After an hour’s drive from the city of Padang to its northeastern outskirts, the road splits.
Lake Singkarak lies to the left and Sawahlunto to the right, some 95 kilometers from Padang.
Sawahlunto is known as the town of the ‘black pearl’ harking back to the once-abundant coal which was the town’s prominent product.
Today, approaching the town one finds deserted rail roads, stepped rice fields, and the familiar Minangkabau rumah gadang upsweeping roofs dotting the wayside between the busy town of Solok and Koto Sungai Lasi and on to the town of Sawahlunto, a quiet cluster of heritage charm on the slopes of Muara Bungo’s valleys, set among rainforests. The town is quite small, but there is a lot to discover.
It was William Hendrik de Greeve, a Dutch Geologist, who discovered the site in the early 19th century, and found it rich in coal deposits, known as the Black Pearl. And so Dutch first investments in coal mining was made here beginning in the 19th century, building infrastructure, public facilities , offices, hotels, housing areas, and stores, to manage and transport this precious mineral resource. Transportation networks were also developed, connecting Sawahlunto with Muaro Kalaban, Pulau Aie, Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, Solok and then to Padang, investing no less than 20 million Dutch Guilders at that time. History noted that coal mining in Sawahlunto was launched on 1 December 1888, and became famous as the Ombilin mines.
As a small town that built itself on the success of the coal mining industry, Sawahlunto today has become an attractive tourist destination that offers nostalgic traces of an old mining town. The heritage hotel built to cater Dutch scientists and geologists still stands gallantly among other century-old buildings.