I'm travelling through western Indonesia, Sumatra to Bali, on this leg of my trip. I've joined my group in Medan, Sumatra, flying in from Shanghai. The tour leader is an Indonesian called Eddy. Selamat datang! Welcome to Indonesia! He’s not very steady and certainly is never ready and he’s not really a leader either. There are four staff on the bus. Eddy, a driver, a backup driver, who holds the microphone cable for Eddy and a boy to keep the bus clean (though I haven’t seen him do anything yet). He stands up the whole way.
Who wants to be a millionaire? Move to Indonesia - Eddy lent me some cash as the ATM wouldn’t work and I now owe him a million rupiah.
Medan began life as a fishing village in the marshes and evolved into a trading port and commercial hub. one of Indonesia's largest cities and the northern gateway. Several buildings in the Old Town testify to the Dutch colonial period. These include the old City Hall, the Medan Post Office, Inna Dharma Deli Hotel. The two main sights are the Maimoon Palace (1887–1891), where the Sultan of Deli still lives (though he no longer holds any official power) and The Great Mosque of Medan (1906). The mosque is small and pretty. The sultan's palace is more interesting, but not much larger with only one room that is open. to visitors. there are also a sprinkling of Tao, Buddhist and Hindu temples and a cathedral, built by the Dutch.
Then we set off, in very slow moving traffic, west, to see the orang-utans. At this point one of the party announces that she has left her luggage in her hotel room, as she thought we were staying in the same place again tonight. So we have to go back and fetch it, amidst ever increasing traffic. Well, at least the bar is set pretty high for any acts of doziness that I might commit in future.
Bukit Lawang is the most famous spot in Sumatra, for going in search of these beautiful, very endangered red apes, It's really the only place where a sighting is guaranteed. Even this isn't easily accessible. There's a long march on the banks of the Bohorok River, past a village. Tourists in linked rubber tubes bob over the mini rapids, screaming. Half of Sumatra wans tips for helping us across wobbly bridges and up (steepish) steps when we didn’t need help.
As with the centre in Borneo, this place started as a rehabilitation centre with the aim of returning the apes to the wild. But this led to a host of problems with semi wild animals, some becoming quite aggressive. Now, guides are not supposed to interact or feed the primates. Naturally, these edicts are ignored, in order that the tourists get good photos. I still get a thrill out of seeing them, swinging around their platform, even if I do feel guilty. It's an (almost) unique experience. One the return journey, a bar on the riverside that serves up a whole variety of different cocktails. That is also fulfilling.
Now, south. The journey continues to takes forever, partly because the Sumatra traffic is so awful and partly because the road is so awful. Miles of palm oil plantations and the accompanying mills. One article in a conservation centre says that the production and burning of this bio-oil actually consumes three times as much carbon dioxide as diesel. This is because the natural forests that harboured some of the world's highest biodiversity have been largely replaced by two trees: oil palms and acacia.
But, this is more the Asia that I know. Still hot, but not absolutely roasting. Endless little booths, contents spilling out onto dirty pavements that have open sewer manholes all down the middle; roads jam-packed with a fascinating melange of strange vehicles, people and animals. Palm clad volcanoes, paddy fields and masses of exotic fruit, both growing and being sold from the stalls. Eddy has made us eat rambutans and mangosteens today. Both delicious, but lethal to clothing.
Then, on to Berastagi or Brastagi, depending on which sign you believe. It’s a thousand metres up, in the Barisan Mountains and a little chilly for Indonesia. There are two active volcanoes; Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung. Mount Sibayak has hot springs baths, so we stop for to swim in those. In the town centre, a colourful fruit and vegetable market, with some gorgeous flower stalls. Berastagi is famous for its passion fruit. The transport of choice here is the cidema, horse cart
We scramble into Karo Batak long-houses with thatched trapezoid roofs, veering awkwardly into the sky and then join a village celebration. As one does. Swaying dancers, elaborate costumes and wonderfully contrived hats. A dressed-to-the-nines couple sitting on thrones and piles of presents. The groom, self consciously bored, checks his phone throughout and takes selfies. Afterwards, when we are discussing the nuptials, one of the group suddenly says, “O was that a wedding?” We are obviously a bunch of intellectuals. We are spared the wedding feast. Two local delicacies are fried fruit bat and the partially digested grass from the stomach of a cow,
Back at our hotel, I find that my expensive six week supply of shampoo has leaked all over my doomed sponge bag. I wash my hair with what I can scoop out. This wash is going to have to last a long time.
Dinner is a delicious medley of Indonesian fare in a little local café. Most of the group opt out and go to the Chinese down the road, on the grounds that the food is too spicy.
Today, we're heading for Lake Toba. First, the 120-metre waterfall of Sipiso-Piso. It was formed by a small underground river on the Karo plateau. Water cascades from a cave in the side of the Lake Toba caldera down to lake level, forming Indonesia's highest waterfall.
Then, skirting the lake to a special Rumah Bolon (traditional house in Sumatra), the former residence and palace of Batak King Simalungung, built in 1515. This complex has 20 households; one household for each of his wives. The main dwelling has a long room for all the wives and their children and a small boxy room for the king. He gets the guard to summon the lucky wife and the guard then takes up position in a horizontal cubicle underneath. If the sultan has taken some potion, the guard might get to summon another wife later on. Today's museum has a buffalo horn to represent each king and list of rulers, with their dates.
Next the small port of Parapat and a one-hour boat transfer to Tomok on Samosir. an island in the centre of gigantic crater lake, Toba. The lake, formed more than 75,000 years ago, after the eruption of a super-volcano. is about 100 miles long, making it the largest volcanic lake in the world. The island is about the size of Singapore.
A suckling pig banquet tonight. Not so long ago in these parts it could have been long pig.
A boat trip round the pretty island and a swim in the lake. We are accompanied by four musicians, who don’t let up for the whole day, except to try and plug their CD. I am up the back of the boat, where I can’t hear too much of what sounds like cats’ wailing. More Batak houses at Huta Siallagan. A house with a hidden entrance staircase signifies a house for females. A horn above the main door indicates the king’s house. Main doors usually have a low ceiling so that people have to bow when entering.
This time, the houses also have a meeting place, with stone chairs to try offenders and a stone block to decapitate those who are judged to have transgressed severely. There’s a prison under the king house where prisoners are kept while waiting for judgement day. The criminals were believed to possess black magic, so the execution day had to be chosen carefully. Torture took care of the black magic After the guilty were executed (the head was thrown into the sea), the heart and liver were eaten. The last reported punishment of this type was in 1819.
The Karo peoples who inhabit these areas are mostly Christian, so the children are in school on Friday. They play safe by incorporating various animalistic deities into the ornate church steeples, as well as the boat like houses. There are plenty of grave sites, ancient and modern. King Sidabutar’s ornate carved tomb is the best example. The Simanindo Museum (in another traditional king's house) follows. There's an assortment of Batak artefacts: swords. agricultural implements, sculptures, fabrics. A ‘cultural Batak show’ is laid on for us, with Manortor traditional dancing round a buffalo - I try and behave myself in case they reintroduce the old laws.
A climb up to a viewpoint, through paddy fields, with a panoramic vista of the lake and the surrounding Sumatran countryside. Marilyn, a scatty, retired New Yorker has spent the whole trip losing things or wandering around looking bemused. She bought an Indonesian sunhat today (which she lost three times). Whenever you try and take a picture there she is in the background. It'll be like playing 'Where’s Wally?' when I get back.
Lunch is getting depressingly familiar. The anglicized Indonesian sateh is elusive. You can choose either fried noodles, or noodle soup or fried rice. I abstained from all three today. The inevitable stomach upset is threatening. And the excitement generated by the extensive drinks menu at our first stop has dwindled. Not a cocktail in sight, although avocado juice with chocolate is going down well with the group. They are less keen on Pocari Sweat, an electrolyte drink that seems popular amongst the locals. However, everything is incredibly cheap in Sumatra and the money is going a very long way. I’ve been here nearly a week and I’ve only spent about £70. (And that’s eating in ‘upmarket’ restaurants.) It makes my Shanghai banquet appear to be the height of extravagance.
Woken much too early by a huge row in the next room. Two women in the group don’t seem to be getting on terribly well. Some very unladylike words are exchanged. Then a very long day on the road, with just brief stops. Well, they were intended to be brief, but we are competing with a Belgian tour bus that seems to get to every place just before us. The road is so bad (partly because of landslides and partly because of disrepair) that we even have to walk at times. It’s almost impossible to overtake and the journey is excruciatingly slow.
Fortunately, there is plenty to look at when I am not dozing. The mountains and paddy fields are becoming increasingly beautiful. It is Sunday today, so the Christians are out walking out in their church finery. The Muslims are gathered in their hundreds in the rivers, washing in preparation for Ramadan tomorrow. The houses along the way vary in both decoration and opulence. There are numerous tin shacks, but even the majority of these have incongruous great satellite dishes. The buses are colourful and the vehicle of choice for families and taxis, appears to be a motor bike with some sort of sidecar attached. These also vary in decoration and opulence, but many are elaborately painted. The poorer families make do without a sidecar. We count mother, father and four children on one bike.
We are clearly moving into a more strongly Moslem area. I have been provided with a prayer mat in my hotel room.
Woken up at 5.30 a.m. by Eddy - an unasked for early morning call. A scheduled even longer journey day that is extended by another four hours because of a lorry accident. It’s quite good fun watching all the traffic trying to squeeze through the small gap left between the two injured lorries. One has a broken axle and the other is overturned, hanging half over a ravine. It seems easier just to push it over, but no. The police blow whistles to absolutely no avail. The passengers and drivers mill around, many just squat on the road and the little coffee shops do a roaring trade.
Eddy eventually commandeers a local bus to take us the rest of the way, with the luggage to follow in our own bus - when it can. This seems a good idea, except that three of our party have misunderstood his instruction to walk up the hill and wait for the bus. They are eventually found three kilometres up the road and still walking.
The local bus is amusing. The owners instruct me to sit in the front with them and they giggle all the time as we hurtle along. The driver is texting with one hand and trying to put on a pornographic DVD for the delectation of the rest of the group in the back. I manage to persuade him that this is not appropriate. We eventually receive the news that our bus has made it through the gap and we have to disembark and wait another 20 minutes for it to catch up, as Eddy won’t fork out any more for the extra bus than he has to.
We arrive in Bukit Tinggi (wonderful name) at ten o’clock, shattered. It was too dark to see the Equator signs properly, as we crossed over, and the Islamic Heroes’ Museum was certainly closed. We did manage to get to the Islamic boarding school earlier, but that was also empty, because of Ramadan. Hundreds of teeny beach huts for the students’ accommodation-most of them pretty decrepit and empty inside, other than the insects and the remnants of their last lunch.
Despite all this time travelling, we are still not even half way down Sumatra.
Yet another early awakening. This time it’s the muezzin at 4.30 signalling the Ramadan prayers. As they also woke me at 10.30 last night when I was trying to get an early night I am extremely sleep deprived now and grumpy. My room is next to the mosque and we are here for three nights.
I have also discovered why they have covers over the drains in the bathrooms. If you don’t put them back the cockroaches creep out during the night. The hotels all have western style toilets with flush cisterns. However, most of the other toilets are squat style, with mandi tanks adjacent. You just dip in the plastic ladle and wash it all down after you. Even the western toilets in the towns of Sumatra have mandis, which makes for a pretty wet seat. The locals tend to squat, even on the western toilets. You can tell by the footprints.
Back on the bus, for a tour of the Minangkabau homelands. Eddy is hot on his schedule. The seats on the bus are incredibly small. The spacing makes Ryanair look generous. Fortunately, I quite often get one to myself.
Even more stunning rice terraces, the local king’s palace (still being rebuilt after it got struck by lightning) and a monkey on a chain that had been trained to climb up palms and throw down the ripe coconuts. He looked very unhappy and we feel very sorry for some of the animals here. We have seen birds in tiny cages, a beautiful owl with its wings clipped severely so it cannot fly at all and fruit bats, also in cages, as they are fried and eaten as a cure for asthma.
A guided walk through the rainforest that seems more like a route march down a steep slippery track, and through rice farms, to a lake that we can’t see because it is too hazy. Another admirer in the fields tells me that he thinks I am nice. Because I look like an Indian in a Bollywood movie.
We stop in a little craft village and I spend more than I have laid out on food this week buying the lovely filigree work.
What else have I seen ? There are lots of cats in Sumatra. Some of them are in reasonable condition but many have been born with short, fat tails. And the architecture has changed. The roofs are more ornate. Many are multi gabled, like Thai temples, with concave sides, and are very pretty. They are supposed to represent buffalo horns, symbolising fertility. So great attention is often paid to the roof of even the meanest shops and houses. Though many of the mosques have tin roofs. I have even observed a minaret shop or two. Much is closed because of Ramadan and most of the locals are not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex between dawn and dusk.
Then an exploration of Bukit Tinggi proper. It sits on the edge of a pretty canyon, which we view from the Panorama Park, along with the monkeys. Then we venture into town. East meets west meets Spanish colonial. A square, complete with clock tower, horses and carts, KFC, giant tiger statues and a Muslim market. This area is shown on the map as ‘Up market’. Further south is ‘Down market’.
The highlight of the day is the eruption of Mount Marapi (Moauntain of Fire), one of two volcanoes which sit either side of the town. It pours out ash for several hours, darkening the sky and covering the streets and cars with a grey flaky layer. I’m getting quite blasé about volcanic eruptions, after last year in Costa Rica and now this.
Now I'm flying - to Yogyakarta in Java.
(Or read more about Indonesia here.)
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.