Adventures through the Sumatran Wilderness
21 November 2011
Current Location: Darwin, Australia
Distance Cycled: 32,030km
Days on Road: Quite a lot now
Where did the past 6 months go? Berapa?!
Having entered the South East Asian ‘Honey-Pot’ in May, depraved desires common amongst all red blooded males to temporarily immerse oneself in a tropical backpacker wonderland were met (for us, these desires had been harnessed to worrying levels during excessive desert nights along the Silk Road from Istanbul to China). They were met in what can only be described as a hazy yet cataclysmic eruption of no-holes-barred partying, beachcombing that would send a discontent city slave into a post-orgasmic mental breakdown, memorable visits from friends and family back home and of course, a little cycling through an array of Mother Nature’s finest treats (about 10,000km in total). With more catching up to do than freed convicts, we’ve let loose like rampant Pamplona bulls in a china shop and blazed a trail of destruction from the raging rivers of Vang Vieng in Northern Laos to the seductive Gilli Islands in Southern Indonesia. The content of this devastation should not and therefore will be not be covered in this blog - you’ll have to hold tight for the top shelf edition of our book when we can write under aliases. Rather, we demand that you sit tight for a few minutes and read about our adventures through Sumatra, an island of such extreme wilderness and beauty that Sir Attenborough himself has been known to uncontrollably dribble upon his chequered neckerchief at the mere mention of this land that time forgot.
Now, I thought that the Shrewsbury to Telford night train was a public transport phenomenon hard pushed to be beaten anywhere on God’s green earth, but the 36 hour ferry crossing of the South China Sea from Singapore to Belawan in the North Eastern province of Sumatra unquestionably takes the biscuit, albeit with slightly fewer mongoloids but certainly better value for money (£14 including 2 nights accommodation and 3 meals - could you get a mini-pack of Discos for that price on a British train these days?) Before boarding HMS Stoned Sloth we were cooped up in a holding pen for 3 painstakingly long hours whilst more than 2000 people filtered through behind us juggling box loads of mysterious Malaysian merchandise. The words ’tin’ and ’sardines’ sprang to our minds, but we settled with ‘scousers’ and ‘Hillsborough‘. In the third hour I was wrestling to keep my bike at 45 degrees thanks to three Indonesians clinging to my rear and front panniers in an attempt to stop themselves from hitting the dusty ground. Suffice to say, I haven’t had such a good wrist workout since my early teens. Unlike in Old Blighty however, where at this point an all out HMS Bounty-style mutiny would have erupted, everyone around us seemed completely unperturbed by the heavy delay and suffocating conditions and to my astonishment seemed to actually be really enjoying the occasion! Upon the ultimate arrival of the key wielding harbour master, our pain had lessened dramatically though, as good-natured roars and songs of anticipation had begun to echo around the holding pen, turning our frowns into gleeful smiles that matched those around as we bellowed out random Indonesian words we did not understand.
After an all-out stampede onto the weary looking vessel, we located our sleeping quarters on the bottom deck, a fish odoured cabin with more than 70 half eaten beds crammed within it, complete with what appeared to be a fully functional and diverse ecosystem. From the mould blanketing the walls and ceilings, to the scurrying rats, cockroaches and ants, and finally the flies and those bastard mosquitoes, the cabin was teeming with an abundance of pest life! As biologically wonderful as this sounds, combined with the heat, threat of robbery, screaming babies, mobile phone music, continual announcements over the speakers and incessant wafts of clove cigarette smoke throughout the entire journey, it made getting our beauty sleep somewhat tricky. I tried not to remind myself that this particular stretch of sea had claimed an identical vessel the year before, leaving no survivors, in addition to it being heavily patrolled by lawless Sumatran pirates. It wasn’t easy!
Nevertheless, the trip was a bloody great experience. Being the only westerners on the boat aside from two chirpy German backpackers, we obviously stood out like leather-clad homosexuals at a Louisiana evangelical church, and as a result many locals approached us throughout the voyage to find out what we were doing, trying out their limited English skills and teaching us some useful phrases of the Batak people (Christian’s who inhabit the Northern region of Sumatra and who have a unique language, one of 300 across Indonesia). This genuine friendliness continued almost without fail with every Indonesian we have encountered in the last two months. We were able to stroll along the outer decks to marvel at the mesmeric sunset views across an ocean sprinkled with hundreds of migrating golden sea snakes, eagerly hopping dolphins and acrobatic skating fish. Jamie and Si (a friend from home riding with us for two months) were even accosted by a slightly psychotic Singaporean Christian missionary, hell bent on converting anyone without a visible cross to the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ. An intense two hour bible session later the guys returned with befuddled expressions which indicated both utter shock and boredom. Thank God I missed that one.
Entering Sumatra from Singapore by boat leaves any weary traveller questioning whether they’ve passed through a Bermuda Triangle-esque black hole sneakily hidden within the South China Sea, such was the overwhelming contrast of our immediate surroundings and pace of life. Food once again dropped by hundreds of percent, ditching time-consuming and unnecessarily well mannered forks and spoons for the more effective and highly satisfying bear paws as we lunged into 45 pence Nasi Lemaks. Once through Medan, the island’s largest city, we had began to venture up the potholed roads of the Orangutan-riddled jungle mountains towards Lake Toba, when we were reminded, like a fish slap to the face, of two things that can make the life of long-distance cyclists tougher than it already can be:
1) Our retarded inability to mend our bicycle’s ailments
Roy Castle would have jumped with uncontrollable zeal if he had lived to see Jamie or I mend a puncture on his TV Show, an express self-servicing talent we have developed to a swift degree thanks to more than 120 practice attempts in the field over the last 18 months. Beyond this basic repair however, we’re about as useful as British sundials. We look like a head-scratching King Kong and Donkey Kong duo as we figure out a futile plan of attack to mend our girls. So when we were cursed with the aptly named ‘Week of Sumatran Chain Pain’ (which involved a disturbing 19 snapped chains between Jamie and Si within 7 days) we were stumped. No momentum could really be gathered as we attacked the endless northern mountains thanks to constant bike troubles, cueing further primate head-scratching and hopeful bike fiddling. Our daily mileage was significantly reduced from 100km+ a day to around 60km, putting added pressure on our meeting date with my dear mate Chris who was to be arriving on Bali in a few weeks time.
2) The poor timing of our visit to Sumatra
Furthermore, the rainy season had already shifted into fifth gear prior to our arrival, making cycling at times very dangerous on the steep windy roads, with added thanks to reduced visibility, pot-holes-come-ponds and the ridiculous driving standards. We would regularly have to take daytime and evening refuge in the road side huts common across SE Asia which would also give much needed shelter to our non-waterproof £10 Malaysian supermarket tent.
Towards the end of the first week we eventually rolled into the corner of Lake Toba (our reason for visiting Sumatra in the first place following a recommendation in Kuala Lumpur) at sunset, a phenomenal sight to behold and well worth the time and chain pain of getting there. We camped beneath a 120m waterfall and cycled along the hilly lake side the following day, reaching the harbour of Parapat to catch a ferry to the island of Samosir, which sits in the middle of South East Asia’s largest, the Earth’s deepest, and for me the most beautiful lake in the universe - Toba. The quirky village of Tuk Tuk is a focal point for most visitors to Toba, an enchanted place to say the least, encouraged unsurprisingly by a free flowing supply of locally grown and immensely potent magic mushrooms. Never ones to shy away from local delicacies we embraced the mushroom omelettes with all the vigour of Pink Floyd at band practice, and decided to explore the island on foot to find some decent reggae tunes and a cheap Bintang (the local beer). Quite unbelievably a mysterious border collie approached us just as we left our £4 lakeside bungalow and kindly escorted us through the evening wonderland, patiently waiting and wagging whilst we were distracted at every turn by something utterly mind-boggling. Like a hedge, or a wall. Not a word was exchanged between man or beast. yet lo and behold, she led us through the fairytale village and actually into a reggae pub on the other side of the peninsula, going as far as scratching at the bar with her paws in order to get the bar-lady’s attention for us!! Following a heavy patting session, dumbfounded and completely speechless we sat down and watched as she waltzed out of the bar and into the night, no doubt engaging her remarkable telepathic techniques with other foreigners in need of help on their psychedelic quests. What a night! What a dog. Thank you Marlene!
The next week we made our way back down to sea level from Lake Toba towards the western coast, passing through the active shadows of Gunang Pasaman, Merapi and Talang, volcanic peaks which towered above us at nearly 3,000m to our left, and followed the challenging coastal road for 1500km down to the bottom of Sumatra where the pounding surf (which would have most Aussie men twitching with excitement) cast shadows to our right as the sun dipped into the horizon for her evening swim. Respite from the sweaty cycling was momentarily found at the many roadside stalls whose colourful selection of magically fresh donuts, assorted cakey wakey and Indonesian coffee lured us in like nymphs to a Greek vagabond. For lunch and dinner we would feast upon Nasi Goreng’s and Nasi Campur’s, rice dishes ideal for re-energising three hungry cyclists. Despite these rugged expanses of wilderness that seem devoid of human existence on the most part, Indonesia’s status as the fourth most populous country world becomes totally believable when camping on what seems like deserted beaches! Employing the usual Andy McNab tactics of pure stealth and discreetness when selecting and setting up camp never seemed to work in this part of the world. ‘Flies to turd’ you cry? We would regularly have swarms of ‘Ewoks’ up to 50 strong in number crowding around us in disbelief, muttering idle chit chat for hours (just amongst themselves) whilst we revelled in our late afternoon bodysurf / bath and just try to relax after a hard days ride under the equatorial starry nights. They would eventually leave after many (un)subtle hints from the three of us. Regularly though, they’d be ready and waiting for us first thing in the morning! On one occasion I had found a discreet perch to unleash the contents of a firmly upset stomach, only to discover when wiping up one local stood not more than 3 metres behind me viewing the entire act like an episode of Eastenders - mildly entertaining but not quite crap enough to watch anything else.
Having enjoyed a sunrise swim and escaped the watchful eyes of the Ewoks, the relentless search for our favourite breakfast dish in Indonesia - The Lotech - would kick start every morning with more vigour than a childhood Easter egg hunt. Google it. The peanut-sauce alone was enough to draw us in time after time….I’ve just salivated onto my laptop simply entertaining the memory of this dish so we must move swiftly on.
Few places on Earth have had such little luck in terms of natural disasters. Indonesia drew a short straw in terms of its tectonic positioning and has therefore been ravaged by earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and flooding in recent years claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. We passed through the completely rebuilt town of Padang following it’s devastation after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, taking more than 5000 lives there alone. A quite remarkable makeover it has to be said, which stands as testament to the Indonesian’s ability to face their problems positively and move forward, quite incredibly, with smiles on their faces. From Padang we continued south through Bengkulu, Krui and the relentless waving hills of palm oil plantations that spread neatly for hundreds of kilometres, riddled with the cheekiest and loudest of monkeys, and which every so often opened up to provide spectacular views across the Indian Ocean as it barrel rolled onto the empty white sand shoreline. Not another soul in sight bar three tired, hungry, grinning British vagabikers. It’s swim and camp time. Bliss.
We’ve spent three weeks winding our way through this overwhelmingly raw and beautiful island, we’ve seen volcanoes, lakes and beaches, we’ve hung out with weird and wonderful locals from the pot-smoking underground cock fighting Muslims of the south to guitar playing Christian boat captains of the north, we’ve negotiated foot and leg sores that over the last 5 months of wearing only sandals have culminated to a grotesque formation of grade 5 ‘Foot Aids’ - infected puss weeping sores which began as small cuts and bruises, yet with thanks to excessive sweating, humidity, ill equipped first aid kits and complete disregard for cleanliness have been allowed to flourish into the ungodly sights they are today, we’ve also broken through a language barrier which in the most part doesn’t go beyond the words ‘Hey Mister!’ and ‘Who are you from?’ to uncover a race of immensely warm and friendly people who have made our time here so memorable.
Our journey through Indonesia has since continued through Java, Bali, Lombok and the Gilli Islands, adventures we will cover in a later blog post. We touched down in Darwin, Australia last week, marking our 30th country and the final one on our journey to Sydney. With mere pocket change between us that most hobo’s would scoff at, we have been forced to find work here, beginning today on a Mango farm near Katherine, 400km south of Darwin. We’re off in the next hour to try our luck at hitch-hiking, keeping our fingers crossed that we have don’t meet anyone who wants to discuss ‘6 minute Abs’.
Finally, thank you to all who have donated to our charities over the last 18 months or so. We have raised more than £20,000 so far (including gift aid) which is a fantastic achievement, but we still feel there is more where that came from! Please continue to dig deep and to promote the journey to your friends and family (suggesting the facebook fanpage to them is a very good way) and hopefully we can increase this figure even further.
All the best,
Henry & Jamie
Jeremie Blais says
I want to meet "Marlene".
Masterfully written! Very proud of you guys and have fun picking the mangos in Katherine! Hope to see you again soon!
Johnny and Janey B says
Fantastic guys, we are both very proud of what has been accomplished. We have just seen the wonderful donation to Just giving in recognition of your efforts. Look after yourselves and see you in March.
Good to see you're still going. Although I have some troubles with all those crazy words you are using and I have to read some things 3 times before I understand them, it is really entertaining and fun to read. Hope you have a great time in Australia!
Enjoying reading your blog today as I sit out the 39 degree afternoon in a Warnet in Ipuh. We're on the last 2 week leg of our adventure from Chengdu to Jakarta, looking forward (well, not really) to 9 more 100k-plus days of steep up and down through the endless palm oil plantations to Kalianda.
Chris James says
I remember riding on the buses on those roads in Sumatra watching them run anything smaller off the road, glad you made it and enjoyed Danau Toba and the Indonesian people welcomed you. Good luck in Australia
Stacey Ross says
Hi guys, loved the blog entry!!! Marlene and Ewoks what a journey!!!! We're in Brissy so if you ever need a place to stay email us :) good luck with the summer heat in NT and Im so looking forward to the next blog ;) Stacey
Tommy b says
Have u thought about calling yourself Henry Bryson?
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