Intrepid jungle trekking through Siberut Island off the western coast of Sumatra continues…
Siberut is in the Mentawai Islands Regency group – a chain of around seventy islands and islets. You need to travel around 81NM (150-kilometres) from the West Sumatran coast in the narrow Mentawai Strait to reach Siberut Island.
Spending some relaxing and wonderful downtime during our stay in Bukittinggi, notice that most restaurants display scrapbooks on Siberut.
It seems as though tours to this untouched and fascinating island are becoming popular. Not only for jungle trekking but mainly, to experience the culture of the Mentawai – Indonesia’s remaining indigenous tribe.
In 1998, Siberut Island was almost unheard of until you travelled in Sumatra. Even then, the island wasn’t invaded by tourists as other Indonesian destinations.
Sleeping on a threadbare straw mat with flea-ridden dogs scratching all night and mosquitos buzzing in my ears isn’t optimal for slumber. A difficult sleepless night on the jungle hut’s hard wooden floorboards, transpires to a new fresh morning.
Head out once more, this time, traipsing from Madobak for an hour through the thick muddy jungle. Relentless mosquitos constantly, annoy and bite any bare flesh, until we arrive at another smaller village than Madobak – Ugai.
Immediately, locals shake our hands then ask for cigarettes and tobacco. Passing the random local through the jungle, we’re also asked for cigarettes, and at each village that we visit. Henry our Mentawai guide brought 7 cartons of cigarettes and pouches of good tobacco from Padang (paid for with our trekking money) to trade and give away as gifts while in Siberut.
The under-nourished Mentawai are no strangers to poverty. Doctors are non-existent in the jungle – only medicine men that use natural jungle ingredients. The government prefers to totally ignore the Mentawai or force them into submission. You can’t help but empathise with the Mentawai as they’re losing their culture, land, and most of all, their dignity.
Staying with the Mentawai
The family that we’re staying with tonight is humbling. A lady of no more than forty-years spends half an hour continuously hugging me while smiling but, her sorrowful eyes paint a different story.
The poorly-dressed children with a multitude of sores and infections, happily play and laugh around the large, communal hut, oblivious to everything. Showing the children small tricks tickles their laughter even harder and in-turn, they show us jungle tricks.
As with last night’s hut, the inside of this open thatched hut is built with jungle timber solid, walls. Enriched with monkey, pig, and deer skulls on the walls, these animals are killed only during a ceremony. Skulls are hung on the walls to retain the animal’s spirit in the hut – animist people, living in a world of shamans and mystical beliefs. And, difficult for outsiders or the Indonesian government to understand.
The young girls already transitioning to western society don banana leaf skirts over their cotton skirts, collect bamboo tubes and nets, to show us some traditional jungle fishing.
Today, the girls are catching two-inch tiny fish from the shallow freshwater stream. This feels a little contrived and a show just for visitors.
The sparkling clear water is cool and refreshing. Momentarily, we’re forgotten as great concentration is needed for the chase. The small fish rush swiftly through the slow-flowing water, outsmarting the girls.
After an hour’s effort, around ten of these tiny fish are collected – hardly worth a meal – but it’s captivating to watch, coupled with gorgeous scenery.
Returning to the village, we then follow an elderly Mentawai to watch another tradition. Sugar cane is cut in the jungle with a massive iron machete…
…before taking the sugar cane back to the hut. The sugar cane is then manually crushed until every drop of sweet syrup is squeezed out, leaving behind just fibrous bits. These are then dried and used as kindle. Unlike our western world, nothing is wasted in the jungle.
Tonight, Henry decides to cook a delicious meal of coconut chicken curry with rice. After eating only boiled eggs and plain noodles during the last couple of days, anything tastes exquisite!
Handing out pencils and books to the ecstatic children after dinner, it’s a great evening of sharing and experiences around the fire. Although Henry suggested giving the children these gifts, I feel that I’m contributing to changing the Mentawai culture.
Leaving the jungle
Flea-ridden scratching dogs and snarling cats sleeping next to me make enough noise during the night, to ensure that sleep is but a mere illusion.
After a compelling few days, sadly, it’s time to return to Muara Siberut and civilisation. Leaving behind our remaining food and cracker biscuits for the village’s 30 or so children, say our goodbyes, before trekking back into the muddy jungle.
The previous two nights of continual rain creates even swampier conditions. Slashing the lush, overgrown path with large crudely made iron machetes is needed occasionally. With the constant rain, the jungle aggressively usurps the Mentawai’s narrow trail, enveloping all in its path.
Reaching Kesagu once more, Henry decides to drive the motorised longboat canoe this time. He’s a rough rogue on this hairier trip down the river.
Passing more traffic on the 3-hour return trip, you wonder where all these locals emerge from as there’s barely a sign of human life along the flowing, peaceful river. Curious glances from children in tiny canoes, confirm our presence as strangers to their beautiful and untouched land.
Jawa returns with us, so too does the constant badgering for tobacco and cigarettes. Although he’s Mentawai, the exposure to strangers makes him forward and not shy to ask for anything that he wants.
The western world is slowly eroding the Mentawai values – perhaps the government is right. It almost feels as though Jawa accompanies Henry on these treks only, to fleece as much possible from travellers.
Three hours of amazing lush scenery whizzes by with Henry’s crazy manoeuvring along the river, until we arrive back at Muara Siberut and civilisation.
Discovering we missed the boat to Padang, it’s now expected to arrive tomorrow night – hopefully. Time to explore more of Muara Siberut…