Exploring the southern regions of Sumatra
Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine
The lake stretches before me in a sheet of steely grey water. Small boats creep across the glassy surface, and skeins of white mist cling to the green ridges that rise on either side. To the west the smooth cone of Gunung Seminung rises, and olive-grey monkeys shift through the branches of the trees. I am standing on the shores of Danau Ranau, a large lake locked in the jungle-clad hills of Southern Sumatra. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, and there is not another traveler in sight.
Sumatra is a land of superlatives. A great green oblong, tilting at the Indian Ocean, it is the world’s sixth largest island, a place studded with towering volcanoes and speckled with lakes. Most travelers stick to the string of fine attractions in striking distance of the heaving northern city of Medan – Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang, and Berastagi – while others head for Padang to trek the nearby mountains or the jungle trails of the offshore Mentawi Islands. But I am here to explore Sumatra’s forgotten side, the great sweep of the southern provinces, where the tracks remain resolutely unbeaten.
Danau Ranau, on the borders of Lampung and South Sumatra provinces, is my first stop. Lack of temples notwithstanding, the setting reminds me of Bali’s Lake Batur – but here, locals tell me, tigers still slip down into the villages from time to time. Villages built on stilts – an anti-tiger defense – stand amongst the trees, and the potholed roads that loop around the shores are free from traffic.
Danau Ranau is cradled in the hills of the Bukit Barisan, a great ridge of mountains that stretches along the entire length of Sumatra, walling off the rugged west coast from the forested flatlands to the east. After leaving the lake I cut through these hills and head north past stormy beaches to Bengkulu, a sleepy little city with a very strange history. While most of Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, until 1824 Bengkulu, and the surrounding province which bears its name, was British territory.
Bengkulu was Southeast Asia’s original hardship posting; it made an unremitting loss for the British government, and many of the men sent to run the place died of fever and alcoholism. Today it is a sleepy, friendly town, studded with echoes of an earlier age. I explore the tranquil cemetery where the crooked graves of soldiers and civilians stand amongst the tall grass, and admire the rusting cannons on the ramparts of Fort Marlborough, an imposing hulk of masonry looking out across the red roofs of the old town to the empty sweep of the ocean, and the dark line of the Bukit Barisan.
The most famous British resident of Bengkulu was Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore while serving as governor there. After taking up the post in 1818, Raffles set out on an expedition into the mountains, discovering the famous Rafflesia, the world’s biggest – and smelliest – flower along the way. After a few days exploring Bengkulu I set out in his footsteps.
The great sweep of the Pasemah Highlands lies far beneath me under a blanket of creamy cloud. A bitter wind is blowing, and the light of a steely dawn is leaching into the South Sumatra skies. I am approaching the summit of Gunung Dempo, the 3173-metre mountain that looms over these green uplands.
After arriving in the cool township of Pagaralam, I have explored waterfalls and villages of carved teakwood, and picked my way through the rice fields to find the enigmatic 2000-year-old megaliths that dot the countryside. This region, the Pasemah Highlands in South Sumatra province, is a place of tea gardens and fresh air. Again, I find myself wondering why so few tourists come here.
The area is dominated by the looming presence of Gunung Dempo, and now I am approaching the summit in the company of a local mountaineering enthusiast called Maman. We set out at midnight from the trailhead deep in the sprawling tea gardens which cloak the lower slopes, clambering through dense forest in the hours of darkness. Maman tells me that the mountain was traditionally viewed as the receptacle for the souls of departed ancestors, ruled over by a deity called Puyung Raja Nyawe. Now, finally, we are approaching our goal, passing through stunted bushes cloaked with the grey-green lichen known here as jengot angin, “the beard of the wind”. It has been a hard climb, but the views are worth it. The mountain is a dormant volcano, and from the summit we look down on a deep, lake-filled crater. To the east the coppery cloud is melting over the highlands, and the dark ridges of the Bukit Barisan rise like sharks’ fins. To the west, meanwhile, beyond a descending tangle of green ridges, I can see the pale coastline of Bengkulu province.
Once I descend from the mountain my journey takes me on east to Palembang, the seething capital of South Sumatra, and once the seat of an independent Malay kingdom. This is a watery down, straddling the banks of the great Musi River. I make my escape by boat, heading downstream to the beaches of nearby Bangka Island. A handful of low key resorts dot the coast here, but there are no other tourists in sight, and I relax and let my Dempo blisters heal in splendid isolation.
Beyond Bangka I return to the mainland and head north once more to my final destination in this unexplored quarter of Sumatra.
The jungle stretches away on either side, full of furious insect noise. The air is damp and clammy, and very still, and I wonder nervously for a moment about those tigers. I am standing in a clearing in the forest at Muara Jambi, feeling a little like Indiana Jones. Before me lies a chaos of tumbled red bricks and knotted creepers – I am looking out on the ruins of a civilization.
This spot, 25 kilometers from the modern regional capital, Jambi, was the seat of the Melayu Kingdom in the 11th and 12th centuries. This powerful Hindu-Buddhist realm ruled over a vast swathe of territory, and controlled much of the trade that passed through the Straits of Melaka. Far from the mountainous sources of basalt, the rulers hear built their massive temple complexes from red brick, and when the kingdom collapsed in the 13th century, they jungle took over, the buildings crumbled, at Melayu was forgotten.
European explorers first came across this place in the 19th century. Since then the central temples have been restored. But there are hundreds of other structures out in the forest, some only recently discovered.
As I wander alone along the forest trails fragments of 1000-year-old pottery crunch beneath my feet. Eventually I emerge beside a narrow creek where a local villager is dipping a cantilevered Chinese-style fishing net into the green water. I sit down at the edge of a bamboo bridge to watch him work. Muara Jambi is a far cry from the crowded relics of Indonesia’s other ancient civilizations at Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, and indeed the whole of this untraveled region is a world away from tour bus routes and beaten tracks. But my journey has taken in everything from white beaches to mountain peaks, Buddhist temples to colonial relics, and all along the way I’ve met with warm welcomes from local people, eager to welcome travelers to their forgotten corner of Indonesia. I’m sure I will be back!
© Tim Hannigan 2013