Lake Toba was my next stop - to quote from the guidebook:
"Damau Toba is, like, this big huge lake yeah, in the middle of a ginormous collapsed volcano thing".
(I really must get a better guidebook).
The road into the ancient crater from the west is dramatic, snaking down the wooded slopes of the crater wall, and leads you onto the Western shore of the island of Pulau Samosir - not really an island as it can be reached by a narrow isthmus of land.
The island is around 100 km in length, and the lake in which it floats is maybe two to three times as long. This thing is BIG.
Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
The view from the guesthouse was weirdly reminiscent of a Scottish loch, with wispy mists hanging over forests on the far side of the lake. Only the thirty-degree temperatures and the banana trees gave the game away.
It was here that I met Anton, a Dutch man who was a veteran of many travels, currently working for a volunteer organisation in Medan. He had rented a beautiful house in the village of Ambarita on the lakeshore, for 40 US dollars a month. He spent his days placidly translating books and looking out over the calm clear waters. He introduced me to the most palatable of the local rotgut, known as Anggur and made by fermenting an unspecified variety of fruit to produce something along the lines of a fruity whisky. Really, it's OK once the initial shock has passed and the nerve endings die off. We also sampled what he assured me was authentic Indonesian cuisine in the somewhat tourist-oriented village of Tuk Tuk. The restaurateur had a large number of cats wandering proprietorially about the place, and Anton decided that his house was in need of a cat to make it a complete dwelling place. So off we went into the night, one bike, one Irishman, one Dutchman, one cat and a bottle of Anggur.
Lake Toba, Sumatra (background)
I left the following day while Anton was settling in his new arrival, and contemplating another peaceful day among his books. My destination was Sibolga on the West coast of Sumatra, where I planned to load the bike on a ferry bound for the island of Nias, tropical paradise and popular hangout for surf bums. The road to Sibolga was gloriously twisty and smooth, passing through mile after mile of apparently undisturbed rainforest. So far in my journey through Sumatra, I have seen very little evidence of the armageddon-style clear-felling which I was worriedly anticipating.
The tortuous road slowed me down somewhat, and I arrived just as they were completing the loading of the ferry. The slyly grinning guardian of the gate wanted an astronomical sum to get me on board, which I declined politely. I didn't really want to spend an extra day hanging about in Sibolga, but on principle I refused to give this guy the satisfaction of putting one over on me.
On the beach at Sibolga
The town had a bit of a dodgy feel to it, so I found a hotel where they would consent to putting my bike inside for the night. Ten minutes of pushing and wheezing later, and we had squeezed the bike through the door, with the following casualties: one layer of paint removed from doorframe, one nasty scratch down whitewashed wall, one nice black tyre imprint on clean floor, and one little trail of dirt and grit, culminating (by morning) in a small sad puddle of oil. They accepted this with good grace, and showed me to an economy room in the section of the hotel also devoted to the working girls. One day I will get to stay in a hotel that does not also double as a brothel, and I will probably die of the shock....
Sunset in Sibolga, Sumatra
The following day's sea crossing departed at 8pm, and the sea was flat calm. The ferry was a bit of an elderly rustbucket and from the slightly crumpled bows I determined that the captain's distance perception must be somewhat faulty. In recognition of this, I positioned my bike at the rear of the craft, and made ready to lend him my spectacles during critical maneuvers.
I tried to get some sleep in my tiny hot cabin, which I shared with a legion of cockroaches, and passed time by trying to get the fan to work by fiddling with the bare wires which had been jammed carelessly into the wall socket.
Nias was indeed a beach paradise. All the ingredients were present in profusion - Palm trees swaying in the balmy breezes, wide deserted golden sands, bamboo beach huts, blah blah - you get the idea. Also there were the surfers in Lagundri bay, who had come for the apparently legendary surf break which thunders in from the Indian Ocean. I was constantly delighted by the surfers, sleek and tanned, strutting round with boards under arm, their blond dreadlocks swaying and wraparound mirror shades glinting, saying things like "Yo dude" and describing particular surfing events, which in their view were especially "gnarly". Priceless stuff.
The audience turned expectantly towards me, and I didn't feel I could let them down. Up on the pegs, I launched myself at the thing gamely, with predictable results. Something solid in the glutinous muck grabbed pulled and twisted, and over I went. Fortunately, the mud was nice and soft, and I relaxed happily into its gluey embrace as I thumbed the kill switch...
The roads on Nias also provided some amusement - on the East of the island, the asphalt had degraded beyond recognition, and the journey from the port of Gunung Sitoli to Lagundri took around 4 hours.
I had particular difficulty with the decaying bridges, which had originally been constructed of flat planks running at 90 degrees to the direction of travel. However, as these had progressively disintegrated, shoddy repairs had been made by placing two gangways of inadequately secured boards along the length of the bridge where the car tyres would run. These things were rattly and uneven, and fairly tricky to balance on. A glance downwards afforded views of the river below, through the gaps in the mouldering old boards. I concentrated on staying on the gangways, picturing in my mind the possible effect of a quarter-ton of Yamaha if it were to pitch onto these old timbers at speed. The best approach seemed to be to line the bike up as I approached the bridge, and then gas it across in a dead straight line along one of the gangways as it rattled and shook discomfortingly.
A few days on Lagundri beach was a welcome respite after all of this, and when I left I elected to head back to Gunung Sitoli by the West road, which I was assured was much better. In my experience, advice like this should always be taken with a pinch of snuff, but in this case the advice initially turned out to be sound. The road was smooth and only occasionally reverted to dirt: I made good progress. Unfortunately, it then became necessary to gain altitude and cross over to the opposite side of the island, and it was on this stretch that I was brought up short by a steep muddy slope. A couple of minivans were stuck at the foot of this rutted ascent, whilst a third attacked it at maximum revs, wheels spinning as it was shoved by its dozen or so passengers. The attempt was unsuccessful, and it slithered back into the quagmire with smoke pouring interestingly from the engine compartment.
The audience turned expectantly towards me, and I didn't feel I could let them down. Up on the pegs, I launched myself at the thing gamely, with predictable results. Something solid in the glutinous muck grabbed pulled and twisted, and over I went. Fortunately, the mud was nice and soft, and I relaxed happily into its gluey embrace as I thumbed the kill switch. He's back, I thought, the legendary horizontal Irish biker adds one more landmass to the growing list of "Places I've stacked the bike"....
The audience seemed to appreciate my efforts, and cheerily hauled me upright for another go, this time a couple of my new friends gave a helpful push which got me to the top of the obstacle. I thanked them all very much, and they seemed to have enjoyed themselves too, so that was OK.
Possibly I was still slightly shaken by the tumble, for a few miles further on, I stacked it again on a not-particularly-difficult stretch, for no reason other than lack of concentration. There was no one about at the time, but in Asia you are never alone for long. Within five minutes I was helped upright again by the dozen or so bikers and twenty school kids who had appeared, as they do in such circumstances, out of nowhere.
More waving and smiling, more happy customers, off I rode
- provider of entertainment, reliever of tedium, benefactor of mankind.
While waiting for the ferry, a teenage lad approached me, and I anticipated the usual series of questions. You sometimes get a little tired of the predictable nature of these exchanges. "What your country?", "What your name?", "How much this bike cost?", the routine never varies much and you long for someone to ask you something original. Today, my prayers were answered.
"You married?", he asked. I said yes.
(I generally travel "married", not that it stops people from offering you hookers, which they seem to do almost by reflex, in the same tone as you might say "Fancy a cup of tea?" - but it does give you a plausible reason to say no. Attempting to explain that you have no interest in studying HIV first hand, in my experience, achieves very little.)
The lad continues: "So - you zigzig with your wife everyday?"
I looked up sharply. He seemed completely serious. Finally, I had been presented with an original question, and I could think of nothing relevant to say. For shame. I think he sensed that I was on the ropes.
"Does your body smell?" he continued levelly.
I muttered something inane. What sort of textbooks had this lad been studying? I was impressed. "Do you bat? I bat.", he pronounced with gravitas, and cycled off.
I only realised later that he'd been trying to say "bathe", but despite the slip, his grave dissatisfaction with my personal hygiene, mud spattered and sweaty as I was, affected me deeply. I was chagrined and decided that I must bat at the earliest opportunity.
A day after I left Nias, I reached the mountain town of Bukittingi, a journey which involved my first ever crossing of the equator. I accomplished this momentous feat in torrential rain, wearing full waterproofs. I felt slightly let down by this, but was excited to be in the Southern Hemisphere.
Irish 'Crossing the Equator Jig', in Indonesia
This excitement was tempered when I learned that evening on the news of a freak storm, which killed 60 people on the island, which I had so recently left. I hoped that my cheerful roadside rescuers, and my personal hygiene inquisitor, were not among the casualties.
I plan to head for Danau Maninjau next, and gear up for a frontal assault on Jakarta. The options for shipping the bike out of Indonesia are still under debate, but the Carnet expiry date of 31st August does put a limit on my stay here. I will report in when the muddy waters clear up a bit....
Continuing my tour of Indonesian volcano lakes, I travelled the short distance from Bukittingi to Lake Maninjau, a smaller version of Lake Toba. I tumbled down the 44 spectacular hairpin bends, running so badly out of control that I ended up in the nearest bar and became trapped under a heavy bottle of Bintang beer. I hate it when that happens....
Lake Maninjau, Sumatra, Indonesia
I stayed in a pleasant hotel/restaurant which reached out into the calm waters on wooden stilts, and I did nothing very much other than eat, sleep and look at the view for a couple of days.
On the day I was due to leave I found that I had picked up the beginnings of a dose of tonsillitis. I sensibly decided to postpone my departure by a day, and opted for a gentle walk into the village instead. However, one of the guesthouses I passed on the way had a line of mountain bikes racked up outside, and the temptation proved too much.
I resolved to cycle all the way round the lake as a sure-fire tonsillitis cure, and wobbled off down the road, repeatedly checking my non-existent wing mirrors. On steep hills, I occasionally found myself twisting the right hand grip and feeling surprise when I failed to go any faster.
I returned to my starting point several hours later, somewhat knackered, and it was only then that I discovered the distance round the lake was about 70 kilometres. I'd have to say, though, that as a tonsillitis cure it seemed to have worked. By morning, I felt fine, and made an early start in order to gain as much southerly momentum as possible.
I made my traditional trip to the Police station to gain a typed permit for my journey, specifying Jakarta as my destination. As usual, the cops were very friendly, but took a short time to catch on to what I wanted from them. When they finally worked it out, they went along with my request, but in the manner of men humoring the insane (in case I turned violent). I resolved in future not to bother with this functionless piece of paper, as no-one but me seems to give a damn about it, and I have certainly never been asked to produce it by any officials.
My route Southwards took me through the busy town of Padang, where I did not linger. Instead, I followed the west coast of Sumatra along a road which twisted through a succession of sandy bays crowded with outrigger fishing boats.
The busy town of Bandarlampung was my last stop in Sumatra. The guidebook is rather dismissive of the place, describing it as simply a transit town on the way to Jakarta, but I thought it was a vibrant and friendly place. In addition, it happens to be the place where the Finest Noodles On Earth may be procured. Here's how: I asked the hotel guy where I could get some food. He pondered this request, and pointed helpfully up the street: 'That way. 500 kilometres.'
I thanked him very much, and, steeling myself for the 3 weeks forced march, set off resolutely for this distant oasis. Fortunately, there turned out to be a noodle joint a little closer than reports would suggest, and it was here that I scored these magnificent scrummy comestibles: Fried noodles with veg and meat and prawns, also a little bag of salad and two (count them - two!) types of sauce. Total cost - 1500 rupiah (15 US cents).
The name of this restaurant without compare is Koko, and I urge Egon Ronay to get his sorry ass down there and find out what he's been missing all these years.
The following day, I set off bright and early and boarded the ferry for the short hop across to Java.
Jakarta is only a couple of hundred kilometres from the ferry terminal on the Javanese side, and I confidently expected to knock this over by midafternoon. This was foolishly optimistic, for a number of reasons.
Although Java is nominally part of the same country as Sumatra, the differences in population and traffic congestion are marked and immediately apparent.
The island of Java is approximately 1200 kilometres long, and every square centimetre of it is chock full of minivans. Crammed in nose to tail. It would be impossible to fit one single more minivan on the ground anywhere in Java. I have a theory that the seismic activity around the Pacific Rim is caused solely by the massive and destabilizing concentration of minivans in Java. In fact, I hear that they are considering stacking them up vertically in some areas.
The solid wall of minivans which confronts you as you roll off the ferry oscillates sluggishly, and slowly slides aside as though by a natural process similar to continental drift, to reveal small gaps through which you can squeeze your bike.
As you emerge with streaming eyes from the obligatory diesel smoke screen produced by these vehicles, you confront the next wave of randomly blundering obstructions. And so on, and so on, as the countless, dearly bought kilometres crawl painfully beneath your wheels and the unevaporated sweat trickles down your legs.
In order to alleviate the difficulty of travelling under these conditions, the powers that be decreed the construction of several freeways, which converge on Jakarta from three compass points (approach from the North being tricky on account of all the wet stuff).
And, cleverly, to ease congestion and allow rapid travel, these freeways are forbidden to minivans...
...oh yes, and to motorcycles.
I wondered how rigorously they would enforce this restriction. I therefore conducted a short experiment, which culminated in a brief bike chase and a polite but insistent chat with the local traffic police. You never know if you don't try, and to be fair to the fuzz, they didn't even try to weasel any money out of me, so that's one point in their favour.
I gritted my teeth, left the freeway at the next exit, and ground onwards on roads which are, frustratingly, of excellent quality, when you can actually see them through the minuscule gaps in the traffic.
Message to overlanders from the residents of Java
Big. Hot. Smoggy. Standard issue loony traffic. All these things I've seen before, but how quickly you forget....
After half a day of stop/start driving with heavy emphasis on the stop, my clutch hand was cramping painfully and I imagined that I could smell my legs broiling on the red hot engine. Another two hours of wrestling through the approach run to a major city was not going to be fun.
The Tenere clutch has always been a heavy sod, and I have noticed that on later model XT's the linkage has been moved to the other side of the engine, presumably to give a straighter pull and alleviate this problem. My own particular clutch seems to be a particularly obdurate piece of bastardry, despite my attempts at lubrication.
After many months of struggling manfully with the thing I imagine my left hand will resemble a bunch of bananas, and I will be able to open easily all those tightly-closed pickled onion jars that have been laughing up their sleeves at me all these years. Truly, every cloud has a silver lining, (even if pickled onion jars cannot realistically be said to have sleeves).
Back, as I said, to the traffic in Jakarta, and being hot and sweaty and by this time thoroughly fed up, I was glad to reach a little piece of tourist heaven called Jalan Jaksa. This is real heartland Lonely Planet territory, and most of the folks here have 'guide book' written all over them. But what the hell, I'm not above a little R&R myself in an environment where you can visit the internet café, restaurant and supermarket without straying more than 100 metres from the guest house, and still have enough change for a half of Whatney's Red Barrel and a plate of egg & chips on the way home (I exaggerate, but not by much).
I also had a couple of tasks to accomplish. Hearing of Ken and Carol's high priced flight from Denpasar to OZ, I had decided to try to find an agent to fly the bike from Jakarta, even if this meant missing out on Eastern Java, and Bali. In order that the nice Australian customs men would let me enter their first rate country, I also had to procure a new carnet, as the current one was due to expire shortly.
Pam Brown, carnet chick, problem solver, and all-round paperwork goddess at the AA in Britain had dispatched a new carnet to a post Restante address in Jakarta. And so it was that I went to the Post Office on Thursday, without much hope of success. I mean, there were countless things that could go wrong with a plan like this.
I reported to the information desk, and was sent off to another desk. This is par for the course in Asia, and I expected to be shuttled through five or six different locations, before returning in the end to the one I'd started at. That's just how things are done, it's a game that we all enjoy and it passes the time.
No such luck. Not only was desk No. 2 the correct one, but Nice Lady seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, and disappeared into the catacombs out back. This, too, is standard procedure, and I looked around for a chair in which to begin my mandatory three hour wait. Again, I was out of luck, for Nice Lady was back within thirty seconds. With a package.
The wrong one, surely, I thought, becoming desperate.
Nope. The right one. With a carnet inside. All the bike details correct. Expiry date correct. Country validity correct.
I frantically checked the top left hand corner of the document, in the vain hope that they might have made it out to Mickey Mouse. Out of luck again.
And that was it. I was dumbfounded. Outraged.
Look, I wanted to say to Nice Lady, what sort of operation are you running here? This is supposed to be Asia!
How is it possible that I can just walk in off the street and get what I want in less time than it takes to boil an egg?
Where are the huge queues? The pointless paperwork? The Long Hot Tedious Wait for No Apparent Reason? I'm not even vaguely uncomfortable, I wanted to rage. The damn place is air-conditioned! Haven't you people been trained?
I left, a broken man, and went for a wander around the sights of Jakarta before taking on my next assignment, the search for a shipping agent.
The Monas monument stands ostentatiously in Merdeka Square in central Jakarta, a 140 metre tall pillar topped with a gold plated flaming beacon. It was erected (and I use the word advisedly given the fairly obvious symbolism here) in 1961 by Soekarno, as a monument to the Republic's independence from its former colonial masters (17th August
1945). It is one of a family of monuments around the city, all in the Soviet-style 'heroes of the revolution' theme, all sorts of muscular bronze blokes breaking free of the yoke of tyranny and proud doughty soldiers with big guns protecting consumptive fawning women in shawls (WHY always shawls?).
The Monas itself represents a masterpiece of what the guidebook fittingly terms 'inspired tastelessness'.
Monas Monument, Jakarta, Indonesia
Personally I thought it was great.
I paid my 50 cents US and went inside, because from the pinnacle of the monument you get a great view of the city, albeit through clouds of smog. Piped music blared tinnily from speakers throughout the monument. It was some sort of digitized militaristic march which sounded like it had been knocked up by Rolf Harris on his stylophone, or a twelve year old kid on one of the more basic Casio keyboards. Undoubtedly a very hungover and below par Rolf, clearly a few too many VB's the previous evening, his hands were shaking badly and the notes were kind of wavery and off key. Fantastic stuff! I whistled along as far as was possible with the tinkly tootling and the rapita-rapita-rap of Mr. Casio's drum kit, trying and failing to keep a straight face.
The uniformed gent controlling the lift to the top of the monument bent over his work in quiet concentration. I leaned over to fully appreciate the complexity of his task.
There appeared to be three buttons. Labelled: 1, 2 and
1 was the ground floor. 2 was the lower observation deck.
3 was the top of the monument.
I kept quiet, worried that I might upset his train of thought and precipitate some ghastly disaster, like perhaps being fired clean out the top of the monument, like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But this ice cool ace had the measure of it, and brought us up safe and sound.
I drank my fill of the views of the surrounding urban sprawl, tiled roofs contrasting with super modern tower blocks. The grass of the surrounding park was kept alive by a network of sprinkler systems, but the red earth poked through in bare patches. Some of the more enterprising local vandals had turned a number of the sprinklers around, and I watched them as they industriously irrigated several acres of asphalt. No one seemed minded to do anything to rectify this situation, and I found this strangely comforting. On the way back down, the lift jockey studied his control panel minutely, alert for signs of trouble, and hit the controls to take us home. He can be my wingman any day.
Back on the ground floor, the fun was not yet over. I was ushered into the 'Hall of Independence', a cool marble-floored grotto, adorned with flags and a big gold plated map of Indonesia. My guide seated me on a marble bench along with a giggly school party, facing a huge pair of marvellously overdone gold plated doors, all chunky bits and sweeping bas-relief curves and spirals.
He motioned for silence, and hit a concealed button. Instantly, a choir of (slightly crackly) angels gave voice to a tumultuous heavenly chorus, which bore us aloft on wings of rapture, as the doors rumbled ponderously aside. I perked up instantly. My eyebrows climbed up my forehead, as I half expected one of those huge animated Monty Python ladies with an enormous chest to fly out through the doors and start playing a trumpet.
Behind the first pair of doors was another smaller door, and as the angels carolled ever higher, this door juddered slightly and began to jerk hesitantly upwards to reveal what was beyond. Fantastic stuff! For a delicious second, it appeared that this second door might get stuck half way, but it completed its journey safely, to reveal the treasure beyond the portal, which was a rather disappointing bit of paper in a glass case. The voice of Soekarno replaced the heavenly chorus, explaining (my guide told me as Soekarno blatted on in Indonesian) the significance of this declaration of Independence. The cherubs trilled again as the guardian portals swung shut, and I fought the impulse to applaud and cheer thunderously.
Truly the finest entertainment I have ever witnessed.
Dashing the tears (of emotion) from my eyes, I left the monument to search for a shipping agent.
Mr Hery Koestanto of AeroCargo in Jakarta gave me an acceptable rate for air freight from Jakarta to Darwin, and we fixed a mutually acceptable date - this left me 2 weeks to travel eastwards as far as Yogyakarta before I was obliged to return to Jakarta.
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