GALE FORCE WINDS AND TORRENTIAL rain rocked our house all day Friday and into the night, dumping tonnes of sand from the dune over our property like yellow snow.
In between our gritty mop-up operation, we packed a few meagre, but carefully chosen possessions into our old faithful backpack and regretfully left our home to the forces of nature, still mopping as we went. At 3am, dressed ridiculously in tropical weight cotton, we gingerly made our way to Kingsford Smith, dodging fallen trees and flood waters as a state of emergency was declared for the Central Coast and Hunter Valley. Wasn’t the adventure meant to start AFTER we left?
We queued at the check-in counter with a myriad of other sun-lovers, from gem merchants and wizened surfers, to greenhorns who would later be struggling to identify their newly purchased wheelie-bags available from Aldi in one shade of blue.
Later, the party crowd who drank the Garuda bird dry disembarked at Denpasar, and the transition to our travel life felt complete. When we reboarded, WE were the foreigners, and the short flight on to Jakarta took our breath away. As we gained altitude Gunung Agung reared out of the clouds – Gunung Rinjani was visible in the distance, and we flew right over the top of a smoking Gunung Semeru with Bromo off to the north.
SOEKARNO-HATTA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT WAS way out of town amid the paddy fields, and invited us in with lush gardens laid around the boarding gates with kinky-tailed cats prowling through.
It was dark by the time the Damri airport bus dropped us at Gambir in the city centre, but the city felt good and we were at ease as we wandered off, asking directions with our new tongues until we found our way to Jalan Kebon Sirih. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience, and we numbly stumbled into Bloem Steen Guesthouse in a gang off Jalan Jaksa marvelling at how distinctive the smell of Indonesia was – the kretek, the minyak sawit, the sate smoke, the wangi pagi – we couldn’t be anywhere else and I inhaled deeply.
With our clock wound back three hours it was actually quite late, and we had matters to attend to before we could rest. We checked with the hotel boys about how best to reach the bus terminal that we would need the following morning (still wondering if the 50,000 rupiah that they charged us for our shabby room was over the odds), then we headed out on an ATM trawl to find a machine which would give a sum large enough to last us until the next opportunity to cash up. This was no easy task. We tried ten of them before we came up with a jackpot of two and a half million rupiah. We emerged triumphant from a BCA cubicle bathed in a lather of sweat, and were immediately overcome by clouds of smoke issuing from a warung sate – what could we do but wait our turn for our sate kambing to be grilled and wrapped in a take-home bungkus with kecap manis and fluffy white rice. After paying 15,000 rupiah for our meal, we began hastily calculating a budget for our two and a half million as we walked back along Jalan Kebon Sirih, and decided that it should easily last ten days…
Back at home a dousing with cold water completed the day, and we fell onto our bed and into a much needed sleep.
IT WAS MARGINALLY COOLER AT 6am the next morning when we headed off, measuring the active state of our culture shock by the degree of pleasure we derived from simply enjoying a couple of bowls of delicious bubur ayam from a kaki lima down the road.
With our bellies full we were ready for the day, and down on Jalan Thamrin jumped on the TransJakarta busway for a smooth ride to Harmoni, then Kalideres Terminal. I was standing tall, proudly able to reach the ceiling straps like everyone else!
Once there, finding a bus to Merak was a simple matter, and I sat comfortably (Dave less so) as the show began. Vendors adjusted their wares and rehearsed their spiels while minstrels tuned their instruments. Amongst the assorted items thrown into our laps for sale were trigonometry sets, quail eggs, towels, fried tofu, biskuit baru, and donuts with grated cheese, whilst we were being assaulted by the strains of guitar strumming and drum beating musicians crooning love songs. The journey to Merak took three hours through farmland and small towns – all new sights and sounds for us to absorb.
MERAK WAS ON THE EXTREME northwest tip of Java, and the bus deposited us right at the ferry pier. KMP Jatra III was about to sail, and we stood on the deck enjoying the sea breeze while chatting to Yaya, a deckhand who told us all about the disastrous ferry sinking two months previously. He assured us that our boat was seaworthy. A loud blast of the horn put an end to our conversation and as we put to sea we began chatting in English with “Danny”, a law student from Jakarta going to visit his girlfriend in Bandar Lampung.
Halfway across the Sunda Strait to Bakauheni the deck cleared as an on-board muezzin called the faithful to prayer. Most of the second deck was taken up by a cavernous musholla, and loud speakers belted out the call with ear-splitting persistence as we cruised the clear green waters dotted with tiny mangrove isles.
The crossing took three hours, and appropriately the first thing we did in Sumatra was dive into a Padang restaurant for sustenance. All of the buses which met the ferry left without us in a cloud of exhaust fumes as we hungrily tucked into halal fish curry, kangkung belacan, and long beans. We then spent the next hour waiting for an angkot “langsung ke Kalianda” to fill with passengers – we passed the time chatting with Yunus and other ojek drivers, spruikers and engine-starters, before the twelve-seater, jammed with eighteen sweating bodies climbed the hills out of Bakauheni on the scenic hour-long ride to Kalianda.
WE WERE KINDLY DROPPED OFF at Hotel Beringin and stood waving goodbye to the other passengers, who we were by now on intimate terms with. Samsudin met us in the old Dutch villa, looking concerned as he greeted us with “bisa berbahasa Indonesia?”
We splashed out on one of the front rooms for 60,000 rupiah, including a rudimentary breakfast of nasi goreng, and a welcoming glass of kopi asli. After spreading our stuff around the room we went off to explore. Aimlessly wandering we found our way to the small harbour, attracting plenty of attention as we went – the “hello mister” brigade were out in force. Kalianda was a very nice small town with lots of colonial-style houses – high tiled-roof verandas, bougainvillea and orchids, and the smell of fermenting chocolate beans heavy in the air. Although it was late afternoon, there was a lively auction going on at the fish market, and there was no shortage of people to practice our small-talk on – apparently the storms in Sydney were international news. On our way home we bought a bunch of sweet duku and jeruk madu, then a snack of es campur and martabak manis from the kaki lima set up along the main street. The day finished on our own veranda with the hotel’s two other guests, Suyinto and Bagus from Jember in East Java.
The following day was designated for rest. Before breakfast we strolled up to the Pasar Impres to buy some pisang susu from the smiling banana ladies, then went for a walk past the harbour and some bizarre hot springs steaming from rock pools in the shallows of the sea, along the coast to Pantai Guci Batu Kapal, and sat in the shade of the coconut and fig trees looking out across Teluk Lampung to where Krakatau hid in the haze beyond the bamboo fishing platforms.
Our midday siesta included receiving a visitor – Toni from police intelligence checked out our credentials and exchanged pleasantries during a social half hour chit-chat, then we followed his recommendation for lunch at a Padang-style eatery – pure vegetarian this time. Tofu and vegetables, tempe kecap, sambal terong, and steamed kangkung. For company the teachers from the nearby SMP filed in and everyone enjoyed a tasty meal together – our portion cost only 10,000 rupiah.
Gunung Rajabasas’ foothills beckoned for an afternoon stroll which unexpectedly turned into a mountaineering reconnoitre. We walked up through small desa, unintentionally disrupting village life until people began offering interesting tidbits of information. We followed a suggested trail for a while then started asking questions of the farmers as civilisation gave way to jungle. We headed home as dusk approached, changing our plan to move on the next day, and sealed our decision with another martabak manis back in town.
Yet again we fell into bed, this time exhausted from so much greeting, smiling and waving like movie stars – “mau kemana?”, “hello misterrr”, “how are you?”, “I love you”, “what isss your naaame?”.
Keen for an early start the next morning, we were on the trail by 6:30am – our bag full of water, our stomachs full of nasi goreng, and our nervous systems jittering from two tall glasses of sweet coffee. After just thirty minutes we had reached the point of the previous days exploration, a natural clearing of sulphur rocks and a rumbling fumerole, and from that point on the trail became smaller and smaller. We walked on through a combination of jungle and small plantations of banana, cocoa, and then coffee. After each garden the trail became less distinct, and under our feet was a wild assortment of creatures like giant snails and shovel-headed nematodes. In the trees cicadas droned, and as the gardens gave way to primary jungle gibbons hooted their echoing cries all around us. The climb began in earnest as the last of the robusta trees petered out, and the trail became clearer under the darkness of the forest canopy. By now we were totally soaked – our shoes and legs from the moistness of the forest, and our shirts from dripping sweat. The final push to the top of the mountain was steep, and we were rewarded with an easy walk around the narrow crater rim to the summit of Gunung Rajabasa at 1281 metres. It was 9:30am, there was no cloud obscuring the view, and it was noticeably cooler than at sea level. We could see the harbour way below, and Kalianda town, and beaches along the coast stretching away to the Bukit Barisan range jutting out at the far end of the bay.
We rested for an hour or so before tackling the descent which was technically more difficult than the climb, but with its own pleasures. Soon our legs turned to jelly as we struggled to find purchase on the steep tumble down. I moved like Bruce Lee performing a movie-length sequence of kung-fu, complete with sound effects, but somewhat less elegant. The midday heat brought out all different smells in the forest – as we got lower the perfume of coffee flowers filled the air, and when we reached the villages they had brought out their produce to dry in the sun – cocoa beans fermented, coffee beans were hulled by the passing motorcycles, and cloves overpowered our noses. A wedding reception which had previously been in preparation was in full swing and I snapped a portrait of the happy couple dancing on stage to live dangdut music.
It was 2:30pm by the time we fell into our lunch venue for some ikan berlada, vegetables with bean thread and some spicy petai beans which made our breath smell – as promised. We also stopped for a refreshing es cendol on the way home, but we were absolutely exhausted and I fell into bed with a medicinal bottle of electrolyte solution and slept through to sunrise the next day.
FAREWELLING SAMSUDIN, WE FOLLOWED HIS instructions and headed for the highway, stopping at a police booth along the way for further directions. Constables Rizal and Effendi were most helpful, sitting us down for a chat and supplying us with maps of Sumatra and Java to help us on our way.
Out on the highway a bus came along soon enough, and we were swept on board for a two hour ride to Bandar Lampung. The conductor was friendly, and helped us to consider our options for our onward journey to Danau Ranau, enlisting the help of the other passengers. At the bus terminal things were a little confusing, with competing bus companies unwilling to give out practical information, but we ended up on a bus to Liwa which left at 11am – better than the 1pm option to Banding Agung.
It was a long and uncomfortable ride, we sat in the blazing heat, and the relay team of chain smokers surrounding us had us gasping for air. Everyone was friendly though, and newcomers were filled in on our particulars by the other passengers – topics of discussion included where we were going, why our two invented children were in Australia with their granny, and even what we had recently eaten, right down to the detail of me not being able to get the sambal out of the bottle for my bakso at lunchtime! By the time we were in Liwa darkness was falling and we’d had so much of buses for the day that we decided to find a penginapan and stay the night.
HOTEL JEMBAR MANAH WAS A barely disguised brothel, but it was clean and comfortable, and we went to bed without even bothering to eat, sleeping through again until dawn. As we headed out in the morning the mountain air was decidedly cooler. We ate a hearty breakfast of nasi uduk (rice with fried pempek, tempe, krupuk, an egg and sambal), then jumped onto an angkot heading toward our destination.
After an hour we were in Kotabatu, and there we changed to another angkot and waited some time, enjoying a conversation with ‘Maradona’, who told us all about the locale. This next ride was beautiful, Danau Ranau came into view and Gunung Seminung towered above us as we skirted the shore, the slopes terraced with paddy fields.
In Simpang Sender we waited again, this time even longer as few people wanted to go to Banding Agung. We whiled away the time getting to know the driver, Iwan, who had a good sense of humour, and once we got going had everyone laughing along, “orang Indonesia namanya ‘Sumanto’ makan manusia!“. It was 11 o’clock before we finally reached Banding Agung on the shore of Danau Ranau – just over four hours to cover fifty kilometres…
BANDING AGUNG WAS A LARGE village, and once we’d gotten our bearings we found Hotel Batu Mega – the decision to stay was easy. Our host was Armando, a retired policeman who served in Palembang, and we sat together on the veranda overlooking the lake for a glass of kopi manis and a two hour chat, our language confidence was increasing and serving us well that we could enjoy conversation with such nice people. We, in turn, obviously provided some respite to the daily routine – his ten year old grandson was happy to have us around (he even kissed our hands before going to the mosque), but the younger sibling was very afraid, crying in fear if he had to walk past us! Apparently foreign tourists were a rarity, generally only appearing once every three or four months, so in the village we attracted much attention. In fact, since we had left the guesthouse in Jakarta we hadn’t actually sighted another foreigner.
The next day and a half was just for relaxing. We strolled along the lake edge and sat by the shore catching the breeze and taking in the scenery – mountains and paddy fields, coconut trees and fishermen in in tiny canoes.
Culinarily, the village wasn’t very exciting. We ate good lunches of local fish and ubi leaves at Rumah Makan Riah Indah, but the nasi uduk was greasy, and the soto ayam left a lot to be desired. We did get a gargantuan sweet papaya, however, from our favourite ladies in the market for only 2000 rupiah.
In the evenings we sat on the veranda with Armando, and it rained all afternoon on the second day, making the air fresh and clean for our departure the next morning.
Armando kindly did a transportation scout for us and found that the regular buses weren’t running, so we had to do the angkot relay back to Liwa. Connections were much better though, getting us there in just two and a half hours, the final ride on a mobile ‘diskotek’ driven by a fifteen year old.
In Liwa we were dismayed to find our onward transport to Krui was another angkot. We squeezed in with sixteen other bodies for the thirty kilometre trip down to the coast along a road which was being consumed by jungle, a lady at the back discreetly filled a plastic bag with vomit, and the old bapak next to me yielded to the popular consensus that he not light the kretek in his trembling fingers. Indonesian heavy metal music vibrated the vehicle so much that the bags kept falling off the roof. We were glad to arrive in Krui.
IT TOOK US A FEW MINUTES to find our bearings, but we eventually stumbled into Hotel Sempana Lima – deceptively quiet by day…
The friendly reception clerk, Man, settled us into a room then we headed straight for Rumah Makan Haji Abu Sutarno, right across the road. Pak Haji and his team loaded our table with stir-fried beans, tempe goreng kecap, salad, sambal and ikan bakar served with peanut sauce. We ate until our eyes bulged for a mere 22,000 rupiah. As we dined, the first foreigner that we’d spotted in a week walked by looking absurd a Hawaiian shirt and a conical hat. This would be our neighbourhood for the next few days, and better accommodation options might have seen us stay for a month.
Krui was set in a spectacular location. The little headland at the far end of town separated two magnificent beaches, one with white sand, Labuhan Jukang, and the other black, Selalau. Deep blue waves rolled in behind the reef which protected the shore, and jungle-clad mountains rose up right behind the coconut trees.
We went beachcombing amongst the coral, sea urchin and cowrie shells, swimming in the aquamarine shallows, and spent long hours lazing by the water which lapped beneath the shade trees.
The odd Australian surfer could be seen riding the waves on Labuhan Jukang, and the little harbour on Selalau was where the local fishermen brought in their catch. Again the fruit market was disappointing, with only bananas, mandarins and watermelon for sale alongside the swordfish and turtle eggs.
It usually rained in the evenings, and on our last day it rained all night which meant a blissful nights sleep. A power outage forced the DVD shop next door to close early, and it was too wet for the souped-up scooters to roar up and down the main street. There were no other guests loudly guzzling ‘Red Bull’ outside our room, and I even slept through the mosques 4:30am wake-up call!
Unfortunately the heavy rainfall was also the probable cause or our late departure for Bengkulu in the morning. As instructed, we were waiting at the Krui-Putra loket at 7am, but the hard reality was that our bus, which had begun its journey in Jakarta, finally pulled out of town at 11:30am. Not such a good start to a ten hour trip. We messaged Yohanna, our Couchsurfing host waiting in Bengkulu, the bad news.
The journey itself was good. In the first few hours we realised just how truly remote Krui was. There was nothing but jungle punctuated with occasional rice fields nestled idyllically into seaside coves. As we travelled north, painfully slowly, there were more and more villages and then some small towns until after three hundred kilometres or so, Bengkulu appeared out of the darkness.
IT WAS 9:30PM, AND YOHANNA was miraculously there, like an angel, as we climbed off the bus in a cigarette-induced stupor. Our legs wobbled and our heads spun for the next few hours as we cleared the smoke from our lungs and were swept into the care of Yohanna’s family. She and her brother Robbi drove us in their old Suzuki van held together with duct tape to their home, just away from the city centre in the university enclave.
At home we met Yohanna’s five children, Viki, Moni, Rena, Laura and Kas, her mother and Mudin’s brother Karlos and sister Rita. The language medium was bahasa – no-one even cared to practice their English with us, though Yohanna tried sometimes! Mudin, her husband, was in Perth on a six month scholarship, so unfortunately we didn’t get to meet him.
After a twenty-four hour fast I couldn’t resist the meal of sayur, soto and ayam goreng which was kindly laid out for us by Ibu, then a mandi sluice helped to humanise us a bit before bed.
We slept like logs until 4:30am when the mosque across the lane blasted us into the new day. Ibu had lovingly prepared a two course breakfast of tea and cake, then rice, vegetables and chicken curry, so we were well-fortified for our morning of sight-seeing. Together with Yohanna, Robbi, Viki, Laura and Kas we drove to the city beach, Pantai Panjang, then to Benteng Marlborough, the old Dutch fort on the promontory north of the city centre. Foreigners were enough of a novelty that we spent most of our time there pressing the flesh and having our hands kissed in between photo opportunities.
In the city we re-stocked at a pharmacy and an ATM without too much fuss, and went for a poke around the Pasar Minggu where we bought papaya, pineapple, and some kangkung for my humble contribution to the evening meal.
Back at home Ibu had spent the entire morning cooking a fabulous lunch of vegetables, fried fish and beef rendang. And in the afternoon we all went to sit by Danau Dendam sipping es kelapa in the shade.
That night Ibu reluctantly allowed me into the kitchen, and under my instruction we cooked together a Malay kangkung belacan to go with the feast that she had already prepared – everything was delicious!
Our plans to move on the next day were met with such disapproval by the entire family that we were forced to make some changes and decided to stay another day, as outside the front door grew a crowd of neighbourhood children wanting to see if the legend of the two ‘misters’ was true!
All of the children were great fun, and their initial shyness dissolved quickly as they got to know us. In the morning Dave was out in the street like the Pied Piper, playing badminton surrounded by dozens of kids and the neighbourhood paparazzi, all with sad faces when it was time for us to go sight-seeing again.
We went to the old English cemetery for some three hundred year old nostalgia, then to Sukarno’s house of exile, a beautiful villa filled with some of the father-of-the-nation’s possessions. I looked at my reflection in Bung’s mirror, and Yohanna spoiled us with tasty trinkets.
When it came time to check out the bus offices for our onward transport even five year old Laura became upset, and Yohanna implored us to stay longer – they made us feel so welcome in their home that we couldn’t resist.
That didn’t mean that our daily programme became any less busy though, and we saw much of Bengkulu and it’s environs. We went to Pantai Panjang and Jakat to frolic in the shallows, the girls fully clothed, squealing in Dave’s ears as they enjoyed the surf which was usually forbidden to them. We all played together in a games arcade. We went to the harbour of Pulau Baai, and the forest of Hutan Raya. We met some of Mudin’s brothers, including jovial Bilman, who offered good sight-seeing tips. At home we played cards and Scrabble, and tried all of the delicious offerings that Ibu prepared – her perkedel, pecel terong and tempe goreng were particularly good. We made our contributions to the larder in fruit and treats for the kids, who loved to come for a ‘jalan-jalan’, which meant a lap around the block and a visit to the shop. Dave and Robbi spent their spare time fussing over the computer, even going on a shopping sortie on the motorbike for gadget supplies.
The enjoyment everyone gained from our cultural exchange was immeasurable. The entire neighbourhood seemed to love having a couple of ‘misters’ around, and when it finally came time to say our farewells everyone was sad – even three year old Kas gave us a kiss goodbye, and bottom lips were trembling at the bus stop as our bus to Muko Muko drove away…
Safa Marwa was our bus company of choice after carefully checking our limited options, and the journey north was good, but again much longer than anticipated.
We had randomly chosen Muko Muko as our target after studying our map and deciding that it was about a third of the way to Padang. We travelled for the promised six hours by the coast through rubber and palm oil plantations, then naively began looking out the window for our destination – for three hours…
MUKO MUKO WAS A SMALL TOWN, but it sprawled for about eight kilometres along a casaurina-lined beach, making finding a place to spent the night fraught with difficulty. Our eyes were peeled as we screamed through town at a speed previously unattainable on the entire journey. But we luckily spotted a sign for the ‘Hotel Ratu Thursina’, and brought the bus to a gravel crunching halt next to a little marker indicating that we were actually four kilometres past the township, and that we had travelled 270 kilometres – more than half way to Padang!
The lovely ladies at the hotel, looking fairly stunned by our arrival, found us a room, and once settled we headed out on a much needed walk. Their wasn’t much choice about direction, and we wandered back toward what was supposedly the town, waving and greeting the cheering locals like celebrities.
At the market place we happily bought a long string of sweet markisa, and a bag of salak which came with free information and advice about how we might get out of Muko Muko in the morning. We even ran into Yeni, the local English teacher, whose good work was evident from the many attempted greetings in English which we received.
A priceless moment came when a tiny little boy with a smile like a split watermelon approached us with his hand extended in readiness for ‘bersalam‘ – after our conversation he returned to his mum and dad jumping up and down with excitement, and I marvelled at how small things like that are the real pleasure of travel…
On the way back we ate an excellent meal of sate ayam with peanut sauce, lontong, and cucumber and chilli asam manis, smoked to perfection by a lovable family in a small warung.
We went to bed wondering where we might end up the next night… and woke up wondering whether or not there would be bed bugs there…
My face was swollen with bites as the day dawned, and we optimistically stepped out for an early start. The hotel ladies made us conciliatory glass of tea, and we waited outside the shop across the road eating roti coklat until an angkot came by on its way to Silaut – only thirty kilometres down the road, but at just 7am, a good omen.
We jumped into the windowless pick-up and perched ourselves on a wooden board as we waved goodbye to the children from our hotel.
It was just after 8am when we reached the village of Silaut, and we had no sooner extracted ourselves from the angkot when a trapel appeared out of nowhere offering us the dream connection all the way to Padang! The driver even asked the correct fare without negotiation for a fast six hour trip in an air-conditioned Isusu Panther. It was our lucky day.
We squeezed into the back seat with Syanti and her twins. Pointing to the one asleep in Dave’s lap she ominously warned “nanti mabuk”. Thankfully they managed to keep everything down, although the one named Dede kept making little noises like a brain fever bird.
The road north was scenic, the mountains of the great Kerinci-Seblat National Park rose to the east, so we had our first glimpse of Gunung Kerinci as we whizzed along, dodging potholes, chickens and cows. Further on we passed backwaters lined with nipa and coconut palms, and beautiful seascapes of sandy beaches between rocky headlands.
We stopped for lunch at Painan in a breezy restaurant built on stilts out over the water. And we really were in Padang after just six hours, AND we were dropped off right in the centre of the West Sumatran capital.
OUR HOTEL OF CHOICE DIDN’T have any vacant rooms, so we ended up at Hotel Benyamin in a room overlooking (and overhearing) the fruit and vegetable market of the Pasar Raya.
Padang was a great city and we liked it immediately – it had wide leafy streets, Chinese shopfronts along narrow lanes, and a bustling shopping district, all just a few breaths apart. I sipped an icy avocado juice smeared with chocolate sauce, and we strolled along the riverfront to a conspicuous Chinese temple – there we ran into a foreigner (the first we had seen in a week) with what we diagnosed to be an untreatable case of “traveller solipsism”. In the vicinity of the Pasar Raya we shopped for essentials (Pepsodent) and non-essentials (maratabak kandung), and at the Rumah Makan Kantini we ate what was truly the best rendang sapi, cooked until it was almost black.
We were rudely awoken at 5am the next morning by the sounds of the Pasar Raya coming to life around us. After shouting our mornig greetings to each other, we stood on our balcony sipping teh manis and watching the activity. The coconut depot was all action, unloading, smashing and grinding.
Out on the street at the far end of the market we found a warung for a leisurely breakfast, sitting for an hour or more with Edi and the other customers eating delicious lontong gulai nangka and teh telur, a frothy concoction of raw meringue and tea, sweet and strong enough to make our teeth curl. Edi even invited me to join in the production, and under his careful guidance I whisked up my very own Minang speciality to everyone’s satisfaction.
Down to business we wandered into the Garuda office and lengthened our trip by a week, then packed our things and launched ourselves into the traffic maelstrom. The city buses were like nothing else, all decorated and painted to the extreme with colourful cartoon characters. We jumped on one emblazoned with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, boasting “full music” and whirring klaxon. Stuffed ‘Taz’ devils festooned the bright pink interior as the conductor screamed instruction to the driver who was busy dodging souped-up angkots and horse-drawn bendi wearing big red pom-poms on their foreheads. Along the way a van pulled out beside us with the driver carefully strapped in with the seatbelt around only his neck – it might have been amusing if it weren’t for the doubtfulness of his future.
Following our hoteliers careful instruction, we were set down at Minang Plaza where a gaggle of trapels were waiting for passengers to Bukittinggi. The two hour ride up to the hill town was beautiful. The road led toward impressive-looking volcanoes, then climbed through the valleys between them following a rushing stream and thick forest to 930 metres above sea level.
THE AIR FELT REFRESHINGLY COOL, even at midday, compared to Padang, and we happily strolled along Jalan Yos Sudarso looking for suitable lodging. D’Enam Homestay fit the bill, our 30,000 rupiah room had a fabulous view of both Gunung Merapi and Gunung Singgalang, each soaring up 2900 metres behind the town.
The next thing to do was to find lunch, so we headed straight for the Pasar Atas. There we found a rumah makan serving nasi kapau, regional specialities spooned from gigantic dishes with a metre-long ladle. We tried the temusu (cow intestine stuffed with spicy egg), sayur kapau (curry of young jackfruit, yam and green onions), and dendeng (crispy dried beef).
A prowl around the market turned up all kinds of exotica, like dried eels and durian-flavoured condoms – I bought a kocok, the egg whisk necessary for producing teh telur, 9000 rupiah for this instrument.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon mooching around the Benteng De Kock, we cooled off reclining next to an old cannon beneath the pine trees after a brief look around the depressing zoo. The pitiful sight of a crocodile buried in a pile of rubbish was too much to bear, and a young rascal copped the full force of my disgust when he purposefully approached the hapless animal and hurled a plastic water bomb at it.
For dinner we went snack-tracking at the night market, and munched on some ubi goreng then rojak from a kaki lima cart. We had to wait until Siap finished his evening prayers at the nearby mosque before he pounded out his sticky version of fruit salad with spicy peanut and palm sugar sauce. The evenings were quite cool in Bukittinggi, and the cold mandi sent a few shivers down our spines.
We didn’t get much sleep that night. No sooner had we turned out the light than the attack of the bed bugs began. Per usual Dave slept soundly as the first of the nocturnal scourge began their meal. The surprise of the light bulb revealed voracious monsters even visible climbing the walls! I didn’t stand a chance against them. So at midnight we were busy re-settling in the next room, while Siman, our kindly hotelier, fumigated the room, sending the blood-suckers to Mortein hell. At 4:30am the call from the mosque continued for one and a half hours with maniacal rantings about jihad and holiness.
In the morning the breakfast hunt was easy. Lontong with vegetable curry was obviously popular in the land of the Minang people, and our gulai contained beans, choko, nangka, and poached egg whites. We burned it off on a walk through the Sianok Canyon to Koto Gadang and across the rice fields to Koto Tuo. On the way back we re-fuelled on kampiun, a campur of red and green mung beans, sticky rice cake, rice flour balls, sweet palm sugar syrup and salty coconut milk. This comfort food put us in the mood for a lazy afternoon, so we sat and chatted, poked around the market and went snack-tracking again. We ate pisang goreng and spicy tahu Semudang, es pokat and sate kambing Padang with a spicy thick yellow sauce spooned from a bubbling cauldron.
We watched Gunung Merapi belch out a cloud of smoke, and learned that it was presently too active to climb and rain could mean an earthquake. We sat in the park beneath the clock tower creating endless photo opportunities for local holiday makers and students, we sat complacently like a pair of trained orangutans, smiling obediently and holding babies!
The next morning was Wednesday – market day, although it didn’t really seem any busier than the other days. Our business was in the Pasar Bawah, and we shopped for fruits until we could carry no more. For 18,000 rupiah ($2.20) we came away with a huge bunch of bananas, a pineapple, a papaya, and half a kilo each of jeruk, mangosteens, and sawu. Our only other task for the day was to find out about transport to our next destination, and this filled the time between meals for the rest of the day. There was an expedition to the bus terminal, then Dave and the tourist information officer went off on a motorcycle to Jambu Air.
Back in the market we found a whole pavilion of ladies serving nasi kapau and we sat with other appreciative diners around a stage set with buckets of curry and a lady dexterously ladling indiscriminately. The itik hitam (black rendang of duck) was exceptional.
At the ‘Wartel’ we tried phoning around for more transport information without any success, then returned to the pasar to make a decision over a couple of bowls of dadiah campur (flaked rice topped with creamy buffalo yoghurt, shredded coconut, shaved ice and palm sugar syrup).
The buffalo yoghurt was so good that we sought it out in the market before we left the next morning. It was a difficult search, but we emerged triumphant with a bamboo tube full of kerbau dadiah so thick that we could stand it upside down. Back at home we mixed it with sweet markisa, bananas and sawu for a morning snack before heading to the bus terminal.
Yet again the only bus that we had to choose from left frustratingly late. It was midday when a madman climbed behind the wheel of our twelve-seater and we finally pulled out of Bukittinggi on the seven hour ride to Kerinci.
Now we headed southward following a wide valley down to Danau Singkarak and along its picturesque shores, then through earthquake-ravaged Solok and up into the mountains. We stopped at a roadside restaurant named Pondok Solero for a serendipitously great meal of steamed gai lan, ikan bakar grilled in a vibrant orange paste, and eggplant in an oily sauce of crushed green chilli and green onions.
Paddy fields soon made way for tea and vegetable gardens, and the road climbed, becoming less trafficked and the rivers clearer.
THE VILLAGE OF KERSIK TUO MATERIALISED sooner than expected. It sat on the lower slope of Gunung Kerinci, which soared into the clouds behind the tea plantations. We had to remind our driver that Kersik Tuo was our stop, and after consultation with the other passengers, he put us down at a likely homestay.
It was just on dusk and we wandered along the main road until we found Binardus Darmins Homestay. Binardus and his family made us feel welcome, he lit candles and fed us kerupuk kentang and tea as we got settled and braced ourselves for a high altitude icy cold mandi – it was just do-able.
Binardus age was indeterminable (even by himself), but he was somewhere in his eighties, and his lack of teeth testified to his vintage. We slept well in our king-sized bed, despite our giggling neighbours, Sarah and Sandra, and woke in the morning requiring our sweaters when we stepped out onto the balcony to admire the uninterrupted view of the mountain.
We allocated the day for reconnoitre and preparation for the big climb, and began by scouting out the trail head. The mountain looked deceptively close, but it took us an hour to walk across through the tea plantations and chilli gardens to the forest gate, where we met some hikers from Sungai Penuh, and gleaned plenty of of unbiased information from their guide.
We followed the trail into the jungle for half an hour or so until we were satisfied that it was clear enough for us to follow on our own, then ambled back for lunch prepared by Ibu Darmin (fish curry, ikan goreng, sayur santan and telur kentang berlado).
In the market we stocked up on fruit, water, biscuits and likely snacks, then went in search of a tent for hire. What we found was of dubious waterproofness due to numerous cigarette burns, but the sleeping bags claimed to be suitable to -4 degrees.
Back at home we had a new neighbour, Kori, from Surabaya. He was collecting beetles, and showed us the impressive collection of mandibled giants that he’d found around Curup. And Dave successfully repelled a hopeful guide who delivered his spiel through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke.
In the morning Ibu was up before us, preparing our rations for the hike. She made nasi goreng for a fortifying start to our day, and nasi bungkus to take along as a reward for our climb (though it weighed more than anything else in my bag, it acted as a punishment during the climb).
Kersik Tuo was at 1500 metres altitude, and re-tracing our steps from the previous day, we climbed gently to the Pintu Rimba where the jungle of the national park abruptly stood like a wall of nature. To step into it felt like Alice in Wonderland – it was a different world. Birds flittered, hornbill flew above us sounding like light aircraft, siamang apes hooted all around us, and golden leaf monkeys swung through the forest canopy over our heads.
Pressing on, we climbed through cloud forest dripping with mosses and lichens, and the cloud closed in, swirling around the slopes. Then there were patches of dwarf bamboo in bright green swathes across the mountainside. The trail was mostly steep and deeply rutted for the last three hours, some of the steps up were taller than Dave, and heaving ourselves, fully laden with packs, up by the trees was physically demanding.
Finally we emerged into montane forest, where ‘Shelter II’ was hunkered into the mountainside for our camping convenience. Shelter II was at 3000 metres, and it had taken a total of six hours for us to reach it. It was busy at the small campsite, and tents had to be shuffled to make room for us. There was the group of seven from Sungai Penuh whom we’d met the day before, six local Kayu Aro boys led by their amiable spokesman Romi who had just arrived ahead of us, and a nice couple from Surakarta. The group from Padang were stranded at ‘Shelter I’ after running out of water. Everybody introduced themselves, the local boys pulled out prayer mats and prayed loudly, the group from Sungai Penuh made a fire and threw rubbish everywhere, and we ravenously ate our rice parcels lovingly packed with kentang berlada and spicy chicken.
In the evening we all sat around the viewpoint. The boys prayed again, and we all choked on the sulphurous gases which we could see escaping from the crater 800 metres above us. We all watched the full moon rise, and the stars twinkle as the sun set behind the sea of clouds below us, then it was too cold for anything but retiring to the relative warmth of our tent.
Temperature-wise we spent a comfortable night, there was no wind and the mountain enveloped us in silence. When we unzipped in the morning, we were surprised not to need all the clothing that we’d brought along. We set off for the summit at 6am, and after an hour or so of fairly athletic climbing through sub-alpine vegetation, Romi and two of the other boys had chased us down. We climbed together for a while, another half hour to the tree line, then a one hour scramble up scree slopes to the peak, all the while panting and gasping for oxygen in the thin sulphurous air.
The first sight of the bald volcanic cone in front of us, as we emerged from the trees, was overwhelming. The slope which we were set to scale, looked impossibly steep, with a massive gully crumbling away to the west. The boys looked terrified, whispering “berbahaya” to one another. It was so emotive that I felt close to tears.
We left the lads behind at the gravestones just below the final push to the highest peak. In the end, the sixteen year olds couldn’t keep up with two forty year old “misters”!
The final step onto the summit at 3805 metres was stupendous. Falling away on the other side of the three metre wide ridge which we stood on, was the crater of the volcano. The thin and fragile-looking rim measured about 500 metres across, and a breathtaking 600 metres deep. A careful peak over the edge revealed an enormous fumerole belching smoke from the bottom of the sheer-sided caldera. It was sensational.
With this at our feet, we took in the rest of the view. It was a clear morning and to the west the coast was visible fifty kilometres away. To the north and south stretched the Kerinci-Seblat National Park, with other tall mountains ringed by cloud. To the east we could see Danau Gunung Tujuh, the highest crater lake in South East Asia, way below us, its blue water spilling out from between two of the seven surrounding mountains. Directly below us was Kersik Tuo, and tea plantations stretching up the valleys dotted with other villages. With our binoculars we could even make out Bindarus Homestay and parts of the sixteen kilometre route which we had taken to make the climb. We stood in awe for half an hour.
Getting down from the highest peak in Sumatra was more arduous than the ascent. We picked or way down the tumulous passing the three other Kayu Aro boys still making the ascent, then foot-surfed down the scree, one step sometimes taking us ten paces.
Back in the forest, we swung down through the tree branches over the gigantic steps, and even with this apparent speed it still took a full two hours to reach our campsite.
We packed quickly and continued on our way, my legs becoming more and more like jelly as we descended. We passed six Indonesian hikers on their way up, and spotted some good-looking birds (white headed munia, rufous vented niltava, emerald dove and blue rock thrush), and most excitingly, a siamang ape for the first time ever when we reached the rainforest in the foothills.
By the time we stepped out of the looking glass and into the chilli gardens, the mountain had disappeared behind a veil of raincloud, and my legs wobbled like a disabled marathon runner. We sipped our last precious drops of water at the Pintu Rimba, then walked back painfully with the farmers and tea-pluckers going home for the day, some on cow carts, some on motorcycles loaded to the gills with produce, cow feed and pillion passengers somehow balanced precariously on top.
It took a full six hours from the campsite to reach the loving arms of Bindarus and Ibu, waiting for us at the front door. Even in our desperate need, the mandi was still alarmingly cold, but Ibu’s food tasted even better after a day of eating only “biskuat” and dry crackers. We hungrily ate our sayur soto, ayam goreng and tempe sambalan, and were feeling great as we told them about our adventure.
We slept like logs on our king-sized bed, and woke in the morning barely able to move a muscle. My eyelids were the only part of me that didn’t hurt as we struggled down the stairs to do battle with our laundry, which was able to walk itself down the stairs.
Aside from the laundry and a disappointing stroll to the market to discover that only Friday was market day, we did nothing but wallow in our pain. We sat on the front balcony looking at the mountain with more wisdom and respect. We watched smoke puff from the crater and traced our route with our binoculars. Ibu made another great lunch, and in the evening we snacked on a martabak mesir before a French couple, Christine and Patrick, and their guide Ali arrived from Meninjau.
It was shocking to wake the next morning still in muscular agony. We winced each time we climbed up and down the stairs, and using the squat toilet was excruciating. We were forced to dedicate another day to rest, and spent several hours hobbling around the tea plantation. We chatted to the pluckers and the foremen, picked a few pekoe tips and watched them weigh out their leaves.
The next day our legs finally began to loosen up, but we regretfully cancelled our planned assault on Danau Gunung Tujuh due to grave doubts about the ability of our downhill trotters. So we bid fond farewells to our gracious hosts who had looked after us with such kindness. It was a homestay in the true sense of the word – we ate in their kitchen, watched television together in their living room, and bathed in their own icy mandi.
Binardus waited for the bus with us out the front, explaining the virtues of climbing to Danau Gunung Tujuh BEFORE tackling Gunung Kerinci, before an angkot swept us off to Sungai Penuh.
IT WAS A PLEASANT TWO HOUR drive past tea estates and plantation houses, downhill all the way to Sungai Penuh. Binardus had instructed the driver to take us to Hotel Matahari, so we were transported door to door for the correct 700 rupiah fare.
There, Yani found us a room with a view in the rambling colonial-style hotel then, fruit starved, we headed straight for the market. The pasar spilled onto the streets around the bus terminal, so we gathered transport information (however inaccurate) and fruits at the same time. As well as mangosteens and papaya, we found local kopi asli and teh istimewa from the Kaya Aro plantation now close to our hearts.
In the afternoon, after some nasi soto, we explored further, finding our way to the Chinese cemetery on an auspicious hillside and, sitting under the pine trees, enjoyed great views over town to the rice fields, surrounding mountains and Danau Kerinci in the distance. All different styles of mosques popped up above the rooftops, including a beautiful two hundred year old wooden structure in Pondok Tinggi.
Twice that afternoon we ran into Eki, one of the group that we’d spent the night with at ‘Shelter II’ on the mountaintop! There is something pleasantly bizarre about hearing ones own name called in a remote town which one has never visited before in a far off land…
In the evening we checked out the warungs in the night market, and filled our bellies with the standards of sate and martabak manis.
Masjid Baiturrahman woke us at 4:30am with an hour and a half of monotonous ramblings, at a volume set to wake the dead. When peace was finally restored, it was time to get up. The stairs and the toilet were still a little painful to negotiate as we got ready and headed off for the bus stand. We had a good breakfast of lontong sayur before the inevitable long wait for a minibus to depart.
7am wore on to 8 o’clock as we drove around collecting disinterested passengers. There was a reasonable load of thirteen when we left, not including the box of squawking chickens squeezed in next to us. The young punks in the back seat behind us were all puffing on ‘Niko’ cigarettes, to be just like the fighter pilots on the glamorous billboards, but were chucking their guts up at the first sight of a bend in the mountain road.
It was a beautiful drive following the river which spilled from Danau Kerinci down to the lowlands. Wooden water wheels lazily irrigated the rice padi, and we passed through market villages prospering in the trade of coffee and cassia. The smell of cinnamon filled the air.
HOWEVER, THE PROMISED FOUR HOURS to Bangko was labouriously padded out to seven. At 2pm we began a grand tour of Bangko as the driver decided what to do with us. The obvious option of simply taking us to the bus terminal was foiled by the fact that it was defunct, so we were eventually deposited on the side of the Trans-Sumatran Highway with the objective of flagging down a passing southbound bus. This proved to be a depressing and fruitless occupation, and after an hour or so we gave up, and looked for a place to spend the night instead.
Hotel Bukit Indah was just down the road, and even though it looked flashy, their ‘melati’ rooms were good value at just 55,000 rupiah. Hot and bothered we enjoyed a cool mandi, then went to find food. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so by the time we walked into a rumah makan Padang at 5pm, we were ready to eat whatever they put in front of us. We each devoured two plates of rice with our steamed sweet potato leaves, jackfruit curry, tahu tempe goreng and fish curry with roe – and we still had room for an icy cendol afterwards!
Even though we both had to squeeze into a single bed to make use of the fan, we slept well. The other hotel patrons were quiet, there was no mosque within earshot (!!) and there was also the peace of mind that we had chosen the right hotel – Penginapan Setia Jaya, a couple of doors down was damaged during the afternoon when a wall of mud and concrete fell onto it from the construction site next door.
Jeki, the sweet hotel clerk, was no help with transport advice, so we simply wandered down the highway until we found a suitable vantage point to wait for passing vehicles. We got lucky, and were on our way by 7 o’clock, but the Jakarta bound bus en route from Medan stunk like a travellers dormitory when we climbed on board, and we paid dearly for air-conditioning not up to the task, a toilet which only served as a storage cubicle, and a cavity for a television used to stow the drivers luggage. We were gouged for 100,000 rupiah each to sit on plastic stools in the aisle with other unfortunates. It was transport hell, and no-one even cracked a smile except Atanuri, a nice bloke from Medan wearing a white peci and a green jalabiya.
The Trans-Sumatran Highway was a narrow strip of relatively pothole-free bitumen. Looking toward the front window was a bit like watching someone (the driver) play a computer game with point-scoring obstacles suddenly appearing from the peripheries. He scored well with the mosque charity collectors and small children, but lost points to a hapless cow.
Different reports had estimated the journey to Lahat to take between five and seven hours. It took nine and a half. We made good time to Lubuklinggau, two hundred kilometres in just three and a half hours, but it took another five and a half hours to cover the next two hundred kilometres. The road deteriorated somewhat, and there was a broken bridge which could only bear five tonne. Our only concession to this problem was for the passengers to walk across – and we certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. Then even when we finally ALMOST arrived in Lahat, the driver stopped and declared a meal break just five kilometres short of town!
We walked until an angkot picked us up, then waited while he later loaded a broken lounge suit in with us. When we finally reached Lahat it was 5pm and our plans to continue on to Pagaralam were long forgotten.
WE WANDERED ALONG JALAN MAYOR RUSLAN until we found a vacant room in Hotel Nusantara, and effected our post bus-trauma routine. First a cool mandi then food. The sate ayam just across the road was excellent, served with lontong, cucumber relish, es jeruk and a big smile! We then went for a leg-stretching stroll around town, and found it to be a nice place with a very friendly population. A night market sprung to life on the main drag, and coffee beans were loaded by coolies from go-downs everywhere.
The sixty kilometre ride to Pagaralam the next morning was beautiful. We walked down the main street to the turn-off, and there were enough other interested parties waiting to convince a passing minivan to become an impromptu angkot. Everyone was impressed by the horn, which at the press of a button could sound like a cow mooing, a dog barking or, best of all, a horse neighing. We sped into the Besemah Highlands sounding like the cavalry. The coffee trees were all in flower and the perfume was so strong that it almost overpowered the kretek smoke inside the vehicle, which was thick enough to render the passengers invisible to one another.
AFTER SUCH A PRETTY TWO HOUR drive, Pagaralam came as a huge disappointment. The town itself was ugly and dirty, and the place which we found to stay, Penginapan Mimi, was a scungy brothel, which the stuffed monitor lizard hanging in the entry way did little to ameliorate. We immediately set off on a walk to find some redeeming feature to Pagaralam.
Following directions, we headed to the Masjid Taqwah to find a stone megalith in its grounds – it was decidedly underwhelming. Two thousand years hadn’t been kind to the carving supposedly of a man and an elephant. We moved on.
Further down the road, the village of Tanjung Aro was more evocative. There we sat on a boulder amid the rice fields with some children, and took in the scene around us. Stone megaliths dotted the fields, the girls chattered and giggled, water gurgled as it flooded the ponds, farmers busily planted rice seedlings, and Gunung Dempo, a 3000 metre volcano towered up into the clouds. The addition of a gentle breeze had us transfixed, and we sat for some hours enjoying the perfection of the scene. Tucked in amongst the village houses we also found two rumah batu, ancient tombs made of stone. We sipped an es jeruk before walking back into town.
A good lunch was had at Rumah Makan Budiman. The chicken sambalan was sweet and spicy, a green sambal gave the vegetables a good kick, and I washed it down with an es pokat. The vendors in the market were good sports, and we enjoyed our shopping experience tremendously. We bought a pineapple then went off in search of a means of escape from Pagaralam.
Bus lokets were scattered around town and eventually we located the bus station, though we had to walk halfway to Gunung Dempo.
In the afternoon we followed some signs through the coffee gardens to an “objek wisata” which turned out to be a small lake, popular with local fishermen. We sat with the Saturday afternoon leisure-seekers reeling in catches which we just about needed a microscope to see.
We finished the day back in the market where the night warungs had set up, and met two nice guys, Syaiful and Kadir. They shouted us some pempek, fish and sago dumplings doused in a sweet and spicy sauce, and implored that we return with them to their village for the night. In fact we met so many nice people it made our impression of Pagaralam very positive in the end…
We didn’t sleep well on our manky mattress, even though the highland temperature was very comfortable and, with a little imagination, the open drain outside our room sounded like a babbling brook.
We ate a breakfast of bubur ayam, then hiked to the bus station where we were disheartened to find no action whatsoever. A pack of mangy dogs were in control of the concourse which was completely devoid of buses. At the designated departure time of 7:30am a few of the lokets sprung to life and prospective passengers began turning up on ojeks. At our enquiry about the reality of the departure time came the grating response, “sebentar lagi…”
Miraculously we were on our way by 8 o’clock, scooping up extra passengers waiting by the roadside, sometimes inanely ten metres apart from one another. For our benefit, the driver subjected everyone to the likes of ‘Lonely is a man without love’ and ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ sung with thick Indonesians accents, coming through the sound system. By the time we got back to Lahat we were begging for dangdut music. But beside nicotine poisoning we really had nothing to complain about. The woman sitting in front of us threw up repeatedly into a plastic bag as her husband thoughtfully blew cigarette smoke into her face. The woman sitting next to Dave seemed to have perfected the technique of vomiting through her nostrils, and deposited the results into a sarong which doubled as a sling for carrying her toddler. In the aisle behind us passengers stood pressed together like the proverbial sardines, resigned to their fate.
The 270 kilometre onward journey to Palembang was on a fairly good road, so we made good time. Though others along the way weren’t so lucky. Just past Muara Enim everyone gave out a nervous laugh at the sight of a bus freshly crashed into a house, and near Prabumulih a private vehicle turned turtle right in front of us. Rubber smoke issued from the spinning wheels and the passengers cried “menolong dulu!”. We reluctantly climbed off the bus knowing that if anyone needed first aid it would fall onto our shoulders, but thankfully all were okay and we continued on without further ado. Even our lunch stop was speedy – we settled down to enjoy the usual leisurely meal (which included a very nice dish of tempe, liver, potatoes and ikan bilis) and were still licking the rendang from our fingers when the driver sounded the horn for our departure.
WE HAD REACHED THE OUTSKIRTS of Palembang by 2pm, putting ‘Melati Indah’ down in the annals as the most efficient bus service in Sumatra. But we weren’t there quite yet. Karya Jaya Bus Terminal was twelve kilometres out of town, so we had to transfer to a city bus with a hip-hop dude behind the wheel, dancing in his seat to the re-mixed tunes belting out of the sound system. As we neared the city centre I called instructions out the window to the conductor who was swinging out the door, and we were set down near the corner of Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Iskender.
It’s always quite exciting to arrive in a large city for the first time, and the South Sumatran capital of Palembang was a throbbing metropolis of two million people.
We found our way down an alleyway to Hotel Sriwijaya and put our bags down in a good room for 46,000 rupiah. Then, keen to explore, we stepped back out into the heated throng. We made our way, sipping susu kedelai, to the Masjid Agung, a grand pagoda-style mosque with glass walls. Next we walked over the Ampera bridge spanning the River Musi whose humble source we had seen in Banding Agung. There were lots of people on the bridge taking photos and introducing themselves. We met two farmers from Kupang in town for a conference, and our room boy Isa, on his way home from work. From there we made our way down into the bustling Chinatown where we shuffled around with the other shoppers, attracting lots of attention wherever we went. For sale we found everything from fluffy rabbits to pitcher plants, and bought some tasty little bananas and a durian, which then drew more attention to us, “misteer, makan durian!”.
We stopped off at an ATM to refill the kitty with another two and a half million rupiah, then went snack-tracking, trying out the famous pempek – both pempek panggang and kapal selam. The joke goes that in Palembang there are thousands of these boats sinking everyday, and the two that we sunk tasted great! We cooled our palates with a very good es campur, and went home wondering whether all the thieves and evil-doers that we’d been repeatedly warned about in Palembang, were just having their Sunday off. The only personal threat to my well being was that the Sari Mulia cafe was out of avocadoes for my favourite es pokat.
In the morning we were out on the street by 6am negotiating with a becak driver to take us to the harbour of Boom Baru. We jammed ourselves in, and enjoyed the breezy ride just a few kilometres down river to where the hydrofoils departed for Pulau Bangka. ML Express Bahari left at 7:30am, and 90,000 rupiah bought an economy class ticket for the three hour cruise.
We motored off down the Sungai Musi, sitting on seats made of metal grates for maximum discomfort, and watched the river life and rain pattering down. The only distraction was when a heavy scrum of passengers formed around a pretty girl wearing a two-piece suit and selling bus tickets, and Dave dutifully joined in.
After two hours we reached the open sea and the brown water turned green then blue as we neared the island. The port of Muntok appeared out of the drizzle, we docked, everyone fought their way off, and we somehow found a trapel to match the ticket which Dave had bought.
It was 140 kilometres across Pulau Bangka to Pangkalpinang. The road was good and we zoomed along in an air-conditioned Isuzu ‘Elf’. Thankfully we stopped for lunch along the way in a village called Kelapa, and ate delicious Peranakan cuisine at Restoran Melati. Dishes included gulai nanas, kangkung belacan, and some unidentified vegetable which looked like a twig in a medicinal stew.
AT 2PM OUR DRIVER KINDLY dropped us at the door of the Hotel Srikandi, but unfortunately it was full, as were all the other hotels within a half kilometre radius. We passed up the 100,000 rupiah room in a brothel with photos of the garishly made-up prostitutes on the reception desk, and settled for the only other option we could find, Penginapan Ortila.
We’d already had a walking tour of Pangkalpinang as we searched for a hotel, but we went out for another look around with the motive of working up an appetite. We were frustrated to learn that the boat on to Pulau Belitung left daily at 2pm, but validated our stopover by sampling what we considered to be the islands most famous delicacy. Forget about the slabs of pungent trasi and jars of frothing fermented fish on offer – martabak bangka was the pinnacle of the sweet spongy pancake filled with peanuts, butter and chocolate, and we ate enough to render us immobile for the remainder of the evening.
Day dawned slowly the next morning, and we lazily slept in until 6:30 when we were woken for our ‘snack pagi’. It was overcast outside as we wandered down to the market in search of nutrition. The fruit section offered nothing better than oranges from Kalimantan. We drank glasses of hot Chinese-style susu kedelai, and only on the way back found a kaki lima serving bubur ayam.
It was a long day. There was nothing to do in Pangkalpinang except eat, and at the further reaches of town we discovered another calorie-laden treat called es krem bang jaja – scoops of coconut ice cream with kidney beans, avocado, black sticky rice and condensed milk.
Bored, we headed to the harbour of Pangkalbalam at 11am and found entertainment galore. We bought our hydrofoil tickets, unanimously deciding on some cushioning in eksekutif class for 145,000 rupiah, then watched the activity port side. KM Anugrahpertama was being loaded with raw rubber and the stench was indescribable. Blubbery chunks were laboriously man-handled with hooks; onlookers covered their noses; and nipa palms swayed in the breeze on the other side of the river. The smell almost put us off our lunch, but the sate still tasted good, and we sat chatting with Rahman, the ice cream vendor until it was time to board yet another KM Express Bahari.
In executive class there were life jackets, karaoke videos, real seats recycled from a redundant Spanish aircraft – and “no smoking” signs!
At 2:30pm we left right on schedule, half an hour late, and powered off to the open water of the South China Sea. Complimentary cupcakes and roti coklat were handed out as we skimmed over the clear blue sea on a metre and a half swell, passing small islets and other vessels at alarmingly close proximity. After a few hours the swell chopped up a bit more and the purser did a great job of looking after his passengers – he hadn’t seen the last of those cupcakes which he’d distributed earlier as he mopped up liquid messes with wangi detergent, and handed out plastic bags with a smile, calling “mabuk? mabuk?”.
After the promised four hours journey time had elapsed, a throng of people began swarming around the doorway vying to be first off the boat. But it actually took five hours, so there were plenty of long faces by the time we docked in Tanjungpandan at 7:30pm.
WE WALKED INTO TOWN CHECKING out the losmen that we passed in the dark along the way. The accommodation situation was pretty grim and the best we found was a windowless plywood box with a shared mandi for a ludicrous 110,000 rupiah. Hotel Citra was the worst value losmen for the trip. We went to bed hoping that it didn’t bode badly for our stay on Pulau Belitung. And it didn’t.
The next morning we went on a guided tour of Tanjungpandan with Ady, a local English teacher whom Dave had met the night before. We walked down to the fish market collecting students, Apu and Rudi, along the way and were duly dubbed Mak Long and Pak Long by our juniors. We called into the tourist office which was expertly hidden down a remote back street. Tourists were an unexpected surprise and they didn’t quite know what to do with us, but we got the information that we sought (from Ady) after much hand-shaking and back-slapping. Weighed down with armfuls of useless glossy brochures, we continued on to the beach, the museum, and back to Hotel Citra to pack our things.
We had gleaned that there was a daily angkot to Tanjungkelayang, thirty kilometres up the coast and that we should be able to find a place to stay there. So off we went. We puttered along an untrafficked road casually setting down passengers without the need for them to call out for their stops. We were also delivered directly to our stop which was an immediately appealing place.
Tanjung Kelayang was just a tiny village with a few basic shops, and Kelayang Indah provided exactly the lodging we were hoping for, right on the beach under swaying coconut palms. For 50,000 rupiah we got an enormous bungalow with a verandah, set in a garden overlooking the beach. Small fishing boats bobbed off shore, the water was crystal-clear green, and the sand was pure white. The small headland nearby was made up of smooth granite boulders, and almost within swimming distance was a picture-perfect island. It was even clean – the elderly coconut vendor collected all the day-trippers rubbish, and the fishermen were toilet trained!
Our host was Sukardi, the Kepala Desa, and Umar was our caretaker, there was a cook, and Mili, a deaf-mute who spent his time making kitsch shell ornaments popular with the local day-trippers. Our bungalow had its own resident rodent and geckos, outside there were squirrels, kingfishers and langurs hung out in the coconut trees and disused bungalows.
In the mornings the fishing boats returned from the deep sea, and everyone gathered excitedly on the beach to check out the modest catch. There was always plenty of squid and cuttlefish, small sharks, large catfish and the odd stingray. All was weighed in and sold on the spot, disappearing to market on the backs of bicycles and motorbikes. At this time, the tide was low and beachcombing was fun, crabs made patterns in the sand and giant starfish were left high and dry for our inspection.
Through the day we watched the tide come in and the seascape change completely. There was barely a ripple and the water was so warm that it felt the same temperature as our skin.
In the evenings, after the day-trippers had gone home it was perfectly quiet and peaceful. The stars shone brightly between the palm trees and the waves made a gentle swooshing sound which would have been perfect for inducing sleep if it weren’t for the itching legacy of wrathful sandflies. These miniscule creatures attacked with their venom in the very first hour of our arrival, before we had a chance to arm ourselves against them, and even the usually impervious Dave suffered the consequences. Itchy fluid-filled bites became a major pre-occupation, with ritualistic applications of insect repellent and calamine lotion in between constant skin patrols.
A two hour walk along the beach to the east took us to Tanjungtinggi, a picturesque cove sandwiched between giant boulders. We sat and rested under the shade trees, and in a thatched warung for some hours enjoying the company of a family who insisted on sharing their barbecue picnic with us – “mancing sendiri!”
As would be expected, foreigners were even more of a rarity on Pulau Belitung, than other parts of southern Sumatra and we were surreptitiously and openly snapped on mobile phones wherever we went, particularly while we were eating. Children reacted to us in all different ways – some would jump up and down pointing excitedly, some would give us a kiss when coaxed by their parents, others would shriek and run, leaving younger siblings to fend for themselves crying in fear. Everybody seamed to know all our movements since the time we arrived on the island – people had seen us in town, and the whole village knew about our walk to the shop to buy a iced drink.
A twenty minute walk to the west led to yet another idyllic spot where we could sit alone on the sand under the fragrant butun trees, looking out at a panorama framed by gleaming white sand and nearby islands set in the turquoise sea. Pulau Lengkuas was spired with a slender white lighthouse built in 1850 and looked like something from a fairytale.
My fortieth birthday dreamily passed during these lazy days. In the afternoon we organised a special meal with Umar, and just as we were polishing off our delicious fish curry, the local speciality gangan, sambal kangkung and cumi-cumi goreng, Ady arrived with a couple of friends and provided a party atmosphere. We went to our favourite swimming hole until sunset, then everyone sung “happy birthday” around a makeshift plate of peanuts with a candle stuck in the middle!
Our last day in Tanjungkelayang was an eventful one. A ‘marathon’ run was being held and there was a big party at the finish post in our garden. Some marquees and a stage had been erected the previous afternoon, and Sukardi, Umar and Mili were hastily making transportation arrangements for themselves and Dave, who was of course participating in the race. By 7o’clock I was alone on the beach as everyone headed for Tanjungtinggi, Dave on the back of Mili’s motorcycle.
Half an hour later the officials began to arrive, and the organisers of the event were still erecting decorations and flags when the lead runners appeared down the beach. In a frenzy the finishing line was streamered as runner number 125 went racing past on the sand to take first place. Before too long Dave appeared in a lather of sweat, surprisingly coming in seventeenth out of several hundred competitors – he was, of course, the only foreign entrant. By then the party was in full swing, and we were invited to sit with the VIP’s for the entertainment. A band played dangdut music at an ear-splitting volume, while pretty girls sang and danced with apparent boredom until it was time for audience participation. Quelle horreur! The kecematan chief, Pak Suhani, the wakil ketua, Dave and the Bupati danced together with the girls to the delight and great amusement of the crowd. The lyrics were ad-lib and everyone guffawed at the sexual innuendo spurred on by the male vocalist who looked like an Indonesian Benny Hill.
Prize giving followed, and lasted several hours, during which time the Bupati came to sit and chat with us about the yachting event from Darwin to Singapore which would pass through Tanjungkelayang that October. Next followed the duck catching competition, and involved scores of swimmers repeatedly chasing a luckless mallard out into the sea while onlookers on the beach screamed encouragement. Dave was too slow to get his swimmers on to join in with that fun.
But soon to follow was the best part. Umar had been too preoccupied to make our breakfast, and it was by now midday so we were starving – and it was feast time! Sukardi made sure that our plates were full of rice, gangan and ikan bakar, and we sat with Pak Suhani and the dangdut girls, who weren’t so demure when it came to eating. We were quizzed with genuine bafflement about why so many Australians went to Bali and none came to Belitung – “aman disini!”
Then everything was over as suddenly as it had begun, the marquees were disassembled and everyone cleared out within minutes of finishing their meal. It was time for us to go also, and after saying our heartfelt goodbyes we hitched a lift back to Tanjungpandan with Pak Suhani and his wife.
Pak Suhani was a good driver and the accident wasn’t his fault at all – an ice cream vendor had propped on the roadside and the car in front braked suddenly, we also braked heavily and were just sighing with relief as we pulled up short when there was a loud crash from behind. There was no car and when I opened the door to investigate found two young women and their motorcycle sprawled behind our vehicle. The rider was in a bad way, the yawning gash on her chin was pouring blood onto the road, but her broken arm was more alarming. We carefully removed the motorcycle that she was still entangled in and somehow got her into the back of the car. The pillion passenger was uninjured but suffering severe shock – she was put into the front seat and we drove the last fifteen kilometres back to Tanjungpandan with one crying and the other moaning, her gaping wound looking straight at me as I tried to comfort her. I don’t do blood – I was thankful not to lose my lunch.
At the hospital the nursing staff took charge of the obviously injured, while I looked after Pitri, who was still shaking and crying. I hugged her, held her hand and poured water over her, while on the next bed her friend screamed in agony as her arm was forced into a splint and her chin was stitched. By the time the family arrived the scene had calmed considerably, but Pitri was still clinging to me, so I stayed for some time with her younger brother holding her hand and talking to her until I was satisfied that she was okay – the hospital was somewhat understaffed. Meanwhile Dave had called our new friend Ady, who came to the hospital and eventually we all left, rather shaken up, in Pak Suhani’s car.
Ady had kindly invited us to stay at his place, so we went there and freshened up before our next engagement…
There was a wedding celebration just around the corner and our presence was expected. We were received by the family and the happy couple, ate a token meal out of courtesy (the ikan bilis kacang was delicious, and the local version of pempek with a hot and sour sauce was sublime), then we posed for numerous photos with the bride and groom who were both flamboyantly dressed in bright pink. As was the custom, we only stayed for about half an hour, then went home to prepare for the soiree Ady had planned. Dede, Apu and his brother came around and cooked a barbecue dinner with Ady and Dave, while another student, Sonia, hopeful candidate for ‘Miss Belitung’, and I sat together for an English lesson. Other friends popped in and out during the evening, and by the time we’d polished off most of the grilled chicken, acar and es cincau we were falling asleep in our seats. Ady made us feel at home in his cosy bachelor pad, he had created around himself a wonderfully social environment in which everyone was welcome.
The following day was a bit more relaxed. Dave and I made nasi goreng in Ady’s kitchen for breakfast, then went on a short excursion to Pulau Sebarang to meet another friend, Mata, and his family. Mata lived in a coconut plantation and traded in mud crabs, so he made us welcome with the fruits of his labour. He climbed a coconut tree and we drank kelapa muda while his wife cooked mud crabs and served them with a tasty dipping sauce. We struggled home with more coconuts than we could comfortably carry, buying oleh-oleh Belitung along the way – abon ikan, dodol agar – then cooled off with an icy cocktail of black grass jelly, young coconut and pineapple.
In the afternoon we went out with Sonia, her sister Feni and Melisa to Bukit Berahu, another beautiful spot by the sea. We ate a delicious meal together in the resort – there was gangan, ikan bakar and ayam arak, an extraordinarily delicious dish of ginger fried with chicken then doused in arak and simmered until tender, served with a salt and chilli dipping sauce.
Everyone enjoyed it so much that after sunset on Tangungpandan beach we went to a more simple restaurant tucked away in a secret garden to try song sui. The people there were of Cantonese descent, and the dish was a soup flavoured with red rice arak, pork meat, liver and intestine, as well as greens, fresh and pickled. It was delicious.
Afterwards we went and collected Ady, then went to Pak Suhani’s home to pay a visit. He and his wife seemed genuinely delighted to find seven near strangers on their doorstep, and welcomed everyone with gracious hospitality. We talked about the events of the previous day which had cost these kind people very much trouble through no fault of their own. They gifted us a souvenir T-shirt to remember them by, and we were finally off home to rest – almost… First we had to visit the neighbours whose wedding we had attended the previous afternoon to see the photos – and eat some more!
The following morning was sadly our departure day, and we had to be up early for the 7am departure muster of the Express Bahari. After a ‘snack pagi’ Ady walked us to the harbour, as always greeting his many friends and acquaintances along the way. At the dock we met the guy who’d won the marathon, and Mata, the owner of Hotel Citra, who must have been wondering where we’d been all that time. Just before the boat left we got word that Dave was in the local newspaper so I made a quick dash around the departure hall to find a copy, and sure enough, there he was on the front page dancing with the Bupati under the headline “Ada Bule Ikut Joged”!!!
Our stay on Pulau Belitung had been so much beyond our expectations. We had met so many great people and felt honoured to be able to call them our friends. We left feeling certain that we would return sometime…
THE RETURN CROSSING TO PULAU BANGKA was smooth in the early morning calm, and only took four hours. Our fellow passengers used liberal amounts of Tiger Balm to ward off sea-sickness with varying degrees of success. The DVD’s sound system was broken so all enjoyed a Chinese film with sub-titles, instead of cheesy karaoke, and what woman could vomit in the presence of Andy Lau? Nobody gave any trouble to the two guys with sub-machine guns guarding two mysterious metal chests, but I did feel a little edgy standing between them as we waited in the queue to disembark once we’d reached Pangkalbelam harbour.
We found an angkot back into town, and took some time for lunch at Rumah Makan Palapa Raya, a restaurant that we’d eyed off a week earlier when our eyes were bigger than our bellies. It specialised in khas Bangka cuisine, and the green chilli chicken was excellent.
A green angkot then took us to the terminal where we found a bus already half full of takers for Muntok, including a bone fide bule who cringed with embarrassment at the sight of us. Life was difficult for an albino in Indonesia, and this guy suffered not only constant ridicule, but had a deadly-looking skin cancer on his lip.
By 1:30pm we were on our way, and re-traced our steps to the other side of the island in exactly the same three hour time frame. It rained heavily along the way, and we suffered the consequences of the windows being closed , the stroke-victim sitting in front of us smoked like there was no tomorrow. We were dropped at the door of the only hotel in Muntok.
PENGINAPAN ARWANA WAS CLEAN, AND it was just a short stroll into town to check things out. Muntok was actually quite nice, with many old Dutch villas along broad leafy avenues. But the markets and the ticket offices were already closed, and every person that we asked about the boat to Palembang gave conflicting information. We were adding it all together and dividing it by the number we first thought of when we got distracted by a shop with a Yakult fridge. The owner of the shop, Pak Lim, was up for a chat and excitedly shared his snaps of his recent holiday to Bali with us. He was a great bloke and a keen traveller, we could speak together in both bahasa and Mandarin, and his English name was Dave!
We retired early that night with a bag of jeruk and some pisang molen, and Dave spent most of the evening translating the story about him in the newspaper…
Things weren’t any clearer about our onward transport in the morning, but an early start certainly helped. Everybody that we asked about an angkot to the harbour pointed in different directions, so using the mean average of advice we found the road leading to Tanjungkalian and started to walk.
There was no angkot, so we were thankful that the storm we heard through the night had passed. After a sticky seven kilometre hike the harbour looked totally lifeless, but there was an Express Bahari at the pier, and after sitting forlornly in the waiting hall for an hour we were suddenly summoned to the boat for imminent departure. We left just after 9am and were back in Palembang around noon.
A BECAK TOOK US BACK TO our friends at Hotel Sriwijaya and we spent the afternoon mooching around the city, snack-tracking and shopping. We sipped es cendol and es pokat, bought guava and markisa in the Indo Swalayan, clucked over the jungle cat kittens for sale in the market, sunk a couple of pempek kapal salam, bought Dave a new T-shirt (“Billabong – never established”), and had a laugh at ‘cheesecake’ in one of the fancy bakeries (a cake with grated cheddar on top).
Our decision to travel by train to Bandar Lampung the next morning was regretted almost as soon as we arrived at Kertapati Station. The loket hall was jammed, and we were further discouraged by the sign of negativity taped to the ‘kelas eksekutif’ window. At least when we finally got our tickets we were allocated seats on the Express Rajabasa which waited without a locomotive on platform 9.
We climbed aboard a smoke-filled carriage and awaited our fate. At least it was cheap at 16,000 rupiah for the 400 kilometre journey.
Ali Akbar checked our tickets and we chugged out of Palembang at 8:20am – just twenty minutes late. It was to be a ten hour journey.
By the time we’d reached Baturaja we were suffering heat and tobacco fatigue, but not boredom. As well as the view of South Sumatra passing by outside the window, there was a constant stream of vendors coursing up and down the carriage catering to the needs of the travelling public – “nasi, nasi, nasi, naseeee”, “ah qua qua qua”, “mister, no, no”, “jeruk, jeruk, jeruk”, “rokok, rokok, rokok, tisu, tisu”, “Belanda miskin!”, “es, es, es kopi, kopi, kopeeee”. Musicians entertained those not already amused by the man balancing a tower of saleable items like tissues, cigarettes and long-life milk. All somehow managed to stay on their feet as the carriage was thrown from side to side on poorly maintained tracks.
‘Ekspres’ was a word that the rail authority hadn’t grasped the meaning of. We stopped at all stations, as well as frequent halts in sidings for freight trains to pass. Diesel soot drifted through the windows covering everyone with a black film, and my nasi bungkus rendang tasted like a Gudang Garam courtesy of the surly-looking fellow sitting opposite.
By the time we got to Kotabumi everyone was looking pretty wrung out. The vendors had lost interest and small children wailed in abject discomfort.
Toward the end of the journey everyone rallied with a new lease on life. An animated conversation evolved around us, and included a group of truck drivers on their regular return run to Java. All the family photos came out and there was a buoyant mood as we all climbed off the train together at Tangungkarang station.
OUR FIRST TASK WAS TO find a room, and after a brief wander, found that every hotel in the immediate vicinity was full except for the poor value Hotel Ria. At least it satisfied our most important requirement – a mandi. We cleaned up, munched on some gorengan, and retired for the night.
Bandar Lampung looked a lot better by the light of day. We had sayur longtong for breakfast, then transferred our belongings to Hotel Mini, which at 75,000 rupiah for a similar room, with a mouse instead of bedbugs, was a much better deal.
We took a Damri city bus down to Teluk Betung and did some sight-seeing in between rain showers. We wandered down to the waterfront, around the Chinese quarter, and up to a Krakatau monument. A navigation buoy which had been swept up the hillside by the Krakatau eruption in 1883, gave scope to the catastrophe which had killed 20,000 people in the neighbourhood which we had just walked through.
Another Damri bus took us back to Tanjungkarang, where we did some souvenir shopping. Chocolate flavoured banana krupuk were the speciality of Bandar Lampung and what we didn’t consume during the remainder of our trip we later ate in the customs hall at Kingsford Smith Airport where they were declared a prohibited import. There were also several vendors selling flying foxes whose livers were to be fried and eaten for medicinal purposes – they probably wouldn’t have looked favourably on those either.
We re-fuelled with a plate of siomay, stuffed bittermelon, tofu, potato and cabbage rolls drizzled with a peanut sauce and kecap manis. Rain forced a prolonged siesta which included lunch across the laneway at Ampera Kamang Indah – our final Padang meal in Sumatra. Ikan tuna berlada, rendang sapi, tempe ikan bilis sambal and steamed sweet potato leaves – we didn’t hold back. All dishes were superb.
We were lucky to get in a late afternoon walk between downpours to Bukit Randu. From there we had views across the city which spread its red-tiled rooftops around the surrounding hills and down to the sea.
Rain still tumbled down when we left the next morning. We ate bubur ayam at the Damri bus stop, then following advice given on the spot, took a bus to Sukaraya terminal, then an angkot to Panjang on the main road out of the city. There we found a bus about to depart for the ferry pier at Bakauheni.
It was a slow, two hour trip. We weren’t sure whether there was a mechanical problem or if it was just the driver, but after fifty kilometres he suddenly found third gear and we were off, sprinting the last thirty kilometres to the finish post on the southern tip of Sumatra.
Jatra 1 was the vessel waiting to ferry us back to Java, and we had a relaxing sea journey. We found a breezy spot outside the executive lounge, where a five piece band strummed out some live entertainment.
At the dock in Merak small children risked their lives, swimming in beside the massive bulk of the ferry, looking like little ants retrieving notes thrown in by the passengers, while porters fearlessly leapt across to the moving ship. We bade goodbye to the bus driver we’d befriended who made his way down to his vehicle – his job was to drive non-stop from Baturaja to Jakarta. He said that he was tired…
Out in the bus concourse we found a vehicle heading for Bogor and messaged our Couchsurfer host, Mira, about our imminent arrival. It was by now 1pm, and we were getting peckish so we snacked along the way on the various offerings that came on board – fried tofu with green chillies, green mango soaked in turmeric and sprinkled with chilli salt, fresh jackfruit, and blocks of fried sticky rice. The journey was painfully slow, with frequent prolonged stops and top speeds of fifty kilometres per hour – even on the tollway!
We passed the time chatting with sweet Rudy and his sister. He gave me shopping tips and asked some golden questions, like “When you see Indonesian people in Sydney do they say “Hello mister”?”. The three hour trip took six.
ONCE WE FINALLY ARRIVED IN Bogor, we got our bearings and, together with Rudy, found our meeting place with Mira. Once she’d arrived we all ate kway teow goreng together at a roadside warung – so it was a very social Couchsurfer meeting.
Mira actually lived quite far from downtown Bogor, so we used her sister’s car (she was a way in Pontianak). Mira lived with her mother and brother, Wili, and all spoke English so we communicated in a fluent mixture of both languages. The house was reasonably large for three people, and featured something which we hadn’t encountered in six weeks – a flush toilet!
As we had already experienced, Indonesian hospitality always included as much sight-seeing as possible. So, after minimal sleep on the concrete floor in Mira’s computer room, with every light in the house blazing, and no fan to move the air around, we began our busy schedule. We were up at 6am with Ibu, but our hostess slept until 9am so we got away to a late start.
A friend, Ayong, was the designated driver and we began by heading to the Kebun Raya in the city centre. The Botanical Gardens were lush, and we walked around for a few hours checking out the orchid house, the Presidential Palace and various forests of palms, pandanus and lianas in between. We even spotted a few foreign tourists, the first we’d seen in weeks.
We found Padang cuisine in the city for lunch, made some fruit purchases in the market, then continued on our way to the Puncak region and the Gunung Mas tea estate.
The tea gardens were a very nice place to visit, especially with the Sunday afternoon picnic activity to observe, and participate in. We walked through the tea bushes and sipped a fine brew of broken orange pekoe with serabi (a sweet pancake), in a tea house amidst the gardens.
From there we continued over the misty Puncak Pass to Kota Bunga, a theme park made of flowers. Returning to Bogor was slow in the weekend traffic, so it was after 7pm by the time we got home, and Ibu prepared a simple but delicious meal for us to share. She made a very good gulai daun ubi. We exchanged gifts (half a kilo of chocolate banana krupuk went down very well!), and chatted before an early night in anticipation of an early start the next morning – Mira to work, and us back on the road…
Ibu was up with the mosque preparing sweet potato for breakfast, and we were up not long after. Saying goodbye was sad because Ibu cried as we hugged and headed out the gate. We walked with Mira to the corner and hailed three ojeks to take us to the bus stop, where we got onto buses heading in opposite directions.
Back in the city we treated ourselves to a smoke-free bus for the first leg of our day’s journey to Bandung. We were happy to take the scenic Puncak route again, enjoying the early morning views and another peruse of the souvenirs on offer from broccoli to bonsai. We passed the impressive volcano of Gunung Gede, and continued through the highlands for three hours to the metropolis of Bandung.
Somewhere on the outskirts we abandoned the luxury vehicle for a chimney on wheels headed for Garut, in the hills to the south. For an hour and a half we weaved across several valleys until we spotted a sign to Cipanas. The turn disappeared behind us as we quickly discussed whether or not to check it out, but a few kilometres on was another chance, so we jumped ship and climbed aboard an angkot for three kilometres to the hot spring resort.
CIPANAS WAS A SMALL VILLAGE with a disproportionate number of hotels, and we wandered up to the top of the village checking out the options before settling on Penginapan Pusaka. There, 50,000 rupiah got us a nice tiled room with not only a porch, but a bathroom with our own sunken hot tub with water piped directly from the springs. And we actually needed the blanket supplied! That (and every) night we soaked in the hot water until our skin pruned.
Cipanas was a nice place to base ourselves for a travel-free week. The immediate vicinity was beautiful, with ponds and paddy fields bordered by coconut trees. Volcanic mountains rose all around near and far, and at 750 metres altitude, the air was cool. The locals wrapped themselves in heavy jackets, and we were showing what tropical veterans we were by reaching for sweaters ourselves.
Gourmet food options were limited in the village, but good breakfasts were readily available. We alternated between bubur ayam and kupat tahu, a scrumptious combination of ketupat, fried tofu, beansprouts, peanut sauce, sambal and krupuk – not for those watching their kilojoules, but good for anyone climbing a mountain! We sat on the bench behind the kaki lima cart eating, while waiters from the resort hotels walked away with trays of the same bubur for their patrons!
We were surprised that such a good place was devoid of other travellers. We saw a few whistle-stop tour groups, but we were the only ‘misters’ freewheeling without a guide.
Garut was only seven kilometres away, and we were initially surprised to find that it was actually a small city. Each time we ventured into town we came home loaded with shopping just like the ibu’s that we rubbed shoulders with on the angkot. We couldn’t resist the fresh fruits and bought kilos of guava, sawu, pineapple, papaya, markisa and jeruk. We also found fresh milk which tasted great with creamy deposits floating on top, and local yoghurt with durian flavouring.
On the very first day we found Warung Nasi Barokah, a simple restaurant serving khas Sunda cuisine. Dede, the cook, smiled broadly as we praised her expertise in the kitchen. Delicious was gudeg, sweet tempe goreng, tofu skin salad with green chillies and spring onions, stir-fried choko, and ayam hati. But what kept us going back day after day was the warm reception we got from Dede and her sisters.
Garut was famous throughout Indonesia for its dodol, and justifiably so. Nobody was queuing up for souvenir kerupuk here, every tourist wanted to fill their shopping bags with dodol and we were no exception. There were oleh-oleh stores everywhere, but Citra Rasa on Jalan Ciledug had a range like no other. From the mountains of sweets we could choose from fruit confections, zebra-striped morsels, and succulent gobstoppers with flavours like durian, susu, chocolate and kacang hijau…
For an easy morning excursion, we went to Situ Cangkuang, first on an angkot to the main road, then another to Leles, ten kilometres further on, then a three kilometre walk through the countryside to a small village near a lake with waterlillies and fishermen on bamboo rafts. On the other side of the lake was a small Hindu temple, and we walked to what looked like an island in the paddy fields to sit on the hilltop next to the eighth century shrine under a banyan and pine trees.
More adventurous was our day trip to Gunung Papandayan. We ate our bowls of fortifying bubur ayam, then took a bus heading southward. After about twenty kilometres we’d reached Cisurupan and were set down at the spur road heading up the mountain. From there we negotiated a reasonable 20,000 rupiah for an ojek to take us the next eight kilometres to the foot of the smoking crater which was clearly visible from Garut. The road was steep and the motorcycle struggled with the weight of three people, but slow was safe with the wind in our hair.
From the car park we walked, and spent the next four hours roaming far and wide across the most amazing landscape. The crater, which last erupted in 2002 was excitingly active with gigantic fumaroles roaring as they vented steam and sulphurous gases. The vents were encrusted with bright yellow and orange crystals, and there were pools of bubbling mud and boiling water hissing from spouts. The wind whipped the steam around us as it swirled out from inside the volcano, the heat was intense and the smell sometimes took our breath away. We couldn’t hear each other speak over the roaring noise, and if we threw small rocks into the fumaroles it instigated mini eruptions.
We walked on to the crater rim and continued through strangely vegetated forests to a saddle on the remains of a road long ago destroyed by volcanic eruptions. We met lots of farmers along the way who offered further hiking suggestions, and we followed trails along ridges to great viewpoints above the caldera. It was a beautiful clear day, and we could see down to the Garut valley and all the surrounding mountains ringed by cloud.
On the way back there were a few tour groups picking their way through the lunar landscape and we followed them here and there in the wake of their guides bravado. The ojek ride back down with talkative Jajang was much speedier than the ascent – and more hair-raising than walking inside an active volcano.
After spending the previous morning on a reconnoitre mission, we decided to make an assault on Gunung Guntur. We wound through the back alleys of the village of Cipanas, behind the public bathhouse, up through the graveyard, and on to a disused road which led across ancient lava flows. There was no shortage of people to ask directions of, because the next couple of kilometres led us through a gravel quarry with countless trucks stirring up powdery dirt, and men with picks recklessly eroding the hillside. All were happy to have us distract them from their unenviable task.
From that hellish landscape the trail dramatically entered a deeply shaded gully, thickly forested and refreshed by a rushing stream. This we followed to Citiis, and the track climbed sharply up beside the waterfall, and on through open vegetation of bamboo and elephant grass. Our clothes became soaked by the morning dew and then dirty from the struggle to find purchase in the loose scree beneath the long grasses. The trail levelled a bit then climbed in earnest for the last hour and a half, and although we occasionally lost the track it was easier to bush bash where footholds could be had in the grass.
The discomfort of the three hour ascent was soon forgotten when we reached the crater rim and hiked the final twenty minutes to the summit of Gunung Guntur at 2250 metres. The caldera was deep and everywhere steam vented from subterranean springs beneath our feet. The air was cool at the summit, but the earth was hot, and as we stepped it caused more steam to come as if in anger at our presence. There was light fog in the valley, but we could see Garut, and the nearby peaks of Cikurai and Papandayan rose spectacularly from the mists. Sounds drifted up from the city like a low hum, and at regular intervals the call to prayer wailed from the mosques.
For our descent we had a companion – of all the prospective hikers that we’d passed on the way up only young Faisal made it to the summit. We scree-surfed most of the way down, shaving an entire hour off the return trip, as well as filing our shoes with volcanic rock, coating ourselves in dirt and sustaining a few cuts, scratches and minor flesh wounds. The three of us emerged at the waterfall base camp looking like coal miners after a hard day in the pit – that certainly didn’t deter any photo opportunities, and we waved goodbye to Faisal who was now a legend amongst his friends!
At the bottom of the waterfall we washed off some of the dirt and had a rest with a group of young picnickers who, of course, wanted more photos – we reluctantly posed hoping never to lay eyes on the results. By this stage of the trip, Dave’s ego had received plenty of lift – not only were teenage girls lining up to be photographed with him, men told him how handsome he was, “gigi baik”, “hidung panjang”, “seksi!”, and pregnant women said that they wanted their babies to look like him!
Finally back at home eight hours after our departure we soaked off the grime in our hot tub and rewarded ourselves with dinner in the night market in Garut. We snack-tracked on soto ayam kampung, gado-gado and martabak manis ketam hitam…
After numerous local recommendations we also made a day trip to Curug Orok, on the southern slopes of Gunung Papandayan. After a bus and an angkot ride we walked down through tea plantations to a roaring waterfall. Also roaring was a school excursion taking place in the pool beneath the cascade, and our arrival added to the fun. We were besieged by wet shivering children as the teacher explained to us that they were learning about nature “belajar alami”, then they all squelched off dripping with delight, and we were left in peace.
Our last morning in Cipanas was a lazy Sunday. The place had been invaded by weekenders from Bandung, and after a walk through the rice fields, we relaxed in our room watching an Indian talk show on television and enjoying one last soak in the hot tub. We had an early lunch of gado-gado at Warung Ian on the road out of town, then jumped on a bus bound for Bandung’s Cicaheum Terminal, as per instruction from our next Couchsurfing host, Yusuf.
On the way out of town we gazed up at Gunung Guntur, marvelling at the gradients we had traversed – mountains always look more impressive once one has climbed them! And we childishly giggled at a large sign above a motor mechanics workshop emblazoned with the words “Sedia dan menerima – SPARE FARTS”.
The ride back to Bandung through the city’s vegetable bowl was in stark contrast to the concrete jungle which we arrived in.
BANDUNG WAS A THRIVING METROPOLIS and the tangle of the city swallowed us as our bus made its way to Cicaheum terminal. There we followed our precise instructions, and found an angkot going to ‘Kalapa lewat Aceh’ and got down at Jalan Cendana. From there we found Jalan Salam and knocked on the relevant door.
Yusuf and his wife Katherin lived in a large and beautiful house in a nice district not far from downtown. He was a semi-retired English teacher and his two sons were at home on university vacation – one from Kuala Lumpur, the other from St. Petersburg! We were made to feel very welcome, and Yusuf was a mine of local information with shopping tips and transportation advice. The language medium was again a campur – with Yusuf we spoke English, with Katherin a mix of language, and with the staff, Nur and Bibi, Indonesian.
At the corner of the street warungs dispensed excellent and cheap local fare. So in the evenings we enjoyed sate ayam, crispy martabak telor, pecel lele which thrashed in protest before summary execution, and bebek goreng. In the morning we found nasi gudeg, and when the gudeg vendor announced that he would be enjoying a three day holiday, we found another supplier a few blocks away and ate with the same businessman, Shobirin, who not only shouted us breakfast but gave us a lift home!
Factory outlets could be found within walking distance of Yusuf’s place and bargains included Beneton, Calvin Klein, Espirit and Eddie Bower quality for just a few score thousand rupiah. The outlets were housed in old Dutch villas, and with street snacks like lumpia and fresh durian ice cream readily available we could shop for hours!
In the evenings we lounged with Yusuf watching television and exchanging yarns – in his own way he was as passionate about travel as us. Friendly Yusuf was right about Bandung being a good place to shop, and downtown we roamed far and wide in search of likely purchases.
Toko Aroma was a gem of a coffee shop, and with nostrils tingling we were led by the proprietor past the “dilarang masuk” sign to the roasting room and storehouse where thousands of bags of coffee beans were being aged for eight years with loving attention. We left with a kilo of the finest Indonesian Arabica.
We hoofed our way up Jalan Cihampelas where clothing shops lured customers with gimmicks like gigantic action figures scaling the buildings. And near the main post office Dave posed for a Telkom advertisement – the weary photographer had waited five hours for a willing foreign subject to pass by!
South of the alun alun we wound through a tangle of alleyways to find Pak Ruhiyat’s wayang golek workshop, and after some consideration left with the handsome couple of Rama and Shinta carefully packaged by the artisan himself. At 300,000 rupiah for the pair, plus the burden of a large box, this was a major purchase!
To break the monotony of shopping we made an excursion to Ciater in the mountains north of the city. Three angkot rides got us there, and we spent several hours hiking up through the Walini tea estate which was manicured to perfection. We sipped spicy bandrek, ginger tea, at a lesehan overlooking the panorama of green carpet, and got plenty of fresh air into our lungs. On the way back we passed up the opportunity to sample the other local speciality – rabbit. One could either buy a cute, fluffy bunny to take home for a cuddle, or have it skewered, grilled and served with peanut sauce, a la sate kelinci…
When it came time to depart Bandung we discovered just how successful our shopping expeditions had been. There was already overflow because of the wayang golek, but the huge stone mortar and pestle weighed somewhat more than the proverbial straw, and with all the fragile kerupuk that we had been gifted by our kind hostess (including a box of homemade kue keju), as well as the edible oleh-oleh we’d amassed ourselves, our bag was exploding. We calculated that we’d spent a million rupiah on our splurge – not bad considering that we’d only spent eight million on all our other travel expenses for two months!
So, struggling like ants under the weight of a cup cake, we sadly left our home in Bandung, waving goodbye to Katherin at the front door, and lumbering along in the wake of fleet-footed Yusuf who walked us to the angkot stop. Luckily it was before peak hour, so the wrestle with our belongings was minimal and we were at the train station in plenty of time to buy our tickets and find some bubur ayam for breakfast.
We departed Bandung’s amazingly clean and well-organised train station on the Parahyangan Express to Jakarta, which rolled out precisely on time at 8:45am, tooting with pride. At 30,000 rupiah, kelas bisnis was a good deal – we sat in big bouncy seats, and well-dressed attendants from the dining car periodically offered us trays of food as the bucolic beauty of West Java slid by…
THE PUNCTUALITY OF BANDUNG HAD worn off by the time we reached the plains, and we pulled into Jakarta’s Gambir Station an hour late at 12:30pm. We had left the loving arms of one Coachsurfing host to arrive in the arms of another. Arianne was there waiting for us at the station and we greeted each other like old friends. She was a Filipina who had been living in Jakarta for ten years, she was self-confident, beautiful and petite – even smaller than me! Our return visit to the ‘Big Durian’ was to be in a style to which we weren’t accustomed.
Yaya, the driver, was waiting to sweep us away into Arianne’s world for the last couple of days of our trip.
The first stop was lunch at Dapur Babah, an upmarket restaurant in a Dutch-era building near Gambir. An exotic collection of antiques set off the beautifully decorated interior, and our nasi campur came presented like a masterpiece. And I had another impromptu birthday celebration with all the staff singing “happy birsday to you!”
Next we went home to offload our luggage and meet the family – Shakira, the ‘goldmation’, and a white poodle named Brian. Then we were off to Arianne’s office in Menteng where she worked with an accounting firm. There we went for a swim in the pool and a massage – while I received a traditional acupressure rub at the experienced fingers of Titi, Dave was being offered something ‘special’, his refusal of which left his masseuse pouting with displeasure – “kenapa?”. We had never experienced such five star treatment, and it made us think about improving our own Couchsurfing quarters at Home!
After a shopping tour downtown we ate ayam goreng at Sukarti’s near Jalan Jaksa, with the chicken keeping an eye on us as we consumed his crispy crusted carcass.
At home our sleeping quarters were luxurious. We slept in a four poster queen sized bed with a real mattress, air-conditioning, and thoughtful touches like fresh flowers, fruit and snacks. It was the first time we’d been confronted by toilet paper in two months!
The next morning we breakfasted together on bacon and eggs with the works before driving Arianne to work, then the car and driver were at our disposal for the day!
We went first to Kota for a spot of sight-seeing. We strolled around the heart of Old Batavia, from the wayang museum on Fatimallah Square to the Sunda Kelapa where Bugis schooners sat in a slick of thick black water, being loaded as they had for hundreds of years. The stench from the canal made our noses twitch in horror.
The remainder of the day was spent between air-conditioned shopping plazas, and viewing the Jakarta street scene from traffic level – ‘macet‘ means gridlock, and we perfected our pronunciation! We got caught up in a pre-election demonstration, and although it was peaceful, the traffic chaos it caused was not! Yaya drove with great skill, he was formerly an embassy driver, with one hand on the wheel and the other alternating between the horn and the gear stick, he smoothly cut cars off and side swiped buses without a whisper of road rage.
In the evening we dined out at another of the city’s exclusive restaurants, Lara Djonggrang. Amidst sumptuous furnishings and exotic antiques we were served the most delicious Javanese court cuisine presented like a work of art. All diners photographed their meal as a matter of course, and if one ordered the pork house speciality then it was presented by a line of waiters accompanied by gamelan music and a classical dancer. We had the bebek betutu, cooked in spices for a minimum of twenty-four hours, and the pasar kampoeng nelayan, a combination of grilled seafood. Even the papaya leaves tasted fantastic, and we had no less than eight sambals to choose from. As if it wasn’t already enough, I also faced another noisy round of “happy birsday to you!” sung with great gusto by all the staff! On the way home we passed by another sister restaurant, Samarra and Shanghai Blue for a guided tour of more dining decadence, the daughter of Susilo Bambang Yudiono was even there! We went to our five star bed with our heads and our taste buds in the clouds.
The next morning dawned the day of our departure, and we were up early for a round of golf after our bacon and eggs. Yaya drove us to the inner city Senayan Club where we played nine holes, Arianne swinging like a pro, us having the odd chip, and the caddy, Dedeng, enthusiastically providing expert tips – he had been a caddy on the course since the 1970’s!
We slurped es Shanghai in the clubhouse before heading home to pack. I changed into my shirt which had been freshly ironed by the maid, and we squeezed our belongings into our faithful old backpack hoping that it wouldn’t burst its zippers at the stress of twenty-three kilos, for its ultimate voyage before retirement…
So we were, of course, chauffeur driven to the airport, and Arianne had a friend there, Joe, who gained all three of us access to the exclusive lounge beyond the immigration post. The abject luxury of staying with Arianne lasted until the final moments of our departure!
We embraced at the boarding gate and it was as if kissing our Indonesian journey goodbye. The transition to the reality of our other life was forced upon us as we stepped into the pressurised time capsule en route to Sydney.