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May 26th 2012
Published: May 27th 2012
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Getting from Kuala Lumpur to Iboih beach on Pulau Weh (off the north coast of Aceh, Sumatra) involved the full gamut of transport: taxi, train, bus, plane, another taxi, ferry and motorbike. Nevertheless, the twelve hour journey went without a hitch and by 4 p.m. we were sitting on the balcony of our stilted hut over-looking the flat-calm Indian Ocean: a pellucid swirl of emerald, cobalt, azure and indigo. Here at Yulia’s the restaurant overhangs the crystal-clear sea and a myriad of fish amble amidst the coral below; it promises to be snorkeling paradise.

As evening draws-in huge fruit bats with orange manes swoop across the purple sky before making heavy landings and inverted scrambles to gorge on… fruit (forgot to ask the name of the tree). Our hut, positioned twenty yards up the hill side (according to some graffiti from 2002 it appears its elevation saved it from the 2004 tsunami), is home to the mother of all geckos, measuring in at a good foot in length. He is particularly welcome as we are still yet to procure any malarone and there are plenty of malarial mosquitoes present on the island; that said he seems more interested in sizable prey. Out of his range though is a rather healthy black Labrador (that Ali has named Peter) who has adopted us, follows us on walks and has decided to sleep on our balcony.

The Acehnese are extremely welcoming and not shy about asking to be photographed with us, much as the Javanese were back in 1990. The only grey cloud on the horizon, for Aceh province at least, is their particularly devout status (even by the standards of the most populous Muslim country on earth) which means alcohol is thin on the ground and when it is available involves stealth and expense.

Snorkeling here is indeed amazing. Not ten yards along the coast I spotted the scarily large and malevolent-looking face of a moray eel protruding from a coral stack. The water is teeming with great solo and mixed shoals: electric blue mullet-like fish that have a tendency to sweep below you in a sparkling turquoise blanket; brilliant yellow and black zebras; tangs; slender pipe and gar fish; arm length neon green and blue parrot fish that grazing en-mass cause a submarine cacophony of munching; ugly sedentary stone fish; tiger, lion and leopard fish (not sure if the latter exists, but they were leopard patterned), stingrays and a myriad unknowns. Included among the latter was what I will forever refer to as “the barn door”: an immense drab brown leviathan (a grouper?) that was lurking in an under-hang and must have weighed several hundred pounds. There are also - although we were never to see any – sea horses, manta rays, reef sharks and rarely - during plankton blooms, but well out of snorkeling range – whale sharks. Fish aside there are long-limbed star fish and long-spined sea urchins, translucent squid, pale sea cucumbers the size of draft excluders and purple-lipped giant clams. All that said the coral itself (primarily great blocks of crenellated sheets) is looking very pale with a lack of intrinsic colour, few anaemones, tube worms or nudibranchs. This is contradicted by the abundance of the fish associated with it, but I’d say it was in poor health; whether this has resulted from the tsunami (and is recovering - there is obvious mechanical damage resulting from the waves) or bleaching/acidification (in which case it is doomed) or a combination of both would take some research: Mark, fieldwork in Pulau Weh calls.

The beautiful island itself and the island people (not least Dedi and his entourage of fellow guitarists and their bastardized song lyrics: “together, forever, in Pulau Weh…” – the song always ending with a throwaway “or something like that”) made it extremely hard to leave and it is certainly somewhere we’d both love to revisit.

Taxi, ferry, opulet (mini bus with facing bench seats), coach, becak (motor rickshaw with sidecar) and minibus saw us, 28 hours later, in Bukit Lawang: orangutan country. Eight of those 28 hours were spent, rather pleasantly, in the vicinity of Banda Aceh’s coach station. We’d read that the people of Banda were friendly and engaging and so it proved. We joined a crowd to watch Chelsea win the FA Cup, took on the locals at dominos (and, much to their amusement, lost repeatedly), ate some great nasi kampur, were plied with kretek (clove) cigarettes and Aceh coffee whilst chatting, played crib and scrabble amidst a three-deep huddle of on-lookers and shook hands/exchanged greetings with pretty much every soul who passed through the station.

Having left ‘ground zero’ of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami we waltzed into the site of another aquatic nightmare. The tiny town of Bukit Lawang lines the banks of a burbling placid-looking river. However, in 2003, unbeknown to anyone, upstream at the confluence of two rivers a massive landslide had created a natural dam. Days or weeks later it inevitably gave way sending a huge wave surging through the valley below. To compound matters it was at the end of Ramadan and everyone had retired early post-eating: 278 of the 1000 sleeping inhabitants and much of the village were simply washed away. Here, like Banda, rebuilding is still in progress, but the resilient locals have lost none of their gentle, fun-loving spirit. Bukit Lawang is just outside of Aceh province and 99% of people are still Muslim, although they are far less devout: many of the young men like a clandestine beer, marijuana is not only used as a flavour enhancer (it really is in Aceh) and jilbab-wearing women are actually in the minority.

Whilst grabbing a quick coffee (Sumatran coffee is excellent: made by pouring boiling water through a coffee-containing sock of muslin) prior to catching a minibus into town we were collared by Leng who – and this came as no surprise to us - was a guide.

Bukit Lawang is notorious for its predatory guides who lie in wait for new arrivals; on the surface it appears to be the survival of the fittest as there are 140 jungle guides serving the mere 30 or so tourists who turn up each day. And, of course, everyone is in town to see orangutans. There is a famous rehabilitation Center here that has been quarantining, nursing and finally releasing, illegally captive or displaced orangutans back into the wild since the 1970s. Bizarrely, most of the initial rescuees were from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and are actually quite different to the native orangs of the area – not that this has stopped them getting-it-on with their cousins. Though vast, Gunung Leuser National Park is now considered saturated with orangs (there are more than 5000) and the center functions primarily as a field hospital for sick or orphaned individuals. Nevertheless, there are a number of orangutans in the park that, from babies, were held in captivity for decades; several of these will never truly lose their familiarity with humans and there is a feeding station in the jungle where they return periodically as they slowly adjust to full independence.

We hate being pressured by touts or guides, but Leng seemed thoroughly nice, had excellent references from previous trekkers and we agreed to go with him if we decided to do one (rather than the lazy option of simply visiting the feeding station). Quite rightly, entrance to the National Park can only be performed with a licensed guide – who, it turns out, undergo an extensive training. And so, several days later, the three of us set off on a one night/two day trek. Prices ($80 for two days) are set by the government preventing dodgy cut-price operations and amazingly, given the competition for customers, the guides themselves work a loose rota system so that everyone gets work.

Leng proved to be a font of knowledge on fauna, flora and jungle medicines. We learnt about the running of the National Park and how the tourist dollar is sadly essential towards ensuring its protected status – nothing can be removed from the jungle - which is a godsend in a country cursed with the fast buck of palm oil. Tourism is also central to the local economy and the guides, restauranteurs, local shops and guest houses are truly grateful to those who do visit.

Sticking to a leisurely pace we had soon seen both wild and semi-wild (releasees who remain close to the Center) orangs as well as punkesque mohicaned Thomas leaf monkeys. Many of the more commonly seen orangs have names and one of these, Mena, is – contrary to protocol (it promotes expectation and potentially aggressiveness) – given the odd piece of fruit by guides. Indeed we were confronted by Mena who was already on the ground with her new baby in tow (orangs rarely leave the trees and one on the floor is to be treated with extreme caution). Several years ago Mena’s previous baby died in a fall but she refused to give him up and carried his body draped around her shoulders until his putrifying state necessitated the intervention of rangers who tranquilized her and removed the rotten corpse matted into her hair. She appears to have never forgiven this intrusion into her grief and has had a bad attitude ever since, particularly towards the guides - twenty of whom she has since bitten. Consequently, and unfortunately, when encountered she is given fruit to placate her whilst trekkers beat an onwards path. There are high hopes that her new arrival will alter her melancholic stalking behavior, but there again she now expects a hand-out when encountering humans….

An hour or so later we had a very close encounter with another mother, Jacky, and her baby. Jacky was orphaned and hand reared at the Center. Although she was released back into the jungle as soon as she was able to care and forage for herself she still craves human contact. One minute she was in the tree above us and the next she had her arms around a rather startled Ali. Becoming bored with her one-sided cuddle Jacky decided that maybe holding hands would be more up Ali’s street. And so the stand-off started; she did not want to release Ali who, following instructions, merely sat down and waited for a (hopefully happy) resolution. Eventually Leng managed to lure Jacky towards him with the promise of a bunch of bananas (whilst Ali made a break for it): she didn’t get any though as she has to learn that taking hostages will not pay dividends (I guess the lure of bananas won’t work similarly for Somalian pirates).

Late in the afternoon we arrived at the idyllically located camp – set up by a support team paid for by the guides – and were later joined by another trekker (an eccentric older Dutch woman named Barbara) and her guide, Jungle Eddie. The lads fussed after us with hot drinks and snacks as we lazed in the sun at the side of the rapid-punctuated, fast-flowing river, across from which rose a great vertical wall of jungle replete with black gibbons and roosting hornbills. Allan, the cook, started preparing what was a feast of a dinner whilst we cooled off with repeated swims (rapid drifts): heaven. Having gorged ourselves we prepared to while-away the evening around a giant fire only to be interrupted by a monstrous thunderstorm which provided a stunning lightshow as we sheltered dry and content and the cards made an appearance.

During the night Action Ali made a foray into the bush for a pee and was rewarded with several dozen hungry leeches that she thoughtfully removed prior to coming back to bed.

Following eight hours of overnight rain the river was a churning orange torrent steaming in the morning sun and Ali was a little concerned that we still intended to cruise back to town on a raft of four tractor inner-tubes. She needn’t have feared as Leng is a masterful rafter who took great delight in choosing the wettest and wildest yet safe route down.

For those readers who have the intention of heading to Bukit Lawang for a trek: we would have no hesitation in recommending Leng who is great fun, knowledgeable, attentive, and – maybe most importantly - exceptionally professional (fifteen years of experience, universally respected by the other guides and a nominated team leader in the case of an emergency search/evacuation procedure – of which there have been a few). The food throughout was both plentiful and delicious and I personally have rarely eaten more or better fruit – the red-black passionfruit were to die for]. His details are: Leng Risky; tel: +628126318317; email: lengrisky@yahoo.com.

Quick note on fruit: aside from passionfruit (marquisa), our current favourites include salak (a brown snake-skinned fruit yielding firm, off-white, segments containing a single large nut, with the texture of an apple but having a citrus tang) and sour sop (durian-like in external appearance with a soft white flesh tasting of creamy lemon).

Berastagi, home to several active volcanoes, is a charming town with a bustling day market, great street-side food vendors and a host of quaint coffee shops. The food vendors sell an array of fried snacks in the afternoon (rolled tubes of tofu packaging slivers of spicy vegetables and fried in a light batter are exquisite as is the tempe – derived from tofu – impregnated with nuts and fried as crispy yet soft-centred crackers) and barbequed lake fish/chicken at night. Some also make the strangest sweet folded pies that incorporate a creamed corn, condensed milk and chocolate flakes filling: we were not tempted. Here churches (mainly Adventists) are as equally numerous as mosques - which is reflected in the increase in the number of dogs. Whilst many locals here keep dogs as pets we were also informed by Papa Martina, the owner of our local coffee shop, that it is only ten minutes to the nearest restaurant where they feature on the menu. He, personally, had lost his taste for canine chops since the family has owned one as a pet.

Just as in Aceh the people are friendliness personified: shop keepers and street vendors greet you warmly; children’s calls of “Hello Mr” and “Hello sister” emanate from open houses, play grounds and passing cyclists; and without fail every adult proffers a beaming “Hello” or “Pagi” (‘morning). Sumatra really does turn the clock back to more gentle, less commercial, times and is rapidly becoming the highlight of our current trip thus far.

On our first morning in Berastagi we wandered into Cemara warung, the coffee house of the Miyu family. Mum ushered us to be seated and then disappeared to return with dad (papa Martina – the head of the family is often referred to as the father of his eldest child, in his case Martina) who in turn was closely followed by his two bright and engaging grown-up daughters, Martina (20) and Rita (17). With the exception of mum (who would often pose a question through one of the girls) and grandma (who generated a laugh from all assembled patrons when she announced in English “hello, I’m going to Kabanjahe”) the whole family speaks excellent English and we were to return there several times a day for delicious coffee and lengthy chats in their kind enquiring company. They also did an excellent breakfast and wonderful cakes.

Berastagi’s highest volcano is the active Gunang Sinabung (2450m). We’d actually planned on scaling the rather less challenging Gunang Sibayak that can be climbed without a guide (although there are lists all over town of those individuals for whom one of these volcanoes has proved terminal), but a chance meeting (and cut-price offer) saw us heading off in an opulet early one morning to meet Yono at the lake on Sinabung’s foothills. Friendly young Yono was not the greatest guide and compared to the even younger lad from a local village also accompanying us (who was like a mountain goat) he wasn’t particularly fit either, but he was in a hurry – wanting to visit his sick grandfather later that afternoon. Lonely Planet states that the round trip of ascent/descent should take between 6-8 hours “dependent on your skill and fitness levels”. We were down and sipping hot sweet tea in less than five. Whilst the crater itself merely belched the odd plume of sulphurous smoke, the scene from the rim across the clouds below us was truly spectacular even though they were too dense to make out the fabled view of Lake Toba twenty miles to the south.

Exhausted and jelly-legged we shared an opulet back to town with a gaggle of women that were – judging by their clown-like lips and bloody maws – betel nut chewers. Rarely in Sumatra do you see women smoking (save the odd old crone), but here in Berastagi it became increasingly apparent that old and young women alike are partial to the mildly intoxicating cud. Conversely, the vast majority of men (and older boys) do smoke (predominantly the sickly sweet-smelling kretek variety) – lung cancer is the number one killer in Sumatra - but very few chew betel.

From Berastagi we headed south to Danau Toba, the largest lake in South East Asia. Situated within the vast crater lake is Samosir Island that is actually as large as Singapore and protruding from its southern shore is a diminutive carbuncle (an hours walk around its periphery) known as Tuk Tuk. The lake and island are stunning; not surprisingly, given it is within the vent of a volcano, the lake is bloody deep: more than 300m at its’ deepest.

Here religion takes a complete flip and 99% of people are actually Christian. There were rumours that the Batak locals were partial to jungle-juice (palm wine: tapped straight from the tree with no additional fermentation and clocking in at about 10% alcohol/volume); there was, however, none in evidence around the plentiful eateries/bars. We put out some feelers and the next thing we knew the local long-haired wide-boys had assembled and we were being whisked away on motorbikes to a remote drinking establishment in the jungle (a shanty hut packed with drunken men of all ages and set up like a minor stage at a music festival – mics and guitars everywhere). Palm wine is an acquired taste: a milky yellow liquid served in half pint-sized glasses filled from communal multiple-litre jugs that, in turn, are filled from great dustbin-sized tubs. Initially the local lads were rather subdued (although one of the elders was already jigging around in a bizarre William-esque fashion, another was massaging tired shoulders and a third was expelled for leery behaviour, whilst the proprietors’ young son lazed on a motorcycle saddle eating rice)… that was until they’d downed a few glasses and belted out a few tunes. Then as the liquor continued to flow the musicianship just got better and better (honestly): “drink more, it makes you stronger”; and several hours later when four of the best were jamming instrumentally it really did seem as though you were privileged to be experiencing something rare. Then in the pitch dark we re-mounted the bikes and sped an exhilarating winding way back. Has to be said that it appeared we had paid pretty much for the whole bars’ consumption; but hell, it was dirt cheap and certainly an experience. Interestingly, our first urinations the next morning both looked and smelt identical to our consumptions the night before…

Palm wine aside (beer is still exorbitant) there is little to do on Lake Toba (unless you hire a motorbike yourselves: for us, way too risky) other than swim, try and master risky dives from the board directly outside our chalet-style room, eat rendang and generally chill – particularly blissful in the evening as the clouds pour over the crater’s edge and the natural amphitheatre is periodically lit by lightning storms or, on clear nights, gazing up at a myriad of stars.

Late one afternoon a bunch of us had finished splashing in the lake (Ben had finally perfected the reverse forward somersault.. Ben, we'll be in touch for tips on Sri Lanka) and we were preparing to head to a bar to play pool. Just as we were about to leave a shaggy dog came tearing around the shore, yelping in a crazed manner as it sped past. Everyone exchanged puzzled looks. Then a splash and the dog was in the water. It was doing a decent doggy-paddle, but given the steep bank we attempted to lure it to a spot that was shelving and it could easily exit. Sure enough he was headed towards me when suddenly it simply started to drown (quote written by Ali in our diary: “with his little legs flailing above the surface”). French doctor Quentin was still in his swimmers and plunged in after it, hauled the desperate-looking beast to the side by the scruff of its neck and I hoisted it out where it lay gasping. Seconds later it was up and we all sighed with relief; short-lived relief as it immediately launched itself back into the water and recommenced its drowning. This time Suzu went in and again I pulled it out. Now though the dog did not look at all well and alternated between stumbling drunken staggers and prone seizures – we looked-on horrified. Our obnoxious German neighbour emerged from his hut and observed “it wants to die, just leave it”. Sadly there was little else we could do save inform Zeze from the guesthouse and discuss what could be afflicting it: was it epilepsy or maybe a snake bite? It certainly wasn’t rabies given its urge to get into the lake. Finally it did indeed lay still and somewhat subdued we left for town. We were in our third paired pool match, on our second beers, and our disquiet had lifted somewhat when a large rice sack was dumped on the steps of the bar and a wet paw flopped out…

After a couple of mere hops n skips we had a serious 14-hour bus journey ahead of us to Bukittinggi, a town encircled by seven volcanoes – not that we were ever to see them due to the increasingly deteriorating weather; rain now seemed to be following us. Lonely planet had described this journey as “a hazing ritual; the trans-Sumatran highway is a back road more akin to the spin-cycle of a washing machine”. Waiting on the local bus another backpacker appeared (most merely take the easy option of a luxury tourist bus from the harbour-side). It was Claudia, a young German girl we’d met on Pulau Weh and had hoped to run into again; she was also headed to Bukittinggi. The bus turned up an hour late (having broken down en-route) and immediately needed further remedial work on the brakes; it didn’t look promising. The ramshackle jalopy leaked (above me – it was raining), but fortunately there were spare seats and we all got to spread out in dry berths. One-thirty a.m. and, accompanied by the smell of burning rubber, we pulled into a rest station. Serendipity; the Champions League final was just getting underway and the television, surrounded by a mass of local men, was on. All the locals, like us – obviously (not Spurs fans), were supporting Chelsea and there was little Claudia, herself from Munich, isolated as each Bayern miss was greeted with cheers. We initially thought that the bus driver was merely an avid football fan, but it materialized that the bus required a new part and so, post-flukey victory, we waited until morning. Indeed it was a long haul and almost 30 hours later we finally rolled into town.

Disappointingly Bukattinggi is rather unremarkable and the only cheapish rooms were – a first for Sumatra – rather grubby. Nevertheless we were reacquainted with some sorely missed rotis and it made for a pleasant enough two-day stopover. Interestingly, as well as the amplified calls to prayer (staggered from four different mosques three times daily) there are also periodic announcements preceded by a triplet of notes on a glockenspiel (think Hi-De-Hi or, for those Japanese amongst you, the Yamanote line). These are to inform the towns’ folk of births and deaths and, so we have been informed, three for two offers at the local grocers (don’t tell Tescos).

Claudia stayed on to do a trek whilst we pushed on to our final new destination, Danau Maninjau, another crater lake. Although much smaller than Toba this lake is seriously deep at 450m and its reduced size and sheer encircling crater walls (the decent to the tiny town of Maninjau incorporates 44 hairpin bends) only emphasizes the fact that you really are staying within a volcano. It isn’t quite as stunning a setting as Toba (although it is beautiful), but here tourism is almost a thing of the past – it has yet to recover from the troubles of the late 90s and tourists are very thin on the ground. Most guest houses that remain open gain most of their income through Tilapia aquaculture and the people are welcoming in the extreme. Not only do fish cages line the shore, but most houses are also built over private fish ponds which beats a herb garden in my book. Here at “44” we are the only guests (four out of five guest houses are empty) and the atmosphere is languid in the extreme. Our last few days in Sumatra have seen us…. hmmmm…. lazing (ok, not unique in that respect), taking a dug-out for a paddle on the water and treating ourselves to the odd beer or two (cheapest Bintang yet at 22 Rp – still almost $2.50).

We have now subjected ourselves to eight sets of interviews by school children who are delightful and so grateful that you’re prepared to spend a bit of time with them. Of course they also want to finish their interrogation with group photographs which is how we came to get a photo of a group of Muslim girls who would normally feel pressured to shy away from such intimacy.

Ten years ago Laos and Cambodia were the “in” places to be. Currently Indonesia (and Sumatra in particular) is struggling from a negative outside perception: previous internal unrest; terrorism – think Bali and Jakarta bombings; restrictively short visas; and natural disasters. This will, without a doubt, change rapidly; Sumatra and its people are very, very special. Get here soon or miss out on what is still one of South East Asia’s real gems; we have loved our time here in Sumatra and wish it could have been longer.

Something like 100 photos this time…. Scroll to the very bottom as per usual….

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