real life

'What happens when you take a wild teen human to see wild animals.'

Sometimes I feel I’m living with a wild animal.

That sounds horrible I know.  And it is. For both of us.

My nearly thirteen-year-old is reconstructing her brain and her body and it can be awful for her and for me.

I understand that she is full of hormonal angst, I understand that she needs to distance herself from me to become her own self, I remember feeling full of fury at her age.

But when the first ‘I hate you’ was screamed and the first banging door was shut in my face I felt deeply wounded. Somedays I can hear my heart crack.

So I decided we should take a trip together – without her brother – to have a break from the everyday pressures of life and to reconnect before the teenage years pull us further apart.

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My daughter likes animals far better than people. She is passionate about the Orangutans of Sumatra and desperately upset that they are being poached, kept as pets and killed because their rainforest home is being destroyed to make way for Palm Oil Plantations.

So passionate is she that she gave up Tim Tams for years and stood at the supermarket saying to people as they bought them “those biscuits may as well be dripping with the blood of orangutans.”

Rescued orangutan babies

Subtle.  And typical of teenage righteousness.  But I admired her commitment. She wrote to Arnotts biscuits, she spoke at school about Palm Oil, she talked to the canteen, she helps me shop for goods that are Palm Oil free.

Thankfully we are now eating Tim Tams again because Arnotts Biscuits signed up to sustainable sources of Palm Oil. But chocolate is not enough to get us through these tricky times so I decided to engage with her passion.

We signed up for a small personal RAW Tour of northern Sumatra to see the Orangutan preservation program and their diminishing habitat. We've just returned from a journey into the  jungle and into my own heart of darkness. It was a wonderful relaxing holiday that utterly confronted my perspective on life and my relationship with my daughter.

Elephant bathing at Tangkahan Village Sumatra.

We visited a Quarantine Station that looks after rescued Orangutans; babies who have been orphaned, fathers who are full of gun shot pellets, mothers who have caught Hepatitis and Meningitis from biting their captors as their babies were being taken away to be pets.

While it was heart breaking to see animals in cages we watched babies drink from bottles and learn to stay high in a play centre that is their trainee jungle. Most will be released.  Those who cannot will hopefully be released into a safe sanctuary that our trip has helped pay for.

Girls at the Quarantine Station

After a hot, dusty five hour drive through endless Palm Oil Plantations we spent days in a small village called Tangkahan. We watched elephants swim and then helped scrub their ancient hides free of ticks - the giant male almost purred as he wrapped his trunk around my daughter's leg in gratitude.

We watched a mother and her baby come down to the river. The baby so skittish, almost tripping the mother up in its desire to stay between her legs.  I nearly cried remembering those days. Now my daughter was so teenage cold she hardly let me touch her.  But when she was utterly transfixed by the baby, I almost got a hug without being pushed away.


We floated down the stream, we bathed in waterfalls, we dipped in hot springs, we ate beautiful food cooked by our guide's wife, displayed in glorious sculptures.  We were watched by monkeys and even spotted a rare wild orangutan watching us from the other side of the river.   Our guide washed our hair with forest fruits and told us about the animals he has seen in his home village.  I became proud of her adventurous spirit - the way she rode the rapids and picked the leaches off her shoes.  We met gorgeous village children who thanked us for helping pay for their English club and posed for photos with strangers who wanted us on their mantelpiece.

A waterfall picnic

Of course we had our moments. At Bukit Lawang we trekked for two hours through the rainforest.  She blamed me for being hot, she blamed me for  tripping on giant roots and sliding in the mud.  I got cross at her and her friend for bringing a stray dog into the forest.

Then we came up a steep slope, sodden with sweat to stop in utter silence.  In front of us was an orangutan and her baby.  Their heavy scent hung in their thick red fur.  Their big brown eyes looked at us from creased eyebrows.  They were primal, from another world, they burst us from our small bubble of life and back into our earthly natures.

My daughter was leaning on me. Hot, uncomfortable, heavy.  I wanted to push her off exasperated and annoyed.  Then we watched as the baby went off in one direction, the mother in the other. The mother seemed keen to get some space and the baby was excited to be on its own. Then the baby panicked.  The mother turned. She seemed fed up, hot, sick of people staring at her.  She reached out, grabbed her child, shoved it on her back and swung back into the forest.

We share about 96% of our DNA that mother and I but we were performing the same dance of dependence and independence, fear and pride, hovering and letting go.

Orangutan and baby in the rainforest near Bukit Lawang

One day I will have to release my daughter to the wilds of the world's human jungle.  It's natures way.  It hurts.  As does her growing up.  There are dangers everywhere, greed, anger, cruelty both within us both and all around us.  For a week on the holiday those troubles were held back by shared adventure and wonder.

Back home, we are fighting again.  She is not grateful enough, I am wrong about everything and everyone. I am mean, I make her lunch wrong, I make her angry.

So now when she starts swinging at me I try to take myself back to the jungle, back to the river and let it all flow through me.

And I will remember the simple moments we shared in the jungle, eating nasi goreing on bamboo platforms, floating down the river holding hands as our days of calm in the years of storm.

Would you ever go overseas with your child? Let us know in the comments.