Saturday, 6 October 2012

Sumatra's Forgotten Lake


Exploring Danau Ranau in the mountains of Southern Sumatra


Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 17/06/12

Soft sunlight cuts through the forest, and the road winds around another steep hillside.  It is three hours since the minibus left the scruffy town of Baturaja, straddling the Trans-Sumatra Highway, and I am nearing my destination.  Houses appear between the trees – sturdy, shuttered buildings of weathered timber, rising above the ground on stilts – and then, as the road begins to roll downhill, the lake appears – a sheet of smooth steel-grey water ringed by a rampart of green ridges in the very heart of the Bukit Barisan range.  Welcome to Danau Ranau, Sumatra’s forgotten mountain lake.

            Danau Ranau lies some 340km from Palembang.  It is a crooked 16km-long lozenge of water, straddling the Lampung-South Sumatra border and surrounded by lush upland landscapes.  But while Sumatra’s other mountain lakes – Toba in the north and Maninjau in the west – have long earned a place on travelers’ itineraries, Ranau lies far from beaten track.  I have braved the rattling bus ride to see what the place has to offer.
            I get down from the bus in the sleepy little lakeside township of Banding Agung and I am soon comfortably installed on the terrace of a little guesthouse, sipping sweet black coffee and chatting with the owner, a retired policeman called Armando.
            The view of the lake is magnificent.  From the bottom of Armando’s stony garden the unruffled water rolls away under a pearly evening sky.  Tiny fishing canoes creep across the surface, dark figures silhouetted in the sterns.  On the far shore the hillsides drop steeply down to the water, and the smooth cone of Gunung Seminung, Ranau’s 1881-metre guardian peak, rises towards the high clouds.  Like Sumatra’s other mountain lakes, Ranau is the flooded crater of a huge volcano.  But according to local legend, Armando tells me, it was formed when a huge tree toppled over and water gathered in the hollow left by the roots.
            The panorama is certainly worthy of a long journey, but Armando tells me that tourists are a rarity.  He blames the provincial government for Ranau’s low profile:  “They haven’t built any tourism objects here,” he says.  But it seems to me that isolation rather than a lack of concrete facilities and car parks has kept these waters undisturbed.  As darkness falls and the blank sky gives way to a thin speckling of stars I am rather glad that I have the place to myself.
In the watery sunlight of the morning I set out along a forest trail to explore the countryside west of Banding Agung.  Men on ramshackle motorbikes come slithering past with shotguns over their shoulders.  They are heading for the coffee and cacao plantations that stud the hillsides – agriculture is the mainstay here – and the guns are to ward off visitors from the deep forest: Armando has told me that a few tigers still haunt the more remote shores of Ranau, turning up from time to time in the plantations.
I pass beneath shady stands of bamboo, and through neat little stilt-house hamlets, where barefoot children play football on muddy fields.  The lake drops in and out of view, glimpses of grey water showing between high green headlands.
One of the gaggles of football-playing kids abandon their game and appoint themselves my impromptu guides, leading me up a boulder-studded slope to a waterfall.  Cool water plunges over the mossy black rocks into dark pools, and the hillside is knotted with creepers.  It starts to rain, and the children lead me back down the slope to take shelter in the house of a local farmer called Udin.  He is originally from Java, he tells me, but he has been here for 30 years and now speaks the local Ogan language better than his Javanese mother tongue.
It is almost dark when I get back to Banding Agung, and Armando tells me he was about to send out a search party: he was worried that I had been eaten by a tiger.
The next day I borrow a motorbike from Armando’s son, Ateng, and set out to explore the more distant corners of the lake.  A breeze is blowing today, rumpling the surface and slapping small wavelets onto the little beaches that edge the lake.
In the hamlet of Pusri I find a hotel, apparently built during a bout of ambitious speculation over Ranau’s tourism potential.  There are impressive bungalows built on stilts over the water’s edge, but when I rouse a member of staff to show me around I find the paint peeling and the timber cracked.  Guests are a rarity, he tells me.
I ride onwards, crossing the border between South Sumatra and Lampung provinces and stopping for lunch in the scrappy little town of Kota Batu at the easternmost inlet of the lake.  My meal is a plate of grilled mujair, a large, carp-like fish with a mesh of grey-gold scales that thrives in Ranau’s clear waters.
Beyond the town I skirt the flanks of Gunung Seminung and head out along the southern shore.  The afternoon has brought bright sunlight and the lake is blue under a clear sky.  Eventually the road begins to give way to a rutted track, so I turn back.  But before I return to Kota Batu I take a detour, intrigued by a glossy signboard pointing along a narrow side-road.  It leads to an unexpectedly lavish development – Hotel Seminung Lumbok.  The place seems to be deserted.  A few brown cows are grazing in the children’s play area, and a troop of black monkeys eye me suspiciously from the trees.
Eventually I rouse the only member of staff on duty, a young man called Jamie.  He tells me that the hotel is owned by the West Lampung regency government.  It was opened in 2007.  I ask if there are many guests.
He shakes his head: “The hotel is owned by the government, so the only guests are government people.  There are no tourists because there’s no promotion.”
Back at Kota Batu I park my bike and take a local ferry across the bay to a hot spring that Armando told me about.  The springs stand at the very foot of Gunung Seminung, and as we draw in to the landing stage I catch a smell of sulfur rising from the turquoise-tinted surface of the lake. 
A pool has been walled off around the springs, where clear water bubbles from the fractured rocks.  It is deliciously hot.  I share the waters with a local woman and her son, who have stopped off for a bath on the way home from the chili fields up on the slopes of the mountain.  It’s a three hour walk to reach the summit, she tells me.
I can just make out the rusting roofs of Banding Agung on the far shore, and closer at hand the little islet of Pulau Marisa.  According to local legend the island was the upshot of the efforts of a pair of rival suitors for a mythical local princess, Putri Aisah.  To win the lady’s hand the two heroes were challenged to build a bridge from the hot springs across the lake to Banding Agung.  They were convinced they could do it, but rather like those who would install upscale hotels on the lake’s shores, they were suffering from a surfeit of ambition.  Little Pulau Marisa was all they managed to build.  Thanks to their failure I have to go the long way back to the guesthouse. 
Tomorrow I will be heading back to civilization, but the bus ride will be worthwhile, for Ranau has proved a fine and tranquil spot.  Had it lain closer to a major city it could have been as famous as Lake Toba.  But for now it is a well-kept secret, locked in the green heart of southern Sumatra.
© Tim Hannigan 2012


john said...

Great article. Wish I had read it before I went to Palembang last week. That town has so few escape outlets for its folk. I assume it would take about 8 hours from Palembang by bus??



Tim Hannigan said...

Hi John,
Glad you liked it, and yes, it's a great place to visit from Palembang. I came up from Bandar Lampung, and then left to the coast at Krui, but I would guess that around eight hours would be right from Palembang.

There are other escapes from that city though - Bangka's a boat ride away, and the Pasemah Highlands are really wonderful - here's a piece about that area:

john said...

Ok will follow it up. Am up that way about 3 times a year for work. The Bangka trip I knew about but I have never heard of the Pasemah route or the coast at Krui. But then again when I arrive in a new town in Indonesia I usually just ask the locals who I meet; and who usually know very little eg in Palembang I know quite a lot of well to do Indonesians of Chinese origins. They rarely get out of town except by plane! Drivers who I meet do know the local areas but it is a bit hard to trust them totally unless they have actually been to places recently and often. Of course there are helpful sites like yours, but it often turns out I dont do my homework before I leave.

Will update you in due course

Tim Hannigan said...

Yes that difficulty getting worthwhile local travel advice is often a problem in Indonesia - although these days it is slowly starting to change as "backpacking" is begining to get cool with local students and the younger middle classes.

Palembang's not the greatest city in the world, so escapes to the hills are always a good option. Let me know how you get on on the next trip, and drop me a line if you need any more advice.