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In Search of Gajah (Elephants)



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Story submitted by Scott from Sydney Australia 5th July 2009

I spent 2 months in Indonesia over November/December 2008 and didnít really have an itinerary so just drifted around while I was there. Sometimes I like to just turn up to a train station or airport and just get the next available transport regardless of where it is going, just for the adventure. I had spent 2 weeks in Kalimantan and was heading to Sumatra though not sure where. I got to Jakarta airport and the next flight to Sumatra was to Pekanbaru which I knew little about. I flew with Mandala Air which has a fantastic in-flight magazine with lots of interesting articles about Indonesia. One of the articles I read was about the Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying Squad. Tesso Nilo is a National Park in the Riau province, Ďcloseí to Pekanbaru, so the article told me, with wild elephants (Gajah liar).

The Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying squadron was set up with 4 trained elephants to patrol the boundary of the National Park to prevent the wild elephants from coming out of the park into the villages looking for food. Many locals had been killed by elephants in such circumstances.

While reading the article I decided I would take this Ďshortí journey to Tesso Nilo to see the Elephants squad for myself.

I checked into a nice 3 star hotel in Pekanbaru to wash off the filth from my 2 week stay in Kalimantan. The next day I went down to the reception area and asked a staff member there how to get to Tesso Nilo. He said he had never heard of Tesso Nilo National Park. I waited until the afternoon and asked the concierge. He didnít know. I showed him the article from the magazine. He took it over to reception where 3 staff were now working. None of them knew. I showed the concierge that the article was also written in Bahasa Indonesia. He put his finger under the first paragraph and stared at the page for several minutes, he wasnít even reading it. I gave up and went back to my room. I decided to leave the next morning to Pekanbaru bus terminal and work it out from there. Surely the bus drivers would know where it is.

Next morning I go and have the buffet breakfast in the hotel. I left the hotel to go change money. Pekanbaru city has countless banks up and down the main road, every 20 meters it seems. I walked into 3 of the banks to see if they did foreign exchange. None did. I saw a very large Bank Mandiri across the road, one of the largest banks in Indonesia. I walked over the overhead walk bridge to get to the other side of this busy street. I walked into bank and saw around 50 people waiting around with their ticketed number waiting to be served. I asked the security guard at the front door if they did foreign exchange. He didnít know and walked up to one of the counters and they told him that they didnít. A customer overheard this and came up to me and said there was a money changer a few doors down from the bank. As he had over half an hour wait for his number to be called he said he would take me there to show me where it is.

When we were walking he asked me the usual questions of where I was from, how long I stayed in Indonesia and where I was going. I said I was going to Tesso Nilo National Park. He said he didnít know where it was. Anyway I changed my money, checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi to the bus terminal, 20 minutes from the centre of Pekanbaru.

The taxi dropped me off at this huge bus terminal at the front gate. I was swarmed by men asking me if I was going to Bukit Tinggi. I said no I was going to Tesso Nilo. They then asked if I was going to Jakarta and I said no I was going to Tesso Nilo. One of them asked again if I wanted to go to Bukit Tinggi. I said no I want to go to Tesso Nilo. Then one man said there are no buses that go to Tesso Nilo though he could take me there on his bike for 200,000Rp ($26), he said a one hour trip. I didnít want to go anywhere on a bike with my 2 backpacks so refused his offer.

I went over to the front gate which had 4 men in brown official looking uniforms. I asked them if there was a bus that went to Tesso Nilo. One said that there werenít any buses that go directly to Tesso Nilo though a bus went close, to Taluk Kuantan and from there I could hire a motor bike or a car and driver to take me to Tesso Nilo. I asked how long it took to get to Taluk Kuantan and he said one hour.

He took me to a small office in the terminal and told the man I wanted to go to Tesso Nilo and the guy agreed that the best place to go was Taluk Kuantan. I asked this man how long it took and he said 1 hour though the bus didnít leave until 4pm, it was only just after noon at this stage. I bought the ticket for 50,000Rp and sat and waited. There were many men who were sitting around me who asked me the usual, where you come from, how long you stay here, where you go. I told them I was going to Tesso Nilo and they all looked confused so I should them the article about the Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying Squad. They all took turns at reading the article and discussed amongst themselves in great details and then looked at me and told me that they had never heard of this.

One of the guys spoke fairly basic English and another guy very little though my basic Indonesian got the 3 of us talking. They invited me to go have a coffee in a different part of the terminal. I thought my backpack would be safe behind the counter as a couple of the staff had been sitting there the whole time.

At 3pm after having coffee I went back to where my bag should have been. There was one staff member stretched out sound asleep on the bench where my bag had been. My bag was nowhere to be seen. I woke him up and asked where my bag was. He took me over to a minivan and showed me that my bag was in the back and told me that the bus was leaving. Wow leaving an hour early in Indoensia is unusual! Usually rubber time means they leave later.

We left the bus terminal with the driver, me and an old lady in the minivan. He drove at break neck speeds a few kilometers down the road and the pulled up at a travel office and picked up another old lady. Once she was on board he did a u-turn and at break neck speed took us back to the bus terminal. We sat there for about 15 minutes and a few other people got in the minivan and then we took off at a snails pace. We crawled down to just past the travel office we had been to before and then pulled up behind a minivan that looked like it was broken down. A person from that minivan got out and jumped in our van. We took off down the road going a little bit faster and a few kilometers down the road we pulled into a very small dirt laneway. We traveled about 500 meters down this laneway then stopped outside a house. We sat there for a few minutes and an old lady came to the gate and pulled it open. The driver got out and opened the back of the van and pulled out a half full container of petrol and gave it to her and jumped back in. He did a u turn back down the dirt road back to the main road and continued on a few kilometers then turned left down another large road and stopped after 50 meters. One of the old ladies got out. The driver did a u-turn and kept going in the opposite direction for a few kilometers then pulled left into another dirt road. We traveled to the end of this street and then did a u-turn and pulled up out the front of a house about 10 down. A girl came out and got in the front of the minivan. We drove down about another 10 houses and stopped. The same girl go out and went to the front door. A lady opened and they chatted for about a minute and then the girl came back and got in the van.

We got back to the main road and turned right and went back the way we had come. The driver got a phone call on his mobile and he then stopped, got out of the van and went into a shop for a few minutes. He got back in and continues down this road and then turned left and headed back to the bus terminal. Half way there he did a u-turn and a few hundred meters down the road he pulled up behind a truck. Some men got out of the truck and starting pulling out some metal slabs and loaded them into the back of out minivan. Once loaded we where off again.

We traveled down this road then turned left and went past where we had dropped off the old lady first. The minivan was full so it seemed we were actually on our way. I think the term bus terminal in Indonesia really means just for buses and Bulee passengers who get on first.

We traveled about 5 kilometers, turned left, traveled a few kilometers then stopped again outside a shop. The driver got out, went into the shop and came out with what looked like his laundry. We took off and he did a u-turn and we went back the way we came. We were actually on our way.

Now something I have seen many times traveling by these Indonesian minivans and this one was the same. Even though our minivan was full the driver still slowed down if he saw someone casually sitting anywhere near the road and asked them where they were going. These people didnít even look like they were going anywhere though the drivers fell compelled to ask everyone just incase he can squeeze another paying customer into his van.

Once we got out of the Pekanbaru city area we went pretty much straight to Taluk Kuantan arriving at after 9pm, 6 hours after we had taken off from the bus terminal. And I was told it was an hour away! The driver took me to a dodgy hotel and hoped out and made sure they had a room for me. I walked into reception with 6 men just sitting around talking. A lady came out and showed me to my room and gave me my key. I put my bags in and told her that I was hungry and asked if she had any food. She cooked up some instant noodles for me which she charge me 25,000Rp ($3) which doesnít sound like much though other places you can get proper noodles, cooked with vegetable and chicken for around 8000Rp.

As I was eating the men had joined me and asked why I was in Taluk Kuantan. I told them I was going to Tesso Nilo and they asked where is that? I told them it is where the Elephants are. They said there were no elephants anywhere near there. At this stage I was thinking I had been sent on a wild goose chase by the bus terminal.

I finished my meal and went and got the magazine with the article about the Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying Squad. One read it out loud to the rest and they all discussed it in detail and then turned to me and said they didnít know where that was. The lady who had cooked my meal then said to them that the forest near them did have elephants. All the men went oh TessO NilO emphasing the Os. They all became experts on the matter and told me that it would only take an hour to get there. They said they could arrange someone to take me there in the morning. Ah now I was getting somewhere and just another 1 hour trip to go!

I went to bed, got up at 6.30am, showered and went to reception and had a coffee. They all sat around and said the guy would be here soon to pick me up. He turns up at 8.30am and greets me. I show him the article and without hesitation he tells me he knows where that is. I hop in his small truck/ute and he pulls down the road in a different direction to what the men had pointed the previous night. I asked if he was sure and showed him the pictures again from the magazine and he nods confidently. We drive an hour back towards Pekanbaru then turn left onto a dirt track. After not long my confidence is increasing as the forest around us is getting thicker and thicker. After 20 minutes the forest opens up and there is a large paper logging companyís offices. We stop at a security gate and the security guard opens the gate. We drive up to the offices and the driver gets out and walks into the offices. He comes out a few minutes later and asks me to come and talk to the manager of the offices. He takes me to the far end of the offices and we walk in to a large official guy sitting behind his desk. I sit down in front of him and in my best Indonesian say Iím from Australia and I want to see the Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying Squadron. He responds in fairly good English that I will find them at the WWF Office (World Wildlife Fund). I ask where that is and he draws me a map, Tesso Nilo National Park looking like a long elongated oval. He points at the bottom and says we are here. Then points at the top and says thatís where the WWF Office is. He explains that I have to go back the hour and a half to Taluk Kuantan then travel another 3 hours to Air Molek and then from there it is another 1 hour to the WWF office Ė another 5.5 hours!

The driver smiles and asks me what I want to do as there is not enough time to go there and back today. We drive back to the hotel and have some lunch. He then takes me an hour up the road to a waterfall that they had told me about the night before. The waterfall was nice though not the elephants I was in search of.

We drive an hour back to the hotel and I say that I want to go to Air Molek that afternoon. They tell me that there is a bus at 5pm that goes there from the bus terminal in Taluk Kuantan. It is 3pm by this stage so I decide to stay a little while at the hotel before going to the bus terminal. At about 3.30pm I decide that I should go now as it looks like it is going to rain. As I pick up my backpack and walk out the front of the office it starts to rain. A young guy, named Indra, offers to take me on his motorbike to the terminal and says it will take about 10 minutes. I say letís wait for the rain to stop. After about 15 minutes the rain stops and we take off. About 2 minutes down the road the skies open up again and it buckets down. He pulls over and we sit under the shelter of a DVD rental shop. At about 4.30pm it is still raining heavy and he says he will go and try to find a car that can take me. He goes off for half an hour and comes back drenched and says that the bus doesnít leave until 9pm and asks what I want to do. I said Iím happy to wait so he waits with me. At about 5.30 the rain eases up to a slight drizzle and he says lets go. He takes me the extra 8 minutes to a ĎRumah Makaní (an open air restaurant) and says I can wait here. I ask where the Bus terminal is and he says this is it. The guy at the front of the restaurant tells me that the bus will pick me up from here though it doesnít leave until 10pm. Iím hungry and thirst so say I will wait. Indra says OK I will go back to the hotel. I offer to pay him money though he insists that he doesnít want any and says goodbye.

I sit in the restaurant and have a meal and sit and read a book. Right on 10pm the bus arrives. I jump in the bus and off it goes. Well the bus would have taken 3 hours to Air Molek though half way through the bus gets a flat tire which takes about 30 minutes to change. I fall asleep after this and am woken up at 2.30am in front of a hotel in Air Molek. Iím almost there! I check into the hotel and get up at around 7.30am in the morning.

I go to reception and there is a young girl attending reception. I donít even bother to ask her where Tesso Nilo is. I walk down the road a few hundred meters to another hotel and ask in their reception. They say they can arrange a car and driver to take me there. They say it will take an hour. They make me a coffee and I sit in reception waiting for the driver to arrive. He arrives about 20 minutes later. I show him the article and ask if he knows where the WWF office is. He says he does so we hope in his car and off we go.

About 20 kilometers down the road there is a sign pointing to the Tesso Nilo National Park saying 21km away. Iím almost there. We turn off the road and head through palm oil plantations. We pull up at a house amongst the plantations and the driver says he wants to visit his friend. OK not part of the game plan but Iíve got plenty of time. We go sit on his friendís verandah and I hear the driver ask his friend if he knows where the WWF office is. His friend calls to his teenage son who is inside the house. The son comes out and says heíll come along with us and take us there.

We head off and continue to drive down dirt roads through the palm oil plantations for about 45 minutes. The roads are very muddy as it has been raining the night before though the driver gets us through no problems. The plantations finish and we start driving though jungle. We came around the corner and there is a big sign which says beware of the wild elephants. Next to this sign is a wooden shack. The teenage boy says this is the WWF office. Hmmm, there is no sign saying WWF office and there is no sign of people or more importantly elephants. We get out of the car and walk around the shack. I ask the boy if he is sure this is the WWF office. He just nods. I pull out my magazine and show him the pictures. His eyes light up and then he says oh this office is a long way away. How long? He says an hour.

We pile back in the car and drive back the way we came for about half an hour then turn down another road and drive for another 15 minutes and come to a big security gate to the palm oil factory. The driver talks with the security guard and the guard opens the gates. We drive on for about 15 minutes then the driver pulls up and chats to a few guys on the side of the road. They say we are going the wrong way. We turn back around and we go back to the security gate. The driver chats to the security guard again. The security guard gives the driver a phone number for the WWF office which he calls and is given directions. After another half an hour of driving down a really small dirt track, the jungles opens up to a clearing which has the sign WWF Office. Yeah I am here.

I get out of the car and there is a guy sitting on the steps of the office building. I confirm with him that this is the home base for the Tesso Nilo Elephant Flying Squadron. I ask him where the elephants are. He tells them they have trekked to a different part of the National Park and wonít be back for several days. Aaarrrrggghhh! He tells me I can get more information about them at the WWF office in Pekanbaru!

After 2 days of traveling I saw the Tesso Nilo National Park which no-one seems to know about. I saw the WWF office that few people know its whereabouts. What I didnít get to see was what I came to see. The Gajah! Oh well later in my trip I managed to see elephants in Tangkahan in North Sumatra Ė another story to be posted later!


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Contributed 5th July 2009
















































































































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