National Geographic : 1951 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine last day of school before the Ramadan holi days by going on a picnic hike along the rim of the Kerbauwengat (Buffalo Gorge), a deep ravine carved in the volcanic earth at the edge of the town (page 38). Mapwise, Sumatra is almost perfectly bal anced across the Equator. The line lies only a few miles north of Bukittinggi, but the con dition of the road northward discourages travel. Years ago when I visited Sumatra I rode by bus from Bukittinggi to Sibolga, around Lake Toba and to Medan. This time I had to re turn to Padang and fly across the island. It was a clear morning when we took off. Not a cloud covered the mountains, and, as we flew northward, I had a splendid view of the volcanoes. It was still clear when we crossed straight over the middle of Lake Toba. One can best gain an idea of the geography of the lake from the air. It reminded me of a Pacific atoll in reverse. Instead of being a ring of land surrounded by water, with a central lagoon, Toba is an oval of water surrounded by land, with more land in the middle (page 39). Though the lake is more than 50 miles long and a third as wide, it probably has a smaller water area than any lake of its size, for in its center rises Samosir Island, itself some 27 miles long and nearly half as wide (page 34). After reaching Medan, I motored back to Toba to see some of the Batak tribesmen who live in the region.* Most of the interesting old kampongs (vil lages) of the Bataks have vanished in recent years. But a few of the huge communal long houses still exist. They have tall thatch roofs, uptilted at the ends, and carved wooden gables. Buffalo horns decorate gable peaks of the houses and pavilioned outbuildings. It was Saturday, market day, when we vis ited Prapat, on the east shore of Lake Toba. Hundreds of Tobanese thronged into market, afoot, by bus, and by boat (page 33). Medan, administrative center for eastern Sumatra, is a spick-and-span modern town. Even the Chinese shop signs on many of its buildings fail to give it an Oriental appearance. The acres of tobacco (page 21) and the oil-palm and rubber plantations have made this portion of Sumatra highly prosperous. Elephant Shoves Truck off Road Northward from Medan are oil wells. Oil men searching for new sources in the wild Achin district in the north sometimes find more than just oil. On the trail one day a truckload of drillers sighted an elephant and stopped. The elephant also sighted them and came up to investigate. Apparently disliking the idea of the truck blocking the road, he began pushing on the front bumper and skidded the heavy vehicle backward. He then decided upon a new approach. Walking around to the side of the truck, he calmly shoved it off on the roadside and walked on! Fortunately, the car was not overturned. Unharmed, but with nerves a bit shaken, the drillers drove into camp. Tigers also roam Sumatra's northern bush trails. Pipe Lines Bring Oil to Palembang Leaving Medan, I flew southward to Palem bang, Sumatra's "oil capital," near the south ern end of the island. Though the west coast of Sumatra is moun tainous, its east coast is a low plain, trailing off into mangrove swamps. A fleet of islands lies off the coast, and on Bangka, particularly, are extensive tin mines. Palembang lies far from the coast, but it seems almost an aquatic town. Part of it stands on stilts along the banks of the broad, muddy Musi River; a sizable portion also floats on its waters (page 37). Innumerable floating houses are anchored near the banks by poles, so that they rise or fall with the stream but cannot drift away. Small sampans, houseboats, cargo boats, and big barges are legion. Plying up and down stream are ancient stern-wheelers. Big freighters and oil tankers likewise an chor in the river, for only a short distance outside town are two large refineries, one operated by Standard-Vacuum and the other by Shell. Oil is piped in from wells in the interior. Both refineries are virtually cities in them selves, for, although many of the workers live in town, hundreds of others live in trim com pounds. They have their own shops, markets, recreation centers, and schools. Palembang, like the Medan district, has oil palm groves and rubber plantations. While roaming outlying roads, I saw workmen col lecting oil-palm seeds and "milking" the rub ber trees (page 23). In my trip through Java, Bali, and Sumatra I found that the "wealth of the Indies" is no obsolete phrase. The new Republic feels that with the reins of government in its own hands Indonesia will continue to prosper. * See "By Motor Through the East Coast and Batak Highlands of Sumatra," by Melvin A. Hall, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1920.