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

Profile of an Adventurer: HU Indonesia 2017…

We left Bromo with a spring in our step, revitalised and full of marvel at yet another of these surprises that our wonderful planet lays on from time to time. Our final halt in East Java was at the ferry port of Ketapang, which doubled as our base to explore yet another volcano; Ijen Crater. This entailed a 1am pick up to drive up into the mountains for a guided 3am hike along the crater trail to catch the sunrise. Ijen is famous as one of only two places on the planet where you can witness a very peculiar and somewhat eerie blue sulphur-light, visible only in the pre-dawn hours (the other is in Iceland). The volcano also hosts an active sulphur mine and the stench is so bad that the guides issue you with gas masks for when the wind blows up from the crater. The lights failed to live up to the hype as recent activity had closed off access to the crater itself and although we did see the blue lights, they looked like someone waving a torch at you in the dark from the far end of a foggy football stadium.   The crater lake itself was clad with a drape of thick cloud which lifted but momentarily in the dawn, offering ghostly views of this ghastly slash in the landscape. We found a perch in the early dawn to watch the sulphur miners begin their day’s work, climbing down into the crater area to chip out chunks of the yellow rock. There was a hierarchy to their travail with the older more experienced miners licensed to barrow their spoils down the mountain, whilst the new-starters had to port hefty loads on their bare backs, an immensely physical and time consuming graft for which they are paid a pittance.

An hour on the ferry took us to Bali, most renowned isle of the entire Indonesian archipelago and perhaps the very notion of an ultra-exotic tropical paradise. The ride along the north coast was pretty enough but the climb over the mountains to reach the pretty ville of Ubud proved to be a chore as we negotiated a never-ending column of excruciatingly slow buses and trucks on winding lanes and suddenly we were back in the congestion of West Java. We did find homely accommodation in Ubud and Mags signed up for a fortnight of classes at the famous Yoga Barn, while I spent some time fettling the bikes, in particular finally repairing a leaking fuel pump on my bike. The Starbucks in Ubud is probably one of the prettiest in the world. Word has it that the royal family of Ubud developed a taste for their brew and consequently they are the only big multi-national fast food outlet to be granted a license to operate in town. Their premises overlook a palatial Lotus garden where you can sip your latte whilst watching devotees make their daily offerings.

It took very little to persuade us to swop Bali for less congested Lombok, via a 5-hour ferry ride and we immediately relished the slower pace of life there.   We abandoned the bikes in Senggigi for a weekend on the promised tropical paradise islet of Gili Air for a spot of snorkeling. Even better was the snorkeling on the small islets off Sekotong, in southwest Lombok, where the reef is a lot less damaged by the idiotic practice of dynamite fishing practiced around Gili Air. Every dip became a beautiful immersion into a universe of tropical fish all competing with one another for the most garish colour scheme. Gili Kedis was memorable as the smallest island we’ve ever been on, literally a few palm trees and a small hut seemingly made of driftwood selling cold drinks and snacks, an idyllic spot to be ‘Robinson Crusoed’ for a few hours.

One of things I love most about this kind of travel is how your day can start out as one thing and then transform into something completely different… We had to travel into Mataram, capital of Lombok, for another visa extension involving a lot of form filling and hanging around in a government office. We took a walk outside to grab a coffee from a little street vendor and were invited by a bunch of customers to join them at a table. Engang resembled a slightly shorter and younger Morgan Freeman but with the same big grin and gravelly voice as the famous American actor. We sat a while chatting about our trip and he in turn told us about the delights of his vegetable garden and how he loved to work the land. “So what are you doing in the city?” we asked. “Oh the garden is just a hobby,” he replied. “I work over there, in the school.” He pointed to a squat lime-green coloured building, which had thousands of scooters and small motorcycles parked out front. “I am a teacher; English,” he explained. That day Engangs class gained two impromptu class assistants as we were introduced to a room full of 14 and 15-year olds and regaled them for half an hour with stories from our life on the road. It was an immensely rewarding experience and emphasised how the best thing you can give to children is neither money nor material things; it is your time.

All too soon we were on another ferry, this time from Lombok to the next island in the chain, Sumbawa, for a remarkable event; the first ever ‘Horizons Unlimited’ rally to be held in Indonesia. For non-overlanders, ‘Horizons Unlimited’ or ‘HU’ is an online resource for those of us with a passion for seeing the world on motorcycles. It dates back to 1997 when two Canadians, Grant and Susan Johnson, had just completed an epic round the world trip on their bike. At the end of their ride, they had amassed an enormous amount of information on overlanding by bike, everything from preparing for the ride to vaccination requirements to shipping your bike between continents to customs formalities at various borders. They decided to share this data in hope of inspiring and assisting others considering trips of their own and so HU was born! Back then, the Internet was an up and coming thing and an ideal platform for what has become a two-wheel overland resource as others added their experiences until today it is the first port of call for all queries on overlanding by bike.

There is another side to HU and that is the rallies. What started out as a few friends gathering in someone’s garden to talk about travels on their bikes over a beer and a barbeque has grown into national events with the HU meeting in the UK regularly attracting hundreds of overlanders. The events have grown to include a range of presentations where riders can share their experiences and practical skills from the road and the invitation has been extended to other overlanders from cyclists and 4-wheelers to kayakers and boat travellers. When we heard that Indonesia was planning it’s first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting we decided it would be one not to miss…

The event was organised by Jeffrey Polnaja, the first Indonesian to ride around the world on a motorcycle and the location was the Kencana Beach Resort on the island of Sumbawa next in the archipelago after Lombok. It would be a happy collision of riders from the west heading east with those from the east heading west, all leveled by a great bunch of local riders seeking inspiration and knowledge of the world beyond. People had ridden in from Austria, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and of course from all over Indonesia. A smattering of Americans flew in too along with the guest of honour, the redoubtable Ted Simon, author of the superlative motorcycle travel book; Jupiters Travels, a man who could rightly claim the title of granddaddy to all of this. It was an outstanding weekend. Aside from the travellers presentations we had a traditional welcoming ceremony involving the Mayor of Sumbawa Besar and splendid local dance troop, all very colourful and wherein the male visitors were honoured by the gift of a local headdress. The setting was just divine too especially at dawn and dusk when Maggie ran her first ever ‘Beach Yoga.

So who are these overlanders, these perhaps perceived unbalanced individuals who shun ‘normal life’ to take to the road? A bunch of rich kids / silver-beard retirees on the latest sixteen grand BMW 1200GS Adventure bikes, armoured for the road with all the catalog accessories costing almost as much again as the bare bike and sporting thousand pound Gore-Tex jackets? That’s certainly what the marketing folk would have you believe you need to tackle this ‘lifestyle’ but bear in mind all they are interested in is selling you an image and it’s something they do very well as these days the ‘adventure bike market’ is one of the largest sectors in the motorcycle industry. To answer this question it’s better if I introduce you to some of the riders we met at the event so, in no particular order, please meet…

Noortje Nijkamp (Nora) and Johannes Weissborn (JJ), from Den Haag, Holland and Vienna, Austria respectively are a delightful young couple brought together by a life on the road and have been riding from home in Europe to reach Bali and the end of their trip, with a final diversion to Sumbawa for HU. Nora has a 650 Suzuki V-Strom and JJ has a KTM 950. Nora has compiled an amazing V-Blog of her trip and I can heartily recommend perusing the fantastic episodes on Adventurism TV, her very own YouTube channel.

Mike and Shannon Mills (www.smboilerworks.com), a lively couple from Seattle, USA on Suzuki DR650s also at the end of their trip, which has taken them over the past three years through the Americas, across Europe and Asia and down to Jakarta where they will ship back to the Americas. They are proof that overlanding on a motorcycle holds part of the secret of eternal youth…

Blasius Ediprana, a charming young man from Bandung, Java, Indonesia, called into HU in the middle of a two and a half month tour of the Indonesian islands on his Indian Pulsar 150cc bike.

Andy Dukes from UK. It has taken us almost two years to reach this point of our travels. Andy did the same journey in three months on his BMW F800GS! His mission is to ride around the world while competing in a series of marathons, one on each continent. He flew in to be at HU for the first few days and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to run in the marathon there, a brutal event given the high temperatures and humidity; finished it too in less than 4.5 hours! Check out Andy’s blog at www.themarathonride.com.

Faizal Sukree from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew in for the event and is an accomplished motorcyclist who has completed an epic round the world ride on his BMW F800GS.

Kevin Bärtschi, a gentle young man from Frutigen, Switzerland, riding his KTM 690 to Australia.  Check out Kevin’s travels (for German readers) at @knastbrostravel

Joe Hambrook, a Park Ranger from New Zealand, has spent the past year riding towards home from the UK on his Suzuki DR650. Click here for Joe’s Blog.

Phil Stubbs from Essex, UK, who we met in my last post, was also here on his locally procured 225cc Yamaha Scorpio enjoying his slow ride round Indonesia.

Silvia Walti and Thomas Gentsch are riding their respective Yamaha XT660 and BMW F800GS from home in Zurich, Switzerland to Australia. We already met in KL at Sonny’s Cycles, then again in Bali and have been comparing notes on our routes ever since. Click here to access Silvia and Thomas Blog (for German readers)

Iif Brillianto from Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia came to HU on his 250cc Suzuki cruiser. Like Blasius above Iif is currently touring his homeland and popped in to say hello.

Nicole Stavro Espinosa from California, USA flew in to present her slideshow on a recent trip in East Africa. She is currently planning a RTW in a Ural sidecar outfit so she can bring her two kids along.

Josh Johnson from Darwin, Australia. Another ‘starter’, Josh is in the early days of his trip to circle the globe on his Honda Africa Twin.

Anita Yusof from Ipoh, Malaysia. Anita was the first Malaysian woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. Her bike? A 150cc Yamaha, which proved to be a fitting mount for her Global Dream Ride.

Jeff de Wispelaere flew in from Denver, Colorado, USA especially to be at this inaugural HU Indonesia, which held a special place in his heart as his family came from here.

Steve Campbell, originally from Victoria, Australia arrived on his Kawasaki KLX150 from his current base in Lombok to regale us in the evenings with highly entertaining tales of his overlanding through Asia back in the 1970’s.

And on to three young lads…Liam Della from Perth Australia (gone-postal.com), Matt Booth from Yorkshire, England (@OilyRagAdventures) and Tom Curtis from London, England (www.tomcurtis.world). All three are set on riding their individual 1970’s vintage Honda CT110’s (better known to the outside world as 110cc Australian ‘Postie bikes’ a derivative of the ubiquitous Honda C50 / 70 / 90 family) from Australia / New Zealand to the UK. They started out independently and then met along the way to converge on HU. Their bikes are fitted with homemade panniers / saddlebags and riding kit consists of a motley selection of outdoor gear / hiking boots and flip-flops but it all has a function, it all works and these riders are living proof that you don’t need a huge budget and top of the range machines /gear to be an adventure motorcyclist.  In fact this last statement can probably be applied to most of the riders here, where smaller / older machines seem to be the preference, bikes that are simple and easily repairable on the road. The key message here is it doesn’t matter what you ride, just get out and do it!

Almost last (but not least), our gallant host Jeffrey Polnaja. Jeffrey spent 9 years riding 820,000km just about everywhere you can around planet Earth on his BMW 1150GS – check out www.rideforpeace.net. With HU Indonesia 2017 he simply wanted to extend the wonderful hospitality he had partaken on his travels to fellow overlanders in his home country. Aided by his beautiful wife Maya and young daughter Kirana, they hosted a superb event that will forever linger as a highlight in the lives it touched over the four days in Sumbawa. On behalf of everyone who attended, thank you!

At the end of the event a crowd of us took a boat for a day trip to the spectacular island of Moyo. This is a real backwater of Indonesia offering two precious commodities; real desert-island beauty coupled with remote privacy attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Diana as a holiday retreat. On landing we rented a fleet of motor scooter taxis to take us on an adventure ride to the beautiful waterfalls at Mato Jito and later took a hike to the falls at Diwu mba’I where we were entertained by the local kids diving in off a rope swing. Paradise just got better that day.

I will finish now with one final introduction to another of the local riders we met at HU. Raditya Eka, from Bandung, Java, arrived on his Harley Davidson and entertained us with well made videos of his various rides through Indonesia. I can think of no better way of signing off for this time than the following video compiled by Eka covering HU Indonesia 2017. Enjoy! Please click here to view: Eka’s HU Video

In addition to the various links above, there are two photo galleries for this post that can be accessed by clicking the following links:

  1. Ijen, Bali and Lombok
  2. Horizons Unlimited, Indonesia 2017

 

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

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