A story about Bus Journeys, Rain Forests and Medicine Men…
The ultimate adventure…
In 1994 I had the opportunity to fly as an onboard courier to Singapore (thank you Miriam for lending me the book which explained how to do that). The first couple of days I spend in Singapore, my main goal was to but a flight ticket from Bali to Singapore that connected to my intercontinental flight home. Fortunately there was time enough to wander around, visit places I had not seen during my first visit and drink a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel, as one does when in Singapore.
The day after arrival I left Singapore with the ferry to Pulau Bintan, part of the Riau archipelago. With leaving Singapore I started my Sumatran adventure. The original plan was to travel completely from the north to the south but 6 weeks turned out to be too short for that. I did manage to travel through the northern half of Sumatra and visit several smaller islands in the area as well. During this trip I’ve hiked through rain forests, traveled long distance on top of a bus and met shamans on the remote island of Siberut.
Selamat datang di Indonesia! I spent the first couple of days over there acclimatizing and enjoying the typical Indonesian atmosphere. It didn’t take long before I had my first bir bintang and kretek, the famous Indonesian clove cigarette. I enjoyed walking through kampung laut, a fishermen village built on wooden pillars over the water and made a day trip to Pulau Penyenget, a neighboring island. The mosque over there was beautifully decorated and the four yellow green painted Moghul minarets were a real eye catcher. The serenity of the island gave me the impression to have landed in one of the fairytales of 1001 night.
After a couple of days it was time to start my Sumatra tour so I headed to the airport of Batamn. It must have been my lucky day as it worked out to fly to Medan and from there to Banda Aceh, which lies in the north of Sumatra, in one single day.
Banda Aceh is one of the regions in Indonesia where Islam rules strongly. Still I found the people very open and friendly, so much different then for instance Morocco which I visited some years before. I was allowed to visit the beautiful Baiturrahman mosque.
Worshippers even stopped praying in order to have a little chat with me. I really enjoyed Banda Aceh which was so different from the rest of Indonesia that I had seen so far. Everywhere I could see crowded shopping streets where gold and watches were sold by countless shops and of course the market place was one of the highlights, as usual.
I met a Dutch couple and we decided to travel together to Pulau Weh, Indonesia’s most north-eastern island. The ferry crossing took 2 hours and from there on we took a taxi to Gapang beach.
What we found over there were simple but beautiful cottages, straight on the beach. We looked out over a beautiful lagoon where swimming and snorkeling were a delight. There was a diving school in the area but after one dive I didn’t return there. The underwater life was gorgeous but I was not at all impressed by the diving conduct. Fortunately there was enough to be seen snorkeling so I couldn’t be bothered at all. It were four days of sun, fun and partying in a bounty like atmosphere, what a wonderful place.
Once back in Banda Aceh it was time to make plans on how to continue the trip. One of the guests I met in Gapang Beach told me he wanted to make a bus journey off the beaten track to Berastagi. We checked the possibilities in our guidebooks and set off. The first day we traveled over the Trans Sumatran highway to Bireuen where we had to change the bus. Now it became interesting. We drove through a hilly area with lots of forest between which we could see rice fields as patches in the landscape.
As we were approaching the Gayo highlands coffee fields started to appear. Nine hours after we had left Banda Aceh we finally arrived in Takengon, however not a single moment had been boring. In Takengong I was introduced for the first time with padang food. A big variety of dishes is put on the table and you eat what you like. It tasted great. The next morning I was woken up early by the sound of the prayers which sounded loudly through the streets. After nasi goreng for breakfast we decided to explore the area and go to lake Tawar. It was a beautiful spot where we talked to local women who were doing the laundry at the waterside. After the day break we were ready to continue our journey to our next destination. The vegetation changed quickly and the land was covered with pine trees now. After a short break I was asked by two Indonesians to join them on the roof of the bus. Of course I didn’t need to be told twice and this way of traveling was spectacular. It seemed I was able to enjoy the unfolding panorama’s around me even more. By the time we arrived in Blankejeren I was ready to return and do the whole trip all over again!
Also the next day I was allowed to travel on top of the roof of the bus. We were now driving through the center of Gunung Leuser national park and the scenery was absolutely stunning. I think I’ve never seen so many shades of green together in my life. We followed the river and every now and every now and then passed a small settlement. People over there waved enthusiastically when we passed by. I was mesmerized by all the impressions.
Arriving in Kutacane was a big shock. Suddenly we were back again in a typical busy Indonesian town. We had to wait for an hour to change busses to Berastagi and I was happy to be back on the road again.
Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to surf the roof anymore so I spend the last 6 hours of our journey inside the bus. It had been a tiring day, we had traveled for more then eleven hours. In the guesthouse where we stayed waited a surprise. A hot shower, the first one since the beginning of my trip, now two weeks ago…
In Berastagi we did a day hike to gunung Sibayak, a still active volcano. It was a tiring but worthwhile trip. After 2 1/2 hour of hiking through beautiful forest we arrived at the point where no more vegetation was possible. Sulphur clouds were raising out of the yellow colored rocks. It felt like a bit like walking on the moon. On top of the volcano we organized a picnic while we enjoyed the phenomenal view. Below us we could see the forests, rice fields and Berastagi. We found a shortcut back down and back at the foot of the volcano enjoyed a well deserved bath it hot sulphur springs.
It was time to say goodbye to my travel companion and continue to Bukit Lawang, an orang utan rehabilitation center at the edge of gunung Leuser national park. I stayed in a beautiful losmen a river. Birds and insects created a cacophony of noise which had a very calming effect. Twice daily feeding sessions were held for rehabilitating orangutans on a plateau somewhere in the forest. The orangutans were not frightened at all and it was wonderful seeing them climbing and jumping in the trees around us. Their facial expressions were absolutely hilarious. In the afternoon I “tubed” on the river. Big inflated truck tires were used as a float. Gently going downstream I was intensely enjoying the nature around me. In the evening I saw a real interesting movie made by the WWF about the rehabilitation center.
The next two days I went with three others on a mini jungle trek. Our guide Itoh took us on an interesting tour. He was well aware of everything what was going on in the jungle and told us a lot about the use of plants. The further we went into the forest the more dense the vegetation became. Sounds were coming from everywhere and we were fantasizing about encounters with tigers. We did not spot any of them but encountered lots of other interesting animals. Wild swines, giant ants, butterflies and lots of different, beautifully colored birds. Several times when we reached a hilltop we were able to get a glimpse of a breathtaking panorama. One of the highlights was when we spotted a large rhino bird. It was awesome! We spent the night in a simple camp which was set up beside a river. At night the noise in the jungle was overwhelming. Also the second day of our mini trek was fantastic and we returned to Bukit Lawang exhausted but with a satisfied feeling.
The next days I traveled further south. Via Medan to Lake Toba where I spent the night and the next day onward to Sibolga. There I took the night boat to the island of Nias. It was a long trip, almost 13 hours, on a small overloaded ferry. Still I enjoyed the atmosphere and was able to sleep pretty well.
Once arrived at the harbor of Teluk Dalam locals with motorbikes waited to bring arriving guests to their guesthouses. I found a nice place to stay on the beach. The waves were extremely high, no wonder Nias was a newly discovered surf mecca.
I met Marrigje and Joost, two people from Amsterdam, who gave me good tips for visiting villages in the area. The first village which I visited was Bawamataluo (sun mountain). This was the biggest and most spectacular traditional village in South Nias. Before I was in the village I had to climb large stone stairs. On the sides there were two stone demons. The village itself was impressive indeed. Two rows of large houses were divided by a broad paved street. In front of the houses some gigantic megaliths were set-up. Both the houses and the megaliths were full of symbols which reminded of old times and rituals.
The only thing which spoiled the atmosphere slightly was the constant begging for money and gifts. Fortunately this was not the case in Siwalawa, a little village which was a one hour hike further away. Over there I had a couple of nice conversations with the locals while I was sheltering for a tropical rain shower. Although Nias had nice things to offer I was a bit disappointed by it’s atmosphere and maybe that’s why I really looked forward going back to the mainland of Sumatra.
Once back in Sibolga Marrigje, Joost and myself chartered a minibus together with some others for the 8 hour journey to Bukittingi, the cultural heart of Sumatra. It was a beautiful ride and on the way we stopped in Bonjol at the Equator monument where we spent some time at this “special” place and had lots of fun doing the mandatory photo sessions.
Bukkitingi was a great place indeed. It was pretty touristy but people were friendly and there was a lot in the town and it’s surroundings to be discovered. The well taken care of center was dominated by Jam Gadang, a beautiful bell tower and a little bit outside the town center the panorama park had a beautiful view over a stunning gorge called “Het karbouwengat”. In the distance I could see the Gunung Merapi, a still active volcano. It was awesome. I spent quite some time at the colorful local market and during one of the evenings Marrigje and I visit a folklore show with traditional dances.
One of the highlights of our stay in Bukkitingi was the Singgalang walk through a fantastic countryside where we passed numerous small villages, chatted with the spontaneous locals and enjoyed watching people working on the land. It was a fabulous day out.
During another daytrip we visited highlights of the Minangkabau area. Besides a cattle market, local handicrafts and small factories we visited Ballai Janggo, a famous Minangkabau palace. The program of that day was overfilled and although we did not have much time to spent at each place it was a good opportunity to see a lot of the region in a short time. At the end of the day we visited a village with traditional houses and finally were able to witness the weekly bullfights in Kota Baru. It had been an interesting day.
One of the most thrilling things I had seen in Bukkitingi however was a picture book… It contained pictures about a trek in Siberut, one of the islands on the west coast of Sumatra. Siberut is the homeland of the Mentawai tribe. The pictures really got my imagination going and so it didn’t take long before I decided to change my plans and go on a 10 day trek to Siberut. Also Marrigje and Joost decided to come along to Siberut which turned out to be the absolute highlight of this journey!
Mentwai Islands, Siberut
The trip started of with a bizarre and terrifying boat ride from Padang to Siberut. The small wooden vessel did not look very seaworthy and the weather forecast predicted a stormy sea! Of course the boat was totally overcrowded and our reserved seats were double booked so we had to find ourselves a spot in the corridor. It was extremely sweaty, the smell was disgusting, lights remained on during the night and a radio was playing at loud level. Still we could hear the wooden parts of the boat roaring while it was tortured by the high waves. I could hardly bear it. At certain moments we were afraid the ship couldn’t handle the situation and would sink so everybody put on the lifejackets. Totally broken but glad it was all over we arrived in Maura Siberut after a long ride which had passed like a horrible nightmare.
After our travel permit, a Surat Jalan, was arranged we boarded a canoe for the two hour ride upriver to Bad Rogot. During the trip all of us started to relax and enjoyed the special surroundings. It was clear that we arrived at a very special place!
In Bad Rogot we were heartily welcomed by some of the locals and this was our first introduction with the Mentawai. “Aileoita, aileoita”, Welcome! The men wore loincloths and the women grass skirts with bare chests. Most of them were tattooed all over the body. It was an impressive sight. The Mentawai accompanied us to their village which was still quite a hike away. We followed the locals over small paths through the vast jungle, the ground was extremely muddy and slippery so we had to take care for every step we made. Finally we arrived in Tate Baru, our home for the next couple of days. The locals were extremely friendly and showed great hospitality. “Aileoita… Kasei imiim?” ” ehh, Ailoita, oniku Marc” (Hello, what’s your name? Hello, my name is Marc). It didn’t take long before we we’re treated on hot tea and sweet potato. As most of us we’re pretty tired it became a quiet afternoon where we had some nice chats with ours hosts and we were taught the basics of the Mentawai language.
The next couple of days we spent around the umar (settlement) and we got a good impression of the lifestyle of the Mentawai. Their sikerei (medicine men) have a thorough knowledge of plants and spices which grow in the jungle. They perform healing rituals to fight the many diseases and illnesses of the locals and use plants, spices and sometimes animals (chicken and pigs) to heal the sick. On one of the days we went to hunt in the jungle in order to catch monkeys for dinner. Before we left arrows were prepared with poison, made of plants, which were picked up in the jungle. During our hunt we were constantly treated with fruits which were found on the way. To great relief of the most of us the hunt was unsuccessful and we returned to the umar empty handed….
Also we were shown the traditional way of preparing Sago, the main food source, and enjoyed the simple lifestyle of the Mentawai.
When we went to a place to pick durian (fruit) from a tree this turned out to become a major social event. While some locals climbed into the high tree to cut the durians the rest gathered on an open spot and enjoyed themselves. By now we were really part of the community and it was a wonderful experience. In the evening we gathered in the umar and exchanged songs with the Mentawai. It must have been pretty hilarious when we practiced a Mentawai song but everybody had a good time and that mattered. During the night we slept under mosquito nets in the main area of the houses on a bamboo floor which was pretty uncomfortable. Below us pigs made a hell of a noise so sleeping was pretty difficult.
On our last evening in Tate Baru a feast meal was prepared and a small pig was specially slaughtered for this occasion. After the meal people from the area gathered in the house and songs were sung until late at night. The Mentawai made music and danced for us, after a while we were invited to join them. It was a wonderful evening.
The next day however it was time to leave these friendly people and all of us felt a kind of sadness. These simple and hospital people had certainly concurred a place in our hearts. Once again they all gathered to say goodbye to us. “Masura bagata”, thank you, was the only thing we could say. “Masura bagata, Meian kai”, thank you and goodbye!! Aman Tetelek, one of the shamans, accompanied us to the next village where we went. After a four hour trek we arrived in Lamo Heri.
In the evening we witnessed a special ritual that aman Tetelek did with some of the local shamans. It was a magic meeting, the monotone singing of the medicine men worked quite hypnotizing so I fell asleep several times. Still being aware of the singing in the background it was a very relaxing experience. The singing did not stop until sunrise.
The next day we visited a government village. In a bad attempt to bring the Mentawai into the 20th century the Indonesian government has built several “modern” villages over the island with schools and shops. However it is not a great success as the Mentawai are not willing to give up their lifestyle. Time will tell how long they can resist the increasing pressure of the modernization. We were not impressed by the village and the less friendly inhabitants so we hiked further to a wonderful waterfall where we had our first decent bath since days.
The next day we walked to Rorogot, the last village we would visit on our trek. By this time the most of us were exhausted so the afternoon end evening were spent sleeping and reading. The morning after we continued our walk back to the river where we were picked up by a canoe which brought us back to Mala Pet, a little village close to the harbor. One more night on Siberut and the adventure was over leaving us a boat trip back to Padang.
I wasn’t particulary looking forward to the return journey but like a miracle the sea was flat as a mirror and I was able to sleep most of the trip. In Padang I said goodbye to my travel companions and took a taxi to the airport. Totally fulfilled but extremely tired I boarded a plane to Jakarta. The contrast could not have been bigger, from a remote island where time had stood still to the hectic capital of Indonesia. It all seemed so unreal. In Jakarta I visited Suryani, a friend who I met during one of my earlier trips, and a day later I was onboard of a plane again, this time to Bali to meet my friends Ulli and Nyoman for the final week of the journey.
Time to relax after such an incredible adventure. It was a trip never to be forgotten.