Bukittinggi to Siberut Island, Sumatra

The long intrepid journey continues from Bukittinggi in western-Sumatra, south-west to Siberut Island – one of the islands forming the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra.

A little background

Landing in Indonesia from Australia back in 1998, travel information, accommodation, and anything on must-see sights were either vague or non-existent. Information from locals helped travellers along the way – intrepid travelling at its best!

Decide to linger longer in Sumatra before heading to Java. Mainly, to avoid any backlash from the deadly racial riots of 6 weeks’ ago, which left 1,000 people dead and still quite raw with people.

Apologies in advance, for the poor, quality of photos. My 35mm film scanned-photos, lived in awful conditions. Some, on a boat for many years enduring humidity, then storage in a hot garage.

Bukittinggi to Padang

After spending several marvellous days absorbing picturesque Bukittinggi, decide to lash out on a flashy minibus for the two and a half-hour trip from Bukittinggi to the bustling city of Padang.

Bus from Bukittinggi to Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Heading south to Sumatra’s western edge, the transitional vistas are a feast for one’s eyes.

Sparkling clean flowing streams, lush tropical rainforest, quaint train lines with small aged bridges, and spectacular scenery follow us until we reach Padang.

Catching a boat from Padang across the Mentawai Strait to Siberut Island is the reason for the quick stop-off in Padang.

Thoughts on Padang

So, what can I share with you about Padang?

Well, it’s a sprawling, noisy city offering all the mod cons, expensive homes, confronting poverty, and congested, markets.

map of Padang, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Although, as Padang is on the coast, the city is also renown, for its sunset beaches.

A night in Padang is enough as Sumatra boasts too many naturally beautiful places to explore.

Strolling through the crammed marketplace in search of tasty food, stumble across an area selling fish. The pungent aroma permeating the already sultry, stifling air is sickening. Thick clumps of flies’ swarm in overwhelming groups landing on the raw fish.

The amount of undersized coral trout, crabs, and fish is discerning. Nothing is returned to the sea. Nothing escapes Indonesian fishing nets. Destructive dynamite fishing is still in use, without any concern for the future, which will prove devastating. Only for today, is in the minds of locals.

Movies in Indonesia

Bring a coat. Bring earplugs. Or, be prepared to walk out of the big old movie theatre, shivering with cold and almost deaf. Even with earplugs, the sound is up too loud. The bass verberates through your body ruthlessly. At least this is one place where smoking is not allowed. The air is almost breathable.

Remember Alien Resurrection? It feels bizarre watching this movie in Indonesia. At least this movie is in English with Indonesian subtitles.

Padang to Siberut Island

Snarling cats, barking dogs, locals’ yelling, a loud enduring football game, blasting on TV. Another sleepless night in Indonesia. One of many so far this month.

Buying a boat ticket

Spending the day with John – a young local that latched onto us, wanting to learn English. Steering us in the wrong direction, we finally find the office that sells boat tickets to Siberut Island. And also, buy the permits to visit the island. The boat leaves tonight.

You need to buy provisions in Padang for Siberut as no shops exist on the island. Loaded with bags and provisions taking a cab to the harbour, luckily, we arrive early.

Overnight boat experience to Siberut

Greeted by a vision stopped in time – people everywhere and disarray. The boat is loaded with tons of provisions and more people, a wardrobe, sheets of fibrous corrugated iron. This all takes time. Instead of leaving at 7pm, we finally leave at 9pm.

Ferry from Padang to Muara, Siberut Island, West Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Our 1st Class ticket on this old rickety wooden boat is a joke. Our cabin consists of four crude benches for bunks – two are at floor-level. The thin grubby covering replaces a mattress.

Invading the cabin and taking up residency are several armies of ants with brazen 3-inch-long cockroaches. Taking the bottom bunks definitely turns out to be the wrong decision.

Our bunks are over the engine, which exudes fumes and heat in the already stifling, suffocating air. The cabin’s tiny portholes can only squeeze fresh air through.

Loads of sleazy men smelling too much of stale booze and cigarettes, linger the passageway throughout the trip. Glad I’m not travelling alone. The choking air is thick with profuse cigarette smoke. Dangerous.

The fourth person for our cabin doesn’t arrive until late in the evening, resulting in too many locals barging into our cabin squabbling over the vacant bed. Welcome to 1st class!

In Economy Class, sleeping bodies are strewn everywhere – over the passageway, on the oil-stained floor, and across the deck. One elderly local has one leg inside the deck with the other slung over the coaming’s side, squatting, dozing upright with a 2-year-old in his lap. Surreal. Lucky the sea is calm tonight. Wonder how many people are lost at sea on these overnight boat trips.

Another sleepless night

Relentlessly annoyed by ants and cockroaches throughout the night, one cockroach crawls up my back and wakes me, while another, feasts on my husband’s toe, waking him! No breath of wind to clear the smoke-filled haze on this endless sultry night. Warm sweat pours from my body as though I’ve just taken a shower. No sleep again on this steamy night in the boat trip from hell.

Finally dozing a little, a different type of smoke fills the air. It’s an electrical fire on the boat! This burns the boat’s lights out before the fire is put out. Relieved when Siberut develops into view on the horizon. The dirty muddy water swirl around its shores, delineating nature from humans.

Muara Siberut, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Muara Siberut

As the island doesn’t have a jetty, the anchor is dropped in the harbour. Thirty-foot-long dugout timber canoes with Yamaha motors collect passengers and cargo to Muara Siberut. This takes most of the morning, especially as the boat is so over-crowded with passengers and belongings.

Muara Siberut

Once everyone reaches shore, the same dugouts whizz locals and cargo up the swampy river, to their villages in the jungle.

Famished as the overnight trip didn’t cater for food, decide on breakfast at the only cafe in Muara Siberut and the island, I’m told. Barely anything is available from the menu – not even rice. In Indonesia?

The room at the rustic timber losmen a stone’s throw from the harbour is basic yet does include power. It feels as though I’m living in a crude wooden crate with a tiny window and door – claustrophobic. The timber boards have half-inch gaps, allowing everything into the room.

Malaria is rampant on the island, so it’s necessary to burn smelly, suffocating mosquito coils throughout the night and leave the electric zapper on during the day.

What next?

Organise a 3-day trek into Siberut’s the thick jungle to live with the Mentawai – Indonesia’s indigenous tribe, which are Animists – believe that inanimate objects and creatures have souls. Of course, the Indonesian government is trying hard to convert and stamp out the culture of these people.

Indigenous animist, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
The Mentawai

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

20 responses to “Bukittinggi to Siberut Island, Sumatra”

  1. Kathi Avatar

    I have enjoyed reading your accounts of your trip to Siberut; I travelled there in 1991. It was definitely an adventure!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Kathi
      Thank you for your kind feedback. This was definitely an amazing trip.
      Have you written a post on Siberut? It wasn’t a tourist destination. 😉

  2. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    It was quite an experience. Lucky all went well but looking back is an interesting memory. Maybe a bit more touristy now.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I’m having fun reminiscing and reading my travel journal from 1998.
      Think it’s good to digitise everything so that if I forget in my dotage, I can at least read about the adventures! 😂

      1. 100 Country Trek Avatar

        So fun to read about travel journals ..can make you feel like you are there. I started around 2012 recording my journals on MixBook with some photos

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        At least you’re recording them somewhere and they’re not lost. I’ve never heard of MixBook either…

      3. 100 Country Trek Avatar

        Mixbook.com. is site where you can write and add photos and make a book pretty easy. When I travel I add notes on my iPad or on my phone. When I return I download my writing to mixbook.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Sounds like a cool platform.
        I’ll look into it but usually use the WP dashboard for my notes.

  3. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    That boat trip sounded like a nightmare! I hope the jungle trek was worth it! 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes it was, but then again a lot of the travel in Indonesia in 1998 was hard!
      The jungle trek was both an amazing but also confronting experience. The poverty on the island but also how the Mentawai are treated is appalling.

  4. wetanddustyroads Avatar

    That boat trip … 😳

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yeah, it wasn’t great and glad when we arrived at Siberut. Had to do the return trips also, of course!

      1. wetanddustyroads Avatar

        Oh dear 😨

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, no other way to return to the mainland! 😉

  5. the eternal traveller Avatar

    If that was a first class trip I’d hate to experience the discount version.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I do’t think there was really the understanding of “1st Class” back in 1998.
      Maybe travelling there has changed there a little over the decades… 😉

      1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I would love to return as 4 months wasn’t enough time, but sometimes it’s best not to return to a country.

  6. Puzzles of the Soul Avatar

    Oh what a grueling trip you had. These types of people do not understand about overcrowding, allowing a little space. You are brave to travel like this, ants and cockroaches that would finish me for sure. Looking forward to hearing more of your trip.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      There were a lot of gruelling trips on this 4-month journey through Indonesia, but still loved the experience.
      It’s great reading my old journals! 😉

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