Silversea Expedition Cruises – Exotic Journeys Focus on “The Journey” – Silver Discoverer Indonesia/Myanmar Expedition: Part V (The Expedition Begins – Orangutans & Jimmy Buffett)

Our first day on Silversea’s Silver Discoverer was a day at sea.  Ironically, after everyone was so anxious to get this cruise started, after the one day delay, many were thrilled to have a day without an expedition.  The lecturers were, for me, a wonderful way to spend the day.  

Baby Orangutan
North Sumatra, Indonesia
What struck me was the need for a Jimmy Buffett song: “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”.  I am very interested in seeing how Silversea Expeditions reacted to the loss of a day as it relates to the itinerary, how the guests react to it and, of course, how the guests expecting a full Silversea experience are adjusting to a Silversea Expedition experience.

The itinerary adjustment (the first of a few) was relatively easy, but did require a bit of a compromise.  Our first port, Belawan, Indonesia was to be an overnight stay with a mid-day departure for Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Day 2.  Instead, our arrival in Belawan would be very early, so that the expedition to the Gunung Leuser National Park in search of orangutans and monkeys would depart at 5:30 a.m. (Yes, that meant being up at 4:30 a.m.) and return to the ship by 4:00 p.m. so that we could arrive in Banda Aceh pretty much as scheduled (though eliminating Weh Island and its geothermal park – unfortunately).  Because of Indonesian local and national authorities needing to cooperate we wouldn’t know if this would work until the day of. But Silversea Expeditions was doing its best to make it happen.

 There were three very different lectures, as well as a zodiac safety briefing, today.  One lecture was on orangutans and other wildlife of Sumatra, one was an introduction to Indonesia and the third was, to my mind, truly outstanding:  Oil for Apes, providing an incredibly balanced and informative discussion about not only the benefits and detriments to the boom in palm oil production, but how difficult it is to reconcile the harm to the environment and wildlife on the one hand and the benefits to humans and, ironically, other aspects of the environment on the other.  Kit van Wagner gave this talk and we were able to discuss it a bit more, as well as her disembarking the ship to investigate some new possible expeditions for 2019, over dinner.
Aside from the lectures and doing a bit of work I was able to start using Silver Discoverer a bit.  She has her physical limitations as to what can be delivered, but she is comfortable and friendly.  I have found the staff to very accommodating, but there are moments where there are communication difficulties with some service staff. 
I had lunch by the pool.  The menu is quite limited, but functional.  As I do I ordered a hamburger and a hot dog.  Both were served properly (a bit improvement from an experience on a prior Silversea cruise), though the hot dog’s quality was a disappointment.  The hamburger was good, but not memorable.  Great onion rings and nice hot French fries, though.  (As many of you know, I learn much about a ship’s cuisine from the hamburgers and hot dogs.  Stay tuned!)

I have noticed that there are definitely experienced “travelers” on this cruise.  Whether formerly in the Foreign Service or having trekked through Northern Pakistan during their youth, or even taking a Paul Gauguin or Cunard cruise to more exotic locations, there are many enthusiastic stories that are consistently presented as “sharing moments” rather than bragging.  Because of this it should not be considered intimidating for those considering an expedition cruise as an introduction to more exotic travel.  Very nice.
After staying up way too long with some of the officers and expedition staff, my 4:30 a.m. wakeup call came far too early.  But it “up and out” to find orangutans with an anticipated 3.5 hour driving taking much longer due to the terrible traffic problems in Medan. However, since it was Sunday and we had a police escort we sailed through.  Note that Silversea Expeditions breaks people out into four groups for the duration of the cruise.  These groups are used for zodiac launchings and bus rides and are shuffled so nobody is always first or last.   (I am sure that if there were more people on board there would be more groups.)  They also make sure that the buses are not full, so while we probably could have fit everyone into two buses, Silversea provided four; one for each group.

We arrived at the Hotel Rindu Alam for an Indonesian breakfast and a briefing by the park rangers before heading out.  It became clear, over-hearing the rangers and Silversea Expedition staff that seeing orangutans was pretty much a “sure thing” as they had located them earlier in the morning and the apes know that “We come bearing gifts…I mean fruit”, so they are approachable.  But let me not get ahead of myself!

Being in Group 2 we were the second to head out.  After crossing over a swingy suspension bridge and up a pathway, it became clear that there was a legitimate hike up a somewhat muddy hill on a path filled with tree roots that had to be navigated.  It wasn’t much of a challenge for anyone someone fit and with the right shoes, but for some it was.  (There are locals that are more than willing to help you up and down the hill for the equivalent of US$4.00; a bargain for some and should have been mandated for others that needed, but refused the help.)

Because of this, there were bottlenecks where Group 1 stopped to discuss something or a weaker trekker was blocking the pathway and would not (could not?) step aside for our group or faster hikers.  But since the orangutans were actually fairly close in, the groups all came together into one larger one for the viewing.  A bit chaotic, but still enjoyable.

A few things to note: 
       People need to stop with the selfie stuff.  You are there to see wildlife and be amazed by its magnificence; not interject yourself into it.  The orangutans (and most wildlife) have personal space so while most respected that space and got some great photos of them with orangutans in the background, others had no respect for the animals, invaded their space and scared them away just because they couldn’t get “that” selfie framed just as they wanted it.  (And, I might add having loud conversation rather then listening to the jungle is equally inappropriate and unfair to both the animals and your fellow travelers.)  Observing is how you learn things.  If you just want a photo or to chat, go to the zoo.

       Some people were upset that the orangutans were not seen in a fully natural setting.  As I explained, if you want to spend 3-4 nights in the park (which is available…and I would love to do), that is most certainly available.  But when you have 100 people sitting on busses for 7 hours after flying even longer and paying for an expensive cruise, excited to see orangutans…and then only have a few hours…a “sure thing” is not a “bad thing”.  And, to be sure, it is a far more natural experience than I had in Sepilok, Borneo where there was almost a stadium overlooking a feeding platform.
       There should have been more time for those wanting to look for monkeys, but there was no accommodation for those of us more physically able.  Because of the shortened time, the focus was getting us back quickly so most (including myself) missed seeing at least one monkey.  Since this was supposed to be an overnight port, we probably were going to have more time if things went according to plan.  But also, when walking through a forest, you can see or miss something in an instant, so time isn’t everything.  We are, alas, on an expedition!
Since our revised scheduling worked almost immediately after we arrived back at the ship we set sail for Banda Aceh.  And, a revised – yet again – schedule.  We now are adding back Weh Island (and the geothermal park) on the morning after Banda Aceh, but we are eliminating one of the islands in the Mergui (Myanmar) Archipelago.  It seems that even though Silversea Expeditions has obtained all of the necessary permits one of the permits was just cancelled without explanation.
Might there be another island added? Of course, but who knows. Flexibility and being open to unexpected opportunities is that expedition cruising is all about! Personally, I am finding it sort of mind-freeing, since I am relieved of having to stick to a plan.

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