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Published: August 24th 2010
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
From "The road not taken" by Robert Frost"
In better Indonesian hotels you can find decent beds, but the protective plastic on the cushioned headboards is never removed which of course will keep them protected forever but they are nasty to touch and their colors will always remain dimmed. Well, this entry is all about peeling off the plastic and getting a few scratches along the way. It is going to be a very long post though, so be warned.
Into the Gayo Highlands
Sylvia, Eric and I left Pulau Weh with some overly ambitious plans of either buying a minibus or renting one with a driver, but Banda Aceh proved quite confusing with bus terminals that where nowhere to be found so after some unsuccesful searching and a failed attempt to get my visa extended beyond 30 days, we went for the easier solution of simply catching a public bus towards Medan. The plan was however not to go by the normal route but instead head straight down the middle Aceh in the Gayo Highlands. This was
Early morning in Takengon with one of the far too many mosques in the foreground.
the first day of Ramadan so we didn't even make it out of Banda Aceh before we had stopped for both gas and prayer and in other words a first taste of the not-so-scheduled nature of Indonesian public transport. Everything worked out well though on the first day. We jumped of the bus in Bireuen and the co-drivers had already organized a minibus heading to Takengon. Most tourists opt for going to Medan and seeing orangutangs at nearby Bukit Lawang. Problem is that most of those animals are ones that have been re-introduced into the wild and come to be fed by humans. Ketambe on our route looked like a "wilder" version, so the three of us were much more intrigued by the one less traveled by.
They sure like their music and that minibus turned into a weird dansktop-tyrolean-high-speed-techno-hell so we kept ourselves entertained with coming up with English "translations" to the Indonesian lyrics and laughing our asses of in the process. Our favorite was "I'm sick of dirty girls".
Takengon proved a spectacular surprise. We giggled like schoolgirls at a slumberparty when we went to bed that night and fantasized about rickrolling
one of the many
Abrar was just an extremely friendly guy. His two pot-smoking friends were harder to communicate with.
mosques that kept us awake with relentless prayercalls. My beloved silver silk sleep-tube also provided my companions with a lot of cheap laughs at my expense. Well, like a magpie I really like shiny things 😊 I also coined a new English term that night. When I am "happy as a kite" it means that life couldn't be much better.
It was however not until the next morning that we really saw what Takengon has to offer. It lies on the shore of the Laut Tawar lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes and the views from the breakfast restaurant were stunning. It got better though when we went to the bus terminal to arrange transportation to Ketambe and we asked the driver in the first minibus we saw. Just one in a series of fantastic coincidences we have had, Abrar spoke excellent English and we had a ticket within minutes. The bus was not leaving for several hours so Abrar asked if we wanted to go to his place on the lake. If I had been travelling on my own I would probably have chickened out at this point but we got into his minibus with him and his
This pedalpowered funride cost 1000IDR for 15 minutes. That is less than 0,50 DKR. I can't think of a more rewarding and at the same time sad way of making a living.
two very laid-back friends and headed out of town. His place was a very basic shack on the shore and a fishpond with a floating shelter and the serenity of this little piece of earthly heaven brought out the big smiles on the three of us. We spent about three hours there smoking a bit of pot out of courtesy (first time in about 10 years and virtually no effect 😊 and Abrar told us about his work as an environmentalist and cartographer and his plans of building a few basic guest houses to accommodate for tourists. We did everything we could to reinforce that idea, and when (not if) I'm coming back to Aceh I will definitely stay at his place. They made some lunch for us and then Abrar took us for a little sightseeing around the town and in the market until he finally took us back to the bus terminal. We were told that the trip would only take around 5 hours and since it was already late afternoon and the minibus was the expected two hours late we learned some Indonesian and Gayo and settled for a late arrival in Ketambe. Abrar said his goodbyes
This is beautiful Sylvia. Better travel companion is hard to find. Our last dive at Pulau Weh was a night dive together and when we both covered our torches and frantically waved our hands through the water the fluorescent algae created an otherworldly heaven. I'm so glad that I managed to get this photo of her, since I have a ton of her flipping the finger at my camera :) Sylvia, you are a gem!
and left me with a lesson in how to meet strangers that I sure hope I will take with me!
We are not in Kansas anymore
Well, the ride from Takengon to Ketambe was more than five hours. We headed up further into the mountains with spectacular views but it took about five hours to just get to Blangkejeran for a very late dinner. We had entertained ourselves with a weird Ipod/Iphone game playing songs for each other on Erics speakers but after the stop we more or less fell asleep.
We did have one more slightly terrifying stop along the way, when I woke up and saw a bunch of teenagers with rifles and submachinguns that had pulled the minibus over. No uniforms or anything but after a while they proved to be the local police force and after a very search through Erics and my stuff and letting us use their bathroom we were on our way again.
Next time we woke up we unfortunately were in Kutacane. Unfortunately, since this wild-west-like shithole of a place is an hours drive further down the road than Ketambe and the driver obviously had no clue where Ketambe
My best shot of the orangutangs we saw at Ketambe.
actually is and it was now 4 o'clock in the morning. One good thing about Ramadan is however that people get up before the sun rises to get something to eat, so we managed to get a couple of nasty hotel rooms and slept for some five hours or so.
The next morning Sylvia managed to negotiate some transportation to Ketambe at a lower price than the locals pay (her bartering skills are obviously out-of-this world and I was basically told to shut up when I almost accepted their original price 😊
So we got to Ketambe and like everyone else with a lonely planet guidebook we went to their "our pick" guesthouse that fortunately was full. The owners sister was sent for and since Ayuni runs a guesthouse less than 50 meters away we got nice rooms, a great meal and a bucket bath in no time. Ayuni (and her husband Jali) re-inforced my impression of just how extremely hospitable, open-hearted and funny people are in this part of the world. When she told us about how her three older kids were all studying in Medan and how the last two (the youngest being less than half a
Here is Jhon. Our great guide preparing our dinner. This guy is mentioned in the LP guide for Indonesia, so he is star!
year old) were both accidents she broke into a big laugh.
Ayuni arranged our first two day trek into the jungle and our guide was going to be Jhon Kanedi. If that name sounds familiar it is no coincidence. He is in fact named after JFK and use that as a nickname 😊 We were trekking in a district called Gurah and that is quite a welcoming place. After an hour or so a black gibbon whisked through the trees overhead before making a hell of a noice in a treetop close-by. By the end of the day we had seen four orangutangs, hornbills
and a lot of other critters. We camped next to a river and played shithead (a cardgame) with Jhon almost till midnight.
The next morning we saw another orangutang and a white-handed gibbon before we went to some hot springs that blended into a cold river so that you basically could chose the temparature you wanted. Two very nice and rewarding days.
Unfortunately Sylvia had to leave us that evening as we returned to Ayuni's place. She went to meet a friend in Bangkok and go travelling with him in Laos. Damn pity,
Morning at the lake
Morning fog (mosekonebryg) over Lake Marpunge in the middle of the jungle. The only peace and quiet that I found on that trek.
since she is a very clever, funny and a perfect travel companion and she brought out the best in both Eric and I. We have become quieter since she abandoned us although we still laugh quite a bit 😊
So Eric and I hired some mopeds for an unsuccessful money-run to Kutacane the following day, but Ayuni saved the day again by letting us pay with dollars. We wanted to go for a wilder version of the jungle than Gurah and after having looked at a few options we decided to go for a 4-day trek to a lake. That was hard as hell. We didn't see a whole lot of wildlife since our porter had to cut a path for us with his machete and that is quite noisy. Eric is a wildlife biologist and that must have been a bit disappointing but he also really likes to go off the beaten track and being in the jungle and he certainly got that.
I however found my limit. The trekking itself was pretty strenuous but I have done far harder trails before (although I was in pretty bad physical form when we headed out). The problem was
This was the welcoming committee greeting us in the village when we finally got out of the jungle.
the combination of the hard physical labour and the psychological stress caused by all the nasty little fuckers that tried to eat me in one way or the other. A short resume:
Day one: Hard and hot climb up through Cacao plantations (what you make cocoa from). Then through a nasty and quite depressing slash-and-burn area into the jungle. Rain starts and we set up camp while becoming drenched. When the rain stopped hundreds of honey bees showed up to drink the salty sweat from us and our clothes. A few giant biting flies also paid their first nasty visit. Leeches but not that many. More rain during the evening/night. I "sleep" on a couple of roots, the biggest one I dub "Mount Pain" inside my head.
Day two: Honey bees again in the morning. Moving through a completely dead area caused by carbon monoxide and other nasty gases venting from the ground. After that, biting flies and leeches territory. I must have about a hundred leeches from my shoes and socks and during one of the many leech-removal-stops while fighting away the nasty flies a bee stung me in the neck. Kept falling behind the others because
This is Eric. My travel companion since Pulau Weh. A wildlife biologist who quit his job and a girlfriend. Sounds familiar? No wonder we get along so well. Strong, Well-balanced, funny as hell and with the exact same sense of adventure as me. Speaks like someone in a minor role in a Cheech and Chong movie though. We have experienced some amazing things together and even when we put ourselves into stupid situations we manage to make our way out of them without biting each others heads off.
of my desperate attempts to keep the leeches away, but at least none really attached to me unlike the other guys that all had nasty wounds that wouldn't stop bleeding. We reached the lake and yes, it was beautiful and sitting on a log above it there were only a few bees and flies pestering my. More rain though and clothes won't dry.
Day three: Beautiful morning at the lake. Fantastic Mosekonebryg. Had a decent nights sleep but I am beginning to feel like I'm at the end of my tether. The guides take us completely off-trail and it is getting to me. Leeches and the fucking flies make the few stops extremely unpleasant and makes it impossible to really catch my breath. Almost out of clean water. Cuts from nasty branches and spikes allover my legs. Blood from a leech trickling down my left leg. I tell the guides that I want to get out of the jungle today if that is at all possible. Eric seems to be ok with it, but I apologize repeatedly. That guy is so strong! After a while one of the guides step on a hornets nest and when I reach that
It was beautiful in the jungle though. Hard but somewhat rewarding.
spot they are all coming out to defend their hive. Before the first sting I manage to think that this is going to make an awesome photo and reach for my camera, but when the pain kicks in I scream "Bees!!!" and Eric and I sprint backwards through the jungle. I'm lucky and get stung only five times. Nobody else is hurt. Not even the useless guide. An hour later bees attack from out of nowhere. All four of us get stung many times but this is not hornets nor honeybees and the pain from the stings quickly subsides. The pain from the hornet stings seems to increase though and my lower right leg is about twice as big as the left one. We get out of the jungle around mid-afternoon and head back down the jungle through slash-and-burn and plantations again. The kids in the first village gives us a tremendous welcome. Hurting everywhere and idiotic guide cannot figure out how to get us back to Ketambe so we wait for almost two hours. Everybody is curious and very friendly.
Well, I think that was plenty of jungle for a lifetime for me. We had actually talked about
Suplhur spewing out of Gunung Sibyak.
a 14-day trek to the top of Gunung Leuser, but I would have been in a permanent fetal position in a few days. Ayuni cared for and fed us and the next day Jali drove us to Kutacane to catch a bus to Berastagi. Another bus-ride that ended up being much longer than we had been told.
Back in the world
Berastagi is a nice town a bit south of Medan surrounded by picturesque volcanoes. We spent a day cleaning our shoes and getting our laundry done, while "wasting" hours in an internet café and I got the best haircut and shave of my life for less than a euro. Absolutely brilliant. Our next goal was Lake Toba. A giant crater lake in the middle of Sumatra that despite a touristy reputation sounded perfect to us. It is however a bit tricky to get here, so Eric and I hired a couple of scooters so that we could make our way down here on our own.
In the morning we did however go up the Sibayak volcano first. It is still active so the crater featured some incredible vents spewing out sulfuric gases that smelled like rotten
View of Lake Toba
The unexpected but spectacular view of Lake Toba. It is Samosir in the middle.
eggs, but the spectacle of it all was awe-inspiring. On our way down we passed a few Indonesians and one them turned out to be Jali's sister. I got a big hug for showing a picture of Jali and the youngest daughter on my camera 😊
After lunch we went for Lake Toba. I have to admit that it feels absolutely great to flow through villages and beautiful scenery on two motorized wheels. Eric and I were cruising and when we figured out that we could listen to music from our I-thingies it got even better.
We wanted to see a waterfall on the way and tried to navigate according to our shitty map and the not so helpful roadsigns. One of the latter seemed to point up a hill/volcano and we put the scooters to the test going up there. We did however never find the waterfall but halfway up a stunning view of Lake Toba revealed itself. At the top it was as Eric would say "ridiculous". The only thing I could say was "Are you kidding me???". It was up there with the view from Mont Roisetta in the Valtournanche Valley in Italy. One of
Village at Lake Toba
Village and rice paddies seen from from way up high on the hill north of Lake Toba.
the moments where you can physically feel the sense of sight taking over completely. Sounds faded, smells disappeared and the pain from my legs subsided to give full attention to the spectacle below us.
The road leading from there to the Port town of Parabat was equally spectacular. The public buses go further inland so this was another rewarding for our adventurous strain. Like the drive between Split and Dubrovnik or from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope this featured incredible views over the lake and the island of Samosir. It is impossible to describe the difference between the intensity of such a day compared to one spent at the office at CCI. We managed to catch the very last ferry in the nick of time and sailed towards Tuk-Tuk on Samosir while the sun was setting.
Tuk-Tuk is a perfect spot to unwind after some tough travelling. A bit touristy but still low-key and nice. We actually intended to have a slow day yesterday, but as we went for a ride south on the island we found a sketchy side road that went up north along the 700 meters high ridge. It proved to be
Sunset towards Samosir
We just managed to catch the last ferry to Tuk-Tuk, but look at the sunset we got on the way there.
a very hard ride on terrible road in an endless eucalyptus forrest and after about an hour or so Eric gas meter was a reason for concern. So was the fading daylight and an unsuccesful attempt at finding a road leading straight down the hill.
So we drove on but we were talking about what we should do if he ran out of gas and such. At an intersection we did however find a painted rock pointing to "Johns GH and Rest, +-1,5 km". John's guesthouse was at the very top of the island and in the middle of nowhere, but he did speak English and he did have gas to sell. I did get a vibe from the guys hanging out at his place like "Should we help these guys or just take all their shit" but again my Danish cynicism proved unfounded. He did however tell us that the only reasonable way down was to the opposite side of the island from Tuk-Tuk, so Eric and I cranked up the speed as much as possible and headed downwards as the sun set.
I have never seen a sunset like that. Towards the west the sun was
Lake on the ridge
This is pretty much the only picture I took on the ridge of Samosir. At this point I was thinking about how bad it would be to sleep somewhere in the forrest :)
setting. Towards the north a big thunderstorm with spectacular lightning. And behind us. When we more or less accidentally looked back over our shoulders and spotted this giant cloud that for only five minutes was illuminated in screaming orange and purple colors with the rising full moon just below it. We may have made a stupid mistake by going down that awful road on the ridge but again it proved so rewarding that we were speechless again (at least not capable of saying anything intelligible). The ride further down the hill was pretty nasty and I did have a small crash along the way to add to the numerous scratches on my body, but the nighttime drive around the northern tip of the Island was fantastic and we made it home to Tuk-Tuk safely.
So today has been really quiet. A stroll around town and some shopping. Eric has been sleeping and cruising a bit while I have been writing this small novel. Everything is better than I could have hoped for.
Which leads me to my final note. A few weeks ago I ended a small Facebook update by wishing that everybody should be as happy as
This is just insane. We were looking at the tremendous sunset when we more or less simultaneously looked over our shoulders and saw this thing. The full moon is there to give you a sense of the scale of this thing. It was lit like this for only a few minutes. It looks almost like a sea-fan or a coral. We only managed to make guttural noises at this point.
I am. I have thought quite a bit about that ever since. I simply cannot remember when I was last able to do that. But it feels fantastic and I hope that my wishes carries all the way back home.
May you all be as happy as me
P.S. I have realized that selecting photos for a blog like this requires a different kind of photos that I would normally put on the web. They have to fit into a narrative, so I guess I will post some of the better photos in a separate post and/or on Facebook.
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