The first part of intrepid jungle-trekking at Sumatra’s isolated Siberut Island is to encounter Indonesia’s remaining indigenous – the Mentawai.
A little on Siberut Island
Have you heard of Indonesia’s Siberut Island?
Although the island now seems as though it’s one of Indonesia’s meccas for surfing, in 1998 it wasn’t on any surfer’s mind, nor the tourist milk-run, or even a must-see destination.
Siberut is in the Mentawai Islands Regency Group – a chain of around seventy islands and islets, some 81NM (150-kilometres) from the West Sumatran coast in the narrow Mentawai Strait.
Check out the arduous boat trip of 150-kilometres from Padang just to arrive in Siberut!
The hard sell
A local fisherman tried to convince us to go lobster fishing today. Politely declining, along comes Henry.
A local to Siberut, he latches onto us working on the promise of experiencing the real primitive Mentawai. Many tribes are fading out through tourism. Really?
Eventually, Henry persuades us to go on a 3-day/2-night jungle trek to see the Mentawai tribe. Henry will be our local guide. Apprehensive booking with Henry, because he is quite pushy but, not enamoured with him, we book regardless.
Jobs are almost non-existent on the island. So, if any tourists dare to venture this far across the sea to Siberut, then expect to be inundated with hard sell from locals.
Jungle treks can be organised and paid for in Bukittinggi although at a higher price. If you want the islanders to receive the money directly, then you need to book on the island – a gamble.
Intrepid trek through the Siberut jungle
Heavy rain throughout the night continues into the morning. Secretly hoping the jungle trek is postponed, but no such luck. Henry excitedly greets us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Leaving Muara Siberut
Grabbing a day pack, we head off with Henry to the timber longboat for the 3-hour trip up the mirky river.
Muara Siberut fades away in the distance as does civilisation. Silence envelops us and befalls our surrounds as we head deeper into the thick, lush vibrant-green jungle, shrouding both sides of the opaque river. Every bend reveals an untouched moment frozen in time. At this point, I wish for a motor-drive on my 35mm film camera. Gorgeous transitioning vistas steer by too quickly, to absorb this natural, pristine beauty.
Occasionally, a sliver of thatched brown roof pierces the low-lining dense jungle canopy. A slimline dugout canoe, rests along the muddy shoreline, hinting of human activity within the jungle – sometimes, masking children frolicking in the swampy riverbank.
Spectacular scenery makes for a memorable journey not to be forgotten quickly.
Briefly stopping to pick up a couple of passengers along the way, including Jawa, the medicine man – he always accompanies Henry on these trips. The soon to be retired Jawa is the appointed medicine man for other villages.
Two hours pass swiftly by until we stop at Kesagu, a tiny village at the jungle’s gate. Climbing out of the dugout canoe and into slippery mud, we trudge through the sludge and into the unfamiliar jungle. Henry explains the Mentawai culture with animated gestures.
Greeted with ‘ello eeta – open arms and friendly humbling locals receive us – overwhelming. Decide to bed down here for the night, but first, it’s off to lunch.
Rosetta, a young 17-year-old that we picked up along the way, cooks our lunch of noodles, eggs, and rice.
Power is non-existent and, food seems scarce in this abandoned world. Rice is not grown in the jungle although, sago the Mentawai staple is grown followed by bananas and custard apple.
Barefooted and barely clothed, the Mentawai are sinewy and short, but quiet and nimble through the jungle, disturbing nothing away from their path.
The elderly Mentawai still wear a Kabid. A loincloth made from slicing a long piece of the underside of bark and pounding this flat. The bark is then dried in the sun for a day until it becomes similar to fibrous cotton.
The plight of the Mentawai
We are the only tourists in this village. And, the centre of attention, especially with the children. Almost all the children have some sort of nasty scar, burn scar, or infection on their tiny bare bodies. Hygiene is not something that the locals understand. There is a lot of coughing up phlegm. There is a lot of coughing up phlegm. Spitting inside and outside of huts is typical. Blowing noses into fingers then wiping the residue on walls and floors, followed by eating on the same floor. No one washes their hands – ever – not even before eating. Are we to clean?
But ignoring all of this, the Mentawai are warm and welcoming people – genuine. Simplistic in their needs and life. Food, shelter, and to be left alone by the government is what they crave – a simple existence. They smile profusely, but their sad eyes reflect a different reality.
According to the government, the introduction of tourists is changing the culture. Albeit apart from us, I don’t see any tourists. But, talk to the Mentawai to discover a very different story. For decades the government introduced policies to modernise the islanders – forcing relocations, religious persecution, and even military suppression. We’re asked for cigarettes with every village we visit as the locals love their tobacco. Slowly, the Mentawai are becoming integrated with the young adorning T-shirts and shorts.
With teeth filed to razor-sharpness, similar to a shark’s teeth, face and body tattooed as an initiation into adulthood, this is a culture the Indonesian government is trying hard to stifle. The government banned both initiations a while ago, so only the older people still carry visible but faded tattoos.
The future looks bleak for Indonesia’s indigenous tribes.
Fast-forward a couple of decades later, I read that the Mentawai now only occupy 8% of Siberut. The state seized the rest and sold it off to timber and renewable energy companies. Some land is now a national park – a poor excuse to retain a small percentage of this pristine jungle.
Brightly beaded traditional bracelets, necklaces (Lekkeu), and headbands topped with colourful fresh flowers embellish both men and women. This is the Mentawai tradition.
How the Mentawai survive is both intriguing and tragic as they desperately cling onto their culture while the government detests their existence. And, tries to erase these Animist people from Indonesia’s history.
As night falls, the jungle’s intense darkness envelops the thatched hut, creating an eerie black night. Deafening noises from the forest emerge as a backdrop to the Sikerei’s chanting and mesmerising dancing, to sombre drumming around the roaring fire.
The Sikerei (a cross between a medicine man and shaman) often culminate in shamanic trances during the Turuk, whilst sacrificing an animal. Tonight, three elderly Sikerei slay the chicken we contributed, which Henry brought from the mainland.
Turned over the fire slowly and meticulously to singe off all of its feathers, with eyes glazed in a trance the Sikerei then guts the chicken. Carefully spreading apart the gooey insides he holds the bloody substance against the fire’s flames, creating a bizarre pattern. This hypnotic ritual predicts the future – a fascinating and remarkable experience to grasp.
The chicken is cooked over the fire before divided into ten portions for the clan – family members only – we miss out. I’ve never seen such a small, skeletal chicken feed so many.
Two fires burn on either side of the three-sided hut with another fire burning for guests, at the front. Two families live in this hut. It’s as though time and the world have stopped. If it wasn’t for the younger children wearing T-shirts, you’d be forgiven to think that you slipped into
The hardened wooden floor converts to a painful bed for the night, with only a thin straw mat serving as something to protect us from crawling insects. Everyone sleeps together on this unforgiving rigid floor.
Tomorrow, we trek further into the jungle to another village…