Sumatra - Minangkabau, orang utans and desert islands

“It is impossible to fulfil oneself in comfort, one

 gets lost in it. One is overfed and becomes apathetic – lack of challenge leads to boredom. The harder the effort the more the reward.”Jimmy McSparron, Trekking Nut

I am an expedition leader and work all over the world. I started doing this for a living in order to make the most out of life changing opportunities. Working as a guide and a fixer can teach you things that are impossible to learn elsewhere. I believe expeditions in tough environments allow people to escape from their limitations and develop skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. Participants in expeditions find a determination, drive and a self reliance that can see them through the toughest of times.  I encourage all people to get out and explore, whether it be exploring the windswept ridges Snowdonia or the jungles of Borneo, it will change you forever.

Sumatra is

 a clichéd island of mystery that those who know about it long to visit. With avariety of cultures, religions, peoples, languages and climates it really does allow you to run riot.

I first went to Sumatra at the end of 2009, in response to the massive earthquake they had in the South. There i met the Minang; an ethnic group mainly found in the district of West Sumatra (Sumatra Barat). They have a distinct language and a matriarchal/matrilineal society. This was one of the most interesting concepts I had ever come across. Not only did all material possessions pass down the female line but the women also had to buy their husbands! In the family I stayed with, the lady had purchased her husband for two cows, which was the equivalent of about 200usd.

The Minang

 explained to me the story of their origins; the story goes that the Minang people settled a war with the Javanese by having a bull fight. They told the Javanese that they would beat any bull they could put forth with a calf. They starved their calf for a long period and sharpened its small horns. Then when the fight came about they released the calf that instantly ran for the stomach of the bull, hoping to get a feed! In its desperate searching for the udders it killed the Javanese bull. This story is deeply embedded in their culture withheaddress and even houses being constructed in the shape of a bull’s horns.

After spending time getting to know the language and culture, the richness and diverse nature of the Island became ever more apparent. I had heard of some uninhabited islands off the coast a few hours drive away and wanted to try and spend New Years 2010 there. I grabbed some Javanese friends and we headed off. We hired some fishermen to take us out on their boat and drop us off on the island. You can actually see them from the coast so it was a short journey of a few hours. On arriving, the sight was breathtaking. It wasn’t possible for the boat to get right up to the island as the sea got too shallow, so we had to use the dug-out canoe the fisherman had brought and/or swim.

Diving head first into the turquoise water and having someone throw my dry bag over the side was great. I literally felt like i was in the film “The

 Beach”. We set up our hammocks and the fishermen brought us some Angel Fish that they then toasted over the driftwood bonfire. Along with a few crates of beer and a magical sunset, the night started off a treat. Even with the sun gone, the water was as warm as a bath well into the night. Midnight approached fast and I sat in the sea with my beer and watched thousands upon thousands of fireworks going off all along the coast of Sumatra in the distance. Certainly a night to remember!

The following day was spent relaxing, exploring some of the neighbouring islands and making our way back to the mainland. That evening I headed off to Medan inthe North of Sumatra. The journey was long to say the least. Twenty six hours later I arrived in a tiny jungle town called Bukit Lewang. Built on two sides of a beautiful river and minutes from a national park, this town is worth spending a few days relaxing in. It’s even possible to find hotel rooms with roofless bathrooms so that you can sit on the toilet and pray an orang-utan sails past.

There is a daily feed at the specially built platform in the national park. The park itself is only accessible by a boat that’s moved with pulleys across to the other side. A short walk later and you are already surrounded by the noisy jungle. Orang-utans and their young come down for a mug of milk and some fruit. Before anyone judges this as being more like a zoo, the Orang-utans only really show up outside of the fruit season when pickings are scarce as opposed to relying solely on the wardens. With a big toothy smile, I watched these gentle giants move effortlessly through the trees. A rustle above told me one was very close and as i glanced up, I got hit with an almighty amount of orang-utan faeces.

I was assured by the locals that this was an immense sign of good luck, however all the tourists moved to the other side of the bench and refused to come back for the rest of the morning. It is possible to arrange walks through the jungle but bear in mind that male orangutans will steal any back pack that you have on and will stalk you continuously; biding their time until you foolishly put it down.

I finished my trip by heading back to the hostel and bathing in the fast flowing waters at its side. (It took hours to get rid of the smell….)

Sumatra will always hold a special place in my heart and has more than enough to offer the intrepid traveller.

By Jimmy McSparron of Trekking Nut (

In August 2012 Secret Compass will be attempting  an epic crossing of Sumatra by bike, foot, raft and canoe. The expedition will take us from the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, travelling through jungle, rivers and swamps, and scaling Mount Sinabung, one of Sumatra’s many active

volcanoes. See   for details.