Picking up the bikes from the port we then headed off to Medan for a nights stop over before carrying on to our next destination Bukit Lewang and a visit with our hairy orange cousins…
Indonesia is a world away from modern Malaysia. Medan, at first, felt like driving in India but once the city had faded behind us so did the traffic. It was nice to be on the open road once again….
Indonesia is an anomaly when it comes to countries. Ranging across 18000 islands, 6000 of which are thought to be inhabited, it’s the largest archipelago in the world. With so many islands, 700 languages and so many different cultures grown over years of isolation, Indonesia constitutes a country with tremendous diversity in both wealth and culture. Indonesia has a population of around 240 million of which 130 million live in it’s most populated island Java, making it the 4th most populated country in the world.
First brought together by the Dutch in attempt to control the spice trade, the country finally formed itself as an independent self governed nation only as late as 1947, in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion during World War II which subsequently gave the nation the impetus to mount a revolt against Dutch rule.
Is situated on a lovely river in the mountains bordering the lush jungle of the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Like many places in northern Sumatra, Bukit Lewang has seen it’s fair share of natural disasters. In 2003 a flash food tore through the village destroying most of the village and killing 250 people in the process. It’s a stark reminder of the fragility of life in this part of the world.
Orangutans, meaning ‘man of the forest‘, are the main draw for tourists entering the park. After an afternoons rest, we arranged a jungle trek for the next day in the hope of seeing a couple of beasts in the wild.
What amazed me was the sheer numbers of animals in the forest. We managed to see 10 orangutans in the space of a days trek and from very close quarters, the closest being a huge male hanging out in a tree not more than 3 metres away. You could really see the intelligence behind the blinking eyes starring back at you making you wonder who was studying who.
Being solitary creatures, with a territory of roughly 2sqkm’s, they spend most of their time eating or sleeping, only coming together to breed and rear the resulting offspring.
Living for 50 years the orangutans have a varied diet of 50% fruit, 30% young leaves, 15% insects and 5% bats, which they rotate through out the day.
Like humans, each individual has it’s own distinct personality and therefore are prone to being shaped by their upbringing.
A lot of the specimens had been released from the rehabilitation centre set up to integrate orangutans rescued from captivity back into the jungle. The centre provides training for animals that have never lived in the wild and a feeding station to help the tricky transition period back to total independence.
Towards the end of the trek we were all getting a bit tired, clambering all day over the steep and muddy terrain. Sitting down to take a rest we heard the shout of ‘run!’. Turning round there was a fully grown specimen bounding down the track towards, it woke everyone from their tiredness as we all got up and sprinted down the track. It was female that had been released from a particularly cruel owner and had naturally taken a disliking to human beings.
After a few days relaxing by the river we headed to Aceh, via a nights stopover in Brastagi, to the western side of the national park and a very small village called Ketambe.
It was time to say goodbye to Ester and Marcus, it had been great travel with them we would surely meet up again in Indonesia.
Ketambe was also a new experience for me in one of the most unexpected ways…..
Ketambe, a small village on the western side of the Gunung Leuser national park is a much more sleepy place than Bukit Lewang. With fantastic jungle and fully wild orangutans, it’s a truly idyllic place. Home to the Ketambe Research Station, ketambe was once the thriving heart of the national park’s tourism. The village has now largely slipped back into a quiet backwater with the mass of the tourist heading for the rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lewang, moved from Ketambe in attempt to allow the research centre to conduct it’s work in a more natural and peaceful environment.
I settled into my jungle hut run and owned by a very knowledgeable local guide who had spent 7 years working for the centre on animal research.
After a fantastic days trekking in the jungle I settled down in my hut for a comfortable nights sleep…
At 5.30 in the morning I was suddenly awake with the whole hut shaking violently.
Wondering what was going on, with my first thought being a large animal attacking my hut, it dawned on me that I was in the middle of my first ever earthquake!
The shaking went on for about a minute before it died away with a couple of minor aftershocks as the fault line, situated just off the coast of Western Sumatra, pushed and settled back into place.
Watching the local news the next day, it transpired that the earthquake happened about 100ks off the coast, about 200k’s from me, it had reeked havoc on the island of Simeulue where they’d felt the full force of the 7.8 quake. With a lot of houses flattened it was amazing that the loss of life had only been minor with a couple of people losing there lives in incidents that happen after the earthquake as a result of the clean up.
The quake had only been 3.5 in Ketambe but with the level of shaking I experience it made me contemplate the fear and panic that would have ensued in Simeulue. The destructive power of nature, truly humbling.
Rock the House
The next day I headed to Banda Aceh at the top of Sumatra up a road that cuts right through the centre of Aceh, stopping off overnight in Takengon.
Arriving at Banda Aceh I rocked up to the hotel to find a guy had followed me into the car park on his bike. He turned out to be a member of the local bike club and invited me to meet his club members for coffee in the evening. With Aceh being the most Muslim state in Sumatra I didn‘t expect beer.
A pleasant evening was had swapping bike tales with the guys and ended with them offering help any time I have difficulties during my time in the region.
Aceh is full of the most amazing, warm and friendly people. Hitting the news for all the wrong reasons, the long suffering people of Aceh have endured civil war, natural disasters, legalization of Sharia Law in 2009 and most recently, Al Qaeda training camps in the the mountains of North Central Aceh.
Banda was hit hard by the biggest single natural disaster that mankind has ever know, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. The wave measuring up to 15 metres high in places, tore through the coast line traveling up to 7Km’s inland flattening the city and leaving only a few buildings left standing. The wave, caused by the 9 plus earthquake, was so powerful that it reeked havoc across the whole of the Indian Ocean, hitting the coast as far away as India. The death toll in Sumatra came in at 170’000 with a further half a million left homeless.
Now completely rebuilt it’s hard to imagine what Banda must have been like on that fateful day. The most bizarre reminder is a generator ship swept 4k’s inland and plonked down in the middle of town.
It’s amazing that Acehanese are such a happy and lively people, always laughing and joking. Maybe its because, not despite all that’s happened in recent years………
A quick hop on the ferry lead me to the island of Pulea Weh, the most northerly point of Indonesia….
Pulling into Lumba Lumba dive centre I spied Duncan’s (British biker previously met in Lahore and KL) KTM sitting out the front. Duncan and Roel, a Dutch guy on an Africa Twin, had been spending a couple of months there doing their Dive Master Course.
After an unsuccessful hunt for accommodation I pitched my tent with the other guys on the top of the septic tank out the back.
The beach was absolutely fantastic, with world class snorkeling straight off the beach in very shallow water. Amazing coral and a huge array of colourful fish including turtles, it was certainly the best snorkeling I’d ever done.
After a few days relaxing, eating and drinking with a great bunch of people it was time to head off South back towards Medan…
The bike was starting to act up again and was using oil at a real rate and running a bit of temperature, the old girl was sick once again.
Making it back into Medan I called the mechanic in Penang who put me in touch with a BMW enthusiast in Medan called Jusili, owner of a BMW 1150GS.
Over the coming week the guys really looked after me, helping me get parts to fix the charge system with the parts being sent over from Penang to replace the stator, ignition coil and regulator which had been damaged by the stator. The stator had been re-wound in KL and when we opened the bike we found that it had been a real bodge job, I was not surprised it had gone again. The guys had charged me nothing and wouldn’t ever let me pay for lunch despite my constant attempts. Amazing bunch of people.
My time in town was also made more pleasant by a couple of guys I met, JP and Andrew. They gave me a tour of the Medan nightlife and took me for a round of golf the next day. Andrew being the General Manager of the fantastic Royal Sumatra Golf Club.
I then headed off again, to Lake Toba…
Lake Toba, the largest lake in SE Asia, is formed in the base of massive volcano, 200k’s south west of Medan. Coming over the rim of the caldera was a truly breathtaking sight with magnificent views of the lake as I wound my way down the hairpins to the edge of the lake. My destination was Samosir, an island in the middle of the lake connected to the mainland by a 10 metre bridge.
I rocked up to Tuk Tuk, a peninsular on the Eastern side of the island.
Samosir is home to the Batak people. Largely christian, the Bataks are famed for partying and their love of Tuak, a strong wine made from palm sugar that’s a cross between cider and fruit juice.
It was certainly a great place to relax for a few days but I would have to make the trip back to Medan. The bike overheating issue seemed to have been solved but she was now blowing white smoke and burning oil at the rate of 1 litre every 150k’s. The most likely fault being valve seals or piston rings.
Back in Medan.
Me and the guys did some tests on the bike and we all agreed it was probably the valves. I would have to ship the bike back to Penang in Malaysia and get the bike fixed and then try again.
During my week hanging around waiting for the bike to be shipped I met a English teacher called Helen, working in Medan. She was certainly a free spirited like minded person and I would definitely pop in and see her on the way back from Malaysia.
With the bike already on route, I said goodbye to Helen and took a bus to Belawan to catch the passenger ferry. I was heading back to Penang, one of the many second homes I was beginning to accumulate in SE Asia.
Sumatra has really energised me for the travel again, an amazing place with great people, I can’t wait to come back and continue my journey…….
The troublesome wife…
SE Asia has certainly been a trying time for my relationship with the old girl.
She’s broken down 3 times, had a new fuel pump, stator, regulator, spark plugs, ignition coil and has been suffering from various oil leaks. It’s certainly been a challenging time but I’ve managed to muddle through and still keep moving forward. I’ve learnt a lot on this trip so far, one of the chief lessons has been that you can cope with just about anything if you put your mind to it. It’s living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Back in Penang my first stop was the BMW workshop to arrange to get the bike fixed. After a few tests at BMW they decided the right thing to do was to replace the engine completely, done under warranty for free! Amazing luck and this would hopefully solve all the problems I’ve having over the last 4 months. It would take 2 weeks for the engine to come from Germany and then I would be back on the road. Fantastic news, I am a very happy biker indeed……..