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

 

 

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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