Climbing Mount Kerinci, Indonesia’s highest volcano

Men can live anywhere and hence they do not need a house like women do

~ Minangkabau saying

So after more than 25 years I finally returned to Sumatra – this time to climb Indonesia’s highest volcano, the imperious Mount Kerinci.  I have fond memories of this huge and rugged island’s steamy jungles (especially around Bukit Lawang) as well as its many superb beaches (like those in Nias) and wondered how the island was holding up in this age of mass environmental destruction (Sumatra has reportedly lost more than 50% of its tropical rainforest in only a couple of generations).

We had an early morning flight and my taxi was supposed to pick me up at 5am. But it wasn’t there! It most certainly couldn’t have been held up in traffic since there isn’t any at this ungodly hour – even in madcap Jakarta. So where was it? I shortly got a telephone call but all I could hear was static and interference like from an incorrectly tuned shortwave radio. The taxi driver was trying to call me - no doubt because he couldn’t find my house! Shit! Not what you need when you have a plane to catch. Then, from in front of my house, I noticed two beaming headlights from a motionless vehicle far down my street: it must be the taxi! I ran down the street to where the taxi was and the driver told me he had been unable to find my house: seemingly because despite knowing my address the RT/RW numbers were not correct (why are they even needed anyway?). And why had other taxi drivers on previous occasions found no difficulties in locating my house? Hmm. Another one of those Indonesian incongruities to file away…

Our flight took us to Padang, West Sumatra, a region well-known for its cuisine, where nothing is wasted and all the cooked animal body parts including entrails, brain, liver, lung etc. are served on small separate plates and you only pay for what you eat.  Highly recommended for budding anatomists and those who like cholesterol rich foods. Whilst the people of this region - the Minangkabau – are socially conservative, they are strangely enough also the largest matrilineal society in the world with property passed down from mother to daughter! This system disadvantages the menfolk, however, and many of them choose to leave the region: no doubt explaining why it’s so easy to find a Padang restaurant wherever you go in Indonesia, even in the smallest towns!

On the map it doesn’t look far from Padang to the village of Kersik Tuo (from where the trek begins), but it takes a long 7 hours by bus or car– indicating just how huge Sumatra is. Our bus driver’s approach was to throw caution to the wind  and, despite needing to frequently overtake heavily-laden trucks on winding roads, either get us to our destination in record time (God willing) or have an accident (God unwilling?). Although we somehow managed to avoid the latter (thanks God), there was one terrifying moment when the bus brushed past a schoolboy walking by the side of the road, missing him by a whisker, with the kid’s hair standing up on end either due to sheer terror or just because of the air movement created by the bus!

One indication of this region’s relative remoteness was the absence of either any Alfamart or Indomaret convenience stores - which seem to be ubiquitous elsewhere in Indonesia, especially in Java. Many villages we passed through even had one or two of the famous Rumah gadang – traditional Minangkabau houses with large curved roofs inspired by water buffalo horns. This design has its origins in the region’s pre-Islamic past and are similar I noticed to those in Christian-dominated Toraja, South Sulawesi. Well that's animalism for you, I guess.

The Kerinci Seblat National Park

Mount Kerinci is surrounded by the lush forest of Kerinci Seblat National Park, home to more tigers than in all of China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam combined. Even so, the number of Sumatra tigers is very low and probably less than 200 according to estimates. Sightings are consequently very rare, although there are the occasional media reports of a hungry tiger coming down from the forest and entering a village where a hapless local ends up on the menu. As such, I have to say that we weren’t too disappointed that the nearest we got to seeing a tiger was at Kersik Tuo, where a relatively lifelike tiger statue has been erected (in contrast to a number of notably cartoonish attempts at other locations in the country, such as at the army base in Cisewu, West Java (since destroyed).

Besides its fauna, the park also has some pretty noteworthy flora as well. Recognition may be lacking but the harvesting of bark from the park’s cassia trees accounts for up to 60 percent of the global market for cinnamon – one of the world’s most expensive spices. Not that the farmers can easily get rich however: they have to rely on other crops for a sustainable income as the cassia trees can only be harvested after they reach an age of 10 years or so.

To be continued


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