The End of Islam! (End of Asia Pt 2)

The 1am ferry arrival in Kupang, capital city of Indonesian West Timor was remarkable not only for the lateness of the hour but also in that it marked the end of our nautical ventures in Indonesia. We wobbled off the stern ramp bleary eyed into pitch darkness to find our bed for the night. It took a couple of days to organise mandatory Visa Authorisation Letters for Timor L’Este at the consulate in town but other than that Kupang and West Timor held little of interest. The north coast had some fine sandy beaches but those around the city were badly polluted with discarded plastics and we’d been warned that the same beaches are also stalking grounds for saltwater crocodiles so even a paddle was a risky proposition.

A day’s ride into the hinterland of this last part of Indonesia delivered us to the small town of Atambua and a one-night stop before the border crossing. The road was reasonable with some fine panoramic views along the way but we felt a growing sadness that we would soon lose the bikes for several weeks once they were cleaned, packed and sent to Australia. The realisation also dawned that once we crossed the border, we would enter Timor L’Este, a predominantly Christian nation and our travels through the magnificent lands of Mohammed would be at an end. The call to prayer has been a constant feature since we entered Turkey almost two years ago and I have to say that we have been heartily welcomed everywhere we have travelled in these Islamic nations. Whenever the subject was raised, we encountered nothing but abhorrence for the terrorist actions of extremist groups like ISIS. It seems their major success has been nothing more than to create a worldly mistrust against all of Islam, which is ultimately undeserved and tragic. Our travels testify for this; we have travelled these lands at all times feeling safe, welcome and always found help on hand when we needed it from some of the kindest people on the planet. It is the end of Islam in our travels for now but we leave with a treasury of beautiful memories of beautiful people, cultures and traditions. It is also the end of babble and exotic cuisine. No more foreign tongues for a while once we enter the land of Oz, no more wondering what that weird sounding dish is on the menu nor assault on the taste buds when it turns out (mostly!) to be yet another unknown delight. Yes, we will miss this hubble and bubble of travel as we exchange it for more familiar surroundings. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to negotiate our exit from Timor L’Este…

Timor L’Este, to be honest, rated low in our expectations when reviewing the list of countries to visit on this trip. It has a reputation for being vastly more expensive than Indonesia with less bang for your buck yielding mediocre accommodation at inflated prices (all paid for in US Dollars, the local currency) coupled with poor facilities and infrastructure, yet it is the jumping off point for shipping to Darwin, Australia. The border crossing was casual and easy with the right pieces of paper and the final morning ride to Dili, the capital, took us along a spectacular swathe of blue ocean road. First impressions were not great, especially when we checked into the dismal and dank Dili Homestay. At $40 a night, this was over twice what we’d been paying for vastly superior accommodation in Indonesia. Initially we had tried to book for two weeks to arrange our shipping but the owner, a scraggy Australian expat named Meg, failed to answer our booking enquiries so we cautiously booked for one night via Booking.com. We had to postpone our arrival by one day, due to a delay in getting the Visa Authorisation letter and emailed her to let her know. “OK” was the response. A couple of yappy dogs snapped at our heels when we arrived in the dusty courtyard and followed Meg into the dim recess of our ‘deluxe’ bedroom… a dark, mosquito infested pit. The remote bathroom was described as ‘rustic’, which we learned is a term applied round here for ‘filthy’. Meg complained that her kids no longer visited from Oz and that she was just recovering from a recent bout of Dengue fever. Timor L’Este is rated as a high-risk area for the disease and the property was festooned with anti-mosquito sprays, smoke-coils and electric bats. It all added up to a horrific dose of culture shock, spiced with a whiff of rip-off and the unhealthy prospect of a tropical disease thrown in. Luckily we had a Plan ‘B’ in the form of the Casa Do Sandalo, a small apartment in the grounds of the Mexican Consulate. We made a tentative two-week booking and rode out that afternoon to check it out. It was a little piece of heaven; a beautiful apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom and patio area for the same price. A no-brainer as to where we would be staying for the duration in Dili.

We honoured the Booking.com reservation and stayed the one night with Meg but in the morning she was clearly miffed that we were leaving. A breakfast of stale rolls and jam was flung on the table before us, as she made a desperate bid to undercut the Casa but we explained that she needed to do something about the mosquitos, the toilet and the general state of the place. We paid up for the night and as we were leaving she suddenly presented us with a second bill for delaying the original booking! It capped off a horrible experience in one of the worst accommodations of the entire trip and needless to say we declined the payment. Fortunately this nasty introduction to Dili was short lived as we met Ivan and Andre, our lovely hosts at the Casa. Those words ‘mi casa es su casa’ never rang truer and the welcome was completed with a complimentary bottle of fine Portuguese wine and a bowl of fruit.

And so on to the shipping… A lovely lady called Lenor at ANL advised that our container would be ready for packing in five days so we were immediately immersed in a hectic schedule to get everything cleaned and ready. Australia, being an island with unique endemic species, is very alert against incoming bio-security risks, having suffered massively at the influx of such foreigners as rabbit infestations and more recently cane toads, introduced to eat cane beetles. Unfortunately the wrong species of cane toad was introduced, one that couldn’t jump high enough to catch the cane beetles, yet possessed a toxic skin coating that poisoned anything that tried to eat it causing massive damage to indigenous predator populations. Consequently there are strict quarantine requirements on all goods coming into the country and vehicles in particular must be immaculately clean, with no mud nor dirt, grime nor grease permitted. This includes all areas; wheels, tyres, up under the mudguards, in and around the engine. The same requirement also applies to all personal effects; tools, riding gear and footwear, hiking and camping kit; it all had to be meticulously clean and we spent a couple of days at the Casa with everything emptied out and scrubbed.

Enter another overlanding hero; the charming and vivacious Antonio Fortuna. Antonio runs the Ford Entrepost dealership in Dili and happily permits overlanders the use of his workshop facility to clean their bikes for shipping. This includes the use of a power wash and a compressed air line for drying and blasting off the muck. We spent two and a half days with Antonio and his crew, who assisted us in cleaning the bikes. Wheels were removed and we disassembled the bodywork and headlight fairing to get at all the underlying dust. Mudguards were scrubbed and all baked-on oil and dirt gradually dissolved from the engines and wheels such that the bikes shone with a brilliant gleam. We were horrified to note that the ANL loading yard was a huge white dust bowl and could imagine our newly cleaned bikes getting into a right state as we rode across this to gain access to the container. “No problem!” said Antonio who quickly organised trucking the bikes to the container so they stayed clean. The only payment requested for this sterling help was a signed framed photograph of our bikes to add to his collection. What service and what a star!

At ANL we met Gail Baillargeon, a smiling big John Wayne of an American on a BMW 1200GS Adventure, who was four years into his round the world trip and would also ship his bike in the container with us. We spent the rest of our time in Dili exploring the city by day and enjoying the comforts of the Casa in the evening where we cooked up a few boozy dinners with Gail and Jason Kind, the English cyclist we mentioned in the last post. Wandering the streets of Dili, we learned a little of the history of Timor L’Este, one of the newest countries in the world. The country had been a far-flung colony since the 16th century when the Portuguese took possession, attracted by the trade in sandalwood, which grows there. By the mid-1970’s, Portugal suffered an internal collapse as the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar ended by military coup. The new democratic regime struggled to sustain its colonies in places like Angola, Mozambique and Timor, which were all pressing for independence.   On 28 November 1975, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) declared the territory’s independence and the Portuguese withdrew.

The problem was that FRETILIN, at that time, followed Marxist-Leninist leanings and the prospect of another communist enclave in SE Asia horrified the western world. The US at the time was at the end of the disastrous war in Vietnam so it was with some relief that the president of Indonesia offered to take care of the problem… Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and quickly occupied the country marking the start of a horrific guerilla war that would fester over the next twenty years. Once again on this trip we found ourselves walking the sorry scenes of a genocide that occurred in our own lifetime yet was scarcely reported on the news back home. An estimated quarter to one third of the entire population of East Timor perished in a series of battles, massacres, round-ups and starvations as Indonesia sought to tighten their grip on the country. By 1999 the United Nations intervened, resulting in a referendum, which conclusively showed that the people wanted independence. Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and in May 2002, Timor L’Este was officially recognised as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.

We visited the resistance museum, which told the story of the long struggle for independence but, walking the streets, it is clear to see that something awful happened here just by looking at the people. Over 60% of the population is under 24-years of age, highlighting the fact that an entire generation has disappeared. There is a sorrow in the eyes of folk here and we sensed that there is a generation of youth deprived of the benefit of elders (casualties from the war) to guide them through growing up. We heard various tales of a gang culture and corruption is rife in all echelons of civil life. There is little industry, just farming and fishing and the presence of the UN, with the adoption of the US Dollar, seems to have inflated prices as previously noted so everything is expensive and the temptation to progress by criminal means is tempting. With the setting of the sun, the streets of Dili quickly emptied. Buses and taxis disappeared and for the first time on this journey we felt a little uneasy in the city and were glad of the security of the high walls surrounding our Casa.

Our three bikes were shuffled into place and securely strapped down and the container was delivered to Dili Port. From there they would travel to Singapore and on finally to Darwin, where we would collect them in just under three weeks time. We flew to Bali to sit out the rest of their transit in a beautiful little apartment in Sanur. It gave us time to rest and contemplate the next leg of this wonderful journey; the ride through Australia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 2

The End of Asia! (Part 1)

Our days in Asia were slowly but surely running out whilst up ahead, Australia beckoned. Ahead of us lay a thrilling a volcano-lined road that threaded the island of Flores to reach the small port of Larantuka. From there a twice weekly ferry ran to Kupang in West Timor, where we could ride overland to reach Dili, capital of East Timor and ship the bikes on to Oz; alternatively we could backtrack all the way to Bali to find a shipper there. For several weeks we had been gathering quotes from various agencies and to be honest none of them looked either attractive or reliable. SDV offered the most logical choice; a container ship direct from Dili to Darwin supposedly taking only three days. Yet four riders who we’d met at HU had waited over 5-weeks for their bikes and faced horrible frustrations and delays, topped with escalating charges, throughout the entire process so we saw nothing there to recommend their services. We also obtained a reasonable quote from a company in Bali but an online search revealed more dissatisfied customers with costs eventually doubling the quotation price. To be honest, we didn’t really want to backtrack either. Our bikes are once again showing signs of wear and tear from the ride through Indonesia, with rear tyres now shot and needing immediate replacement in Australia. That left us with ANL. They sail the triangular Darwin-DiliSingapore route, which takes a little longer than the more direct route but they came with several good overlander recommendations and it meant we could continue on to explore the two islands of Flores and Timor and, of course, reach the end of Asia!

In Labuan Bajo, the comfie Surya hotel proved to be one of those nodal points in travel where you meet, mingle and part with friends old and new. We bade farewell to Tom and Phil, who were headed back west and met up with Thomas Brandt, a young German rider from Rostock, also headed west on his KTM 690 and Jason Kind, a stubbled, bean-pole of an English cyclist from Hastings who had covered a lot of the same ground as us using pedal power.   We have met quite a few cyclists and find a lot in common with them as fellow travellers; like us they carry a little self-sufficient world on two wheels and are fully exposed to the elements with the added encumbrance of powering their journey using their own legs, yielding a journey travelled at a much slower speed but with the advantage that they will see so much more. It’s not a mode of transport I would personally consider for the same reason I’ll never model dresses on a catwalk; I just don’t have the legs for it…

The ride through the island of Flores proved to be simply spectacular. The road from Labuan Bajo climbed up and into a mountainous hinterland, a sinuous slash of sexy tarmac that occasionally dropped into plains of rice-fields before coiling off once more into highland territory rendered breathtakingly beautiful by blasts of bamboo forest. We stopped at a little Warung (local café / food vendor) for some lunch, in the seaside town of Borong, where we met Jason pedaling along, enjoying a stretch of straight and level road. It had taken him four-days to cycle what we covered that morning and his legs were feeling it.

Our target for the day was the mountain town of Bawang and the ride just got better and better as we left coastal plains and climbed high into cloud forested mountains. Now and again the cloud would drift apart, offering sneaky-peaks of nearby volcanoes or treetop terrain running all the way to crystal blue waters back at the coast. We were both feeling fairly cold by the time we pulled into town to find our preferred hotel fully booked and a couple of alternatives asking lofty prices for mediocre accommodation. We were rescued by the Hotel Korina where we met Brian, Brad and Shorty, a trio of Aussies from Tasmania touring the island on rented motorcycles who became first date beer-buddies and then a bunch of good friends after a few lively evenings in the bar.

The landscape had definitely been changing as we rode east through Indonesia. I started reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago.’ Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, co-publishing papers on the subject with Darwin. Wallace had travelled previously in the Amazon but famously made a number of startling observations about the bio-geographic diversity in the Malay Archipelago where he travelled between 1854 and 1862, including the definition of what became known as the Wallace Line. This line identifies and associates the wildlife and plants on the island of Bali and everything west of there with Asiatic origins, whilst everything on the island of Lombok and onwards east has a pronounced Australian origin. It is quite fantastic as the two islands are only 22-miles apart and it was the bird life that gave him his first clues to the delineation. In Bali he found species of woodpecker, kingfisher and pheasant, birds that are endemic to Asia from India to Indonesia all the way east to Bali and Borneo, while across the Lombok Strait he suddenly found himself in the world of the cockatoo and the eucalyptus. Amazingly the birds have failed to migrate across this short stretch of water loosely suggesting that the islands down to Bali were previously connected to the Asiatic landmass and therefore populated by flora and fauna from that point of origin, whereas the lands to the east of Lombok have obvious associations with Australia.

The traditional village of Bena, a short ride from Bawang, felt like neither Asia nor Australia. The road fooled around the base of the pointy-coned volcano of Inerie that provided an otherworldly backdrop to the morning.   The twisting single-track ribbon took us on through more majestic cathedrals of bamboo and by the time we arrived at the village our bodies were fully sated with joyous endorphins that can only be delivered by slowly riding a motorcycle through a stunning landscape. We abandoned the bikes at a small carpark and walked the short trail into Bena itself. That location, with the ever present backdrop of Inerie, one moment all skirted by cloud, the next all lifted to reveal its splendorous peak, reminded us we were right up against an active volcano, a smoking gun capable of instant obliteration. We mooched through the tall thatched-roof village houses, sited around an elongated common of dirt all ringed by a dry-stone wall. In the centre henges of tall burial stones stood, somewhat Neolithic in appearance and here and there marked with the sign of the cross; folks on Flores are predominantly Christian. It was still early in the morning and there was an air of peace and tranquility about the place. A few women fretted at their looms making scarves and wraps for tourists. The detailing on the wooden house frames showed images of horses and boats and here there horned animal skulls adorned the façade. It all felt a bit weird, as we seemed to be so far from plains or sea in this Conan-Doyle-Lost-World-complete-with-smouldering-volcano-on-your-doorstep. Or maybe we had drifted on to a stage set from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, a place inhabited surely by the Riders of the Rohan, but again that incongruity with never a harness nor horse in sight. Whatever; it was magical.

Another day, another ride… More cloud forest dropped us into the high mountains and Moni, where we hoped to visit Kelimutu National Park and its three-cratered volcano. We got absolutely drenched on the last few miles into Moni itself as the hide-and-seek game we’d played with the rain that morning finally ended in defeat as the heavens opened on a mud-drenched road. “Nearly there so hardly worth stopping to don the wetsuits” proved to be the wrong tactic for todays play with the weather and we looked like we’d dressed in blotting paper as we pulled into the Sylvestre homestay. The weather really socked in for the next day with the main street outside looking more navigable by boat than bike so we settled in for a soggy siege and hoped the weather would clear to allow us access to the mountain. Our plight was alleviated somewhat by Sylvestres, which proved to be a little haven for sleeps complemented by brilliant eats at the nearby Mopi’s restaurant.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful and the corrugated roofs over the town were jewelled silver from the rain of yesterday as we set off on the two bikes to ascend Kelimutu. We had been warned that the first mile or two were slathered in mud from a recent landslide. It proved to be as bad as it sounded with heavy earth-moving machinery on site to try and clear the way, although this seemed to principally involve spreading the mud everywhere. With our worn rear tyres, this was not fun although they did hold better than anticipated and we were soon through and riding high on the mountain albeit with one eye on the weather as bands of low cloud suggested more rain was not so far away. At the summit we were rewarded after a brief hike with cloud-shrouded views of the three craters. Each lake is a different colour, the reason for which is unknown; the acid-filled lakes are inert and dead and the only plausible explanation seems to be that the chemistry of each lake changes from time to time resulting in colour changes. Two of the lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Youth) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and were reported as being green and red respectively. Today both appeared as slightly differing shades of turquoise. The third lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of the Old People) was supposed to be blue but had assumed a horrid dark brown colour. Local legend has it that the spirits of the recently deceased travel to the lakes and are greeted by gatekeepers who judge and consign them to one of the lakes depending on their age and how well they behaved when alive with all the baddies sent to the Bewitched lake. I really hoped I did not perish on the mountain today; by the end of our visit, my spirit was totally confused by which lake was which and what colour they were supposed to be.

We left the rains and Moni for a ride to the north coast of the island, spending a few days in one last decent hotel in Maumere, marking time for a few days until the Friday boat on to Timor. A final ride took us to Larantuka where we checked in to the Lestori hotel, basic and clean but one of the noisiest places we’ve stayed on the entire trip. Bass undertones and horrid treble screeches emanated from a nearby karaoke that ran all night and was still going strong at 6am. To this cacophony add one rooster, staked to a pole just outside our door who cock-a-doodle-doo’d the whole night through, a pet/cage bird with a sort of piercing wolf-whistle and to cap it all the guys in the room next door were up a 4am taking a slosh in a bucket shower and vociferously clearing their throats in a rasping noise that sounded like a heavy box being dragged across a wooden floor.

We made our way bleary-eyed to the ferry where we crashed out on the upper deck as she finally set sail an hour late at 1pm. It was the weekend before the end of Ramadan and a time when Moslems all over the world head for home to celebrate Eid. Consequently the boat was packed and we’d been advised to grab a bunk below decks before the ship left harbour. This was ill advice as the bunks were all stacked together and the compartment more resembled some horrid slave-ship with bodies crammed into every nook, space and cranny, totally devoid of any idea of personal space. We camped out on the upper deck, happy for some open space and a healthy jollop of fresh air to relish the spectacular views of Flores as it sank slowly under the horizon in our wake. Mid-way, Dolphins and flying fish frolicked around our vessel as she plodded across the vast ocean to take us safely if somewhat late into Timor and the end of Asia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 1 – Flores

Way of the Dragon!

“Here!!!… Here!!!… Here!!!…. Go!!! Go!!! Go!!!” the skipper of the Nurwati yelled, jabbing manically towards the sea with an outthrust boney finger, urging us all overboard quickly…   Perched on the prow of the boat, where for the past ten minutes he had been scanning the seabed for something, he had clearly now located his target… “That’s a lot of exclamation marks” I thought as I shuffled across the deck on my butt like an up ended clown in flippers struggling to get my mask on. Then, over the side and into a world of deepest blue… A sudden moment of disorientation as I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel… I shivered slightly at the cooling effect of the sea on sun-warmed skin. Adjusting my vision I looked down to see what all the fuss was about and “what the…!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation marks floated off to the surface like tiny air bubbles, expletives quickly drowned as I beheld something the size of a billiard table wafting across the carpet of coral below: a Manta Ray, maybe 2-metres across, moving slowly and with grace right beneath our fins. Our trip to the Komodo Islands had once again proven to be rich pickings for wildlife encounters and there would be many more to come…

The Nurwati was hewn from local timbers and painted bright white with a deck of minty-mouthwash green. She was long and narrow in the beam with a clackety-clack engine mounted below deck, just aft of amidships. Slatted benches ran along both sides of the deck with a small serving table in the middle, from which some very tasty repasts would be served. She had a rudimentary upper deck too for sunbathing with an awning at the rear providing a bit of shade. An icebox full of beer and some good company and we were all set for a good time. Setting out from Labuan Bajo early in the morning, it took a few hours to putt-putt our way to the island of Rinca, first stop on our Komodo tour. Sitting on the boat I pondered the previous days that brought here us from Horizons Unlimited in Sumbawa

An easy day’s ride took us to the little town of Bima towards the eastern end of Sumbawa on beautiful empty roads through this majestic island. Along the way we picked up our old buddy Phil Stubbs and later met Tom Curtis (of postie-bike fame) at the hotel in Bima, all of us headed for Flores with Komodo in our sights. This eastern end of the islands was reminiscent of the Western Isles at home with vast landscapes of sea, mountain, rolling marshland and staggering skies, all of it deserted and amazing biking country. Next morning we rode on to Sape where we would catch the 8-hour ferry to Flores, next island in the chain. We dumped the bikes at the hotel and took a stroll along the narrow causeway of a town. There is a lot of, what I guess would be considered, poverty in this part of Indonesia. Far removed from any city life and influence, people are living from hand to mouth by subsistence farming or fishing. There was a lot of squalor in Sape with many people living on top of their own refuse as there is just no infrastructure to remove it. The rubbish and litter is so incongruous with the beautiful location but folk seemed mostly happy and were, without exception, very friendly and eager to engage in a chat.

Maritime activity was everywhere from fishing nets laid out to dry to large-scale boat construction on slipways between houses laid out in a herringbone configuration along the causeway. Stopping to nosey at a small crew working on a large vessel we were eagerly invited onboard to check out the construction. We picked our way through a timber yard, where the raw material for the boat was stored and out onto a flimsy jetty to clamber aboard the hulk. Her keel of around 70-feet in length, had been laid on some stone pilings and work had commenced installing the cross beams and building the hull outwards on each side. The guys were forming the wooden parts by hand with a chainsaw, electric planer and more basic mallet and chisel. A lot of the parts were pinned together with stout wooden dowels and metal tie bars were used for the crucial load bearing parts. There was a total absence of drawings or plans and it seemed like the entire project was being executed according to the shipwright’s eye. Later we boarded a more complete vessel in the process of having her cabins and accommodations finished using the same processes; everything constructed and finished by hand to create a sea-going vessel of some beauty.

An eight-hour RO-RO ferry crossing deposited us in Flores, where the small town of Labuan Bajo proved to be a delightful stop-off to organise our trip to Komodo. The place is like a pirate hideaway; dirty, dusty, yet full of energy with narrow streets winding and spilling up the hillsides around the harbour. We battled our way through rush-hour motos and mini-vans to reach the Surya Hotel, our home for the next week or so. Supping a beer at the rooftop bar of the Bajo Taco, a great Mexican eatery that became our local haunt, a splendid view ran away over red-rusted rooftops down to the bay where a myriad of small vessels were anchored against a backdrop of jeweled islands set in a sapphire sea emphasizing the notion that this was indeed some Indonesian Tortuga. Maybe a pirate crew would be just the thing considering our next quest was to set out to see some dragons…

Komodo Dragons are to be found (unsurprisingly) in Komodo National Park, a raft of some twenty-six small islets clustered around the three larger isles of Padar, Rinca and Komodo itself.  The surrounding waters contain some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth hence encounters with Manta Rays and a paint-box full of tropical fish was guaranteed. The park is located in the Sape Strait, the channel of sea between Flores and Sumbawa that we had already crossed on the ferry to get here. The strait is also a junction of the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The seabeds of the two oceans vary in height by several hundred metres so the flow of waters from the north to south during tidal exchanges creates some of the strongest currents in the world making these potentially dangerous waters for any small boat.

We arranged a two-day cruise aboard the aforementioned vessel, the Nurwati, with its crew of three, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English but made up for this in copious quantities of smiles and good food for the duration. We coasted along the isle of Rinca and turned into a small inlet where we disembarked for our first dragon encounter. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, at around three metres in length and weighing in at over 70 kg. Unknown to the West and science until 1912 they are known locally by the natives as Ora, which means “land crocodile”. Komodos are an ambush predator, basically lounging around looking dim and docile until some unsuspecting beast (or person) wanders up too close. Then they can sprint with vicious rapidity and are equipped with a fine set of teeth and claws to rend any prey in proper dragon style. Our guides informed us how they can take down deer and even huge Water Buffalo as they don’t need a quick or clean kill. It was believed that their bite was laden with a cocktail of deadly bacteria such that even if the prey escaped it would soon die from the poisoning effects of the saliva in the wound. However it has recently been discovered that the dragons actually possess true venom glands in the lower jaw that inject an anti-coagulating poison that causes tissue damage and slow paralysis resulting in an excruciating death. Even if you get away after being bitten, they just wait till you die from your wounds and then move in for a feast. Easy-peasy given that they can detect carrion at ranges of up to two miles and can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.

Almost immediately on entering the park visitor centre on Rinca we saw our first dragons. They were certainly big but didn’t seem all that menacing and I got the impression that they were loitering around the bins to see what leftovers they could scavenge. Our visitor group was protected by a couple of park guides armed with cleft sticks; apparently the beasts are easily deterred by a rap on the head but to be honest it wasn’t something I wanted to put to the test. You see they do take people! In the past forty years over thirty people have been bitten with five recorded deaths. A few weeks before we visited a Singaporean tourist made the headlines when he was savaged by a dragon. He had been so intent on photographing one docile beast that he failed to register another animal that sneaked round behind him and he was badly bitten on the leg. Luckily it was a smaller dragon and he was evacuated to hospital in Labuan Bajo where they were able to save the leg.

Our visit continued as we set off for the island of Komodo itself on a voyage rounding Padar island. It’s funny but the islands themselves were draconiform in appearance, resembling green-backed monsters with folds in the landscape looking like overlapping scale and plate and here and there a headland that rose out of the water like some giant sleeping head. On Komodo the best encounter came on a short hike to Sulphurea Hill when we found our progress blocked by a beast on the trail. I greeted the dragon with an appropriate ‘My! What big claws you have!” He was enormous but again looked dozy and none too threatening. The guides made ready with their sticks as we clambered around the monster, giving him as wide a berth as possible and then stopped to get some photos. He sat there unmoving with a somewhat disconcerting Mona Lisa smile. Beady black eyes flickered with base intelligence, assuredly observing everything that was going on. Like the Mona Lisa I was certain his gaze followed me as I changed position to get a better shot. I watched him watching me and then it dawned on me… In our group I was the oldest male. I had a dodgy leg that also made me the slowest of the bunch in any event involving flight. I figured the dragon had clocked all this and given the opportunity would cut me out of the herd for dinner… Then it dawned on me… I was… I was prey!!!

We slept on deck that evening on thin mattresses after another sumptuous dinner. Never mind it was the same menu as lunch, it was all eagerly woofed after our day on the islands. But Komodo held one final and very special treat for us before the day was through. Overhead, squadrons of Flying Foxes were setting out for the night on a flypast across the bay where we were anchored.   There were literally hundreds of them flying in perfect formation, wave upon wave like ghostly squadrons of night bombers, all chirping and squeaking as they flew to nocturnal feeding grounds elsewhere on the isles on the soft whoosh of leathery wings. It was a special moment and one we will treasure for the rest of our days; we came here to see dragons and now were entreated to a performance by yet more marvelous and mystical creatures.

The second day of our Komodo tour started with a short but utterly spectacular hike along the dragon-back spine of Padar Island. The island is made up from several overlapping craters that have eroded to form an assemblage of serenely beautiful bays fringed with golden sands that run down to lapis-lazulian seas giving the impression of the crash-site of a huge butterfly on the ocean. The hilltops are dusted in khaki scrub grasslands and everywhere the horizon is a smash and dash hash-up of Komodo Islands. Later, snorkeling with Neptune’s treasure-box of tropical fish and of course that Manta Ray encounter, which ended in a ballet performance by five of the beasts. It’s hard to gasp with a snorkel stuffed in your gob but we somehow managed!

So that was Komodo… a place that will linger in our hearts and memories as one of the highlights of this life. On our Pan-American trip we had the good fortune to visit Galapagos and gasp at the treasures of another wildlife paradise. We thought then that such an experience could not possibly be equaled… it couldn’t possibly, could it?… until today… here… now… in Komodo.

One for your bucket list!

The gallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Way of the Dragon!

 

 

 

And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…

Early next morning the deluge had departed leaving a blue sky full of puffball clouds and the air a tad humid. Around the hotel carpark, the block paving had largely dried out but here and there large puddles attested to the volume of rain on the previous day. Our hotel room looked like an explosion in a flag factory with sodden garments draped all over the furniture to dry them out. As related in the previous episode, our day of near-death encounters with heavy lorries and broken roads had ended in a monsoon storm that drove us off the road and seeking the succour of a cosy hotel. On top of that, having overcome the dead battery in Sumatra, we now had a busted spoke on Maggie’s bike causing a horrid front-end wobble. Looking back at these mechanical problems, at the time they seem like mini-disasters, but invariably involve the trip taking off at some unexpected tangent with a rush of delightful encounters and new friends. So it was to be in this case but not just yet…

A short ride took us to Borobodur, our abandoned destination from the day before. Here we had the delightful experience of actually turning a FaceBook friendship into a real one when, by pure coincidence, veteran SE Asia tourer Phil Stubbs wandered into the hotel we’d just checked into. Phil hails from Essex in the UK and had flown out to Indonesia where he bought a little 225cc Yamaha Scorpio, a perfect vehicle for touring the islands. We had corresponded on various issues on FaceBook, neither of us realising how close we were to one another in the real world.  Next day we trotted off to see the sights of Borobodur itself, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 9th Century, it occupies a most majestic setting against a lush jungle backdrop. The architecture resembles a huge wedding cake consisting of nine stacked platforms topped by a central dome all rendered in dark grey volcanic Andesite. The temple is detailed with 2,672 relief panels, houses 504 Buddha statues and the central dome at the pinnacle is surrounded by a further 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa weirdly resembling a troop of serene and smiling Daleks. Pilgrims worship in Borobudur by following the trail of staircases and corridors that ascend all the way to the top with the various levels representing each stage of enlightenment in Buddhist cosmology. The entire complex was lost to history, hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, was appointed governor of Java. He took great interest in the history of the island, which was certainly piqued when he heard stories of a lost mega-temple buried deep in the interior. Unable to make the discovery himself he sent the Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to investigate and he in turn found Borobodur.

The city of Yogyakarta would be our home for the next week or so. We found solace in the beautiful tree shaded garden of the Puri Pangeran Hotel, an ideal base to explore the city. Jeffrey Polnaja, a man with more contacts than an octopus playing drums, recommended a visit to see brothers Lulut and Yayak Wahyudi to solve our wheel problem. Travelling by bike, of necessity you will engage with many motorcycle repair shops but we never encountered anything that quite approached Retro Custom Cycles. Pulling up in the forecourt we were greeted by a huge smile and a warm handshake from Lulut himself. The entrance was home to a huge candy red American Dodge car and a coffee bar where, over an excellent Kopi Susu, we explained our latest mechanical mishaps. With Yayak and one of the lead mechanics fussing over the bike, the offending wheel was soon removed and sent for correction. While we were waiting we took a tour of the shop…

Race-flag chequered tiled flooring was home to a beautiful Harley chop and further back an old WLA Harley was being fettered for a customer. But it was out back in the cavernous workshops that the real treasures lay. Out of a palette of raw rusting ironwork, motorcycles were being handcrafted. Standard was binned and unique designs were given life in this Orc forge where rod, bar and plate were chopped, formed and welded to create machines of heavenly beauty. On a wall a row of brightly painted petrol tanks hung like teacups on a dresser, teardrop canvases of most beautiful line and symmetry. A new-model Harley, recognizable only from its engine, was having new bodywork hand made from aluminium, one of the technicians tinkering each piece into shape, final-forming it into body-jewelry that would later be burnished brilliant as armour for a road knight’s mount. Tour finished, we sat out front waiting for the wheel to return. A kitchen door opened and the mother of the family, a fine lady and beautiful hostess, kept appearing with fresh-cooked morsels for us to try, in case we were hungry. Then the wheel returned; a new spoke had been fabricated from a heavy-duty motocross item. A bent spoke had also been straightened and the wheel was trued; our latest batch of problems was put to rest.

In Yogyakarta we organised our first visa extensions and visited the grand palace of Kraton, actually a walled royal city within the big city and an easy stroll from the hotel. We also rode out to visit the Buddhist temple complex at Prambanan. Set in a splurge of greenery, Prambanan felt like the ultimate ‘walk in the park’ with a collection of four individual temple sites spread across several acres of gracious gardens and we contentedly lost ourselves within the tranquil setting for an afternoon. Riding east from Yogyakarta, the traffic finally began to ease as we left the horrid congestion of West Java well and truly in our wake. Roads now wound along paddy-field valleys taking us back into the mountains to a one-night stop in the city of Malang, springboard for what would prove to be one of our finest ever motorcycle adventures ever and that ‘something completely spectacular’ as promised in the header for this post…

Sleep… sleep… sleep… I am riding across an arena of slate grey sand enclosed by a coliseum curtain of sheer rock. I think I’m standing up on the footpegs; I can feel the bike slalom occasionally as the sand gives way but am reassured as the back tyre bites in and regains firmer ground. I glance in my mirror to check on Maggie; I know she hates this soft stuff but all I can make out from the recess of her helmet is the flash of a huge wide grin as her tyres spew little puffs of grey matter in her wake. None of this makes sense but then most dreams never do. A veil of cloud wafts down from the bluff and drapes a gossamer cloak across our path. We ride on and enter a ghost world, a road to hell lined with tussocks of spikey grass that point to nowhere, only tell us there is no way out. I glance back to see a phantom horseman ride across our trail and disappear off into the gloom. Both sky and horizon have vanished and we are two lost souls. Stopping, we kill the engines and dismount. There is no sound but the whisper of the wind and the tink, tink, tink of cooling metal from the bikes. The cloud parts briefly to reveal a glimpse of the squat form of an ancient temple some way off in the distance. It appears to be made of some black material and is festooned with pointed turrets. When I awake will this all rapidly fade leaving me just titillating fragments in the dawn from this otherworldly encounter?   As I survey our predicament I realise this is not a dream; this is Bromo and we have just ridden onto the crater floor of a very active volcano.

We left Malang and were soon ascending narrow mountain roads that led us up over the 2000 metre mark into volcano country. The mountains were magnificent but we began to suspect that yet again our GPS had led us up a blind draw as it seemed our base to explore Bromo, lay somewhat bafflingly on the opposite side of the mountain. We finally arrived at a gateway to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, where the rangers explained that to get to our destination we simply had to cross the crater! And so we descended a sharp series of hairpins that dropped us onto the Segara Wedi, the Sea of Sand, that carpets the crater floor and into a world like nothing we’ve ever encountered. We paused a while to ponder the way across and survey the stupendous landscape before us. The crater is about 10km in diameter and within the encircling walls is a little green jelly-mould of the conical Mount Batok. Next to this is the low, jagged and blasted caldera of Bromo itself, not so spectacular yet easily identifiable from the plume of sulphurous gases ascending to the heavens. Finally, nestled at the foot of both, is the Pura Luhur Poten Hindu temple, a low sprawl that looks like some forlorn outpost from a Mad Max movie.

You would think it highly unlikely that you could get lost in what is essentially a big circle yet that is indeed what happened. Riding across the sand flats for several kilometers, we were utterly blown away at the realisation that we were actually riding across the crater of an active volcano. Then realisation dawned that there seemed to be no obvious exit route back up to the rim. The blanket of cloud came rolling in reducing visibility to a few metres in all directions so we stopped and a mild wave of panic set in, a normal reaction I guess when you are so suddenly disoriented… Eventually a pair of headlights loomed out of the murk, a Land Rover whom we flagged down for directions. The driver explained that we had overshot and missed the exit completely. It proved difficult to spot, even in normal visibility, as the road was hidden behind a screen of trees and bushes but fortunately the cloud lifted enough to allow us to take a bearing and make our escape.

Next day we hiked down into the crater from the hostel town of Cemoro Lawang. The views over Bromo crater and Mount Batok from the rim in clear weather were simply breathtaking. Horsemen, looking like fierce nomads on their stocky little ponies, offered tourist rides up to the crater itself and jeep safaris were taking folk across the caldera. We declined these to walk across the floor of the crater, a hike that was every bit as exciting as yesterdays ride. From the temple we picked up a trail that led to a series of steps that marked the final ascent of Bromo itself. The views on up to the summit, then the panorama across the crater to the rim and over to the adjacent Mount Batok were beyond equal in all of our travels to date. We had truly attained something completely spectacular, yet all of this visual hyperbole was nothing compared to what happened next. The summit was circled by a narrow path making an ideal perch to sit and appreciate the internals of the volcano itself. The view was somewhat occluded by the clouds of steam belching forth but other senses now heightened as noses twitched at the stinky sulphur and, most spectacular of all, we felt the acoustics of the volcano rumbling. I say ‘felt’ rather than ‘heard’ as deep base notes resonated our very chest cavities, shaking us to the core. Slow brains processed all of these inputs and realisation dawned that we were listening to the actual sound of the internal workings of planet Earth, our home. It was a humbling experience, leaving one feeling so insignificant in the overall scheme of things yet standing in total awe of this beautiful and natural world. Bromo was completely spectacular and we will remember and treasure these days for the rest of our lives.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: East Java

Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

Bukit Lawang and its Orangutan; all-round piece of pretty poetical paradise. We found excellent accommodation here in the home of Hans, a German, who had self-built a series of beautiful little lodges complete with hammocks out front. A fascinating man, every encounter yielded a bounty of stories about life in Indonesia. In 2004 he had found a little Eden for his family in a secluded cove just outside Bandar Aceh, part of a little beach community. On Boxing Day 2004 he’d just had breakfast on his veranda, overlooking the ocean, when suddenly the sea disappeared. The tide simply went out as if the ocean was draining down some huge plughole someplace way off the coast. He grabbed his wife and daughter and they fled for high ground warning neighbouring villagers to do the same. He watched in horror as instead the locals ran to the beach; the outgoing seas had left little pools full of stranded fish and people were running to take advantage of the unexpected bounty. Of course the sea was coming back, not as an incoming tide but as a Tsunami. Hans and his family reached high ground but his home and everything in it along with the entire community he’d lived in was completely destroyed. The wave came as a rolling wall, an incredible 30m (100ft) high and swept all before it leaving some 200,000 dead and missing and another half million displaced persons like Hans.   They eventually made it back to his wife’s family in Medan and subsequently rebuilt their lives, moving to Bukit Lawang.

Our travels in Indonesia were teaching us we had a long way to go on bad roads to get through the big islands of Sumatra and then Java. Retracing the route back to Berastagi, we rode around the northwest crater rim of Lake Toba for a one-nighter in Parapat. The mountain road to the South and East was one of the worst of the trip. Grandly titled as the ‘Trans-Sumatran Highway’ again this was B-road hell with sections through towns and villages badly mangled or muddy and everything delayed by slow moving trucks that seemed barely capable of 20mph on the downhill. Now and again all progress was by a toppled truck that had been loaded high, then slipped a wheel into a ditch and turned turtle. Yet the poor roads were amply compensated by the lush mountain scenery all around and paddyfield foregrounds populated by barelegged farmers sporting coolie hats. The idyll was rendered complete by occasional flocks of white egrets flitting across the scene and it was on this road that we finally crossed the equator, our first ever road crossing from north to south.

On to the Southern Hemisphere then, where our first stop was Bukittingi, a bustling little market-town with a huge canyon right on its doorstep. Bukittingi was also the Japanese HQ during their occupation in WW2 and we explored tunnels built by slave labour overlooking the canyon. Another day and a ride out to see the spectacular Harau Valley billed as the ‘Indonesian Yosemite’, not so grand maybe but stunning all the same. Beyond Harau lay Kelok 9, an insane highway construction into the mountains full of racetrack-width elevated hairpins, bridges and super highway so incongruous with the roads in the rest of Sumatra. Riding it was like a drive-it-yourself rollercoaster; a thrilling, grin-guaranteed run quite unlike any other road in the world and a definite must for all bikers.

From Bukittingi we set forth into more mountain country bypassing another stupendous volcanic crater lake to reach the city of Sungai Penuh. It was not to be. Just beyond the lake we took a short break at a gas station. On restarting, Maggie heard an audible pop and her bike died, the battery clearly suffering some traumatic incident. On inspection its case had blistered and distorted and a trip around the village shops on the back of a petrol-attendants scooter failed to yield a replacement. It is very touching, looking back on these mishaps, at how people just stopped what they were doing, took an interest in our problem and then mucked in to help. As it happened there was a battery shop across the road. The guy there reckoned that our AGM battery (a sealed, maintenance free unit) had dried out. He broke the seal and reactivated the battery with some acid and put it on charge for a couple of hours allowing us to become a roadside attraction as folk came from near and far to have a photograph with the crazy motards! Another beautiful aspect of travelling in Indonesia is the many encounters with children. They are all keen to practice their English and approach us with a respectful request to do so. It’s a beautiful way to engage with kids as we learn about where they live, their hopes, their aspirations and a small way for us to pay back the hospitality and kindness we have had thrust upon us in Indonesia.

With the battery recharged we limped on to Padang, a city on the coast and spent the next day in a fruitless search for a replacement. The problem is our bikes use a fairly heavy-duty battery compared to local machines.   Our motorcycles have 650cc single cylinders, which require a hefty charge to turn them over in the mornings, and we could find nothing suitable in the city even with a local helper tagging along. In the end the reactivated battery seemed to be holding a charge, although its capacity and performance was clearly compromised, so we figured the bike would run OK once started. In this manner we limped through the remaining 900-miles of Sumatra, reaching the mountain town of Sungai Penuh and then another spectacular mountain ride to Bengkulu along the southern coast. These days were fraught with occasional bad road sections on a sick bike and we decided to keep going with no stops for coffee or lunch lest we get stranded in the middle of nowhere with an expired battery. Each day the battery died a little more until finally, on reaching the surf camps of Krui, jump leads were required to get her started. That final ride took us on a snake of a road over jungle-crested ridges and into the city of Bandar Lampung where the battery finally expired outside the Kurnai Perdana hotel.

A lesson learned on the road is that ‘Rescuers’ come in all shapes and forms. We asked at reception if they could call a few shops we’d found on the Internet to source a battery. Dali, a young bellhop, volunteered to take me around on the back of his scooter and, in the third shop, we final found a battery that would fit. It had a slightly lower performance rating but we figured this would only be a problem for cold starts or if the bike was left standing, neither of which are a concern in our current environment. Once fitted, the bike fired up like a nymphomaniac on HRT with big smiles all around the hotel crew who had gathered to watch the resurrection.

And so it was time to leave the stunning island of Sumatra. We boarded the RORO ferry to Java with a somewhat heavy heart and plonked ourselves down on the open deck to enjoy a cooling sea breeze and the savour the volcanic peaks of Sumatra as they receded into the distance and into our past… Our reverie was interrupted by a summons to the bridge where a bunch of smiling officers and engineers bade us enter… “Would you like to drive the boat for a bit?” they asked as the captain vacated his seat allowing Maggie to take the helm. As you can imagine, we rode off the ferry to begin the next leg of this journey with crazy loon smiles on our faces.

Java is the powerhouse of Indonesia. Appreciably smaller than Sumatra, Java contains over 60% of the population of all of Indonesia and that makes it the most densely populated island on the planet! We had been in contact with Jeffrey Polnaja, organiser of the first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia due to take place this May and where we are proud to present a slideshow or two on our travels. Jeffrey had advised avoiding the north and central roads across Java, as they are one huge logjam, especially around the capital city of Jakarta. Our first stop was the city of Bogor a mere 95 miles from the ferry, yet it took us nearly six-hours to cover this. Part of the route was mangled backroads, one of those ‘GPS shortcuts’ that utterly failed to account for the road conditions and had us slipping and sliding through chocolate-mud highstreets choked with traffic. Then we reached Bogor, a place we soon termed ‘Bugger’ for it’s traffic, where it took us over an hour and a half to cover the last eleven-miles, inch-worming through the dense gridlock. There wasn’t even room for filtering as every avenue was choked with a colloid suspension of small bikes. We read later that, with a population of several hundred thousand people residing in an area of about 20 km2, central Bogor is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire planet! It all made for tiresome riding, as progress was slow with constantly kicking up and down lower gears and arms aching from overuse of clutch and brake. To be fair the driving is mostly respectful and folk generally give way and show courtesy to one another so we never really felt threatened from other road users. Had this been India, it would simply have been carnage.

For all the traffic mayhem, Bogor was a pleasant city and a refreshing change from Wild Sumatra. In colonial times the city was named Buitenzorg (literally “without a care” in Dutch!) and served as the summer residence of the Governor-General of Dutch East Indies. There is a huge botanical garden in the centre that made for an amiable days’ stroll off the bikes. We took Jeffrey’s advice and cut through tea covered mountains to the coast, where we had been granted kind use of a splendid beach villa for a few days at the little fishing resort of Runcabuaya. This was just what we needed as our bikes and kit had taken something of a battering on the coastal ride south through Sumatra where everything had been covered in a film of sticky salt-spray that bonded with dust, dirt and diesel particles to make it all thoroughly filthy and a tad smelly to boot if I’m honest. We temporarily transformed the villa into a gypsy encampment with fluttering laundry flapping in the ocean breeze. The bikes too had a thorough cleaning and it was during this process that I discovered first a broken pannier frame bolt on my bike and then, more seriously, a broken spoke in the front wheel of Maggie’s bike; the roads in Indonesia were certainly taking their toll on our trusty machines. The bolt was replaced with a spare from the small stock we carry but the spoke was more troublesome as BMW use spokes, that feed straight through the wheel hub, whereas most other bikes have a bent attachment so finding a replacement would be a challenge. It also explained the wobble that had set in to the steering at 40mph on Maggie’s bike.

Runcabuaya was a great place to eat seafood from a plate-sized BBQ Raya fish to an order of Udang (prawns), which turned into a plate full of mouth-watering small red lobsters, split lengthwise to expose a soft, juicy forkable flesh all served in a savoury sweet and sour sauce (a steal too @£6 for two!). Our next destination was the ancient Buddhist temple complex at the imposing sounding town of Borobodur but our attempt to reach there led to one of the most scary rides of the entire trip to date… We left the haven of our lovely beach villa for a lively ride along the coast on improving roads. We saw Chinese, lift-type, fishing nets along the river estuaries and more of the verdant paddyfields lined with coconut palms that would give Ireland a run for its money in any ‘forty shades of green’ competition. We covered over half the distance in good time, with just under a hundred miles to complete in the afternoon, when it all went horribly wrong. First another GPS shortcut had us riding a dried out mud-track that was like a half-plowed minefield with bomb-blast potholes and concerns about that front wheel with the busted spoke. It was only four miles but seemed to take an eternity until we were back on solid ground. Then we hit the roadworks…

There was a tailback of maybe twenty or so cars and trucks and we followed some small bikes, filtering to the front where we were presented with a lane of completely dug up road section alongside another lane comprising a new section of raised concrete road. There was nothing coming so we followed a procession of scooters up onto the new highway. In hindsight this is perhaps the stupidest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle. It was all very well for a kilometer or so until we met a few cars coming the other way. With our fat-ass panniers we slowed down and the cars moved over so we easily passed one another. Then a minibus and a small truck; again we were able to pass but now the margin for manoeuvre was smaller. Still we were nearly there but you can imagine the horror as I heard the roar of a hefty diesel and a belch of thick black smoke that announced the oncoming arrival of a huge blue lorry. I stopped as close to the edge of the road as I could as he moved over and started to pass. My offside pannier was hanging over the edge of the road, now become a precipice and my left foot was down such that I could feel the side of the drop with my sole.

Contact! He nudged my right-side pannier with his side-rails pushing the bike over. The raised concrete section was about two feet above ground level so if I toppled over now I had a long way to fall with the bike coming down on top of me and probably breaking an arm / shoulder if not my neck! I shouted at the driver and he stopped as I managed to tease the bike forwards to eventually get by, only to see another truck looming ahead. Fortunately there was an earthen ramp down off the section and I made my escape. I jumped off the bike, adrenaline flushing though my body, in time to see Maggie now in contact with the first lorry. I don’t know how she did it but she dismounted and with the help of some locals was propping the bike up against the side of the lorry, which was in firm contact and ready to topple the bike; had she stayed in the saddle it would have been the end of her! I ran back and together we managed to manhandle the bike along the side of the lorry and then off the road altogether. Five minutes later the traffic cleared and we were able to finish the section without further hazard. The local people who lived along the road were lovely, inviting us into their homes for tea after surviving our mishap!

In hindsight it was clearly a stupid thing to do but traffic control was lacking; they just assumed any bike could squeeze on by. To cap it all, the sky up ahead bruised to black and we rode on into a deluge of super monsoon that drove almost everything off the road. We donned waterproofs but it rained with such intensity we could barely see more than a few yards ahead. After a few miles we spied the warm glowing lights of a roadside hotel and abandoned the day to the weather. Borobodur could wait…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: On to Java

 

 

Volcano / Supervolcano: Sumatra

I don’t think I ever sat down to write at such a breathtaking location as this; Lake Toba, deep in the very heart of the emerald island of Sumatra. I am sitting at the bottom of the garden of the Gokhon Guesthouse in a little pavilion, my eye taking in a full 180 of the far shore in utter tranquility, the only sound that of the little twitter birds in the palms above that wave ever-so-softly in the breeze. You can take your Garda, your Tahoe, your Windermere, and even majestic Atitlan; at this moment, none of them can possibly compare to where I am seated right now… I might well have just found paradise. And yet on this very spot many moons ago all life on the entire planet was almost extinguished for Toba is the in-filled crater of a huge supervolcano.

For all that we loved our time in Malaysia travelling there was ever so easy. Decent infrastructure, big wide roads with hard shoulders, clear signs and markings and almost everyone spoke really good English. They even had Tesco’s, for Pete’s sake… talk about home from home! That all changed the moment we arrived at Port Klang to ship to Indonesia. There is no car-ferry, just a little covered-in motor launch that carries maybe a hundred or so foot-passengers on the 5-hour run across the Straits of Malacca to Tanjung Balai in Sumatra. Some of the boats are slightly larger and can squeeze a bike or two on board for the trip. We called the lovely Sherlee Ong at Atlantic Jetstar Ferry to arrange when the next suitable boat would sail and on the appointed day bade final farewell to Kuala Lumpur. Each bike then had to be unloaded and all bags and panniers X-Rayed, airport check-in style, then reload, ride the short distance to the boat, unload yet again to permit the bikes to be manhandled down a series of steps and through the side doors onto the boat. Fortunately there were plenty of little helpers and each bike was soon onboard and secured to a handrail outside the toilet.

All this time we provided the chief source of entertainment for our co-passengers. No sooner had we sat down than requests for selfies started from a bunch of vivacious smiling ladies, our ‘Welcome to Indonesia’ party! The trip itself was remarkably fast and smooth, the motor-launch speeding across a tabletop flatness of glistening ocean. Snug in a row of four comfy chairs with all our kit, we contemplated the new land ahead… The largest island archipelago in the world, Indonesia consists of some 17,000 islands. We plan to hop our way down the chain starting in Sumatra, then Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, finally reaching East Timor, from where we’ll ship to Australia. 17,000 islands – that’s one for every Rupiah that equates to £1; yes a trip to the ATM would make us instant multi-millionaires with a million Indonesian Rupiah being yours for only sixty quid. Aside from everything now costing thousands, the main problem with the currency is that the largest available note is 100,000 Rupiah (@ £6) with coins down to the seemingly ridiculous amount of 100 Rupiah = £0.006. My wallet has never before been stuffed with such a wad of cash.

The boat slowed for the final part of the crossing, taking us up a jungly river estuary the colour of cold milk-coffee and choked with fishing boats large and small, all of them made from wood. The larger vessels looked like so many dismasted galleons, their barrel shaped hulls leaning drunkenly against each other along the muddy shore. Unloading was a reverse of loading with another X-Ray process but again a hoard of smiling friendly people assisted us manhandling the bikes out through the door and then I had the fun of riding up a rickety wooden jetty to gain the customs post. Within an hour we were efficiently stamped in, loaded up and then out loose on the streets of Tanjung Balai and one of the most startling ‘culture shocked’ arrivals we have ever experienced…

It was Saturday evening with the sun headed to roost casting a warm peachy glow on the potholed mud strip that passes for the main street through town. The street was lined with wooden shacks the same colour as the street and we picked a slow wobbly line threading through the potholes. The entire gamut of fishy stinks pervaded, from mouth-watering fried morsels on sale from street-vendor carts to rotten-knicker whiffs of fish gut and offal from monger stalls. And everywhere people… trudging and hauling, yelling and selling, shouting and laughing; all the bustle of this busy fish-town at the close of play. After squeaky clean and modern Malaysia this might all have seemed a somewhat imposing, even threatening, environment yet while it may have been raw and a little wild, it was certainly neither of these things. It was the people that gave life to the drudgery, all of them smiling at us, waving our slow procession along with shouts of ‘Hey mister’, ‘What is your name?’ and simple ‘Hellos’, greetings we are sure to hear in Rupiah sized quantities for the duration of our stay through these islands. We asked for directions to the only hotel in town and the customs guys had told us to head several kilometers along the mainstreet and turn right at the Green Mosque. The problem was there were several ‘Green Mosques’; we turned off at the wrong one and were soon speeding unto countryside on an ever-narrowing lane. We stopped to get corrections from some kids on scooters and were soon back on track to the hotel. That ride was one of the most intense immersions into a new culture anywhere and we relished it over some rice and chicken.

In the morning we set off for Lake Toba. The road improved but remained narrow and was choked with traffic making for slow progress and taking us 6-hours to cover 130 miles. Indonesia is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet and comes with a rural infrastructure that simply cannot cope. At best it is like riding on ‘B’ Roads at home if you can imagine all the traffic of a major road like London’s M25 diverted along the same route. Lesson number one is that you cannot judge journeys in Indonesia by distance alone; they must be reckoned solely by the time it will take to get there. To pot-holed roads add dilapidated diesel trucks scrimping along at sub-20mph speeds, occasional break-downs that become massive log-jams and then pour in millions of little scooters and home made tuk-tuks to fill any remaining space. The road eventually emptied as we headed into the country leaving us some peace at last to enjoy a thrilling descent from the crater rim, zigzagging down jungle roads with jaw-dropping views of heaven over the treetops towards the lake. We reached Parapat on the lakeshore at 2pm and were delighted to see the ferry across the lake would leave at 2:30. We were the first ones there… in fact we were the only ones there, for a while at least, but after about 15-minutes a few cars and small trucks appeared and we chatted to the new arrivals, learning how timetables don’t really mean much here, a fact that was underlined by the eventual departure of the 14:30 ferry at 17:40.

The ferry delivered us in an hour across that sublime lake to the bustling little ville of Tomok on the island of Samosir and another 4 miles took us on to Tuk Tuk, where I started this narrative. 75,000 years ago, we definitely would not have wanted to be here as that was when Toba, the super-volcano, erupted; the largest explosion on Earth in the last 25 million years. The eruption deposited a layer of ash 150mm thick over all Southern Asia; at one site in central India, the ash has been measured at up to 6-metres thick. The net effect was to plunge the entire planet into one long winter with as global temperatures fell dramatically. The Toba eruption also had cataclysmic consequences for population of the planet killing most humans living at that time leaving only a residue of people in central/east Africa and some in India from whom we are all descended today.

Over the eons the enormous crater filled with water to form an elongated lake measuring 100km x 30km. The island of Samosir rose from its depths and is home to the Batak people. You immediately know you are in Batak country by the dramatic change in architecture with the sudden appearance of Batak houses with their steeply pitched saddleback roofing bearing insanely pointed fore and aft peaks. The gable ends are beautifully rendered with characteristic carvings and motifs all painted in traditional black, white and red and the net appearance is that of an utterly marooned treasure galleon waiting for the tide to come in and reclaim it. It all has a somewhat Polynesian feel to it and reminds us we are now departed from mainland Asia. In their past the Bataks had a reputation for cannibalism. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, studied the Batak in his travels here and commented on the practice noting “It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work,” and that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.” Thankfully today the Batak people are mainly Christian however some traditional practices survive such as the reburial of the dead after some time in little ossuaries that are found all over the area. The Batak believe that the dead occupy a status similar to the social position they held in life so that a rich and powerful individual remains influential after death, and their status can be elevated if the family holds a reburial ceremony.

With all this geographical and cultural awe on our doorstep Tuk Tuk became our home for the next week as we explored the island. The Gokhon Guesthouse was a portal to some fine eating at the nearby Popy’s and Jenny’s restaurants, dining on lake fish with delicious sambals and rice. We also were introduced to Gado-Gado (literally mix-mix) a mélange of freshly cooked vegetables adorned with a fragrant peanut sate sauce. Breakfast at Popy’s took even a plain omelet to another level arriving stuffed with carrot and cabbage that would fill you to the gills for the day ahead.

From ancient people and supervolcanoes we moved on to visit a real live volcano; Sibayak, reachable by a 4-hour hike from the bustling little town of Berastagi. Along the way we espied neighbouring Sinabung, a far more active beast. A substantial eruption in 2010 forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people from the vicinity and last May a pyroclastic burp killed seven individuals caught on its slopes. Through binoculars we could see entire forests on its flanks reduced to a dead diorama of matchsticks. We walked on to reach the crater of our own volcano spotting birds and monkeys along the way. The summit was spectacular and well worth the hike; an acid filled lake surrounded by yellow-gash fumaroles spewing sulphurous belches into the air and feeling very unworldly, reminding us on what a fragile crust we all tread. On the way down we spotted something small and furry moving in the boulders. It was a rat desperately foraging for food in the stone field and he remained totally oblivious to our presence. As we approached the reason for his lack of caution became clear; he was totally blind, probably caused by the sulphurous environment in which he lives and his eye sockets were closed and crusted over by the burning acid. It was probably one of the most incredible little wildlife encounters in all of our travels. We just marveled that, in spite of this disability, this little rat was apparently surviving up here.

Sumatra was stealing our hearts. With the little roads and the slow progress it reminded us of ‘Ireland when we were growing up’, where all journeys took ages to get anywhere but were filled with marvels along the way, something that has now been totally obliterated by motorway travel. We rode on ever deteriorating roads into another jungle land to reach the riverside village of Bukit Lawang for another very special wildlife encounter. We needed a guide to enter the dark vastness of the Gunung Leuser National Park, crossing the rope-bridge over the river and entering a rubber plantation that skirts the jungle. Here a silver-spiked, punky-monkey clambered down to see us. He was a cutesy Thomas Leaf monkey and politely accepted the gift of a banana from our guide. We left the plantation trees for a mud track into the jungle, climbing ridges and dropping into valleys for the next couple of hours before spotting what we came all this way to see…

First up in the trees, some violent movement and then a flash of cinnamon hair in the darkness. Leng, our guide, bade us wait and disappeared off up the trail for several minutes. After several suspenseful minutes he reappeared around a bend in the path with Jackie, a fully-grown female Orangutan, in tow. She had a baby clung to her chest and walked straight up to me and took hold of my forearm. Her hand was enormous, easily clamping my forearm in her leathery grip. I tried to draw my arm away but she held firm and I had the distinct impression that she had the ability to break my arm in two in a single motion had she wished. It was mildly terrifying yet marvelous all at the same time. I crouched down and she sat contentedly beside me until Leng produced some fruit to distract her away. A few more tour groups appeared along with another of Jackie’s offspring, a cute youngster who set himself up in a small tree in our midst accepting bananas for photographs and a precious chance to observe these incredible animals up close. I should explain here that the Orangutan here are not fully wild but originate from a rescue and rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang that released injured or recovered pet Orangutan back to the wild. They have had such dependency on humans that they will never truly return to the wild, identifying approaching people with free food and guaranteeing a local industry in tour-guided wildlife walks.

At the end of this day Sumatra had well and truly taken full possession of our hearts. It is simply one of the wildest, most beautiful paradises we have ever come across in all our travels and if this is our gateway to Indonesia, then we are in for some amazing days ahead.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Volcano / Supervolcano – Sumatra