THE SEARCH FOR SUMATRA`S MYSTERY BEASTSby Richard Freeman
The name in Indonesian means short man. This small, stocky, upright ape has been reported ever since the days of the Dutch colonists. A couple of years back I wrote up my top ten cryptids most likely to actually exist for Animals & Men. Orang-pendek was second on the list after the thylacine. Why? Well, for a start there was the list of consistent sightings running back well over a century. There was also the fact that a scientist – Debbie Martyr, had seen the animal more than once. And lastly the remoteness of the area. If we were going to look for a cryptid in a specific area that we had a fighting chance of glimpsing then orang-pendek was it.
Orang-pendek is not the only cryptid to stalk the shadows of the Sumatran jungle. The cigau (pronounced chi-gow) is an undiscovered big cat. It is generally described as smaller but more stocky than a tiger. It has a lion like mane, golden fur, a short tail, and forelegs longer than its hind legs – much like a hyena. We decided to enquire after this animal as well.
The great CFZ expedition to Sumatra was not my idea. CFZ Member Dr Chris Clark, an engineer by way of solar astronomy, concocted the whole thing. Chris had wanted to investigate this animal for years and decided last year to organise a trip in 2003. He graciously asked me along as a zoologist. Whilst discussing this at the 2003 Unconvention we discovered our third expedition member Jon Hare. Cambridge graduate, martial artist, and science writer he was the Mallone to Chris`s Challenger and my Sumerlee.
We contacted Debbie Martyr who was very helpful, suggesting were to look and what guides to employ.
The night before my flight I was put up by one of London’s finest Forteans – the ever hospitable and fascinating Rachel Carthy – the only person I know who is a bigger bibliophile than me! My odyssey began on 22nd of June 2003. The next 24 hours were a farrago of cancelled trains, slothful buses, missed flights, and general confusion and misery. I will not bore the reader with the interminable details.
But suffice to say that Chris and I finally stumbled into Singapore airport (less half of my luggage and equipment that the airline had left in Dubai). I was promised that it would be sent on to Padang in Sumatra.
Singapore – lion city – is a shining metropolis. A beautiful city filled with beautiful people. It puts Britain to shame. Not so much as a crumpled train ticket sullies the pavement. We had scant time to appreciate Singapore however as we were catching the ferry to Batam island, the gateway to Indonesia after breakfast.
At the ferry port, Chris was stopped as his luggage was passed through the x-ray machine. One of the attendants asked him if he were carrying a knife. Chris replied he only had a little penknife used for camping. Behind him one of the other attendants was gesticulating wildly and making signs like the angler’s “the one that got away”. As it turned out Chris had an 18-inch parang in his luggage that he had totally forgotten about!
The beauty of Singapore and the pleasant ferry ride paled when we reached Batam. The island resembles nothing so much as a giant building site. Raped and bastardized, the depressing air of the island is made more acute by the tiny patches of rainforest left in a few areas. Batam must have been a paradise once, before this cancer we call “civilization” reached it.
I was glad to see the back of Batam, to shack off the leaden pall of its awful genius loci. A one-hour flight brought us to Padang the largest city in Western Sumatra. Padang airport consists of two rooms and looks like a rather shabby bus station in a small town. The city itself was as ugly as a welder’s bench. Gaping holes in the pavement lead straight down into the sewers. The majority of the buildings seemed to be grubby garages and spare part dealers interspersed with malodorous shanties. We checked into the Dippo International, a surprisingly good hotel. The night’s entertainment was fittingly Fortean, an Indonesian Elvis impersonator!
Next day we ordered a bus to take us down to Sungai Penuh were Debbie Martyr lives. The day was spent wandering around a museum that included an eye watering display on the tools of circumcision! Whilst walking around a particularly pungent market in search of a traditional costume for the obscure West Sumatran martial art Jon practices, a crowed of locals appeared. They started pointing at Jon and saying “Harry Potter, Harry Potter”. Due to his uncanny resemblance to actor Daniel Radcliff, Jon now had a group of Indonesians believing he was Hogwart`s finest son. Sadly he was far too honest to make a mint selling them autographs.
Thankfully that afternoon my lost bag emerged from the either at Padang airport.
In the evening whilst Jon and I were eating and drinking at the bar we were talking to some locals. One man in his fifties (called Stephano) claimed to have seen orang-pendek. He told us that in 1971 he had accompanied an Australian explorer called John Thompson into the jungles of Kerinci-Seblat national park. He had seen small human like primates with yellow hair. In order to stop Thompson shooting them he told the Australian that a curse would descend on anyone who killed one of the creatures.
Stephano also heard of the cigau from the Kerinci locals. They told him that it had a head like a lion and a body like a horse. It ran fast through the jungle. Sadly before we could question him further the bus to Sungai Penuh arrived.
After eight uncomfortable hours journey along roads that would not look out of place in post-war Baghdad we arrived in Sungai Penuh (full river). We checked into a grotty hotel and collapsed.
The next day we met Debbie Martyr. Debbie is a charming lady who reminded me a lot of the chimp conservationist Jane Goodall. A former journalist Debbie fist came to Sumatra as a travel writer in 1993. She had heard tell of orang-pendek and assumed it was a legend. Latter a guide was telling her of the animals he had seen in the jungle and mentioned casually that he had only ever seen one orang-pendek. About six weeks later Debbie herself saw the animal. She now resides in Sumatra and is head of the tiger conservation team and spends her spare time investigating orang-pendek.
When we met Debbie she was embroiled in a case were a local felon had tried to sell two stuffed leopard cats to a woman who turned out to be the chief of police’s wife!
Debbie told us that the most recent sighting, about 3 moths previously, had taken place at in the jungle surrounding Gunung Tuju or the lake of seven peaks, a large volcanic lake in the park. She photocopied several maps for us and also spoke of a lost valley. Despite being shown on the map Debbie told us no one had ever been there. It looked like a couple of days hike from the lake. The contours showed a wickedly steep sided canyon.
“We just don’t know what’s down there,” Debbie said.
We all felt that it would be exciting to look for the valley. She had also arranged guides. Sahar was a small bespectacled man of about my own age (33), his brother John, and an older man called Anhur.
We took a bus from Sungai Penuh to Sahar`s village Ulonjourni. During the journey a perky little man called Jeoffory sat next to Chris. An English teacher, Jeoffory bombarded Chris with dozens of questions.
“Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “How tall are you?”, “Are you married?”, “How much do you earn?”
He wanted our addresses in order to write to us. Chris gave a bogus one, I gave my real address. I am looking forward to spreading some comic misinformation a-la Monty Python’s Anglo-Hungarian phrase book sketch.
We stopped the night at Sahar`s house. It was a tiny animal sanctuary in itself with geckos, grasshoppers, and a magnificent rhinoceros beetle. In the morning we set about buying supplies such as rice and noodles for the expedition.
A lot of my equipment was kindly loaned to me by Paul Vella. I had asked Paul if he wanted anything bringing back from Sumatra. He had asked for a stick of Sumatran rock. In the shop were we were stocking up I though I spied some! Sadly the stripy sticks in the jar turned out to be wafer sticks. Sorry, Paul.
Fully stocked, the six of us set out into the foothills of Gunung Tuju. The foothills were fine but as the gradient grew more acute I began to suffer. Gunung Tuju is 3000 meters high. Much of the way the path is at something like 75 degrees. Imagine a gargantuan winding staircase. The stairs are made of moss slick tree roots jutting at differing angles. Like the labour of Sisyphus in Greek mythology the climb seemed never ending. I collapsed with exhaustion, staggered on, collapsed again and vomited with over-exertion. The other five split my backpack between them and helped me up. Even without a weight on my back the climb was the most physically draining thing I have ever done. Chris (who despite looking about 45 is in fact knocking 60), Jon, and the guides, romped up the mountain like goats.
Finally I made the summit. The land falls away dramatically to the 4 km lake. Gunung Tuju is a strange unearthly turquoise in colour. It lies in the bowl of an extinct (or maybe just dormant) volcano. Geo-thermal in nature its waters are warm. There are many legends attached to Gunung Tuju. It is said to be home to a djinn, (an Islamic daemon). Some years ago a waterspout was seen moving around the surface of the lake. Once a fisherman and his canoe were sucked down by a “whirlpool”. The man managed to escape but his canoe never surfaced. The geo-thermal nature of the lake may offer an explanation here. Perhaps a release of carbon dioxide occurred changing the waters buoyancy for a time.
The lake’s waters are biologically impoverished. Only one species of small fish and one species of freshwater crab live in the lake. Despite this the waters support several fishermen. It was believed that the fish were poisonous until a few years ago when a wandering shaman cast a spell to make them edible. He didn’t do a very good job. I can tell you from personal experience that the lake’s fish taste foul. The fishermen catch them in tiny wooden traps suspended by floats then dry them and eat them whole.
Sahar hailed the fishermen who appeared across the lake in their dugouts and paddled towards us. The men took us (and our packs) across the misty waters to their huts. A storm was brewing so instead of forging on to set up camp we spent the night with the fishermen in their huts and dined on rice, noodles, and bitter fish.
We were greeted in the morning by the whoops of siamang gibbons. A greenish tinted mountain tree shrew disported itself on a fallen tree above the fishermen’s huts. The fishermen ferried us to the point on shore were we were to make camp. Whilst John and Anhur constructed a bivouac out of branches and plastic sheeting Sahar led Chris, Jon, and I into the jungle.
The rainforest here smells very like an English wood. The towering trees are wreathed with vines, the vines are covered in moss, the moss is festooned with fungi. Life devours life. The great paradox of the rainforest is that despite being the greatest concentration of life on earth, the animals are hard to see. The vegetation and shadows hide most creatures and large animals can hear you coming from far away. The electronic buzz of cicadas and other insects fills the air mingling with the metallic screeches of exotic birds. Gaudy bracket fungi sprout from rotting tree trunks that fall across gorges and streams that run down from the surrounding mountains like ribbons of quicksilver.
Sahar`s skill as a guide is astounding. The slightest bent twig or misplaced leaf catches his eye. Things that you or I would walk straight past tell him the secrets of the jungle. He pointed out the trail of a tapir through the bushes. The bulky animal had hardly disturbed the greenery. Later we found its three-toed footprints. A blue-headed barbet flew above us as we pushed deeper.
We came upon a possible orang-pendek footprint. Sadly, it had been damaged by rain. I measured it but it was too damp for casting. It was narrower at the heel than at the front and pressed about half an inch into the ground. Further along the trail we came across seven prints crossing a large muddy puddle. Similar in size and shape to the earlier print they too had suffered rain damage. The gait was definably that of a biped. A fallen log crossed the puddle and as Sahar pointed out a human would have crossed by the log as opposed to walking through the mud.
A little further on Sahar pointed out some damaged plants. Known as pahur, the pith inside the stem is a favourite food of orang-pendek. A number of the plants seemed to have been dexterously peeled apart and the pith eaten. A flattened area of moss on a nearby tree stump may have been where the creature sat whilst eating. We hid and waited in silence, but apart from the calls of birds and insects nothing disturbed the stillness of the jungle.
The rains began in force and we headed back to camp. On the way we encountered a rufous woodcock, but saw no further evidence of our quarry.
Already I was heartily sick of rice and noodles. The foul little fish did nothing to improve our meager fare. At this altitude the nights become quite chilly but fatigue insured that I slept soundly.
We set out on a different trail the next day. The jungle here was more open than the area we searched before. We saw many varieties of pitcher plant, known locally as the monkey’s pitcher due to the belief that monkeys drink from them. Green and black leeches fell from above and attached themselves to Jon and Chris.
Several miles into the forest Sahar noticed hair stuck to a tree trunk. It was about an inch long, dark grey, and was a meter above the ground.. Close by pahur plants had been stripped and their pith eaten. We also found a stick with tooth marks in it. The bite was four inches across. We collected the hair for analysis.
Jon’s camera’s motor broke and mine steamed up badly. Further along the trail we found more hair. It was very like the first sample but somewhat lighter in colour. It was also found on a tree trunk one meter above the ground.
We came upon piles of tapir droppings and footprints. We also discovered civet dung. Sadly no orang-pendek droppings! We found no further prints today.
Sahar told us that in 2000 he had heard the cry of orang-pendek. He demonstrated….
“UHUUUUUUUUR-UR-UR” ….A weird drawn out moan followed by two grunts. Quite unlike any animal vocalization I know.
Every so often we stopped, sat, and waited deathly quiet. But our quarry failed to emerge.
The next day we took a swim in the lake. The warm clear water was lovely and at this altitude no crocodiles were present. We were careful not to swim nude because one of the pieces of jungle folklore that the locals really take to heart is that nakedness in the jungle is a strict taboo. They believe that this will anger the tigers and bring their wrath down upon you.
We took yet another path into the forest. The bees here are gigantic, the size of small mice! Chris christened the B-52s. The going was slower here as there was more vegetation and the guides had to spend a long time hacking it away with their parangs. I could not help but feel that the noise they created would scare most animals away.
We found more hair on this day than any other. Over 60 hairs in a hollow tree. They resembled the other hairs, short and grey.
The trail led upwards to a fantastic view of the lake from one of the edges of the collapsed volcano`s ancient rim.
Under a rotting log I caught a 4.5-inch skink of a species I have yet to identify. It was reddish brown changing to burgundy on the head and tail. The eyes were very large.
Sahar did his orang-pendek impression. His call echoed out across the lake but there was no answer.
Gelatin, a nasty stinging plant was very abundant as were bananas. Sadly these were inedible wild bananas. The yellow ones we buy in shops are a mutant strain. It is another great paradox of the jungle that there is so little edible fruit around. Most berries are poisonous. I was missing fruit terribly. The only thing we came upon were some small berries Sahar called “strawberries” that looked and tasted like under ripe, red, blackberries.
Sahar`s brother John left. He was needed on a tiger conservation project elsewhere in the park. He was replaced with another guide called Parentis.
After a cold and sleepless night we broke camp to move to the opposite side of the lake. The fishermen ferried our luggage whilst Sahar, Chris, Jon, and I walked on foot. We found no further evidence of orang-pendek.
The guides set up a new camp and Sahar captured a beautiful agamid lizard closely resembling the Cantonese garden lizard. I photographed it then set it free.
That night I was woken by a commotion. The guides were looking up excitedly into the trees and shining torches at a cat sized, red furred animal whose eyes were reflecting the light like balls of fire. It was a red giant flying squirrel.
I must have lost weight rapidly. I only ate twice a day. Once before starting the day’s hike and once upon return. I could only stomach a few mouthfuls of the rice and noodles.
Chris felt ill and exhausted so only Jon, the guides and myself took the next hike. We took a route up to a knife-edge peak. Jungle swathed, seer drops fell away from us on either side. The peaks were literally a couple of feet across. The views were exquisite. We found the pugmarks of a golden cat. I discovered the newly dead cadaver of a shrew like lesser gymnure – a tiny jungle insectivore the size of a mouse.
In a clearing Sahar found two long brown hairs. They looked much more like what I had imagined orang-pendek hair to look like.
Back at the camp we met a couple of tourists passing through on a tour of Indonesia . It was nice to talk to other strangers in the jungle.
We never made it to the infamous lost valley. It think we would have had to make an extra camp in the jungle as it would have taken more than a day’s walk to get there. I hope to return to Gunung Tuju and make a special effort to get to the lost valley.
God I HATE rice!
In the morning the fishermen took us back across the lake to the edge of an incredible waterfall that tumbles down thousands of feet to the plains below. We had missed this spectacular sight on the way up.
As we climbed down again we saw more wildlife in a single afternoon than in the whole of our stay at the lake. Mitred langurs, a linsang (a normally nocturnal member of the civet family), a small toothed palm civet, and a pair of horse tailed squirrels. Also found the droppings of a golden cat.
As we reached the lowlands a massive bull elephant with impressive tusks loomed out of the bushes. I thought for a moment I had been lucky enough to see a wild elephant but it was one of a pair of tame elephants used by the villagers in the foothills of the mountain.
The village shop sold beer, bliss.
We took the bus back to Sungia Penuh and collected our things from Debbie. She was having trouble with a golden cat. The animal was caught in a snare after killing a goat. Villagers were now holding the animal. She would have to negotiate it’s release and tend to any injuries it had sustained.
We checked into the Aroma hotel. Even the VIP lounge had no hot water and was home to cockroaches you could put a saddle on.
We took Debbie and a couple of her tiger conservation team out for dinner. One of the men had seen orang-pendek although he almost refused to admit it. He thought he had seen a sun bear standing on it’s hind legs until Debbie pointed out that sun bears are black and the thing he had reported seeing was yellowish.
Barbecued chicken, after days of rice and noodles you have no idea how good it tastes.
The next day I interviewed Debbie about her orang-pendek sightings.
Me: Could you please tell me how you first heard about and got interested in orang-pendek?
Debbie: I was traveling in Sumatra as a journalist in 1989. I was climbing Mount Kerinci and heard of a legendary animal that I thought would add a bit of colour to the travel piece I did. Then I started meeting people we claimed to have seen something that didn’t appear to exist. At that stage I didn’t believe or not believe, I was trained as a journalist, which is a respectable profession so I took a look into it.
Me: Can you tell me about the first time you actually saw orang-pendek?
Debbie: I saw it in the middle of September; I had been out here four months. At that time I was 90 percent certain that there was something here, that it was not just traditional stories. I thought it would be an orang-utan and that it would move like an orang-utan, not bipedally like a man. I had my own preconception of what the animal would look like if I did see it. What was the real shocker was that I had been throwing away reports on the animal on the basis of colour that didn’t fit into what I thought the animal would look like. When I saw it I saw an animal that didn’t look like anything in any of the books I had read, films I had seen, or zoos I had seen. It did indeed walk rather like a person and that was a shock..
Me: What did it actually look like?
Debbie: A relatively small, immensely strong, non-human primate. But it was very gracile, that was the odd thing. So if you looked at the animal you might say that it resembled a siamang or an agile gibbon on steroids! It doesn’t look like an orang-utan. Their proportions are very different. It is built like a boxer, with immense upper body strength. But why an animal with immense upper boy strength should be lumbering around on the ground I don’t know. It makes no sense at all.
It was a gorgeous colour, moving bipedally and trying to avoid being seen. I knew there was something in the vicinity because the action of birds and primates in the area meant that there was obviously something moving around. So I sent a guide around as far as I could to where the disturbance was. What ever was concealed in the undergrowth would try to avoid my guide and move away in front of him. I was concealed looking down over a small shallow valley. We didn’t know what we were going to see. It could have been a bear, it could have been a tiger, it could have been a golden cat, or anything. Instead, from totally the wrong direction, a bipedal, non-human primate, walked down the path ahead. It was concentrating so hard on avoiding my guide it didn’t look towards me. I had a camera in my hand at the time but I dropped it I was so shocked. It was something so new my mental synapses froze up for a minute trying to identify something I hadn’t seen before.
Me: You have seen it a couple of times since. Could you tell me about those sightings?
Debbie: I saw it again about three weeks later. Again it was on Mount Tuju and again I had a camera in my hand, again I froze because I didn’t know what I was seeing. It had frozen on the trail because it had heard us coming. All I could see was that something across the valley had changed. I looked through a pair of binoculars. Something didn’t look quite right in the landscape. By the time I trained on the area the animal, whatever it was, had gone.
Those were the only times I could have got a photo of it. I have seen it since but fleetingly. Once you have seen an animal you can recognise it. If you have seen a rhino you can recognise a bit of a rhino.
Me: Can you tell me a bit about your theory of why orang-pendek walks bipedally?
Debbie: Everyone has pet theories. I think the only thing that makes sense is the massive volcanic event about fifty thousand years ago that created what is now Lake Toba up in north Sumatra. It created a biographical divide. You get the Malayan tapir down here but not up there. You get the Thomas’s leaf monkey up there but not down here. In recent geological history it was the biggest volcanic event. It was absolutely immense and would have caused massive habitat destruction right across Sumatra and into Malaysia.
All I can think is that surviving animals down here would have had to become terrestrial. They would have found themselves with very few trees.
Me: But fifty thousand years is a very short time for something to change so radically.
Debbie: What you could suggest is that fifty thousand years is not a long time for something to change its muscles. Maybe there wouldn’t be much skeletal change, there would be some but not a lot. But the main change would be in the muscles. An adaptable animal that is being forced to walk erect. Gibbons can walk erect so perhaps another, larger ape could become bipedal. Speciation that’s what makes the most sense.
Me: What do you think of reports of other bipedal apes in Asia?
Debbie: I don’t believe in the abominable snowman. My father was in Tibet and saw what he was told were yeti tracks but they turned out to be bear footprints. They are just too big. I think three-meter tall apes are too big. Maybe there has been exaggeration through fear. I don’t believe in things like bigfoot. The yeren in China might exist. Orang-utans like in China in the Pleistocene. It could be speciation in the orang-utan. The forests of Assam might be a good place to look as well.
Me: Thank you
Debbie also showed us a cast of an orang-pendek foot print taken a few years previously in the jungle surrounding the lake. It was about 8 inches long and did not resemble a yeti or Sasquatch foot print. It was much less human looking. It had four longish toes at the front and the big toe was placed further back along the side of the foot. The toes all looked more prehensile than a human’s but less so than any known ape’s.
Debbie believes that the orang-pendek’s masterful camouflage has developed to protect them from tigers. The creature can freeze and resemble a tree stump fooling a primarily visual predator.
Orang-pendek has also been seen in trees so perhaps the once arboreal, now terrestrial ape is beginning to evolve back into a tree dweller. There is no competition from orang-utans in the west of Sumatra as they are confined to the north of the island.
Debbie also believes that early Dutch explorers may have collected orang-pendek specimens without knowing what they were. Bones and skin from this cryptid may be languishing in the basements of Dutch museums mislabeled as orang-utan!
Outside a massive black eagle flew low over the houses casting an impressive shadow and reflecting in rain puddles.
Debbie then translated for Sahar as he told us of his late father’s encounters with both orang-pendek and the cigau.
In the 1980s Sahar`s father and a friend had been cutting logs to build a house close to were the village of Polompek now stands. The area has long since been deforested. Both men saw a bipedal ape lifting up cut logs and throwing them about. It was covered in blackish brown hair and was about five feet tall. The hair on the creature’s spine was darker. It’s legs were short and it’s powerful arms were long. The face was broad and was black in colour with some pink markings. Both men fled.
Back when Sahar`s father was a bachelor (as Sahar is the same age as me this would have made it some time during the 1960s) he saw the cigau. Kerinci trades with other parts of Sumatra. They exchange rice for goods like silk. Sahar`s father and four other men were traveling a trade route. The path led through the jungle. One of the men had committed a great taboo. He had eaten rice straight from the pot rather than waiting for portions to be given out.
In the dead of night the cigau came from the forest to claim him. It stalked right into their camp and dragged him off into the darkness. It was smaller but stockier than a tiger. It had a silvery lion like mane and golden fur. Its forelegs were longer than it’s back legs like the build of a hyena. It had a short, tufted, cow like tail. The men searched the jungle franticly for their lost comrade but when they found him he was minus a stomach, disemboweled by the cigau.
It would be easy to dismiss the cigau as a piece of folklore, the wrath of the jungle sent to punish transgressors but if you recall similar attributes are given to the very real tiger, for example the tiger becoming angry at those who go naked in the forest.
Sahar`s father also spoke of a cigau who laired near a fallen tree that formed a natural bridge over a river. It would swim out and devour those who slipped into the water.
Debbie also commented that she had many recent reports of the cigau in water. Most of them mentioned it flinging back it’s mane to shake of the water.
It is worth pointing out two things at this point. Whilst on the trail of the naga in Thailand I was told of the popular belief in a golden, lion like cat in the Thai jungles. The city of Singapore was founded after a nobleman saw a golden lion in the jungle were the city now stands. Singapore means “lion city”.
Also as mentioned before, crocodiles are absent from this mountainous part of Sumatra. Ergo a big cat could enter water without fear of being killed by a crocodile.
We were also told of the beliefs of Sahar`s people that the progenitor of their clan was transformed into a tiger. They maintain that shamans of there clan can commune with jungle spirits among who the tiger is foremost.
We were so lost in conversation with Debbie and Sahar that we were too late to catch the mini bus and had to take a larger bus that traveled through the night. At our destination we discovered that the proprietor of the guesthouse in which we were staying, Mr Sapandi was a keen bird watcher. He showed us some impressive photographs of a dwarf frogmouth he had taken earlier in the year. He had heard of orang-pendek but had never seen it.
Mr Sapandi`s guesthouse was very comfortable but I was awoke by a cock crowing at 4 am!
After a breakfast of pancakes and chocolate sauce (by far the best breakfast that we had during our stay in Sumatra) we caught the bus for Ulon-journi. From there it was a bumpy ride by motorbike to a small village (I lost my hat along the way but Sahar rescued it). On the way a black eagle wheeled overhead clutching a snake in its claws. Finally we began our long walk along the mountain trail to the next area we were to study, the jungles beyond the extremely remote village of Sungi-Kuning (yellow river). The village was a two-day trek away but thankfully it was mostly down hill.
Before we got into the jungle pass we had to walk for over an hour through coffee plantations. I was amazed at just how far into the jungle these plantations have encroached. Thousands of acres of rainforest have been lost to grow plants to produce this vile tasting, vile smelling, carcinogenic filth. The locals call the area were the plantations and jungle meet “the garden” I saw several more black eagles here but also several men with guns out to shoot birds. It seemed that the park and garden boundaries were ill defined.
Monster insects abounded here including some I have never seen in any text book. There were black hornets with bright yellow spots. These impressive insects were as long as my index finger (4-4.5 inches!). God only knows what kind of sting they would give but they would certainly liven up an English picnic.
Finally we got onto the pass and followed the path through the jungle. We saw another mitered langur, a pair of three striped ground squirrels, and a small toothed palm civet.
As we pushed on it became clear that Jon was unwell. He looked deathly pail and began to tremble as if struck by the palsy. He was corpse cold and clammy to the touch. He was too ill to continue and worried that he may have contracted malaria. Sahar offered to take him back to Mr Sapandi’s guesthouse and rejoin us the next day.
Parentis, Chris and I set up camp by a stream and hoped that Jon was wrong about his sudden affliction. That night I could not sleep and was treated to a light show by luminous green fireflies that floated ghost like from the jungle and into the bivouac.
Back in Sungi-Penuh we had brought some powdered milk, tomato sauce, and corned beef. These little things make the food far more tolerable. Sahar reappeared and we continued our trek.
At dusk we reached the tiny village of Sungi-Khuning. We stopped in a large (by village standards) house in the center of the village. I was unsure whether it was a guesthouse, village hall, or just some hospitable soul’s home. Sahar said that a man who had recently seen orang-pendek lived in the village and would come to talk with us. That night about 23 people crowded into the house but the witness was not among them.
Sahar asked if we would like to hear some local music and led us to the edge of the village were a wooden stage had been erected. A Sumatran band was playing. They had several electric flautists, an electric drummer, and a trio of singing girls.
They sang a medley of Indonesian songs. They don’t write them like that any more. Chris thought he had seen Hendrix do one of the tracks at the Isle of White in 1970. I was going to ask them if they knew any Joy Division but I suspected that they wouldn’t. Still the idea of the west Sumatran highlands throbbing to the dulcet tones of Ice Age or Colony is one that will remain with me forever.
That night we discovered that our lodgings were indeed a guesthouse and we signed the guest book. We were the first ever to do so.
Next morn we set off through yet more plantations that bordered the village. We came across a tree scared by the claws of a sun bear that had excavated a bee’s nest for the honey. We finally reached the jungle and made camp. The rainforest here was at a lower altitude. It was warmer, damper, and thicker that the mountain rainforest that surrounded Gunung Tuju. It also seemed less disturbed. At Gunung Tuju I had been alarmed at the amount of litter. Some areas looked like urban parks in England. But this jungle, known as Sungi-Rumput (grass river) there was no litter. Oddly there seemed a lot less game.
We had employed an extra guide, a local man who knew the area better than Sahar or Parentis. On our first trek he led us round in circles, up pointless ridges, and into dead ends. In the morass I lost my parang that I had brought back in Sungi-Penuh. Each time we paused and sat the forest floor came alive with leeches. A living carpet of vampiric annelids squirmed and looped towards you homing in on the body heat. It was an eerie sight to see them blindly tumble towards you like tiny living slinkies. Whilst you swatted them aside half a dozen more would have attached themselves to your legs from the rear and be gourging themselves on your blood. Trousers, socks, and boots proved no deterrent.
The only mammal I saw was a long tailed giant rat. Yes it may hearten Sherlock Holmes to know that the giant rat of Sumatra does exist but at about 18 inches it is more of a respectable rat than a giant one.
As we returned to camp the new guide led us up a vegetation choked blind alley. We had to turn back and walk along a crumbling riverbank. A section gave way and I fell five feet into the river. It was not a long fall but on the way down I smashed my coccyx on a rock jutting from the bank. I turned the air blue for five minutes solid.
Back at camp after plucking of the leeches and being besieged by mosquitoes, Chris noted that at this point Sumatra was about as much fun as Stalingrad.
The following day we trekked again. This time all we saw was leeches. We didn’t even hear any birds. The jungle devoured Chris’s parang on this day. The next morning we had to make the return journey.
Back in Sungi-Khuning we brought a chicken and had it cooked. At last a decent meal! That night we were treated to a display of a local dance called Tarri Asic. It has it’s origins back in the time of tiger ancestor veneration/appeasement but it’s proper meaning is now lost. It consisted of a group of about twelve girls in traditional dress moving in a square formation and swapping first flowers, then necklaces, then kris knifes.
The following morning I found that one of the girls (aged about 16) had taken a shine to me. She said I was handsome and she loved my sweet smile. She asked if she could keep my dragon necklace. I gave her the necklace (and now feel naked without it) we swapped addresses and I promised to write to her.
We began the arduous trek back. What had been all down hill going was all up hill coming back. Though not as steep as Gunung Tuju the pass when on for much further and once again I suffered. I was reduced to a staggering pace were putting one foot ahead of the other was exhausting.
That night we camped alongside a group of about fifty men who were repairing the path. They had set up a camp so large it looked like a small village. The evening was raucous but by morning the workers had all vanished. Sahar found an impressive giant centipede the size of my hand. The pass seemed alive with huge insects, sago “worms” in fact the larval form of rhinoceros beetles, and their ponderous adult forms were common.
Finally as we approached the plantations the ground leveled off again. On the path I found the carcass of a beautiful Malayan coral snake. The poor animal was obviously the victim of a human attack, hacked into three by a parang.
We made our way back to Sungi-Penuh to pick up the things Debbie had kindly let us leave in her house. Debbie was not in so we checked into the Aroma hotel again. This time we did not have a VIP suite. The average room was tiny and filthy. Covered in graffiti it had the most decayed, insanitary toilet I have ever seen (and I have traveled).
Luckily Jon turned up shortly after our arrival. He had spent five days at Mr Sapandi’s guesthouse. Fortunately he had been wrong in his suspicions of malaria. It was food poisoning that had struck him down. He had spent several days in a fever and Mr Sapandi had kindly nursed him back to health. We never did work out what had disagreed with him so violently.
Unfortunately Debbie was not in all day and our passports were still in her house. At the Aroma the appallingly camp concierge (who made Larry Grayson look like Geoff Capes) had mad us fill out complex forms asking, among other things, our passport number. That evening he came bursting into our room with a policeman because we had not filled in our passport numbers. We explained about the situation with Debbie and the policeman was very understanding and apologetic. The camp concierge minced off without the slightest apology.
A man from the tiger conservation team was kind enough to drive us the eight-hour journey back to Padang. We stopped off for a meal at a pleasant roadside café at dusk and were treated to the sight of hundreds of magnificent short nosed fruit bats heading out into the forests to feed.
Latter on a large black cobra slithered onto the road in front of our car. Unfortunately despite breaking we ran the snake over. It was hit again by a lorry behind us and killed. I did not get a close enough look to identify the species. As a reptile lover I was upset by the incident. All three of the snakes I had seen in Sumatra were now dead ones.
We checked into the Dippo hotel again. We spent a pleasant night drinking beer in the company of very beautiful women. In the morning we caught the plane to Batam and the ferry back across to Singapore.
Chris and I booked into the Roxy hotel and after a huge meal of pizza in an Italian restaurant we bade Jon farewell. Chris and myself spent the next two days around museums and the lovely Singapore zoo, on which I could write a whole article.
Finally we took the long and uneventful journey back to England were I suffered a delayed train that crawled along taking several times as long to reach Exeter as normal. After the clean, glorious public transport system in Singapore it was a total disgrace.
Within days of writing this my hair samples will be sent to Dr Lars Thomas of Copenhagen University for analysis. The results will be posted on the CFZ website as soon as we have them.
I believe more strongly than ever now that an upright walking primate, unknown to science inhabits Western Sumatra. It think it is a descendent of the Miocene ape Sivapithecus and is related by way of the early Pleistocene Lufengopithecus to both Gigantopithecus (best candidate for the larger yeti) and the modern day orang-utans.
It should be noted that similar creatures have been reported on the Malayan peninsular were they are known as mawas, Borneo were it is known as batutut, and in the valleys and foothills of the Himalayas were it is called teh-lma (a type of small yeti as opposed to the man sized meh-teh and the classic giant duz-teh).
The cigau may once have had a wider range. In Malaya and Indo-China legends of golden lion like cats abound. But as far as I know there have been no recent sightings outside of Sumatra. The nearest true lions are the Asian lions of northwest India. We could postulate a creature related to the Asian golden cat (that, it should be noted has a golden coat and short tail) but far larger and more powerfully built. Intermediate in size between a leopard and a tiger. But this is merely theory.
What is certain however is that both orang-pendek and the cigau may not be around on Sumatra for much longer. Four out of the five sites were orang-pendek have been reported in western Sumatra are now deforested. I visited the remaining two and was worried by the amount of disturbance. Around Gunung Tuju litter abounded and on the road to Sungi-Rumput many people carried guns.
I hope to return to Sumatra sometime in the next two years with a bigger and better equipped party and try again to prove the existence of Sumatra’s cryptids before the last of the wilderness is lost to loggers and poachers.