“Sumatra 2000” was a follow up to previous French expeditions to the area of Lintau Buo in West Sumatra, Indonesia. A French expedition has been going to Sumatra almost annually in the 1990’s, following the first visit in 1991. They realised there was good potential to find long river caves in the large karst areas. In 1991 and 1992 they went to Bukitinggi and Krui in West Sumatra, then in 1993 explored the Batang Sinamar area at Lintau. After the 1993 success, they returned to this area in 1995, 1996 and 1998.
The Indonesian archipelago consists of over 13,000 islands and is the world’s most expansive archipelago stretching almost 5000 km. Sumatra is a huge island which straddles the equator, lying just to the west of Malaysia and Singapore. West Sumatra, is known as Sumbar to the locals, and is known for its heavy rainfall. Unlike the densely populated island of Java, Sumatra is relatively underpopulated, but it has a lot of natural resources such as forest, oil, rubber, pepper and coffee.
Our expedition was based around Lintau which is populated by the Minangkabau people, who are Muslims. Indonesia has been suffering from a lot of bad press reports in recent years, since the economic collapse in Asia in 1998 and also because of the fighting in certain areas. But Sumbar is very safe, there is no problem there, in fact most of the areas we visited seemed quite well to do, with nice houses and no obvious signs of poverty.
There are two karst mountain ranges south of the Lintau area, Gunung Ngalau and Gunung Seribu. Our area was just to the north, around Batang Sinamar, in the plain of Lintau Buo. The limestone is permo-carboniferous, and there are some fine cone hills and towers 100 to 300 metres high. In many places the limestone ranges are bored by tunnel caves with allogenic streams. The longest of these in 1998 was Ngalau Surat, explored for 6.5km and still going.
We also looked at a karstic area near Bukitinggi,
The expedition took place in July 2000 and was the largest French expedition to date. The first members arrived in early July, and I joined them on the 7th. For me coming from Malaysia it was only a short hop across the Straits of Malacca. I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, in a small propeller plane, which took about 1½ hours. There I became an instant millionaire, as the Indonesian Rupiah stands at about RP13,000 to the £.
From Padang I took a private van to Batu Sangkar. The price was very cheap, just Rp25,000 (less than £2), which was the same price I had just paid to do the 9km from the airport by taxi. I was also told the French had done the same trip a couple of days earlier and paid Rp125,000. I thought there was a catch, but there wasn’t. The following morning I took the local bemo (bus) for the final hour’s journey to Lintau.
Lintau Buo is the name of the area, and is divided into smaller parts. Balai Tengah is the market place where the bus stopped. By this time everyone within earshot knew who I was and what I was doing as I asked for directions to Wisma Santy to meet the French. I arrived at this house at 9am, and had obviously just missed the French, and had to sit there the whole day until they showed up at 8pm for dinner. Admittedly I was 1½ days earlier than they expected me, due to my flight having been changed at the last moment.
Many of the caves in the area are superb river caves, one is 7km, another 5km etc, and most have large passages. They are also home to the sarang burung, or birds’ nests, the collection of which is a valuable industry. This gave us a few problems because we had to get permission to enter certain caves, either from the police or from the Koperasi which manages the collection. I had arrived at a bad time because the team was waiting to get a permit, and we also having a rest time having been doing some exploration prior to my arrival. So it was 3 days before I managed to get underground.
My first day with the expedition. The 9 of us set off in the local bemo towards Halaban, which is on the road to Payakumbuh. We got off somewhere on the roadside and walked to a couple of depressions that they knew about. However we only managed to find one small cave there, this was a sink taking a small stream. The entrance was a pitch which Franck bolted and went down to a second pitch which became too narrow. Total length, about 27m.
2 members went off to explore Air Lulus in the Halaban area, leaving the rest of us to go to Bukitinggi to buy provisions and look at some caves. But our transport didn’t turn up, so the landlady and I went off by motorbike to try and arrange another van. This took most of the morning, and we were only able to set off after lunch. Bukitinggi is a tourist town, accommodation there is very cheap at about 70p a night in a hotel. We then took a taxi to Baso, which is actually back on the road we had just come along to look for some caves.
Louis had managed to get some old Dutch maps dated from the 1880’s of the area, and they were remarkably accurate, and showed all the river sinks etc, so were invaluable for locating potential caves. We went to Ngalau Baso but were told we couldn’t enter it. We found out why when we walked to the entrance: a bamboo fence and locked gate surrounded the whole area, and the entrance itself was totally blocked by a concrete wall with 4 small holes for the birds, and a slit about 2m from the floor. This was my first experience of a Sumatran birds’ nest cave.
We returned to Baso and headed for Ngalau Simarasop or Dog Cave. We walked to the resurgence entrance and saw many flat-bottomed boats moored outside. They are used to collect sand from the riverbed inside the cave. We negotiated with Safrizal to take us in by boat and 6 of us set off, using our carbide lights and also a damar torch attached to a bamboo pole. The boats are about 4m long and just fit through the narrow parts between rocks. We went a distance then got out and walked and were surprised when we waded past a couple of hot water inlets. We were even more surprised later on when the guide told us in Indonesian to beware of the dogs. I thought I'd misheard, but we rounded a corner and sure enough there were 2 dogs. They and their owners guard the birds’ nests. They change shifts every day or two, so don’t have to stay underground for too long at a time.
From Dog Corner the river became deep and a swim was necessary, so just two of us went on to explore. After about 400m we came to a small cascade, and beyond it we came to an area of breakdown, with enormous boulders filling the lower half of the passage. We decided to stop here as we’d been gone quite a while, and hopefully would be able to survey the cave at a later date.
After a morning of washing and writing, 5 of us set off in the afternoon to look at an area within walking distance of the house, near the Ranting mosque. The limestone mountains form a scenic background to the green rice paddies in the valley. We started climbing up into the hills, and upon asking some rubber tappers, we were told of a 50m deep cave with a river about ½ hours walk. It was called Ngalau Kota Dalam.
Finally we did reach a small cave, but we don’t know if it was the right one, as it was only about 30m long, and were was no sign of a pitch or a river. But I did see some birds’ nests at close quarters, and was surprised as they were mossy nests, which in Malaysia don’t have much value. And I also saw the only cave racer snake of the whole expedition, it was a small one, and was neatly coiled up on top of a nest, I guess the previous occupants (the chicks) were now in the snake’s stomach.
We split into 2 teams, one to go to Bantar, and the other to Pelayangan. I chose the latter. We set off by van for Halaban, where we turned right and headed for the Batang Sinamar. We crossed the river and were able to drive quite a way before having to stop and walk. It was an hour’s walk from here to the cave.
The cave is a resurgence, but we used a high level dry entrance, where the nest collectors have a shelter or pondok. After lunch of instant noodles we set off with our guide Ujang. A steep descent to the river then a fast stomp through the water. The water was bum deep in places, although was lower than normal, as this is the dry season. Many of the water inlets had dried up. In about 3 places we had to leave the water and climb over massive mountains of boulders and other obstructions. Much of the dry area was covered with guano and the associated cave fauna such as the huge egg-eating crickets, and equally big huntsmen spiders, thousands of millipedes, and long-legged centipedes etc. To get an idea of the size of these crickets, they actually eat swiftlet eggs and young chicks.
After Bamboo Hall I made the mistake of following the guide and Franck up a veritable mountain of ancient guano. It was horrid. We reached the top and then had to descend, which was no easier. Then at the bottom we couldn’t get down the last couple of metres to the stream, so had to do a slippery traverse. The 2 guys had to hold my feet in place to get me across – it is impossible to traverse when one’s shoes are completely hidden in a parcel of gooey bird guano. Oh to be on Mendip, where there is no guano! (only Cowsh! Ed.)
Meanwhile 2 more sensible members had reached this point easily by following the stream. The 5 of us continued upstream to the second inlet which was found in 1998, and spent the rest of the day surveying this. Again we had to leave the river in several places because of the boulder obstructions, and at one point I ended up in the roof on top of a very unstable looking earth choke, which was not pleasant. Once we regained the main river passage, we stopped at 300m. We didn’t get out of the cave until about 9.30pm, had more instant noodles, and settled down for the night on the cave floor. The swiftlets were really noisy all night flying in and out.
Not much sleep with the swiftlets, and also one of the dogs that barked at every noise he heard. Breakfast of baby cereal (the French have strange eating habits, don’t know what happened to the famous French cuisine) and climbed into our smelly wet caving clothes. We headed back to the inlet and continued surveying. We went a further 200m until we were stopped at the bottom of a 10m high waterfall. It was in a very pretty chamber with beautiful formations everywhere.
I was glad of the reflective survey markers to find the way back through the chokes.
I discovered that I had had some things stolen from my bag yesterday, which we had left at the cave entrance. It must have been the nest collectors. It was only when I got home and had my films developed that I discovered that the same thief had opened my camera, and therefore ruined about 8 shots. I suppose I was lucky that he didn’t actually steal the camera.
2 guys went off alone again for an overnight trip to Air Lulus. This involved SRT and no one else wanted to accompany them. Unfortunately they were stopped by a sump. The rest of us set off for Sisawah. Firstly we had to stop at the police station at Pangian, and also bought a take away lunch in the village. Sisawah is about an hour’s drive from Balai Tengah, and is basically the southern end of the limestone massif, with Pelayangan at the northern end.
We dropped off a team of 4 who were entering Ngalau Mantu via a tributary. The rest of us drove onto Sisawah, where Louis and Anne plus a local boy Indra went to look at a cave they had found last week, leaving 3 of us to enter the resurgence of Mantu. The entrance entailed a swim, so we had a problem of where to leave our packs, as the other 2 had their large rucksacks with them. We wanted to hide them from the locals but they came in to watch so that defeated the whole object. We began surveying and I swam up to the first bend and discovered the cave finished around the corner. There was a nasty looking climb leading up to a possible hole, but we didn’t want to risk it.
We followed the water to the exit and fortunately the cave continued the other side of the wang (enclosed valley), and this time entered the main cave. Meanwhile the locals had just swarmed up and over the climb that we had refused to do. They are fearless, and cave barefoot. Inside the main cave we soon met the other 4 who had come to look for us. It was at this point that I had a close encounter… I was surveying and standing thigh deep in water when I felt something brush my bare leg (I was wearing shorts). I assumed it was the end of my belt, but when I looked down, there was a snake curling itself around my leg. I realised it wasn’t the normal cave snake, and I surprised myself at the speed I moved through the water.
The other team headed back and then started surveying out to their entrance, and we continued surveying in up to their start point. Ngalau Mantu is a really beautiful cave, not as large as Pelayangan, but with some good formations.
Another rest day. In the evening we watched the total eclipse of the moon which lasted almost 4 hours.
We finally got permission to go to Sangki. Firstly we had to go to the police station, and 2 young police boys accompanied us to Sangki. This is in the direction of Sisawah, but is slightly north. From where the van could go no further, we had an hours walk to the cave, down the steep hill to the valley, across the rice fields and up the hill to the cave. We arrived at Ngalau Ikan and found there was no key to the cave. Sounds like Mendip all over again.
One team set off for the other entrance, Ngalau Sapan Kijang. The rest of us sat and waited as we wanted to avoid the trek, and also Sapan Kijang has no water, and would be a much further route into the upper reaches of Sangki. When it became apparent the key wouldn’t arrive today, we had no choice but to follow the others. At the entrance we dumped our overnight gear, and found someone to unlock the cave for us. Apparently there was a fight here last week amongst the nest collectors, and one man was killed. Inside we soon reached the first wooden ladder installed by the nest collectors. It was only about 8-10m so we negotiated it OK, and also the 3 that followed. It reminded me of Lamb Leer.
We then entered an enormous chamber and found the other team members standing at the top of a wooden ladder. They informed us it was 70m long! It was held in place on either side by 2 hemp ropes, when a caver pulled them to test, one rope broke. The 3 who had SRT prepared to descend using their own ropes, whilst the rest of us beat a retreat and went out. We decided to return to Pos Ikan and await the key in the morning.
It was a noisy night, and a relief to get up. Everyone wanted to murder the cockerel. We discovered the wild boars had trampled the tapioca planted outside. More baby cereal for breakfast, then we had to sit and wait and wait and wait. The key was there, but there was a big discussion about the guide fee. We finally came to an agreement, and set off in 3 teams.
The entrance is a deep hole with a huge tree growing out. A steep descent into the cave, which is locked by a true Mendip size gate. I was amazed. Once we reached the main river passage, we rushed along so fast I had no time to see anything, following our barefooted guide. It was hard work against the current. I went ahead in the first team to push and survey the end of the known cave. However soon after the 1998 terminus, we were stopped by a boulder choke. There was a possible way on at water level, but it didn’t look too nice, as we didn’t know about the stability of the boulders, and also it had been raining (the first rain of the expedition) and we didn’t want to get caught in a flooded choke. There was also a barrage of barbed wire, presumably from the nest collectors. We made our way out slowly, finishing the survey and this time I had a chance to look around. The cave river is about 23°C.
Another rest day for washing and writing and entering data on the computer.
Two members departed, leaving 3 people to go and look for Guci Cave near Bantar, 3 to stay at home with the computer, and the remaining 3 of us to go to Ngalau Indah. This is a tourist attraction, but I wanted to see it and we could do some collecting at the same time. It is down the road towards Pangian, then a 3km walk to the cave. We found the entrance resurgence has been dammed since 1998, and the water is piped away to the rice paddies. This meant there was a deep pool behind the dam wall, so we had to get wet up to waist level, whereas the main river beyond was only knee deep.
We had ignored a local man at the entrance, and plodded on upstream until we came to a “mine field” of barbed wire. It was strung out across the surface of the water and down to the floor level. At this point the man appeared and indicated we could go no further. We asked why, as we knew the cave continues for another 500m, but he was adamant we had to go back – birds nests again. So that was that. We returned and went up to the hot water inlet (30°C) near the entrance. Here Francoise took water samples, Franck caught some cave fish and I collected cockroaches. The cave name means Beautiful Cave but I wasn’t very impressed.
6 people went back to Pelayangan which they pushed to a sump, leaving 3 of us to return to Simarasop. Purely by chance we met our guide Safrizal (from the 10th) along the road, and arranged for him to take us in again. This was the first time I have surveyed a cave by boat and it was great. It wasn’t as accurate as normal as we had to tie the end of the topofil to a rock, and then head up river, and it was difficult trying to site back onto the station. After a while we started using the reflective markers which was a lot easier. The French survey using the topofil, which is a thread, as it is pulled out of the box the distance is measured on a meter. They really like this method over using a measuring tape and say it is more accurate, I disagree because if you miss the station you cannot backtrack because the thread is already pulled out of the box and measured.
Anyway we surveyed the cave as far as the cascade, which was 1.2km, and 3½ hours work. Safrizal was excellent and soon caught onto what we were doing, and willingly helped out We paid him well. I thought we would continue the survey the next day, as we had brought our overnight things, but the other 2 decided we had done enough, so we went back to Lintau. It is a shame because we still don’t know how the cave continues beyond the boulders.
Another rest day.
2 more members departed, now we are 7. We went back to the Halaban area for a drive round, to look at any possible sites by the roadside and in an adjacent quarry. But we found nothing. My last day with the expedition.
Sumatra is incredibly cheap now, following the economic collapse, and exchange rates in our favour. £1 is about Rp13,000.
We were able to hire vans and drivers generally whenever we wanted On average we paid about Rp50,000 a day (£4), or Rp80,000 (£6) to drop us off and pick us up the next day.
Guides we generally paid about Rp30,000 a day (£2.30), or Rp50,000 for 2 days. Except for Sangki where we had to pay Rp30,000 per guide/team, and we had 3 teams. A couple of times a local would carry a bag on a trek and be paid about Rp40,000.
Carbide is available, and costs about Rp6000 a kg (less than 50p).
In Lintau we rented a house. This was an old Minangkabau style building, with 3 rooms but no water or bathroom inside Because of the large size of the group, we also occupied 3 rooms in the landlady’s house (which luckily had 3 bathrooms). We were unsure how much to pay her, and in the end gave more than the going rate, and paid Rp800,000 (£60). This was for a month, so worked out incredibly cheaply when split between 11 people.
Breakfast and dinner we ate in Wisma Santy. This is the house used as accommodation on previous expeditions, but was too small this year. An average restaurant meal of rice, chicken & fish, sometimes beef, vegetables and coffee cost 50p – 75p.
Minangkabau language :
Ngalau - cave
Batang - river
Ikan - fish
Layang layang - swiftlets
Lulus - sink
Mata air - spring
Pensi - a freshwater bivalve
Pondok - hut or shelter
Sarang burung - birds’ nests
Sumber - spring
Tebing - big/tall river bank
Terbit - spring
Timbul - spring
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