Sumatra – Jungles and mountains

As I am writing this, I am in Medan and just loaded my bike on a ship to take it to Penang in Malaysia. All in all I spent just over a month in Indonesia, covering more than 5,000km. Longer than I had planned, but a very good experience overall (except Jakarta traffic and being stuck in the cyclone on Flores).

Updating the blog from Medan (and having a beer for the first time in forever)

This last week I have spent on Sumatra, which by far is my favourite part of Indonesia! The people are lovely, the scenery is stunning (mountains, jungles and lakes) and the climate is fantastic. I wish I would have had more time so I could have gone to Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang and Aceh in the north but since I have been before I had to sacrifice that to have more time for new places.

This has roughly been my route through Indonesia over the last month or so

Day 36 & 37 – Blasting through south Sumatra: After finally making it across to Sumatra on Monday night (Day 35) I had a total of 7 full days to explore Sumatra whilst making my way north to Medan to ship the bike out the following Tuesday. I spent my first half day on Sumatra drawing up the plan for the 7 days. As I had visited some of the key attractions in north Sumatra last time I was here (in 2010) I decided that I would focus on mid-west Sumatra this time around. And in general, jungles and wildlife are one of the main attractions on Sumatra so I decided to go for a 2-day hike in the Kerinci Seblat national park (the largest national park on Sumatra).

Now the plan meant that I had about 20 hours of driving to do in 1.5 days to get to the national park in time. So from leaving Kalianda on the southern tip of Sumatra it was basically ride, eat, ride, sleep – repeat for 36 hours. Unfortunately it was raining for a fair bit of the way, but at least there wasn’t much traffic so it was quite manageable. And stopping for lunch is always a fun experience, usually consisting of three steps:

  1. Owner of restaurant gets really excited, sends someone to find the best English speaker in the village
  2. I get asked to sit down, and get brought ridiculous amounts of food – “mister, try this”, “and this”, “also mister, try this”
  3. Photos of me with all the staff at the restaurant, their friends and anyone else who happens to pass by

Being served 10 different dishes for lunch (and still only paying for the two I ordered)

Mandatory photo with the restaurant staff

In addition to lunch stops, there are always other fun little activities along the way when you’re on the road in Indonesia. Like being stopped by the police for example…

Me: “Hello officer, apa kabar?” (“how are you?” in Indonesian)
Police: “Sorry mister, photo?”

Taking a photo with the police, again

Day 38 & 39 – Checking out the jungle: The reason I chose Kerinci Seblat national park for my hike is mainly because it has the largest population of tigers on Sumatra (which in turn is one of the few places in the world where tigers can still be found in the wild), and it would be pretty spectacular to see a wild tiger whilst they still exist. So that’s the plan and I arrive in the village of Lempur on Thursday morning (Day 38), meet up with my guide and get going into the jungle.

Me: “So what kind of animals will we have a chance of seeing?”
Guide: “Different monkeys, if we’re very lucky maybe siamang gibbons. And maybe if we go out tonight we can see flying squirrels and again if we’re lucky bearcats”
Me: “So. No tigers?”
Guide: “Oh, have to be very very lucky. I have only seen a tiger once in my 7 years as a guide here”
Me: “Wow! That’s really good, should be about time for another tiger spotting then!”

Energised by the very good chances of seeing a tiger, I more or less dance my way through the mud, vegetation and streams up to the lake where we are camping for the night. Half way there it starts raining but I don’t really care… a little rain won’t stop me from seeing a tiger. We see some monkeys. Some birds. The usual jungle things. It never really stops raining, so when we get to the lake in the late afternoon we basically just retreat into our tents and don’t come out. It rains all night. Still no tiger.

Generic jungle pic (it’s impossible to capture a jungle in a photo…)

The next morning it has finally stopped raining, so I go for a swim in the eerily blue little lake and then we head out off the track to explore the jungle around the lake. Tiger time? No, but we hear some gibbons calling from the treetops nearby and after sneaking like ninjas through the dense vegetation we spot a family of siamang gibbons (which is an endangered ape species only found on Sumatra and parts of Malaysia) some 15 meters up in a tree just above us. We watch them for a while and then we begin making our way back.

I went for a swim in the lake, super clear and full of fish!

Despite not seeing any tigers it was a really cool experience and I am definitely coming back to Sumatra in the near future to do a 5-7 day hike deeper into the jungle to have another try at spotting that tiger. Also, seeing apes in the wild is a really fascinating experience (I saw orangutans last time I was on Sumatra) as they are so closely related to us humans.

Day 40 – Chilling out with a Indonesian family: When I got back to the village after the hike I stayed with Zacky (who runs and helped me organise the hike) and his wonderful family for two nights before continuing north towards Medan. It was only supposed to be one night but it started raining just as I was about to leave the first time so I decided to stay another night and just relax in their front yard. So I spent the rest of the day reading a book, bonding with Zacky’s children and talking to various locals who came by to check out who the weird bearded man with the big motorbike was.

Zacky’s house in Lembar

Zacky’s youngest daughter posing on the bike

Day 41 & 42 – Blasting through the rest of Sumatra: After spending a day more than planned in Lempur I had about 25 hours of driving to do in two days, so another two days of ride, eat, ride, sleep – repeat. Because I want to avoid riding at night, that means hitting the road around 6am every morning and basically riding until it gets dark around 6.30pm. Doesn’t sound very nice, but through central and northern Sumatra it is an absolute pleasure! Most of the road is up on in the highlands, some 1,000m above sea level so the temperature usually sits around 20 degrees (perfect for riding a bike!) and the scenery is spectacular! I wasn’t even very tired when I made it to Medan just after 6pm after two full days on the road.

The positive side of hitting a road by 6am, the scenery is even more spectacular

Taking a break somewhere along the road

Day 43 – Shipping the bike: I had arranged with a nice Malaysian fellow named Mr. Lim (whom many other bikers have used and recommended) to ship the bike on his boat which goes from Belawan (just outside Medan) to Penang every Tuesday. His main business is shipping fruit and vegetables, but he has established a solid side business of helping motorbike adventurers such as myself cross the Malacca straight. So I get up early and head out to the customs office to do all the paperwork (there is lots of paperwork!).

After finishing up with customs I call Mr. Lim’s Indonesian agent who picks me up at the customs office and we head over to the boat. Another little round of paperwork and payment for the shipping itself and it’s time to load the bike. It’s not exactly the boat I had expected. But I can’t exactly be picky, so we go about tying up the bike to hoist it up onto the boat with a crane. Last thing I saw they were tying it down onto the deck, so hopefully it will arrive in one piece in Penang tomorrow.

Meet the Setia Jaya, fruit hauler and occasional motorbike transport

Loading the bike onto the boat

Tonight I will fly out to Penang in Malaysia where (fingers crossed) my bike should arrive by tomorrow morning.

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