Sumatra: Siberut Island Jungle Trek, Part 1

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 Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

Hearing about this tropical, untouched island during our stay in Bukittinggi, cemented the desire to see one of the last areas of Indonesia’s indigenous tribes. The last Animist people of this country.

Not a walk in the park getting to the tribe, but sure that it will be fascinating.

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.

map of Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Map of Siberut Island from my 1998 journal

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.

Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Henry and Jawa (the medicine man)

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.

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia

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.

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia


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.

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Lunch with the Mentawai (Photo credit: Colin Palmer)

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.

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Stomping sago

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?

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Mentawai elders

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.

Mentawai, Indigenous animist, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Eyes of sorrow

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.

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Rustic ancient tools

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.

Turuk ritual

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…

Mentawai, Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia, SE Asia
Ugai village – forgotten people

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

28 responses to “Sumatra: Siberut Island Jungle Trek, Part 1”

  1. gillmorris Avatar

    Wow, what an adventure and a great experience. Happy New Year, I will look forward to reading more of your fascinating trips! xx

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Happy New Year Gill! Hope all is with you and your family.
      Yes, this was an amazing adventure and one that’s hard to forget – not that I want to forget. 😉

      1. gillmorris Avatar

        Happy New Year to you too.. All is good thank you. Hope all is well with you and yours too xxx

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hi Gill,
        All cool here, well actually sweltering! 😉

  2. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    Its great that you saved your journal. I have some but some I have lost. I wrote about my journey on Virtual Tourist…. it was purchased and taken down.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I have around 20 journals from 3 decades of travel, so loads of travel material, but not sure if it’s too old to share?
      That’s not great, can you approach the company about this?

      1. 100 Country Trek Avatar

        It was acquired by an Expedia Group and all was eliminated .I have some notes…but the pictures bring back memories.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ah right, guess there isn’t much you can do when a company is brought out…everything changes.
        Indeed, photos always bring back memories.

  3. Never a dull moment Avatar

    Lovely photographs!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your great feedback!
      The negs and photos are in poor condition, so not great scanning or post-production. 😉

  4. inese Avatar

    Happy 2021, Nilla! I always enjoy reading your blog. Hope we all can travel again soon – there are so many countries devastated by drop in tourism.
    Stay safe and healthy X

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Happy New Year Inese and thank you for your kind feedback!
      Indeed, it’s been a difficult 2020 around the globe – things can only get better. 🙂 xx

      1. inese Avatar

        I think so too 🙂 xx

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Fingers crossed. Hope that you and Ireland are OK. 🙂 x

      3. inese Avatar

        Thanks! 🙂 X

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Pleasure! xx 🙂

  5. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    The disappearance of tribes like these is heartbreaking. The fact that you were able to spend time with these indigenous people is quite a gift.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It is heartbreaking and from what I read, has only become worse a couple of decades later. It’s not uncommon for governments around the world to sell out its indigenous people to make money – it’s tragic.
      I consider myself very lucky to have experienced this gentle people.

  6. Suzanne Avatar

    You never cease to amaze where you ventured too. I am pretty positive I wouldn’t be able to do that sort of travelling now. Yes, you’re right regarding indigenous people as they haven’t had a strong voice in today’s world. Though perhaps the next generations will change that and perhaps because of their multicultural background they have a foot in both camps so to speak. There has to be a change in the world’s mindset on acknowledging past mistakes and making room for everyone’s life choices.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, well, you know me…love to travel intrepidly and to untouched places. 😉
      Yes, it’s a tragic situation around the world when it comes to indigenous people and the lack of respect. I also hope that the next generations are more empathetic and less money-driven so that to sustain indigenous people.

  7. Angela Avatar

    Wow! What a journey! I love your journal with a map.Today is my Day 10 of Travel Challenge. Thanks again for inviting.
    I had a fun.
    Happy holidays!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Angela
      Thank you for your feedback and yes, it was a journey – amazing! Stay tuned for part 2 this week. 😉
      Take care

  8. wetanddustyroads Avatar

    I like that map in your 1998 journal … 😄

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It’s pretty cool and I used to do this whenever I had a map.
      Did you see my other map from my journal of Samosir Island? 😉

      1. wetanddustyroads Avatar

        Really nice … you must frame all these maps!

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        That’s a great idea, thanks!

  9. rkrontheroad Avatar

    Fascinating story, I can almost feel the humidity. The faces and customs of those you met will certainly stay with you. One of so many sad stories of indigenous people trying to keep their way of life.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Ruth,
      It was fascinating travel to a relatively untouched region of Indonesia and you’re right, one that will stay with me forever.
      Regardless of the country around the world, indigenous people are displaced and typically, it’s because of money – it’s tragic.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

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