My friend and photographer, John Barton, had been cooking up a plan to venture deep into the Mentawai jungle on the island of Pulau Siberut to photograph a remote tribe of Sikerei people for an upcoming book project. With a gap year coming up, John asked if I'd be interested in tagging along to keep him company. I'll be honest, there was a moment of hesitation which quickly passed and I jumped in feet first.
Now, we'd both committed roughly 6 weeks out from the planned arrival date. This allowed time for the anxieties to develop and mix with emotions of excitement and nervousness. John had organised everything; a contact to meet us, provide a boat, food supplies, guide, cook and liaised with a tribe supposedly 3 hours up river who'd allow us to stay, photograph and show us their traditional ways of living, free of modern society and relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
This was going to be a Nat Geo style adventure that both of us had been craving for a long time!
What ensued was an adventure whereby everything that could've gone wrong, went wrong, from the very outset. Everything from this point onwards was a complete roll of the dice and what we experienced was beyond anything we could've imagined and exceeded any and all preconceived expectations. An unforgettable, once in a lifetime adventure that could never be adequately depicted, though I'll do my best in this entry.
Part I. Doomed From The Very Beginning.
Two flights, an overnight stay in Padang and a 3 hour fast boat ferry lands us firmly on the docks at Muara Siberut, where we are to meet our contact, August. Bags in hand and a buzzing feeling of anticipation, August is nowhere to be seen. This will not dampen our spirits. With John's knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian, he's able to convince a local to drive us from the docks to the town, which he does in exchange for two packs of Samporo Cigarettes.
John informs me there's a saying in Indonesia "T.I.I" which stands for 'This Is Indonesia'; meaning that things rarely go to plan and the seemingly straight-forward can often be far from just that. We now need a local SIM card so we can contact August and figure out what the hell is going on. I stay put outside a small restaurant whilst John sets off in search of a sim and some answers.
An hour goes by when John finally returns, sweaty, out of breath and an interesting look on his face. He tells me, "Right, I can't get onto August. However I met two guys who helped me get a SIM card and one of them says he's the boat driver for August and isn't aware of our arrival. They said they can organise everything for us and we'll be good to go first thing in the morning". John seems trusting of these guys, though I'm more sceptical that these two are looking to make a buck off some gringo's and doubt the serendipity of the situation. Though, we came here for an adventure, agree on the details and costings, hand over too much money and prepare to set-off first thing the next morning.
The world's dingiest hotel becomes our home for the evening as we find the only Bintang beer's on the island and reflect on just how dodgily this adventure has kicked-off. No pulling out now...we're all in!
Part II. Rereiket River
After a sweaty sleep, we awake to our alarms at 5:30am to meet our guides for a 6am departure. Bags ready, bellies full of Mee Goreng and sickeningly sweet local coffee, our newly organised guides are nowhere to be seen. Two hours pass of dwindling faith in this adventure when Ricky (guide 1) shows up. We think to ourselves, "T.I.I".
In no particular hurry, Ricky sparks a Samporo, pulls up a seat, orders some food and goes about explaining how we need to pay more for food supplies and a cook. This is news to us but we're not prepared to let this stop our adventure. We hand over more Rupiah and make our way to the docks.
Our "boat" is an 18-foot canoe with an outboard engine and no more then 2 feet wide. Bags and supplies securely packed in the bow underneath a tarp, we set off with myself up front, John behind me, then Ricky and Alfonse (guide 2) captaining the 'ship', all sitting on planks of timber raised just above the water already inside the boat.
The first hour of this three-hour journey takes us through a gradually snaking river system flanked by dense coconut trees, jungle and a smattering of small villages. The river is about 40m wide, water is brown from the tropical storms and the air is thick with humidity and roughly 32 degrees. We pull up at one of the small villages to collect our cook, Mary, a 20-something year old woman who seems to be just a friend of the guides cashing in on our naivety. Nevertheless, John and my excitement levels are through the roof as we've gone from being abandoned by our initial contact to somehow organising a whole new program from scratch and are underway, snaking through the surreal jungle.
5 hours into the supposed 3 hour journey, the river narrows to between 3 and 6 meters wide. The bends become so tight they start to double back on themselves, water draws away to less than 6” deep and we find ourselves having to walk the 18ft canoe loaded with supplies most of the way.
7, 8 and 9 hours pass of jumping in, out, in, out of the canoe. Pushing it barefoot over submerged stones, logs and who knows what kind of tropical marine life. With the engine running, we might get a nice patch of 20m of turbulent forward movement, bouncing over the submerged objects, before we run dry once again and have to push once more. Under any other circumstances, going through something so far from what we'd been told would be smooth sailing, tantrums and dummy-spits would've occurred. However, the situation, our location and the unknown adventure of what lay ahead didn't dampen our spirits.
11 hours passes and it’s now pitch black. We’ve well and truly lost faith in the legitimacy of our new guides. Head torches on and covered in tropical insects, we run out of water to push the canoe any further, are utterly exhausted, have no idea where we are, who we’ve brought with us, where we’ll stay or how welcomed a pair of white guys will be in the middle of a jungle we know nothing about.
Part III. Aman Ikbuk.
What felt like an appearance out of nowhere, on the banks of the river, an intimidating figure emerged. Face, chest, arms and leg tattoos, tribal loin cloth and a hand-rolled cigar. There was some interaction between our crew and the man and we could not gage if it was positive or negative.
We were told to grab our things and follow the man into the jungle. Exhausted, feeling vulnerable and pitch black, we cautiously walked away from the safety of our boat towards a thatched structure (known as an Uma) amongst the trees.
This was like something straight out an Indiana Jones script! Palm tree carved into a staircase, entrance covered in monkey and pig skulls, blades, spears, bows, drums, carvings and the flickering of a small fire inside the dark Uma.
Looking at Johns face was like looking in the mirror; concern, exhaustion, adrenalin, fatigue and a real uneasy sense of “what the hell is going on” mixed with “this is incredible”.
With no choice but to trust the man and the situation, this turned out to be the most authentic and rewarding experience. Aman Ikbuk allowed us to throw our mozzy nets up and roll mattresses out in his home. Sleep, eat and hang out with him and his 6 children.
Aman Ikbuk took us hunting, preparing poison for the arrow tips used to hunt monkeys, explain how he moved from the village of Buttui to build his Uma for self-sufficiency and sing us traditional songs.
From uneasiness and vulnerability, to feeling overwhelmingly welcomed and fortunate to experience this level of authenticity, things were starting to become better than we could have ever imagined.
Part IV. Aman Poto.
Aman Poto was the best. Bar far my favourite Sikerei to photograph. What, with all his wrinkles, tattoos, constant exhaling of 40mg cigarette smoke, highly concerning wheezing and a cheekiness that was hard to ignore.
He appeared out of the morning fog on the river banks one morning and was instantly as interested in us as we were of him.
We never knew how old he was but there couldn’t have been much left in the tank. However, the man was an absolute character and still spent his days trekking into the jungle looking for monkey, having discussions with his mates and blazing up at every possible moment. I wish I could’ve known enough Mentawai to get the squeeze on how things were when he was in his Prime, coming up the ranks as a young Sikerei buck.
Part V. Aman Lau Lau, Aman Lepon and Aman Godoy.
This was a family of Sikerei. Aman Lau Lau, the grand father and his two sons Aman Lepon and Aman Godoy. Each of the sons had between 4-6 kids each, so their Uma was quite big, sleeping the entire family of around 16.
The floor of the Uma’s are made of large, bowed and loose floor boards which sound like an earthquake when you walk on them.
The family dynamic was strange. The men, looking very important, would sit around from dawn to dusk just smoking cigarettes and chatting. The kids would play like maniacs, running, lighting fires, swimming and bashing each other. The women were always behind the scenes, preparing meals, cleaning, looking after the kids and when they would appear, they’d remain relatively silent and never interact with the men.
In the evening, the Sikerei invited the extended family over for a celebration. Aman Lepon blew a conch shell and within minutes, 30 more family members appear from the jungle. .
2 chickens are sacrificed in front of us and the Sikerei perform 3 dances to bring them good fortune when hunting.