The third largest and westernmost island in the Indonesian archipelago, Sumatra is a grab bag of sprawling cities, traditional villages, cultural diversity, religious conservatism, immense natural beauty and exotic wildlife; all perched on one of the most seismically dangerous places on earth.
It’s a place that baffles and beguiles all who visit. Marco Polo spent five months on Sumatra in 1292 waiting for the monsoon winds to change and wrote extensively about the place. In summing up Polo’s observations, historian Paul Lunde stated “he conveys a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for this world in which “everything is different” – a phrase he repeats frequently.”
Sumatra has a long history of foreign visitors, courtesy of its relative proximity to the Malay Peninsula, a bridge to China, the Bay of Bengal nations including India and the Arabian Peninsula. It’s widely accepted that Islam first arrived in Indonesia via Sumatra, having been introduced by Arab and Indian traders as early as the 6th century, at a time when various Sumatran kingdoms were already flirting with Buddhism courtesy of Chinese traders.
The “Asian Marco Polo” Ibn Battuta from Tangiers, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest travellers visited 32 years after his Venetian predecessor. By the late 15th century, European explorers were on the scene trying to pin point the location of the fabled Spice Islands. They left Sumatra empty handed due to the poor, swampy lowland soils and none dared venture into the mountainous interior where cannibals and strange, mystical creatures lurked.
Sumatra’s landscape is dominated by the jungle clad Barisan Mountain range which spans the entire length of the island along its west side. It’s the emergence of the Sunda Volcanic Arc, a hotbed of subterranean activity that has endowed Sumatra with no less than 35 active volcanoes, a rugged topography of dramatic peaks, crater lakes, deep valleys, canyons, waterfalls, hot springs and caves and exceptionally fertile highlands.
Despite intensive pressure from deforestation, much of the range remains clad with dense primary jungle which is the last refuge for some of the world’s most exotic wildlife such as the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran elephant, leopard cat, golden cat and the Sumatran serow, a species of goat-antelope. Primate species dominate though, among them the ever popular Sumatran orangutan, the Siamang, the largest of the gibbon family, slow loris and Thomas Leaf monkeys just to name a few.
Some of the islands flora is just as exotic; the world’s two largest and rarest flowering plants, the Rafflesia arnoldi and the Titan arum, so called “Corpse plants” due to their foul smell, and the pretty Javanese edelweiss which only grows high on volcanic slopes.
The Gunung Leuser National Park and Kerinci Seblat National Park both straddle the mountain range and have been designated UNESCO World Heritage status in recognition of the their extraordinarily rich biodiversity. The former is home to the famous Bukit Lawang Orangutan Conservation Centre where up-close orangutan encounters are guaranteed. The latter is recognised by the Global Tiger Initiative as one of the 12 most important protected areas in the world for tiger conservation.
Needless to say, Sumatra is a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise but you have to work for it. Sightings of the more exotic species are rare and your best chance is to take a trekking adventure deep into the jungle. Whilst you’ve got your hiking boots on, be sure to climb at least one of Sumatra’s lofty peaks. There are many to choose from and they all have their own appeal. Mt Dempo and Mt Kerinci are the highest among the Barisan peaks, Mt Kaba or Mt Sibayak two of the most active whilst camping on the shores of Mt Tujuh’s gorgeous crater lake wins it for peaceful serenity.
On the subject of crater lakes, no visit to Sumatra would be complete without setting eyes on Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world created during a super volcanic eruption regarded as the largest known explosive eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years. These days the tranquil lake is a popular resort area abounding with natural attractions, Batak traditional villages and water sports.
The Great Sumatran Fault runs parallel to the Barisan Mountains and the west coast of Sumatra. It emerges as a long chain of gorgeous tropical islands with some of the best preserved traditional villages and ancient stone monoliths such as on Nias Island, an abundance of sandy beaches and world class surf generated by Indian Ocean swells.
Many of the islands and the exposed part of Sumatra’s northwest coast, particularly in Aceh, suffered terribly from the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami which killed an estimated 170,000 Sumatran’s and wiped out entire communities. Whilst the physical scars have all but healed, the disaster is deeply imprinted on the Sumatran psyche. It is a testament to the islander’s resilience that life has all but returned to normal, albeit with an underlying nervousness. Nonetheless, travellers can expect a genuinely warm welcome served up with a healthy dose of smiles and an unforgettable holiday adventure.