You might be wondering how I ended up trekking for two weeks to very remote tribes off the coast of Indonesia? As I wrote earlier, I really enjoyed surfing in Australia and was looking for another spot in South-East Asia. I asked my good friend Tobin and he recommended me to look into the Mentawai Islands. After some Google searches, I soon forgot about the surf and was instead very intrigued by some stories about trekking on one of these islands where some remote tribes were still living very traditionally in the jungle.
I hesitated much, and finally decided it was madness because of the terrible climate there, the dangerous ferry and it was said to be malaria infested. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind and when I approached the area, I decided to contact a guide and discuss it with him. He didn’t really convince me: “Maybe a little risky now, it would be better to come back in August”. But after long discussions, I became so curious that I just decided to go for it!
I was totally unprepared with no trekking shoes, no water purifying pills and so on. And I discovered that it is impossible in Indonesia to find trekking shoes with sizes larger than 43! I finally ended up with only plastic wellington boots bought at 3.50 euros at the local market. Needless to say, I was a little nervous in the 10 hours, rocky wooden ferry that took me to Siberut Island the day after! But as soon as I started the trek, I was very thankful not to have bought trekking shoes. The mud was often approaching knee level and I had to cross countless streams and rivers.
After a 10 hour ferry journey from Padang to Siberut island, followed by 5 hours of traditional wooden boat up the river, another hour trekking to a village where I stayed overnight and finally five hours of up and down trekking through the jungle I reached the remote settlement of Atabai.
I didn’t really know what to expect. But straight away found out that this would be an amazing adventure. The whole family was dressed in traditional clothes (loincloth for men, and skirt and topless for women). The owner was away to heal some people in another village. When he arrived the next day with two other shamans, I couldn’t believe my eyes! He welcomed me warmly saying I could stay for as long as I wanted to learn about the culture. After that, he started to sing a traditional song “Baaacho, baaacho kerre, baaacho baacho kerre” to the delight of his six giggling children. He was getting so much into it that he stood up and started a dance with eagle like movements while singing. No, this wasn’t going to be the usual trek.
The Mentawai culture is much more complex than I initially imagined. I was particularly impressed by their sustainable use of the jungle. What first appears as a virgin rainforest is actually a huge garden used by the Mentawais to plant all kinds of trees: the Sago tree from which they get the major part of their diet for them and their chickens and pigs, but also coconut trees, banana trees and dozens of delicious tropical fruit trees. They understood long ago that cutting the forest to have single crop plantations wasn’t sustainable and instead they spread their own trees within the jungle to keep the soil fertile.
During the trek, I stayed in traditional huts of five different families and learned to get to know them. This led to some fantastic moments and discussions! The people were very welcoming and always proposed to share their meals with me. This is really nice when they eat some good chicken, but a lot less when they prepare to eat a huge plate of worms and look at you curiously to see if you enjoy this delicacy as much as they do…
The trek wasn’t easy either. The tracks are seriously muddy and slippery, the food is often very bland and I was constantly bitten by mosquitoes which seemed to love my mosquito repellent! My clothes were also in a constant humid state due to the very wet climate on the island. But the toughest of all for me was to get some sleep! Mentawais love to talk very late in the night right next to where you sleep and they wake up as soon as the sun rises being just as noisy again and continuing their conversations. Add to that the sounds of chickens and pigs living under the house and the mosquito bites and you get a good idea of my nights there.
But this was a reasonable price to pay considering the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the jungle and the adorable Mentawai children!
Some practical tips if you plan to trek to the Mentawai:
- Take Wellington (rubber) boots, with all the mud and with so many river crossings they will be much more convenient.
- You don’t need purifying tablets. Mentawai people will boil the water for 25 minutes before drinking it. In 12 days I haven’t been sick once while drinking it.
- Bring mosquito repellent! It is hard to find in Padang.
- You might want to have your own mattress, I didn’t have one and had to sleep on the ground the whole time (you get used to it though).
- Bring some gifts, but avoid plastic at all costs. Small pearls to make their jewels ( see my pictures) can be bought at the market in Padang, tobacco and cigarettes are also essential ( they all smoke anyways so you’re not influencing them don’t worry!).
- Book a cabin on the ferry.
- Learn some Mentawai in advance, it’s a very easy language and nobody there speaks English or Indonesian.
Watch all my pictures from the trek in the photo gallery.