The Archipelago Journal : Padang
As the boat eases into the shallow bay at Rimba Ecolodge, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re landing on a deserted beach.
Words and Photography by Mark Eveleigh
Then you catch sight of the thatch and palm-wood chalets, almost hidden by the trees. It is a purely natural Swiss Family Robinson backdrop. And that’s just how French owner Nadége Lanau and her Indonesian husband Reno Putra like it.
There are a thousand ways of running ‘ecolodges’, but all too often the title is seen as little more than a marketing gimmick. It’s refreshing to see that Rimba modestly does its best not to provide any first impression at all beyond that of a beautifully wild and untouched beach.
“We left the trees primarily because we try to leave the jungle here as natural as possible,” Nadége tells me as we step into the palm-wood restaurant, “and also because they serve a useful purpose.”
Nad, as she prefers to be called, has seen first-hand how the fierce storms on this western coast of Sumatra have wrecked the roofs of nearby properties while hers – protected by the sturdy trees – remained untouched. She’s seen too how erosion can take hold once the web of protective roots has been removed from the shoreline. Nad believes that successful eco-properties like Rimba have a part to play in advising others so that the same mistakes need not be made elsewhere. It is part of her philosophy that true ecolodges should be more interested in networking than in competing.
Because nature has been allowed to remain intact here, there is a delicious sense of jungle living that has made this rustic and relatively simple retreat a firm favourite among many guests (mostly European) who return year after year. In the mornings, troops of beautiful silver langur monkeys leap through the trees and the haunting call of agile gibbons drifts through the canopy.
I ask about jungle trekking activities: “We resisted the temptation to clear trails,” Nad tells me, “because we don’t want to allow easy access for poachers.”
There is just one moderately cleared animal track that allows access for visitors to a viewpoint overlooking the bay. It is used more by animals than by humans and as I climb the root-strewn track late one afternoon I’m particularly alert.
“A tiger came down that trail about six months ago and ate my dog,” Nad told me before I left. “I think it was a young tiger because I heard it call and it almost sounded like a clouded leopard.”
I don’t doubt her judgement for a moment: I’m aware that Nad’s years of experience as an environmental researcher in the jungles of Borneo, Java and Sumatra have left her amply qualified to distinguish between a tiger and a leopard. In fact, Nad and Reno met when they were both working for the Kalaweit project, a famous protection and rehabilitation initiative for the gibbons of Indonesia, but their joint destiny was to establish their ecolodge in the jungle near Reno’s home village of Sungai Pinang.
As we walk through the village, Reno tells me how, like many kids in the village, he was forced by lack of funds to leave school and to help his father with fishing: “The relatively small cost of an exercise book can be make-or-break for the future of kids here,” he tells me. “Perhaps the father comes back after an unsuccessful day fishing and the dollar or so he has to spend on a schoolbook convinces him that it’s better to stop ‘wasting’ money at school.”
Rimba Association has already raised funds for materials for the school here and in Sungai Pisang. My visit to Rimba coincides with the happy day when a whole pickup truck full of books and writing materials is delivered to 250 delightedly smiling schoolkids at Sungai Pinang middle school. To see the excitement on the faces of the children it would seem that all their birthdays had come at once. This delivery could ensure that some of these students will be able to complete their education rather than spend the last years of their childhood on the fishing boats or in the village paddy fields.
Along with their community projects, Rimba Association is hoping to raise funds to establish a fully equipped animal rehabilitation centre from which orphaned and sick animals can be introduced back into the wild.
The team at Rimba has also made successful rescue attempts. Once a baby macaque was re-introduced to the jungle where it was, bizarrely, adopted into the local troop of silver langurs. They also recently rescued and released a large buffy fish owl, a weasel, a rare pangolin and a slow loris.
“Most people don’t realise but the cuddly teddy-bear like slow loris is the world’s only venomous primate,” Nad tells me. “They rub their canines on venom glands inside their elbows. So, when we rescued one, the first thing I did was check to see that the villagers had not pulled his teeth out…”
The slow loris seemed to be in good health and had a good appetite, so Nad released him into the jungle.
Nad and Reno seem to have an endless list of social and environmental projects that they want to establish to secure the future of this beautiful region: “If we can get the funds together, we’d like to establish patrols to protect the forest and prevent poaching. We also want to set up a recycling project that would turn waste plastic into paving blocks.”
One might imagine that with all these projects there would be little time left to actually run an ecolodge, but perhaps karma does indeed play a big part in the eco-business: Rimba is so popular that it runs almost to 100% occupancy right through West Sumatra’s high season.
It might appear on arrival at Rimba that there is little going on at this wild beach, but it is refreshing to find an ecolodge that is so truly committed to improving life for the local community and the region’s threatened wildlife.
Jakarta to Padang
Flight Time 1 hours 20 minutes
Frequency 49 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Sight
While Rimba Ecolodge is not a dive centre, there’s wonderful snorkelling to be had on the reef right in front of the bungalows. In the first half hour alone, I counted 37 different species of fish and, at the same time, another guest was snorkelling just along the beach among seven large black-tipped reef sharks. Turtles, rays, dolphins and (from November to January) even whales are also frequently spotted here.