By James Penha
When my Indonesian partner first suggested we drive on holiday from our home in Jakarta to his home island of Sumatra, I laughed. He could not have been serious. Of course, I had thought he was joking when, years before, he suggested we drive across Java and ferry to Bali. Yet we subsequently made that journey many times without any mishaps.
But Sumatra seemed like a wild idea. "You are afraid of heights," I reminded Ferdy. "How are you going to drive on those narrow mountain roads overlooking deep chasms, as you watch out for landslides and pray for at least a few minutes of unbroken blacktop?"
"You'll have to drive, I guess. I'll keep my eyes closed," he said.
The dream, though frightening, was tempting. I do love the jungle. We had frequently flown to Medan in North Sumatra and hired a car and driver to take us to Tangkahan, where we swam upriver through cascading canyons - pristine, primeval and untouched. Or to Bukit Lawang, the site of a centre dedicated to the return of orangutans rescued from captivity to the jungle. The fifteen kilometers from Medan to Tangkahan took three hours in a four-wheel drive along a rocky road befitting the Stone Age. Bukit Lawang was another seventy brutal kilometres: an all-day torture.
Ferdy was proposing a DIY safari in our CR-V. "Why live in Indonesia," he dared me, "if you are not up to the adventures the archipelago offers?" He had a point. Since making his challenge, we have worn out several Hondas, but we have been refreshed by every trip to this amazing tropical island.
A junket to Sumatra from Java begins with a ferry ride across the Sunda Strait. There was a time when these ferries regularly foundered, but the big boats are much safer these days, and it is always an eerie thrill to sail by the children of Krakatoa. These two small volcanoes surfaced smoking from the great island that blew itself up in 1883, creating a tsunami that roiled the Strait and killed more than 35,000 people.
Water of all kinds can still be a threat in Sumatra. On one of our drives through Riau province, an especially fulsome rainy season swelled the Kampar River into a lake that drowned the shore road only a couple of kilometres from the Jami Air Tiris Mosque, a marvel we hoped to see. Of course, Indonesians are nothing if not industrious, and so several locals offered to take us in a canoe to the famous wooden building constructed a century ago without a single nail. Our pilot explained, as we balanced in his dugout, that the mosque was, even today, dry because it was blessed, built as it was above a spring from which flowed water that could heal the sick. Air tiris means, "leaking water," Ferdy explained. "Leaking from out the earth, I guess."
"From earth and sky, it looks to me," I said as we floated by the flooded shops and homes of Tanjung Berulak. The mosque, situated on a hillock, was indeed dry and strikingly beautiful with its bold beams supporting a pyramidal framework. Its walls were warmly coffee-coloured and welcoming. Of course, our visit to the mosque was all the more memorable because of the unusual means by which we reached it.
As disconcerting as the floods in Sumatra can be, it's the cold that gets me, even though the island sits right on the equator. Nonetheless, its volcanic highlands can be frigid.
In the little bed-and-breakfast where we slept amid the tea plantations of Mount Kerinci, we were thankful to be provided with the kind of comforts I hadn't seen since forsaking the winters of New York. Ferdy and I dressed in layers of sweatshirts at sunrise for our trek up the mountain. Silently, we listened to the wonderful whoops of the siamang gibbons who own this jungle. As we climbed, the simian song increased in volume and magnitude. Ferdy stopped me at one point and tapped his finger on his nose. I inhaled, and, yes, there was a powerful odour that explained itself when a huge black gibbon swung from the depths of the jungle into the light of a tree no farther than a meter from us. Its white face showed no fear as it sprang off, likely to meet its mate and howling family.
The natural wonders of Sumatra are infinite, but what has especially surprised and delighted me are the relics of the archipelago's ancient civilisations. The most easily accessible sculpted megaliths stand lonely and unvisited by tourists along the road from Bukittinggi, a popular hilltop city in Western Sumatra, to Batusangkar. Authorities have built flimsy fences around several of them, but Ferdy and I were able to approach and stare nose-to-nose at the carved visages .
These whetted my appetite for more stone survivors of long-gone cultures. On the high road between Lahat and Pagaralam, on the other side of Western Sumatra, we stopped at one megalithic "village" after another, each with dozens of animal and human figures etched into boulders.
We discovered the most astonishing collection of these remnants back near Batusangkar. One of Ferdy's oldest friends, having heard of my interest, suggested we go to Mahat, although she had no idea how to get there beyond vaguely recollecting a turn-off from the main road. Ferdy fruitlessly asked the fruit-sellers and other vendors at the intersection how to reach Mahat, until one lone delivery-truck driver said the town was on his route. The road to reach it, he warned, was steep and not in good shape, but that was the only way. We wouldn't get lost, he promised. We asked if he'd seen the megaliths, but he said no.
The road was treacherous, worse even than those to Tangkahan and Bukit Lawang. But the village we found, literally the end of the road, was Lost Horizon idyllic. We stopped at a stand where a high-school girl sold durians, those exotic fruit grenades that most Westerners, including me, cannot stomach, while most Asians, including Ferdy, cannot resist. We asked her about the megaliths. She said they were very near, and that she'd be happy, especially if she could practice her English, to show us the way. After bagging the durians Ferdy purchased, she led us through a savannah overseen by a mountain at the apex of which a circular hole in the rock face allowed sunlight to shine through.
"We believe the mountain is sacred," the girl said. "Probably the old ones did too. Maybe that's why they built their monuments here." She directed us to a vast ground from which scores of stone sculptures of varied shapes and sizes leaned in exactly the same direction - away from the holy mount as if terrified to look the sun in its eye.
"This," I said to our guide and to Ferdy, "is your country's Stonehenge."
The road is too perilous for us ever to visit Mahat again, but Sumatra, its megaliths, its wildlife, its waters and roads remain ever our itinerary.
A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. His essay "It's Been a Long Time Coming" was featured in The New York Times Modern Love column in April 2016. Penha edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry.
- Header image by Max Grabert (CC 2.0) Muara, Lake Toba, Tapanuli Utara, North Sumatra, Indonesia.
- Middle image by buitenzorger (CC 2.0) shows Umang-umang, an uninhabited island located in Sunda Strait, near Krakatoa.
- Final image Gibbon by wagon16 (public domain).