Trekking Tour in Mentawai? Check out this Video Guide to Siberut Culture

by Glenn Reeves

There’s plenty of videos out there about Mentawai these days, mainly about surfing. That’s no surprise since surfers make up the overwhelming majority of foreign visitors to the islands.

There’s also a good deal of video and fim-making relating to the Mentawai cultural ‘hot zone’, namely a couple of river valleys in South Siberut.

mentawai culture trekking in siberut

The three main cultural variations in South Siberut

If you are someone who may actually contemplate heading over this way to trek into the jungle to check these folk out yourself, though, none of these are very much help. You’ll be largely on your own in that regard. It’s a great adventure  and character-building anyway so no big deal there. Still it would be nice to be able to get a bit more of an idea of the lay of the land. Even if you’re with a trekking tour group, there’s a lot in this video that they won’t tell you.

The edit I’m featuring here is one of the best introductions to “Mentawai” culture ie. the culture of South Siberut. It gets beyond the garden-of-eden, great cinematography angle that excessively romanticizes the people here. And since it is about the village of Madobag right in the center of the ‘hot zone’ which many of the trekking tours pass through on their way to somewhere else,  it’s a lot more helpful. The area is known locally as the Sarereiket or Rereiket for short. (It means “rainy place” which is absolutely true so be prepared!)

A recent example of this garden-of-eden approach would be Cale Glendening’s The Mentawai. It consists of great takes of “tribal” people doing what tribal people do. However, for one thing you don’t learn about the actual location. For another their lives are made up so much more than what is depicted in this movie.

mentawai culture for trekkers

Most people  wear T-shirts and shorts not the “traditional” garb mostly associated with this area

You get a better feel for that life in Hairil Saleh’s The Soul of Arat Sabulungan (at the bottom of the post). Its focus not simply on arat Matawe or ‘Mentawai culture” as this would be rendered in English. I have elsewhere indicated where the usage “Mentawai” came from. It is a word imposed from outside but one which has been incorporated into how the local people see themselves. Instead the focus is on how the local people think about their own local culture on their own terms.

Still, it is not perfect. It does buy into this age-old notion of fragile cultures right on the very edge of the precipice and you’d better trek your little legs on over there asap before they are relegated to history by progress. I have my own views on just how accurate that view is.

There are also several inaccuracies particularly in relation to social structure. In my articles that deal directly with this village society I point out the base structure that exists there: Suku, Uma and uma faction. This is essential to understanding what an “uma” actually is and what it is used for (you’ll know why I said that when you view the video).

It’s good to see some familiar faces, particularly Mikael Samwonwot whose English is not bad and twenty years ago was doing ok directly guiding foreign tourists along the standard trekking tour routes through the hills around Madobag.

If you head to South Siberut as an independent tourist or trekker, and you can make it past the “gatekeepers” to the interior in Muara Siberut (locally born Minangkabau originally from West Sumatra), then link up with Mikael. His English is great and he’s a pretty good guy, although I think he still owes me a half-dozen tegge (machete) blades (OI…Mikhael…lol) I gave him for safekeeping once.

Make sure you bring plenty of money! These folk charge like wounded bulls. The only way around that is if you are there for any length of time, measured in years. Then there are ways around that issue.

If I’m not mistaken I also see Sikebbukatku, sibajak Salolosit whom I cured of a leg abcess when the Sikerei’s pabete (curing ritual) did not work. Or rather, they chose to use concurrent methods such as anitbiotics since most of the folk here know that if you get sick you’d better get your ass down to Monga (Muara Siberut) as fast as you can to the clinic there.

To be fair, the film shoot took place over the course of some 10 days or so. That’s hardly any time at all to work out just what is what in this part of the world. If you ask the standard questions, you’ll get the standard answers which is something else to remember if you go trekking into this area.

And if you did actually do this you’d hardly be the first. I remember a young Australian guy that lived up at Attabai during 1992 with nothing but a pair of shorts. He went completely native, and lived to tell the tale…as far as I know. Other adventurer-scholars have not been so lucky. But all this is a story for another day.

Stay tuned.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rahul Ranjan October 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm

A very nice peace of information given here. The article and snaps remind me the days when I was in Sunderban. That was my first ever tour in any wildlife destination. It is a blog on trekking but it is reminding me a wildlife destination because the culture of these is somewhat simile. Now after reading your blog, I want to experience the destination as well. Please provide me full details how can I go there and which is the best time?

Reply

Glenn October 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Thanks for your comment Rahul. Sunderban looks fantastic and with the tigers I daresay a more “edgy” experience. Wonderful stuff. The best time to trek in Siberut is the dry season. Or rather, when it is relatively dryer which is May to October. July and August are probably the months to target. As for getting there, the departure point is Padang. Catch the public ferry to Murara Siberut and organize a guide there. Be prepared to have plenty of cash and do bargain for a guide–try not to be pushed into making a deal with the first person who approaches you. There will be several people to choose from although you’ll probably find someone will attach themselves to you the morning you arrive at Muara Siberut (the ferry goes overnight). If you would rather have something a little more structured, Delvino Sabolak in Padang will help you out. He’s a Siberut local with good English and an all-round nice guy. Hope this helps.

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Gila May 28, 2013 at 3:52 am

Hello Glenn,
Pleased to come across your site today as I was searching for Mentawai info. Lots of it here. Loved watching this video, hearing their voices….. took me back to my short, but life altering time there, in 1992.

I’m in the process of compiling more, but I do have a few photos/tales posted on flickr if you’re interested.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gilamosaics/sets/72157612730092276/with/8848998486/

Kindest regards Gila

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Glenn Reeves May 28, 2013 at 9:28 am

Hey Gila, That looks like the, literally, world-famous Tarason of the Sakalio group in your photos. I think we might have crossed paths at Tarason’s house around that time. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

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Gila June 2, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Hi Glenn, thanks for your reply!

Funny, after writing to you the other day, I got out my journal & found an entry from October 15, 1992 in which I wrote,
“… 2 days ago I was about to sit down to write when Glen, the anthropologist from Australia, came by with a guy from Modobak. We sat & talked for a couple of hours….actually Tarason did most of the talking . . .”

Yes, that is the lovely Tarason who I stayed with. I’m curious to know why you say he’s world famous? When was the last time you traved to Siberut? Is Tarason still alive?

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Glenn Reeves June 4, 2013 at 10:00 am

World-famous since he is one of a number of locals that appear in people’s photographs, and more recently, videos, over and over. Just as Charles Lindsey’s Keeper of the Rainforest made Situri a recognizable figure, the revolution in online media has done the same for several of the local guys from Butui and Attabai, although taken it to another level–the same faces appear again and again. The world loves its “primitives”. The last time I was there was over a decade ago just as the surfing boom was getting off the ground.

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Patrick August 7, 2013 at 3:19 am

Hello,

I’m about to look the video later today.
I”m planning to go for a 3 day trekking with my father in Siberut. We still searching for a guide with small motorboat (canoe). Do you have any suggestions/info?

Best regards,

Patrick

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Glenn Reeves August 7, 2013 at 2:26 pm

No shortage of those guys in Muara Siberut. They’ll often nail you as you arrive on the overnight ferry from Padang as you anchor offshore. There’s a guy, Imas, that I used to use occasionally. Saruddin the hotel owner (if that’s still there or he’s still around) will hook you up. Anyways, should not be a problem. I hear there’s a paved road out to Matotonan these days. If that’s true, hardly any need for a boat any more. Major infrastructural change if true.

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Emily October 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Hey! Thanks for all the information! I am looking into organizing a trekking tour to mentawais because I’m currently living in Bali. Do you know about how much is a good price to pay for a guide with 4 or 5 people? Also, how much I can plan on spending per night in a cheap place? Just so I can be prepared as to how much the trip will cost? Thank you! I’m excited!

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Glenn Reeves October 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Hop across to http://www.mentawaisurftravel.com , Emily. Delvinus used to run these sorts of trekking tours, and still does occasionally if I’ve got it right. He focusses on surf tours these days but is sure to set you in the right direction.

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Emily October 14, 2013 at 10:51 am

Thanks for getting back to me! Would you say that Mentawai is dangerous and very expensive? Someone just told me that there are no restaurants or places to buy food and you have to bring all your own food and water. Ive never done anything like that so I’m a bit worried. What do you suggest to prepare for?

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Glenn Reeves October 15, 2013 at 10:31 am

Relatively expensive but no more dangerous than anywhere else in Indonesia. More tourists die in motorcycle crashes in Bali in a month than will ever die of a trekking / surfing mishap or disease in Mentawai. You need to take precautions against Malaria and make sure you drink clean water. There are little shops (kedai) here and there, even upriver in the Rereiket where I’d assume you’d be headed. You can always get a simple rice or noodle dish at these places. Of course, if you go with someone like Delvinus, no need to worry about any of that.

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kostek May 6, 2014 at 12:58 am

Hello,
In July I want to go to Siberut with friends. We want to stay 5 days in Siberut, and in this time for us import is to make a short 2-3 days trek to the Mentawai, do you think it is possible? How much it could be coast?

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Glenn Reeves May 6, 2014 at 9:32 am

Head over to Muara Siberut on the passenger ferry. You’ll hook up with someone there who can take you upriver to Ugai or Matotonan. Or get a boat around to Taileleu and hike upriver from there. Not sure of the exact costs these days, but be prepared to be pay more than what you might think is reasonable. Getting boat rides upriver is a major expense.

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