The enticing rainforest-clad Mentawai Islands, 100km off the west Sumatran coast, are home to an ethnic group who are struggling to retain their identity in the modern world. There are over forty islands in the chain, of which the four main ones are Pulaus Siberut, Sipora, North Pagi and South Pagi. Only Pulau Siberut, the largest, at 110km long by 50km wide, is accessible to tourists (overnight ferry from Padang); all visitors must be registered by the authorities. The islanders’ traditional culture is based on communal dwelling in longhouses (uma) and subsistence agriculture, their religious beliefs centring on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world. With the advent of Christian missionaries and the colonial administration in the early twentieth century, many of the islanders’ religious practices were banned, but plenty of beliefs and rituals have survived and some villages have built new uma. However, the islanders are still under threat, not least from an Indonesian government seeking to integrate them into mainstream life.
Organized tours of Mentawai are loudly marketed in Bukittinggi as a trip to see the “primitive” people and “stone-age” culture. Generally, Mentawai people welcome tourism as a way of validating and preserving their own culture, although they get little financial benefit from it. Be sure to read and obey guidelines about behaviour that are given to you, as the people have a complex system of taboo behaviour. Most tours centre on the southeast of the island, where you’ll be able to watch and join in with people going about their everyday activities, such as farming, fishing and hunting. There are also jungle treks and the shaman ceremonies of Siberut are something of a draw for tourists, but many are actually staged for them.
Access to 2890-metre Gunung Merapi (Fire Mountain) is from Koto Baru, 12km south of Bukittinggi. Typically, the climb, which is strenuous rather than gruelling if you’re reasonably fit, takes five hours up and four down; most people climb at night to arrive at the top for the sunrise. The first four hours or so are through the forest and then across bare rocks leading to the summit. The top is actually a plateau area with the still-smoking crater in the middle. You may spot bats, gibbons and squirrels in the forest, but the main reason to go is the view across to Gunung Singgalang. Take enough water and energy food, plus sturdy footwear and warm clothes for the top. A knowledgeable and well-recommended guide is Andi Afrianto (t0812/6662 2980) in Bukittinggi; he can be found at the Apache Café on Jl A Yani.