Anchored tenuously in the deep Indian Ocean, this giant island is still as wild and unpredictable as the Victorian-era jungle-seekers dreamed. Millennia of chaos erupting from the earth’s toxic core or from the fierce ocean waves create and destroy in equal measure. When the earth and sea remain still, the past’s death and destruction fertilise a verdant future. The rugged mountains and fertile valleys are fed by near-constant rains, colouring the jungles of the Mentawai Islands and the rice terraces of Bukittinggi many shades of green.
Don’t come looking for a holiday, that’s Bali, or empire builders, that’s Java. Sumatra is an adventure, the kind of demanding ride that requires a dusty knapsack and tough travelling skin. Climb up the smoking volcano craters that ring the hill town of Berastagi, slog through muddy jungle paths and spot a wild orang-utan high up in the canopy at Bukit Lawang, or scuba dive through a sculpted underwater landscape at Pulau Weh. Endure the Sumatran spin cycle and earn your rest amid a picturesque volcanic lake at Danau Maninjau, where you can slip into the morning mist and swim through the land before time.Sumatra is still visibly diverse, with more than 52 tribal languages and the full spectrum of societal organisation. In a few remaining pockets, hunter-gatherer tribes collaborate with the jungle for survival. Other tribes have sewn together the expectations of the outside world with their own customs. The Bataks of Danau Toba; the matrilineal Minangkabau of West Sumatra – each bus ride will deliver you to another tribal heartland.
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Best places to stay in Sumatra
Though not a great distance from the mainland, the Mentawai Islands and its people were kept isolated until the 19th century by strong winds, unpredictable currents and razor-sharp corals.
Exploring southern Sumatra
When a destination is as big and sprawling as Sumatra – the planet’s sixth largest island – there’s a wealth of exotic and challenging experiences for intrepid travellers...
If you've ever dreamt about having a tropical island entirely to yourself, complete with palm trees, powdery white beaches and gin-clear waters, the Banyak Islands are a great place to fulfil your Robinson Crusoe fantasy. A cluster of 99 mostly uninhabited islands, the Banyak (Many) Islands are situated about 30km west of Singkil.
Indonesia - Sumatra (Chapter)
An island of extraordinary beauty, Sumatra is home to steaming volcanoes, wildlife-filled jungles and idyllic deserted beaches. Its people are a spicy broth of mixed cultures, unified by their love of the wild and wondrous land.
Heading east from Bukittinggi takes you through the tapioca-growing area of Piladang, famous for keropok (tapioca crackers), and the sprawling agricultural centre of Payakumbuh. Of Minangkabau’s three clans, this is the territory of the 50 Kota (50 Villages) yellow branch. Paddies and daydreaming buffalos flank the narrow road that leads to the tiny village of Harau.
Top 5 Indonesian jungles to hang with orang-utans
There are pockets of vast forest filled with wild and wonderful creatures unique to Indonesia. It's not just the orang-utans that hide in these forests; untapped territories reveal unheard of flora and fauna every day. Gibbons hang from forest canopies, thousands of species of birds nest in the trees...
A tiny tropical rock off the tip of Sumatra, Pulau Weh is a small slice of peaceful living that rewards travellers who've journeyed up through the turbulent greater mainland below. After you've hiked around the mainland's jungles, volcanoes and lakes, it's time to jump into the languid waters of the Indian Ocean.
The main tourist centre of the national park, Ketambe (also called Gurah) is a bus stop, a handful of guesthouses and, well, that’s about the lot really.
Highlights of Sumatra
If the only thing you think of when you hear “Sumatra” is “coffee,” then we need to have a chat. If you’re looking to plunge right into a nature-filled adventure with orangutans aplenty, here’s where you’ll want to be for two weeks of city touring, hiking, and having a great time bonding with your fellow travellers.
Danau Toba has been part of traveller folklore for decades. This grand ocean-blue lake, found high up among Sumatra's volcanic peaks, is where the amiable Christian Batak people reside.
To escape from the infernal heat of sea-level Medan, the colonial Dutch traders climbed high into the lush, cool, volcanic hills. They took one look at the stunningly verdant, undulating landscape and decided to build a rural retreat where Berastagi (also called Brastagi) now stands.
The first glimpse of this perfectly formed volcanic lake sucks your breath away as your dilapidated bus lurches over the caldera lip and hurtles towards the first of the 44 (yep, they’re numbered) hairpin bends down to the lakeshore.
Danau Toba Festival
The week-long Danau Toba Festival is held every year in mid-June. Canoe races are a highlight of the festival, but there are also Batak cultural performances.
Lost in the depths of the Sumatran jungle is this sweet little tourist town built around the popularity of its orangutan-viewing centre. But Bukit Lawang has much more to offer beyond our red-haired cousins.