Thursday, 26 November 2009


The retreat of the jungle also exposed churches, not mosques, churches. Seems the Portugese and Dutch missionarys did their job well here and there are really alot of churches! The local tribe are Bataks, thought to have originated in Malaysia and migrated south then inland to central Sumatra. Until the mid 19th centuary they still ate their enemies but they've chilled out a bit now and like nothing more than a good sing song and boy do they belt it out. Their houses are designed to resemble buffalo horns and are built on stilts so the livestock is kept underneath and the family above. They picked a good spot to migrate to aswell. Danau Toba is the largest freshwater lake in Southern Asia and has an island in it that is the size of Singapore! In actual fact it is a crater lake and scientists believe that when it blew it would have made Krakatoa look like a weak fart. We drove anti-clockwise until we reached Tuk-Tuk on the far side of the island which is where all the tourists go... all 8 of them (including us)! The place was dead. There were restaurants, hotels, internet places, book shops but no people. Apparently the weekends get busier and Christmas livens up a bit but nearly all with domestic tourists. After a chat with one local business owner it turns out KLM used to fly to Medan (about 3hrs by bus) and they got alot more Europeans, but the Government did some sort of insentive deal and encourage KLM to fly to Bali instead virtually cutting off the umbilical cash cord from Europe. We liked it. It was chilled out, the lake water was warm the air temp was cool in the evenings and the locals left us alone when we parked up for the night. The views are amazing and you don't get woken at 0500 by the Imman (we did get woken by what we thought must be the local equivelant of the booze cruise though, banging out eurotrash with a thumping bass at 0400 and that was leaving the dock!!) . But after two days and a small miss hap with a red ants nest (Kyms still got the bite marks on her feet a week later) there wasn't a great deal more to see and although it was a great place to chill out, there ain't no waves! Instead of driving back across the causeway and retracing our steps, which we don't like, we caught a real proper ferry made of metal and everything and sailed to the far shore and the tantalising prospect of the "trans-Sumatran-highway".

Photo Batak houses

Photo Honestly it's a ferry.

West coast

The above mentioned road was the next one we took. We'd been told that it was open and that it was a straight forward drive to Meulaboh that should take about 5 hours. Yeah right. The tsunami had demolished all of this road and we knew reconstruction was still ongoing but it definitely has a few years to go before I'd do it in any thing less than a 4x4. What was amazing was the level of expertise in the construction. All along the way we kept seeing Western engineers overseeing various bits and all the workers had hi-viz jackets, boots and hard hats on! Foreign money without a doubt. Also obvious were all the new villages. Prefab houses like mini bungalows all uniformly laid out had been built to house the homeless and water tanks and facilities were everywhere. It was kinda shocking to see the scale of the damage but also heartening to know that all the money sent by people like you and me has been really put to good use. A couple of villages still on our pre-2004 map just weren't even there any more. As I said it's still a work in progress and we hadn't got that far when we hit our first snag. A new signpost had directed us off the road and down a track that eventually just came to a river.. The bridge wasn't there yet.. so we turned around and carried on down the road we'd turned off which roughly followed the river until it came into a village on the estuary and led down to the beach..? We musta missed something, heading back into the village we spotted it, a small turn off with a few cars queueing for a ferry across the estuary. We parked at the back and hopped out to check out the ferry, well lets say two canoes with two planks strapped across them and a 4hp motor on the back isn't an exaggeration of the ferry. There was no way we were going on that in a 2 3/4 tonne Landcrusier! All was not lost and after a bit more schooling in Bahasa Indonesian we learnt that there was a "kapal besar" just up the road (bigger boat). The bigger boat, it couldn't be denied, was bigger. Four canoes, alot more planks and 20hp motor and instead of one car at a time it took 6! We joined the queue and quickly realised we were never going to get across before dark which would make finding somewhere to sleep that much harder so executive decision, we left the queue drove to the beach and had a great nights sleep.

Got to "ferry" at 0730 and there didn't seem to be a whole lot going on. We'd been assured the night before that it was a 24hr operation (trying to find this out I kept asking "dua puluh empat jam?" (24hrs?) which I thought was a good stab but they just kept looking blankly a me, saying it with more gusto and twiddling my finger around my watch face bought big smiles and the response "ah.. ya.. non-stop!"!!). It turned out that at three in the morning someone had pulled a little too hard on the starter cord and the engine had fallen off the back of the boat! They'd fished it out but it was full of water. Time to get the tools out. To say they were impressed with opr tool kit would be putting it mildly! We stripped the engine pumped the water out turned it over to get the water out of the cylinders (giving the young lad who was holding the spark plug caps an electric shock which had everyone in fits) sprayed it all with wd40 (they were loving us by now) put it all back together (every time they had finished using one of the tools they cleaned it with newspaper and put it back in the right place) and fired it up.. and it worked.. just as a guy in a pick up turned up with a new engine!!

Drove on, quickly re-adjusted so it didn't tip up, crammed a few others around us and we made it across the river. After a couple of days heading down the coast (swell had dropped) and staying on some more beautiful beaches we headed inland and up into the mountains to Lake Toba. It is seriously jungly here! You're just completely surrounded by impenetrable greenery and everything looks so big. Huge leaves the size of a car bonnet and straight up trees that look 50 metres tall, vines, ferns, banyans how on earth do people get through it? Eventually as we climbed the jungle gave way to what can only be described as.. the Quantocks! Scrubby ferns and deciduous trees with plants on the verges that could be mistaken for rhododendron's and pines. At one point I asked Kym if she fancied popping into the Blue Ball for a venison pie and a pint. (didn't do our moral any good, the budget strings have been well and truly tighted and beer is unfortunately one expense we've had to fore go). It prompted a brief discussion about homesickness which then brought the realisation that we'd both felt that the two months in Taunton before we left really didn't feel like home any more, so if that was the case we couldn't really call it homesickness as we are currently living in our home, so more "creature-comfort sickness"? Or just pie and beer sickness? It is hard sometimes but then we pinch ourselves, look around and say something to each other like.. "have you ever driven to the lowest place on Earth, the highest pass on Earth and across the Equator (more on that) all in 7 months?" Shit. How many people on the planet can say that?! I can live without beer.

Photo Ferry!?

Photo Fishing boats coming home.

Photo North Sumatra

Photo Camping

Photo Banda Aceh

Photo 7 km inland.

Photo we just wanna go to sleep!

Photo surfing buddy.

Photo Goat shop?

Northern Sumatra

about an hour before dark the road skirted the coastline and we detoured down a track that led on to an endless beach. After driving what we thought was a fair distance down it and away from the nearest village, we parked up. Didn't stop the villagers coming to find us though. After some banter and with the sun going down they left and we sorted out tea read a bit and climbed up to bed. About 2330 the first bunch of guys turned up, 6 of them maybe, shining torches and shouting "hello mister" (seems it's not only the Brits who shout at foreigners to get their point across). Talking through the tent window we gathered that for some reason it wasn't okay to stay on the beach, now they tell us.. bit more Indo-English relation building and a few more guys turn up, they want me to come down. I try to explain that I really would just rather they all went away and we could sleep in peace but more guys turned up. I eventually pulled on my shorts and stepped down the ladder. By now it was gone midnight and there were probably 18 guys. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little anxious and I'm sure Kym was feeling slightly more than anxious, but I honestly didn't feel as if they were angry or being particularly forceful, more sort of concerned. I guess they'd never had to deal with two white people driving on to their beach and setting up camp, and quite frankly they thought they ought to do something about it but weren't sure what. I suggested that they call the police and we could ask them if it was okay. The police turned up and (about 0100 now) had a quiet word with everyone and suggested we should move and stay at the police station. I'd had enough by now and told them it would take at least an hour to pack up and then the same again to set it all up and that we perfectly understood their concerns for us but we are happy the take responsibility for ourselves and if men from the jungle came and kidnapped us (how do they know we are there?) we wouldn't blame the villagers or the police. They were coming round. But they still wanted to provide us security and maybe if we gave them some money for cigarettes and coffee we could stay. I think I laughed (0145 now) and told 'em if it wasn't for them behaving like old women it'd be the morning already and we'd be gone. Eventually the crowd dispersed bar a few "security" who sat right outside the tent smoking and talking until (0230 now) I climbed back down the ladder and told them to f@*k off to bed. Phew. Thank Allah it hasn't been like that every night!

Banda Aceh, world famous for all the wrong reasons. First the oppression by the Indonesian military of the free Aceh movement (GAM..?) where thousands of people were killed or imprisoned with out trials and any foreign press coverage was banned; then just as tensions were reaching an all time high the second largest earthquake every recorded happened just around the corner and created the devastating boxing day 2004 tsunami. It was a two pronged attack on all the coastal towns around the Aceh province. First the ground shook and flattened most of the bigger buildings then the sea came back in with a vengeance and washed them all away. Things have moved on since and life appears comparatively normal thanks largely to the massive cash donations from around the world and the tireless work of the NGO's who, although certainly not whiter than white, have done an amazing job. On top of this the people are remarkably resilient and really have picked up and got on with. This of course is not to say that there are constant reminders everywhere of just how much devastation took place. A 2000 tonne ship sat 7km inland in the middle of the town is testament to the force of nature as are two grave yards we passed, one with 61,000 people in it and another with 46,000 all killed on one day..

One good thing the tsunami achieved was a peace agreement between the Government forces and the local rebels. The Government realised it was going to have to let in foreign aid and so kind of had it's arm forced but it also used it as an excuse to increase the military presence for "humanitarian" reasons, needless to say the locals aren't buying that. But there is peace at least for now and with that comes freedom for foreigners to travel and I would whole heartedly suggest they do. It's beautiful. White sandy beaches surrounded by verdant headlands covered with all those plants you see in posh offices in Europe but 10 times bigger and obviously wild. The water is 26c and the air temp between 27 and 30. Reef surrounds the coast line and transport is easy. Finding somewhere to stay might be your only problem. Without going into to too much detail there are also a lot of amazing waves around here, all a gentle paddle off the beach and as for the road that runs around the headland and down the North West coast.. well in the immortal words of the Governator "I'll be back".

Photo Punky Monkey

Photo Breakfast

Photo Camera shy?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Photo Happy campers

Photo Curious fun

Photo Special customs clearing agent Young... Kym Young..

Photo Kym and Ady the customs officer.

Back in the car and back on track. Everything rosy. Drove up about 2 hours North of Medan to an Orang-u-tan rehabilitation centre in the middle of the jungle at a place called Bukit Lawang. We arrived late-ish in the afternoon after stocking up en-route in Carrefour no less, and thought we'd be parking up in a campsite for the night. Turns out the campsite was up a walking track in the jungle and in actual fact hadn't been a camp site for a number of years, nice one 'lonely planet' (again). Still, after having this explained to us by a local guy called Yudhi he then offered us the space next to his house to park for the night and said we were welcome to use his toilet and shower, nice man. His house was about the same size as our car and with slightly less facilities so we diplomatically suggested that the car park at the top of the village would be a better spot as we wouldn't be infringing on his and his neighbours privacy and also there was a toilet and a couple of warungs (small eateries) next to the car park. Cool. First night back in the tent and a sound sleep only woken by the now familiar warbling of the local Imam at 0500.

The centre was opened in 1973 funded by foreign trustees and is used, as it's name suggests, to re-introduce Orangs that have been captive, variously as pets or for show, back into the wild. I suppose it's testament to their success that there are now more than 7,000 wild Orangs in the area surrounding Bukit Lawang and the original founders have handed over the centre to Indonesian authorities and opened a new sanctuary elsewhere. Also testament to the success of rehabilitating them totally is that fact that at the morning feeding that we went to none of the wild Orangs turned up! They provide supplemental feeds at 0900 and 1500 every day in case pregnant mothers or older ex patients need extra protein. The food is bananas and a milk compound with extra vitamins and good stuff in it. But as I said none turned up. We were treated to Lucy though. She'd been kept as a pet by a family who had treated her like a daughter including clothing her and feeding her at the table with the same food they were having. It is turning out to be a tough one for the staff as it's quite obvious that Lucy would much rather an air conditioned apartment and regular meals in front of the TV instead of being told to get naked and swing through the jungle in the pissing rain to find your own dinner. They're doing well though, she no longer lives at the centre only arrives for food each day so perhaps one day soon she may meet the ape of her dreams and be whisked off into the depths of the rain forest.

What we did see in the jungle though, were Thomas leaf monkeys, aka (courtesy of the German couple) Punky Monkeys. I'm almost certain that Spielberg must have used these primates as the inspiration for Gremlins. They've got Mohican's! They were pretty impressive acrobats as well, leaping huge distances between trees and dodging the unwanted attention of the Macaques with ease. So after a brief excursion into the wild we were back on the road and heading North for Banda Aceh.

Now I'm not sure why 'cos I'm usually pretty good with maps, but I'd completely misunderstood the scale of our map of Sumatra and it wasn't until a chat with guy on the side of the road (we'd stopped to brew a tea) that I realised how much I'd miscalculated. I thought after setting off at about midday that we'd be in Banda before sundown, so when I asked the guy "berapa jam disini Banda Aceh?" and he said "mungkin delepan jam" I laughed and said "ha-ha, mungkin Jalan jalan, tidak mobil!" and he said "Tidak! lima ratus kilometre Banda Aceh!" I re consulted the map and it dawned on me that Sumatra is MASSIVE! ("how many hours from here to Banda?" "maybe 8 hours" "ha-ha maybe walking, not by car" "No! 500 km to Banda" (just showing off!!)). Well, didn't matter did it.. not like we've got to be anywhere really, just a bit of shock. Kym thought it was hilarious and had been quietly wondering how on earth we were going to get there in one afternoon and not only that but I'd said I reckoned on four tanks of fuel to do the length of the island and she couldn't quite get her head round that one either; but in true form she left it to the "expert"!

Photo Back with the boards.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Sorry people just another very quick update to say that we will probably be out of toch for a week or more as we are heading down the North West coast of Sumatra and we hear it's not really technologically advanced there. So don't worry we'll be back on-line soon!!
PS seen orangutang already!!