Published: February 23rd 2011February 23rd 2011
Having travelled from Rantapau in Sulawesi to Padang in Sumatra, by way of Makkassar and Kuala Lumpur, and enjoying not a jot of sleep in the 56 hours that the journey took to complete, I began to have serious doubts as regarded my choice of location for our much needed rest and recuperation as we approached Bukittinggi in the cramped rear seats of a battered opelet. The road had become entirely blocked by smoke spewing vehicles, and the view of battered concrete mobile phone shops and dilapidated bike repair joints was far too ubiquitously Asian to have me believe that Bukkitingi would prove to be the cool highland retreat I had imagined and desired. We were unceremoniously ejected from our opelet in the middle of a noisy, confused and confusing out of town bus-come-opelet station, from where we had to change to a smaller van; plenty of which were patrolling and cajoling for potential customers like particularly vocal and unabashed curb crawlers. After bending down to negotiate the price though the open window, we hitched up our metaphorical skirts and with a forced smile of complicity, swung our legs inside.
The Rajawali guest house, owned and run by the supremely
helpful Herr Ulrich, was our excellently priced retreat from the noise and fumes and bustle of downtown Bukittinggi. At this late stage in the journey both of our minds were consumed entirely with thoughts of bed, but extricating ourselves from the torrent of most excellent advice and information that was gushing from the lips of Herr Ulrich, like a particularly loquacious cataract, was proving an incredibly difficult task to complete without appearing both uninterested and ungrateful. Unfortunately for us, as well as being a most excellent conduit for his staggering prolixity, Herr Ulrich's mouth also harboured within it a case of halitosis so severe that to be standing directly in front of him for longer than you could hold your breath was to risk asphyxiation. In an effort to remove myself from his barrage of vicious olfactory jabs, I was forced to sidestep out of their considerable range. So that he could address himself to me with good natured Germanic efficiency, Herr Ulrich would counter my movements with a graceful step of his own; the consequent circling of each other that resulted must have looked exactly like a pair of boxers in the ring.
Once upstairs in our modest
but comfortable room, we showered and went immediately to bed. We found sleep as easy to come by as a tiger balm seller in Kathmandu, but like the erection of an onanist upon being disturbed by his mother, it was almost impossible to sustain. Bukittinggi, like most other conurbations in Indonesia, has several large Mosques that are located throughout the town so as to provide it with blanket coverage. When, at five in the morning and from horribly distorting speakers, the Muezzin is sung, not a single person is permitted to be out of earshot, ourselves, who unbeknownst to us were staying directly adjacent to a particularly loud one, being no exception. Normally I actually quite enjoy listening to the Muezzin, so long as the lilting song is amplified at a sensible volume and does not continue for too long. So, although played at a quite staggering volume and being, as mentioned, a fuzzy mess of distortion, I was quite prepared to listen for ten minutes before falling back to sleep. Unfortunately, after the usual "God is great, sleep is rubbish, prayer is better, come to the Mosque and worship Allah and his profit Mohammed", or words very, very loosely
to that effect, the invocation to prayer was replaced by a live recording of the ensuing sermon, and then this was replaced with some form of Madrassa, the children answering in massed voices the shouted words of the Imam. More sleep proved impossible.
Much earlier than intended and in order to escape the chronic Koranic intonations, we hired a scooter and took ourselves off on a two day tour of the local area. Our intended destination was Danau Maninjau, an enormous crater lake where we hoped to finally find some semblance of serenity. The route that Herr Ulrich advised us to take was, as he so correctly informed us, stunningly beautiful and an absolute pleasure to drive. Due to Bukittinggi's elevated location in the Minangkabau highlands, the climate is comparatively cool and, on a day like the one which we experienced whilst driving to Maninjau, feels exactly like an English summers day. That is not to say that we suffered a day of 15 degree heat and constant light drizzle, but rather that the day replicated perfectly one of those evanescent English summer days that one gets to enjoy so infrequently, but which when experienced are almost climatically perfectly
suited to outdoor pursuits; such as drinking warm beer in a pub garden with your mates. Here in Sumatra we did not have any beer, but driving through the narrow Sianok Canyon, passing small houses overgrown with flowering vegetation, it was possible, sort of, to imagine myself cruising the narrow, bucolic lanes of Cornwall.
Once outside of Bukittinggi, the noise and pollution of the town is very quickly replaced by a stunning landscape of perfectly conical volcanoes, deep rift valleys and gently rolling, thickly forested hills. Every couple of kilometres the road would pass another small village where traditional houses with their upwardly pointing roofs, so reminiscent of Buffalo horns, are grouped around a small village green upon which could be viewed children playing football and adults relaxing in the sun cheering them on. Surrounding these small conurbations were rice terraces and small plantations of cinnamon, coffee and avocado. Buffalo roamed the rice paddy with white egrets upon their backs and eagles wheeled in the air at the edge of the surrounding forest. This wall of green from out of which these villages have hacked their fields, rather than being encroached upon itself, appears as though it is about
to envelope the smallholdings within a couple of weeks. Indeed, the lush fertility of the volcanic soil produces such prodigious growth that the small wooden houses of the village are almost all entirely overgrown by a covering of thickly flowering plants.
The final four kilometres of the road to Maninjau proved to be the most convoluted of what was already a very twisted journey. Over the course of 44 hairpin bends the road drops down from the craters edge to the lakeshore. The view out and across the huge lake from the road's highest point, taking in the knife sharp edges of the caldera that surround and contain the lake, was truly spectacular. The run down to the lake itself was great fun, and quite a test of a moderately sensible (when it is not just my own skin on the line) man's ability to keep his speed within reasonably safe limits. The road's excellent surface and the relative lack of traffic were both a hindrance to this sensibility; the incredible views that greeted each switchback being the only tempering factor. As were the groups of chattering Macaques that for most of the way down would sit in the
middle of the road and force last minute evasive action.
Lake Maninjau was a lovely place to kick back and relax, but was a little busier on its northern shore than I was expecting and its beauty, from the waters edge, is marred in most places by the proliferation of fish farms that dot the shore. We did have some of the best food of Indonesia, cooked by the lovely Anita from Rama's cafe, a little place just north of Maninjau that we can highly recommend. Try the delicious fish curry that is both supremely tasty and features a carp on steroids, or perhaps the Murtaback or Roasty potatoes, both of which were delicious and not a bit like you might expect. Our accommodation on the lake, Maura cottages, had a lovely location that was somehow mostly free of the unsightly fish farms and, most importantly, afforded us a perfectly quiet and deliciously deep and long sleep.
The following day we travelled back to Bukittinggi, but to keep things interesting, we took a different route. The road was again very windy, great fun, and passed through an endless succession of stunning rural villages. We forded several streams and
made hesitant ascents of rutted roads that were just the achievable side of passable, but which nevertheless seriously challenged my off road biking skills, as well as Anny's nerves. After a few false turns that got us wonderfully lost for a pleasant few hours, we finally made it to our intended destination of Palupuh village. Here we were welcomed into the house of Ibu Imul who, as the clouds that had been building all day finally gave vent to their suppressed violence in a massive deluge of rain, served us both a cup of truly shit coffee. It was however, possibly the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted.
Kopi Luwak is to be found only in Sumatra and, here at the village of Palupuh, Miss Imul produces a completely organic version that she claims to be some of the best you can buy. Kopi Luwak is entirely unique; this is because of the remarkable way that the beans are transported from the ripe vine to the roaster. The ripe, sometimes wild coffee berries, are eaten by wild civet cat through whose lower digestive tract they then pass, becoming naturally fermented in the process, before being ejected onto the
jungle floor as civet poop. The resultant defecation of this small mammal is then collected by members of the local villages whom Ibu Imul pays for this service, before being delivered to her small cottage industry for cleaning, six days of sun drying and then a full three hours of roasting in a clay oven fired by cinnamon wood that imparts a subtle flavour to the finished product. The resultant brew therefore being, as I mentioned earlier, quite literally, a cup of shit coffee.
There are more photos below