Sumatra is the third largest island of Indonesia, after Papua and Kalimantan (part of Borneo) and the fifth largest island in the world. Sumatra (or “Sumatera” as it is spelled in Indonesia) stretches for about 1,790 km (1,100 miles) from northwest to southeast between the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea. At it’s wides point, Sumatra spans about 435 km (270 miles). The equator crosses Sumatra near the center of the island, near the city of Bukittinggi.

Sumatra quick facts

  • Capital: Medan
  • Eight provinces: Aceh, North Sumatra, Riau, South Sumatra, West Sumatra, Jambi, Bengkulu, Lampung
  • Languages: Bahasa Indonesia and about 15 other languages
  • Religion: Islam (including matrilineair at the Minangkabau region), Christianity, animism
  • Major cities: Medan, Palembang, Padang, Banda Aceh, Bandar Lampung, Pekanbaru
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah
  • Mountain ranges: Barisan mountains, Pusat Gayo, Serbeulangit, Tigapuluh
  • Biggest lake: Lake Toba, 1.140 km2, in a volcanic crater of about 3000 km2. Altitude: 1000 m

Geographical regions of Sumatra

The interior of Sumatra is dominated by two geographical regions: the Barisan Mountains (Bukit Barisan) in the west of Sumatra and swampy plains in the east. In the Barisan mountain range there are still some active volcanoes, Mount Kerinci being the largest at 3,805 m (12,467 ft). Because of the volcanic activity, this region is very fertile (especially around Berastagi in North Sumatra province) and has some very beautiful scenery, for instance around Lake Toba which is the largest lake in South East Asia. Sumatra also contains deposits of coal and gold and some other minerals. Sumatra is blessed with rich natural diversity and is inhabited by a large number of local "tribes", like the Batak, Mentawai and the Minangkabau.

Economic importance of Sumatra

The lowlands of Sumatra at the east are of great economic importance for Indonesia. Oil is found and there are vast plantations that produce palm oil and rubber. Sumatra is also the largest producer of Indonesian coffee. The famous "kopi luak" coffee also comes from Sumatra.

Crops that are grown in Sumatra include rice, corn, tea, coffee and cocoa. Other crops include all kinds of spices, tobacco, rubber and palm oil. Besides oil, there's also coal, tin, bauxite, copper and gold. Industry includes aluminium, tires, fertilizer, ceramics and tourism.

Most of Sumatra used to be covered by tropical rainforest, but economic development coupled with corruption and illegal logging has severely threatened its existence. Conservation area’s have not been spared from destruction, either.

Sumatra in numbers

Surface area 475.000 km2
Length 1790 km
Width between 80 and 435 km
Population 45 million (10 most important ethnic groups, including Bataks, Minangkabau, Nias, Mentawai, Chinese and Malay)
Population density 80 inhabitants / km2
Highest peak Kerinci, 3805 m / other mountain peaks: Leuser (3466 m), Dempo (3159 m), Lembu (3014 m), Bandahara (3012 m), Masurai (2933 m)

Climate of Sumatra

The Sumatran climate is tropical, but due to its many highlands, temperatures can be lower than one expects. Temperatures in Sumara are approximately between 22-30 degrees Celsius. The rainfall differs from area to area, but averages 1.000-4.000mm per year. The relative humidity is 70-90% in the lowlands of Sumatra. The year can be divided in two major seasons, dry season from February to August and wet season from September to January. However, the difference between seasons is not as big as in other parts of Indonesia. The change of season is also normally extra wet. The dry season is of course the best time for mountain climbing, to visit nature parks and for the visibility of animals, etc.

Places to go in Medan

There are many old buildings in Medan that still retain their Dutch architecture. These include the old City Hall, the central Post Office, the Water Tower, which is Medan City's icon, and Titi Gantung (a bridge over the railway).
There are several historic places such as the Maimun Palace (Istana Maimun), where the Sultan of Deli still lives, and the Great Mosque (Mesjid Raya) of Medan that was built by the Dutch in 1906.
You can also enjoy a nice icecream at restaurant Tiptop that dates back to colonial times.
There are some huge shopping malls of which Carrefour is the newest and largest. Some other plaza's are Medan Mall, Sun Plaza and Medan Fair Plaza.
Being a huge city, Medan offers scores of restaurants, guesthouses and hotels.
Although Medan is okay to stay for one or two nights, most tourists avoid this crowded and noisy city to head for Lake Toba or Berastagi. Read more...

Places to go in Berastagi

Cool Mountain Resort

Berastagi is a cool mountain breeze town in the highlands, belonging to the Karo Bataks. Berastagi once was the place for the Dutchmen to go on weekends, back in colonial times. There are plenty of restaurants, losmen (guesthouses) and some very good hotels.

Berastagi is also known as the "food chamber of Indonesia". On the fertile soil of the Karo highlands all kinds of fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown.
Go visit the market where these are being sold. This market is very clean, compared to most markets in Indonesia. Or you might want to climb the Sibayak or the (more difficult) Sinabung.

Sibayak Multinational guesthouse

A very nice place to stay is at Sibayak Multinational (watch out: there are three "Sibayaks"!). This is a very small losmen (only 8 rooms or so) right outside Berastagi, only a 15 minute walk away from the slopes of the Sibayak - one of the volcanoes surrounding Berastagi. It's a lovely and quiet place to be. Read more...

Places to go - Bukit Lawang

Rehabilitation Center

Bukit Lawang is a orangutan rehabilitation center, on the edge of the Gunung Leuser reserve, not too far from Medan, the capital of Sumatra. Here, orangutans that were illegally held captive are being taught how to live in the dense Sumatran rain forest again.

There are several losmen right across the Bohorok river. On feeding times (8.00 AM and 3.00 PM) you are allowed to enter the reserve. You will have to obtain a permit from the warden at the park. After that the Bohorok river must be crossed in a simple canoe. When on the other side, it's about a half an hour climb to the spot where the orangutans are fed.
Besides seeing the apes, it is also possible to arrange jungle treks for up to a couple of days. It's also possible to rent a big inflated tyre to float around on the Bohorok river.
It's a nice place to be, although in recent years it has become a bit of a touristic attraction.

If you have time on your hand and want to get away from the tourists, than it might be a better idea to go to the center of Gunung Leuser reserve (Ketambe) and maybe even climb Gunung Leuser itself (which is the highest peak in the northern part of Sumatra - around 3500m). Read more...

Sumatra nature

Flora and Fauna of Sumatra

The Flora and Fauna in Sumatra are similar to the Asian mainland, but Sumatra still has vast rainforests and much wildlife. Until the end of the 19th century the almost only thing you could find on the island was forest. Nowadays only 30% of Sumatra's former jungle remains. This doesn't mean that Sumatra has changed into a deforested island. There are vast areas of untouched lowland rainforest and sub-mountainous and mountain forests. Alpine vegetation can be found at the higher altitudes. Extinction and destruction goes on also in Indonesia, but it started later than in other countries. There is still time to both see and save it. The island of Sumatra can brag with several hundreds of mammals, almost 200 reptiles, over 60 amphibians, almost 300 fish species, and more than 450 bird species. Of all these, 9 mammals, 30 fish species and 19 bird species are endemic.

Even though North Sumatra is one of the more populous provinces of Sumatra, there is still enough of wilderness for anyone. There is the huge national park of Leuser and several smaller parks. The Orangutan, the Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran rhinoceros are famous inhabitants of northern Sumatra. Other friends are for example the Sumatran elephant, many species of monkeys, the tapir, the honey bear, and several kinds of deer. Sumatra has also 10 species of the hornbill, a bird noted for its enormous horn-tipped beak.

About 400-500 wild Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) are believed to survive in Sumatra, primarily in Sumatra's five national parks. 210 captive animals live in zoos around the world. The Sumatran tiger is the smallest tiger sub-species. Males are in average 2,4 meters from head to tail and weigh about 120 kilograms. Females are somewhat smaller. Wild Sumatran tigers have been isolated from its relatives on the Asian mainland for about 12,000 years and has probably the most different set of genes compared to other tiger species. The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is probably the most endangered of all rhinoceros species. It prefers tropical rainforest and mountain moss forest. It is the only two-horned rhino in the Asian region. Numbers have declined due to poaching and very few are left. It weighs about 600 - 800 kg and is 0,9-1,5m tall at the shoulders. It feeds on fruit, leaves, twigs and bark. The main habitat is in Leuser National Park.

The most well known flower is the Rafflesia arnoldi, the biggest flower in the world. It is found only in certain parts of Sumatra. This plant is parasitic and grows on certain lianas but does not produce leaves. It can measure up to 1 meter in diameter and have 2 cm thick petals weighing up to 18 kg. The smell is awful.

The Orangutans were once living in almost all of Southeast Asia, between South China and Java. Today, however, they are only left in Borneo and Sumatra. 90% of the total orangutan population lives within the borders of Indonesia. Habitat loss and illegal pet trade seriously threaten their existence. The orangutan has, as a species, recently been re-classified. The two former sub-species are now considered to be two distinct species of orangutans. There are several sub-species. The densest area for orangutans is in Aceh Singkil, in the part of Leuser National Park called Rawah Singkil. In this area the orangutans use tools (sticks) to open fruits, a sign of basic culture. The word orangutan is from the Malay (Indonesian) Orang (Person) and Hutan (Forest). The Indonesian word is orang hutan. In many areas in Sumatra orangutan is also called Mawas. In some areas, like in South Tapanuli, the word orang hutan is often confused with other types of monkeys.

Bukit Lawang is famous for its orangutan rehabilitation center, where captured orangutans got a chance to return back to nature. When the training is finished they are released near the center where they are fed twice daily. The diet is monotonous in order to make them start looking for other food and eventually become independent of humans. The feedings are a major tourist attraction. If you go there, only go to the official feeding site.

On a narrow strip of land between Rawah Singkil and the Indian Ocean is the small isolated town of Kuala Baru. Eco-tourism will soon be developed here. Watching Orangutans and birds will be the major attractions.

Sea turtles have a heaven in Pulau Banyak on the west coast. The Amandangan beach on Pulau Bangkaru is the most important Green turtle rookery of Sumatra. Also Hawksbill turtles and Leatherback turtles lay egg there. The rare Dugong can also be seen in Pulau Banyak and the biggest island, Pulau Tuangku, probably has endemic reptiles.

Natural reserves in Sumatra

Sumatra is still covered with a lot of tropical rain forest. Unfortunately the forests are under constant pressure of timber companies and locals searching for a place to grow their crops. In recent years immense forest fires also caused a lot of destruction.

Gunung Leuser

Gunung Leuser reserve is 830,500 hectares in size and 500 to 3,500 meters above sea level, and can be reached by road from Medan, North Sumatera. Two research stations within the reserve function as an Orangutan Rehabilitation Station, providing a rare opportunity to see these great apes at close range.
A boat trip on the Alas River which flows through the reserve is a good way to see the rain forest habitat of endangered species of rhinos, orangutans, tigers and elephants. There are also gibbons, leaf monkeys, jungle cats, forest deer, otters, hornbills and argus pheasants. Serown (goat antelope) live in the mountain forests at higher altitudes.

South Sumatra

By road from Palembang or Tanjung Karang or from the Java-Sumatra ferry port at Bakeuheni. The reserve area includes most of the south western tip of Sumatra totaling 365,000 hectares, at a height of 1781 meters. There are turtle rookeries on the western beach, good forests both at lowlands and mountains in the northern end of the reserve. Wildlife includes gibbons, elephants, tapirs, pigs, deer and the occasional tiger.

Sibolangit Garden - North Sumatra

This North Sumatra garden was founded in 1974 and is situated at Sibolangit on the slopes of the volcano Sibayak at an altitude of about 500 m, it covers an area of 20 hectares (50 acres) and has a forest reserve of about 100 hectares (250 acres) with an altitude of between 300 and 550 m. Though historically falling under the jurisdiction of the Bogor Botanic Gardens, the Sibolangit Garden has for practical reasons, been given an independent status.

Since 2000 Sibolangit is not looked after anymore, the small house of the park warden covered with lianas. The trails are still there, but are also gradually retaken by the jungle.

Setia Mulia Garden - West Sumatra

Setia Mulia Garden was founded in 1955 at Padangtinggi and is situated on the slopes of the Bukit Barisan mountain range in West Sumatra. It covers an area of 60 hectares (150 acres) at an elevation of 350 to 900 m. Attached to it is a nature reserve of about 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres).

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