Ketambe is remote. The nearest substantial town is Kutacane approximately one hour south by public bus. If you are travelling from the south of Gunung Leuser National Park you will need to get to Kutacane first.
If you prefer to see wild orang-utans then you must come to Ketambe. Anyone who despises the concept of humans interfering with wildlife, then Ketambe will restore your moral righteousness. Ketambe will allow you to visit orang-utans and other native jungle wildlife without fearing you have negatively impacted on their environment, you might even begin to feel like David Attenborough trekking for the jungle in a search for the elusive orang-utan.
Getting to Ketambe from Danau Toba or Berastagi
Getting to Ketambe takes a long time, a really long time. We took a private taxi from Parapat to Berastagi and it took less than three hours. Bring some small notes of 1,000Rp-2,000Rp because there is often “road tax” imposed by local Sumatran youths before you can pass through their village.
Once in Berastagi, the continuing trip to Ketambe is about 160km. However if you get lucky the experience will take you about 8 hours to get there. Indonesians will tell you the trip takes four – five hours (empat – lima jam), however this is if all of the following variables do not occur.
First variable – Gunung Sinabung is involved in a pyroclastic flow display, showering all crops and humans within a 20km radius with volcanic dust – Be very careful about this at the moment villages near the volcano have been evacuated and the main road is probably intermittently closed. Cover your mouth, nose and eyes with something when you are driving through this part of Northern Sumatra.
Second variable – The bus driver is not simultaneously doing a delivery run of goods to and from Berastagi to Kutacane and all the small villages in between
Third variable – The road is paved (there are a lot of potholes and some unmade bridges)
Fourth variable – There is no traffic (this will never happen)
Fifth variable – The driver does not need to change over because he has been driving too long
Sixth variable – The bus you are on has a mechanic failure
Seventh variable – You stop for makan (food)
However, one or all of these things can happen at various points along your trip. If you are making this trip it is not glamorous, you just need to ride along with the other 11 people and take in the scenary, albeit smokey and sweaty. If you have a really burning desire to experience a public bus in Sumatra this would be the trip to do.
Other travel options
If you are heading to Ketambe from Medan I think it would be possible to get a private taxi at least to Kutacane. The cost would be about 150,000Rp per person and as always, is negotiable dependent on the level of your Bahasa Indonesia. Expect to share the modern Toyota seven seater with other passengers (most likely wealthy Indonesian tourists).
We tried to get a taxi from Berastagi to Kutacane, but were able to pick up a public bus from the main road in Berastagi. Maybe, if you stayed a night in Berastagi you could work out how to organise a private taxi, however I think the easiest would be to get a private taxi from Medan.
We stayed in the Friendship Guesthouse and it was great. They have their own website and the owner is very friendly. Food is excellent in their restaurant. Cost was 100,000Rp per night for a new concrete bungalow with two beds. There are other guesthouses, other travellers had good reviews to give about Pondok Wisata.
There is a government owned guesthouse further along the main road in Ketambe where orang-utans come to eat fruit out of the trees at dawn and dusk.
The jungle undulates between steep inclines and declines.
There are hoards of leeches, if you stay too long in one spot you can count up to 20 leeches that have taken up residence on your shoes/leech socks.
There are wasps and you will be sweaty. Bring Hydralite and wet wipes. You will also be damp for the whole time you are in the jungle.
This is true Indonesian jungle that has not yet been converted into palm oil and an experience in itself. There are varying trips you can do from one night to as many nights as you like. We heard of people going into the jungle for months on end.
There is a lake about 5 days walk into the jungle where there has been reported sightings of elephants, tigers and rhinos, but you have to be really lucky to see these animals. There is also a track to Bukit Lawang if you have a spare 2 weeks.
Usually hiking in the jungle for one day will reveal Thomas leaf monkeys, Macaques, hornbill birds, leeches and the beating drum sound of calling sun bears. You might see orang-utans, however we did not see any in the jungle.
There are beautiful hot springs that provides a cool river with intermittent sprays of hot water, truly remarkable natural hot bath in the jungle. What more could one want? This is easily reachable in a day hike through the jungle.
We paid 350,000Rp per person per day for hiking that included tent, sleeping mat, food and snacks. You usually only need to carry your own clothes and water. If there is only one of you then only the guide will go with you, but two people a guide and porter will go with you into the jungle. If you are a young woman, I would not recommend going into the jungle by yourself, however this is dependent on the guide, your own personality, physical strength, mental outlook on life.