Thursday, July 21, 2016

Part Two - Chapter Four -

Place: Lebong Regency, Gunung Kerinci (Sumatra) 
Time: August 1994



There are places which are fortunately not included in travel magazines, books or on the internet, one of these places is the Lebong Regency in South Sumatra. I was really off the beaten path at this extremely stunning location back in 1994. In the first ten days of my journey I traveled through the beautiful landscape of the territory and hardly saw any other tourist. This territory still had in 2014 a mere population of 105,000 people. This makes it one of the least dense populated areas on Sumatra. The people there are very kind and simple. At some places I had the impression that civilization was hardly touched in its original conditions. It is one of these places where you go for inner peace. This is when the incredibly backward infrastructure does not shock you. In 94 it was difficult to find any guesthouses and you will go around on not very convenient vehicles. The outstanding beauty of this region however compensates a lot for the obstacles even getting there. if you are only planning a quick hop into different locations in Indonesia this places is nothing for you, it is too time intensive to really enjoy it just for one or two days. Places like Curup and Muara Aman are dream destinations only for the traveler with plenty of time. Despite its beauty, a look on the transport connections will probably keep many of you away from this pearl of Sumatra. This is in this case a pity because this region, as many of the locals told me, really needs investment and would appreciate tourism a lot. 

If you are ready to exchange comfort against adventure and do not mind all the complications that you will face on the way to get there then Lebong Regency might be just the Eden for you. The hospitality is amazing and the density of sites with natural beauty is overwhelming. There are lots of beautiful waterfalls with crystal clear water, large hot springs occupying entire benches of rivers and even a few wonderful, still active, volcanoes. The area has an aura which transfers you into another world. You will be able to wander through moon like landscape without meeting a single other soul. You can spend hours on your own along rivers which are heated by the volcanoes. There you can take whenever and wherever you want a nice relaxing bath. It is another world, don't be surprised if you catch yourself with the thought of suddenly getting scared of raptors. It was such as time travel back into long forgotten ages. I was even able to meet some gold miners who were washing their panels of gold in the rivers. You can imagine that only in your dreams of the Californian gold rush. I was in coal mines which missed any technology. The miners were still carrying the natural resource on their backs to the surface. Well, this was back in 94 and I could not give you any promises that you still find that. On the other side, you will never find your small part of paradise if you are not ready of torturing yourself with primitive transport to secluded places.


At the most uncommon places you may meet the best companions for your journey. If you meet people at isolated places then you share already a big thing in common. You try to get off the beaten path together. One morning in Muara Aman, I had my breakfast coffee in one of the small local coffee shops. I thought that I had made a mistake because a couple foreigners came straightforward to my table. The first sentence made me wonder if they were not only lost. 
'Finally, a foreign face!' exclaimed the guy with the name Holger.
'Erm, yes, can I help you with anything?'
The guy grinned broadly and took a seat without an invitation. 
'Yes and no. It is not normal to find foreigners so far away from civilization. The only person I have talked with in depth was my wife Ruth.'
Okay, that were now Holger and Ruth. They had been off the beaten path similar to me and were explorers of the same kind. They wanted to speak English with somebody. Somehow, I could understand them. The only thing that I had shared for the last eight days deeper thoughts with was my little journal. I was already afraid going slowly nuts. I believe, if you are only talking to yourself and try to get two different points of view to have a conversation, with yourself, then you might be close enough to going crazy. So yeah, I did understand their desire to talk with somebody else and they were interesting people to travel with.
If you meet some interesting people then you might even make compromises on your journey and get some new ideas for your tour. I had planned to hit up to Lake Maninjau next but changed my plans as Ruth came up with a great plan for the next stop. All of us agreed that we wanted to avoid the noisy, polluted, crowded and rancid cities of Indonesia. However, between Muara Aman and Lake Maninjau was on half way the massive volcano Gunung Kerinci.(1) This is the highest volcano of entire Indonesia and the highest peak on Sumatra. If I could master this volcano, I could even beat my best mate the Yeti on elevation of climbing any mountain on this planet. It promised to be a great challenge. I had overlooked initially this site but now with the right companions, I was ready for the task.
The biggest obstacle was the big question how we could get to that place, it should be an exciting journey. On the following day, I made the discovery that there was a van going to Lubuklinggau. We did not plan to stay in the town but wanted to continue directly on our way. I had been apart from civilization and mass tourism for ten days. In that city, it hit me like a hammer how the agents of the different tour agencies stormed towards us to propose us their offers. We decided to ignore them to find on our own the best and cheapest connection to Bangko. The way to that town lead us over the Asian Super Highway. According to Holger it was the street with the highest amount of traffic accidents in entire Asia. We got an impression of this as bus drove with mad speed over partly not even finished streets. We were able to reach this next town in the early afternoon. There, we had the problem that no direct connection to Sungai Penuh was in day time. We would have to wait until the evening. It was scary to go through the hills in the night. We considered short to try our luck with a Microlet. These share taxis can be hired also by smaller parties. They have a cabin for the two drivers and an open loading platform with a roof for the passengers. It is possible to drive with a small group of up to eight people easily in these vehicles. They are larger than the Thai Tuk Tuks but essentially smaller than the Songtaeos. After a short discussion, we decided to make the entire journey of 138 kilometers with this kind of transport. After we had checked on the buses, they would need around eight to twelve hours for this distance. The ways at this time were difficult to pass as it had rained for a long time. The roads lead over mountains and heights on windy roads with extremely sharp corners. The option by going with the much smaller vehicle provided somehow more security. However, initially, the locals considered us as being completely nuts. They told us that we were probably able to master half of the way with a Microlet but never the entire distance. We started our journey and were clearly ahead of the scheduled buses. We had mastered half of the distance already at sunset. In the dark the streets were getting insecure. However, after haggling a bit with the driver he suddenly declared that he would risk it to go through to Sungai Penuh. After a while, we clearly understood why he had first refused to go the entire distance. The streets got worse with increasing distance. Sometimes, we bumped hard into deep holes in the street. It got cold in the back of the vehicle and the now incoming rain was draining us as well. In the middle of this madness, the driver suddenly stopped his vehicle and ran to the back. He had found a little monkey. Now, we were already skeptical what would happen next. The Japanese liked monkey brain. What was with the Indonesian? Fortunately, as I asked the driver, he replied that he had a little boy at home who had always wanted to have a monkey. Well, wild animals as pets was not even half as bad as wild animals as delicatessens. After three hours of the journey, we made a stop at an interesting seafood restaurant and the driver invited us to eat with him the delicious indigenous whitefish. This was a real delicatessen, much more delightful than the idea of monkey brain. As we were eating, the grinning driver pointed up the mountain. There, a bus was stuck in a corner and tried his best to master it. All the passengers had gotten out of it and the driver was working heavily. Then, the bus got stuck in the mud and all passengers had to help pushing it forward. The driver remarked, whilst licking his fingers off the fish
'You were right to go with me. Buses are much too dangerous. If he gets stuck we can't continue the journey.'
Disastrous thoughts overcame me, when we stuck here then probably the driver would return back home. We were stranded in this area, a nice place tho. We would have to wait that one bus could pick us up the following morning. Fortunately, just as the driver paid for our meal, the bus jumped out of the mud and all the passengers climbed back into it.
 We arrived Sungai Penuh in the middle of the night. The journey had been excellent. In a small Microlet you can experience the nature much better than in an isolated bus. The trip had been safe as well, I do not want to imagine if one of the buses gets stuck. It would not get back on track again and could tumbles deep into the valley. This feeling of disaster never left me in Indonesia. People complaining about chaos in Thailand have obviously never been through situations that I witnessed particularly on Sumatra. I am a fan of the unexpected, it gives spice to my life and this journey through the mountains was one of the best spices I have tasted in my life.


When among people, behave genuine; when in society impress through strange behaviour. We stayed for two nights in Sungai Penuh. Cities did not give us any kicks but we had some business to do. Our distance to reality can be best described through the situation as we discovered that we had run out of cigarettes. Ruth came first on the idea that we could press out the old buttons and roll some cigarettes from it. Holger and I considered this idea as disgusting. Then, Holger came on the idea that we could ask the cops. As corruption goes in Indonesia, cops are usually the best provided people in every community. Not thinking of anything else then having a cigarette, I dared and went to the police station. They looked at me as they had just seen an alien. Then they barked that they were not a fucking cigarette store. Well, I was able to press out of them at least half a pack. The evening was saved and why did we bother, we wanted anyhow to leave the following morning.
W continued our journey to the village at the base of the Gunung Kerinci. This place, Kersik Tua, directly at the foot of the volcano, was still 30 kilometers from Sungai Penuh. The journey we completed in a fully stuffed van. Even we, as long term travelers, had a comparably low amount of luggage. Everything was transported in the vehicle, car wheels, sewing machines, sacks full of potatoes and rice and all the things that the villagers needed from the city. The path lead along kilometer long tea plantations where a lot of people worked with the harvest. The mountainous landscape got increasingly exciting and then the Kerinci got into our view. An impressive mountain towering above the surrounding nature. High and powerful and smoke coming out of its crater. Kersik Tua itself was a sleepy village without many tourists, actually at that time we were the only ones. (2) The next adventure awaited us.
The climb did not only become another highlight of my journey through this country, I would go as far to call it a highlight of my life. It was late August and there had been only around 100 people to the mountain top. The tour starts on 1,500 meters elevation in Kersik Tua or Kersiktuo, both spellings are used for the small village. In my eyes it is no sport if you do not carry your own provisions with you. Holger and Ruth took a Sherpa. I could not be influenced by this decision. Holger just wanted to enjoy being the first Belgian person on the mountain top. So, it was more important for him to reach the summit at all and not to go for a sportive competition. My luggage, including my backpack, had a weight of around 10 kilograms. At 8:00 in the morning, we started our trip and had first to walk through endless tea plantations to get to the forest. It entrance was the starting point of the actual climb. First, it was only a walk on forest paths until we made the first break for lunch. The nature was amazing with fungus covered trees, palms, lianas spanning over the paths and the sound of a hundred species of birds. In the afternoon, the paths became more challenging and we had often to climb over fallen trees. It started to cool down with progressing time and elevation. Particularly Ruth was not used to climbing and walking longer distances and so we had to make more stops. Holger kept surprisingly good in shape, considering that there were no hills in his country. Unfortunately, at the base camp I had to consider Eco tourism again as a joke. The rubbish that was left by tourist behind was ridiculous so that the guide and the sherpa had to spend first a long time to clean it. The sun was already setting and it got very cold. Fortunately, I had a woolen hoodie with me. The wind blew that heavily that the guide had problems igniting the camp fire . It was not late but we would have to get up the next morning at around 4 o'clock. 
Well, Holger and Ruth got their own tent but I slept in the middle of the guide and the sherpa. There was nothing gay about it because the temperature had dropped so much that any kind of body heat was welcome. The tour continued before sunrise and we had to walk first with torchlights up a real ascent where we had to use hand and feet to continue the climb. Ruth had decided not to get to the summit and wanted to stay in the camp. Holger was keen to succeed in his mission. As we had nearly reached the scree field around the crater, the sun broke through the clouds. I had never experienced standing on firm soil whilst the sun rose through the thick layer of clouds. It was an orgasmic moment that I have not forgotten in my life. The most beautiful scenery, below the forest, the clouds and then the sun breaking through them. I felt an incredible warmth in my body and I suddenly understood that life was amazing. I was high on it. No drug has ever shot me that high as the sunlight coming through the clouds near the peak of the Gunung Kerinci. Then the sun rose above the clouds and shaded them into the most beautiful red that I have ever seen. It was like in another world, above us the sulfur vapor rising from the crater of the volcano and beyond us the red lighted clouds and the sun. We had by far not reached the top yet. The guide told us that we had to hurry because we had to use the good weather conditions to proceed as quickly as possible. We continued our ascent through a deeper cut in the volcano side, probably in an ancient lava stream. The stones were extremely sharp and Holger cut his hands open. I had thick cornea at my palms which protected me. The wind caused so much pressure on us that we had to fight getting further. It caused turbulence in my ears and so I bound a sarong around my head to cover them. The last hundred meters we had to creep upwards on hands and legs but finally we reached the crater. Astonishingly, deep and with a sulfuric smell, this beast grinned at us. I do mountain climbing and I have seen heights but looking into the maw of the abyss was another outstanding experience. Deep below me, the sulfur seemed to bubble in a liquid form. I felt sick, the vapor going straight into my nostrils but I was too curious to turn my view away for a few minutes. The view from the top around the surrounding landscape was also impressive, we could look extremely far. The guide told us that we could only stay a short time as at 10 o' clock a heavy wind and fog would come up. Many people, particularly going without a guide had been trapped at the summit. They had lost their orientation in the thick fog and either fell of the mountain or becoming involuntarily sacrifices of the crater. The descent was not easy as well, we had sometimes to glide over the boulders because they did not provide any handle to climb down slowly and more patiently. At some passages I wondered how we had come up the mountain as it was already that difficult to get down. This experience did not change back in the forest as we came sometimes to real cliffs where it went for more than two meters sharp down. We arrived the camp again after more than one hour descent. Holger was extremely proud having been the first Belgian on the peak. I was very happy that I had been on the highest volcano in Indonesia, something you cannot do every day. We were already extremely exhausted but we did not have much time if we wanted to get back to Kersiktuo before sunset. The luggage pushed me now downhill and we had to balance sometimes over cut trees which made us nearly fall down into mud. The way through the tea plantation, after we had left the forest, seemed so much longer than on the previous day but finally we had reached the village again, short before sunset. I will never forget that day, even that my memories slowly start dwindling away, but the moments where the sun broke down and the views into the crater have shaped even my view onto life itself.


1) Distantpeak by Lynge Skrede - Gunung Kerinci 

2) Wandering On - Live to Travel - Climbing Mount Kerinci

No comments:

Post a Comment