Since that very first moment I set my foot on the fascinating land of Sumatra, the anticipation of one oncoming juncture was constantly prevailing in my wild fantasies. And that’s so, only as far as it concerns anticipation. When it concerns fancies, that occurrence, that was, now, soon to take place, had been raging inside my ecstatic daydreams since some very early days of mine. What was to soon happen, was that I was finally going to confront one of the world’s most tremendous volcanoes… the almighty Mount Kerinci!
Mount Kerinci is the highest volcano in Indonesia, as well as the highest mountain in the country, let aside Papua. It belongs to the great Barisan mountain range which spans all along the western part of Sumatra from its north to its south extremity. Its massive cone occupies an area of 13 km in width and 25 km in length and reaches an elevation of 3805 AMSL. It is one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, with its enormous, 600 m deep, crater constantly emitting loads of sulfuric gas, the column towering at times as much as one whole km above the summit, and nearly every year breaking out to violent phreatic eruptions. On its slopes and the dense forest surrounding them, a large number and diversity of unique wildlife may be encountered, from several endemic bird species and reptiles, to big mammals, as Sumatran rhinos, elephants, sun bears, tapirs and various species of felines, with Sumatran tigers being the most renowned inhabitant of the Kerinci Seblat National Park. In fact, this park alone, it hosts the largest by far population of wild tigers worldwide, amounting to more individuals than in the whole China and South-East Asia put together!
Originally I was intending to spare about one week, a quarter of my visa’s span, for exploring this outstanding mountain. However, for my great grief, fortune had a different idea. Getting in Padang, the provincial capital of West Sumatra, I was struck by a fiendish mishap… For the first time in my adult life, I fell sick – and I mean like truly sick -, being thus forced to waste four full days lying in bed recovering. So, sadly, I had to compromise confining myself to a two-day trip to the top and back only, which, nevertheless, was still to be categorically rendered unforgettable.
It was that late evening when that car, the one that was to get me to Kersik Tuo village at the foot of the mountain, after waiting for it since the morning, finally came and picked me up from that guesthouse I was sojourning in Padang. It took another couple of hours driving around the city and picking up more passengers till the car was suffocatingly full, before leaving the city and the coast behind and taking our course uphills and southwards. Dawn must have been approaching, though darkness was still unadulterated when the driver suspended my sound sleep to let me know that we had arrived in Kersik Tuo. I was soon after dropped off outside a homestay. Both because I didn’t want to wake its owners up at such an hour and because I thought of saving one night’s accommodation costs, I decided to wait outside till the advent of the morning, reassuming my sleep on a bench I found there. However, the owner of the house proved to be well vigilant of what’s happening outside his dwelling and he soon opened the door inviting me in. He was a very kind Javan man who could speak English and was bearing heavy loads of peculiar knowledge of the local flora and fauna, as well as of the history of his small community. His wife was also quite an authority in matters of kitchen, making for me gigantic portions of the most delicious food I happened to taste in Sumatra for very reasonable a price. I’d like to recommend that place to anybody happening to visit the area. I do not remember its name – nor if it had any at all – but it’s situated on the main road, some 20-30 meters south after the junction leading to the trailhead of the mountain.
The morning after the next, having spent a day to get prepared for my trip, my backpack was packed and I was totally ready to start on my way to the top of that amazing volcano, which so proudly was, now, showing off itself through the clean, bright sky. One of the first things that guy at the homestay offered to help me out with, was to arrange for me a good guide. And severely startled he got when he understood that I meant for good my intention of going up there all alone, a thing done extremely rarely – if ever at all – by anybody. So, instead of a guide, he rather arranged for me a motorbike to take me to the trailhead for free, which I can perceive in no other way than a highly appreciable favor.
It was 8.30 am when I was left at the end of the road, by the margin of the tea-farmlands, and the guy with the bike headed back to the village while I started right away placing my feet one in the front of the other successively, always facing the jetting crater of the volcano. It only took a few repetitions of my pace, and the mountain with its crater, as well as everything else more distant than a few meters, was lost behind the dense foliage of that majestic forest I had just entered. It was a morning of exalted beauty. The rays of the mighty sun were penetrating in bundles, here and there, through the lofty canopy, into the jungle and, furthermore, into the most mystical quarters of any soul that had the chance to experience that moment, as I and the numerous flying creatures, which were perfectly expressing with their joyous, orphic songs what I could only express in awe and strict silence, had.
The first part of the trail, though very muddy at points, was generally smooth and even. It was at that first part, which lasted for an hour or so, where I crossed a couple of descending parties. From there on I would meet nobody, being utterly alone and enjoying in the utmost that unexampled feeling of having such a great mountain all for myself. By the time I stopped for my lunch, at about 11 am, circa 2500 m of altitude, the weather wasn’t as fair anymore. A dark haze had encircled me, lightning was flashing all around me and thunder rumblings were echoing through the gloom of the air. Though luckily, no drop was fallen until I finished my lunch, and only after I had well packed and waterproof-covered my stuff and myself the skies broke apart. I continued my way under heavy showers for the rest of the day, struggling to clamber up the slippery muddy parts and getting soaked all the way to the marrow, till I decided to stop for the day and camp at a very nice spot I found at about 3000 AMSL. I pitched the tent as rapidly as I possibly could and perched inside neatly, surrendering to a balmy nap under the raving fuss of the falling water.
I had immediately taken an earnest liking to the spot where I had camped, but it was only later, when the warmth of a newly arrived sunlight forced me to open my eyes and behold the dew on my tent’s roof glimmering under it, that, captivated by such an atmosphere, I left my den and eyed the magic of that spot in its entire splendor. The rain had ceased. The fog had dissolved. The half-moon was soon to reach its climax on the purple sky above me and the sun was preparing to set somewhere behind the mountain, casting his concluding rays upon Mount Tuju and Tuju Lake shimmering in joy against me on the east horizon, and after the all-green valley oppressed by Kerinci’s massive shadow and adorned by a colossal rainbow spanning it from side to side. And me, I was standing up there alone, high up on that slope, all alone! There was no other person witnessing that magic, nor was anybody to hear my excited screams pervading the desolate air.
Later on, when the second phase of my sleep had been accomplished and I left my cozy tent for the second time, what I beheld was totally different, not any less magical, though. It was 3.30 am, the half-moon had set and there was nothing but some millions of stars and the heart-breaking milky-way ornamenting the infinite sky above me. The earth, now – let aside some dim sparkling from the tiny, finger-counted villages of the valley – was plunged into outright darkness. It was time for me to head upwards… I fixed a small bag with all the necessaries, I placed my torch aforehead and I started on that night trip, which is doubtlessly to be reminding me that life was worth living till the very end of my days.
As I left my glade, I was soon back into the forest, where whatever light the stars might have been offering was blocked behind the impenetrable, thick canopy, and my torch’s capacity was limited to a couple of meters through the suffusing fog. It was quite weird a hike, moving steadily up nearly blindly, while various nocturnal creatures were releasing their startled cries all around me and eye-pairs were momentarily twinkling at my torch’s light every now and then, awakening sensations of the primitive kind into my soul.
At about 3300 AMSL, the forest gave out, the starred sky reappeared upon my head and there was a completely alien landscape I was striding through. The slope I was ascending was covered by a loose and slippery scree, covered by some tar-like, sticky volcanic matter. In contrary to what I was expecting, the temperature, though surely chilly, was quite fair, above freezing level. And though I did not after all need gloves to keep my hands warm, I was very glad I had them with me, as they proved a great aid for clambering up the cold, sharp and tarry stones. The higher I was getting, the intenser was becoming the odor of the sulfur and the thicker the ash-fall, which was poured from the crater upon the mountain resembling snow.
Finally, at about 6 am, I was standing on the roof of Sumatra. Everything was covered by a thick layer of that sticky volcanic matter, which had started accumulating and forming a layer upon me as well. The sulfur odor was nearly suffocating, making it quite hard to breathe in combination with the altitude. The top was a narrow piece of ground right beside a vertical precipice of the crater-rim, whence profuse loads of white smoke were emitted up towards the sky. The sun soon rose warming up the air and rendering visible the entire magnificence of what surrounded me. That crater was absolutely enormous. An idea took birth in my head of circumventing the whole rim, which would be a venturing of quite uncertain an outcome, very enticing, though, indeed.
After the sun had made some progress in its diurnal course, and my nostrils had nearly reached the limit of their tolerance, I decided to start on my way down again. It was a brilliantly beautiful morning up there. The views of the surroundings being absolutely marvelous, so that I had to empty a quarter of a cigarette pack, as an excuse to stop and wonder, till I reached back to my tent. The weather kept fair there for all the while, till I had breakfasted, packed up my stuff, and started on my way back to the village. The weather was not, unfortunately, to last, however. A few only minutes after I left my last night’s refuge, thick clouds caught me and kept pouring heavy loads of water upon me for all the rest of the day.
Coming to this mountain, I had quite some good hopes of encountering peculiar wildlife. I did see some animals, however, nothing special that could have possibly met my expectations. Though the surprise was kept for me for the end. Just a short while before reaching back to the foot of the mountain, a stentorian outcry broke out suddenly, echoing through the foliages of the dreary forest, startling me for the moment, as like a thousand needles had simultaneously pinched my stomach. Finally… it was the Siamangs! I had been looking for them in every mountain I had set foot on in Sumatra, but I had, until that very moment, zero success. And now, they were finally there, somewhere around me. Notwithstanding the heavy showers, I set to follow their creepy howls into the jungle, them becoming louder and louder, deafening, till I spotted the family frolicking in excitement up on some tall trees. What a beautiful creature!
It was around noontime when I had made it back to the road. The rain was as strong as ever and I had several more kilometers to cover before reaching back to the village. I wasn’t really counting on getting a ride back, as that road is barely used at all and I had no telephone – nor any number, even if I could find a device. For my good fortune, though, only a few minutes after I had reached the road, I happened to run into two local farmers loading a truck with potatoes, who offered me voluntarily a spot upon their load. I had never before imagined that one day I may travel on top of a potato-load, especially under a heavy storm, but life is full of novelties… It was quite a smooth and comfortable trip, even though the trunk door broke open at some point and we had to stop to pick up the fallen-off potato-sacks along the way and reload them onto the truck. And quite a spectacular, dramatical, triumphal, grand return from my great mountain adventure it was hopping off that truck, water dripping from all over, in front of the guesthouse.