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Bali to Sumbawa and Tambora - the mountain that blew its top.
As soon as we walked into the showroom I knew which one Inez was going to choose. There they were, lined up beautifully in a neatly spaced row, leaning on their side stands - Honda Vario scooters - each one a shiny-bright, 110cc, liquid-cooled, automatic, freedom machine. And the brightest of all was the PINK one!
Bali to Sumbawa and back.
“That one”, she said pointing her pinky at Pinky. My heart sank a little because I was the one who would be riding this steed on a four week trip east of Bali. “Are you sure?” I queried hopefully. “The white, with green flashes looks good.” But no - pink it was, and the deal was done. A massive wad of cash - 15,700,000 Indonesian Rupiah (AUD $1,800 approx) - was handed over, an Identity Card produced, a delivery and sales note signed and the dealer had wrapped up one of the easiest sales she’d ever handled.
What she didn’t know was that it was a deal within a deal. The previous year in Bali I’d befriended Inez, a young woman originally from East Timor. As a tourist visa holder I could not register a bike under my name. But Inez was happy to lend me hers as she would have use of the bike when I returned home, and I would resume possession when I returned to Bali the following year. So, seeing she would be riding it for nine months of the year I was prepared to go along with her choice of colour. Having completed all the paperwork, we left the showroom with the assurance that the bike would be delivered within a week.
Inez was happy and so was I. She could ride but didn’t have a licence. That wasn’t a concern though. She would simply pay the requisite fee and get her SIM (Surat Izin Mengemudi/Driver’s Licence) on the spot. Although this procedure was more expensive than going for the test, it was far less time consuming. Those in the game don’t actually want people to be examined as there’s nothing in it for them. That’s just the way things are, have been for a long time and will probably continue to be as long as public servants are paid a pittance and can exercise power over people who lack recourse to justice.
As promised, the bike - all shiny and pink - duly arrived at Inez’s rooming house. It still had to be registered, so Inez made her way down to the rego office to do the necessary. The amount demanded to register Pinky on-the-spot was, as expected, over the odds but, rather than wait for however long, Inez handed over the lucre and was issued with a rego number.
Inez had a set of plates made up and off we went riding around the narrow, back lanes of Kuta and Legian. Like a kid with a new toy, she just couldn’t wait to hit the road. She was pretty adept astride the bike and I was relaxed enough riding pillion. I baulked, though, when her mobile rang and she went rummaging for it in her pocket. “Pull up,” I demanded. Inez obliged and took the call. When she’d finished she turned to me and smiled. “Relax,” she said. “I might take calls when I’m riding but at least I don’t text!” That was comforting as I had witnessed a number of people texting away whilst riding – a skill I’d not imagined existed before arriving in Bali. I was still holding on to my conditioned approach to how things were done. But, the reality that there was another reality was slowly sinking in.
Now I expect readers might be wondering why would anyone embark on a major trip astride a pink egg-beater? Pink, I’ve explained. As for egg-beater? Well, it came down to this: cost, availability and
practicality. Cost - I didn’t want to part with a lot of coin. Availability - if I’d wanted something bigger, the best I could pick up off the showroom floor in Bali was a 200cc Honda Tiger. But, then I’d have to chase up panniers, or get a rack made, as these after-market items were not immediately available. Practicality - although I carried minimal gear – a backpack weighing 13kgs - l didn’t want to wear it while riding. So the Vario was perfect. The backpack sat on the footplate and slotted snugly between my knees, leaving room to plant a foot either side of it. In this way I felt both comfortable and balanced. This was important as I knew I’d be spending long hours on the road. I liked the automatic transmission on the Vario, and its lightweight was ideal. I planned to head way out, to that part of the map marked, ‘Thayre be dragones’, so, a mount that could easily be manhandled through mud, or sand or a dry, rocky creek bed would be ideal. Of course I would have liked to have been onboard a big cruiser but it just wasn’t an option for the reasons outlined. I was happy with the Vario and the colour certainly earned top marks in “the most easily seen” category!
As soon as all formalities were completed I was off. I had the vital bike registration paper (the STNK – Surat Tanda Nomor Kendaraan, which Indonesians call ‘the Stenker’), together with my mobile, tucked into the ‘secret’ Velcro pocket located under the left armpit of my shirt. The right side pocket held my camera and spare ignition key. The little stowage compartment beneath the seat held my rudimentary wet weather gear of lightweight leggings and jacket. I’d bought my helmet from Oz along with my predilection for always observing the golden rules of riding in foreign climes: 1) live in the now 2) expect the unexpected 3) ride according to the traffic and weather conditions and 4) if an accident happens it will be your fault because, ‘if you hadn’t have been in the country, there wouldn’t have been an accident, now would there?’ Like to try arguing that one out with a gathering crowd? No thanks! “Just do everything humanly possible to stay upright and not collect anything or anyone, ok?” That is what I was telling myself as, at 7.00 on a Monday morning, I nosed out on to Jalan Padma to begin the trip.
A stream of traffic was already building on the narrow roads. A clever system of one-ways helped it flow through Legian to Kuta but it wasn’t long before I found myself surrounded on both sides by a crush of bikes, scooters, trucks, pick-ups and people movers, all jostling for position, horns blaring, honking and hooting to get past a blockage caused by road works. At the lights on Jalan Iman Bonjol I made a right turn for the By-Pass road that led to Sanur and onwards to Padangbai and the ferry to Lombok, the next island east. The southern third of Bali is home to around 3 million people. I hadn’t realised they all left for work at the same time!
Scooting along the wide smooth by-pass at 65-70 kph was a joy. Scything through the breeze, weaving past black-smoke-belching trucks and buses, I found myself at ease, at last able to enjoy a little speed with some space around me. The scenery – a kaleidoscope of huge billboards, tumble-down houses, neat villas, factory lots, car showrooms and the occasional rice padi that had managed to resist the onward march of ‘development’ - fairly whistled by. Housewives were up and about sweeping their yards, and little schoolkids, resplendent in their crisp red and white uniforms, were gathering in knots on street corners or walking along, hand-in-hand, the younger ones being shepherded by older brothers and sisters.
I reached the major intersection with the road to Sanur. Every rider had the same idea – to ease their way to the front row of the grid. Trapped by the red lights we waited amidst a suffocating mix
of diesel fumes and carbon monoxide, blended with the wicked heat generated by the army of idling, impatiently-waiting engines. All eyes were glued on the lights to left and right, anticipating the flash of amber that would set engines revving for the ‘off’! And then it would be on - the race to get ahead of the pack! Being solo on a brand new mount, I had an advantage over those who were two up, and I sometimes managed to generate clear road ahead of me. It wasn’t long though, before a half dozen Casey Stoner wannabees came screaming past on tricked-up machines emitting sufficient decibels to blow the needle off an EPA meter.
Beyond the Sukawati turn-off the country became a little more open. To the left were open fields and to the right sky-blue waters lapped the black sand beaches. Approaching Goa Lawah I came across a concentration of beach-side souvenir stalls and eateries awaiting the arrival of the tour buses and their cargoes of day trippers. Riding was easier and more relaxing in the thinned out traffic. Keeping an eye out for the occasional wandering Fido, wobbling cyclist or geriatric farmer entering the highway from his yard without looking, I found myself soaking up the pleasures of the ride and loving being part of the landscape.
I swept on by eager to make the ferry terminal at Padangbai. Passing along the narrow road, shaded by clumps of giant bamboo, banyan trees and immense fig trees trailing vines, was very pleasant but catching up with slow-moving, overloaded trucks presented challenges that kept me on my toes. Labouring up the slightest incline each down change caused these mechanical oxen to belch clouds of oily black smoke. Overtaking became an exercise in patience, positioning and timing with patience being the prime requisite. When opportunity presented itself a fist full of throttle would come into play. Most times I sailed past in clean air, but, there were occasions when my timing was awry and I’d find myself momentarily enveloped in a cloak of the thick, oily, black stuff.
I reached the fork in the road I was looking for – Padangbai to the right, Candidasa to the left. I swung right and began the winding descent into the little port town. A few minutes later and I pulled up at Diane’s Cafe next to the Perama Tours office, ordered a coffee and learnt that the ferry to Lombok would leave in 30 minutes - time to let the mind unwind. The typed menu featured potatoes spelt three different ways, banana pancake, nasi campur, (rice with whatever’s going that day) and drinks of all sorts. The ride had taken me an hour - heavy, heavy traffic for the first half and then half an hour dodging diesel and weaving past trucks bound for the port and parts east. A good test of patience, nerve and concentration I was happy in the thought that traffic would be a little less intense from now on. The challenges would still be there, but they’d be of a different kind. What kind? Well, the answer to that lay down the road ahead.
I finished my drink and, refreshed, made my way into the port precinct. Two plumpish cops, who’d done too much desk time, sat at a small table. They waved me over. I pulled up, lifted my visor and gave them my biggest smile and cheeriest ‘Selamat Pagi’. (Good morning). I received a big smile in turn and was asked to produce my SIM and Stenker. A perfunctory examination of each and I was on my way accompanied by a ‘Selamat Jalan’. (Safe Journey). Police in Bali have a reputation for ‘fining’ riders on-the-spot, targeting foreigners in particular and hitting them with ‘fines’ for the slightest infraction of the road rules, such as stopping beyond the white line at traffic lights. Of course it happens and, if you’ve been a victim of this, your umbrage seems justified when you see a family of five riding on a scooter, none wearing helmets, seemingly impervious to the long arm of the law. But
bear in mind, Indonesian incomes are not evenly distributed. The minimum gazetted wage is 600,000 Rupiah a month – about AUD$70. So, if the police turn a blind eye to a family of five maybe they’re showing some understanding of the costs incurred when ferrying around Mum and three ankle biters on public transport. Furthermore, the police are not highly paid and, for Balinese, there are a lot of expensive religious ceremonies to perform. Someone’s got to pay for them. So, ipso facto, when you cop a ‘fine’ just think of it a subsidising a fellow human being journey to nirvana! And remember, no matter where you are, if you want to avoid fines the ball’s in your court.
After being waved on my way I rode the short distance to join the knot of ferry-bound vehicles sitting on the quay side. Waiting passengers milled around talking, smoking and laughing. Taxis disgorged families going home to Lombok. A bus pulled up, brakes squeaking; a mob of back packers alighted from a mini- van. Young, blonde, suntanned and sunburnt, they looked half asleep - as if they’d been woken too early after a night out on the tear. Brushing aside the imprecations of some would-be porters, their guide ushered them towards the lowered boom gate that barred entry to the Lombok ferry which had just begun to unload.
It was hot on the open dock. Many drivers had fired up their engines in anticipation. The air was thick with exhaust fumes. Superheated, it swilled around me like a toxic willi-willi. I made my way to the only shade – that offered by a tiny kiosk around which squatted a number of women selling bananas, snacks and cigarettes. In the water below plastic flotsam and jetsam washed gently back and forth between the pylons of the pier. On the little headland opposite stood the forlorn concrete skeleton of an abandoned South Korean resort project whose owners had run foul of the appropriate authorities. Their dreams had disappeared down a black hole and now, the remaining tangible evidence of their existence was being swallowed by the encroaching foliage. Vines had begun to wind their sinuous ways around pillars and along beams – nature was reasserting itself.
The thong of restless passengers was stirring. Drivers revved engines impatiently. The port authority officer-in-charge arrived in a flurry of self importance, arms waving, gold-braid glistening. There was still one truck to disembark and the driver was in trouble. “Maju, maju, (Forward, forward),” bellowed gold-braid. The driver, no more than a teenager, had stalled on the ramp. “Astaga!” the officer exclaimed. The driver looked panicked. He was making a spectacle of himself. No longer ‘King of the Open Road’, his inexperience was on view in some sort of grotesque overture to the commencement of the ferry ride. He attempted to re-start the engine but, in a fit of bloody-mindedness, it refused to fire. Meanwhile passengers had begun to surge on to the ferry and drivers began to toot their horns at the hapless teenage truckie. The din was intense. They’d been frying in the heat and patience was becoming Glad Wrap thin. Just when it seemed the battery would pack it in, the engine roared to life. First gear was slotted with a crash; engine gunned, the truck leapt forward like it had been stung from behind. The crowd cheered. The young driver’s face, grin-split from ear to ear registered his relief – from villain to hero in the twinkling of an eye! The truck reached the level surface of the dock and lumbered off on its way to Java.
Bikes and scooters roared forward to where the waiting crew were gesturing. Engine off, up on the centre stand. Helmet off an arm hooked through the visor opening, I grabbed my bag and made my way to the narrow staircase leading to the upper deck and the cool breeze – a cool breeze that I hoped would accompany us all the way to Lombok, five hours away across the warm blue waters.
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