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Bagging South Sumatra’s highest peak

Looming over the Pasemah Highlands, Gunung Dempo is the highest peak in South Sumatra Province, and one of the dominant mountains of the southern Bukit Barisan Range. The climb to the summit is tough, but relatively straightforward; there are good water-sources along the trail, and if you arrange motor transport to and from the true trailhead it would be possible to bag the peak in one long day.

Dempo is best approached from the east, from the little upland town of Pagaralam, around six hours by road from Palembang, the regional capital, and a similar distance from Bengkulu, the main town in the neighbouring province. The countryside around Pagaralam is very attractive; there are some traditional villages, and a large number of carved megaliths and stone chamber tombs, strangely reminiscent of the Bronze Age monuments on Europe’s Celtic Fringe.

Dempo dominates the region. According to traditional beliefs its summit is the receptacle for the souls of departed ancestors, ruled over by a powerful deity called Puyang Raja Nyawe. Animal sacrifices are reportedly still made occasionally on the mountain, and trekkers are advised to be on their best behaviour while climbing!

The peak is a popular destination for student mountaineering clubs from Palembang, as evidenced by a certain amount of litter and graffiti on the slopes, and there is a well-worn – though by no means easy – trail to the summit.

The lower eastern slopes are cloaked in a huge state-owned tea plantation, and access roads lead right up to the tree-line. The most popular route to the summit starts near the small transmigrant plantation-workers’ village of Kampung Empat, deep in the tea gardens and well over 1000 metres above sea level. Public minibuses only run as far as the tea factory much further downhill, but you’d be strongly advised to organize transport at least as far as the turn-off to Kampung Empat, if not to the village itself – the alternative would be a very long slog up along a metalled road.

Gunung Dempo's true summit

The track that branches off this metalled road to the left towards Kampung Empat is not signposted, but drivers from Pagaralam should know it, and if not there are always plantation workers around to ask. It is possible to drive all the way to Kampung Empat, but the walk along the track – around five kilometres, running level along the contours between the tea bushes – would be pleasant. There is one junction before the village – take the right-hand fork.

A couple of hundred metres along the track beyond the village (a neat cluster of white buildings which has no shops, but which does have one small, hard-to-find warung with erratic opening hours serving instant noodles and coffee) close to a stream on the edge of the forest, is a small wooden hut, known rather ambitiously as “Resort”. Student groups climbing Dempo usually camp out here and start for the peak at around 2am. If you are not a fan of night-time climbing, and are looking to bag the peak with a single up-and-down assault during daylight hours you would want to start from Resort at first light. The spot is about an hour from Pagaralam town by motorbike.

The real trail to the summit starts about a kilometre further south along the track from Resort. A narrow path leads uphill to the right through the upper tea gardens. It would be easy to miss, were it not marked by a large green signboard warning in Indonesian that the forest is a protected area.

After a short climb through the tea bushes you reach Pintu Rimba (marked by a faded signboard) where the trail abruptly enters the thick forest that covers the slopes of Dempo. This first section of the trail is actually the least clear. The vegetation is thick and there are plenty of branches to duck under or scramble over. The trail itself, however, would be hard to miss as it is deeply eroded by water in places into deep gouges, which are not pleasant to walk along. It is also intermittently marked with strips of plastic twine tied to branches.

Later the trail improves, but becomes much steeper, and the whole route up through the forest is characterised by exposed roots and some very steep sections requiring scrambling.

Moving at a moderately sustained pace, it is about an hour from Pintu Rimba to “Shelter 1”. There is, in fact, no shelter here, but there is a small clearing marked by some plaques nailed to trees and some litter left by student trekkers. There is also a water-source, a little way down a slope to the right (if facing uphill).

Stone circles on Gunung Dempo's summit

From Shelter 1 the trail continues very steeply through thick forest, with more exposed roots to scramble over. Moving quickly it is about another hour from Shelter 1 to Shelter 2. Again there is no actual shelter – just some litter, burnt-out campfires, plaques nailed to trees, and again, a water-source a little way downhill to the right.

Shelter 2 is still in the forest, but the vegetation has changed here. There is less dense tropical greenery, and the branches are draped with the feathery grey lichen known locally as jengot angin, “beard of the wind”, and in English as “old man’s beard”. It is also high enough to be seriously cold at night.

From Shelter 2 to the False Summit is around 1.5 hours. The trail remains very steep, but towards the top the vegetation falls back a little and the first proper view since leaving the tea gardens opens. If the weather is clear the dark ridges of the massif that makes up Gunung Patah should be visible to the east. If you have set out from Resort at 2am, you should be approaching the False Summit at sunrise.

The false summit

The False Summit is a rather underwhelming little hillock, still thickly cloaked with stunted trees. There are more plaques nailed to branches here, and a second trail – reportedly slightly shorter, and starting from a paragliding take-off point at the very end of the metalled road through the tea gardens – cuts in from the north. The true summit – or rather the outer slope of the crater rim – is visible through the trees however.

From the False Summit there is a short, steep descent westwards through gnarled, lichen-covered trees to a broad, stony plateau. There is a water-source in a gully here, reportedly reliable year-round. The plateau would make a very fine camping spot for those making a two-day assault on Dempo – though be aware that it is around 3000 metres above sea level, with temperatures to match…

Physically the final climb up a fairly gentle stony slope to the crater rim is the easiest part of the whole route since leaving the tea gardens, but it is high enough for the effects of altitude to be palpable. From the rim a view down into a deep crater with a blue-grey lake opens, with a line of forested ridges running away to the west beyond it. This actual apex of Dempo is known locally as Merapi. To the southwest, on a clear day, the coastline of Bengkulu Province is visible, as is the Gunung Patah Massif to the east.

View from the top

The highest point on the crater rim lies to the right and is easily accessible, though a full circuit of the rim does not appear to be feasible.

Because of the steepness and roughness of the trail through the forest, the descent from the summit can take almost as long as the ascent (though rest stops will probably be shorter). Six hours is generally suggested as a typical journey time for the ascent from Pintu Rimba/Resort to the summit (though it is possible to do it in four if moving fast), while four hours is usually quoted for the descent. But even fit, experienced trekkers would be advised to allow around 12 hours – including rest stops and time at the summit – for the complete return trip from Resort/Pintu Rimba.

On the return journey, unless you have made prior arrangements, transport from Kampung Empat will be tricky, and you’ll likely have to walk out at least as far as the metalled road, and possibly all the way down to the tea factory (though you may be lucky enough to hitch a ride out with a plantation truck).

More of Indonesia’s mountains at

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