Sumatra, the westernmost of the large Indonesian islands is the sixth largest island in the world. It has 50 million inhabitants. The longest axis of the island runs approximately 1,790 km (1,110 miles) from northwest to southeast, crossing the equator near the centre. At its widest point, the island spans 435 km (270 miles). It is separated in the northeast from the Malay Peninsula by the Strait of Malacca and in the south from Java by the Sunda Strait. The Barisan Mountains form the backbone of the island and stretch for most of its length, plunging steeply to the sea in the west and cascading into swampy plains in the east. The highest peak in the Barisan range is an active volcano, Mount Kerinci, which rises 3,805 m (12,467 ft) above sea level and makes Sumatra the fifth highest island in the world. The volcanic activity stems from Sumatra's location on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Offshore in the Indian Ocean the Great Sumatran fault runs along the entire length of the island’s west coast. On 26 December 2004, the western coast and Aceh province in the North were struck by a tsunami following an offshore earthquake.
Wild and rugged, nature is the primary attraction of Sumatra. In the last 35 years Sumatra has lost half of its natural forest cover but since 2008 there is a moratorium on further clearance and in the thick jungles that remain small pockets of hunter-gatherers still compete for survival with rare Sumatran tigers, orangutan and rhinos. Sumatra has one of Indonesia’s largest nature reserves, the Mount Leuser National Park.
Like most large islands in the archipelago Sumatra is a world of different ethnic groups and cultures with more than 52 tribal languages. Migrating tribes from mainland Asia started arriving around 500 BCE, and several significant kingdoms flourished here, most importantly the Srivijaya Empire, a Buddhist monarchy that was based in what is now Palembang. With its strategic location on the India-China sea trade route the empire was an important maritime power dominating the region through trade and conquest from the 8th century onward. Until the early 11th century, Srivijaya controlled a large part of South East Asia including the Malay Peninsula, Southern Thailand and Cambodia. Palembang was an important center for scholarly learning.
The north of the island around Aceh was the home of Indonesia’s first Islamic Sultanate and today it is still known for its strict way of life. Further inland is the homeland of the largely Christian Batak tribes, centered round Tapanuli and Lake Toba, while Bukit Tinggi and Padang in the west are home to the distinctive matrilineal Minangkabau culture. Off the coast of North Sumatra, the island of Nias was inhabited by a tribe of headhunters. While this custom has faded over time, the people still practice some of their age-old customs, such as stone-jumping. In this ritual young boys prove their manhood by jumping over a stone obstacle that is 2 meters high. The Mentawai and Nias Islands also have some of the best surfing waves that occur anywhere on earth.
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