Travel report on the coffee tour in Sumatra

Motivation and preparation

For about 3 years now, I have been the owner of a portafilter machine with an accompanying grinder. As it is my first portafilter, I first had to familiarise myself with the art of coffee preparation. At the same time, I was delighted to realise that there are a large number of small and larger coffee roasters and a correspondingly large range of locally roasted coffee beans. Over the past three years, I have been able to learn the technique of adjusting the taste of an espresso using the grind and varying the conditions on the portafilter to such an extent that I feel able to exploit the potential of roasted coffee beans. A great advantage of coffee beans, as already mentioned, is the wide range of different roasters and their coffee beans. In order to make use of this great variety, I have repeatedly ordered coffee beans from different roasting companies.

One day, after drinking an espresso, I noticed the seal on the coffee package. The seal simply said “Orang Utan Coffee” and the coffee beans were also marketed by the roastery as Orang Utan Coffee. I can say that I try to be an environmentally conscious consumer in general, although unfortunately I cannot serve as a role model in this respect. At the same time, I have to admit that most of the seals and certificates on products are not self-explanatory for me and sometimes make a dubious impression. That’s why I have a certain scepticism towards seals or certificates that are supposed to certify that the environmental impact of the respective product should be minimal. To satisfy my curiosity about what is behind the label “Orang Utan Coffee”, I researched on the internet on the website of the “Orang Utan Coffee” project. Besides information on the origin of the coffee and the conditions of the coffee farmers, there was a link to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) with the comment that part of the proceeds from the “Orang Utan Coffee” project goes to the Orang Utan Conservation Programme. There was also a section on the website called Coffee Tour. It said that the organisation was willing to organise group tours for interested people to the coffee bean growing area and the regions of the SOCP. This advertisement immediately aroused my interest. For I wanted to deepen my knowledge about coffee cultivation and the processing of the coffee beans and for this purpose I would prefer to visit a coffee plantation or a coffee growing area. At the same time, I would be able to satisfy my wanderlust once again, travel to a tropical region and visit one of the few regions in the world that offers a natural habitat for orangutans.

After an enquiry by e-mail, I received confirmation that after a Covid-related break, the coffee tour is planned again for 2023. After a telephone conversation with Holger Welz, who is one of the initiators of the project, I made the final decision to participate in the coffee tour in May 2023. In our telephone conversation, Holger was able to tell me about his experience with the local people and convince me that the coffee tour would take place in a collegial environment and provide an authentic insight into the local society. As it turned out later, fortunately both predictions were completely true and my expectations in this regard were completely fulfilled.

Journey and arrival

Our tour started in Medan on a Sunday. In order to be able to leave early on Sunday, it was planned that all participants would arrive in Medan on Saturday and spend the night there in the same hotel. I had to fly out of Zurich on Friday to arrive in Medan on Saturday evening. The overnight flight was more pleasant for me than expected, as I was fortunately able to sleep for most of the flight time. Once in Medan, I was met by a local driver who was to take me to the hotel. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I was delighted to be convinced of Google Translate’s ability to translate a large number of languages. This enabled me to hold a conversation with my driver, which made the relatively long journey time from the airport to the city seem shorter to me. 

The first night in Sumatra was very pleasant because, contrary to my expectations, I was able to sleep through the whole night despite the time change. I also had no jet lag in the following days and nights. With Holger, we were four participants in the coffee tour. In addition, we were accompanied by local employees of the Orang Utan Coffee Project, who usually work in the office in Medan.

Bukit Lawang and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP)

The first trip took us from Medan to Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang is a small village on the border of the Leuser National Park. We spent the night in the Ecolodge. The Ecolodge is characterised by an impressive bamboo construction of the main building. Furthermore, the emphasis is on sustainable agriculture, so that the food and drinks come only from organic cultivation. At the ecolodge we met our local guide Ipol. Ipul is a very nature-loving person who has great respect for nature and perhaps understands the signs of nature like no one else. After we checked into the ecolodge and had a short rest from the journey, we were able to take an afternoon trip to a small river and cool off in it. With the high humidity near the jungle, cooling off in the water was a welcome refreshment. The next day, a visit to the SOCP Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre was on the agenda. Our guide on site was Dr. Ian Singleton. He has been working in Sumatra for more than 20 years and is still fully committed to protecting the orangutan population. Without really being able to pass judgement, from my observations he seems to be fluent in the Indonesian language with the locals. We were briefed on the objectives, the work carried out and the planning of the conservation programme. Dr. Ian Singleton showed us the facility in detail. We were able to see that both young orangutans and older adult animals are kept. The young orangutans, unlike their older counterparts, have the opportunity to be introduced to the jungle and partially integrated into the wild. The older orangutans cannot be trusted to take the step into the wild because either the foreign environment poses a threat to them or they can unintentionally become a threat to their environment. For such apes, whose release into the National Park would be irresponsible, the “Orangutan Haven” project was launched. The Haven aims to provide animals that have to spend the rest of their lives in care with an environment that is as natural as possible.

Orangutan Haven

At the same time, visitors from outside should also have the opportunity to visit the orangutans and build awareness of their existence and importance. The orangutans’ staging areas have already been created. These are small islands surrounded by water, each connected to a central island. On the central island, a facility is placed that contains houses for the orangutans, where health checks may be done and where they find shelter and food. In this way, orangutans can be separated from each other in the device. From each house, a crossing leads to one island, so that individual orangutans cannot reach other islands, but only their island. As orangutans are afraid of water, there is little danger of them trying to cross the water to get to a neighbouring island. In addition, to exclude all risk, an electric fence has been installed. 

Visitors to this park will be able to enjoy a food court, which was still under construction at the time of our trip. A complex in bamboo architecture is planned, which should be uniform with the surroundings and impressive in its design. There is already a completed bridge in bamboo construction, which is already an attraction in its own right due to its architecture and construction.

Gayo Highlands and Takengon

After a 2-night stay in Bukit Lawang and getting to know the orangutans in their protected and natural habitat, a visit to the coffee farmers and their plantations in the Gayo Highlands was on the agenda. 

Gayo Hochland

More specifically, the destination of our next trip was the town of Takengon, which is popular with locals as a place to visit due to its high altitude and proximity to the lake. As there was no direct flight from Medan to Takengon at the time of our trip, we travelled by plane to the coastal town of Lhokseumawe, from where we then drove inland to the Gayo Plateau. Takengon is located in the Aceh region, which forms the northern part of the island of Sumatra and where Islamic Sharia laws officially apply. As we in the tour group were generally careful to adapt to the local conditions and rules as tourists, we did not notice the fundamentalist legislation in this region compared to the previous localities. The ban on any alcoholic beverages was the most noticeable, although this could apparently be circumvented under very specific conditions and circumstances. The stay in Takengon was three nights and two full days. During the two days, the aim was to visit the coffee farmers participating the Orang Utan Coffee Project. The coffee farmers are each assigned to a collection point, so that the harvest of a group of coffee farmers always comes together at the same collection point. On the one hand, the coffee beans of the different farmers are mixed and the fluctuations of individual farmers can be balanced out, and on the other hand, the origin of the coffee beans can be traced back to the respective collection point during quality control. On our first day out in Takengon, we visited Mulyadi, who is the first coffee farmer of the Orang Utan Coffee Project. About 12 years ago, Mulyadi was offered to join the project and adapt the management of his crops to the conditions of the project.

Coffee collection point

The aim of the coffee harvest and distribution of Orang Utan Coffee is that sustainable, ecological coffee cultivation is practised, from which the coffee farmers benefit better financially and at the same time a part of the profit from the distribution of the coffee beans flows into the SOCP. In this way, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme receives continued financial support, a welcome source of growing sustainable income, which one day will hopefully reduce the dependency from donations. After Mulyadi became the first coffee farmer, the network of participating coffee farmers has continued to grow. However, it was important to the project leaders that growth should also be natural and sustainable. Thus, the effort put into convincing coffee farmers to participate in the programme was rather limited. According to the coffee farmers’ reports, external coffee farmers are now approaching the coffee farmers participating in the project and inquiring about the possibility of participating and the requirements involved.

Particularly interesting for me was the meeting at a collection point where the coffee beans did not perform satisfactorily in the taste test, the cupping. The possible causes and reasons for this were openly discussed in a round table. The opinion and assessment of the coffee farmers was explicitly requested and the monitoring steps to be taken from the harvest to the collection point were agreed. The open communication in the round was surprising as an outsider and at the same time very instructive due to the topics addressed. The discussion between the project management and the coffee farmers additionally underlined the transparency that is lived in the Orang Utan Coffee Project and which is of great importance for the trust of the consumers and the credibility of the project.

The trips to the coffee farmers involved a journey in an off-road wagon, usually lasting several hours. The means of transport in Sumatra seem to consist of motorbikes and off-road wagons. This is certainly mainly due to the condition of the roads. During the drive to the coffee farmers, we were repeatedly offered fascinating views of the landscape from the Gayo highlands. The dark green colours of the rainforest alternated with the lush green of the rice fields, while Lake Takengon appeared again and again on the horizon. To be honest, it must also be said that despite the beautiful scenery, the numerous drives throughout the first week of the trip brought with them a travel fatigue. We were simply not used to sitting in the car and travelling for several hours in a row. During the trips to the coffee farmers, the coffee farmers and their families took care of the food themselves.

Ertu lunch with the friendly coffee farmers

For lunch, we were served local dishes that were lovingly prepared by the coffee farmers’ families. The food was served in large bowls from which everyone could scoop onto their own plates.

Although Takengon is considered a holiday destination for locals, there are a manageable number of places to stay that come close to European standards. Thus, we stayed three nights in a hotel that offered the lowest level of comfort among the hotels on our trip. This is due to the modest level of available local accommodation.One of the highlights in Takengon was a visit to a restaurant for dinner, which was privately run by an old Chinese lady. She managed to serve us different specialities of Indonesian and also Chinese cuisine in three consecutive evenings, which we looked forward to each time with anticipation. The fact that no other guests were served and we sat as a group at one large table created a familiar atmosphere at the table. The rice wine served to the great delight of individual group members added to the atmosphere at the table. For breakfast, we were recommended a noodle shop as an alternative to the buffet in the hotel, which we also visited the following days after our first visit. To our surprise, the noodle shop also had a pastry shop selling fresh pastries, which we did not expect to find in this quality in this region. Perhaps as in the whole of East Asia, the consumption of bread does not seem to be widespread in Indonesia.

After our stay in Takengon, we split into two groups. While the first group started the journey back to Medan, we in a second group made our way to Bande Aceh to take the ferry from there to Pulau Weh Island.

Bande Aceh

The journey from Takengon to Bande Aceh was the last car ride of several hours. As we could not make it directly to the ferry to Pulau Weh in time, we stayed overnight in Bande Aceh. The town, which was badly hit by the tsunami in 2004, seems to have healed its wounds. Except for the Tsunami Museum, at least at first glance, no traces of the catastrophic impact of the tsunami are visible anymore.

With the arrival on the island of Pulau Weh, the second part of the trip had actually begun. In contrast to the first part of the trip, we didn’t have to make any longer journeys and the focus was on relaxing and unwinding in beautiful surroundings with views like the pictures in travel magazines. Pulau Weh is the northernmost point of Indonesia. The island is a popular weekend destination for the locals. International guests visit the island mainly because of the good diving conditions. Accordingly, the island was very quiet during the week and the peace and deceleration was also very welcome to us after the first part of the trip. 

Pulau Weh

After another four days on the island of Pulau We full of relaxation, we had to start our return journey. First we took the ferry back to Bande Aceh, from where we flew by plane to Medan. After a night in Medan, the participants left for their respective places of origin at individual times the next day.


The trip not only offered me two weeks of diversion from everyday life and work in Switzerland, but also enabled me to gain an insight into the society and nature of Indonesia and Sumatra in particular. Although I had always heard from previous visitors to Indonesia that the people are very warm, warm-hearted and friendly, it was very nice and impressive to be able to feel and experience the friendliness of the people on site. Besides the people, I was fascinated by the nature of Sumatra in all the areas we visited. 

While travelling through Sumatra, we saw many palm oil plantations, which is of course also a reality on the island. It would take enormous efforts and a long time to replace these monocultures by sustainable agroforestry for the benefit of local livelihood (e. g. ecotourism, water), science and nature (e.g. biodiversity).Lacking attention is paid to the significance of rainforests as habitats for animals and plants. Sumatran rainforests continue to shrink every year, as growing economic demands request the space for plantations, roads and settlement. This habitat destruction is the first and foremost reason for the Sumatran orangutan’s dwindling populations and the extinction of many species of flora and fauna. Therefore, the preservation of tropical rainforest habitat is an absolute priority. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) clearly shows that this development can only be counteracted with great enthusiasm, motivation, willingness on the part of the stakeholders, above all the government, and, last not least, meaningful investments. It takes the dedicated work of the people on the ground to preserve the habitat of these animals and, if possible, to improve it. It is not difficult to find encouragement and good words for such a project. However, the work of the project largely depends on donations. Of course, the members of the project are also aware of this and try, for example with the “Orangutan Haven” project, to generate additional sources of income for the project and at the same time to create public awareness for the endangered Sumatran rainforest, home to the last Sumatran orangutans, including a stunning biodiversity of flora and fauna. The Orang Utan Coffee also ties in at this point. The goal of Orang Utan Coffee is sustainable coffee cultivation, the proceeds of which benefit the SOCP, among other things. Thus, the consumers of this coffee get the opportunity to support the local farmers in their sustainable agriculture by enjoying an organically grown coffee and at the same time provide the SOCP with a secure source of financial income for the implementation of the projects. 

On the trip, I always got an unvarnished view into the work of the coffee farmers. From the coffee plantations to the manual sorting of the green coffee beans, I was able to visit all steps of the process and talk directly to the people involved. At the same time, the Orang Utan Coffee team was always ready to either answer my questions directly or, if necessary, act as translators between me and the local workers. I am very grateful to the entire team for the insightful insights and information on coffee cultivation and processing, as well as for their patience in answering my questions. With the help of the trip, I was able to learn first-hand what is behind Orang Utan Coffee. Just offering a coffee trip is in itself a testimonial for transparency on the side of the initiators, for which stands Orang Utan Coffee.

It is difficult to give outsiders a deeper insight into the work carried out in coffee cultivation and processing on site. The label “Orang Utan Coffee” gains in importance through this transparency, which again enhances the trust among consumers, traders and roasters.

Last but not least, I was able to make the acquaintance of humorous and intelligent people on the trip who quickly became friends. Due to the small size of our travel group, a familiar and relaxed atmosphere quickly developed, which led to a harmonious togetherness. The positive atmosphere was always expressed both at meals and during the excursions.

Ertu Cakir