Sumatra is where spice traders and Islam first anchored after passage from India, and later, from Europe. The soil is not especially good for farming, although many volcanoes exist here. But there are still some verdant jungles and wondrous gatherings of wildlife that in most regions is seriously endangered. Sumatra is one of the world’s last frontiers (so they say) – an island of lush tropical rain forests (well they are quickly diminishing), extraordinary flora and fauna, and active volcanoes. Home of the Sumatran tiger (unfortunately very few), elephants, rhinos and orangutans, as well as a host of diverse ethnic groups. It is the third largest island of Indonesia and the fifth largest in the world (roughly the size of Spain) Vastly rich in natural resources, over half of the country’s exports come from the treasure trove of Sumatra’s bounty of oil, natural gas, hardwood, rubber, palm oil, coffee, tea and sugar. Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
South Sumatra is made up of the provinces of Lampung, Bengkulu, Jambi and the Riau Archipelago. Nearly all of Jambi and the eastern two thirds of Lampung are made up of broad alluvial lowlands no more then thirty meters above sea level. Numerous meandering rivers, including Sungai Batanghari, navigable for nearly 500 km inland, and the Musi, Sumatra’s longest river, drain the entire area. Western Lampung province is mountainous, rising to volcanic peaks of more then 3000 meters before dropping sharply to the Indian Ocean at the former British colonial outpost of Bengkulu. Trekking @ Gunung Dempo Sumatra
The British founded the seaport town of Bengkulu formerly known as Bencoolen, in 1685. Benteng Marlborough was constructed in 1762 as a castle with a gatehouse that contains old gravestones with English inscriptions. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who later founded Singapore, was lieutenant governor of Bengkulu from 1818 to 1823. He introduced coffee and sugar cultivation, established schools and fought a royal decision to hand control of Sumatra over to the Dutch in 1824. His scientific zeal (as first president of the Zoological Society of London) led to the naming of the giant Rafflesia flower in his honor. The flower can be found in the Dendam Taksuda Botanical Gardens. Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
The sad reality
So far the introduction to South Sumatra sounded like the text from a guidebook and just the way travelers would like to see the place. Vast rainforests, Tigers, Elephants, Orangutans, Rhinos, beaches, turtles…etc. Reality unfortunately is very different. This was my third visit to Sumatra, and each visit brought me into seriously remote areas of this vast island. The only sign that very few tigers still exist in the wild were day old foot prints up on Gunung Kemiri within the Leuser National park. Forests, well yes, you still see them on mostly steep and difficult accessible hillsides. For example on Gunung Dempo tea plantations reach as high as 1900 meters. Wherever we traveled on this latest trip we witnessed more chopping of rainforest, to make space for more coffee, teas or vegetable plantations. There are simply too many people that search for ways to earn a daily meal. Trekking @ Gunung Dempo
As throughout Indonesia on most volcanoes and mountain ranges we often find it eerie to hear how totally silent these isolated forests are. Often not even a bird can be heard. The only signs of wild life we seem to come across are earth movements and holes dug by wild boars, a creature that was introduced by the early settlers and now thrives well in all forest throughout the country. During our last stop on our return trail from Gunung Patah, in the house of a coffee grower, we met a hunter who showed us proudly on his hand phone a video that showed the brutal hunt of a deer. His pet strangely enough was not a dog but a bird in a small cage, which he takes on all his forest searches. Feeling sorry for this beautiful looking black bird in this tiny cage I actually wanted to buy the bird and release them back to where he belongs. Consequently I took Rp.50’000 (US$ 6 is roughly the daily income of a worker per day) from my pocket with the hope that the poacher would happily agree to this deal. He then explained that this particular bird is with him for years and if I wish to purchase the same one from the wild, then it would cost me roughly 10 times so much. Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
The entire trail is actually straightforward without major obstacles. There are two sections of each about 20 meters after “shelter two” that are very steep and require extra care. Especially after frequent down pours the muddy trail can be super slippery. A reasonably fit hiker will make it to the campsite below the summit in less than three hours. Tugu Rimau (1820 meters), the starting point is actually a very popular tourist attraction, especially during weekends and holidays when people venture into this higher altitude to enjoy the cool mountain air. It seems to be compulsory for these visitors to bring with them a meal box and plenty of plastic that they then naturally forget to bring home. Litter everywhere. The road up from Pagar Alam through the massive tea plantation has to be the best maintained plantation road anywhere in Indonesia. Rent a motorbike in Pagar Alam for two days, as this is definitely the easiest and most convenient way to reach the starting point of the trail.
At the end of the road, at the car park it is compulsory to register with the authority. The friendly gatekeeper is also a good source of accurate information, which always comes in handy. There is also a small Warung that serves several simple but delicious snacks; you must order the grilled corn together with a delicious cup of local tea. Be prepared to wait, as the fire where he cooks is rather small and the queue of costumers mostly rather long. Just as on so many other volcanoes I would divide the trail into three sections. Trekking @ Gunung Dempo
Section 1 of Gunung Dempo – The gentle ascent
With the departure from the car park you will immediately enter a relatively healthy forest where the trek ascends at a comfortably slope. For the first 20 minutes you will notice how civilization keeps creeping higher and higher into this remoteness as there seem to be many large trees missing. Within 45 minutes you will reach the first Pos, which offers plenty of space for a comfortable rest. Unfortunately this and all other rest points including the campsite on the summit are littered with an amazing amount of rubbish, which is a real shame. Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
Section 2 of Gunung Dempo – Steep and littered with roots
Shortly after departing from Pos one the trail gets noticeable steeper and with it the fun really starts. A healthy forest means lots of large trees, which obviously have lots of large roots that often create up to three meters high steps. These roots will now be your companion on the way up and assist with additional and most helpful grip especially on the way down. This section is steep which allows you to make good progress, for the simple fact that you can fully utilize the strength of your arms to pull you up from one root to the next. The going here is different and actually most enjoyable, especially if you are fortunate enough to listen to the orchestra of Gibbons in the treetops. On the way down we had the feeling that these great monkeys played games with us and were following us at a safe distance for perhaps one hour. Despite the fact that we remained as quiet as possible we never got a glimpse of even one single monkey. Within a comfortable hour you should reach “Shelter 2” which again is just a relatively flat rest area in the woods. There is even a water source nearby. Trekking @ Gunung Dempo
Section 3 of Gunung Dempo – A challenge with some views
At this high altitude the forest finally opens up in several sections allowing some great views of the surrounding. The trail maintains its steepness and the roots will be all the way with you almost to the very top. Shortly after “Shelter two” you need to conquer perhaps the trickiest and definitely the steepest of all sections. Here it is worth having a good look ahead before you enter this flank. Additional ropes will assist you with extra hold and safety. However we advise to rely mainly on the many roots for hold and not to trust the nylon strings. Again this is not a major hurdle and within five minutes you should be safely out on your way towards the first false summit, which you will reach within 30 minutes. The final 15 minutes is no longer that steep allowing you to make fast progress. Once you reach the edge of the crater, (3045 meters) still densely forested, the trail follows the ridge straight ahead for a few hundred meters.
Within a few minutes you will reach a junction where the trail meets a second path that starts at Kampung Empat. This second trail starts at an altitude of 1400 meters and with it will take a good hour longer to reach the summit.
Shortly after this junction the trail descends for 50 meters altitude into the actual crater of Gunung Dempo, which you will reach within 10 minutes. Definitely one of the best campsites at this high altitude anywhere in Indonesia. Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
The perfect campsite on Gunung Dempo
There would be space for 100 hikers to camp comfortably, and allowing plenty of privacy. As the site is within the caldera the area is protected from the often-torrential winds that are freezing cold at this altitude. There is a permanent stream (Telaga Putri) of crystal clean water emerging from a deep small valley less then 100 meters away. The water tastes lightly sulfuric and as such it is advised to boil the water first before drinking. We highly recommend to spend a night on this great mountain, as this will give you a chance to enjoy a hopefully great sun set and then the following morning an even better sun rise.
From your camp it will take only about 25 minutes to reach the actual highest point of Dempo.. There are several paths that lead towards the summit; take any one as they all end up at the same place. The final 150 meters of altitude ascent is actually the easiest part of the entire trek. Not too steep or rocky but on solid soil making good progress possible. Just like on any other mountain or volcano it is special to reach the summit, for the simple reason that after hours of hard work you finally get a chance to see the other side of the mountain. It is the other side of Gunung Dempo that is very special. Volcanic landscape at its very best with an almost vertical drop, perhaps 150 meters down into a grey-green crater lake. Sparsely vegetated in the center, but surrounded in the distance by thick forest. It does not appear to be possible to actually surround the caldera of this relatively young crater rim. Once you ridge the edge of the rim then it is a short, perhaps 250-meter stroll to the actual highest point of Dempo. Bring with you plenty of warm clothes, sit back and enjoy the endless glorious views in every direction. Once again all the hard work and memories from a strenuous ascent are forgotten, and looking at all the mountains in the surroundings one starts to question which one will be next.
What a privilege to live on such a wonderful planet.
Hiking @ Gunung Dempo
Summary of Gunung Dempo
- Elevation: 3178 meters
- Summit: -4.00924,103.07672
- Starting point car park -4.01484, 103.09275
- Camp site -4.01356, 103.07790
- Location: South Sumatra 150 km east of Bengkulu
- Difficult grade 2-3: Relatively easy. A total of 1200 meters altitude to gain means a good three hour hike for a reasonable fit person
- Physical challenge 2: Straight forward. The first 1/3 or 45 minutes are comfortably steep. Then the rest of the trek is just like any other volcano climb within high mountain forest. Lots of trees of course have lots of exposed roots, which will greatly assist you on the way up and especially on the way down. There are two slightly more challenging sections of about 20 meters after shelter two, that require extra attention and concentration. Some permanently installed ropes will assist you for additional safety.
- Hiking time: 3 hours up and a little quicker on the way down.
- Water source: Available at “Shelter 2” and on the summit. 1½ liters should be sufficient.
- Guide: Not essential
- Permit: Required. You need to register at the car park starting point. Please do register for your own safety. As on any other mountain, weather conditions are difficult to predict, especially in the South of Sumatra, and accidents can occur very quickly. Once you register you can be certain that someone will look for you if you do not return in time.
- Transport: This time we decided to hire motorbikes which for obvious reasons makes traveling independently rather easy. We rented the bikes at Benkulu airport. Do not expect a well-maintained bike, but be happy if the bike is in reasonable good condition. Cost per day between US$6-US$8. Please note that all time indications are given when riding a bike. Should you travel by car or bus then one needs to add at least 50% more time.
- Bengkulu – Kehehagian 65 km 1 ½ hours. The last 20 km of the road across the hills was in rather bad condition (July 21, 2012). Beware of a lot of road works. Due to bad weather we traveled this part in the dark in a torrential tropical down pour, which was an adventure on its own.
- Kebehagian – Pagar Alam 140 km 3 ½ hours.
- Caution: Many various sources warned us not to travel this very scenic stretch at night, as apparently a lot of criminals launch frequent attacks on vehicles, trucks and motorbikes. Especial bike riders are frequently forced to stop, then knocked out and robbed. Obviously something nobody wants to experience on a hiking adventure.
- Pagar Alam – Starting point 20 km 1 hour. Magnificent ride up thousands of hectares of tea plantations. the best in Indonesia
- In Pagar Alam watch out for road signs to Gunung Dempo. The moment you ride out of Pagar Alam you will slowly make your way up to the starting point passed thousands of hectares of tea plantations. This was without a question the best maintained road across any plantation in the whole of Indonesia.
- Accommodations: Plentiful available in Kebehagian (Hotel Mutiaria is cheap and very clean) and Pagar Alam.
- Trekking @ Gunung Dempo