I wake up in the dark, voices of the adzan drifting on the wind from distant mosques. I quickly and quietly shower and dress, trying not to disturb my sleeping wife. Grabbing my camera and my motorbike keys, I head out the door. I have an appointment—not just with the visiting conservationist who I had promised to meet at the campsite on Bukit Tapan, but with the Sumatran rainforest herself.
The morning is a chilly 19°C, with the sun’s light just beginning to kiss the distant horizon. From my home sitting in Indonesia’s Kerinci valley at 1000 meters above sea level, I need to drive another 450 meters up into the mountains, to the campsite at the border of the Kerinci Seblat National Park, the second largest National Park in all of Southeast Asia. As I climb towards the summit, the world is engulfed in clouds.
I meet Jeff the conservationist, and Arwan our wonderful guide at the campsite. After a few days of jungle trekking, they had spent the previous evening here on the Bukit Tapan road, searching for nocturnal creatures in the dark. We enjoy a hot morning coffee under the pine trees, sharing ideas and talking about the challenges of ecotourism and conservation in general. The guide community Arwan is a part of had recently come across some serious deforestation, disrupting one of our treks, and we were all quite discouraged. While there is conservation momentum in their village, with more and more getting their livelihoods from sustainable ecotourism, is the change fast enough to counter the seemingly unstoppable march of destruction? We hoped so.
Not wanting to delay anymore, we pack up camp, beginning our drive down the other side of the mountain and into the rainforest. Reminding ourselves once again how precious and utterly worthy of saving she is.
This road on Bukit Tapan, the first road into the isolated Kerinci valley, wasn’t built until the 1920s – less than 100 years ago. The Dutch colonizers, who had only taken control of the Kerinci valley 15 years before, wanted to support the development of the massive Kayu Aro tea plantation in the north. Even now, there is only a grand total of three roads into Kerinci- one coming from Solok Selatan in the north, one coming from Bangko in the east, and this one coming from the town of Tapan in the west. Despite being the first one built, it is still the least travelled and most wild of them, weaving approximately three hours through the heavily forested, mountainous terrain of the Kerinci Seblat National Park.
There’s no question the road is both a blessing and a curse. Around the world, roads through rainforests give easy access for bird and wildlife poachers, and for people illegally encroaching. Things are no different here. It’s not too uncommon to see men with birdcages on the back of their motorbikes driving freely past the National Park boundaries, or to stumble upon them waiting for their prey hidden in camouflage along the side, contributing to the “empty forest syndrome,” so prevalent across Southeast Asia.
But, besides being a vital link to the outside world and a path for farmers to bring their crops to market, the Bukit Tapan road also provides nature lovers with by far the quickest and most convenient way to spot birds and other wildlife, and has helped inspire a new movement of local youth to become interested in birdwatching and conservation. Not to mention the local guides able to receive an income from sharing their piece of paradise with visitors from around the world. It’s encouraging to see – with more eyes like this watching the forest, and more outrage at the reduction of Indonesian bird species from the wild, hopefully things are changing, if slowly, for the better.
Thankfully this morning, we see no signs of illegal activity, and the road is relatively quiet, with only the occasional passing vehicle. And the weather is lovely. The rising sun having now melted away most of the morning fog, we enjoy epic views of the Bukit Barisan mountain range into the distance. The birds are chirping their morning songs, and we catch a very quick glimpse of an acrobatic family of Sumatran Surili leaf monkeys before they rocket into the understory.
Not too long after, we were surprised to see a solitary juvenile Siamang gibbon moving through the trees. Siamangs usually travel together in a family group, so we assume there were more further down the hill, but we only saw the one.
We take a brief detour off the road and into the forest, following a crystal clear jungle stream through the trees, until we reach a small but serene waterfall. Having discovered the nameless waterfall only a few years before, it’s almost inexplicably become one of my favorite places in Kerinci.
It’s not massive, or very tall, or particularly impressive as far as waterfalls go – but it has an understated beauty, with its lush green surroundings, and the gentle, steady sound of the bubbling brook. At times, just sitting still and meditating in its idyllic, lush environment, I’ve been rewarded with sights of siamang gibbons, short-tailed macaques, and an abundance of bird species oblivious to my presence as they pass through.
Continuing our walk down the road, we suddenly hear the distinctive “HOK-HAK” trumpeting of a pair of Rhinocerous hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros), followed by the loud “woosh-woosh” of their giant wings beating the air as they take flight. Hoping for a view, we quickly sprint in the direction of the raucous sounds. Catching a glimpse as they pass over the treetops, we spot one perch just briefly in branches above the road, graciously pausing long enough to give us a view of its majesty before taking off again into the rainforest below, in search of the jungle fruits within.
Further descending down the mountain, we come to a valley with a jungle river flowing at the bottom. Bursting out of the distant canopy below, a Wreathed Hornbill couple (Rhyticeros undulatus) soars across the vast open area, beautifully framed with the rainforest rising in the background.
As we reach the bridge, roughly halfway to the village of Muara Sako on the other side of the rainforest, we say our goodbyes to Jeff as he is set to continue on to the city of Padang. But before we can part ways, the jungle offers up one more gift – a mating pair of Long-tailed Broadbills (Psarisomus dalhousiae), building a nest in a nearby tree. We are in awe at their brilliant colors – particularly the electric blue on their tail and wings as they’re spread in flight. After watching them for a good long while, we finally pull ourselves away, bidding one last farewell.
Arwan and I drive back up the mountain, and onward toward Sungaipenuh, thankful for how generous the rainforest was to us today. You never know what she’ll give you on a visit, but we’ve never been disappointed.
Once out of the forest, we stop at the peak of Bukit Tapan to enjoy the epic views of the Kerinci valley. Seeing it hundreds of times, it never gets old.
A few days later, we welcomed Ella from the Little Fireface Project, a conservation non-profit working to study and safeguard slow lorises in Indonesia and other parts of the world. She was visiting as part of their Forest Protector program, bringing her to classrooms throughout Indonesia to educate on the ecology and plight of the remarkable nocturnal primates. We visited three schools over the course of a couple of days, and at the end of it all, returned again to the forests of Bukit Tapan – with the main goal of spotting a slow loris. Ella had already seen a plethora of slow lorises on Java, where she does her work, as well as on Borneo during her time there – but, despite visiting Sumatra a few times, had yet to see a slow loris on the island. Given how frequently we see them on Bukit Tapan, we had high hopes she’d get her first sighting!
Along with my close friend Hendi and his daughter, we met up with Zacky, Andi, and Rangga – all good friends part of the local guiding community. It was a party! We drove up in the late afternoon, to see what crepuscular creatures we might come across, and hopefully spot a few hornbills on their way home. We were all thrilled to catch sight of a few – Ella especially was excited, having never seen them as close as we did.
As night fell, we drove back out to the National Park border, to have dinner at a warung road-side truck stop. Rain had started to fall pretty hard, and we were all feeling pretty nervous because of the persistent landslide threat on the road. But as is often the case in the rainforest, weather conditions can change rapidly; pretty soon, the sky cleared back up and stars started to peak through the clouds. Relieved, we all piled back into the car, and drove once again into the dark forest.
Only a few meters past the national park border, we spotted this small-toothed palm civet, licking its chops after eating something in the fig tree. I would assume the figs, but as they’re omnivores that eat anything from lizards to insects to fruit, it’s hard to be sure.
The first time I came up to the Bukit Tapan road at night, it had been at the invitation of Debbie Martyr, a British tiger conservationist who has lived in Kerinci for more than twenty years. I had only been in the country for a few months, and it was an intoxicating experience. The heavy fog, the bitter black coffee from the warung where we had dinner while it rained, the wild animals we came across, and especially her stories about tigers. At the warung, the owner came up to her to report a recent tiger sighting – one had taken down a sambar deer not too far from there, and he wanted the Tiger Protection and Conservation Units to keep an eye out for anyone with bad motives. I was surprised when walking along the road with her how, if I started separating a little bit from the group as I peered into the forest, she would with some urgency remind me to stay close – even though Sumatran tigers rarely attack people, a solitary person is much more likely to fall victim. And while it’s incredibly rare to spot tigers on the road, it has happened on a few extraordinary occasions – I was even once so lucky.
But, no tigers for us tonight. Throughout the evening, the rains came and went. Whenever it got to the point that we thought perhaps we should turn back, they would slow down and stop again. Despite this, we had tremendous success – besides another civet, a few nocturnal squirrels, and some other unidentifiable eye-shine, we saw not just one, not just two, but three different slow lorises! The very last one we saw was actually outside of the national park, in agroforest getting nearer to town, close to us with unobstructed views. Ella was of course excited, and it was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of Hendi’s daughter – it was the first time she had ever seen one! It was the perfect end to another wonderful night in the rainforest.
While it may not be the most untouched of places – where one has to deal with the occasional passing car, honking truck, or landslide – the Bukit Tapan road is truly a treasure. Rarely is it possible to see so much bird and other wildlife in so short of a time, with such little effort exerted – whether a family with small children, someone with physical challenges, or a hardened backpacker. The dramatic mountain landscape swirling with clouds, the smell of the jungle air, and the creatures hiding in the underbrush and flying through the canopy, make a trip to the road an essential part of a visit to Sumatra. One just never knows what they’ll encounter up there – so come and experience it for yourself!
If you’re interested in supporting ecotourism and conservation in the rainforests of Sumatra, contact us and we can help get you set up.