Surfing, sailing and exploring beyond Sumatra and the Mentawai Islands
by Dan Scheffler
Editors: Claire Strombeck and David Tyfield
Cover Design: Justin Groombridge
Photos: Dan Scheffler, unless otherwise credited
Published by Trippy Books
Copyright Dan Scheffler 2012
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Trans-Sumatran Highway
Chapter1: Exploring Sumatra
Chapter2: Sea Legs
Chapter3: Beyond the Equator
Chapter4: Making the Grade
About the Author
The names of the characters and the ship have been changed to protect the author (who is innocent).
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
The Trans-Sumatran Highway
“I had endured the Trans-Sumatran Highway and I swore that I would never ever in my life attempt anything like it again.”
The bus driver slammed on brakes and we came to a screeching halt by the side of the road, setting off a cacophony of squawking chickens, bleating goats and swearing passengers. I craned my neck to see what had happened, but the only reason for stopping was that our driver had spotted more people who wanted to travel to somewhere along our route. He was happy to pocket a few more Rupiah in fares and to let them squeeze inside. After all, he had his own seat all to himself. A barrage of hooting and shouting came from the vehicles in the traffic behind us as the bus swerved onto the road again.
We were on the Trans-Sumatran Highway heading for the mountains and this part of my journey had not gotten off to a good start.
I had landed at the town of Parapat, on the shore of the picturesque Lake Toba, after taking a ferry from the island in the middle of the huge water-filled volcanic crater. My next stop was Bukittinggi, but the lady at the bus station shook her head sadly when she saw my surfboards. The busses that went south did not take that kind of luggage and she did not know of an alternative way to get there. She shrugged her shoulders and then just ignored me. The woman in the line behind me at the ticket counter shuffled past and pushed me aside, ending my enquiry.
I sat around for a while, wondering what to do, when I heard the greeting that every traveller to Indonesia gets to know so well: “Hello Mister”. “Hello Mister” is used to address any foreign man or woman. This usually signals an intention to practice English with you, or it’s just a simple greeting. However, it can also mean, “I am a crook and I am now going to get as much money from you as possible, you stupid tourist.” The man who approached me fell into the latter category of Hello-Misterers. I could see it in his eyes and he knew that I knew that he was about to work me over. But he also knew that it was almost getting dark and that I did not want to spend an evening on the street in Parapat, or probably worse, in one of the cheaper local “hotels”. So with this unspoken understanding between us, knowing that he had me by the crown jewels, he proceeded to twist and squeeze. There were no regular busses that would take my surfboards to Bukittinggi, he said, but he knew of one that, by a very fortunate coincidence, was leaving for just that town tonight. He could arrange for my boards to be transported. This kind of allowance was not usually made, but he knew the driver and he could persuade him to take me along, at the right price of course. I had to understand that they would be making a special concession for me, so there would be a nominal extra charge.
What choice did I have? I had already spoken to some of the regular bus drivers directly and they were not prepared to take my surfboards, even after I had offered extra payment. Nobody could tell me of any alternative transport. My new agent smiled broadly, showing off a mishmash of gold teeth, ill-fitting dentures and tobacco stained gums. I smiled back at him, while trying to convert Rupiah to a more familiar currency in my mind, comparing his price to the cost of a regular ticket and thinking murderous thoughts. We finally agreed on a price and, after I had paid up, we walked around the corner to a questionable looking coach that was about to leave “any minute now”. I loaded my board bag onto the roof and found my way onto the bus. There were no luggage racks inside the bus and most people kept their bags on their laps. I put my twenty-kilogram backpack on the floor next to me and waited for the bus to leave.
Three hours later, after slowly filling up with people, livestock and luggage, it wheezed and coughed out of the bus station and lurched into the path of an oncoming truck, setting the tone for the rest of the journey.
I soon found out that I was on a local bus, which was really only meant for short distance travel; but it did go all the way to my destination. The local bus will never refuse one more passenger and it is always overcrowded. Everybody on the local bus chain-smokes clove cigarettes. The people here hate open windows and as soon as I opened one for some fresh air, it would be closed again. The offended person would indicate to me that the cold wind would aggravate his chest problems. The notion that cigarettes could be harmful to your health seems unheard of in Sumatra.
The first four hours of the trip were okay. Of course, everyone wanted to talk to the white tourist and they rotated through the seat next to me continuously. Within half an hour I got my first marriage proposal. As I would find out over the next weeks, this particular lady was by no means the only person who would suggest matrimony to complete strangers like me, but she was the most persistent. It went like this:
“How are you?”
“Fine and you?”
“I am more wonderful! Are you married?”
“You have girlfriend?”
“But she no here?”
“Good! Will you marry me?”
“Well, um, I don’t know you at all. What would your father say?”
“He like very much.” She turned to indicate an elderly gentleman sitting next to his wife a few rows behind us. He flashed me an encouraging betel nut-smile. She continued, “I get to know you well on this bus. We have many hours together!”
My heart sank. “But I’m not Muslim.”
“No problem. We have very good Imam. He cut you quickly, snip-snip, and he teach you Koran. My brothers also help you.” She pointed out three sinister looking fellows, who did not return my nervous smile. “Look, I have strong back, wide hips, thick legs!” She patted her ample thighs. “We have many, many children, me and you. You have camera? Come, take photo of us.”
The bus broke down just in time. We stopped at a little roadside warung and I escaped from my prospective bride to the dimly lit interior. While the bus was being repaired, I had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and chillies, spiced by Satan himself. As I wiped the perspiration from my face and my stomach signalled its extreme disapproval, I took some comfort from the knowledge that soon I would be blowing some noxious gasses back at the smokers on the bus.
Back on board, the fattest woman in Sumatra sat down next to me. She had a child smelling of poo on her lap and it seemed as if she had tried to disguise her own sweaty odour with a lot of cheap deodorant. She was so large that there was no room for my rucksack on the floor between us and she stared at it sullenly, motioning for me to move it out of the way. Of course, there was nowhere else to put it and I ended up holding it on my lap. I started regretting my purchase of that large ceramic Buddha head, which was now painfully pushing into my groin. The fat lady squashed me against the window and I began to wish that the next person would take their turn to sit next to me, but it seemed that everybody had had a good look at me by that stage and that this lady and her pongy baby were going to be my close companions for the next few hours.
Then it started raining.
The window leaked.
The woman fell asleep on my shoulder and crushed me against the side of the bus that was now streaming with water. I got rained on from one side, drooled on by the kid and soaked with sweat by the woman. As if this wasn’t enough, the cigarette smoke and the motion of the bus (manic bus driver as always) made me unbearably queasy. Gradually my legs became numb and soon I could no longer feel my feet.
When the bus broke down for the second time, I was very grateful for the chance to escape into the soaking rain. I don’t know what was wrong, but the driver pulled into some kind of garage and spent two hours welding the front axle. After that the suffering continued; the fat lady did not leave me.
At 5 a.m. we stopped again. Relief! This time we had run out of petrol and someone hitched to the nearest town with a large container. Eventually we got going again until we reached a bridge that was so rickety that all the passengers had to get out and walk across before the bus could drive over it. We got back on and continued our journey, still stopping periodically to pick up and drop off more passengers.
I was not the only one on the bus that was feeling unwell. A few rows in front of us a man started vomiting and everyone crowded around him, apparently to see what he had brought up, as if it wasn’t obvious enough from the smell that he had eaten some strong fish curry. Indonesians are the most curious people I know of. Then our afflicted fellow passenger threw a shopping bag full of vomit out of the window, splattering it along the side of the bus. Somewhere in the back a goat started bleating again. The driver kept on blaring his horn at every passing vehicle and he overtook the slower traffic wildly, almost exclusively on blind rises and hairpin bends. From time to time his head bobbed forward, as if he was nodding off, but he took several swigs from a bottle in a brown paper bag when this happened and this seemed to jolt him awake. From this point on I lost contact with reality, going through a sort of out of body experience. I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening around me. My head slumped against the vibrating bus window and I felt my brain juddering around in my skull as I fell into fitful sleep.
Eighteen excruciating hours after the bus had set out from Parapat we eventually arrived in Bukittinggi. I didn’t care what was happening anymore and I probably would have stayed on the bus for another eighteen hours, like a deluded hostage who falls in love with his kidnappers and refuses to go with his rescuers. But they dropped my surfboards onto the tarmac from the roof of the bus and that shook me out of my stupor. I leapt out of that bus and grabbed my board bag, cautiously inspecting the contents. Miraculously, there was no obvious damage to the boards.
Somebody handed me my rucksack and I staggered onto the road, feeling as if I had undergone some sort of religious conversion, or possibly that I had been brainwashed by the secret police to become a new man; a blank slate to start on afresh. I was a changed person: I had endured the Trans-Sumatran Highway and I swore that I would never ever in my life attempt anything like it again.
“What makes travelling so appealing to me is that everything is renewed constantly. New challenges and different happenings arise all the time …”
The reason for this trip through Sumatra’s mountainous interior was, of course, to go surfing …
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is spread out over a huge tract of ocean, more than 5000 kilometres from east to west. That is greater than the distance between Seattle in the northwest of the USA and Miami in the southeast. Straddling the equator, Sumatra is Indonesia’s western-most island and the fabled Mentawai Islands are spread out just off its coast, facing an almost endless stretch of the Indian Ocean. This archipelago was where I was heading. On most maps of this part of the world these little islands are represented by just a few small dots, but there are about seventy of them, some of them so small that they disappear at high tide, others large enough to support substantial towns and large expanses of rainforest. They are bathed in the warm, clear water of the strait that the local people call the Selat Mentawai and they are fringed by coral reefs with an inordinately high percentage of world-class waves breaking along their shores.
With lush tropical vegetation, brilliant white beaches and water in enough shades of blue to make any interior decorator green with envy, they are picture perfect. Swells that are generated in the ocean far to the south are groomed over thousands of sea miles until they meet the symmetrical reefs of the Mentawais to produce some of the world’s best waves in a variety of locations amongst the islands. Now I was on my way to ride them.
But I did not want to merely fly in to the port from which I would be sailing. That would be boring. There were bound to be some interesting things in Sumatra’s vast interior, with its varied peoples, its volcanic peaks and dense forests. Take for instance the Bataks, a group of fiercely independent tribes straight out of the Neolithic age, who had chopped off a good few missionaries’ heads before they were eventually persuaded to adopt a more conventional (to us Westerners) lifestyle. I wanted to meet the descendants of these warriors and to see their country. It wouldn’t be right to just sail around the edges of this massive island without at least taking a peak at its core.
What had set the ball rolling was a small advertisement in a surf magazine back home in South Africa: “Wanted: Six guys with guts”. The ad was placed by Gerhard, a young attorney who had decided that surfing was more fun than suing people and that the solution to life’s problems was to build a ship in Indonesia, sail it through this endless chain of islands and find perfect waves. The advertisement briefly outlined his idea and asked for volunteers with the will and the nerve to see through such an adventure.
In the end, what he really needed was six guys with money to fund his venture, but the whole idea appealed to me strongly. Like all other surfers, I had been reading about the countless perfect, deserted breaks in the islands. I had watched the videos featuring stoked professional surfers riding breath-taking barrels and living a dream existence here. As an expedition doctor, I had previously been to the forests of Borneo, Java and Sumatra and I knew a good adventure when I saw one. This opportunity was too good to pass up. I worked overtime and saved up money, while fantasizing about perfect waves, coral reefs and palm-fringed beaches.
Gerhard’s grand plan had been to sail from Indonesia, through the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles and maybe even all the way home to South Africa. On the way he would surf, dive and explore the islands that lay between Africa and Asia. The journey would start in Sumatra, gateway to the Mentawai islands. The Mentawais had only become known as a surfers’ paradise in the nineties. Some adventurous Australian surfers had been going there on surf trips for some years and slowly photos of wonderful waves in idyllic locations started to surface. The guys who were shown these sacred pics were probably sworn to secrecy, but of course stories of these places spread like wild fire. Soon the surf magazines were publishing articles about this fantastic area and every surfer wanted to go and experience it. But it was difficult to get to the islands and when we sailed in the year 2000, the Mentawais were still relatively un-crowded. Malaria and a complete lack of infrastructure kept travellers away. There had been virtually no development in this region and the surf charter industry was still fairly small. There were no surf camps and many surfers still hopped on local fishing boats to get to hidden surf spots.
From the Mentawais our ship would sail to Malaysia and Thailand, where perfect diving, full moon parties and exotic food would await us. Next, it would be a relatively short hop over to the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, some of the most isolated places in the world to be inhabited by humans. The people of these islands were not used to Westerners and not long before our trip some researchers had been attacked there with bows and arrows. The Andamans could have great waves on the right swell. Further west, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the isolated Chagos Islands beckoned.
In order to make such a journey, Gerhard needed a good ship. After investigating the different possibilities, he decided to build a traditional Pinisi, which is the kind of sailing ship the Bugis people of Sulawesi had been constructing for centuries. These sailors became the infamous pirates of the Malaccan straits, feared by all merchant ships. Apparently this is where the term “Boogie man” originated. So Gerhard, wife Charmaine and three other intrepid surfers went to the island of Sulawesi in the north of Indonesia to find someone who could build them a ship.
After two tries and a year and a half in Sulawesi, the right ship was eventually produced. It was a 120-foot ketch made of ironwood, with plenty of room on board, big fuel tanks for long-range travel and a powerful engine. She had a very shallow draft, about 2 meters if I remember correctly, so that she could navigate amongst shallow coral reefs. The vessel was painted white and she had the romantic look of a ship from a bygone era. She belonged amongst the islands of the East Indies and they named her the Island Explorer.
Often the best part of travelling is the preparation and anticipation before the trip. Getting all my equipment together was a thrill in itself. Nothing gets me as excited as taking out my mosquito net before a trip. The musty smell you shake out of it is like magic dust that takes over the senses. I was already seeing the forest and the beaches in front of me, feeling the warm water and gliding over untouched coral. This time I also had to bring extra surfboards, rash vests, and (gulp!) a surfing helmet.
But the major difference about leaving this time was that for the first time I had to leave someone behind. I had always been single when I had left on previous trips and there were only happy and exited farewells to envious friends and to my father who understood adventurous travel well. He had climbed South Africa’s most interesting and challenging peaks at a time when mountaineering was considered eccentric at best and recklessly suicidal at worst. And he had dived some reefs on the East Coast of Africa when diving masks were so scarce that he had to make his own out of an inner tube, a piece of glass and the rim of a Ricoffee tin. This all happened before I was born, but I had heard the stories and seen the photos and I had always dreamt of experiencing similar adventures.
A number of months after I had made the commitment to join the Island Explorer, I met Anne. A mutual friend had introduced us. The meeting place was a classy drinking establishment in Cape Town’s trendy centre, but to make it more interesting we usually just say that we picked each other up in a bar. Anne was different from the girls I had met and gone out with before. She was a young attorney who had just completed her articles at a large Cape Town firm. Unlike most, she was in it for justice, not the money (she didn’t stay a lawyer for very long; she’s a psychologist now). She hated the sea, was terrified of waves, got panic attacks on mountains, disliked camping in basic conditions and didn’t enjoy travelling to any destination that was unknown to her.
I couldn’t resist her.
Of course I did not know anything about Anne on that first evening when we met, so I spent the night regaling her with stories of surfing, climbing and roving to the most unholy places. She kept a straight face through it all. And a few days later she asked me out on a proper date! It was a black tie function with lots of very superior people everywhere and I don’t think that I fitted in very well with my blond ponytail, peeling nose and borrowed suit. But Anne and I got on like a house on fire.
Now I would be leaving her behind. We would be separated for at least five months if everything went to plan, with only e-mails from larger towns and occasional payphone connections through which to stay in contact. And if I entered really isolated areas, it would be weeks before Anne would hear from me. I knew that she would be worried and lonely; this time the thrill of walking through airport doors with surfboards and a backpack on my way to adventure was tempered by guilt and concern.
Despite all these mixed emotions, the feeling when I got off the plane in Sumatra was the same as it always is when I get off a flight in South East Asia. The humid, tropical air contrasts so strongly with the air-conditioned airplane that it feels as if you are getting a warm hug when you step onto the tar. You’re instantly enfolded by the soft arms and ample bosom of the voluptuous (if slightly sweaty) beauty called Indonesia. At sea level Sumatra is hot, moist and fertile, with pungent smells everywhere. In Medan the sweet scent of flowers mingles with clove cigarette smoke and the more distant odour of open sewers. This fusion of aromas sums up the whole of Indonesia for me: natural beauty is everywhere and is so diverse, but it is un-sanitised; the place is real and unadorned. You won’t be surprised by finding a lot of rubbish bins hidden in an alley around a corner. It’s right there in the open for everyone to see. Not always pretty, but honest at least. And the fertility of the region helps nature to soften man’s indiscretions. Even in the most built-up areas, plants force their way through the concrete to disguise some of the ugly constructions.
I have always liked to rough it while travelling. Shoestring travel forces you to really experience life on the ground in the area you are discovering, to get to know some local people and to find those magic places that package tourists never get an inkling of. The most interesting things happen when you have to live by your wits with only the help of the people you meet on the street. Sometimes you will get taken for a ride, but at least the ride should be an interesting one!
I dragged my board bag and rucksack away from the throng of clamouring taxi drivers outside the airport and loaded them into a tricycle becak (pronounced “beh-chuck”). You find this cross between a bicycle and a rickshaw all over Indo. It’s cheap and flexible, able to stop anywhere, and it can go places where cars can’t. Whereas it can be difficult to fit a bunch of surfboards into the average taxi, the becak driver simply lets them stick out at an angle and uses the protruding parts to keep pedestrians out of his way. The downside, of course, is that you are very vulnerable on open roads and Indonesian drivers aren’t exactly subtle when it comes to overtaking. My driver pedalled into the kind of heaving traffic you find in most large third world cities. I’m always surprised by how these guys just glide between the oncoming cars and trucks and manage to survive. My driver crossed the lanes, negotiated the turns across oncoming traffic and avoided the cops (becaks which aren’t motorized are slow and liable to hold up cars, so they were not allowed in the busy parts of the city) with a placid expression on his face. There was a Zen-like quality to him in the midst of all this hectic chaos; I never felt scared at all, even though there were some close calls with trucks whizzing past mere centimetres away. Some people trust in Fate to keep them safe on the roads. I trust in becak drivers.
I found the Sigura Gura hotel on a relatively quiet street not too far from some internet-cafés and moneychangers. It was a typical backpackers joint, with the usual mix of gap year students, overlanders and an older guy who decided to pack in his conventional job in Australia so he could find himself while travelling.
After sending Anne an e-mail to let her know that I had arrived safely, I hung around the lounge of the Sigura Gura. Here I met some German cyclists who were trying to cross Sumatra on two wheels. Unfortunately they had had so many close calls with trucks on the roads that they had decided to take a minibus out of the city into the countryside. Hopefully it would be safer to cycle from there. We agreed to share a lift and the next morning the five of us set out for the mountains to the south. After a three-hour ascent from the coastal plain into the mountains, we arrived in Berastagi. This mountain outpost is situated on the slopes of an active volcano, Gunung Sibayak. The Dutch colonists who came to Sumatra in the previous century established a comfortable base here. Its cooler climate suited their constitutions better and the incidence of malaria was lower at this altitude.
Berastagi is 1300 metres above sea level, so for a tropical town it actually gets quite cold at night. You need to sleep under blankets. After the hustle and bustle of Medan and the busy roads on my way there, Berastagi felt quiet and peaceful, a good place to rest up from the flight to Indonesia and to plan the rest of my overland journey. I decided to stay for a few days. The town centre consisted mostly of buildings from the colonial era, but there were also many traditional Sumatran long houses on the outskirts of town. These buildings have thatch roofs constructed in a saddle shape, rising at the ends of the house and making them look like the horns of a water buffalo from a distance. The walls are made of wood and usually the dwelling is raised on stilts. Often there were some chickens and a few dogs under the houses, with a vegetable garden in the back. Fruit trees like papaya, banana and mango were plentiful. The streets had virtually no traffic and I spent a pleasant day exploring the area on foot, looking at the architecture and being looked at by the local children, who were curious, but shy. Although people here had very few material possessions, they seemed content and there was no begging or hassling by the locals. The harshness of the city was absent and people had time for a quiet chat and a smile.
Over some steaming spiced tea that evening, the Germans invited me to tag along with them to the volcano. They wanted to climb it for the views and for the thrill of being on top of the world. We set off early the following morning, and it took us a day to climb to the rim and to peer into the smoky, sulphurous crater. Unlike most other volcanoes, the slopes of Gunung Sibayak were not very steep and there was a wide boulder-strewn rock field near the summit. In the direct sun we followed a winding path through the bare landscape and it was as if we were in a desert rather than in the tropics. But when I turned around and looked back, the almost fluorescent green of the jungle and the chaotic growth of trees, creepers and flowers leapt up at me from lower down, a vivid reminder of where I was.
Some people come to Sumatra for the sole purpose of climbing its volcanoes. These fiery peaks form a whole mountain range, the Bukit Barisan, spanning the length of the entire island, like the spine of a dragon with flaming breath. There are more than a hundred volcanoes, fifteen of which are active. The highest peak, Gunung Kerinchi, is 3085m high. Climbing them all could be an interesting project. I wonder how many people have managed that.
But cool air was not what I was really looking for in the tropics. I prefer the steaming forest floor and as I sat there on the rim of the crater, I was already making plans to move on. Next stop would be Lake Toba, the largest volcanic crater-lake in the world. According to geologists, the volcanic eruption that created it would have made Krakatoa’s eruption (which sent smoke and ash halfway around the world) look like a little belch in comparison. Toba was a super-volcano and its eruption was on a completely different scale to any catastrophe that has occurred in human memory. This would have been the kind of eruption that could have pushed the dinosaurs into extinction. If it happened today, more than a billion people all over the world would die, there would be constant darkness for months because of the ash in the atmosphere and it would take years for our planet to return to a state of “normality”. We were sitting right on the edge of the Ring of Fire, the chain of volcanic islands that stretches from Indonesia across the Pacific to the Americas and which periodically erupts into fountains of fire and rivers of lava. Sometimes entire islands are destroyed and new ones are created in the process, usually with devastating effect on us humans who get in the way.
“People are really insignificant on the face of this earth,” Max mused as he peered at the spiralling smoke rising from the floor of the crater. “Look at how big this is. For all we know, it could erupt and vaporise us in a second. It is as if Mother Earth sometimes becomes irritated with us and burns off a few people here or blasts some others over there …”
That reminded me of something. “Do you remember The Matrix? In that movie the machines said that humans have spread across the globe like a viral infestation, like a disease on the face of the earth. And they said that the planet had to be cured of us.”
“Well, from that point of view, we’re sitting in a dangerous place! Indonesia is definitely more geologically unstable than most areas.”
“Yes, but the most interesting spots are always at least a little dangerous. I like that.”
I arrived on the shore of Lake Toba just in time to catch a ferry to Samosir Island in the middle of the lake. With its blue water, lush and colourful vegetation and friendly people, this place could be paradise. In the sixties and seventies, Lake Toba was supposed to be the party capital of South East Asia. Hippies came from far and wide to zone out in the peaceful surroundings and to find themselves with the help of magic mushrooms, cannabis and other psychedelic aids. Apparently the full moon parties were legendary.
The first people who inhabited the area were the fearsome Bataks, who still using stone tools and practicing cannibalism when first encountered by Western explorers. For me as a South African, it was interesting that the parents of one of our well-known poets, the physician C. Louis Leipoldt, were missionaries amongst the Bataks more than a century before my visit. They did not stay for long, however, and Louis was born in South Africa. Converting Bataks to Christianity in those times must have been hell. The locals did not particularly like the Europeans and some missionaries were killed. A similar effort in the Mentawais by the German Missionary Society took fifteen years and one murdered missionary to produce its first convert. Leipoldt’s mother was never happy in Sumatra and she could not get along with the other missionaries, whom she described as “a dishonest, lying & cheating set of hypocrites”. She was constantly ill (probably malaria) and in 1879 they left for South Africa. One good thing Mrs. Leipoldt did achieve here was the initiation of schooling for Batak girls and women.
As a ship’s doctor, Louis Leipoldt returned later in his life to visit Sumatra, or “Insulinde” as he called it, in 1912. Disappointingly, he did not write any poems about the surf or even comment on the waves. Maybe it was during a flat spell …
Samosir Island had a slightly depressing air to it. It was clearly geared towards Western tourists, with curio stalls everywhere and desperate sellers looking at the few tourists appealingly and dropping their prices drastically to make a few Rupiah. Although it was five hundred kilometres away, conflict between government troops and hard-line Muslims in Aceh had scared off almost all the foreign visitors. The hotels and restaurants were empty and the streets were eerily quiet. When Leipoldt visited, he wrote about fighting between the people in Aceh and the then Dutch colonial government. They still haven’t stopped, almost a century later.
It takes a few days of cycling to explore Samosir Island. There are secluded bays with small wooden cottages on the shores, overgrown with bougainvillea flowers and with frangipani trees beside them. Further inland, rice paddies and vegetable fields cover the landscape. Bright flowers grow in the fields and on the road verges. Early in the mornings I watched fishermen getting their nets ready and then heading out onto the lake for the day. Women washed clothes in the shallows near their houses and children played with the docile water buffaloes people keep as cattle here. It was an idyllic scene; you can see why the hippies liked it. There were still signs of the good old times on the island. Many houses had advertisements painted on the walls: “Have mushroom”, “Get your good omelette here.” But now the houses were run-down and people had a look of desperation in their eyes.
Not far from the main tourist town of Tuk-Tuk, there was a traditional Batak village consisting of ancient long houses, built in the distinctive local style, with soaring roofs and ornate woodcarvings on the walls. These homes have a grand appearance, unlike anything in the West and I was reminded once more that I was in a special place, far from home. There was a common area in the centre of the village, which was traditionally used for ceremonies, gatherings and executions. Apparently infidelity used to be a capital offence.
While I was talking to a man by the side of the road, a dog ran past, wagging its tail. Most dogs here are docile, of the smaller mongrel variety. The man noticed me looking at the dog and remarked, “That one is no good, it is the wrong colour.” I asked why. “Black dogs taste better; we don’t like the white ones so much.”
On one or two evenings I joined some British gap year students for drinks, but they were trying too hard to have fun. The magic mushrooms, dope and booze were still available, but the carefree feeling of the hippy years wasn’t there.
To pass some time and to try to improve my mood, I took the ferry to Parapat in search of an internet café. At least I would be able to converse with Anne, although the conversation would be very one sided. I looked around in the village, but unfortunately Parapat did not boast an internet café. I was told that the next town on, about half an hour’s journey away by minibus taxi would have plenty of options. So I hopped in the cab that was pointed out to me and waited for it to fill up and go. My companion on the seat next to me could not speak much English, but as usual he was very friendly and very enthusiastic about teaching me Bahasa Indonesia. He pulled out one of those mini photo albums you used to get with your prints when you had some film developed and flipped through it, showing me pictures of his wife (unrecognisable because of full Muslim regalia, but looking petite under the black robe), seven children, many aunts, uncles, grandparents and others, all the while speaking to me very loudly, presumably to facilitate my understanding. Unfortunately this language lesson went right over my head and after increasing the volume of his voice until he was too hoarse to speak anymore, he gave up. Without further ado he put his arm around me, rested his head on my shoulder and fell asleep instantly, snoring loudly in my ear. I didn’t quite know how to respond to this situation and I nervously glanced around me to see how other people viewed this new intimate relationship I had just become part of. I hoped that I didn’t unknowingly agree to something he suggested while showing me the pictures of his family, but I was relieved to see that about half the passengers in the minibus were doing the same thing as my companion.
They were fast asleep with their heads on a complete stranger’s shoulder. (For the return journey I managed to get a seat next to a pretty young lady, but no dice.)
The little town I arrived at was typical of most Sumatran settlements. It was a hive of activity, noisy with scooters and motorbikes and full of people of all descriptions. Most of them were interested in me; clearly not many tourists came here.
There were buildings in different styles and sizes lining the streets, with jumbled wiring coming out of windows and roofs, converging on sagging telegraph poles. There were water stains on the walls from countless rainy seasons and the paint was peeling from window frames. From behind the windows and half-open curtains women peered at me and girls giggled shyly.
I avoided the touts and “friends” on the street and managed to get some young schoolboys to show me the way to an internet café. They were tidily dressed in uniforms of bright white shirts, neatly ironed grey trousers and shiny black shoes. They had friendly, open faces and sweet, respectful smiles and they were happy to walk with me and practice their English, making polite conversation.
We walked between puddles and around street vendors past a shiny, modern looking shop-front, lined with computer cubicles and with many customers working away in front of the screens. “Why not this one?” I wanted to know.
“No, no, they always kick us out when we look at porn!”
Writing a letter to Anne was very therapeutic. It enabled me to vent my feelings and by putting my thoughts down as words, I saw things in a more objective light. I realised that on the face of it, things were actually still pretty damn good here. I was living on a delightful tropical island, surrounded by friendly people, eating exotic food and relaxing all day long, yet I was not happy with my situation. It was time to stop complaining and to pull myself together. I resolved to change my attitude or to continue towards Bukittinggi.
Back on Samosir Island, I relaxed on the lakeshore by myself for a few days, reading, sleeping and cycling some more. But in the end I could not completely shake off the pervading air of despair. It was time to move on.
What makes travelling so appealing to me is that everything is renewed constantly. New challenges and different happenings arise all the time and bad experiences are usually easy to forget once you move on to another destination. You leave one place behind, get on a bus and arrive in a different world with a clean slate and high expectations. These days, with travel books, the internet and (still most importantly) word of mouth, you have a good idea of what to expect before you arrive. But sometimes there is a surprise; it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. That special feeling you get when you look around you and realise that things aren’t what you expected is addictive. This is the fix for the travel junkie; the constant curiosity about what lies at the end of this road or behind that rise needs to be satisfied. And when you find out what was hidden around the bend, you start wondering about what you would have found if you took a different direction back there. Could things have turned out better? You’ll never know until you return one day. But I feel the compulsive traveller’s approach to life, moving on constantly and in the process running away from his problems and responsibilities, can be problematic.
Life can easily become a series of superficial encounters and I suppose the temptation to just keep moving away from commitments and mistakes will limit personal growth, ultimately creating an unfulfilling existence. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Travelling is a fools paradise … I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there besides me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.” Still, the freedom of travelling is like nothing else, but like the labels on beer cans say: Enjoy Responsibly!
I jumped on the ferry to Parapat and left Samosir and its air of quiet desperation behind in its wake. I felt invigorated by the change, as I headed for the bus station with a spring in my step. Good thing that I was well rested and that I did not know what the next eighteen hours had in store for me!
It was fairly early in the morning when I ended that marathon bus ride in Bukittinggi. I made my way over to the nearest losmen, collapsed on the first available bed and sank into oblivion. (I did not notice it at all at the time, but the name of my new lodgings was the Clean Achievement Losmen, which sounds like a very laudable name, but was not nearly as attractive as the Happy Love Losmen across the street. I wonder whether I wouldn’t have been lured there if I were more awake at the time.)
Somebody rummaging through a rucksack close by woke me up in the late afternoon. His name was Ollie, he was from the UK (his village was called something like Crotch – how do the Brits manage to come up with these names?) and he was a laid-back, friendly bloke who was seeing how long he could stay in Sumatra before his money ran out. He had already made one visa run across the Straits to Singapore in order to extend his allotted tourist time in Indonesia by another three months. He liked mountaineering and the cool climate in the highlands suited him. He had struck a deal with our losmen owner and in return for sweeping the place, emptying out the rubbish and so forth he stayed for less, giving him an extra month of travelling if he was careful with his money. Our other roommate, Ben, also from the UK, was on the same money stretching program, but he had suffered a recent setback when a festive evening in one of the local bars turned into a bit of a party and he ended up spending several weeks’ boarding money on beer. He had now gone tee-total (except if someone else was buying booze) and he was contemplating drastic measures such as giving up smoking pot and reducing his consumption of magic mushrooms in order to save some cash. We discussed his options while he was carefully splitting all his matches down the middle with his Swiss army knife, doubling his supply of lights. He gave me a look when I pointed out that he would not be using them much if he gave up the spliffs.
The fourth bunk in our room was occupied by Tom, who was a bit of a loner. No-one really knew who he was, where he came from or what he was doing in Bukittinggi. He would disappear during the days and only come into view in the evenings, when he would change his clothes and go for a meal at the warung across the street. He was an Apocalypse Now movie buff and he knew everything about it from start to finish. Recently Tom had arrived from Vietnam, where he had been retracing the movements of the characters in the film, travelling up unknown rivers into the wilderness for months. Tom could provide you with all the obscure details you didn’t want to know about the film, from Marlon Brando’s obesity problems, to Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to the screenwriter’s haemorrhoids. He did not seem interested in anything else in life. Tom always managed to steer any conversation he took part in so that he could bring “Apocalypse” into it. When that happened, the guys who already knew him quietly slipped away from the company. When he saw my surfboards, Tom immediately launched into an analysis of the scene in the film where the Americans attack a village in order to create a diversion while some of the soldiers go surfing. He knew all the dialogue too, right down to that dubious remark of the major to the hot young surfer in his platoon, “I’ve admired your nose riding for years. I like your cutback too …”
Tom made the whole scene sound even more like a pick-up line than it already did. I tried to explain to him that surfers just don’t talk like that. Hollywood doesn’t understand surfing and so far, when real surfers have tried to make feature films, it’s been disastrous too. Just check out In God’s Hands, if you’ve forgotten. And I won’t mention anything about the story line in Blue Crush. It will suffice to say that I don’t think guys watched it for the plot or the dialogue. But no argument would change Tom’s mind about surfers. Apocalypse Now was his reality and everything else was just entertainment. As far as he was concerned, all surfers walked around complementing each other on their style, and barked one-liners like “Charley don’t surf!” intermittently.
Bukittinggi (meaning “High Hill”) is perched on the slopes of the Minangkabau Highlands and the mountain air quickly revived me. I spent a few days exploring the surroundings with Ben and Ollie. Even though Bukittinggi is classified as a city, it has a small town feel to it and its centre, dominated by a quaint clock tower called Jam Gadang, was never too noisy or excessively busy. There was a pleasant town square, a remnant from colonial days when the Dutch had built a fort here and although we were less than a hundred kilometres from the hot and humid coast, the high elevation in the mountains meant that the weather was always relatively cool. The market in the town square provided everything we needed and was pleasant to stroll around in on an idle afternoon.
The food was good and cheap here, with plenty of nasi goreng (spiced fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles). There were many backpacker-types around, creating a relaxed, alternative kind of atmosphere, a bit like being on a university campus, but without the exams. We’d sit around in the little restaurants that cater for tourists and we’d listen to blonde Scandinavians, the tall Dutch, serious Germans, flamboyant French and brash Australians discussing the local attractions and sights. The odd Canadian would be walking around with a maple leaf badge on their rucksack, so as not to be confused with a Yank. Usually, when we couldn’t figure out where someone was from, they turned out to be Israeli. There were all sorts of people from across the globe, with divergent points of view, but we all tolerated each other and we got on well.
Normally I hate rain and gloomy weather, but I find that when I travel alone, bad weather has its advantages. I would sip a drink in a tearoom and before long a tropical downpour would drive a few other travellers indoors. It’s easy to find people who share your interests in a place like Bukittinggi. After all, everyone goes there for more or less the same reasons. Some guy would take out a guidebook and start talking about where the best place is to catch the bus to the local market. Next thing we’d all be discussing the issue and off we’d go on another little adventure. As long as you’re fairly flexible and open to new ideas, you’ll end up having a good time.
Four of us visited Lake Maninjau, a nearby crater lake where the Minangkabau people live and we explored the local village, while getting soaked by tropical downpours every hour or so. We had not been there for long when we got more offers to marry some of the local beauties. The people here were friendly and they seemed genuinely interested in who we were, taking our visit to their home in the highlands as a complement. They gave us tea and rice and invited us into their houses.
As often happens in interesting countries, a local guide presented himself to us quite soon. Usually the guide is very friendly (at least initially) and he will show you all the sights, while telling you stories of varying accuracy about his town. Sometimes you can get by perfectly well without a guide, but there are places where you need them, like Marrakesh in Morocco. There you can get quite lost on your own in the more interesting parts of town. When you pass the stench of the local leather tannery for the fourth time on your way back to your hotel and the blind beggar on the corner starts to follow you discreetly, with a menacing expression on his face, you have to concede defeat and hire a guide to get you out, so you might as well have employed him from the start and gotten good value for your money. Agreeing on a price with your newfound friend before you set out is quite important too. By doing this you avoid the unpleasant situation on your arrival back at the hotel, when you realise that you don’t have enough cash to pay the now exorbitant rate for his invaluable services and you end up having to hide in your room until after dark to avoid your now less than cordial guide.
On this occasion in Bukittinggi we met Mohamed, a self trained guide, who told us many stories about how the local people had to flee from the Japanese soldiers in the Second World War. Bukittinggi was the local headquarters of the Japanese during the war and they used prisoners of war and many local people to dig the Lubang Jepang, an extensive tunnel and cave system that extends around and underneath the city. Many people died while working deep underground. The locations of some of the tunnels were a very closely guarded secret and the story goes that in order to make sure that nobody disclosed their position, the workers who completed the most secret tunnels were buried inside them. Their remains were only discovered many years after the war. We were shown the wet, dark entrances of the tunnels leading underground, now blocked up or locked. I think I would have gone crazy, having to stay there for weeks on end, never seeing daylight and surviving on who knows what.
Mohammed agreed to show us the way up the local volcano the following day, so we went to bed early in preparation for the climb at dawn.
One great thing about Muslim towns is that you don’t need an alarm in the morning. The call to prayer wakes you up just before first light. I find it easier to get out of bed in the dark when I know that everyone else in town is also up, doing their morning prayers. A quick curry breakfast ensured we were fully awake and we shared the local bus to the slopes of Mount Marapi with school kids and farmers on their way to the fields. The initial part of the ascent was fairly gradual, through rice paddies. We took the paths that the local labourers used to access their fields. It’s hard to establish whom the land belongs to. Often people said that they were cultivating crops for themselves on land that did not belong just to them, so I suppose there was a kind of communal system.
As the sun began to rise, it became obvious that the volcano was enveloped in dense cloud. Already a fine misty rain was falling and it did not look as if we’d be able to gain the summit, something that I now think Mohamed was bargaining on. After an hour or so of walking around the rice fields, it became clear that Mohamed had no idea of how to get to the top of the mountain. I decided to at least try to get an idea of where to go, in case I got another chance to climb Gunung Marapi. We got directions from the men and women who tilled the slopes with hoes and shovels, going higher until we left the farmed land behind. Here it just rained harder and harder and at last we turned around and followed the streams of water down the slopes, craving the sweet tea at our local café.
Back at the losmen we could at least impress the other aspiring climbers with our comprehensive knowledge on how not to climb Marapi!
On my last day in Bukittinggi, I went to Sianok Canyon in search of the famous Rafflesia plant, which has the biggest flowers in the world and smells like rotting meat. (Strictly speaking, it’s not a conventional flower; it’s more like a parasitic fungus.) These blooms are bright red and yellow and are about a meter in diameter. The smell is there to attract flies for pollination, although going on the descriptions of those who have sniffed a Rafflesia, the odour might also summon some vultures and the odd hyena. (Un?)fortunately, Rafflesias don’t flower very often and we didn’t see or even get a whiff of one. Still, we had a great time crawling through the undergrowth, exploring the rain forest and thoroughly testing the waterproofing on our rain jackets. We did find some other interesting plants. The Mimosa pudica retracts and folds up its leaves when touched. I didn’t know it at the time, but this plant greatly impressed Leipoldt during his visit. He described waves of motion rippling through the mimosa-covered slopes after he swept his walking stick through the bushes. Remember, he was a poet and therefore is allowed some poetic license. When I poked at them, they just pulled back their leaves rather timidly. Maybe it was just me, but they didn’t wave.
It was almost time to board the Island Explorer, so with some apprehension after my previous journey, I went in search of a good bus to take me down the escarpment to the coastal city of Padang. This time I managed to check out the bus itself and to make sure that surfboards were allowed. It was a gleaming new coach with air-conditioning, plush seats and a television. The bus driver looked sober and professional and I felt confident that this journey would be a good one. Compared to the Trans-Sumatran Highway journey, this trip would be a short hop to the coast, just about a hundred kilometres or so. I was excited as I packed my bags for the next day’s journey; it wasn’t long before I would see the ship that would take me on a voyage to paradise.
Breakfast the next morning was a large ripe papaya that I still had left over from a visit to the market two days before. Then it was time to say goodbye to the guys I had become friends with and I carried my bags around the block to the bus station.
The coach was not overloaded and everyone had his or her own assigned place. I got a window seat and I settled in to take in the scenery as the driver pulled out of the bus station at exactly the right time. I was impressed. We moved slowly with the morning traffic until we came to the outskirts of Bukittinggi. In the distance, Mount Marapi was looming over the paddy fields, its summit enveloped in cloud as usual. Just when I expected the bus to start moving faster, we slowed down and turned off onto a gravel road leading up the mountain slopes. Soon it became a narrow track and we started bouncing over bumps and through potholes until we arrived at a little house where a woman collected some cash from the driver. I suppose he used part of the morning’s fare to pay for something. Now that his personal affairs had been taken care of, I looked forward to the journey to Padang. But the bus did not turn back to the coast road. First we carried on up the muddy track to another house where a bag of carrots and some onions were handed to the driver.
Next stop was at what looked suspiciously like a Muslim shebeen, where some boxes with bottles were loaded onto the seat next to the driver. After some inventive manoeuvring on the steep slope, with spinning wheels and lots of blue smoke, the coach was turned around and we headed back to the main route, stopping along the way to pick up some more groceries and a few plastic dolls. An hour after our departure time we were at last on our way again, the bus thoroughly covered in mud. It was around this time that I started feeling the effects of the papaya.
My digestive system made it clear to me that it was not happy with my choice of breakfast and that it was going to expel it shortly. Some nasty cramps started to take hold of my lower abdomen. Thankfully, I was on board a luxury coach and it had a toilet. I squeezed past the two other passengers in my row and hurried to the front of the bus, asking the driver’s permission to use the loo (he had the key to the door). He wasn’t happy to oblige, indicating that I would make a mess, ignorant Westerner that I was. But I knew that there was no way I could hold out until we reached Padang and I suppose he saw it in my eyes, because he gave me the key reluctantly.
Toilet cubicles on a bus are always cramped, but this being Indonesia, there had to be adequate washing facilities and so a large plastic container (almost a meter in diameter and filled to the brim with water) was placed in the only space available: right in front of the toilet where your legs normally go. If you wanted to sit down, you had to squeeze in next to the bucket, contort yourself to close the door behind your back and then climb over the sloshing water to get onto the seat, sitting with your legs in the air, as if you are at the gynaecologist. This is most undignified, especially when you have to do it all at very high speed because of the urgency of the situation.
I made it just in time and as the relief of not having to clench for all I was worth came over me, I let my legs drop down ever so slightly. Just then the bus turned a corner and the water in the bucket splashed upwards, soaking my trousers completely. I sat there on the loo, leaning back with my legs in the air, dripping water everywhere and I wondered how far we still had to go and whether I could just stay in that cubicle until we arrived. The thought of squeezing past everybody with wet trousers was just too much for me. But there was no choice; someone was already knocking on the door. Now that the driver had allowed me in, everybody wanted to go.
The walk down the centre isle of the bus was awkward, to put it mildly. As I have said before, Indonesians are the most curious people that I have met and they all craned their necks to see exactly what was wrong with me, inspecting me critically and then having a general discussion about the state of my wet trousers and the possible causes. I sat down on my velvet seat without making eye contact with anybody and I watched the water soaking slowly into the plush cushioning. Not for long though. The papaya had not finished with me yet and soon I was squeezing past my fellow passengers again, on my way to the front of the bus, my ears blood red and my stomach contracting with an urgency that made me push to the front of the queue at the loo without even considering the outraged looks that I was getting. This time I didn’t have to dip my legs to wet my trousers.
The bus had started its descent of the mountain slopes and we were going through some tight switchbacks. The driver was not slowing down; he had a new coach and he was pushing it as fast as it could go around those bends, leaning on the hooter every time he neared one. As I sat on the loo, the water splashed onto my lap, over my shirt and ran down my legs. I emerged even wetter than before. The lady in the seat next to me looked at me as if to ask whether I was all right, but luckily she spoke no English and I just gave her a stupid smile and stared out of the window without noticing the scenery.
A few more visits to the toilet later we arrived in Padang. I never got off a bus so fast!
The air was hot and very humid in this port. Compared to Bukittinggi, this really felt like the tropics. Leipoldt’s parents had stayed here before moving inland and at the time it seemed to have been a beautiful and unspoiled little town. His mother writes, “Those days in Padang will ever remain like an oasis in the desert of my memory.” Unfortunately, Padang had rather changed since then. It was now grimy and smelly, with open drains on the road verges.
They were big enough to fall into and disappear in forever and I made a mental note not to venture out after dark. The city centre was full of ugly, unfinished concrete buildings, interspersed with sterile modern blocks. Traffic roared everywhere and mopeds sped along between trucks and cars and on sidewalks. Just when you thought you had successfully negotiated the traffic in the road, a maniac on a scooter would come bearing down on you on the pavement. Houses had long since spilled over the city limits and built-up areas now sprawled over the surrounding hills that in the Leipoldts’ time would have been covered with rippling Mimosas. Padang is the capital of West Sumatra and is Sumatra’s third largest city. What a contrast to Bukittinggi.
Gerhard had recommended the Bumi Minang, the hotel that was used by most of the Westerners going on surf charters in the Mentawai islands, so I made my way over there. Cold air-conditioned air, fragranced with lavender, blasted my face as I walked in. The lobby was covered in shiny white tiles and there were mirrors and pictures in gold frames on the walls. Elevator music drifted around. A blond surfer was talking on a phone, telling the folks back home how big and perfect his waves had been. He kept confusing the Mentawais with the Philippines and he complained that clearly his Spanish lessons had been no good, because the locals never understood him. If his flight had been diverted and he had ended up in the South Pacific, I don’t think he would have noticed. His friend was flipping through a surf magazine, while eating a McDonald’s burger. We might as well have been in California.
I didn’t like this sterile fridge and I went back to the hot street to find accommodation closer to what I had become used to.
A few blocks back from the Bumi, in an older part of town that had seen better days, but at least had some character, the Wisma Mayang Sari was more welcoming. Of course there was no air conditioning, the ceiling fan did not work, the toilets were of the squat variety with shower directly overhead (great for saving time by allowing you to do all your ablutions simultaneously) and the mattress had seen better days; but the general feel was relaxed and there was still a kind of dilapidated dignity to the joint. I did wonder about some of the other guests, who seemed to be mostly local businessmen – each with several pretty young wives. The wives seemed to come and go quite often; presumably they went shopping, because they were counting their money as they left …
I checked my e-mails at the local internet-café and there was one from Gerhard, confirming our meeting times and with some instructions on how to find the ship: “Just get a cab and tell the driver to take you to the ‘kapal putih besar,’ the big white ship.”
A bearded Australian with a grey ponytail and a face lined with the imprint of many years of staring into the sun was sitting at the computer next to me. He wanted to know where I was headed. When I mentioned the Island Explorer, he said, “Oh, they have engine trouble, mate. They’ll be stuck in port for the next few weeks at least. And that first mate of theirs, the big brawny Pom – he’s completely bonkers. He might fool you at first, but wait until you get into open water, then you’ll see! Better come with me, I still have one berth open and we’re leaving tomorrow.” At the time there were about fourteen charter boats working from Padang (now there are around forty) and competition for customers was already getting stiff. Because I had the e-mail confirming my itinerary open in front of me, I shrugged off his warning. I never gave it a second thought. “He’s just looking for extra business,” I said to myself.
I composed a long letter to Anne, because from now on there would be no regular communication with the outside world. I had no idea where we would be heading, except that we’d be sailing over large tracts of open ocean, sprinkled with little islands in places. Where our next port of call would be was anybody’s guess.
On the way back to my hotel I stopped at one of several food stalls that open in the evenings. I was given a large serving of rice and then I could choose from a variety of barbecued meat, fish and vegetables on skewers. Everyone stands around eating at the food stalls and, although my ability to speak to the Indonesians was very limited, I enjoyed being part of this communal meal. Sometimes you don’t have to talk. When I had finished eating, the skewers were counted and the price of my meal was calculated. This system was simple, easy and delicious – ideal fast food.