Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Long Road South - Sumatra

We were up and ready to leave our lake retreat bright and early. We had no real plan other than to drive as far south as possible before night fell, so knew we had better be on our way. As well as the ferry crossing, Samosir island is also connected to the mainland via a bridge, so we decided to use this instead. We hadn't really achieved much in the way of getting out and about whilst at Toba, so thought the drive to the bridge would give us an opportunity to see more of the island. The drive was beautiful, and the road surprisingly good. Interestingly, Christianity seems to have been blended with local traditions. The churches had a decidedly batak feel, and we saw what we presumed were graves everywhere. These combined Christian iconography with model batak houses. We have never seen anything like this before, and we were very intrigued.


Over the day the road quality varied from excellent, to bad, to bloody awful, seemingly with no logic dictating the state of each section. We progressed as best we could, following the road through stunning mountain vistas. Needing a break, we pulled over for lunch at a random roadside restaurant. The owners and customers were so shocked to see us that for a minute or so they just stood around giggling. Eventually somebody plucked up the courage to bring us food, and all was well. Before leaving however, I decided to use the facilities. Now I have seen a lot on our travels, but this was way outside of my comfort zone. Instead of just a toilet, there was a row of six, separated only by dividers around two feet high. Call me a prude, but I got Oli to hold the main door whilst I was in there. People do like to stare at us in this country, so I was happier doing my thing in peace.


Whilst we were on the minor roads the going wasn't bad. Major roads don't necessarily mean better surfaces in Sumatra, but they definitely mean more traffic. Sadly it was necessary to join a busier road. We were by no means stuck in endless jams, but overtaking countless lorries, slow scooters and dithering cars was exhausting. We decided to call it a day at around five, and commenced the search for hotels. The first one we asked at was way outside of our budget, and the one next door was hideously filthy. We decided to push on, which is always risky in Sumatra, as places to stay can be decidedly few and far between.

To get to the next town we needed to negotiate a mountain pass. The light was failing quickly, and storm clouds were brewing ominously over the hills. Still, as terrible as riding in the dark would have been, it would have been better than that grim hotel, so we still felt like it was a good decision.  The area seemed to be quite religious. As we had ridden southwards the churches had gradually given way to mosques, and over this twenty mile section we saw many new ones under construction. We also passed what must have been a school, as the village seemed to be almost exclusively populated by teenage boys in conservative religious dress. All along the roadside were crowded together basic sheds, which seemed to be their accommodation. In the fading light it seemed a strange but atmospheric place.

Thankfully our gamble paid off, and the next town was home to one single hotel. It was sort of a dump, but very cheap, and the family running it were kind and welcoming. We had a tasty dinner for £1 between us at a local restaurant, watched a film in bed, and crashed out early. We slept surprisingly well, and were up and ready to go before 07:30. After the obligatory photo-shoot with the owners we were free to go, and were back on the road, ready for another monster day.

It was a long ride, made bearable by the beautiful scenery. Sumatra is always worth getting up early for, and this morning was no exception. The vibrant green of the rice paddies was set off beautifully by the morning mist, and the road was relatively traffic free until we reached the town of Bukittinggi. Before arriving in town, we hit a major milestone on our trip - crossing the equator. We had feared it would be an anti-climax, but it was actually an awesome feeling. Once we arrived in Bukittinggi, we took a lunch break there at a surprisingly excellent restaurant. A local man chatted to us a bit, expressing surprise to see us eating Indonesian food. This is not the first time this has happened, which seems a bit odd. What exactly do people think we have been eating? Do they think we've come all this way to only eat Western food? We actually love the food here, but it's not like there are many other options.


We left the restaurant, then began our battle with the crush of solid traffic barring the way out of the city. Indonesian towns can honestly make a traffic jam out of nothing. Sometimes we pass through a tiny place, pretty much just one street and a market, and will be stuck for ages. The cause usually turns out to be nothing more than two lorries trying to pass each other on a narrow section, made worse by all the scooters determined on filling every tiny gap available.

The driving here really is terrible, which is hardly surprising as we are fairly convinced that a lot of people don't have licenses, especially in rural areas. It is not uncommon at all to see kids that can't be older than ten driving themselves and their siblings to school. Our theory is that as soon as they can reach the floor they are allowed by their parents to ride the scooter. Every now and then we pass a police road block, the first warning of which is always a queue of car drivers and scooter riders waiting on the road side just around the corner, with the same thing happening the other side of it. Surely the police must know that everyone is there, so we couldn't work out why they don't just go and ask people if they can see their licenses. Maybe they don't think that's fair.

Thankfully after Bukittinggi the road opened up again, and we were heading towards Lake Diatas. The scenery had morphed from rice paddies to mountains, the main crop changing to tea. We stopped to snap a picture, and were joined by a guy on a 125cc bike. Unusually for Indonesia, he was not only wearing a helmet but also a proper jacket and boots. He spoke no English and we spoke no Indonesian, but we managed to communicate, and discovered we were heading the same way. He rode with us for a while, always right on our back wheel. It emerged that he was determined to help us find a hotel. The first one he took us to was way out of our budget, and the second seemed expensive for what was on offer. We decided to see what lay ahead, and waved goodbye.


After about twenty minutes we realised this was a stupid idea, as we were firmly heading into the middle of nowhere. We did a quick u-turn, and bashfully returned to the cheaper of the two hotels. It turned out that this town had a small street food scene. We spotted a stand selling something tasty looking (Martabak Mesir), causing everyone to do a double-take when we sat down and ordered. Whilst we were waiting we spotted this genius contraption. We weren't quite sure if it was functioning as a petrol tank or just an alcohol supply:


After a good sleep, we were up and off again, ready for a third day on challenging roads. Rather than following the Trans-Sumatran highway, our planned route was along more minor roads. After the first two days, we have accepted that it is difficult to do much over 200 miles in one day, so were aiming to get as only far as Mukomuko. We rode without a break until lunch, then exhaustedly pulled over at a grotty roadside restaurant for some much needed sustenance.


As we were packing up and getting ready to move on, we were joined by a man on a Yamaha Vixion. He spoke good English, and told us that he was a member of the Qincai Yamaha bike club. He invited us to come back to their headquarters for a drink and to meet some of the others. We hesitated for a bit, as we still had a long way to go, but eventually decided that opportunities like this were too good to pass up.

The other members that we met were lovely guys. Some of their children were also about, shyly waving at us but collapsing into giggles and hiding if we tried to talk to them. Sadly we couldn't stay long, but were delighted to be given an escort out of town and to receive a club sticker for the bike. Zen (the guy we had met outside the restaurant) even had a fake police siren instead of a standard horn, which cleared the way for us rather effectively. They rode a short way up the mountain with us, before stopping to bid us goodbye. They advised us that the road ahead was pretty awful, before giving us the standard Indonesia warning to be careful.


They were not wrong about the road, it had obviously been neglected for years and was absolutely terrible. Landslides seemed to be a regular feature, and for the most part the asphalt was long gone. Happily though there were almost no other vehicles around, and we actually enjoyed the challenge immensely. In a regular car it would have been a nightmare, but our bike flew over the difficult bits with relative ease. Oli and I actually quite enjoy bad roads sometimes, as they mean that we go slow enough to have a good chat. As a further bonus, the road passed through dense rain-forest, the trees occasionally thinning out just enough to allow views of the mist cloaked mountains beyond.


Mukomuko was a treat for us, as we had the luxury of a choice of hotels. The first one was pretty awful for what they were charging, but the second was surprisingly nice. The quality of accommodation seems to vary wildly in Indonesia, with price not really being a reliable indicator. Another traveller had warned us that it is always worth looking around where possible, and we can confirm that this was sound advice. Our lodgings were excellent for what we were paying, as we no longer really mind a cold shower. We did have a family of cockroaches dwelling in the bathroom, but after Oli killed three no more appeared. We slept brilliantly, and awoke feeling clean and very rested.

Unfortunately the previous three days had taken their toll, and we tired quickly. We had been riding for a minimum of nine hours on each day, always negotiating difficult conditions. This fourth day was no exception, and we had to deal with the worst roads so far. It was very twisty, and very potholed. This wouldn't have been so bad if not for the fact that the area was dominated by palm oil plantations (a bit of a downer after yesterday's wild forests), and the overloaded lorries all tend to travel in convoy. Overtaking on the bad roads is a risky business, as even when we toot a warning on the horn, the lorries are prone to suddenly swinging into our path to avoid particularly lethal holes. On one particularly bad section we saw that one of them had overturned, spilling its load. Hopefully nobody was hurt.


Needing a rest from the drama of the roads, we pulled over for a lunch stop. It was very much a family run place, and everyone seemed very shocked and excited by the fact that we had showed up. Tourists and foreigners don't seem particularly common in this part of the world, so I suppose our presence was rather unexpected. As soon as we had finished eating, Oli and I were handed a seemingly endless supply of babies for photographs. I was pretty terrified that I might drop one, but luckily no such thing occurred. 


We made it to Bengkulu at around three in the afternoon, and were so tired that we decided to call it a day. It was a large but quiet town, and had the luxury of numerous hotels and guest houses. The first was way out of our budget, and the economy room on offer at the second was basically a damp, grim shed in the car park. Feeling a little disheartened we carried on, and found a guest-house with a peaceful courtyard. They were almost fully booked as it was a Friday night, but had their super-deluxe room available. This was actually only £1.50 more than the economy shed room, and was amazing. It was a done deal, and definitely proved the theory that we should always look around when a choice of lodgings is available.

As well as the bonus of a hot water shower, fast internet and aircon, our room also had a pretty fancy toilet. Foolishly whilst in the shower Oli pulled the bidet lever, watching in fascination as it slowly extended, then panicking when it sprayed water in a powerful arc. He got very much in the way of it, running around the bathroom and shrieking in surprise. It was hilarious, and the image of it had me cracking up all evening and into the next day.

Bengkulu is a seaside town, so we thought it would be fitting to go to the beach to watch the sunset. On the road to the coast were numerous signs pointing to high ground, advising people where to flee in case of tsunamis. We had spotted these along the way as well, but their frequency definitely increased within the town. Apparently Bengkulu is in a high risk zone, and the relatively high population density would mean that any impact could be catastrophic.

As it was, the waves were impressively large but decidedly nonthreatening. The sun was just starting to go down, but there was no way Oli and I were going to get to watch it in peace. Every time I lifted the camera to photograph the scene, a gang of excited children would run in front and pose. They came to stare at us for a while, but thankfully realised we were boring before our BBQ corn on the cob was ready. Corn is not the most dignified of foods to eat, so I was grateful not to have to do so with an audience. The sunset itself was gorgeous, dramatically complimented by the powerful waves. As we left the beach, lightning started to flash in the distance, completing the wild beauty of the scene.


The next day we simply did not want to leave. Comfort like we had enjoyed at our hotel is not so easy to come by in Sumatra, and we really liked the town itself. Sadly however the sixty day visas are steadily ticking away, so we had to get going. We stopped to buy some lychees and oranges on the way out of town from a cool dude listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, then continued on our way, all the time declaring to each other that Bengkulu was awesome.

We rode for a few hours without stopping, before eventually deciding to take a break and start munching our fruit. As we were finishing up and getting ready to continue, we saw a man walking along the road, leading a cow that was in turn pulling a cart. As he drew closer, we realised that he also had a monkey sat in the carriage (some people keep them to pick coconuts). He was as surprised to see us as we were by his unusual companions, and was more than happy to let us take his photo. We passed him again a short while later, both him and us waving to each other enthusiastically.


The scenery that day was some of the best yet, which is really saying something seeing as Sumatra has to be one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. The road negotiated mountains and skirted past deserted wild beaches, huge waves rolling in from an endless blue ocean. We stopped at one that had a few people around, thinking for a moment that we had gotten away with it and hadn't been spotted as foreigners. We were wrong about this, and it didn't take long before we were approached by a couple of teenage girls. We realised that not a day had yet passed where we hadn't had a random photo-shoot with strangers in Sumatra. We don't really mind most of the time, but sometimes it would be nice just to have a bit of peace. It's okay when people ask, but I got a bit annoyed with the group of guys who were not-so-subtly trying to take photos of us on their phones.


The scenery remained incredible, but the road began to deteriorate considerably. These were not just potholes, they were knee-deep truck catchers. We passed one lorry that appeared to have beached itself, and wondered how much worse it could get. The answer to that turned out to be quite a lot worse, as we suddenly found ourselves in a queue of traffic, with everyone struggling to negotiate a road surface that seemed to consist purely of thick or liquid mud. Given the volume of traffic stuck there compared with the amount of vehicles we had seen on the way, some of these people must have been stranded for hours.

We feared that it might have been caused by an over-turned lorry, so when things started moving even by the tiniest amount we were relieved. The problems were caused merely by the terrible state of the road, and even with the police on hand to help manage things we were almost at a standstill. I walked whilst Oli wrestled with the bike. We were lucky that our side was moving, as I don't think the other lane progressed at all whilst we were there. At least we entertained the many people waiting around, shouting back hellos, returning waves, but declining requests that we stop for photos. Eventually we emerged, mud splattered and triumphant. We had started to have visions of being stuck all night, but luckily it moved a lot faster than we anticipated. We later found out that the road had been closed for the previous three days, so we were actually very lucky to get through at all.


Unknown to us, the next town (Krui) turned out to be a spot known by committed surfers. This meant that there was actual accommodation on offer. We originally planned just to crash for the night and then get back on the road, but a combination of tiredness and the fact that today happens to be my birthday meant that we have decided to stay for two nights instead. We are currently chilling out in the garden, and might stretch ourselves to walk to the beach a little later on.

Sumatra has been an amazing experience so far, and we are lamenting the shortness of our visas every day. There is almost no tourist infrastructure here, which can make things a little difficult but also keeps a constant air of discovery. The scenery is varied and almost always stunning, and every single day here has been eventful. After a fortnight we are simply in love with the island. Forget the mental traffic - the green hills, twisty roads, wild beaches, giant waves, the constant smells of roasting coffee and cocoa all make this one amazing place. Tomorrow we should make it to Bandar Lampung, then we will get the ferry to Java the next day. We have been told by a few people that Java is essentially one long traffic jam, so are a little apprehensive. Hopefully it will surprise us, and turn out to be brilliant... updates to follow!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, i saw you guys in Malioboro yesterday afternoon, looking forward to have chat with you guys, glad to see both of you made it until Jogja, if theres anything i can help dont even hesitate to contact me