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Published: April 2nd 2011
If ever you find yourself in Sumatra you really must go to Pulau Weh. It is well worth the flights, boats and buses that are required to get there!! It is stunning; great scenery, people and food... and scuba diving... which is why I find myself here. The drive from the airport includes stunning vistas - locals working in the rice fields, coconut trees galore and simple towns rebuilt after the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh in December 2004 (something like 20,000 people died here that day). After meeting 3 other people (from France, Germany and France) and all sharing a taxi from the airport to a hotel I finally feel like I’m back in the travel groove!! And I’m loving it!! The lovely Sandra (one of the aforementioned Frenchies!) is a gem. We get on well and have decided to travel together for a while which means cheaper hostel rooms, good banter on long journeys and a new friend.
Well what can I say about Pulau Weh other than everyone should experience this beautiful island to the north of Sumatra. I decided to stay on a few extra days to get in a few more dives and am so
glad I did. Unfortunately Sandra spent 4 days out of the 6 ill in bed with a temperature of 39.7! I however had a fabulous time and in between checking on her I had a great time diving with Jim, Adam and Chris from Lanta. Jim was working there and part of the reason that I went. Adam and Chris arrived a couple of days after me and we made a brilliant little dive group. As you can imagine I loved being the only girl in the group (!) and the boys looked after me beautifully (or did I look after them?) I dived every day, a few times twice a day. I had been warned about the current on some of these dive sites and on my last dive I found myself clinging to rocks as we tried not be whisked off into the blue!- it was such fun. We also got the chance to do some deep deco dives. Which I LOVED!! Having come from Lanta where you had to be back on the boat after 60 minutes and most of the dives I did were no deeper than 25m it was a real thrill to go to
50m and to get an 80 minute dive. I also got the chance to dive the Sophie Rickmers Wreck. The top of the wreck is at 48m and it lies perfectly upright at the bottom of the sea having been scuttled in the bay in the war and so is perfectly intact down there. The day we dived it there wasn’t great visibility but this just seemed to add to the eerie quality of the wreck. We also did two beach dives. These were amazing. At 7 Euros a tank it was so cheap and the house reef was teeming with marine life... frog fish, pipe fish, octopus, nudibranch, leaf scorpion fish, baby lion fish, and so much more. It was heaven... and just a walk in from the beach!
Apart from diving, eating and socialising we also spent an hour or two whizzing around the island on a moped; once with Sandra on the back and once with Adam and me on the back of Chris’s bike. Unlike Thailand where you can find rental places everywhere you look, on tiny, remote Gapang Beach you just ask a local if you can pay him to use his! So after acquiring
Our diving gang!
Adam, me, Jim and Christophe... i couldn't have asked for better buddies to dive and party with!
a jazzy little black number (I say jazzy, I mean sputtering!) we whizzed (or sputtered) about the island enjoying the sun and the beautiful scenery. The weather just about held out, although once or twice we postponed our diving to the afternoon as the rain pelted down in the morning. There was such a large ‘storm’ at the start of my trip that the whole sandy beach that ran along the beach got swallowed up and once the weather calmed down it left a sandy, coraly mess which I tried to navigate with my bike.. with Sandra pushing me!!
When Jim left we saw him off in style with local banana rum, vodka and Bacardi – a weird mix but on a Muslim island with Sharia Law you take what you can get it would seem!! (and no, I didn’t drink any of them!!) I had intended to leave with Jim but as I mentioned earlier I decided to stay a little longer. So 3 days (and much diving, eating and fun) later Sandra and I left this gorgeous place.
We took the ferry to Banda Aceh where found a cheap and almost clean place to stay for
Diving was amazing..
So much to see.. (although my very expensive camera housing had a crack so i couldn't take it underwater much!)
the night before leaving on a flight to Medan in the morning. There is almost nothing to comment on here, except that the place we had found to eat had shark fin soup on the menu... so I promptly insisted on leaving (how can it still be served... it’s appalling but enough of my soap box) the other thing that is worth mentioning is the cockroach. Now I am used to staying in some pretty basic places and usually I check for roaches and mice as soon as I arrive but you have to be prepared when you pay less than a fiver for a room, that you may be sharing it with some creepy crawlies. I can manage this. What I can’t manage is when you are lying on your bed minding your own business and one of the cheeky buggers runs across your legs. Your legs. I mean honestly. This is MY space.. the floor is their space.. or the bathroom.. but NOT my legs. And then I had to sleep... with the knowledge that they would be scuttling over me all night... erggh. As it happened I was out like a light and woke refreshed and ready
to leave at 4.30am the following morning.
The flight to Medan was uneventful, the minivan ride to Lake Toba was also uneventful although it was a joke! We had 8 adults in the car (it wasn’t technically a minivan, but a large car) but on the 3 ladies laps who sat in front of us were three small children. Now I like children, but not when I’m crammed in a car with them for 5 hours and they are under the age of 2. One was very sweet and didn’t make a peep the whole journey. The other two, however, could have made an appearance in a comedy sketch show. The one in front of me was just learning that if it opened its mouth it could make an extraordinarily high pitched noise that it’s mother didn’t seem to mind at all... it (for I don’t know whether it was a boy or girl!) did this the entire journey. Whilst the other one kept on being sick. Now baby sick is particularly smelly, especially when it is caught in the hands of the mum and then thrown out the window... smattering down the side of the car and a
The beautiful Lake Toba
the lake and SUPERVOLCANO!!
little flew back in the window onto Sandra... I kid you not... a light covering of sick on the very calm Sandra... I would have flipped!!
But we arrived. And Lake Toba is beautiful. It is not just a lake, but a lake within a super volcano. Let me explain; about 77000 years ago a huge volcano erupted on such a scale that they think it plunged the world into winter and is, they think, the largest eruption to have occurred in the last 25million years!! And it is beautiful... and huge. The lake itself is 110km long by 30 km wide and at its deepest is 505 metres deep! In the centre is an island called Samosir and this is where Sandra and I headed.
We stayed in a little guest house called Liberta which was vaguely clean and located close to the water’s edge. On the first day we hired bicycles and cycled around the little village of Tuk Tuk and to the nearby Tomok. It was an amazingly energetic decision on my part (having not done any real exercise for the past 5 months!) and one that I felt keenly the next day!!! (my poor
bum!) Anyway it was picturesque and beautiful and I met a lovely lady called Rosa who had a little road side stall with whom I sat and chatted and ate for about 3 hours (whilst Sandra and another cycling companion continued exercising!!) Rosa was lovely and showed me how she made the different cakes and even shared her lunch with me!! It was lovely and exactly the kind of experience I adore and love travelling because of.
So the next day, both with sore bottoms, and aching thighs, we decided to continue our adventures, but this time on moped! Well, the rain tried to stop us but I managed to persuade Sandra that I could still drive in the rain and although we did witness one bike accident due to crazy Indonesian driving and wet roads, we set off on our journey.
Now you know that feeling you get when everything is not as it should be? Your pulse speeds up, your vision narrows; not necessarily literally but certainly in your head. You feel anxious and start considering (or worrying) about what options you have open to you... usually all of which are equally difficult to decide upon
Me and Rosa
I met Rosa in Tomok. She made and sold fried banana goodies!! .. i hung out with her for 3 hours (and ate a lot of fried food!)
because by now you are feeling desperate. Have you felt like that? I know when I explain the circumstances many of you will think, “What’s the big deal? She overreacted”. And maybe I was over reacting. But that is the point; when these scenarios occur my over active imagination leaps into action. Let me explain. The rain started and stopped and the journey was beautiful with mainly good tarmac'd roads and beautiful lush green scenery running alongside the massive Lake Toba. We saw a really rural side to the island and got the feeling that not many tourists bothered to come this far north. We took a little track off the main road but as the rain poured down and we realised the ‘road’ had turned to mud and our bike was slipping all over the place we tried to turn round and realised we had got ourselves in a bit of a pickle!! The road was now, basically a mud slide!! Luckily a very helpful man appeared and steered our bike back down to the proper road!! (he must have been thinking we were right idiots!.. typical tourists!) Anyway we continued. We stopped off in the town of Pangururan
They shape the roofs like buffalo horns.
to eat a delicious local lunch of curries, percodel (potato cake), aubergines, green beans, boiled eggs and sambal (a tomato spicy sauce) and rice. It cost 14 rupiah which is about £1! Delicious.
The road had started off very nicely but as the road started climbing it got gradually more and more ropey. But none the less it was a road (of sorts) and whilst we had to dodge the massive holes, for the most part it some tarmac in places! We continued, climbing all the time up to Lake Sidihoni (a lake on an island in a lake!!.. if you see what I mean!) Just before reaching the lake we were rewarded with a stunning vista. We hit the lake and whilst it wasn’t the most impressive lake it was nonetheless impressive in it’s’ size and location (i.e. Very high up on the top of the mountain that forms Samosir) having come up a pretty shabby road we decided to try our luck on a different road on the decent. We had a hand drawn very simple map which our guest house had given us and it looked like we could follow the road and find our
way down that way. So off we went. At this point I would like to point out that the map we used had a variety of roads marked that weren’t even on other maps that we looked at!! ... But since they were on ours we chanced it. So we headed on. It was about 1pm and we had half a tank of petrol. The people we passed all smiled and shouted hellos at us. The children put out their hands for high fives as we drove past and occasionally we checked that we were heading in the right direction – although to be fair there only seemed to be one road. At one point we found ourselves with the choice of either a right or left hand road. Having no idea which we wanted (we had no idea where we were on the map, or if this fork was even marked on the map!!) Luckily a motorcycle whizzed past and as they did we shouted to them for the direction of Tomok (the town at the bottom of the mountain) and off we went. And so we continued in this fashion for a good hour. The rain came and
went, as did the sun but it was beautiful and we didn’t see another tourist the entire time. Well at this point we were feeling very happy with ourselves and our adventure. We continued. The road started to become less like tarmac and more like rubble. The rain was still starting and stopping and we were drenched! Then we hit a beautiful wood. It was full of trees of all different heights, colours, thickness... it was beautiful. The road slowly deteriorated. We continued. We realised that the trees were in fact part of a beautiful, but thick wood. The petrol gauge was now on ¼ and the road was more of a mass of stones and puddles. At one point we nearly fell of the bike as it skidded across the mud (I didn’t go more than 20km an hour... most of this time I was going 10!!) Suddenly there was a horrible, scraping sound. A spring had sprung off and the main stand was dragging on the ground. Shit. It was definitely repairable (simply a case of pulling the spring back into place ... but not a job we could do in the mud, rain and without some pliers!)
so Sandra pulled the cord from her bag and we tied up the stand! By this time we realised we hadn’t seen anyone for quite some time and the road was more of a path, and even that description was a generous one! There were massive rocks which we could hear scraping on our bike, huge holes filled with muddy water and it was around this time that my flip flop broke!! Oh well... one less thing to try to squeeze into my rucksack!!
We continued but now I was beginning to feel a little concerned. The wood was in fact a forest and it didn’t look like it was ever going to end and on top of that we had no idea if the road we were on was going to lead anywhere ... and then I noticed that we were almost out of petrol. Okay. Stay calm. We couldn’t go back; we definitely wouldn’t have enough petrol to get to the last place we had been... and even if we had that was at the top of the mountain. We had also had to push the bike through some pretty big puddles and poor Sandra had been
on and off the bike as I tried to negotiate it through the muddy tracks. No; we had to continue. We also realised that we hadn’t seen anyone or any sign of anyone for at least 40minutes now. I was praying that we were going to see some people soon... and the end of the forest. None came. We kept going. I was really getting worried now; calm but concerned.
We hit a fork in the road. A tree had fallen on the path that looked like a continuation of the one we were on, but the other one definitely looked smaller. Which one should we take? The map was less than useless. We had a fifty/fifty chance!! We navigated round the tree and continued. But still no signs of life. Suddenly we saw some cattle up ahead. Where there was cattle there must be a farmer surely? Nope, still no one around - then we came out of the trees and saw a ramshackle house followed by four or five very simple looking huts. We saw some children. I can’t tell you what a relief that was! At least if we ran out of petrol we could stay
there!! At least if we had any problems we could try to communicate with them... maybe they had some petrol (Bensin as it is called in Sumatra). Well we found three men who bless them, managed to communicate that there was petrol 1km away and after we could take a road to Tomok. Oh My God. What a relief. That anxious feeling made me realise that we had taken a risk. It was fine. But it might not have been. I realise this happens a lot, especially when travelling, but usually we don’t realise the risks we take. In the end we had a brilliant adventure which we won’t forget... a little uncomfortable but ultimately exactly the kind of thing that takes you out of your comfort zone and is the reason for not staying behind a desk in a comfy job in London.
The next day we decided to move onto Berastagi. I was on a tight schedule now, having agreed to meet a friend in Malaysia in a week’s time to go sailing on his boat. I had managed to persuade Sandra to come with me. The journey from Lake Toba to Berastagi was an interesting one!
After much stopping and starting we arrived in Berastagi along with an immense amount of fog and buckets of rain. (Typical British weather... how depressing!!) The journey involved some of the worst roads I’ve ever been on (which is saying something considering I’ve been in a lot of dodgy countries with even dodgier roads) they were ‘special’ to say the least. But arrive we did... and in one piece. We are only here for one full day which we wanted to use to climb the local volcano... however to do that we needed the rain to stop and the visability to clear... at this rate we would be leaving having seen the inside of our hostel and not a lot else!!
Well. I have decided that I am being looked after by a power greater than myself!! We met 3 lovely people at the guest house where we are staying. They have been waiting for the weather to clear enough to get up the volcano... Sandra and I arrive however, and the very next day we found ourselves in our hiking boots and sweating our way up to the crater. It was well worth the 3 hour climb. The views
on the plane
on the internal flight they had a little leaflet with prayers.. i am totally serious.. prayers for each religion translated into 4 different languages!! brilliant.
from the top were beautiful and the crater was just as I imagined it would be... smouldering, smelling of sulphur (ie eggs!) and lots of boulders and little bubbles in the rocks (caused, I’m told, by carbon dioxide). It was lovely. And our little group of 5 seemed to work well together. On the way down we decided to take the 2002 step route through the jungle... including a bamboo forest, which was beautiful (there is that word again! but it’s true!!) Once we reached the bottom after 5 hours walking we decided to take a bus back to our hostel. It really was a truly memorable experience. I’m not sure the photos really do it justice... they’ll have to do I suppose.
So That is Sumatra. After an afternoon in Medan – a city which I’m not too fond of (rain, traffic, noise etc) I am on my way to Malaysia and hopefully some sailing... although for that I need some nicer weather! I’ve said goodbye to Sandra who I’ve had a really lovely two weeks with, and who has been a great travelling companion and am ready for the next adventure!
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