Indonesia - part 1

Sumatra 1

13/4/9 The ferry trip from Georgetown to Belawan, Sumatra is long, boring and rather uncomfortable: the speed ferry isn't air conditioned, it's refrigerated, like Thai buses. I'm shivering in my T-shirt and I have nothing to cover up with. Immigration and customs on arrival are efficient and quick. We were prepared for the barrage of taxi touts outside the ferry building. But when I mention that we don't want to go to Medan, 25km away, but want to stay and collect our bikes one of them claims to work for the shipping agent we have to go and see. I don't believe that for more than a minute, but he knows the name of the company and he says we don't need to stay in Belawan (expensive), rather HE can get our bikes out of the port today. He is true to his word, takes us first to the agent, where we have to pay lots of money for fees and storage, then to the warehouse. The bikes are there, a customs officer just signs the carnets, then walks away, leaving our fixer to actually fill it in, stamp it and tear out the slips! This was probably the fastest carnet processing I have ever had.

People were not kidding when they told stories about the driving and the roads here. It's India all over again. There are lots of potholes, of course, lots of honking, missing sections of seal and derelict railway crossings with trenches between the tracks. In principle Indonesians drive on the left, but you can drive on the right, too and nobody minds. So, having loaded our bikes we head for Medan (which I wanted to avoid) and a cheaper guest house. However, the waypoints in the GPS aren't there. I'm not sure why, but without them there is hardly any point in tackling rush hour traffic in Medan, so we stay in Belawan after all. It is pretty expensive, but for one night we can afford it and it's very nice, too. 

 

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14/4 Somewhere we seem to miss a turn and end up on a road with more potholes than tar seal. We do manage about 100km just after lunch and arrive at Bukit Lawang. Before we even get into the village we are guided to some guest houses by Muhdi, who we meet at the entrance to the village. He is a professional guide and the next day we go on a jungle trek with him. In view of Su's injured knee he promised a mostly flat trek, but looking at the steep slopes I'm sceptical and rightly so: most of it is steep and muddy. Luckily Su is OK, or I would have made him carry her out on his back. I guess he tells people what they want to hear, so he can sign them up on a trek. It is, however, a nice experience and we get to see several types of monkeys as well as many orang-utans. In the afternoon, just after I had hung up the washing, it rains again, very hard. I don't think Sumatra has a dry season, either. 

While some tourists risk life and limb rafting, on the other side of the river... 

... an Orang-Utan appropriates the ferry boat, stranding tourists and their guide at the park HQ. 

There are some strangely couloured chicks around. 

Our next destination is Berastagi in the Karo Highlands. Normally we would have to go back East and through Medan, then turn SW. On the wall of the guest house there is a map showing two roads bypassing Medan, i.e. shortcuts. We ask Muhdi about them and he indicates that the Westerly road is no longer usable, but the Eastern road is OK, but "it's a bad road". Alright, we can handle that. When we turn off the main road I think that he is right: mostly we ride on a road paved with round riverstones with a neat line of them along the centre - or rather, what's left of it. In many places that is not much. I guess this was paved by the Dutch in the colonial days, then tar sealed over the top later, but not a lot of that remains. It's rough, but OK. Near Bekancan the road seriously begins to climb to the highlands and it's now little more than a riverbed. Su doesn't want to go, but the locals go up and down two-up on their little bikes, so why not? In the next steep section I crash, at slow speed, but the bike lands with the pannier on my left foot, pinning me down in agony. Luckily she hears me sounding my horn and comes running back to lift the bike off me. No permanent damage to either bike or rider, it seems, but we decide to turn back. This means having to spend the night in Medan. JJ Guest House in Medan is a little hard to find, nobody knows it and there is no sign on the locked gate. But once inside we get the red carpet treatment and a very nice room. The place is rightly famous among overlanding bikers. We both need a rest and I need to find some migraine medicine, so we stay two nights. 

Riding out of Medan isn't as bad as I was lead to believe. Indonesian roads and drivers are no match for the Indians. The road to Berastagi is quite good and climbs to over 1800m, so it's also quite cool. Unfortunately, the volcanoes hide in the clouds the day we arrive and the next day, so we decide not to stay more than one night. However, before leaving we want to see some of the famous Karonese houses. Sadly, there aren't many of them left and although inhabited they look like they won't be around for much longer. In Merdeka, however, there is a strange ceremony under way. All the people wear traditional costumes, there is a monotonous music being played and something of a dance and theatre performance is being held. A guy in a wheelchair approaches us and explains that his aunt has died and these are the funeral rites. Apparently this can go on for days. 

We have decided to head up the West coast to Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh. First, we have to get to the coast. There are more mountains to cross and the road is quite bad with broken seal and lots of potholes. At the top there are road works and suddenly we are on a brand new road winding its way down through green jungle and there is little traffic. I think I'm in NZ. This is Indonesia, infamous for its bad roads and drivers? We stop in the small, but busy town of Subulussalam. The next day more of the same. This is really enjoyable and Su is having a ball, too. Only in the coastal strips with the fishing and farming villages there is lots of mad traffic, but not much of that travels out of the area, it seems. We end up in the small coastal town of Meulaboh which sports a dual carriageway the length of the town, several traffic lights (often ignored by local bikers) and three hotels. For once no rain tonight, but a lengthy power cut.

 It doesn't actually NEED a sidestand. 

A little further to the North is Calang and this is where the tsunami really struck. I can't see too much evidence of that now, just a few ruins here and there, the coast road gone in places and there are lots of new houses that make the place look a little like a resort. I'm wondering: is another tsunami unlikely or can't people learn from the past? Many of the new buildings are right on the beach, so another tsunami will cause just as many casualties. From here USAID is building a new highway, US-style, i.e. very big. In the meantime traffic has to put up with whatever the construction has put down: earth, rocks, dust, mud, etc. In places the old road is cut into vertical cliffs from where we get good views over the coast. Looks like these nice bits will remain, meaning once the road is complete it will be a fantastic ride. 

The toilet of a roadside 'restaurant'. You just pee on the floor. 

The first of two bike ferries. Cars have to go the long way round through the road works. 

The second ferry.

Probably the most scenic stretch of the road. I hope this one will remain once the new road is complete.

It's hard to tell that much of Banda Aceh was destroyed by the tsunami. It seems here at least some of the coastal areas were not rebuilt, much of it is just scrub now. It's a confusing city with lots of one-way streets and compulsory turns. There is a beautiful mosque and a tsunami museum, neither of which we have the time to visit. Su has a mission: te get her last Hepatitis vaccination. A private clinic rings suppliers in Medan, but it seems that Hep A vaccine is not available in Indonesia, at least not on Sumatra, so Su has to make do with a Hep B vaccination only. While there we meet a lovely lady, Mak, who takes us in her car to the ferry terminal to check on the departure times, then to her place, where we meet her spritely sister Ida, who is studying medicine and keen to practice her exceptionally good English. 

Ida standing next to Su.