For the last seven years, I’d been working as a photographer and surf-guide at a surf resort in the northern end of the island chain. During my time there, I’d heard countless stories of tribes in the interior of the big island that were still living off the land as their ancestors had done for thousands of years before them. I’ve got to get there one day, I’d think to myself whenever we passed the outskirts of the misty, jungle-covered island on our daily search for waves in the resort tinnie. But I’d always put it off – we were constantly busy, and any time off would be used to visit family and friends back in Australia.
Back on the river, we shuddered to a halt as our canoe met the exposed river stones. Unsure of what was creaking more – the old wooden boat or our tired backs – we climbed out again to push. We’d beached ourselves around yet another shallow hairpin bend in the river and it was taking all of our strength to heave the weight of our food, water and camera gear against the current. Due to a lack of rain the upper parts of the river were much shallower than usual. This meant that every corner on the snaking waterway required us to climb in and out. Our excited smiles of earlier that morning were disappearing with every toe-stub and ankle-roll as our bare feet tried to navigate the loose stones, tangled wood and God-knows what else beneath us.
By this stage we were deep in the jungle. The journey was only supposed to be three hours but it had long since stretched into nine. “One more hour” the guide kept telling us, in between drags of his clove cigarette. I wasn’t surprised though – time is elastic and easily stretched in Indonesia. Plus, I’d only assembled this makeshift crew the night before after being abandoned by our original guide. I wasn’t even one hundred per cent sure our new guides knew where they were going but I’d been dreaming about this trip for so long that I was willing to take the risk.
We pushed on through the sunset and into the darkness of night. The last hour finally passed and we found ourselves coming to a stop on a shallow riverbank. There was no moon and we only had two head torches between the five of us. Beyond the shallow light they emitted was a deep darkness that felt eerie and full, hiding things that were watching us.
“This is it,” our guide said to us. “We can’t go any further”. As it turned out, the river had run out of water and there was no way we were getting to our destination. We were disorientated and fatigued and the thought of having to sleep on a muddy riverbank made the night feel that much darker.
While we were trying to figure out what to do, our boat driver, Alfino, told us to hold tight before crossing the river and walking off into the darkness. A short while later, through the dense cloud of insects swarming around the light of my head torch, I could make out a couple of figures coming out the jungle. It was Alfino, and he had someone with him.
The man was small in stature yet as wiry as the thick jungle vines we’d been passing earlier that day. He wore nothing but a red loincloth and his body and face were adorned with tribal tattoos. He walked with an ethereal presence that seemed much grander than his small frame would suggest. I’d only ever previously seen photos of the Mentawai shaman, known as Sikerei, and to finally be standing in the presence of one had me feeling like I was standing before royalty.
Aman Ikbuk was his name and he led us down a winding path into the dense vegetation. He had kindly offered to take us into his home and give us shelter for the night. His basic wooden home (known as an uma) was filled with tools, drums, wooden carvings and the hanging skulls of dozens of monkeys and pigs. At first the dangling bones were an unnerving sight but then again, so were we to his young children, who weren’t sure of what to make of the hairy guests. After settling in and giving him the customary offering of tobacco and sugar, we sat and talked and he began to explain his way of life to us.
The indigenous people of the Mentawai traditionally practice Arat Sabulungan, an animistic ideology that reveres the spirits of their ancestors and sees them as part of the land, the sky, the oceans, rivers and all natural things. Their culture is built around a series of taboos that create a balance with the spirit world around them.