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Published: December 24th 2008
The Road to Kerinci
My first close view of the mountain -and my last for several days too as it turned out.
The smell of the third world hits me as soon as we exit the immigrasi at Batam; that unmistakable smell of burning rubbish mixed with low-grade exhaust fumes and other exotic smells that just didn't exist back across the Straits. Singapore is probably the most immaculate city and country in the world, Indonesia is, well very different.
We change money and enter the scrum of shouting Ojek drivers (an Ojek is motorbike taxi, how they think they can help us when we already have 2 wheels of our own is something I don't bother to stop and discuss) and food vendors, the road outside is a circus of food and market stalls as today is the day the big Pelni ship comes to town (well small village with a jetty really). We ride into the huge hangar that is the ferry terminal but quickly discover the ticket counter is actually in a different building hiding in the trees half a mile away up the hill, now why didn't we think to check there ourselves?
Ticket bought we head back to the pier and Erika begins the long and complicated process of getting herself, her bike and her bags onto
the boat. The ship looks more like a floating town and is already overdue to depart, but clearly is not going anywhere soon. Porters toss enormous canvas wrapped cargo packs onto the gangway up to the boat amid total chaos. When the guys in charge deem things are getting a bit too much they simply lift the gangway up into the air, several metres above the quayside, with people and cargo all still hanging precariously off of it. Madness doesn't begin to cover it. There is only the one route on and off the boat and the porters and passengers have huge loads of stuff requiring more than one trip up, so big scrums of people are constantly trying to get back down the thing while everyone else is trying to get up it. Many Indonesians with only personal luggage are hanging well back enjoying the show too, striking up conversation with them I suggest they should get a second ramp and have some kind of one-way system but they look at me like I am really crazy for thinking this (I now understand that this would only double the problem and make things even harder to 'control'.....)
Traditional Minang house. The roof design is based on buffalo horns.
Erika gets her bike on and returns for the rest of her stuff, the jetty is emptying now and we say goodbye, for I will not be taking this floating circus to Jakarta with her. I watch her board and disappear into the bowels of the beast and hang around to wave the boat off, but it may well be here till after dark yet. One of the harbour polisi comes over and asks why I am not getting on the boat too. He speaks Spanish and Greek from his time on ships all over the place, he is a big romantic and quotes endless Spanish love poetry at me while telling me I should go and buy a ticket and follow my heart etc. It is too much so I get on my bike and ride off without looking back, with a mixture of relief, excitement, sadness and emotion welling up inside me.
I have missed my boat to Sumatra. In fact the boat I want to take does not exist, at least I think it does not exist as I rapidly discover nobody here speaks English and I cannot understand Indonesian. It is painful and slow as
I try to tease out of the boat agents where I can get boats to without docking and being put on a bus for part of the journey. I had hoped to cheat and take a boat all the way to Pekanbaru - 200km or so inland up a river - but this boat no longer runs, instead they go to the coast and use a bus from there to Pekanbaru. There is a ray of light however, tomorrow I think I can take a boat to another island and town called Selat Panjang and from there a slow boat will run overnight up the river to Pekanbaru. I don't know why I consider taking a bus as cheating and a riverboat fine.
In the meantime I need somewhere to stay and have to ride the 25km into the city of Nagoya in pouring rain. Batam is the place Singaporeans come to to indulge the many vices that are forbidden at home. Nagoya is full of 'massage' places and dubious cheap hotels. Except that they are not really that cheap and most insist I must park my bike outside for the night. Things are really not going well and
I am seriously starting to regret not getting on the rustbucket to Java with Erika. Riding aimlessly around the city for the umpteenth time, cold and wet and with no clue what to do next, a huge landcruiser pulls up beside me and a local guy with an thick aussie accent tells me he is a cyclist too. I explain my predicament and he takes me to a nearby hotel and sorts it that I can store the bike inside under the stairs. It is more expensive than I had hoped for but by now I don't care, a hot shower is waiting. Yudi is from Pekanbaru and gives me his number in case I have any further problems in Batam or once I get to Sumatra.
Nagoya is full of neon-filled malls and bright lights, a wannabe Singapore but the streets are full of holes, now turned into small lakes by the rain, and lined with mud. Pavements are full of food carts and spillover stalls rather than the ultra-fashionable posers of Orchard Road. Prices - at least for this Orang Putih - are still the same as in Singapore though. I pay far too much for a
meal and then get a beer on the way back to the hotel - at least something is cheaper than in Singapore! I drown my sorrows alone watching Singaporean TV and wondering if I have made the right decision. I was looking forward to the ultimate freedom of traveling alone for a bit, Erika and I had been slowly driving each other mad for months and something had to give, but it has not been a great start.
The ride back to the port is in the rain again the next morning but I feel more positive, tonight whatever happens I will be somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere I have never seen before, and that is a good feeling. Hopefully I will be on a boat to Pekanbaru. My bike is loaded onto the bow of the fast ferry to Selat Panjang and I am assured it doesn't need to be tied down. I spend the next 2hours paranoid that my bike will end up in the sea but the straits here are shallow and calm, even in the rain and wind. I am adopted by one of the boat crew who is eager to know how much things
Palm Oil replaces Lowland Rainforest. The unprocessed palm fruit is now worth a whopping 1500 Rupiah a kilo (less than 8 pence) and so the farmers who cleared the forest are as poor as ever......
cost in Scotland - especially the price of women! Dangdut VCD's play an eternal loud loop into the passenger section. The boat takes all afternoon and makes a few stops along the way, when it stops raining from the roof I can see we are following a wide, muddy sea channel between islands of mangroves and sago. We dock at Selat Panjang an hour late but just in time for my connection to Pekanbaru. Except that there is no connection..... The Ojek guys at the jetty assure me there is no boat to Pekanbaru until the morning. I don't believe them and wait for nearly an hour while they laugh at me - no boat comes. I ride off into town to spend another night in a place I didn't want to be.
Selat Panjang is totally different to Batam though, narrow streets and kampong style houses lead into the town of tall concrete buildings. The seafront street is all wood and built half out on stilts over the sea. Both hotels are too expensive so I ride around looking for something else but there really isn't anything. Everyone yells "hello mister" at me and smiles, groups of boys
Sumatra has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.
are out running, everyone else is on their moto noisily trying to get somewhere else before dark. I find one cheaper place to stay but is clearly a brothel, has no power and no lock on the door. I go back to the cheaper hotel and check in there. Several of the rooms on the top 'ekonomi' floor also house working girls. This place is even less subtle than Batam. I walk the streets and eat nasi goreng (fried rice) from a food cart. There is a big Chinese temple and lots of Chinese people in this town. The whole town knows who I am by now - that I am from Scotland and have a bicycle - I know because walking into a shop to look for beer I can hear them saying "Skotlandia" and even my name "Mr Robin" is known by half the town! It's a bit weird but I start to relax and enjoy the place. I now notice many cheap guesthouses around town and kick myself for not spotting them earlier. I can't find any beer for sale - can't be because of Islam in this prostitute filled town surely? - but sit down with
some young guys on the street and when they instantly learn I don't smoke they ask if I like drinking - beers arrive by moto soon after. I sit on the street chatting to Chris, Adil and the beautiful Ira, and decide I am going to really like Indonesia. I fully expect that in the morning I will discover there is no boat to Pekanbaru at all, but something will work itself out.
Another day, another boat, this time a smaller one to Tanjung Buton at the end of the road to Pekanbaru. It is packed and hot and sweaty inside the boat so when Aben invites me up to sit on the roof I readily agree, also I can keep an eye on my bags and bike, roughly tied on myself. The boat surges away from the jetty and comes to an immediate halt 400m offshore as the fuel line to one of the outboards is gushing fuel into the sea. Amazingly the engine guy even stops smoking while he tries to fix it, but we are soon limping back to town for a proper repair job. The sun is out at last and I really don't care
now about progress or anything, I just enjoy the moment. Aben is a cigarette salesman and doesn't much like Selat Panjang - too many Chinese. The town has many swift hotels - the top floors of buildings are converted into open caves for swifts to nest in and loud swift calls are played over speakers 24hours a day to attract the birds to nest - the nests are edible and a delicacy in China. Aben tells me that a kilo of swift nest fetches 6million rupiah - serious money for very little effort around here - it all goes to Singapore and onto China and Hong Kong from there. During the breeding season it is normal to harvest 10kg a month - no wonder everyone all over Malaysia and here is building these things.
The boat departs a second time and I get a bahasa Indonesian lesson from Aben who is seriously concerned for my well being due to not being able to communicate properly! It is very good though and as we wind our way through the narrow sea channels between the mangrove and sago forests, sometimes using very narrow channels of dark, peaty looking water Aben calls
rivers, I master the essentials that will get me through Sumatra. We pass tiny hamlets of rough wooden houses above high jetties - home to woodcutters and sago farmers apparently, and fishermen of course. As we reach Buton oil rigs are flaring out toward the open sea. "American business, money goes to America" is Aben's verdict on the oil extraction.
Buton is nothing but a tiny collection of shacks at the end of an oil pipeline and supply road. There is no reason to linger so I jump on the bike and speed away, it feels good to be riding again and I try not to think of the wasted time - I could have been here yesterday. The road is dead straight cutting inland next to the pipeline through the coastal peat swamp. The road is in a pretty bad state though, there are huge dips where the underlying swamp has sunk taking the road with it, buckling and crumbling the surface into a rutted mess. I am happy to be riding though and set a good pace, still labouring under the idea that at Perawang - a city on the river - I can take a boat
up to Pekanbaru and still reach there today. I am pushing 30km an hour on my heavy bike on the crap road to make it in time for this boat. The peat swamp forest has been hammered by logging and oil-drilling: wooden houses and villages are springing up here and there and the occasional oil installation flares huge burn-off up into the already hot sky. After 50km or so the road climbs up a little out of the peat swamps and into drier, rolling country being rapidly cleared for oil-palm plantations. Oil is everything around here in one form or another.
A few miles short of Perawang the road ends abruptly at the Sungei Siak. There should be a ferry across but it has stopped for 2 hours to allow excavator barges access - I think they are slowly building a bridge. Unsurprisingly nobody at the river knows anything about any boats going upstream to Pekanbaru so it looks like I will have to cycle all the way after all. I join the motos queuing to cross on tiny little wooden boats - ours fits 2 motos, my loaded bike and about 8 people and feels very overloaded. The
boatman is far too excited by my presence - I realise I have also paid him too much - and in his ecstatic state rams the boat bow-first into one of the new bridge pilings at almost full speed. Everyone in the boat except him could see it coming, there is a huge and horrible splintering noise and the boat lurches badly, but somehow stays upright and we all mange to stay inside it. There is a lot of shouting as everyone tells the driver what they think of this and he tries to blame the passengers for blocking his view. We continue out into the wide river and the boat is listing quite badly and slowing despite him over-revving the engine, I am convinced we must be taking in water and just hope we make it across - everything I own is on this tiny piece of broken wood and I really don't want it all to be lost to the bottom of the river. With relief we hit the far bank and I haul my bike off the boat and up to the road and speed away into town.
In Perawang I am stopped by a policeman
My host Nesta (far left) and assorted friends, Pangkalan.
leaping in front of me. He then just stares at me unsmiling before finally finding the words"ID card". I get the distinct impression he is waiting for money too but I just play dumb. He cannot read my passport, I am rescued by a smiley old guy who is obviously trying to help me get away from the cop. It is still 60km more to Pekanbaru, I am tired and it will be dark in an hour. A young guy called Dodi helps me find a place to stay. One hotel is expensive, the room is dirty and the mandi is outside. There is a better, cheaper place but the Chinese owner will not let me stay because "too much problem with government" so I have to pay 10 dollars for a room that has not even been swept. They do bring a fan to help keep the mosquitoes away though. The streets are full of food carts and I buy supplies for the next day, but am not brave enough to try the Martabak Durian (a fried pancake stuffed with the smelly durian fruit).
I hit the road early the next morning, eager to finally reach Pekanbaru and
Besti, her daughter Safi and her camera shy sister Fatima.
put the problems of the last few days behind me. I still have the idea that Sumatra will only start properly once I reach this city. All along the road everybody yells "Hello Misterrr", "Hello Friend" or "Hello Brother" at me. I try to return each greeting but it is difficult - kids yell and yell more loudly until I respond, my face hurts from smiling so much. The stress of the trip from Batam has already gone. Entering the sprawling mass of Pekanbaru - Sumatra's oil boom town - I encounter the Indonesian institution that is the Bemo - highly amusing little minivans with more speakers than seats, like some mobile sound-system taxi blasting out dangdut and crazy Indonesian techno, but dangerous for cycling, they cut you up on all sides and stop without warning at the first hint of a fare. I realise I still need to learn how to swear in bahasa.
I get hopelessly lost looking for the bus terminal and nearby cheap lodgings, and get directions and stupidly follow them miles back out of town to find a brand new out-of-town bus terminal. On my way back in I meet Sandy who leads me
New Fruit #2 - Coklat !!
Cacao to be more precise.
to the right place. He thinks I am crazy which I take as a compliment and our friendship is sealed. He gives me time to wash, relax and get lunch before coming back to collect me to show me the city and help me find a map and other supplies. He tells me he is a mobile phone engineer in the big mall he takes me to, but his 'office' is a table in the food court/ coffeeshop area where he and his mates cannibalize, re-build and repair phones. Rent for a shop is high they explain, working here they just have to buy a few coffees each day instead! All around are mobile shops doing not such good business, in fact the mall is full of 'handphone' stores. "This is Indonesian capital of illegal phone industry - all illegal phones from abroad coming to this city first" I am told, and realise the phones they are 'fixing' are smuggled in from Singapore and Malaysia. Some must come from even further afield as he tells me American phones must have the frequency changed to work here.
As evening rolls in Sandy takes me out to the suburbs to meet
Early morning climb high into the Barisan Ranges
his wife who is a journalist on the local TV station as he thinks she will want to interview me about my journey, but after a few preliminary questions she declares I am "not interesting for the news". Maybe I was too tired to be very enthusiastic about things. We then detour out into the dark countryside on the way home as Sandy has to pay off a phone smuggler, at least I guess that's what is going on.
The next morning I am on the road early, hoping to make up for time by climbing up into the Barisan mountains in only 2 days. I cross the rest of the eastern plains quickly, the roads lined with people selling durian, rambutan and bananas. Once again everybody yells "Hello Misterrr" and I ride with a wide smile the whole time. Many people yell or gesture for me to stop, sit, chat, smoke (the national pastime) or eat with them but I smile and keep going. After 80km in just over 3 hours I stop for an early lunch of fried rice. I planned to stop for second lunch further on but the road crosses a large river and then
Sea of Green
View from the first pass after climbing up from the Riau plains.
turns and follows it up into the foothills and the first forest I have seen on Sumatra. Near the road this is being rapidly logged and cleared though. As the road weaves up and up groups of men are hacking stone and rock out of the cuttings above the road. It seems a painstakingly slow way of widening the road until I realise that is not what they are doing - they are simply taking rock for free to sell for construction in the same way the forest is a free resource to be taken by anyone with an axe. Homemade huts line the road in places with wash areas built over the roadside drains. It is a far cry from the developed world of Thailand and Malaysia and reminds me more of Nepal. Everyone is still smiling and waving though. There are no more shops or restaurants and I struggle on through the afternoon heat, up and down, up and down, around an enormous man-made lake and over a pass into West Sumatra province. Exhausted I spot somewhere with Pepsi and pull in for a much needed sugar hit. Only it is not Pepsi but Tehbotol - basically cold
Descending the gorge to the central Minang plateau.
tea in a bottle. I buy it anyway but there is no sugar at all. As they don't have enough change I get some of it in the form of Jambu - a pink waxy fruit that thankfully is very sweet and this helps power me on.
As the day cools the hills drop away into a narrow river valley between bigger hills and then this opens out to reveal rice paddies studded with coconut palms nestled beneath the still forested hillsides. It is a truly beautiful valley, farmers wearing conical hats are out harvesting, planting or ploughing the paddies, water buffalo wallow in the mud of recently harvested fields. The late afternoon light is beautiful on the rice fields and everyone smiling and yelling hello mister. This is the real Sumatra I think to myself and I am truly happy to be there.
I reach the 'town' of Pangkalan which is really just a village. There is no guesthouse so I go to buy supplies from the market with the intention of camping. About 50 children excitedly follow me through the market and soon the whole village has come to see the strange Orang Putih on the
It felt great to be up in cooler air and in a 3-d world again. Somewhere near this point I crossed the equator too.
bike. I buy veg with the help of a young guy called Nesta who is keen to practice his English. Nesta catches me up when I am looking for tinned fish on the way out of town and invites me to his house. Another 50 kids follow us there. It is his grandparents old house so usually empty but we stay there with a load of his mates - the bathroom is built around the well with a mandi next to it - I wash in the dark as "the power often fails here". The kitchen is a shelf with log fires and bricks to support the pans. I have to cook my own food, also in the dark, but manage to cook passable noodles and veg though an angel from next door called Besti helped by stopping me totally burning everything. They all thought it was great entertainment and I told them it was spaghetti and proper Italian food!
When the lights come back on after eating there is a furious photo session as the whole village wants to have pictures with me! I had guessed Besti was only 17 or 18 but she now brings her 2
Maybe this explains Indonesia's rapid population growth?
year old daughter to meet me and I discover she is a primary school teacher. I also get to eat my second new fruit of the day - chocolate!! Yes they are growing chocolate. The fruit is white and sweet with big seeds - you spit these in a basket and dry them in the sun and then pound them up into cocoa powder (I think).
More intensive Indonesian lessons before I collapse exhausted to sleep on a mat on the floor. In less than a week I know as much Indonesian as all the Persian I learnt in 3 months in Iran and I was impressed with my Parsi ability back then. I think I am falling in love with this country.
Woken by the pre-dawn azan and competing roosters I find Nesta is already making my breakfast of noodles and fried eggs followed by a large bowl of rice and hot coffee. Wow. I say a sad goodbye to my new friends and ride off with over 2kg of fresh rambutan they have just picked for me, set for an uphill monster. The road follows the river valley for a few km and then begins to climb
The only food in West Sumatra, it is also exported all over the region by emigrating Minang men. All this for a dollar.
very steeply uphill for over 800m in less than 20km. I'm not sure the 2kg of rambutan were a great help in this, but they sure tasted good at the top. The road is filled with more durian sellers lower down, higher up it is Siamang - greater gibbons - that scream unseen from the durian filled forests. From the top the view is back down over green forest clad slopes and hills stretching away into blue-green haze.
From the pass the roads drops down 500m again through a steep walled canyon which opens slowly through a beautiful river valley out onto a high plain of rice paddies studded with the huge masses of distant volcano cones. It is another day of beautiful landscapes and people. This is the Minang heartland and the volcanoes support super fertile highlands and a rich culture and history. I start to pass the first characteristic traditional Minang houses made of wood with soaring pointed roofs that are supposed to mimic buffalo horns. I pass one volcano and continue across the plateau towards the next, Mount Merapi. I have to climb slowly up and around the shoulder of this one to reach the town
of Bukit Tinggi, where every other building has these crazy roofs, horse-drawn carts ply the hilly streets and every view has a volcano in it. Even the bus shelters have the Minang roof on them, even the blue light outside the police station has its own mini Mining curled roof!
I realise I am in the southern hemisphere! Somewhere on the way down from the pass this morning I crossed the equator- I had been looking forward to marking this 'achievement' with silly pictures etc. but there was nothing on the road to mark the place. I feel quite pissed off about missing it but then realise that surely crossing some imaginary line is really no great achievement or something to celebrate that much anyway.
I decide to rest for a day or two in Bukit Tinggi, my legs are tired from the monster 4 day ride here from the coast and the bike needs a serious service. The town is on the tourist trail which means I spot a small handful of other westerners, but it is really nothing compared to mainland SE Asia. It is enough to mean some silly price attempts though and to have
Crisps - Sumatran Style
Tapioca (Taro) chips drying in the sun.
would be guides touting for business. It is small scale though and not too annoying. I find a map that had been out of stock in Pekanbaru, but the guy wants 45,000 for it when it should be 17,000 rupiah. I tell him the price and he starts on a long winded complaint about the cost of petrol (which has actually just come down again) - what this has to do with the cost of an old map I have no clue! It is a depressing reminder of the effects of tourism though. I resolve to stay off any tourist trail as much as possible as I had been having great time until now not being on one.
I spend 2 days resting in Bukit Tinggi, which means still getting up early to hike down into the nearby Sianok Canyon and watch the sunrise illuminate the perfect volcanic cone of Gunung Singgalang, fixing various bits of broken kit and cleaning and servicing the bike. I visit the Dutch built fort on the hilltop, but there is just a concrete water tower and a few old, very small, rusty canons. I am left to conclude the Dutch were not great
The first of many volcanoes rising above the Minang plateau. Indonesia is the most volcanic country in the world.
fort-builders! Included in the ticket price is a museum and zoo on the next hilltop which is reached by a big suspension bridge over the main street below. The zoo is possibly the most depressing thing I have ever seen, especially the Orangutan prisoners with only rubbish to play with. A single, lone Siamang sits on a rusty roof with his long arms limp and a look of total and utter resignation on his face.
From Bukit Tinggi my road takes me up to the pass between Merapi and Singgalang volcanoes and then down and down, past Padanpanjang, through steep rice terraces edged with palm trees towards the deep blue lake of Danau Singkarak. While stopped to admire the view a passing farmer stops and asks where I am going, there is soon a small gathering discussing my planned route. They warn me my road will go through forests with tigers and it is dangerous. I tell them that is great news, I would love to see a tiger. They pronounce me gila (crazy) and bid me hati-hati (take care).
I follow the lake shore through crazy roofed Minang villages of ever smiling happy people "Hello Mister, Hello
Bukit Tinggi nestled beneath the glowing mass of Gunung Merapi.
Mister", amid rice terraces and steep streams with wooden waterwheels on them. From the south end of the lake the road climbs past the town of Solok and continues up and up. After an easy morning of big downhills I am now reaping the payback. In 20km the road climbs back up another 800m. I cheat on one super steep section and grab a tow from a loaded truck that is struggling to overtake me anyway and I am only doing about 4km/h. My legs get a rest but my arm aches for hours afterwards. From the pass the road drops toward the coast and the Minang capital of Padang, but I turn off onto a different road, headed for more volcanoes and lakes. The road climbs again, up though patchy forest, small holdings of vegetables and larger tea plantations. All afternoon slowly I climb up and up without any relent. Eventually the road rounds the southern flank of the active Gunung Talang - open sulphur vents are obvious below the summit of the new cone and a huge area of forest on the steep slopes is blackened by fire, presumably from the volcano above. Yet right around the base
people are farming the fertile soil and living in simple, homemade houses. They invest their whole lives in the shadow of something that could take it all away in an instant.
I stop at the top of the tea estate and snack on biscuits. At 1450m it is actually cold this late in the day. The road then continues to climb until I cross the lip of an old crater and its lake lies below me in the evening light. I am level with low fluffy clouds glowing pink as the sun drops towards the Indian Ocean far below. Starving I pull into a Nasi Padang place and get a huge feed of rice, chicken, vegetables and other stuff (leaving the bowl of chilli) and fill up with drinking water before heading off into the fading light again. The sunset is amazing. I pass through the village of Alahapanjang as the maghreb azan rings out. It is the 'posing hour' and everyone has finished their day's work and is sitting outside their houses chatting, youth race up and down on their moto's, groups of beautiful girls giggle together at the side of the roads. The same scene is repeated
in every village and town at this time every day. I ride through an endless chorus of hello misters and back out into the solitude of the countryside. I camp on the edge of a tomato field that reeks of fertilizers and pesticides but it feels good to be sleeping outside again. I brew tea and eat the rest of my biscuit stash while the stars come out and I realise I cannot recognize any of them anymore!
The rising sun brings grateful warmth after a cold night at over 1500m - I finally needed my thermal vest I have carted all around the tropics for most of the last year. Within 2 hours it is far too hot again though. After 140km yesterday I am glad this morning is a long, easy downhill for 50km, through steep vegetable plots into a beautiful river valley with the road running next to rushing clear blue waters. Way off to the south an enormous cone dominates the skyline and I realise this is my destination - Gunugn Kerinci, the highest peak in Sumatra. It is the kind of morning where you cannot fail but be happy to be alive and I
enthusiastically return every 'Hello Mister" and "Good morning brother". I begin to understand what people mean when they talk of 400 shades of green, as this valley must have at least that many. The road continues down until the market town of Muara Lubuh and from here it is all uphill again. I slog 600m of climbing in the hot sun before collapsing into a shack for a fried rice lunch. By the time I emerge the day has clouded over and cooled down and I am now racing the impending downpour. The road reaches a pass within a few short km and then I descend down into another stunning valley of forests, rice fields, boat-like wooden houses with their buffalo horned roofs, beautiful, smiling people and 400 shades of amazing green. Sumatra is truly a secret paradise. Past deep blue rivers with foaming rapids and and steep waterfalls I turn uphill again from Padang Aro and it is another big slog of at least 600m steep climb which I race up convinced the sky will part any moment. Finally it does and I spend an hour under someone's porch sheltering but there is nobody home. With only an hour
of daylight left and not enough food to camp I push on through the freezing rain, surprisingly back downhill again, before another monster climb appears to warm me up.
There is only one village of a dozen houses and the people there are really living on subsistence of cutting wood from the forest illegally and probably trapping wildlife too. I hear a horrendous noise coming down the steep road and get out of the way just in time as a home made wooden sled loaded with logs comes flying down the road like a toboggan. The driver has a rope to steer it and brakes made from bits of old tyre that he pushes against he road with his feet, though he surely cannot stop very quickly or easily. It is one of the craziest things I have seen and people think I am gila! It does look like good fun though. There is no shop and no place to stay so I keep riding, it is a long way and a big climb to the next village and there is little light left, but I just keep riding up and up, my legs in autopilot. I don't really
have enough food, but water should not be a problem and I am so happy from the beauty of the landscape and people that I cannot worry, I know something will turn up. Isolated huts stand in small forest clearings with vegetables and cinnamon groves. Some are abandoned and falling down, some are abandoned and still have decent looking roofs, good for a bivvy. I am just thinking this when it starts to rain really heavily and suddenly a guy carrying water to his hut makes a single, simple, silent gesture that I know instantly means I can stay with him.
The hut is small but perfectly built, the ground floor is a store and my bike can go in there next to his moto and the chickens, but first he has to unlock the door via a complicated system of wooden levers and ropes that are accessed by removing secret flip-up panels in the walls! The 'lock' is an enormous bit of tree that wedges up against the inside of the door. The living area is upstairs off an external staircase and I change into dry clothes while my host prays toward Makka in the corner. Hot tea
An old crater lake on the road south through the Barisan Range.
warms me up and I learn my host is Mat Tering from Kerinci. His family is in Kerinci but he is here because the land is sweet. He doesn't speak a word of English so conversation is limited to the Indonesian I know which I now realise is really not that much. He also confirms there are still tigers in the forest hereabouts but says it is only a little danger. A foot lower than the rest of the room is the cooking area and in a walled off corner section is his small sleeping room. Light is from a small oil/kerosene lamp made from an old food tin. He serves me rice and cabbage and strange looking fruit that I explain we don't have in Britain until he cuts it open and I realise it is cucumber! This is eaten as a desert with sugar sprinkled over it. Mat Tering built this hut himself and I admire the simplicity and practicality of it all, it is perfect. After another 120km today I sleep easily and deeply in the smokey hut, dreaming of living off the land in a wooden hut on a Sumatran mountainside.
In the morning the
Even the mosques have buffalo inspired roofs.
sun is out and Gunung Kerinci is visible above the trees. I have rice and cabbage for breakfast again and wish I could express my deep gratitude to this total stranger more fully. He shrugs that it was raining, cold, and dark and I am on a bicycle, as if he thinks that everybody in the world would react in the same way by instantly taking me in like he did. I ride off up the now sunny hill with a huge smile on my face and a bigger one in my heart. This place just gets more and more amazing. The forest, the sky, the light is all so beautiful there are no adjectives sufficient to describe it.
As if on cue Siamang start howling from the forests and a troop of ginger coloured Langur monkeys bounce through the roadside trees. At the top of the steep climb is the small village of Pelompek and the impressive "leter W' waterfall where I stop to admire the rainbow formed by the cascade as it thunders off the edge of the high escarpment. My road is then fairly level through a string of highland villages that line the road. To
40,000km from home. Apparently the circumference of the equator is only 75km more than this - a distance I would accrue the next morning.
one side tea stretches up towards the flanks of the enormous cone of Kerinci, now veiled in cloud. Vegetable gardens line the other side and the smell of chemicals is the only thing spoiling it - for some reason farmers around here use serious amounts of pesticides and even fertilizers on the rich volcanic soil. Everyone for some reason advertises the chemicals they use with big signs and flags so it looks like some kind of huge research test farm. I reach the village of Kersik Tuo by mid morning and check into the Subandi homestay for a few days of rest.
By rest I mean climbing the highest peak of Sumatra and searching for some of the rare wildlife in the montane forests. In the recent past people have had close encounters with bears, clouded leopard, tiger and there is a fair number of rare and endemic birds and other things here too. I decided to go for the peak first especially as Yasu from Japan had the same idea and was happy to team up with me. He didn't want to climb alone and some company would be nice. He had come to trek and had top
The first truly active volcano I would pass. Sulphur vents are visible on the upper slopes.
of the range gear that made my shabby stuff look like local crap. After a 6 hour slog up to 2500m with heavy packs for overnight camping it started to seriously rain on us and I discovered that while my ultra thin plastic poncho - 20 baht in Thailand - may keep off the worst of the rain and keep you warm at sea level in the tropics during a monsoonal downpour, up here it does neither, especially when it is full of holes. I remembered seeing miserable souls in these things looking cold and wet in the mountains in Poland and how I had inwardly mocked them from the warmth of my goretex then for being so stupid to go into the hills with such useless kit etc. But here I was just like them, I was also aware that my tent was going to leak badly in this stuff. We pushed on though until the path became a steep cascade of almost knee deep icy water and mud. At this point 2 local porters appeared from above and quickly told us we were insane to be going up in these conditions. They didn't think too highly of the
Orang Jakarta they were working for either. It was an easy and quick decision to abandon the summit attempt and beat a hasty, mudslide of a retreat back down through the forest.
In the following days I spent hours in the amazing forest, where trees literally drip with mosses and lichens and the cloud and mist swirls through the canopy giving an otherworldly feel. I saw wild, happy Siamang at last, moving the the trees in a very human-like manner. There are reports that the Orang Pendek - a dwarf version of bigfoot -still lives in these forests and Subandi my host knows people who claim to have seen them. The Orang Pendek is a hairy ape/hominid that has never been proven actually exists, but scientists who spent years looking for them saw them many times and footprints have been found. Some people claim they are a kind of hobbit! (this was enhanced by the recent discovery on Flores of fossilized remains of a half-sized early hominid, who it is though may have co-existed with our ancestor Homo erectus) Scientists refer to the forest as 'elfin' which seems oddly appropriate and the traditional Minang artwork I had seen often
The light always amazed on Sumatra. After a monster 90 miles through the mountains I sat entranced by this lake.
shows the strange roofed houses in a deep gully amid this elfin forest and under tall smokey mountains. They look eerily similar to artists impressions of Rivendel and other Middle Earth places and I wonder if this is all some strange co-incidence or not.
I also see monkeys and some of the endemic birds but mostly it rains which doesn't help, though one pitta hunt is a great success as I get close views of a bird that had not been seen for nearly a century until 12 years ago. I meet some Indonesian biologists here with a visiting American gymnosperm researcher and hang out with Chow, a birder from Singapore who knows the area well. All this makes me realise how little these ecosystems are understood properly, how much research there is still to be done and how little time is left - everyday I would hear chainsaws and axes inside the forest. The forest edge moves ever higher up the mountain each year to make way for pesticide laden vegetable fields, in the afternoon a string of motorbikes loaded with logs would freewheel back down to the village. Everybody in Sumatra cooks on wood but an expanding
Kebun - kebun
Smallholder plantations (cleared from montane rainforest) lit by the rising sun, on the slope facing my camp.
population needs more and more of it. This is a National Park but there is no protection at all, the guard posts are unmanned and falling down. I start to remember what it was I did before I cycled aimlessly around and wonder about resuming my former career in nature conservation.
But first there is still that mountain to climb - a break of good weather sees me up at dawn madly packing for an overnight trip and then racing up the mountain. I fully expect it to rain in the afternoon as it usually does and want to be camped high up before that happens. Carting over 15kg I climb 1200m in about 4 hours. The upper trail is a nightmare of a steep, muddy gully through the dwarf alpine forest zone, I have to really climb using the roots, trunks and branches of the rhododendron as hand holds, there is not much purchase to be had with my trainers. I camp at 3100m as the rain and cloud comes in and dive into my tent. An hour later and it clears to reveal a see of cloud below and all around me, looking out of the tent
is like looking out of an airplane window and I sit eating and drinking endless brews of hot tea watching the clouds, form, shift and drift by my door, occasionally glimpsing the patchwork of fields and villages far below. I am up before dawn the next day climbing to summit in the dark and cloud, but as day breaks the sun burns through and a rainbow greets my arrival on the top of Sumatra. I can trace my route back to the distant peaks of Merapi and Singgalang, the coast and Indian Ocean is clear to the west, and the forested Barisan range reaches south towards Java. To the east a sea of cloud lies of the lowlands and the crater looms large and deep immediately below me, roaring with gas vents that sting my eyes and throat with sulphur fumes at times making it hard to breathe. It is weird to be alone on the mountain top, but I do not feel lonely; the light, love and warmth of the Sumatran people is all around me as is their beautiful country. The rainbow shines brightly and it is a moment I will remember clearly for a very long time,
I hope forever.
I tear myself away from my new friends in Kerinci, I have already stayed longer than I should. A downhill takes me into the Kerinci valley and to the town of Sungei Penuh, before a short, steep uphill takes me up over the Barisan ridge at a low point and back into the forests of the National Park. This road down to Tapan is a shocking state of repair but I don't mind riding slowly to look for wildlife. Subandi met a tiger in a gully down this road and a friend of Chows met one on the road at dawn out birding one day. This is the road the farmers back near Bukit Tinggi warned me about - there is a famous story locally of 2 guys on a motorbike going up the hill very early one day when they round a bend to find a tiger in the middle of the road, the driver immediately slows, turns and speeds off back down the hill but when he turns around his passenger has been taken by the tiger. There are as many who swear this is true as there are those who laugh at the
I couldn't get enough of these crazy roofed houses. This is a traditional meeting house complete with 2 rice barns. The sloping floors of the main building always reminded me of a ship.
myth. I see no tigers but do see monkeys and hornbills.
As I drop lower and lower the forest recedes back up the hillsides and I re-enter the populated world and a valley full of maize next to a roaring river that looks like something straight out of the Himalayan foothills. I then follow the coast south for 2 long, hot, hard days covering nearly 300km on a road that refuses to be flat on a relatively flat coastal plain. I am forced to use every gear on my bike as the road pitches steeply up and down, up and down, never gaining any real height but slowing progress and making you work for every kilometer. The landscape is mostly oil palms again, sometimes some shadier rubber plantations. Camping would be easy but there is little water around and by the end of the day I am knackered and it is usually raining so I stay in truck driver hostels in small towns. Hello misters ring from every house and person I pass, here people say good morning a lot even when it is 5.30pm! but I just keep smiling. My face muscles are as stiff as my legs
Tea & Politics.
The election is still 5 months away but its never too soon to claim the best spots for your chosen parties flags....
And as ever politics means stormy weather ....
by the end of the each day's ride.
I am pushing for a 170km day to Bengkulu but it won't happen and in Lais I stay with Elly who insists we have to go to the police to register my arrival, but really this is just her chance to show the town that I am staying in her house. She speaks a bit of English and as she learns something new about me as we walk and talk this is yelled at high pitch in Indonesian to everybody who can hear. I'm not sure if she realises I can understand her or not. When we talk about families she is yelling "hey, check this guy out, he's only got one brother ha-ha-ha" or words to that effect. Apparently the whole town thinks I look like bin Laden - I had grown my beard for the world's largest Islamic country, but nobody has beards here, maybe the oldest Haji has a few wisps on his chin but even they don't seem too impressed by my substantial growth - maybe it shows them up - I decide it's time for shave. It was too hot anyway.
The next day sees
My host in the forests of Kerinci. 55 years old, he farms the land he cleared and lives in a simple but perfect house he built with his own hands.
me easily cruise into Bengkulu for a rest day or two. This former British outpost is a sleepy seaside town with not much happening. The fort is more impressive than Bukit Tinggi's - British built but ugly. There is not much to see inside except the gravestones of the colonist officers who usually died within 2-3years of arrival. They eagerly show me one guy from the "Kingdom of Scotland" who worked for the dis-Honourable Company before "expiring in his 25th year" as if this was some great achievement. The old lady who runs the guesthouse speaks English with a strange lilting accent and asks if I can speak Dutch as she would find this easier!
I hang out in Bengkulu for a day to rest and be lazy which seems easy here, but am aware I need to push on fast towards Java before my visa runs out. I have seen only a fraction of Sumatra and could have stayed for a long time in many of the places I have been. There is a great balance of natural beauty, just enough modern comforts for me and a good dose of third world craziness. The central mountains and Minangkabu
There is always something ugly lurking under even the most beautiful facade - in Sumatra it is the excessive use of pesticides. Farmers proudly display the brand labels they douse their crops with almost daily.
areas were amazing, the landscapes are fantastic, the light is sublime but mostly it is the people and their warmth, friendliness, smiles and endless 'hello misters' that make this land so amazing and probably easily my favourite part of SE Asia so far. I am traveling alone but never feel alone, I know there is a friend, a brother around every corner and that is the beauty of Sumatra. Maybe the rest of Indonesia will be like this too, I am keen to find out just as I am sorry to have to leave this island.
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