The buffalo bathe at the mouth of the river, even on the beach. Not only one, but thousands with shepherd boys on their backs. The sound of their laughter accompanies the sight of the setting sun being swallowed by the horizon of the Indian Ocean.
I enjoy the afternoon colorful panorama from the small island of Simeulue. They call the island “Simeulue Ate Fulawan”, which means the “island of the golden heart”. This island, which is situated in the south west of Aceh, is 150 km from the west coast of Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Simeulue is the main island of the Simeulue regency which consists of islands about 100 km in length.
Simeulue Regency consists of 41 islands of various sizes. It has 85.000 inhabitants. The capital city is Sinabang (known as sinafang locally) which means gun or firearms. In earlier times, it was the base camp for Dutch soldiers. The Dutch name for the city was Sibigo. During colonial times, Sibigo was the location of rasak wood, a hard wood, equal to mahogany, that was sent to Holland by sea.
Due to its geographically isolated position, the conflict between the guerillas (GAM) and Indonesian military (TNI) didn’t affect the island.
The people of Simeulue use three main languages in their daily life, Ulau, Sibigo and Jamee. Ulau (meaning island language) is mainly used by people living in East Simeulue, South Teupah, West Teupah, Main Simeulue and Teluk Dalam. Sibigo is used in West Simeulue, Alafan dan Salang, while Jamee (guest language) is used by the inhabitants of Sinabang, and the surroundings, who are mainly immigrants from Minangkabau Area, West Sumatra, and Mandailing in North Sumatra.
The Simeulue have their own traditions and cultures, different from those of their relations in Aceh. One of these is nandong, singing accompanied by tabla and violins, usually performed at special events. Then there is debus, a martial art, where the fighters are immune to attack, stabs of a sword, being whipped by hot chains, bamboo and other sharp weapons. This art has led to Simeulue fighters being invited abroad.
The Susi Air Cessna aeroplane left Polonia Airport in Medan at 17.00. The aeroplane with a capacity of 12 people is the most practical way of reaching Simeulue from Medan. The alternative route is the land route from Medan, passing the ring of fire of Bukit Barisan Mountain range, followed by a boat from Aceh Singkil or Tapaktuan. The water route is often problematic due to storms.
From Aceh Singkil, one can take the ASDP KMP Singkil ferry from the Pulo Sorak harbour to Sinabang Bay in Simeulue. It takes 12 hours. The boat only sails twice a week, on Saturdays, and Mondays at 19.30 from Simeulue to Singkil and returning on Wednesdays and Sundays at 18.00.
Leaving from Haji Tapaktuan Harbour in South Aceh the KMP Teluk Sinabang Ferry takes 10 hours. The schedule from Simeulue menuju Tapaktuan is Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday at 22.00. The return route is on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 22.00. The tickets for both routes are the same: VIP Rp 65,000, Business Class Rp 55,000, dan Economy Class Rp 35,000.
On this afternoon, our Cessna is only got 7 passengers. One of them is a mother with a two year old on her lap. Just kilometers before the coast of Simeulue Island, the plane is rocked by a storm of dark clouds and strong winds. The mother prays her crying child.
One of the pilots--both of the pilots are westerners--looks round at the crying passenger and tries to calm them with rather confused Indonesian. The Susi Air flight uses comparatively new planes, made in 2003 and 2005 respectively and have modern weather detection radars. However sometimes it is difficult to avoid thick clouds.
Approaching the coast, the pilot intends to land at Lasikin airport, but the weather is so bad the pilot can’t see. The plane circles a number of times before landing. At a height of about 6 times of a coconut tree, the plane is blown so hard by the wind, that it is blown a metres up into the air.
Fortunately, we land safely but a little bumpily. My heart beats fast. Indeed, a number of passengers who come from Simeulue, say that the weather in November and December is usually quite bad. I remember that I have planned 2 journeys at those times.
On my second trip, I fly early in the morning, before sunrise. I purposely take that flight to avoid storms. It is heaven for a hobby photographer like myself, the view of Sumatra’s landscape is amazing as it passes Mount Sibayak, Sinabung and the internationally renown Leuser National Park. The photo of the mountains with its blue light is a successful shot, unearthly in its brilliant blue hue. However, as we pass the coastal line of Simeulue Island, a storm strikes. The storm causes the plane to circle 3 times, as the pilot can’t see through the thick clouds.
There are three companies plying the route Medan–Simeulue: Merpati with its CN- 235 costing about Rp 500,000-Rp 600,000, NBA (previously SMAC) for Rp 550,000-Rp 650,000, the Susi Air Cessna PropJet at Rp 650,000-Rp 750,000.
The Susi Air plane flies 2 to 4 times a day, according to season. The morning flights are at 06.40 and 07.20, while the afternoon flights are at 16.00-17.00. The flights to Simeulue are sometimes delayed when local government needs the planes for one reason or another.
The Simeulue Islands are located on the meeting point of the three biggest plates in the world, the Asian, Australian and Indian Ocean tectonic plates. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami on the 26th of December, 2004 with its epicenter just west of Simeulue, caused serious damage.
Four months after the tsunami in March 2005, an 8.7 richter earthquake caused heavy damage to 7,500 buildings, the hospital and government buildings. However, there were only 8 deaths at this time.
It seems that the local people have often experienced disasters called smong in the local language (the previous tsunami happened in 1907), where a big earthquake followed by a sudden and drastic drop in water levels, which caused all the inhabitants to seek higher ground. Another natural sign of smong is that farm animals such as buffalo, goats and cows will run to higher ground.
All around Simeulue Island there are hills about 20 to 60 metres above sea level. The hills are only 100 to 500 metres away from the sea, which is where most of the villages are located. It only takes around 5 to 10 minutes to reach the hilly areas from the villages so that the Simeulue people can be safe from tsunami. Whenever there are victims, they are usually caused by earthquake where the victims are buried by falling buildings.
The Buffalos and the Airport
The Lasikin Airport is unique. The facilities of this terminal, which was built by the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Committee in 2007, can only facilitate light aircraft. Waiting in the pink, grey and yellow terrace of the airport, I see an airport employee busily shooing away buffalo that have entered the airport area. A friend of mine tells that before the fences were built around the airport, buffalos often caused problems for landing planes. At that time, the employees would have to shoo away the buffalo before giving the signal for landing.
In one corner of the airport, I see the washing of one of the local inhabitants hung out to dry. Underpants floating in the wind on the fence of the airport. Truly a unique airport.
In Sinabang town, there is a bay which has an amazing view. The harbour for passenger ferries is located here. The harbour is fenced off to the right and left. In the centre, the water looks like a gate or door for passenger ferries to enter the harbour, or bay.
In the morning and afternoon, the bay is decorated with many small islands, where the fishermen leave for and return from the open sea. Amongst the traditional fishing boats, there are still some who use homemade plastic sailing boats.
Sinabang Bay has two docks. The first is for ferries for crossing. This ferry can carry an excavator. The second dock is known locally as Pertamina Harbour. Here, medium sized wooden boats load and unload, mainly cement from Bayur Bay in Padang, and Rotan from Simeulue, going to Cirebon on Java. At dusk, the roasted corn on the cob is sold by sellers mingling among the young couples and families who have come to enjoy the view. Hanging out is an old culture here.
In the beginning the small town of Sinabang was only about 1 kilometre square, with only minimum tourism facilities. These conditions were not conducive for foreign or domestic tourism despite the natural beauty of Simeulue. However, the earthquake and tsunami in 2004 caused a number of people to visit during the rehabilitation process. 1,000s of people from many nations needed a place to stay. Hotels began to spring up. Restaurants developed simple guesthouses on their second floors. The price per night in Sinabang varies from Rp 85.000- 250.000 per night.
There are two culinary alternatives in Sinabang. The first includes the small traditional “warung” (local cafes) where locals eat with normal prices, the second being special restaurants only open at night. The prices of the latter are quite high when compared to other areas in North Sumatra and Aceh. During the rehabilitation period, these places were frequented by local and international NGO workers. The flood of visitors caused inflation. However the prices here have always been higher than on the mainland, due to the supplies of food stuffs having to be imported.
If you looking carefully, there are a number of people selling speciality products, such as turtle eggs. According to them, the turtle eggs sold are not amongst protected species.
One of Simeulue’s potentials is its lobsters. So it’s not surprising if Susi Pudjiastuti, a well-known investor in lobsters, uses their armada of aeroplanes to collect the lobsters on this island so that they will arrive in a fresh condition. Simeulue lobsters are well-known amongst the rich abroad.
Across from Salur Island, there is a small island which Susi owns. The island is called Susi Island. The lobsters from this island are well-suited as a souvenir for visitors, because it is of course much cheaper to buy it at its source than in expensive restaurants in big cities. In Sinabang, the lobsers cost about Rp150,000 to 200,000 per kg. However if you make the journey to Kampung Air, about 45 minutes away by motorbike, they are even cheaper, only Rp 75,000- 120,000 per kg, depending on the size of the lobster.
If you wish to bring a lobster home, it must be cushioned in soft, dry sand so that this culinary primadonna can survive up to a week. I have proven this fact, by bringing 2 kgs of lobster back to Medan. Contrary to logic, if the sand gets wet the lobster will die. Strange but true.
The Buffalos and the Beach
Buffalo herding on Simeulue is a fantastic sight. There are buffalos everywhere. Around the island, in the hills, at the mouth of the river, on the beach, buffalos can even be seen grazing inside the fences of government buildings. Though it is usual to see buffalos in rivers and canals, here, they graze on the beach like people on holiday.
The buffalos here like to graze on the beach because there is fresh water only 10 metres from the beach. The farmers only catch the buffalos when its time to sell or slaughter them. Adult buffalos here are sold for Rp 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 each, while in mainland Sumatra the price range is Rp 11,000,000 to Rp 16,000,000 per buffalo, depending on the size and quality. The buffalos are smaller, but are tastier and more beautiful here.
Another unique fact about farming on Simeulue is that the goats have a 75 centimetre thick collar of wood or rattan around their necks. Nearly every goat is given this “necklace” so that they don’t enter fields where crops are planted. The fields here are usually surrounded by fences. If the goats try to enter the fields, they will get stuck in the fences due to the collars around their necks. Local wisdom inherited from their ancestors.
About 15 minutes south of Sinabang, one can reach Salur Beach, located on the west side of Simeulue Island. Along the trip, one can experience the friendliness and naivety of the local inhabitants who beep their horns at us, despite our being strangers. Mothers are busy checking their kids heads for lice in the shade of trees along the beach. However, it is not surprising that we have to avoid hundreds of buffalo pats along the road. At dusk, vehicles need to be extra careful to avoid buffalos which suddenly choose to cross the road.
We enjoy the setting sun over the sea while chatting to fishermen fixing their nets under the trees, a natural tourist attraction giving us a sense of peace and tranquility. A girl cycling past with long hair and a small pointy nose and tanned skin completes the landscape of Salur Beach.
A warung (small, local café) on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the beach is a favourite place for visitors to order timpan or fresh curried sea fish. The islanders are well known to be choosy when it comes to fish and meat. They don’t eat beef. At wedding parties and traditional ceremonies, only buffalo meat is acceptable to show the host’s status.
While enjoying the curried fish at a warung on the cliffs above Salur Island on the 20th of December 2009, suddenly the small buildings of the warungs shook. The warung was falling down! We ran out, confused. Only a small earthquake (4,7 Richter)I looked at the owner of the warung closest to the cliff edge. He didn’t seem phased at all—apparently small earthquakes such as this are weekly occurrences here. They are used to it.
A 15 minute drive south-west of Salur Beach brings you to Angkeo Beach. The villages here experienced the worst damage during the tsunami. Nearly all the buildings were destroyed. So it is not surprising that there is a monument erected here to commemorate the damage done by that awful disaster.
On the other hand, this beach provides a different atmosphere. This beach with its stony cliffs is a beautiful object for photography. Just off the beach is a stony island with only three trees. A beautiful frame for photographing the setting son. The stony island is very similar to Tanah Lot in Bali. Fishermen ply the seas on the golden waters.
It is my opinion that if Simeulue is looked after well, the island could soon compete with Bali. If Indonesia has Bali at the centre, Raja Ampat and Sangir Talaut in the West, why can’t we have Simeulue in the west?