Off the grid and far from Indonesia's tourist trails, an ancient people go about their lives as they have for centuries, writes Guy Needham.

"Hold on, I just need to scrape something off ... " My guide had removed his gumboot and was reaching for a knife.

Slowly he sliced the blade down his leg to remove the blood sucking leech that had attached itself to him. "Welcome to Mentawai!" he said with a broad grin.

The leech and I were on the island of Siberut in the Indian Ocean, 150km west of Sumatra, on one of Indonesia's 17,000 islands. I was there to spend a week living with the Mentawai tribe, a proud, independent hunter-gatherer people living off the land since the Stone Age.

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It is far from your typical holiday and only a few people make it this deep into the equatorial rainforest, and had I not been researching for an exhibition I doubt I would have heard of the tribe. So, here I was after three flights, one "fast" ferry, one motorcycle ride, three hours on a motorised canoe, and two hours tramping through mud. No electricity, no cellphone, no internet, no bedding, no toilet, no running water.

"Anai loita" welcomed the tough, wiry sikerei (medicine man) who wore nothing more than a loin cloth, as his intricately tattooed hands firmly gripped mine.

Photo / Guy Needham
Photo / Guy Needham

Aman Teutagougou was to be my host for the next few days, and after pointing out where in the uma (long house) I could leave my backpack - just under the monkey skulls hanging from the door frame - it was time to look around. The most striking thing about the Mentawai is their appearance. Aman Teutagougou, like other Mentawai men, had tattoos over his body representing the tree of life.

The tattoos - which are tapped out painfully with needle and ink - each take a week. The men all have the same designs and start with the Sun, symbolising life. The final tattoo applied is to the face, signifying "I am finished".

Perhaps more disconcerting to the Westerner eye is the Mentawai women's teeth. In a show of traditional beauty women sharpen their teeth to a point, which the Mentawai men find attractive.

A beaming Bai Ibuk proudly flashed me her chiselled molars one night, as the jungle rains came down hard outside.

The Mentawai consider themselves Keepers of the Rainforest and are at one with nature. They are entirely self-sufficient, taking only what they need from the world around them.
I saw bark from the breadfruit tree being stripped to make loincloths, water channelled to make sago, special leaves picked to mix poison for arrows, and leftover chicken bones fed through the floor boards to the snorting pigs below.

What living with the Mentawai lacked in creature comforts, it made up for in spirits.

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Literally. Whereas the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, the 64,000 Mentawai still follow a type of animalism called sibulngan, which worships the four main nature spirits of the sky, sea, jungle and earth. It was these spirits that were called upon when I was sick with fever towards the end of my trip.

Ill, sweating, shaking, lying on a thin mattress under a mosquito net, I awoke feeling pressure on my stomach. Struggling to open my eyes, I could just make out a man kneeling over me pushing his hands into my abdomen.

Photo / Guy Needham
Photo / Guy Needham

He lifted my head and poured a crushed concoction of berries, leaves, water and dirt into my dry mouth. Delirious, I wondered why he was wearing my watch ...

When I awoke the next day I was told that the medicine man who came to see me was Aman Toikok, a village elder I had met at the start of my trip and to whom I had given my watch.

He heard that I was sick, and made the three-hour walk to my uma to call to the spirits of the sky to heal me.

Although I was grateful for the relief, officially the Mentawai are not allowed to practice medicine, nor their indigenous religion. Pressure from the Indonesian government, including a 1950s decree prohibiting such customs, and the construction of "government villages" with schools, amenities, healthcare and free houses to entice the Mentawai from the jungle, are threating the tribe's lifestyle and simple values.

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Today the Mentawai people have to work harder than ever to preserve their ancient unique culture. Leeches and all.

• The 'Mentawai of Indonesia' photographic exhibition by Guy Needham is on at Studio 541, 541 Mt Eden Rd, from October 25 to November 12. The exhibition is a testament to their simple way of life and pure priorities, contrasting their uncluttered lives with ours.

Photo / Guy Needham
Photo / Guy Needham

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Qantas

flies from Auckland to Ujung Pandang, codeshare with Garuda Indonesia, via Sydney and Jakarta. Return Economy Class fares start from $1815.

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