Sumatra - the chaosteam and the jungle

05.06.2ß14  Sumatra


The flight from Penang to Medan is short and uneventful (probably because my seat-neighbour is praying intently during start and landing) and in next to no time we are in Indonesia and waiting at the end of an endless queue in front of 3 open immigration control desks and when we finally arrive at the desk we find out that we have forgotten to fill in an arrival card – typical! We find the documents at a desk on one side, search for pens and when we return with our paperwork all the counters are closed and we are stood there like a couple of right dunces. Kev’s the one to start ranting and raving this time (that’s normally my job) and he is actually tempted to just walk off which would not be difficult but how would we get out of the country again with no stamp?

At some point someone realizes that there are two lost looking foreigners standing around and takes pity on us. Very unceremoniously and quickly we get our passports stamped – probably his meal is going cold or rather it’s wilting in these temperatures.

We drag our heavy backpacks out of the building and it feels like we are walking into a  furnace. Malaysia was already very humid and hot but after spending hours in ac controlled places it seems to be  even worse here.

Immediately we are assaulted by hordes of taxi drivers who all want to take us wherever and I try to fumble out my computer as unfortunately I wrote in there where we want to go now. Unsurprisingly the battery is empty when I switch the stupid thing on. I try to get out of the firing line and find a quiet seat on a bench where I can get the spare battery out,  have a fag and find the address where we want to go but two of the  taxi guys are not so easily discouraged and they follow us constantly talking which really winds me up no end and when I  finally come up with a street name they immediately produce the name of the guest house which came up on all my internet searches and after some intense haggling we can actually agree on a price and we are taken to town.

What we see through the windows of the car seems like pure road rage to us – the memory of Saigon is actually really tame to what we experience here – but then – there are a lot more cars on the road here in addition to  the normal scooters plus all sorts of weird and wonderful transports. The tuktuks – here called bemos – are scooters with carriage-like sidecars. I am scared and excited at the same  time.

After 3 months first in Thailand and the in the quite modern Malaysia we have to get used to the Asian hustle and bustle again, the constant special  offers and the haggling but also  we have quite some trouble with the heat.

When we arrive at the  Blue Angel it’s already dark and so I take a room for two nights and then we can  work on a plan of action  in peace tomorrow.

They immediately try to sell  us a  trekking trip in the jungle for “only” 60 € but if we do something like  that then certainly not for such an extortionate amount of money.

After a quick supper we disappear into our room which promises a TV but it’s only a flat screen telly stuck to the wall with a 3 pin plug dangling uselessly on it’s cord next to a 2 pin plug socket …. I have to laugh – this is so typical – oh well at least the internet works even if it is rather slow.

Medan in daylight is no beauty either – apart from a number of mosques there is little for the eye but we will have to stay until Monday when we will be reunited with our transport so we decide to make a few errands today – but veeery slowly – we don’t have as many clothes as we fill up with sweat here.

Our first task is to  find a tailor who can repair our bike jackets – the zips have been broken since China which was not a problem for a long time – only since the rainy season has caught up with us we have started to use the jackets again but in the heavy downpours the constantly bursting zips were more annoying than anything else as we still ended up soaking anyway.  

The first tailor is right in the neighborhood but when he sees our jackets he waves us off straight away so we walk further and keep asking for a tailor pointing at our jackets while making sewing gestures. We get pointed along and eventually find one at the end of welders row (craftsmen of one trade seem to all be in one area here) and this one at least has a closer look. He does have zips but they are all shorter so we decide that ¾ closed jackets are better than completely open ones and try to put that across to him. He immediately starts on the job so we use the time to have a wander around the neigbourhood and people stare at us just as curiously as we look at them. They are all very friendly and everyone that speaks a little bit of English asks if he can help us – slowly we start to feel comfortable in this land. We find a little café – very basic with rickety wooden benches and an earth floor and a landlord that must be well beyond retirement age at our home countries slurps around and we manage to order tea and a sweet roll and even pay. Some guys have a little English and we answer all their curious questions then we stroll back. Our jackets are almost finished and the man quite obviously takes great pride in his work and also has no objections against having his photo taken.

We take the jackets back  to our  room and then use the time to cool down a little before setting off on the next mission: find an ATM, buy some Rupees and then find a shop where we can buy a few necessary things.

Slowly all my clothes are turning to rags the trousers I’ve already repaired 3 times and my underwear has more holes than modern lingerie – the material is as thin as Brussels lace but not as nice and a deodorant would be nice to have in this heat. Also, I'd like a SIM card for our internet stick, as soon will be my mother's birthday and I would like to skype with her and of course with our good friend Martin, who has worked so hard to provide us with Carnet and spare does also at least deserve a call for his birthday. We manage to find an air-conditioned department store not far from our hostel where we are able to find everything - how nice is that? New fancy pants and underwear for me, a sim card with 5 gig for 3 months and deodorant. That purchase is quite funny - the deodorant spray is in a locked cabinet and is brought to the till by an employee and here we can now buy it with a pick list she wrote for us. There are two ladies who have a full trolley load to pay and I wonder how long the shopping process must have taken if they also had to do it this way - it is these little things that are so exciting when traveling. While we stroll about we are stopped several times by school children and good-naturedly answer 4 times the same questionnaire with different young people - well at least we are good for their English lessons – I hope. In the department store, there is also a Mac D and Texas Chicken restaurant and so all of a sudden Kevin surprises me with the desire to eat there - slyly he means he must now urgently eat some potato instead of rice - here we are found by a another school class and answer all the questions ... again. The things you do for the improvement of international relations. Happy to have made our self-imposed daily quota we search for a place in the shade and treat ourselves to an iced tea, but I must say that I liked it in Malaysia better - everything here is so extremely sweet. The rest of the day we hang around in our room, well there ain’t much of it left anyway. We listen to the songs of the imams, which mingle from all directions to a chorus and find it does not sound that bad at all. The next few days we spend a lot of time in our cool room - we got put in a different one which even has a working TV and we wait impatiently for Monday.

Finally it’s there, we are awake early, have everything packed and hope to have completed the formalities at the port quickly, so we can leave this stuffy dirty city as soon as possible. Susi's husband has already taken several guests to the specified address, who have also picked up their bikes so we decide that he can bring us there too -I guess a taxi would be cheaper but who knows whether they bring us to the right place. I’m so excited I forgot to reset the phone to the right time so we got woken up already at six o’clock, and now we have to kill an extra hour until we finally get moving and dog tired we are as well


The drive from the city center to the port of Belawang takes about 1 hour and I have never been so scared in a slow-moving car. Our driver is obviously completely stoned, his perception doesn’t work in tune with reality so he is not able to dose acceleration and braking, which has the consequence that we bounce along like a drunken kangaroo.  He slows right down while just overtaking someone for some unknown reason, once he stops right in the middle of the motorway dividing strip, because he is not sure whether we are already there(which we are not) , rather than simply pull to the right he leaves, pays toll, turns around and he draws a new ticket explaining to us that he has made a mistake with this exit (has he indeed?!) and had to leave the motorway because you are not allowed to turn around on the highway?!.

We get there in one piece but we are glad to get out of the car and wait in an empty office for our shipping agent - Patience is not necessarily one of my natural virtues, but the long time we now have spend in Southeast Asia has actually taught me the Zen of waiting without questioning and rarely I get upset anymore  - after all, it's better to be sitting here than still bouncing along in the car ....

After a while, a nice gentleman appears on his scooter and he wants to take Kevin with him to complete the formalities, but fortunately Kev remembers to  ask if it should not be me going with him since the bike is registered  in my name and now I have to sit on a bouncing scooter (this time it’s the shock absorbers though and not driving style) he takes me to the Customs building tells me to take a seat in the waiting area, hands in the papers at the front desk, and then he disappears. I sit back and wait …. an employee repeatedly comes to me and asks me where my agent is. What can I say? I haven’t got a clue so I only shrug – when I go outside his scooter is gone and so I decide to wait out here for him and sit with few people at a street stand while I have a cigarette and a cold water. After a while he reappears without explanation, we pick up the finished paperwork go to another building  to get a form there and then I am being chauffeured a few yards up the road to meet the guys at customs and narcotics department who then take me to the port in a car where we start searching for our bike until finally it turns out that it is still on the ship - and now we have to wait again because the guys who are responsible for unloading are having their lunch break - the two nice young men say goodbye to me and the shipping agent jumps back onto his scooter and also disappears - but not without strongly advising me beforehand not to move from the spot. Well at least is one of the dock workers is so kind to put a bench in the shade for me and to provide me with water, peanuts and cigarettes after having seen that I only have 3 tobacco crumbs left in my box.

One asks me: "you smoke marijuana?" I say: “No” and he: "why not?" ... .. !!

Gradually the crew returns from lunch break and every now and then they look at the heavy bike scratching their heads. One fiddles about with a couple of ropes, but I wonder, where the crane is, because even I do not need to be an expert to see that the ship's wooden  crane with a rope-pulley at the end will not be up for this job. Eventually, the team is complete and also my agent reappears and after much back and forth he tells me now that there is only one vehicle that can unload our Liza but it is not available before 6pm and he will take me back to his office for now, where I can wait with my husband until he returns again. He’s had the carnet stamped already and we don’t have to wait for the customs anymore with whom he has clarified that he instead takes a few pictures from the vehicle for them.

In the office, Kevin is fast asleep on one of the desks on the other sit two women who look not much more awake. I wake Kev and explain the situation to him, the agent says goodbye again, but promises to be back in time so we decide to kill at least part of the next 3 ½ hours by looking for some food and an ATM - then we return to the office and just wait - together with the two women whose work seems to exist in the not too large activity: one of them once takes a phone call, Kev says, the other has typed a letter sometime during the day and by 4 o’clock the two ladies have finished their working day as they say goodbye and now we sit alone in the office until it is finally time for the agent (I don’t know his name) to return. He takes me back to the harbour to finally pick up our Liza - needless to say, she is still standing on the ship when we arrive and the crane is not in sight. Even our agent begins to wonder about the fact that I can still laugh. ...

Then – slowly - life comes into the scenery - at least an audience is gathering and just as I begin to worry that all was in vain I see the truck with a crane appear.

Now everything goes really fast and I do not even have much time to chew my fingernails (since loading in Penang I don’t have any left anyway) - before I turn blue by holding my breath she is already on the ground and I just need to shake some hands and then follow the scooter through the crazy rush hour traffic to the office.

Now we only have to find our way back to Medan and the Guesthouse – there is no chance of getting to Bukit Lawang today.

So we fill up at the next petrol station and then wriggle through the crazy traffic and the even crazier one way system and that without a headlight (probably a corroded connection from all that salty air) to the center of Medan, but we can not find the road to our Guesthouse - so we stop at the road side and I'm trying to achieve something with my internet stick and Google maps, when a nice young man stops next to us and asks if we need help.  can say that! Luckily, he knows the Blue Angel and leads us around a thousand twists we never would have found to the place. On the way he is constantly on his mobile and calls on every traffic light and when we arrive in front of our Guesthouse it  comes clear why - he has rounded up the boys from his Honda Club and now one after another  they arrive to look at this strange vehicle and it’s riders and to drink a beer with us then we make the usual thumb-up-photos. Well it is at least a fun evening.

The next morning we can have a lie- in and then say goodbyes rearing to finally get out of this city - Medan is not really a place where you want to voluntarily spend too much time. It is once again extremely hot and humid and the first 40 of 86 Km consist of a huge traffic jam, one-way streets and thousands of honking cars, busses, scooters, lorries and whatever. Although our GPS has gone on strike here in Indonesia and is constantly claiming that there are no roads where we are, I manage to outwit the device and to guide us on the right track. Here the flow of traffic is not moving much faster than in the city, but the endless palm oil plantations along the perforated road are nevertheless a lot more pleasant than the city traffic - even though every vehicle on it seems to be out to get us and there is a lot of overtaking and swerving in every direction and you have to have your eyes on all corners, to survive.

Bukit Lawang is a pure tourist town, which consists to over 90% of Hotels, Guest Houses and shops selling the typical tourist stuff and it’s prepared well for this purpose. The site forms the entrance to the Gunung Leuser National Park, a vast area that serves as a refuge for quite some endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, - Elephant, Rhino and many species of monkeys -  including orangutans that have been rescued from illegal pet trade and are being nursed and then gradually released back into the wilds. The animals come from different places - sometimes they have simply been kept as pets which is a tradition here, because a baby orangutan is thanks to the great genetic match to humans almost like a child and also often held lovingly. However, to get an orangutan baby one always has to kill the mother - there is only this way to get the baby - often up to 6 adult animals are being killed to get one baby, but this is not the only reason why these animals are sought for the illegal pet trade, (which is big business and now ranks almost on a par with the drug and arms trade). Orangutans are internationally sought after commodity - for zoos, animal shows (because of their intelligence and strength they can be trained as Gogogirls or even for Thai Kickboxing shows and some of them have even been forced into prostitution the sick human mind does not shy away from anything…. Another "natural"  enemy of these animals is the trade of organs for medical purposes (the Chinese again) and of course the palm oil industry, which pays premiums to workers for these “vermin” to be exterminated. And then there are gourmet restaurants too, which sell parts of dead animals as a delicacy. The reasons for the slow extinction of many animal species are as diverse as they are distasteful and if it needs a place like Bukit Lawang to make it worth wile to preserve endangered species and if this works then this alone is a reason to visit the place.  

Right - this was my sermon of the day - we are here and fight our way through all these offers of places to stay. First however we have to find a parking space for Liza at the tourist office and then we take a room in the first guest house for one night, just to shop around for a better place in peace, without luggage and most importantly, without locals at the apron strings, trying to talk us into, jungle treks, canoeing,  and whatever else at exorbitant prices.

It turns out that the nicest and most affordable place to stay is right next door and straight away we reserve a room here for the next day and then flee to bed, because the jungle guides find us everywhere.

We enjoy the nice and quiet atmosphere in Indah Bukit Lawang for the next few days and try to find out what we can and want to do/see. On the first day we hike on your own with tickets and Photo Permission (which is more expensive than the tickets) to the entrance of the National Park, where 2 times daily some food is put out on a platform for the orangutans that are not quite ready to fend for themselves in  the wild. The march is quite hard because the village is very drawn out and at the end you get taken across the river with a boat and then you still have a good bit of uphill walking to do until you reach the platform - now we're sitting there with a bunch of tourists from different countries and all hope that an orangutan is hungry enough to show up - I'll make it short: we are all out of luck and have to march back in the incipient tropical rain as orangutans apparently don’t like getting wet, and I can’t help getting rather amused by watching some bad-tempered young Australians, who apparently have a problem with the fact that their designer trainers are getting dirty. ... unbelievable that this could happen in a jungle!

On the way back to our stay we meet yet another business-savvy guide who tries to persuade us to do a jungle trek and I tell him bluntly that I’m  definitely not going to pay 25 € per person for a 3 hour walk about – which is the only option of the jungle- treks on offer I feel up to - the Scout version where you drag yourself through the hot rain forest for several days and sleep under a sheet by the campfire I leave to the young people and not only because the costs are astronomical .

Anyway - he lowers the price immediately by half and I promise to have a think about it. We talk a little more and he tries tempt us with trips to elephants and Raflesia arnoldii (the world's largest flower), but the only thing we agree on is a date for the evening to music and palm wine.

After crossing the rickety suspension bridge (which I hate like the plague) back to our guest  house a cold shower and then settling down for dinner, however I realize that no 10 horses can make me, a) get up again and go anywhere and b) certainly not over this bridge and I'm talking Kevin into, just leaving me and go across on his own..

While Kev has fun with Sing Song and palm wine on the other side of the river I join a few French backpackers who we have already met in Medan and learn a new card game from them while the tour guides of this place together with some tourists provide a nice framework program making music and sing to guitar and bongos.

Early the next morning one of the guys from Kevin's party comes across to talk us into a guided jungle trek. He does in the end make an acceptable offer for a 3 hours jungle tour and we finally agree - we would really love to see the giant apes in their natural environment and shortly after noon we set off. First, quite harmlessly walking along the river, but after a short while, we start to climb up a steep hill I never really would  have believed that I could get up there - I pull myself up on lianas and roots, while Bob (our guide) keeps stopping to ensure that we do not take the wrong plants for leverage and don’t cut our hands or burn them on poisonous stuff , or to show us where to get the best grip.

I can not tell you how high we climbed, or how long it took, but in the end we are drenched in sweat and even a tropical rain shower could not make us any wetter. Now I have to discover, that I forgot the bug spray, so that from now on I am in constantly dancing the Schuhplattler ( Wikipedia: The Schuhplattler is a traditional folk dance popular in the Alpine regions of Bavaria and Austria – Kerstipedia: it’s some alpine version of Morris dancing only that the men are usually younger (and look more like the Rammstein guys) and instead of hankys, bells and sticks they wear Lederhosen and do a lot of slapping their knees and thighs (same amount of beer drinking though)), because the bastards love me and there are billions of them here - once I truly hit 5 mosquitoes in one go at my shin ... dead.

Bob is now trying with all his might to find orangutans and we walk back and forth in the jungle, but apart from a Gibbon (who alone was  worth to come for) and a horde of droll Thomas leaf monkeys, (this animal species is not an endangered one, but they are only found here in North Sumatra), we have no luck and I start to think that we probably have to bury our hopes of seeing an orangutan, when suddenly Bob gets really excited and even we can not overhear the loud cracking in the branches - then we also see them: a total of 4 female orangutans and two babies - I'm trying desperately to take a few photos, but the strong contrasts of light and dense vegetation make it not easy for me. Luckily in the digital age you at least don’t need to be afraid to mess up tons of film rolls and so I snap everything that moves and then just put the camera away and watch how the heavy animals shimmy effortlessly through the treetops, while Bob himself satisfied with his day's work sits on a tree stump only warning us to get out of the way should one of the mothers come down and leaves us otherwise to fulfill our Attenborough wildlife filmmaker urge.

At the end we are almost 5 hours in the rain forest with him and return happy, smelly, foot lame and hungry back at our digs - the cold Bintang goes down like oil and Bob entertains us with stories such as how marijuana came to Banda Aceh which goes like this: there was a king who loved his daughter very much - when she came of marriageable age, he invited all the princes to a contest and the daughter should marry the winner - but she was too vain and despised the hero. So the gods have turned her into a beautiful plant. Someone found out that you could smoke the flower and now all had their fun with the vain princess. The birds have eaten the seeds and shat them everywhere and this is why there is so much good marijuana to be found throughout Banda Aceh!

In the evening, we are having another guitar bongo concert with the guides and guests and I can not help but notice that these young men could just as well be skiing- or surf instructors - they have the same behavior pattern (look at me, I am the snow – wave -  jungle guru) and prey schemes (pretty tourists in the impressionable age).  

Our last day here we just enjoy the peace and nurse the now stiff joints, because tomorrow we’ll go to Lake Toba.

Although we never rise as early, as we want it’s still before noon, we treat ourselves to a hearty breakfast and study the map, because if possible we don’t want to go back to Medan, but hope to find a route across the country and there is one indicated on the map.

The young man in the restaurant shakes his head and says: "No road - only jungle" but we decide that he probably thinks we're tourist wimps and want to at least try to find this road - Medan is simply horrible, even if we only have to use the outermost ring road.

About 29 Km before Medan (we are already in the hated city traffic for a while) we find the desired turn and my GPS also shows a small white road that goes in the right direction.

First there is a fairly good road surface, then it's full of holes, but not impossible to ride, but at some point we are only on loose gravel with big rocks everywhere - our Liza and our backs have to take heavy strikes and after a particularly bad engine-torture-bit smoke is suddenly coming out of the alternator cover and the motor stops. I immediately demand to turn back, because in my head cinema there is enough material for the horror movie: "Engine Massacre in Sumatra", but Kev is Mr cool - he says it's only water from the last river crossing, (that was ages ago) and it’s probably because the engine has overheated and needs a brake more often and bla bla bla ..

After we have fought our way for about 25 Km more over stony tracks with steep sections, which are intersected by deep erosions, where I have to walk uphill most of the time because we keep having to push the heavy outfit out of holes into which the sidecar pulls us over and over again we come to a deep water hole, and here even Kevin's eternal optimism has to give in and we finally turn back. The way back is just as hard as before and then we come to a hill that we can not get up even with an empty sidecar and me pushing –the ground is too loose and the bike just pulls sideways into a deep groove, the engine block is sitting on the ground and the frame and has dug into the wall at the side. We fight forever and at some point, we actually manage to push and rock her out of the hole, but end up with the rear tire sticking out a little over the rim of an abyss,  even Horst Ullrich’s stable handy work would not survive this drop and now the situation is really serious - there is no room for failure and with incredible effort which  is fueled by despair we make it - millimeter by millimeter away from the drop ….  and back into the hole. We have no food, half a bottle of water from which we every now and then treat ourselves to a little sip and a few Riccola sweets (without sugar). For hours we have not seen or heard a soul and our strength is running out. We decide to try pushing in another direction and with a little luck maybe we can get her down the hill, turn around and try it again with a bit more speed. We manage it and for a moment it even looks as if it would work, but shortly before the top the side-car starts pulling sideways again and here we are – once more in the same b…***…dy deep hole. Now, however, we are both at the end of our strength and hope, it is just not possible - we squat with trembling limbs exhausted beside the mess and I can already see the headline: two dimwitted foreigners drown in the mess they brought on themselves (because they have thrown the warnings of locals in the wind) and are then being eaten by rare Sumatran tigers.

Suddenly I hear engine noise - the most beautiful sound in the world that you can imagine! I even manage to run down the hill and in front of me is a strange looking vehicle full of palm oil clusters and six young men who follow my plead to please help us and with little ado lift the bike out of the  hole and push it up the hill - I have rarely been so happy !

From here we make it back without further major problems - to Medan and in the next jungle. Back again in a thick traffic jam winding its way through and out of town and now it's dark, we're hungry, completely knackered and not a hotel in sight. When we find a street full of hotels a local resident tells us that these are houses of disrepute where rooms are rented by the hour – so we take his advice and move on

The next hotel after a lot of searching has also red lights and the hearts everywhere, but now we do not care anymore- they just laugh at us when we ask for a room for the night (funny - my humor is now at zero and I miss the punch line here) - on we go and still only slowly with many stops.

It's past 8 pm when we finally find another hotel - with sauna (who needs something like that in this heat) and by all indications also a rent-by-the-hour-hotel, but we get a room not cheap but also not extortionate and now we try according to the hierarchy of needs, to get something to eat, but the staff understand very little English and are also a bundle of help. Food? What Food? Fried Noodles? - Yes, yes! Any food - bread, rice noodles whatever!

After a while one of the staff comes with 2 small bottles of water, for which he demands 16,000 rupees – this is outrageous – normally we pay 3000 at the most for one of these! He shrugs and says: “this hotel” Well they still owe me the change for the room which is 10000 and I have to fight hard with myself not to grab him by the throat – “Food No” he says then. With difficulty I clarify that he still owes us money and give him another 6,000 rupees and hope that he now just disappears before my temper completely fails.

In the room there is a television (in a cage), I've played around with it while we were waiting for food, but when I touch the plug it just falls off and shatters on the ground. The socket I plug the computer in for charging, so that we have a GPS again in the morning is without electricity, the bathroom is absolutely filthy with a bucket shower - what the heck – we’ll just stink, but we still need to find something to eat. Since there is no key to the room (supposedly lost) we lock the computer in the bike and take everything we don’t want to lose with us on the search for food. In the dark, we walk down the street, always checking our backs, because everyone here drives where he wants and that a breakneck speed and find a small café on the other side of the road – they have no food though - only cake, but enough to get full and so we enjoy each 2 giant pieces of cake and two warm beers before heading back and falling completely unnerved and exhausted into bed.

 The next morning we are rather stiff and thanks to yesterday’s struggles also very slow to get going. The dreadful traffic is still as bad as before and we reach the mountains at snail’s pace- we finally arrive at Berastagi, where we have breakfast (at noon ) we refuel and buy money from the hole in the wall and then it finally gets more quiet on the road and the countryside is beautiful - we need a few hours until we reach Lake Toba and then the road winds forever along the banks of the largest lake in Asia which at the same time is the world's largest and deepest lake of volcanic origin. Lake Toba was formed about 70,000 years ago after a massive volcanic explosion that was so immense that it has caused an ice age. We reach Parapat from where the ferry leaves to the island where we will spend the next few days. It's totally awesome, even though we are not far from the equator it’s nice and cool – more like European summer and the scenery is really beautiful - no wonder that this is a popular destination in Sumatra.

The way to the ferry is not signposted well if it is it’s definitely not readable for us, but fortunately  there are always nice people that tell us where we need to go - the ferry terminal is quite hidden and just as we arrive a ferry leaves and we can just watch it disappear. While Kev queues for a ticket for the next ferry I let everyone sit on the bike one by one and do the usual thumbs-up pictures with them – it’s a way to  pass the time.

  When we arrive in Tuk Tuk, it is already dark and now we remember again, that we forgot to look at the light - we still have none and for high beam Kev has to keep pressing the high beam switch.

We find our way anyway and a nice guest house where we even may park the bike indoors at night as well - the only problem is they just hand me a key for the room and  then send me rambling down some unlit stairs which seem  to go on for ages - the rooms are in separate houses along the shore and I have to search around for a while – stumbling over all sorts , until I finally find it - super nice and the stairs - well we'll survive them. I am curious to see what it looks like in daylight here.

We sleep really well at any rate with the sound of the waves slopping onto the beach we find it so wonderfully relaxing  …. And as beautiful as I hoped it would be and so we decide the next morning, rested and much fitter, to explore the island by motorcycle.

We don’t get far, however, because when we drive through the village we meet a familiar face: Bernie an Australian who we met for the first time in Malacca and afterwards with his friend Dave in Bukit Lawang and spontaneously we decide to accompany him to his breakfast restaurant, where we have a lively conversation, until a pretty strange guy from Singapore joins us. He entertains us with his weird views on the world - like how people are being dumbed down by fluorides in the water, then he moves on to the island's history, then shipping prices for vehicles and finally the theory that Adolf Hitler is buried here in a village under a different name – he also believes that Angela Merkel is his daughter because she was born in the old DDR and therefore should not have been able to get to power like she did…?!? He has much more to tell and we listen amused and amazed to these rather strange opinions - but this way half of the day flies by and in the end we just have enough time to see only the upper half of the island and then have to hurry to return in daylight - we have arranged to meet with Bernie and Dave for dinner and then we want to watch the football match between Germany and Portugal – there is actually a pub here that offers public viewing.

The next day will finally be used for an extended exploration of the island.  

The complete round is around 100 Km and because the roads are usually in pretty bad condition and there are tons of incredibly beautiful views, where we have to keep stopping to take pictures and there is also so much to see, that is unique (architecture, tombs, costumes etc) and every time we stop a curious bunch of people gathers around us, who ask us the familiar questions about motorcycle travel and origin, we need the whole day for this task.

On Samosir (finally the name of the island has come to me again) live the Batak people, an independent ethnic group of former head hunters / cannibals who were converted (by a German missionary) in great numbers to the Christian faith, they have however since then founded their own church which combines Christianity with Batak traditions and still practice some essential elements of their ancient beliefs. The dead are buried in elaborate tombs above ground and after so many years the bones are put to rest in a different part of the grave – a smaller compartment seated on  the top of the tomb in a second funeral later. The houses consist of three levels, the bottom is made of wooden posts with a kind of fence around them and this floor symbolizes lower needs and wants in life and hell (here often pigs are kept), the middle level serves as a living space for the entire family and symbolizes the human life in general and the huge roof in the form a boat is used for the gods,  well now just for one but there is no harm in making offerings to the old gods – just in case…  this level symbolizes the world of the ancestors. ...

The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is popular and widely used around here (and not prohibited by law), so there are mushroom omelets or -Tee on the menu in the restaurants - much to the delight of many backpackers who float around  on cloud number whatever some of them with verbal diarrhea but not much sense.

With the locals next to the mushrooms the enjoyment of palm wine is quite popular and you see them in the evening in a relaxed atmosphere sitting together and singing with guitar, it starts after two glasses of Tuak a bit wobbly, after a few glasses more it sounds beautiful and harmonious but gets quite noisy after about 5 glasses ending eventually and quite abruptly.

The west side of Samosir was originally connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge, but the Dutch have dug a channel probably to be able to get everywhere with their ships - there are some hot springs and in some places the unpleasant smell of sulfur hangs in the air.  

The sun is already going down, when we just arrive at the northern tip of the island, and because of our light problem Kev tries to get back as fast as possible so he attaches himself to an ambulance, which is quite fast, but then we have to stop, because there is an incredibly spectacular sunset which I have to photograph, then it is pitch dark and we have to navigate around the deep potholes and we are glad when we finally get back to our guest house.

The next day I somehow do not want to do anything and then Kev Bernie and Dave decide that they again want to do a lap around the island – all three of them on our Liza and I have for the first time, since we are on the road one day all to myself. I just use it to write a little, but also to simply have some peace and quiet what a bliss. The men are also very excited about their day when they come back Bernie is even considering to also get himself a sidecar.


On the following day we want to get back on the road but first we meet one last time with Bernie and Dave for a nice breakfast. As usual we lose ourselves in stories from the road and those two guys gave loads of them on offer. Dave has been into all sorts of enterprises and adventures – I wonder how he did it all – seems as if he can’t have had possibly enough years to live it all and Bernie has been a sound engineer for films and big concerts until he developed a Tinnitus  and had to find himself a new career but he has met many famous and interesting people in his time and is full of great stories … and well … the two of us are not really quiet either and in the end is not really much left of   the day when we leave Tuk Tuk and then we still have to stop an awful lot as there are unbelievable views to admire everywhere and we are always surrounded by locals who want to  take  pictures. It all takes time and we don’t get anywhere near as far as we actually had planned for today.

We are on Sumatra now for 2 weeks and have not even crossed half of it so if we want to reach East Timor within our 60 days of visa time and also see everything we’d like to (volcanoes, Komodo dragons, manta rays etc.) and then not forget that the ferries only leave twice a week from some of these islands we have to get our skates on.

They must have smelled that in our hotel as there is someone going from  room to room and knocking on doors at 7 o’clock the next morning – well that’s a novelty now ….but we don’t complain even if it is not realistic to think we will make it to Bukitingi today (that’s another 500 kms) – who knows – we might get there after all.

All in all we make good progress for a change. The landscape is really beautiful, lots of rainforest and thanks to the altitude it’s still nicely cool and many people wave to us as we go past. Sometimes the road surface is rather bad – but we only take a few stops for a ciggy or a cool drink and just keep driving. Apart from that what does hold us up more than anything else are the slow lorries with their smoking exhausts (Knallpot in Indonesian) and the little Bemo’s which crawl up the hills in a black  cloud and inside and out they are covered with passengers and their belongings. It’s hard to overtake on the bendy roads and having the sidecar where the driver should be does not help  either. So I have to hang out and signal when we have a clear stretch and can overtake. I am in  constant disagreement with our navigation program – it keeps telling me that that there are no roads and sometimes decides therefore that it might as well have a break and switch off – I start hating the ignorant bstrd…

Shortly after lunch we arrive at a beautiful viewing point at the top of a mountain – all around hills covered in rainforest. Here we meet a couple of cyclists, they are from Magdeburg in Germany and have cycled all the way (well at least an awful lot of it) and have been on the road for 15 months now. Oh my god – I really thought we are mad … but this I really could not imagine…. Like all the cyclists we have met so far they keep telling me it isn’t really that difficult – you just gradually get used to it (my mum always says: you can get used to anything even being run over by a steam roller)! The couple tells us that they saw our Liza in Georgetown but we must have been on one of our wanders around the old town at the time and they are also on their way to Australia now where they intend to work a bit for the  budget – I think once again how unfair it is that we are not allowed to do this just cause we’re old farts. We exchange contacts  and hope to sometimes meet again – who knows – do you not always meet twice?

Now however we all need to make tracks just to make sure we get to a town big enough for a guest house – the smaller towns and villages round here just have a few wooden shags or palm huts (with satellite dishes though) but there is nothing else.

We all ramble on and finally Bukitinggi starts appearing on road signs at least – still, there is no chance to get there today.

Once we actually get stopped by the police and I think: wonderful – what are they going to invent for charging us?! But I am wrong – they only want to take pictures. We are used to the right poses by now and when it gets too much for me or I don’t really like the people I am posing for I just do the victory sign the wrong way round (only Brits will know it’s an insult really – everybody else just thinks I am a bit thick …) Well that photo photo business can really get a bit much at times – we always have to answer the same questions: We are from Jerman (no I did not misspell – it’s Indonesian!), oh yess – good football, yess, I know Özil too (I did wonder if they all know him because of his part Turkish-Muslim origin but I am told it’s because people here are very football crazy and as they do not have any team to write home about they follow the English, German and Spanish league and apparently he has played in all of them), the bike is a Be Em Ve – no you can’t buy it like that,  it’s custom built, the tank takes 45 liters and the spare tank another 30, yess – we drove the whole way……

At 5 pm we get to a town big enough for one hotel and that’s 17 € for the night. It’s another 150 km to Bukitinggi. We could possibly make it but then we would pass the equator in the dark ….. no chance- we want the photos! Apart from that we have been really good today, we only spend 2 ,- € for a pineapple and a coffee and the rooms do even have a proper shower and a telly maybe we can even watch some football?! No –we can’t – that’s asking too much.

The next day is a special day – it’s the first anniversary of our farewell party and also the day we will for the first time cross the equator.

I am very excited and keep checking the coordinates on the GPS so we will not miss the correct point.

Thankfully we have left the rainy season behind us when we left Malaysia – here we do still get some threatening clouds sometimes but they rarely lose their liquid content. The road is really good around here and only in the mountains we have some slow moving traffic when 2 trucks have to pass each other on the narrow bits – we are making good progress.

I keep getting lost in memories – one year ago we were preparing for the big day and a lot of friends have come from quite far to celebrate with us …. Some people never expected us to be on the road for more that 3 or 4 weeks before returning on the back of a breakdown truck and we are mightily proud to have got this  far now.

The views are lovely once again. Everywhere it’s very green and lots of dense rainforest around us, in the distance volcanoes covered in cloud and everywhere smiling and waving people shouting Hello.

And then we reach the equator and it turns out that I needn’t have worried to miss it – to do that you really have to be blind. There is a bridge over the road with a big banner stating that you are now crossing the equator and a visitor center where you can perform the water test (one step on the northern hemisphere the water turns right way round the plughole directly on the line it just goes straight down and one step over the other side it turns left). There are T-shirt vendors and we are sad enough to buy one – it says: Equator and the world! The guy who sells them to us is even so nice to take some pictures for us posing under the banner and then we turn the throttle as far as possible and make it to Bukitinggi well before sunset.

The hope to find a cheap hotel in next to no time is quickly forgotten though – it seems as if every Jack, man and his dog are out today and the town is absolutely choc-a-bloc. It seems to be some special day but we can not find out which one and all the cheap hotels are full. We’re jamming across town and back and in the end we find some stuffy economy rooms on the top floor of hotel Asean. It does not even have a fan and is right under the roof – well at least we’re 900 above sea level and it is bearable.

We just wash the black diesel fumes off our faces and start looking for some food and to celebrate the special day – a beer would be nice. We have to  run for that a bit – there are too many Muslims here and the sinful liquid is only sold in a few places run by foreigners at least is lovely and quiet here – all the other places were full of families and screaming kids (we can state one fact now: Indonesians are noisy people…)

The next day we have a ride around the area and visit the old king’s palace – it is really beautiful – and then I’ve gotten it into my head that I want to get up mount Merapi (not to be confused with Marapi – that one is on Java and one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia). This one is only the most active volcano on Sumatra and I can tell you now: There is no road going up we tried from every angle!

We only stop in Bukitinggi for 2 nights and then one year after setting off from home we set off to tackle what is left of this island as fast as possible.

It’s strange to think that already one year has passed – it seems like yesterday and exactly like one year ago we hit the road intending to do as many kilometers as possible.

Differences: we are woken up by the muezzin next door (rather early), have a lot less to pack, nobody to see us off or accompany us, more palm trees and volcanoes and the GPS says S instead of N and even though everybody drives as if they were on the motorway – there is none.

We jam and stop start our way out of the city and once again I battle with the navigation program – it keeps insisting to tell me that we are in an area of no roads….. once more I have to navigate by feel more than anything else but we manage.

After a while the stupid GPS actually picks up a route and now the traffic quietens down too and I can relax for a while and let my mind meander back. It seems like only yesterday when we left home but at the same time all that stress of packing, tying up loose ends and sorting first my mother’s birthday  party, our leaving do, the paperwork and our house seems so far away and is replaced by all these different and wonderful experiences we had since and it’s hard to believe that there is such a thing as “normal life”.

We drive at first through some really nice scenery with proper jungle and misty volcanoes most of which are inactive except gunung Merapi

We have started to adapt to local driving customs which means we overtake on any side and red traffic lights are to be taken optional. It works mostly and as the sidecar is on the wrong side here I have to tell Kev when to overtake and how (NOW and give it welly).

We had breakfast at the last hotel so we just drive and drive -  along a nice lake and past some beautiful traditional houses which you find quite often in this area. We only have a couple of fag brakes and one tank stop – 22,5 liters for less than 10 €! That feels good.

After a while the scenery gets a bit boring though – all palm oil and rubber tree plantations and today there are a lot less people waving and pippin at us but when we stop there is always someone stopping too and wanting to take pictures with us.

We manage about 270 km in 7 hours. That does not sound much but there is no way of doing it faster. At 5 pm we start looking for a guesthouse but are in a bleak area now. Even when we get into a bigger town there is nothing to be seen and we really had enough. We are both black all over from the diesel trucks which keep blowing black clouds all over the place and we are starving too.

There is a brand-new hotel and we are past caring about prices so we get a room even if it is ridiculous money: 17 € for the night!

After a quick shower we make our way across the road for some food and choose about everything on offer. But we can not celebrate with a beer today (too Muslim here) so we save some money again and afterwards we have to pose with everybody in the neighborhood and make facebook friends.

In the end I start yawning theatrically so we can escape but have to promise to come round with the bike in the morning for some more pictures.

I had planned to repair some ripped pants tonight – instead I battle with the charging cable of our computer which only works when it feels like it and just one second before I get my German head on and slam it on the wall it decides to work again (I just hope it will do so until we get to OZ – don’t think I will find a new one here for some reason).

What is left of Sumatra is not particularly beautiful or special in any way but we always meet lovely people which invite us for some food, a bed for the night or something else (one guy even insists to pay for a tank filling for us) and after 23 days we have finally crossed the largest of the Indonesian islands ( well – Borneo is partly Malaysian so it does not count really) and arrive after a whole lot of new adventures at the ferry to Java ….. wondering if the next island will be same same or different