March was drawing to a close and I wanted to do something before a planned trip to India in April. Kok Hui had a week of school holidays, and then Jia Sheng noticed that Garuda was having a 2 day sale on tickets!
The decision process wasn’t lengthy, I’ve been hearing about the wonders of Gunung Kerinci for years, and now there was an opportunity. Kerinci here we come ! We put the trip together quickly just 10 days before departure. It is an easy trip to plan, just get airline tickets and contact Pak Subandi who has the most well known home-stay and is also an excellent bird guide.
On March 15, 2013, we were off. Some years ago there was a direct flight from Singapore to Padang at less than an hour and for a period recently there was also a direct flight, but not currently. Still Garuda was inexpensive, it just took time. Seven hours from Singapore to Padang for what used to be a one hour flight ! Grrr, anyway you still haven’t reached your destination once you arrive in Padang, from there it is a 6 to 8 hour drive through bumpy mountains roads all of about 200 km, but very slow depending on traffic and how aggressive your driver is!
The drive is scenic, passing through highland villages, tea plantations, oranges, potatoes, corn, cabbages (lots) and some mountain rice. This is the heartland of Minangkabau culture and we saw several examples of very fine architecture, here is just one.
The drive passes around the North side of Gunung Kerinci. As shown on the map the road zig zags around the north side forming the shape of a W, which is where the reference to the waterfalls at the W comes from. Reportedly a Giant Swiftlet can be seen here, but we didn’t go for this bird, and it wasn’t seen by another birder we talked to so it may not be a sure thing.
The route from Padang, in West Sumatra province, can be seen in Yellow. Subandi’s home-stay is at the red dot South of Gunung Kerinci summit in the small village of Kersik Tua (3000 population) which is actually in Jambi province. After leaving Singapore at 7:30 am local time we finally arrived at Subandi’s home-stay at around 9 pm. What a long day !
This was to be the start of a week of long days. Up the next morning for breakfast at 5:30 am, we were off to Kerinci at 6:00 am. By the way, standard breakfast seems to be banana pancakes and Indonesian style coffee. Kerinci is the tallest volcano in all of Indonesia, standing 3805 meters tall. Bring some layered cloths, it can be chilly in the morning, I guess around 18 degrees Celsius at Subandi’s but you will quickly warm up as you start climbing. Just a dog leg to the right of Subandi’s is the entrance road (in pink on the map). A concrete tiger marks the track, taken on a rainy afternoon.
Actually our first morning was splendid. You drive in about 5 kilometers through tea plantations and other agricultural crops, most of which used to be national park but have been nibbled away over the years. Reaching the farthest point you can go by road you will have a 15 minute walk to the forest edge. Here we are walking in from the car park to the forest edge, Gunung Kerinci is venting steam in the distance.
We arrived at the forest edge at about 6:30 am. The trail-head is about 1500 meters elevation and you step from agricultural land into a closed canopy primary rainforest. It’s actually a mossy forest as it is high enough and cool enough that almost every tree is covered with moss. The trail is not wide and the canopy is unbroken except for the occasional natural tree fall. The trail isn’t rocky, there are tree roots, but the soil is soft rich volcanic soil. We start hiking in to Base Camp, which is the first in a series of marked resting points along the route to the summit. It’s probably about a 1 km hike from the forest edge to base camp and a slow climb of perhaps 200 meters. We are all carrying packs. You must have rain gear, water, food, flashlights, the whole nine yards. This isn’t Orchard Road. I’m also carrying a 300mm f2.8 lens, a Nikon D4 and a couple of TC’s. It’s a heavy pack. The guide is taking my lightweight tripod. We are just about 20 minutes into our trek to base camp when the guide stops, and signals and points to a P I T T A. Yikes, everything is in my pack, quickly unzipping and grabbing my bins I am staring at a male Schneider’s Pitta perched on a branch not far away!
This is really incredibly lucky, one of the most sought after birds in Kerinci, a bird some folks spend days looking for, and here it is 20 minutes into our first day, and there is a stunning male! My hands fumble with my camera gear as I try to assemble lens and body without breaking either. Finally the camera is assembled, but the bird has flown to a further perch, oh well, I get off just five shots under really dark dawn forest conditions, but at least I have seen and documented this great bird
Now the photographer in me wanted to stay here the entire day to try for better shots, but I’m a good sport and I can see the guide and Kok Hui want to go off and find some endemic little brown birds, so off we go. We get up to Base Camp which isn’t fancy, but does have a rain shelter (this will be handy). Here we pause for a brief rest, and I take the time to send out the mandatory bragging rights post to Facebook on the Schneider’s Pitta sighting! Pretty amazing, high on an active volcano in many spots you can get a cell phone signal and Internet. It’s because this side of the volcano faces the village which has pretty good cell phone service.
All around we are tormented by Rusty-breasted Wren-babblers, they are calling everywhere and we all get views, but for the entire trip I can never get a photo! They are really rascals and also endemic to Sumatra. Kerinci is wren babbler heaven, there are Pygmy, Eye-browed, Rusty-breasted, Marbled and Sumatran (at least, maybe more).
Ascending slowly we pass through several rest stops, Sumber Air, Camp Cochoa, Pos 3 and then Burnt Tree. Arriving at Burnt Tree around 2 pm the others want to go higher, to First Camp on the summit route, but I’ve had enough so I stay at Burnt Tree. Burnt Tree is about 2,350 meters elevation, a pretty good climb from the forest edge at 1,500 meters.
They said they will only be gone for 45 minutes, but they are actually gone for twice that. The only reason for being up so high is for the Sumatran Cochoa, which exists only on the higher portions of the trail; and although not a glamorous bird like the pitta has it’s own unique history of having been lost and only recently found again in the mid 1990s. Around 2:30 pm it starts to drizzle a bit, I have a premonition, but I decide it would be unfriendly to descend and leave them up here. So I wait. About 10 minutes before they show up, I heard the cochoa, but I think it must be them playing tape so I don’t look very hard. Then they show up about 3:30pm and it wasn’t them playing tape. We wait, and finally everyone hears the cochoa but it is quite far off.
The skys are not welcoming. The thunder is real. Finally the guide realizes it is time to start down. We get down to Pos 3 where there is another rain shelter. By now the drizzle has turned into rain. We have 1.5 hours hike down the mountain before we get out. We get drenched, the shoes I wore on that day didn’t try until I got back to Singapore a week later! I loose my voice recorder, I slip and fall three times, but it’s only soft volcanic soil so nothing bruised except the ego. The others don’t have completely water proof jackets, I have a cheap plastic raincoat which is completely waterproof, camera stays dry.
Finally we are down and out around 5:30 pm, time for a beer :-) But what a great day, we got the Schneider’s ! My pre-trip wish list was for three colorful endemics, two pittas and one trogon. I knew the Schneider’s would be the most difficult, and we already had it.
Since both of us were pretty hammered from the mountain, the plan for the next day was to be Tapan Road, a piece of cake by comparison. A bit like Telecom Loop at Fraser’s Hill, and it is surprising how many of the same birds are around, including Long-tailed Broadbills, Fire-tufted Barbets, Greater Yellownapes … but there are also many different birds including a couple of endemic bulbuls and of course the pitta and trogon. Setting off from Subandi home-stay around 5 am it takes 1.5 hours to drive the route marked in green to Sungai Penuh and then another thirty minutes from Sungai Penuh (90,000 population) up to Tapan Pass and the start of the national park. Here is an early morning scene near the top of Tapan Pass.
A rather foggy start to the day, with Sumatran Pigeon, Sumatran Treepie, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Ashy Drongo, Fire-tufted Barbet, and White-browed Shrike-babbler appearing but under poor light, the guide finally took us to the first pitta gully. About 15 minutes of whistling later, the pitta appeared and we were summoned for a look. The pitta put on quite a show not more than about 2 meters away, but from a photographic perspective there were some leaves in the way which put a damper on some really close up detailed shots.
Eventually we went on down to the famous Marbled Wren Babbler gully, and sure enough a pair were there. We got several glimpses, but for me not really satisfying views nor any photos, a really skulking bird, but definitely there and very vocal. After this we worked our way back up Tapan Road and I got a Hill Prinia. Getting back to Subandi’s home-stay around 8 pm, our dinner was waiting, a bath and then a few hours sleep until our next wake up at 5:30 am for the second ascent of Gunung Kerinci.
On our way up to Base Camp the Schneider’s Pitta could be heard calling from the same area as we saw him on the first day, but no luck seeing him today. Once we got to base camp I let the others go further up and I spent the day going between the up and down from the Base Camp area. There was lots of activity until around 10 am then things started to get quiet. Around 2:30 pm it started to drizzle and again I had another premonition. But once again I delayed my departure out of deference to the two still higher on the mountain. Finally around 3:30 pm the drizzle had picked up again and I made my way down, getting out by about 4:30 pm and by then the rain was very steady. It turns out Kok Hui and the guide got drenched again making their way down, glad it wasn’t me!
For our fourth day we went back to Tapan Road with Subandi, taking another break from the summit trail. I wanted just 2 birds, Graceful Pitta and Sumatran Trogon. We tried at a couple of spots for the Graceful, but although his whistle worked, the pitta just dashed across the viewing spot, so no luck here. At almost a 5 pm Subandi and Kok Hui found a single Sumatran Trogon down a steep hillside just barely visible in the distance. And then as if by magic there were four trogons, and they moved in the trees near us for 30 minutes and lots of photo opportunities. One more of the pre-trip wish list satisfyingly seen and photographed.
Generally Tapan Road is all down hill from Tapan Pass. So the strategy is to get out of the car and walk a few kilometers down hill, and then have the car pick you up and ferry you to the next point of interest, and so on. You can go quite far and descend to just a few hundred meters elevation with the bird life changing as you descend. Although about the farthest we went was to the second bridge at 970 meters marked on the map above. And unlike Telecom Loop at Fraser’s Hill there is a lot of truck traffic here, so whatever bird you are looking at or trying to photograph might get flushed as a truck approaches. Besides fruits and vegetables being taken to market, Tapan Road is the major route to bring petroleum products up to the mountain villages and Sungai Penuh. The trucks seem to travel in a convoy of three.
Planning ahead for our fifth day Kok Hui and I both agreed we wanted another day at Tapan Road, both of us feeling the effects of Kerinci. On the way back we stopped in Sungai Penuh for some Panadol, as I was really suffering from a head cold. This done we got back to the home-stay around 9 pm and set off again for Tapan Road by 4:30 am!
After some early morning birding, not too being too productive, I brought up my pitta request. After quite a bit of gully trolling Subandi had the pitta responding and signaled for me to get ready. I chased Subandi and Kok Hui away and told them I would wait for the pitta to get into a nice pose. Finally in the afternoon around 3:30 pm after many hours of waiting he hopped up onto this rock and I got my shots. :-) This little pitta was just 2 meters away from me, I had no hide, but definitely he was not afraid. Morning light would have been better, but at least I got the last one of my pre-trip wish list birds.
On day six we agree to finally get some night birding done, which for a variety of reasons (mostly rain) we hadn’t done yet. So we were up at 4:oo am and off at 4:30 am to the trail head of the Kerinci summit track. We start listening for night birds. At first we get some sightings of a probable Golden Cat. Then we hear the Sumatran Nightjar but can’t see it. We also hear the Mountain Scops Owl. After a bit of tape we hear the Short-tailed Frogmouth. He’s calling from the edge of the agricultural land. It takes us the better part of an hour to trek through the farmland, get close, hear the bird and finally see it. But we get mostly back views. Oh well.
As it is getting light, we ascend to Sumber Air and get a few of the montane species. Tantalizingly we hear the Red-billed Partridge, but can’t get our eyes on it. We stop for tea & coffee and biscuits at Sumber Air. The forest is very nice there with tall old growth trees. We see and photograph a very confiding Sunda Blue Robin there.
On the way down Subandi takes us off the main Summit Trail onto his own track and we get the Sumatran Wren-babbler, and once more hear the Schneider’s Pitta. Finally getting off the mountain around Noon it is time for lunch and the long drive back to Padang, and an overnight stay in Mariani Hotel and the one stop flight back to Singapore.
Looking back at the trip, for photography don’t expect great photos of all or even many of the endemics. On the slopes of Gunung Kerinci the forest is dark, the trails are narrow and the climbing is tough. A 300 mm f2.8 is about all the lens you can carry, you might even want a lighter lens. And, I would forget about a 500 mm or 600 mm lens and tripod. All my photos on Gunung Kerinci are with the 300 mm f2.8 with or without a TC, and all are at very high iso and all are hand held. There is just no place to plant a tripod. On Tapan Road it is a different story and 600 mm with tripod can easily be used.
Because of the long drive from Subandi Home-stay to Padang, and because most of the flights departing Padang seem to be in the morning, you usually will have to spend one night in Padang on your way out. We asked Subandi for a recommendation and he helped us book Mariani Hotel which was fine, and just about USD 35 per night. Altogether we had a 8 day / 7 night trip from March 15 to March 22. Again due to the lengthy travel arrangements we got 5 1/2 days of birding from the trip.
Bring layered clothing, and definitely extra an pair of pants and shoes in case one pair get wet. In the high elevation and cool air things do not dry very quickly. If it starts to rain, it might be a good idea to get off the mountain. The trail literally turns into a stream and the water just cascades down. Your boots will get waterlogged, you will get drenched rain gear or not. I was fascinated to learn there are no permanent streams or rivers on Gunung Kerinci. Because it is a very steep volcano, there are no natural sources of water and when it rains the water just sheets down the mountain turning some of the gullies into waterfalls.
There are very few bird watchers, but the peak season for bird watchers seems to be June and July when it is driest, at least that is usually when the bird tours come. But we were not unhappy with the time of year we went, the bird activity seemed quite good. There are a lot of trekkers however, both local and foreign. To hike the tallest volcano in Indonesia is quite a magnet for trekkers. I have read that on Indonesia’s national day, August 17th, there can be very many trekkers, so it might be best to avoid this time, Subandi’s contact information is below. As said before, it really is just as easy as sending one email, and they will take care of the rest including picking you up at the airport.
In conclusion this is a great birding excursion with around 19 possible endemics, together we managed to see all but about 4 (I saw a few less). The park has some very nice habitat, and there are tigers too! You will need at least a full week, some of the birds especially on the summit trail are really difficult to see, and we were seeing new birds even on our last morning. It seems a shame that so few birders come to Kerinci, we were told only about 50 bird watchers come each year. That is such an incredibly small number to witness some really nice birds! Highly recommended. Go there! :-)
My photos from the trip can be seen at this link: Kerinci Photos
Link to Tan Kok Hui’s blog about the trip: Kerinci-Seblat National Park
Contact information for Homestay Subandi
+62 812 7411 4273 cellular
+62 748 357009 land line
Mariani International Hotel in Padang
+62 751 24466
Following is a table of 19 possible Sumatran endemics that are present either at Gunung Kerinci or Tapan Road. Below these are another set of near endemics or other good birds worth going after.
The result key is as follows: H=heard, S=seen, P=photographed, DIP=DIP, KH=Kok Hui saw it, but not me
|Endemic||Result||Species||Binomial Name||Location or Comment|
|1||H, KH||Red-billed Partridge||
|2||KH||Salvadori’s Pheasant||Lophura inornata||Kerinci|
|3||DIP||Sumatran Peacock-pheasant||Polyplectron chalcurum||Tapan Road and Kericini|
|4||P||Sumatran Trogon||Apalharpactes mackloti||Tapan Road and Kericini|
|5||P||Schneider’s Pitta||Pitta schneideri||Kerinci|
|6||P||Gracefull Pitta||Pitta venusta||Tapan Road|
|7||P||Blue-masked Leafbird||Chloropsis venusta||Tapan Road|
|8||P||Cream-striped Bulbul||Pycnonotus leucogrammicus||Tapan Road|
|9||P||Spot-necked Bulbul||Pycnonotus tympanistrigus||Tapan Road|
|10||P||Sumatran Drongo||Dicrurus sumatranus||Tapan Road and Kericini|
|11||P||Sumatran Treepie||Dendrocitta occipitalis||Tapan Road|
|12||S||Rusty-breasted Wren-babbler||Napothera rufipectus||Kerinci|
|13||H||Sumatran Cochoa||Cochoa beccarii||Kerinci, and only at higher elevation|
|14||P||Shiny Whistling-thrush||Myiophonus melanurus||Kerinci|
|15||S||Sumatran Wren Babbler||Rimator albostriatus||Kernici, recent split from Long-billed Wren-babbler|
|16||P||Short-tailed Frogmouth||Batrachostomus poliolophus||Kerinci, Split from Short-tailed Frogmouth|
|17||DIP||Sumatran Whistling-thrush||Myophonus castaneus||Kerinci, Split from Sunda Whistling-thrush|
|18||KH||Sumatran Leafbird||Chloropsis media||Tapan Road, Split from Golden-fronted Leafbird.|
|19||P||Sumatran Green Pigeon||Treron oxyurus||Tapan Road|
|Near Endemic||Result||Species||Binomial Name||Location or Comment|
|1||DIP||Rajah Scops Owl||Otus brookii||Kerinci, Restricted to Sumatra and Borneo mountains|
|2||H||Salvadori’s Nightjar||Caprimulgus pulchellus||Kerinci, Restricted to Sumatra and Java mountains|
|3||KH||Sunda Minivet||Pericrocotus miniatus||Kerinci, Sumatra and Java only|
|4||P||Sunda Warbler||Seicercus grammiceps||Kerinci, Sumatra and Java only|
|5||P||Sunda Blue Robin||Myiomela diana||Kerinci, Sumatra and Java only|
|6||S||Orange-spotted Bulbul||Pycnonotus bimaculatus||Tapan Road, Sumatra and Java only|
|7||P||Eye-browed Wren-babbler||Napothera epilepidota||Kerinci|
|8||S||Marbled Wren-babbler||Napothera marmorata||Tapan Road, Restricted to Sumatra and Pen. Malaysia|
|9||H||Sumatran Collared Owlet||Glaucidium (brodiei) sylvaticum||Kerinci, Possible future split from Collared Owlet|
|10||S||Sunda Bush-warbler||Cettia vulcania||Kerinci|
|11||P||Temminck’s Sunbird||Aethopyga temminckii||Tapan Road|
|12||DIP||Sunda Bulbul||Ixos virescens||Tapan Road, possible split Sumatran and Javan Bulbul|
|13||H, KH||Mountain Scops Owl||Otus spilocephalus||Kerinci|