to know include the Visitor Center, a place those wanting to bathe elephants should register because the quota of visitors with elephants is limited. 

Those who come to Tangkahan and want to interact with the elephants also need to be aware that the elephants here are still quite wild; maintaining a safe distance and respecting the mood of the elephants is critical, so as not to provoke them and risk getting injured. 

Be sure and visit the Tangkahan merchandise shop and office managed by the CRU (Conservation Response Unit) and the local community. At the CRU office, visitors can also get complete information about Tangkahan, including the condition of the elephants. 

Currently, Tangkahan meets the standard as a tourist spot that can accommodate the needs of travelers, with proper lodgings and restaurants throughout the area. 

One of the popular inns here is Terrario Tangkahan, which is owned by celebrity and environmental activist, Nicholas Saputra. The building design was specially designed by Andra Matin, one of Indonesia’s most famous architects. The architectural concept itself is open and blends with the natural surroundings. This eco-friendly residence only has three main rooms, with an impressive dominance of wood. 

Other lodging options that can be chosen are the Mega Inn and Bamboo River which are close to the river. Also, Tangkahan Inn, Green Lodge, and Green Forest Tangkahan are closer to the elephant bathing location. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Indonesia in early 2020, Tangkahan itself closed itself off from the outside world for a few months. In mid-August, this place was finally opened again to local travelers, but with tighter health protocol supervision. Interested in visiting this place? Don’t forget to keep a safe distance when among other people, and always wear a mask.  (Freddy Wally)