Daylight is peeking over Sumatra. I am just three degrees south of the equator, but high on the slopes of Mount Dempo, it is bitterly cold.
A sharp breeze is cutting through a sky streaked with clouds. Far below, the city of Pagaralam and the rest of the Pasemah Highlands are a creamy haze, while the dark hulk of Mount Patah looms over the tiger-haunted forests to the south.
It has been almost four hours since we started our climb, struggling upward through a tangle of roots and creepers, but now we have broken free of the tropical forest. Stunted bushes strewn with the gray-green lichen known as jengot angin, or “beard of the wind,” dot these stony slopes. We pause for a moment to watch the sun slip swiftly over a vast cloudscape.
My two companions — a mountaineer called Maman and a student hiker from Palembang named Cokie — shiver and warm their hands in their pockets as we take in the view.
Then we turn our backs to the panorama and make our way up into the thinning air. Somewhere ahead, still out of view, is the summit of Sumatra’s third highest mountain.
My first view of Dempo had come two days earlier, from the more benign environment of the ripening rice fields on the edge of Pagaralam. Rising 3,173 meters above the fringe of the forest, it was a tantalizing prospect.
But before tackling the summit, I wanted to explore the region that surrounded the peak — the Pasemah Highlands, a beautiful but rarely visited corner of South Sumatra.
Seven hours west of the provincial capital, Palembang, the highlands are surrounded by the southern Bukit Barisan mountain range, far from tourist trails and beaten tracks.
Pagaralam, the only town in the area, lies some 600 meters above sea level and features tea gardens and strawberry farms. If this was in Java, it would be swarming with tourists every weekend. But I had it almost to myself.
Highland clans in the 19th century were known to be hostile to outsiders. But things have changed; the people in Tanjung Aru village on the outskirts of Pagaralam are friendly and helpful to strangers.
Carved megaliths — basalt chiseled into the shapes of men, elephants, bulls and tigers — dot the rice fields all over these South Sumatran uplands.
Up close, one carving seemed like a chaos of loops and ridges, weathered by centuries of rain. But as I stepped back, it took the form of a man locked in the coils of a huge serpent.
No one knows who carved these strange statues or for what purpose. The oldest are thought to date back some 3,000 years. The more recent buildings of the Pasemah Highlands are remarkable, too.
In the village of Pelang Kenida, south of Pagaralam, I saw some of the finest examples of traditional architecture. In the old days, the houses here were built from rough-cut timber and had stilts — a precaution from the days when wild tigers sometimes strayed into the settlements from the forest.
The gables were topped with a V-shaped motif representing buffalo horns. The walls and buttresses had long strips of floral patterns and mandala-like whorls.
The villagers said all the houses in the region used to be decorated this way, but traditional building techniques had been forgotten.
The surviving carved houses are half a century old — and if they succumb to rot and termites, these fascinating traditions will be lost forever.
While this art may be under threat of extinction, visitors will be heartened to know that another Pagaralam craft is still widely practiced.
On a narrow side street at the town market, a row of workshops make kuduk, the emblematic local dagger. These were essential in more bloodthirsty times, but even in the absence of clan wars, the blade is still an essential tool for every highland man.
In a dark, smoky space behind one of the workshops, I saw two men hammering a glowing blade fresh from the forge. Pausing for a moment from their work, they told me that they could make about 15 of these knives in a day.
After touring the settlements around Pagaralam, it was time to tackle that looming, irrestistible peak of Mount Dempo. I had been lucky enough to cross paths with Maman, an Indonesian who regards himself as a “mountaineering fanatic.”
He said he had climbed volcanoes all over Indonesia, but Dempo remained his favorite. He was heading for the summit yet again with a friend from Palembang and he invited me to tag along.
The trail was high above Pagaralam on the edge of a vast tea estate which had been established during the Dutch colonial era. The descendants of the Javanese migrants, brought in by the Dutch to work on the plantation, still live in neat white villages amid the tea bushes.
We spent the evening drinking coffee in a ramshackle mountaineers’ hut on the edge of the forest. As darkness fell and a pale moon rose over the mountains, Maman said locals believed a sacred aura surrounded Mount Dempo — which, like so many other mountains in the country, is traditionally viewed as a receptacle for the souls of departed ancestors.
Legend has it that the mountain is guarded by a deity called Puyang Raja Nyawe.
The highlands have long since converted to Islam, but a belief in evil tiger spirits still lingers. These beings, known as masumai , are said to still haunt the forests surrounding the mountain.
They are said to be able to transform themselves into beautiful women to lead travelers astray. For this reason, Maman said, many locals are reluctant to climb the peak.
It was stunningly cold, even with the first light of dawn warming our backs. As we cross a low hillock in a dense thicket — often mistaken for the summit — and scramble down a steep slope beyond toward a stony plateau, studded with little cairns and bushes, I struggle to catch my breath in the thin air.
Villagers sometimes make pilgrimages here, where they sacrifice goats and chickens to the mountain spirits, according to Maman.
After a while, the summit is almost within reach, but altitude and exhaustion begin to take their toll. The final ascent over stony slopes was painfully slow.
And then, at last, we reach the crater rim and a great bowl of broken rock with a pool of slate-gray water at its base opens below.
Shreds of dark cloud streak past, and dust devils pirouette across the scree. Away to the west, beyond a mesh of interlocking green ridges, I can make out the pale line of the Indian Ocean coast.
North and south, the long line of the Bukit Barisan Range runs on. And to the east, a dense covering of cloud, blanketing Pagaralam and the tea gardens, is turning a coppery gold beneath the rising sun.
It is a magnificent panorama, and as I stand there, I am sure that the cold, the aching legs and the risk of marauding spirit tigers were all worth it.