After purchasing our entry tickets at the Kerinci Seblat National Park office and signing our names into the ledger, Akindo, Rangga, and I drove the final few minutes through farmlands of coffee, cabbage, and cinnamon until we reached Pintu Rimba – the gateway to the rainforest, positioned at 1809m above sea level. Up until this point, the morning had been shrouded in fog, with Mt. Kerinci completely invisible behind the clouds. I was a little concerned we were in for a wet and slippery trek, but as we reached the forest’s edge, Indonesia’s highest volcano finally emerged from the mist, with the morning sun shining brightly all around.
Not long after trekking into the jungle, we saw a troop of Sumatran Surili (Presbytis melalophos melalophos) having their breakfast in the trees above. Endemic to only this part of Sumatra, this species of leaf monkey is by far the most common primate at this high elevation. Notice how the beautiful cinnamon color of the adults contrasts dramatically with the pure snow-white color of their infants.
From the trailhead, we reached the rest area of Pos 1 Bangku Panjang (1890m asl) after only fifteen minutes, and then Pos 2 (2010m asl) after a further 30 minutes of easy trekking. Pos 2 is also known as Batu Lumut, or “Mossy Stones,” for the mostly dry and rocky riverbed down the hill to the left. I highly recommend taking a short stroll up and down the river for beautiful views on the south end, to a small waterfall on the north end. The colorful volcanic debris and water-carved boulders along the way, with the jungle canopy hanging overhead, make for a visually enchanting detour.
One of the best things about the Mt. Kerinci trek compared to other more crowded volcanoes in Indonesia, such as Mt. Rinjani on Lombok or Mt. Bromo on Java, is the beautiful rainforest on its slopes, and the abundant wildlife living within. Just a few weeks before my climb, Akindo had even heard the loud “aum” call of a tiger nearby, and a few trekkers had reported spotting it! Birdwatchers from all over the world come to try to spot famous Sumatran endemics like Salvadori’s Pheasant, Schneider’s Pitta, and Sumatran Cochoa. Siamang gibbons are also very frequently seen, with their haunting songs echoing through the jungle every morning.
The roughly fifty minute trek from Pos 2 to Pos 3 Pondok Panorama (2225m asl) sees the trail start to get a little steeper, although there are still some stretches of relatively level walking. From Pos 3 to Shelter 1 (2505m asl) however, the level sections of the trek are mostly a thing of the past. Reaching this first main campsite after a little more than an hour, we break for lunch.
The trek from Shelter 1 to Shelter 2 (3056m) is by far the longest leg of the climb, taking us a little more than three hours. The landscape begins to change dramatically from the larger trees and tighter canopy of the lower elevations to a bit sparser foliage and more stunted growth. Ever thicker layers of moss grow on rocks and tree trunks, with old man’s beard lichen hanging from branches in long strands. Low-hanging clouds, which have come and gone throughout the hike, now have permanently closed in around us. The temperature continues to drop the higher we go. Even at this altitude though, birds continue to chirp around us, and we even spot a group of six Wreathed hornbills flying low overhead, their loud wing beats alerting us to their presence before we see them.
Akindo, having climbed the volcano many times before, can sense that we won’t beat the afternoon rains by the time we reach the more commonly used campsite at Shelter 3, so we decide to make camp at Shelter 2, which, as it’s still below the tree line, is a bit more sheltered from the elements. It’s a good decision – no sooner has the tent been pulled out and partially set up does it start pouring down buckets. Eventually it eases off enough to let us finish setting up the tent and have some dinner. We turn in for the night.
It’s an early start in the dark at 2:30am the next morning. We eat a quick breakfast and enjoy a hot cup of Sumatran coffee – especially good in the cold mountain air, with the temperatures only around 5°C. With the lack of sleep and low oxygen at this elevation, combined with yesterday’s activities, it’s a slog from Shelter 2 to Shelter 3. Our headlamps are invaluable at this stage, as we hoist ourselves up by roots and duck under low hanging branches, climbing through deep channels etched out of the mountain by runoff. After a strenuous hour and fifteen minutes, we arrive above the treeline and to Shelter 3 (3300m asl).
As we continue our journey towards the summit, it starts to become clear that the volcanic fumes coming out of Mt. Kerinci this morning are more than is typical. The higher we go, the stronger the smell of sulphur becomes. Again, thanks to Akindo’s invaluable experience, we decide that going on would be foolhardy at this point. Despite his strong warnings, a few other climbers without guides try to continue higher to the summit – we find out later that they experienced some extreme headaches, and even vomiting due to the dangerous fumes. One of the many reasons it’s important to take an experienced guide on an active volcano!
For us, we decide to wait it out where we are at roughly 200m from the summit – but it just seems to get worse as time goes on. A bit disappointed, we decide to head lower by a couple hundred meters to where the air is fresher, but where we can still get incredible views of the sunrise.
It’s more than enough to lift our spirits.
As the world returns to color and light, we finally can get a taste of just how high we are. The layer of clouds below us seems impossibly far away as we tower over every other mountain and volcano as far as the eye can see – this truly is the roof of Sumatra. We can easily see the Indian ocean more than 50km away, and Gunung Masurai rising through the clouds over 100km in the distance. The nearby lake of Gunung Tujuh, a fantastic jungle trek in itself, glistens in the sun far below at 1995m asl. All the struggle and soreness to get to this point was more than worth it. We spend at least an hour just soaking in the majesty of it all.
Even at this height, above the tree line but just below the barren moonscape a little closer to the summit, I’m amazed to see all the colorful shrubs and even flowers bursting from the ashy, scree-covered earth.
Eventually pulling ourselves away from the sublime views, we begin our trek down the volcano. It’s of course much faster than going up!