Pagaralam and Gunung Dempo, South Sumatra
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 31/05/11
Thin daylight is seeping out over Sumatra. I am just three degrees south of the equator, but high on the slopes of Gunung Dempo, it is bitterly cold. A sharp breeze is cutting through a sky streaked with cloud. Far below Pagaralam and the rest of the Pasemah Highlands are buried beneath a blanket of creamy haze, while away to the south the dark hulk of Gunung Patah looms from tiger-haunted forest.
It is almost four hours since we started our climb, struggling upwards through a tangle of roots and creepers, but now we have broken free of the tropical forest. Stunted bushes, strung about with the gray-green lichen known as jengot angin, “the beard of the wind”, dot these stony upper slopes, and we pause for a moment to watch a cold sun slip swiftly up over a vast inverted cloudscape.
My two companions – a local mountaineer called Maman, and a student hiker from Palembang called Cokie – shiver and thrust their hands deep into their pockets as we take in the view. Then we turn our backs to the panorama and pick our way onwards, upwards in the thinning air. Somewhere ahead, still out of view is the summit of Sumatra’s third highest mountain.
My first view of Gunung Dempo had come two days earlier, from the more benign environment of the ripening rice fields on the edge of the sleepy little upland town of Pagaralam. Rising 3173 meters from a fringe of forest, it was a tantalizing prospect. But before tackling the summit I wanted to explore the region that surrounded the peak – the Pasemah Highlands, a beautiful, but little visited corner of South Sumatra.
Seven hours west of the steamy provincial capital Palembang, the Highlands are surrounded by the mountains of the southern Bukit Barisan range, far from tourist trails and beaten tracks. Pagaralam, the only real town in the area, lies some 600 meters above sea level. There are tea gardens and strawberry farms. If this place was in Java it would swarm with city folk every weekend; as it is, I seemed to have it almost to myself.
In the 19th century the clans of the Highlands had a ferocious reputation for hostility to outsiders, but things seem to have changed, for the villagers around Tanjung Aru, a hamlet of wooden houses on the outskirts of Pagaralam, were very friendly, and they pointed me in the direction of the region’s most famous and enigmatic attraction.
Carved megaliths dot the rice fields all over these South Sumatran uplands, hulks of rough basalt chiseled into the shapes of men, elephants, bulls and tigers. I found one of these carvings a little way outside Tanjung Aru. At first it seemed like a chaos of loops and ridges, weathered by centuries of monsoon rains. But as I stood back it resolved itself into the form of a man, locked in the coils of a huge serpent. No one knows who carved these strange statues, or for what purpose. The oldest are thought to date back some three thousand years.
The more recent buildings of the Pasemah Highlands are remarkable too. The next day, in the village of Pelang Kenida, south of Pagaralam, I saw some of the finest examples of traditional local architecture. The houses here were built of lengths of rough-cut timber, raised above the ground on stilts – a precaution from the days when wild tigers sometimes strayed into the settlements from the forest. The gables were topped with a V-shaped motif representing a set of buffalo horns, and the walls and buttresses were marked by long strips of floral patterning, and mandala-like whorls. Once all the houses in the region were decorated this way, the villagers told me, but today the old skills have been forgotten. The surviving carved houses are already half-a-century old, and when they succumb to rot and termites these traditions will be lost forever.
The art of woodworking for village houses might have been lost, but another craft is still in full swing on a narrow side-street in the Pagaralam market. In a string of little workshops artisans make the emblematic local dagger, the kuduk. Back in more bloodthirsty times these were used in warfare; today they are still an essential possession for a man of the Pasemah Highlands. In a dark, smoky space at the back of one of the workshops two men were hammering a glowing blade, fresh from the forge, into shape. Pausing from their work they told me that they can make about 15 of these knives in a day’s work.
Once I had toured the gentle countryside around Pagaralam, it was time to tackle that looming, unavoidable peak – Gunung Dempo. I had been lucky enough to cross paths with Maman, a local mountaineering fanatic. He told me that he had climbed volcanoes all over Indonesia, but Dempo was still his favorite. He was heading for the summit yet again with a student friend from Palembang, and he invited me to tag along.
The trailhead lay high above Pagaralam, on the edge of a vast tea estate. This estate was first established in the colonial era. The descendants of these Javanese transmigrants, shipped in by the Dutch to work on the plantation, still live in neat white villages amongst the tea bushes.
We spent the evening drinking coffee in a ramshackle mountaineers’ hut on the edge of the forest. As darkness fell and a pale moon rose over the highlands, Maman explained that for local people a sacred aura still surrounds the high slopes of Gunung Dempo. Like so many mountains in Indonesia it was traditionally viewed as the receptacle for the souls of departed ancestors, ruled over by a deity called Puyung Raja Nyawe. The Pasemah Highlands have long since converted to Islam, but a belief in evil spirit tigers still lingers. These beings, known as masumai, are said still to haunt the forests around the mountain; they can shape-shift, transforming themselves into beautiful women to lead travellers astray.
Unsurprisingly, Maman said, many locals are reluctant to climb the peak!
Watching out for shape-shifting ghost tigers we set out after midnight, following an agonizingly steep uphill trail into the jungle...
We have passed beyond the tropics now, and it is stunningly cold, even with the first light of dawn at our backs. As we cross the first, false summit – a low hillock in a dense thicket – and scramble down a steep slope beyond towards a stony plateau, studded with little cairns and clumps of wind-burnt bushes, I struggle to catch my breath in the thin air. Villagers sometimes make pilgrimages here to sacrifice goats and chickens to the mountain spirits, Maman says.
The summit is almost in reach now, but altitude and exhaustion are taking their toll, and the final ascent over stony slopes is painfully slow. And then, at last, we reach the crater rim, and a great bowl of broken rock with a pool of slate-gray water at its base opens below. Shreds of dark cloud streak past, and dust devils pirouette across the scree.
Away to the west, beyond a mesh of interlocking green ridges, I can make out the pale line of the Indian Ocean coast. North and south the long line of the Bukit Barisan Range runs on, and to the east the dense covering of cloud, blanketing Pagaralam and the tea gardens, is turning a coppery gold beneath the rising sun. It is a magnificent panorama, and as I stand there I am sure that the cold, the aching legs and the risk of marauding spirit tigers were all worthwhile.
© Tim Hannigan 2011