Friday, June 15, 2012

Climbing Kerinci

Travelling down the interior of Sumatra you get a good sense of its size and relative wildness. The Trans-Sumatran highway is a joke: barely wide enough to let two trucks pass, winding along the hilly spine of the Bukit Barisan mountains and potholed, you'll be lucky if you achieve an average speed 40lm/h. It gives you plenty of time to watch the surrounding countryside go by. Small, dusty, farming villages with their adjoining rice fields, vegetable patches and banana trees alternate with large chunks of forest spilling down to the roadside from the wild, green mountains. Encroachment onto virgin forest is a problem as the human population of Sumatra increases and demands greater space and resources. Nevertheless this is still a haven of biodiversity and is the last refuge on earth of some of the world's largest and most majestic animals: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran orangutan (slightly different to its Bornean cousin) and Sumatran rhino are found nowhere else on earth (actually there is a small population, estimated at 25 individuals, of Sumatran rhinos in Sabah). Naturally it's difficult to get out to the places where these animals live, and a sighting is as likely as winning the lottery. Instead I decided to just go for a hike in one of Sumatra's three main national parks.

Statue of a harimau (Sumatran tiger) guarding the road that snakes through the tea plantations to the Kerinci National Park and the iconic volcano that lords over the surrounding countryside.

If you're going for a hike then you might at least set yourself a goal. I decided to make it a mountain ascent and picked the highest mountain I could find. At 3805m Mount Kerinci is not just the highest mountain in Sumatra, but also all of Indonesia outside of Papua, and it is also the country's highest volcano. The gateway to Mount Kerinci is the small town of Kersik Tua. Nestled in the middle of a high plain at some 1500m the town straggles along one side of the road, whilst tea plantations roll up to the foot of the mountain. I arrived in the late afternoon, spent some time admiring the perfect cone of the mountain I was to climb, set about finding a guesthouse and stocking up on supplies and getting an early night's sleep.

The next morning I shouldered my pared down rucksack and headed for the mountain. The morning traffic was all heading for the fields: everyone on motorbikes (usually two or three to a bike), dressed in dirty overalls, hoes lashed to the sides and some with a pesticide sprayer strapped to their backs.After missing the turn-off on several occasions (signs are not important) I finally made it to the edge of the national park, indicated by an arched gateway and the transition from fields to the welcome shadowy cool of the jungle. I didn't have a guide and was alone, neither of which is recommended, but I had researched the trail online and it sounded pretty straightforward. And true enough there was a single path and it headed inexorably upwards, initially gently, but as time wore on it became ever-steeper and required a good deal of clambering and scrambling over large tree roots and ducking under overhanging boughs. My injured palm was holding up well although I did get the odd twinge from my bruised chest, but then again it wouldn't be a challenge otherwise. The attraction of climbing a mountain in the rainforest is to see the change in vegetation as you progress ever higher. The Kerinci national park spans elevations from near sea level right to the top of Mount Kerinci, and although I cheated by starting at 40% up I still got to witness the change from dipterocarp at the lowest elevations, through shorter montane forests, ferns and brush, before that finally gave way to the bare peak. Of course I didn't see any of the big mammals, but I did get to spot some wild pigs, monkeys swinging through the treetops and lots of birdlife for which the park is internationally famous.

Kerinci's vertiginous crater, complete with smoking, sulphurous fumaroles at the bottom.

I set up camp at 3000m. At this altitude as soon as you step out of the sunlight it is noticeably chilly and the nights dip towards freezing. But that just made me pleased, as I had been carrying round my jumper, thermal layers and beanie for months now without getting to use any of them. So now I piled on the layers and felt warm and smug in my tent as those months of lugging all this equipment around finally came to fruition. I went to bed with the sun and awoke, after a fitful sleep interrupted by mice scrabbling at my tent, around 2am to make the ascent in time for the sunrise. The final few hundred metres were tough. The volcanic cone got steeper, the vegetation finally gave up to be replaced by deep gullies of loose, fine scree that had less grip than a carpet of ball bearings. But after an hour and a half of scrambling (and being thankful for my gloves) I suddenly found myself on the lip of the crater, which dropped vertically away to the bubbling magma lake and smoking fumaroles below. The volcano was pretty inactive (relatively speaking, as it erupted as recently as 2009) but the sulphur fumes were still unpleasant and stung my lungs. So after only a brief stay at the summit to view the sunrise, take some photos and watch the perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain chase off towards the Indian ocean I turned tail and headed back down.

The descent, at least the initial part, proved even more difficult than the ascent. When going up and leaning against the ground a slip is inconsequential; coming down it can be potentially very serious, and so you have to be extra cautious. After a couple of hours I made it to the path, caked in sulphurous dust kicked up by the brittle, volcanic rock. The rest was an easy stroll down to the park entrance. Sometimes it is important to just have some time to onesself and my trek provided the perfect opportunity. Apart from the animals I only saw one group of people in the whole time I was there, a party of botanists and forestry officials who were on the hunt for a plant that only grows in the park that is thought to have promising anti-cancer properties. They were on a mission to find it and take some specimens back in order to further propagate them. A fitting reminder that there is still much we don't know about our world and yet it is disappearing before we have a chance to even discover and document it.

Kerinci's perfectly triangular shadow stretching out west towards the horizon.

Now, a day later my legs are hurting (and I am once again asking myself why I bother climbing mountains when I always end up feeling it afterwards) and I'm looking forward to a more sedate, cultural diet of cities and ruins.

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