From the outside looking in, you’d assume I had a pretty good life in New Zealand. In a “tick the boxes” kind of way, I did, but in all the ways it counted to me, I didn’t.
At 37, after 12 years in my “dream job” as a primate keeper, I threw in the towel. I took a leave of absence from my job (which I never went back to), put a few essentials in storage (later to be sold or given away), and settled down in a tiny village in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
While I don’t consider myself a brave or intrepid person, I do believe that life is precious and short and that we should move towards what calls us.
Here’s my story – why solo travel to Sumatra changed my life!
Travelling to Sumatra for the first time
Before travelling to Sumatra for the first time in 2009, I had done very little travel – only a couple of trips to Australia. I thought I wasn’t a “traveller”; that I wasn’t brave enough to go anywhere off the beaten path.
I was plagued with anxiety, agoraphobia, and a host of other modern-day complaints. Some days I couldn’t make myself leave the house. But luckily for me, I also have a stubborn streak. When my boss asked me to travel to Sumatra with her to work at an orangutan rehabilitation and release site, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes – even though every fear-filled cell in my body told me to say no.
That first trip threw me in at the deep end. I spent a month deep in the jungle in Bukit Tigapuluh in the Jambi province working with orphan orangutans. It was challenging, exhausting, and mind-blowingly beautiful. That experience ignited the first little flicker. I went home besotted with the jungle and animals of Sumatra.
After three more years of working with orangutans and campaigning against the horrific palm oil industry that saw plantations spreading across Sumatra like a plague, I had the opportunity to go back.
This time I travelled solo, but because it was another zoo-sponsored trip, I always had someone accompanying me. I went to the far north of Aceh to another area of spectacular jungle in Jantho. Here, I spent more time at another orangutan release site before later visiting Bukit Lawang briefly; an experience which, unfortunately, did not inspire much love for the place!
Why solo travel to Sumatra changed my life
By the time I headed back to Sumatra for my first solo trip, I was becoming more disillusioned with my job and life in New Zealand. In 2014, I travelled to Batu Mbelin near Medan and worked for several weeks at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) in their quarantine centre.
I helped with enrichment, training, and conditioning of the captive adult orangutans that could never be released, and was lucky to spend a bit of time with the many orphans there.
Frankly, it was soul-destroying, and I give huge props to those who have the strength and courage to work with these animals long term while witnessing the brutal things people do to them.
It was where I went next that changed the course of my life!
Magnificent, magical, enchanting, tranquil Lake Toba. Looking for somewhere chill to recover after a draining few weeks, I found very little info on Sumatra. I randomly picked Lake Toba and travelled solo to Tuktuk – the tiny little village on the giant island of Samosir in the middle of the lake. (See our Ultimate Guide to Lake Toba for more info on this unmissable destination!)
Lake Toba cast a spell on me. I was nervous to step out and travel truly alone in Sumatra for the first time, but the minute I sat on the ferry and started cruising across the lake, I felt calm. As cheesy as it sounds, I felt like I was coming home.
After a few days, I called my boss and requested an extra weeks’ holiday as I didn’t want to leave. I instantly made friends with the locals – Batak people are the friendliest I’ve ever met. There was nothing I didn’t love about my time there.
Finding the courage to move to Sumatra
Following that holiday, I lived, dreamed and craved Sumatra – the food, the music, the language, the jungle, the people, sounds, and smells. Because I had a cat who I would never leave, a job that my ego was super attached to, and a lack of belief in myself, it took me a further three years to take the leap and move to Sumatra.
I visited at least once a year, sometimes more – always going back to Lake Toba, but squeezed in a few tropical island trips to Pulau Weh too (read our guide to the Most Awesome Things to do in Pulau Weh for inspo!)
I lost my passion for my job and could no longer stand seeing orangutans, gibbons, and macaques suffering behind bars; not when I had witnessed their wild counterparts living in one of the most spectacular ecosystems on earth.
My cat died, leaving me with no attachments (other than my awesome family, of course, who fully supported me in whatever I wanted to do).
I felt like I had very few true friends. Everyone I knew talked about marriage, kids, spending ridiculous amounts of money on crap they don’t need, and discussing The Bachelor and throw pillows around the lunchroom table. I had never really fit in, but after Sumatra, I felt like an alien living in completely the wrong culture.
Moving to Sumatra! Leap and the net will appear
There’s a saying that goes something like, “When something isn’t right for you, the universe will make your life so uncomfortable that you have no choice but to change it.”
This is definitely what happened in my case. I was miserable, unfulfilled in my work and home life, and exceptionally lonely. I saved my money and took three months of unpaid leave from my job. (At this point, I wasn’t sure if my infatuation with Sumatra was purely a holiday fling, and wanted to make sure it was the real deal!)
In March 2016, I got on that plane. I’m not gonna lie; I cried, I was so terrified I made myself sick. I had no idea what I was going to do or how it was going to work out. But I did it anyway.
Welcome to the jungle – falling in love with Sumatra all over again
Luckily, I had some great support to welcome me in Sumatra. My friend Jess McKelson had lived and worked there for many years, both with her eco-tourism company (RAW Wildlife Encounters) and with SOCP.
I crashed with her a while in Medan, and then she took me to one of her favourite spots – Tangkahan. She introduced me to my new village and helped me settle into this new life, and I will be forever grateful for her support and encouragement.
If I thought Lake Toba was going to be my go-to, one-and-only love in Sumatra, I was dead wrong. I fell in love all over again in Tangkahan (with the jungle and lifestyle, not with Agung – that would come a year later!)
This pristine ecotourism destination on the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem is paradise. Seriously; it’s literally called “The Hidden Paradise.” I could gush about it all day, but if you want to know more, pop over to our Ultimate Guide to Tangkahan.
This tiny village with no air-con, hot water, wifi, cellphone signal, dodgy electricity at best and a serious lack of chocolate became my home.
Yes, the jungle, waterfalls, rivers and wildlife are out of this world in Tangkahan. But it’s the people who made it home. They welcomed me like family instantly, and although I was in a new country and culture far from home, I never felt alone, misunderstood, or judged – not like I did back in NZ!
That was a little over three years ago. I’ve been back to NZ once (in 2017 to sell the rest of my belongings). I’ve had so many adventures and experiences over the last three years – some were challenging, but most super bloody awesome. Never have I considered going back to my old life – okay, maybe for fleeting moments when I’ve been super sick and just want my Mum haha.
Travelling to Sumatra and later moving there was the right decision for me, 100 percent. I’m so in love with this Indonesian super-island, and can’t wait to see much, much more of it. Even better, I get to share it with all you lovely people!
If you want to travel to Sumatra and don’t know where to start, check out our Ultimate Guide to Travelling Sumatra. Or contact us – we love hearing from readers and get a real kick out of helping you have your very own life-changing Sumatra experience.