Into The Wilds of Sumatra- Part 1 (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
“The wild places are where we began. When they end, so do we.” David Brower, Friends of the Earth
Sumatra: the sixth largest island in the world. Sumatra has a wide range of plant and animal species but has lost almost 50% of its tropical rainforest since we visited in 1987.
Visions dancing in our head: tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, and the orang-utans, along with deep jungles, sand beaches; smoking volcanoes; a wild place unencumbered by man.
So we thought...
We were desperate to escape the madding crowds of Jakarta; worn out from incessant staring, as if were TV sets being gawked Javanese with unblinking devotion and fascination.
Twenty-nine hours after departing Djakarta, the MV Kerinci crawled into the port of Padang. We watched from the deck as the ship passed several small islands; along the coast, we passed tropical beaches dotted with the occasional village. Almost at the equator, the air thick with heat and humidity, intensified by a recent downpour, this monsoon season exceptionally heavy.
We’d read in the local papers towns in south Sumatra devastated by floods, so were pleased with our decision to sail on the Kerinci halfway up the Sumatran coast instead of trekking overland by bus.
Brightly painted Sumatran outriggers, similar to the Balinese, bobbed in Padang Bay as far as the eye could see. Near sunset, the rugged fishermen headed out for an overnight expedition. Soon, their bright lanterns, hung over the gunwales to attract fish, lit up the horizon as far as the eye could see. From shore, a mystical glowing floating city.
Despite the gloaming, our group of five (travelling companions Lou, Sue, and Bob) voted against staying in Padang, opting instead to grab a bus to Buki Tinggi, a pleasant valley town a couple of hours up the road.
Once we disembarked, we glanced back at her enormous bulk, enchanted to see a beautiful rainbow, seeming to run from stem to stern. The Kerinci had been a respite, relief from the Java's madness.
BUKI TINGGI BREAKDOWN
At the port, we were herded like so many sheep into a bus with the locals; of course, it couldn't depart until full to bursting. As if on cue, the Javanese and Sumatran men aboard lit cigarettes in unison; we were soon engulfed in an obnoxious cloud of smoke.
Night descended as we entered the port city a few km away. We quickly found another bus which fortunately, departed almost immediately; by the feel of the hairpin turns our driver negotiated, we were grateful it was pitch dark out; we couldn’t see what was in all probability a sheer drop on our left.
Experience had taught us to sit at the back of the bus whenever possible, obscuring the close calls with oncoming traffic, as mad dog drivers passed slower traffic on the winding hill roads. The back of the bus also provided a semblance of privacy in order to minimize prying eyes boring into the back of our skulls.
Bob struck up a conversation with his seat partner, a young man from Buki Tinggi, who welcomed invited him to stay with his family. As Bob relayed the invitation to us, we suggested it was probably not a wise move as there likely were strings attached. But he decided to accept the offer anyway partly out of curiosity and partly because the attention seemed to please his ego.
After two and a half hours, we finally arrived, somewhat famished as we hadn’t eaten in hours, frazzled from the journey; we were also eager to find accommodation.
During the overnight cruise, Sue complained of a fever; the bus ride brought it on with a vengeance. In Buki Tinggi, the bus deposited us at the foot of a huge set of stairs leading up to the town square, replete with an antique Dutch clock; beyond lay the budget hotel district. As normal, we were accosted by a small mob of taxi drivers, touts, and onlookers, trying to figure out a way to separate rupiah from farang.
Sue leaned against a wall, trying to be discreet as she lost her lunch. Instead, this attracted an even larger crowd, watching the drama unfold wide-eyed fascination. They began to close in around her, so Lou and I yelled to back off. This resulted in an opposite effect, even more curious onlookers arrived by some invisible telegraph.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, Sue had come down with Dengue Fever, lesser-known than malaria, yet a more deadly form of mosquito-borne ailment. We asked Sue if she could muster the strength to move away from the mob. She was a real trooper; Lou grabbed her pack, we slowly climbed up the long flight of stairs, the crowd eventually falling away behind us. Reaching the top, we realized Sue was using all her strength to remain upright. It took some doing to find an open shop to secure bottled water to quench her parched throat.
Our next act was to find a hotel, a tricky proposition when arriving in the evening without bearings. Pulling out the yellow traveller's bible Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on the Cheap), we gleaned an area reserved for travellers was only a small distance downhill.
Excepting spectators near the bus depot, the town appeared asleep. It was quite dark; it took some time before we were able to find our way. Happening on a hotel with a favourable review in the yellow bible, we investigated only to discover one of the most disgusting places in our travels. The mandi was an open septic tank, a foul stench emanating from within; the rooms were right next to this hell hole.
Several more hotels, no vacancies. The situation appeared grim, only a couple of joints left in the travellers’ section of town. At last, the whimsically named Singalong Lodge offered space at the ridiculously low fee of $3/night per room.
After a night's rest, our situation seemed much improved after a good night's rest, as they often do. Sue was still feeling poorly although she did manage to join us at a restaurant across the way. We felt invigorated upon reading the menu. No more fish heads on rice staring back at us as served on the boat. Instead, granola topped with fresh fruit and thick buffalo yogurt, fresh fruit smoothies and aromatic local coffee.
Amazing how delicious food perked up our spirits.
We decided to remain in Buki Tinggi for a few days to afford Sue time to rest. The region had a reputation as quite spectacular, the food delicious, plentiful and cheap, the rooms clean and comfortable.
The restaurant proprietor had taken on the role of farang local tour guide; he provided valuable information. Lake Meninjau, (dubbed Lake Meningitus by Lou), the Siaroh Canyon (the photo on the back of Indonesia’s 1,000 rupiah notes), bull fight on Tuesdays, the Minangkabau tribes: some sights and activities available in our immediate environs.
Sue returned to her room for rest while we three scoped out the town. The influence of Dutch rule was evident in the local architecture. A few elders yet retained a command of that language even though the Dutch were evicted in 1965.
The town was laid out as a series of steppes; much climbing was required to tour the neighborhoods, afforded stunning vistas: green rice paddies swamped near the end of the monsoon season, replete with muddied long-horned water buffaloes, Sumatrans toiling in the blistering sun under giant peaked straw hats, dormant volcanos brooding as a backdrop.
We enjoyed strolling through the lively market with its complicated warren of vendors and shops. We climbed to the top of an unused parking garage for an overhead view of its activity. The combination of local produce and bright stall umbrellas provided a colourful kaleidoscope.
For lunch, we found a superb little restaurant inside the market, serving traditional Padang food. Local cuisine is time consuming to prepare, marinating for hours in fiery sauces, based on cayenne and exotic peppers. Reputed to be the hottest in the world, we competed to see who could handle sizzling Padang beef, lovingly referred as orange dog turds. We cooled our burning palates with extra rich and creamy buffalo yogurt, and cheap Anker beers. The market restaurant became our regular haunt.
Our next stop was the local zoo. To our dismay, the tiny cages were in a horrid state, animals living in their own fecesl the Sumatran rhino and tigers were stuffed. One poor bear was alive but had a giant abscess growing out of its eye, very hideous looking. He paced back and forth, occasionally rising up on his haunches with his paws, reaching out as if imploring us to rescue him from his prison. With great difficulty we tore ourselves away from the heart-aching sight.
We then encountered some young Sumatrans taunting the monkeys with sticks and home-made slingshots. Furious, we chastised them using body language and broken Indonesian to make them stop though I’m sure they were quick to return as soon as we departed. Undoubtedly, this merciless teasing was how the bear had lost his eye.
After a couple of days rest, a creeping sensation we should expand our horizons, take in more local sights (traveller’s guilt: why come all this way just to relax?). We certainly felt entitled to chill out in Bikit Tinggi (Sue was still in the clutches of Dengue Fever) following the painful ordeal travelling through Java.
We decided to investigate a local bullfight, highlighted in a flyer at the local cafe. Sign up, pay a small fee, and transportation would be arranged.
Our third day in town, our group of four, along with nine other westerners piled into the back of a tiny bemo (pick up). Scammed once again, as we should have chartered our own transportation for greater comfort. Fortunately, it was only a 10 km ride out of town, on straight roads;our driver was a typical Third World maniac, so we arrived in a short order at the “bullring," near the base of a mist shrouded, gigantic volcano.
Tucked in a small valley, bounded on three sides by small hill on an open field. Standing in the middle of a throng of men, a rather sedate looking water buffalo chewed its cud. The bull was agitated by handlers, who alternately rammed sticks up its nose, throat and rectum.
Standing above the fray on a hill overlooking the action, we watched as another bull was led in from a nearby paddock. No false promotion: “bull fight” was the two bulls in a face-to-face battle with each other; not a matador in sight.
Two bulls squared off, more interested in munching grass than attacking each other. Tired of having yet another stick poked up his ass, one bull finally charged. A great yell went up amongst the agitated throng on the field, Sumatrans scattered in every direction.
Much more entertaining to watch the locals, who seemed to think the bulls would devour them at any moment. We got caught up in the action when one of the bulls charged in our direction before suddenly veering another way.
Then suddenly the melee died down and the show was over. The bulls bucked away from us toward an open paddock, several dozen men in hot pursuit. Although we had seen much passing of rupiahs on the sidelines before the bout, we couldn't determine who won. It started to rain, and what with getting soaked and tolerating a sizeable dose of the traditional “staring at the westerners” by the locals, we figured it was time to head back to the bemo.
WELCOME TO LAKE MENINGITIS
A day later, we talked ourselves into exploring the area around Lake Meningiau, drawing favourable comparisons to our next destination, Lake Toba. According to our guidebook, this side trip wasn’t far from town; we opted to travel independent instead of hiring an “organized” tour.
By the time we made it to the bus depot, we just missed the early bird bus, waiting an hour for the next one (the Indonesian version of Murphy’s Law: if you arrive early, your bus will be late; if you arrive late, the bus is gone).
Our bus passed through verdant valleys, and numerous villages. While the locals appeared somewhat more prosperous than the Javanese, housing consisted mostly of basic shacks or straw hut. Children yelled hello at the farangs passing by, and as we peered back, we saw the mob chasing after the bus, as if they could magically propel themselves aboard.
It was a considerably longer journey than the previous day’s excursion. After a couple of hours, we'd only travelled 30 miles, due to the state of the bus, on its final journey for at least 20 years. We were informed this was the spot where we could walk down to the lake. Another ten farangs also clambered off the bus; we trucked down the road for over 40 minutes before we found the lookout.
Below lay Lake Meninjau, glimmering in the early afternoon sun. The lake was rather large, set in an enormous ancient volcanic bowl, completely enclosed by sheer mountain walls. Access to the lake was by one main road; numerous footpaths threaded through surrounding villages.
Tropo steamy. We hiked down the embankment for over two more hours before we made the lakeshore. Hot, sweaty, and extremely thirsty after negotiating steep switchback trails, all we could think about was a cold beverage. Rumour had it we’d see monkeys along the trail, but we were probably making too much noise and scared them off.
To our great disappointment, there weren’t any beaches for swimming. In the hopes of finding somewhere to cool off, we walked along the shore of the lake for about 2 kms, passing villagers washing clothes and dishes in the lake. Soon, we came upon a restaurant on stilts hanging over the water with a killer vistas.
A posh place by Sumatran tourist standards, it either catered to westerners or rich Indonesians; we were surprised when we served warm pops and ice. Ice was taboo due to the fear of bacteria contamination; as when we tried to communicate with our waiter, who didn’t speak a word of English, we discovered warm over-priced cokes were the only option.
After managing to swallow the pop sans ice, we still craved a cold drink. Happily across the street we found a terrific little warung with ice cold pop and delicious fried noodles. No one had the foresight to bring supplies, so we drank and ate with great relish.
We’d been warned to catch the second last bus back to town, as the late one was known to be over-subscribed. We still managed to board a completely jammed bus, ever so slowly winding up the face of steep cliffs (44 hairpin turns, according to the yellow bible). We didn’t bother counting as half the time our stomachs felt as if stuck in our throats.
It didn’t help matters that the road was more or less a one lane affair. One false move by the driver, and it would’ve been lights out for we honeymooners. A precursor, training for Darjeeling to Nepal hell trip.
Back at our favourite cafe that evening, over a sumptuous dinner of buff burgers, Sumatran guacamole and Bukkitinggi spaghetti, among other “variations on a western dinner theme," we reviewed the days’ events.
“Why do we put ourselves through these painful ordeals?. We’re much better off when we spend a peaceful day walking through the market, or even, just lying in bed reading and relaxing.”
“It’s because of that bloody yellow bible,” said Lou. “That wanker Tony Wheeler makes us feel guilty if we don’t fall over ourselves trying to see the local sights. He keeps telling us how much fun we’ll have if we go here or there. Right!”
“Or worse, when we listen to other travellers,” a much-improved Sue added. “They seem to be much more masochistic about travelling than I am. I don’t think it has to be a marathon run all the time. Like Chris keeps saying, we are on vacation, too.”
“Listen, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fed up with these Indonesians,” said I. “I’ve had it up to here with the staring, as if we’re the first westerners they’ve ever seen, when there’s literally thousands of us roaming these islands.”
“No way, mate,” said Lou, “it’s not the staring that’s so bad. It’s the hoarking and spitting, pissing everywhere, burping, nose snorting out snot that lands on your jandles. That’s what really pisses me off.”
“Sorry, Lou,” Elaine interjected, “but it’s the way they squeeze their zits all the time, proud of dislodging a particularly deep one, that disturbs me.”
“With me, it’s the bloody noise,” argued Sue. “All bloody night long, carrying on, cooking, washing clothes and dishes, or even themselves, and generally making an unholy racket. I’m sick of it.”
We sat glumly, chewing our food, wondering how we were going to survive at least six more months in Asia.
“Listen, the word is Lake Toba is a very relaxing place with lots of space to breathe. Why don’t we get the hell out of town a.s.a.p., then enjoy a nice refreshing holiday on the lake?”
Spirits raised, we reminded ourselves we were participating in a remarkable voyage around the planet, that the conversation had become too negative.
The following day was New Year’s Eve; 1987 was promising to be filled with adventure, to say the least. Our food suddenly tasted better, and we enjoyed a fine candlelight dinner, the last of the monsoon rains providing a soothing rythym on the corrugated tin roof of the little cafe.
Next Stop: Sumatra Part 2