Sat 7-Sun 15 Aug
To West Sumatra, Indonesia, 401 km.
The roads are generally of good quality, good enough for 1.25" slicks. There's the occasional pothole and gravel. And suicidal cat, chicken, goat, cow and a fat girl. Other risks include narrow roads, blind corners and buses that roar down the middle of the road. Still, it's much safer than riding on Singapore roads. After all, I don't expect animals to be fitted with rear view mirrors. And I see less roadkill here than during my Malaysia ride - perhaps there are fewer snakes or monitor lizards crossing the roads at night.
It's cooler too; as one rides higher, the temperature drops. The cloud cover helps too. And there is shade from the green canopy. Vegetation ranges from the tropical (the equator passes through here) such as lalang, coconut and durian to the deciduous at higher altitudes.
Little shops dot the route, which serve bottled drinks, usually minus the fridge. There's bottled water, Sprite and Fanta, but isotonic or other fortifying drinks are rare. Top
The people give the place character. Beautiful scenery in a nasty place does not a beautiful place make. I like the people here a lot. They are warm, friendly and helpful, from ordinary folk to some officials we meet. It's a nice surprise compared to my experience elsewhere in Indonesia.
There are foreigners here, but I don't see as many as in Kundur Islands. There are few Chinese and most of the time I'm mistaken for "Jepang" (Japanese). Occasionally, some will guess I'm from Thailand or China. There's no averse response when I say I'm from Singapura, notwithstanding one of their presidents referring to the island-state as a "little red dot".
Most of the people are farmers, living in zinc-roofed huts, though some villages have houses of stone built in Dutch-style, due to 350 years of colonial influence, which ended with the declaration of independence on 17 Aug 1945. Now and then, a satellite dish a fifth of the size of a roof stands in a compound.
The people seem to be a happy, hardy lot. They walk a lot. I see an old man walking barefoot on the asphalt in the afternoon sun. And as I struggle uphill on my granny gear, I pass a wizened granny trudging on foot, carrying a load on her head that's bigger than her torso.
Public transport is scarce. The occasional bus plies certain routes, with people hanging out of the door or perched on the roof. Outside of the big towns like Padang, I see only two taxis. A motorbike can serve as a taxi too, but bicycles are scarce, perhaps because of the long distances and steep slopes.
Anyway, the people live simply. In many cases, the toilet is a handy bush; shopkeepers don't seem to have toilets handy. And who needs a clothesline when clothes can be draped on a bush, on the ground or even on a railway line. Top
Expedition = excitement, and I apply for my leave months in advance. I was hoping for a team of four, all great travel companions and bikers. But one couldn't go because he found a job, and another couldn't go because he has a job. So it's just Bikerboey and me.
Bikerboey does all the planning , who did a recce of the place by car two months ago. All I have to do is pay up $650 and show up. She warns me the route is tough in places, especially a place called "Kelok 44", which rhymes with "die die" in various Chinese dialects. Having gone through Penang Hill and Mount Ophir in West Malaysia, I'm just a little apprehensive about West Sumatra.
I take a day off on the eve of the ride to pack and fuss over my bike. This will be the first time my bike becomes a flying Horse. I also pack inner tubes and even a spare tyre. And soft paraffin and a gel seat for my butt. All lessons learnt from my 1,000 km ride. Riding with a gel seat takes some getting used to. It's like riding on a punctured tyre - soft and squishy.
There's not much other preparation, other than riding the usual few hundred km each month, charging up hills and chasing roadies for fun.
Equipment-wise, I have my one and only Iron Horse (12 kg) plus another 8 kg of gear. To save weight, I don't even carry a shaver. Bikerboey has her Marin Pine Trail (estimated 13 kg) plus another 13 kg of gear - the weight of another bike in pannier bags! Top
Land, sea and air
This is my first journey by land, sea and air. It is also the furthest I've travelled to ride. I'm on the road before the crack of dawn, at 5.30 am to be at Harbour Front for the Penguin ferry ride to Batam. We squeeze our bikes into a taxi boot for the ride to the airport to catch our Merpati flight to Padang in West Sumatra. Then it's another car ride to Pariaman.
At Pariaman, which is a coastal town, I dip my toes into the Indian Ocean. There's an election attraction going on - a game of bingo, with the names "Megawati" and Hasyim" on stage. A lady sings out the bingo numbers. A couple of youths and a policeman introduce themselves and urge us to play the game. Bikerboey makes a wager; the odds are naturally against her.
More certain is God's light show - sunset. The sun dips behind the clouds, but lingering effects can still be seen as rays stretch across the sky, colouring the clouds in multiple hues of yellow and red. The call to prayer wafts over the air from three directions.
Also in the air is the acrid smoke from burning refuse. Though fire is often associated with destruction, there is peace here. Aceh, Moluccas and other trouble spots seem a world away. The looting, rapes and murders against Chinese in 1998 are in another era. I see tudung clad ladies mixing freely with the hiply dressed. Back home, I don't see Ah Bengs mixing as well with the English-educated even though both are Chinese.
Lunch by the beach is instant noodles - cooked much better than I can. We have chicken for dinner; the serving is so small, it might as well be from a pigeon.
Nightstop: Nan Tonga Beach Hotel
In the dark
Day 2: Sun 8 Aug, Pariaman - Maninjau, 91 km
This is the first day for riding. I put on my sunglasses, but they are too literal. The work only when the sun is at its zenith. I can't really see what's in the shadows. Still, I charge down the road when it looks safe, and clock 47.7 km/h when I'm fully loaded.
There's a blackout during dinner, lakewide. Back in the room, Bikerboey is so bored, she snuffs out the candle. I scramble for my bike light, then realise the lights are already back on elsewhere.
Nightstop: Maninjau Indah
Tour de Maninjau
It's sunny but windy, so it's rather cool. A good day to ride around the lake, which is 8 x 16 km at its longest and widest points, compared to Singapura's 22 x 40 km. We hit a rough patch which stretches for some 10-15 km. That's no fun, being on slicks. At a rest stop, I'm glad to hear "lima kilo bagus". Once I hit the asphalt, I spread my arms and fly on the road again.
I pass school kids in white tops and maroon bottoms. "Hello how are you fine thank you", hails a schoolgirl. People live around the lake; there are schools, mosques and shops serving the villagers, who fish and grow padi. Water comes from the mountains; I hear the lake water is not potable.
I see a couple of white folk walking in the noonday sun, while a wiser ibu walks under the shade of a big leaf which she carries as an umbrella.
We finish the ride at 2 pm. It's just 51 km round the lake, not 78 as someone had told us. This will make a good race course - uphills, downhills and blind corners.
PS: this is the first time I can remember being away from Singapura during National Day. Somehow, it feels unpatriotic, considering that I can see people flying the Indonesian flag on cars. So far, I haven't fallen ill, though the water could be cleaner. There're flasks of hot drinking water in the hotel, but inspection shows there are insects and other unidentified objects floating in them.
Nightstop: Maninjau Indah
Long and winding road
Day 4: Tue 10 Aug, Bukit Tinggi, 40 km
The uphill ride begins the moment we leave the hotel. As I ride upwards, the water of lake Maninjau is like a silken sheen. White clouds reflect off its seemingly placid surface like folds of silk.
The terrain is so steep, the road winds back on itself 44 times, hence the name Kelok 44. At each hairpin bend is a number in case you lose count. The road is 9 km long, and elevation is 1,150m. A motorcyclist draws alongside and extends his hand before me. A helping hand, I guess.
I hear it's tough, so I clean and lube my chain the night before. But it's not as tough as Penang Hill or Mount Ophir. At Kelok 44, there are steep climbs but the corners don't really drive you round the bend. And there's time to recover before the next climb. Or maybe it's because I'm powered by Stryper (by His stripes we are healed) in my MD player - I buy it specially for the ride up Kelok 44 and this is the first time I'm riding wired for sound (I'm not wired for the rest of the ride as I find the wires fiddly and I'd rather have my senses fully tuned to my surroundings).
I can use some hairpins myself, since going round the bend are buses, some of whom careen down the middle. Hair-raising danger is an arm's length away and I go off road to play safe when a bus gets too close for comfort. I'm already at the cloud line, and have no intention of meeting God so soon.
Still, it is heavenly riding - it is cool, the music is cool and red flowers fall in places. The lake and padi fields unfold beneath me. At Bukit Indah, we see the panorama at a picturesque restaurant that overlooks terraced rice fields - green treasure that yields its golden harvest that is then treated by golden sunlight by the roadside.
What goes up must come down and I hit speeds of 40 km/h just by sitting on my saddle. Just as well I don't hit anything on the way; I even overtake a motorcyclist. At Bukit Tinggi town, caution overtakes me and I ride unclipped most of the way. Traffic and pedestrians are all over the place. A girl sees me and avoid me, but most girls do that anyway.
My abominable abdominal condition afflicts me and I don't have a proper dinner. I reckon it's the water (regardless of whether is is hot, warm, in tea or other beverage), not the food. It's only water sealed in bottles for me. As for Bikerboey, even fruit juice, ice and uncooked vegetables poses no problems.
Nightstop: Benting Hotel
Day 5: Wed 11 Aug, Bukit Tinggi, 0 km
He takes off his shirt, says he's going to pray to his ancestors, faces the canyon walls and starts yelling. A cloud of bats rise from the treetops and start circling.
Our day starts - and ends - with animals. Today is non-biking day and we start with a trip to the birdpark cum zoo Taman Marga Satwa, which is built on the ruins of Fort de Kock. We come face to face with a forlorn orang utan. Its sad eyes peer through the bars of its cage. More spirited is a mother bird, which spreads its wings and tells us to back off when we approach its nest in a cage. Totally lifeless is an entire whale skeleton; it must have been 20 feet long.
As we wander about aimlessly, we come across Rumah Keliharan Bung Hatta. I guess this must be the home of Mohammed Hatta, an independence leader who is from Sumatra and the peer of Achmed Soekarno.
Our last stop is supposed to be some underground Japanese war bunkers along Jalan Panorama. We get a little lost but a vendor runs from his cart, guessing where we want to go. The bunkers are closed for renovation. I hang around the barred entrance, peering into the darkness, then trudge back towards the hotel. A friendly native hails us in English and introduces himself as Lada. He says the bunkers are indeed closed, but with permission, we can go in since his brother works there. The workers look on but don't stop us as we follow his lead, ducking through a hole in the gate.
It is pitch dark. But Lada finds his way around, knowing which corner in this maze of tunnels to turn. He says he can "see" in the dark like a bat. In desperation I whip out my bike blinker but can barely see. This is his childhood playground. He says the Japanese are giving lots of money to renovate the place, including a restaurant. He shows us the kitchen and the jail. Another tunnel is lit up with flourescent tubes.
The tunnels were handmade by American and local slaves. No explosives, since the place is made of sandstone. Lada says the Japanese were cruel colonists, unlike the Dutch. By building the bunkers here, the Japanese "give Americans stress", says Lada, slapping his head. He adds that Americans are good at fighting in movies like Rambo, but not in real life. Well, who can argue with US technology? Those who argued at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and, more recently, Afghanistan, lost the war.
We head towards daylight, and I peer down a 200m drop into Buffalo Canyon. I spend the next few hours trying to catch up with the fleet-footed Lada as he somehow finds trails which only he can see. Up and down steep slopes. Traipsing across clear streams. Across bamboo poles over an abyss. A suspension bridge with holes in the planks.
The trails are no joke. Just one slip and I could fall and die there. At one spot, the ground gives way beneath my right foot and the soft soil sucks it up. Just as well as I'm left with my left foot. I'm doing this in shorts and slippers; in fact all of us are in slippers, since hiking wasn't on the itinerary. I bike, not hike and trickery is the only way to get me to hike. My guardian angel works overtime.
Along the way, Lada points out the sights, tastes and smells to us. He reaches out, plucks something from the foilage, crushes it and we play guessing games about what it is. There's a grass with anaesthetic properties for toothache (Bikerboey confirms her mouth goes numb), mint, cinnamon, coffee, mango, ginger and a white flower for liniment. He points out where oil naturally trickles to the surface. Iron ore. Naturally-made charcoal from wood which is compressed by the weight of the soil above it.
We see old Dutch and Japanese ruins, monkeys, squirrels, buffalo and bushes full of rhinocerous beetles, which take flight. And the bats. The beetles seem like a toy; other toys include flowers and leaves that pop on impact, grass that fly throught air like spears, grass that climbs up sleeves and leaves that "magically" break in two. Pity about all the litter underfoot though.
Lada used to be a park ranger in South Sumatra, then a guide in Central Sumatra. He learnt English from a Canadian couple. Life was good seven years ago. Then tourists stopped coming. The Bali bombings and Aceh strife in North Sumatra don't help. He now survives doing odd jobs. Still, he seems happy enough.
It is now dusk and it's harder to see where I'm going. He picks up a glow worm (as bright as a Casio illuminator watch!) and points out a firefly, which hovers to a stop near the worm ("they're friends", he says. He leads us through villages with barking dogs and villagers who seem to know him. We stop at a silversmith's workshop. He picks a bottle of water and guzzles it; he's only had a few gulps of water from a stream all afternoon.
We reward him with a big nasi padang dinner for his efforts.
Nightstop: Benting Hotel
The suicidal cat
Day 6: Thu 12 Aug, Batu Sangkar, 92 km
There are some short steep uphills but long stretches of downhills enroute to Batu Sangkar. Again, there are picturesque padi fields and little villages. The roads are narrow, two cars can barely pass each other. A bus barrels down towards me; any closer and I'll have to go offroad.
As I sit on my saddle, going at 40 km/h, a black and white cat flashes just in front of my wheel. Collision would've broken its back. I wonder what I would've broken. My guardian angel is again working overtime. My max speed today is 58.4 km/h; even some motorcyclists are more cautious as I overtake them.
At our destination, our bikes are refused entry at a nice-looking hotel. In the day, our bikes have to be outside the hotel. In the night, they go into the ground floor. But never into our rooms. I doubt the receptionist will do anything if my bike goes missing or is meddled with. We check into another hotel across the road, which costs us Rp60,000 (ie half the rate of the first hotel). The second hotel is almost full. Our room has no TV, fan, aircon, sink or shower. There's a tank of water to bathe from, plus a scoop.
We take a motorbike taxi ride (my first, without a helmet too, as we take corners at 60 km/h) to Istana Pagaruyung, a replica palace of the Minangkabau king. Minangkabau society is matrilineal rather than patriarchal. There's fascination with buffalo; the roofs and headresses resemble horns. The palace's slanted pillars and walls are earthquake proof, but not Dutch-proof; the original was burnt down by the Dutch in 1804. The rooms are mostly bedrooms; one has seven curtains to symbolise 7th heaven.
Sure looks nicer than our room, which faces a mosque. There's nothing else to do, so I tweak my brakes. I note two broken strands of cable. It's bedtime after dinner, since there's no TV. At about 4.20 am, we hear the call to prayer. Before that, I hear caterwauling cats and barking dogs; which Bikerboey sleeps through. We have breakfast in our room a couple of hours later (dried goods) and scarper to the next town.
Nightstop: Singkarak Sumpur
The suicidal chicken
More uphills and lots of blind corners and downhills. Here, I meet the suicidal chicken which pokes its head in my direction but withdraws it when I cuss the accursed bird. Its pea-brain must be functioning better than the suicidal cat yesterday. It is also here that I meet the suicidal cow and fat girl. These are better classified as "attempted suicides", I guess since they move out of the way when they hear me.
Also successful in life preservation are the bus drivers and passengers who hang out of the doors and even sit on the roof.
At the lake, Bikerboey abandons her bike for a dip in the pool. I do a tour around the lake alone - my first solo ride. Estimates of the distance vary; one hotel staff says it takes an hour by motorbike; others say three hours. I don't want to be back after nightfall, so I crank up my revs.
This isn't really a place to speed; there are potholes, gravels and makeshift speed bumps made up of sawn logs on the road. The route takes me past farmers toiling in the sun. As the song goes, "planting rice is never fun"; it's back-breaking work. I also pass a man breaking rocks and people digging a trench. No machines here except hand tools. I take a photo of some farmers threshing rice two hundred metres away. One looks up and asks in English:" "hello how are you".
I don't have a map of the place and I bear Bikerboey's words in mind: take only the left turns and keep the lake in sight. It doesn't help that the road goes beyond the lake. I stop and ask some ladies seated by the road for directions. They point me the right way.
Still not knowing how far I have to go, I take a break after two hours at a hut by the sea. I help myself to some drinks in the fridge and am back in the saddle after 15 minutes. The sun is shining but it feels cool and hazy. A headwind blows. I complete the round trip in three hours. Nightstop: Yoherma Hotel
The valley of death
A friendly, shrivelled old lady rips me off when I buy a 1.5 litre bottle of water. "Maybe it costs more uphill", says Bikerboey. The lady touches my arm and offers me more stuff to buy. I get a couple of bananas for roughage since cooked vegetables are hard to come by. Meanwhile, the lady offers Bikerboey free food! That's the high point of the ride - plus watching contingent after contingent of schoolkids marching along the road. Some have their moves better drilled than others. A passing kid practices his English on me while is pals jibe him. His quest for self-improvement will take him far in life.
It's literally downhill all the way for me after that. Like Bikerboey had warned, it's a steep drop. Merely by sitting on my saddle, I hit 40 km/h easily on the winding road. I pass a burnt out wreck of a car sitting on a pedestal - a stark reminder that fleeting carelessness has eternal consequences.
I ride on my brakes down the valley of death, hoping that the only things that are broken are my two broken strands of brake cable. This is like going down Mount Ophir, only there's way more traffic here.
I retire to my room to watch my laundry dry while Bikerboey sits in the clubhouse to read her magazines. We take a long walk in the resort along the golf course after that.
In the evening, we head for the restaurant. It's unclear when dinner will be served as the cook has gone for a bath, or whether our walk is wasted since we're told we could have it at the clubhouse near our rooms. Meanwhile, the bloodsuckers (Aedes mosquitos) are out for my blood sacrifice.
I tell a housekeeper in the nearby villa that we're heading back to our rooms. He runs after me seconds later to say there's a power failure. That's the fifth night during my eight nights in Sumatra. He invites us to the villa, which apparently is supported by an independent power supply. Bikerboey settles down to watch basketball on cable TV while I check out the three verandas and four bedrooms of the villa.
How ironic. This is the poshest accommodation during my entire trip, yet I'm bugged by insects and going hungry. Dinner is delicious but simple nasi goreng (no fancy nasi padang). We head back to our room after that, which has no TV, cupboard or clothes hangers. It must be real boring here at night. A security guard bangs on the door to wish me "peace".
Nightstop: Anai Golf & Mountain Resort
The last day
Day 9: Sun 15 Aug, Singapura, 18 km
No call to prayer wakes us up in the morning, but oldies music does. A crowd at the carpark watches as Bikerboey packs her bike for the ride to the airport. They even ooh and aah as she slaps on velcro for her frame. I make do with bubblewrap and masking tape.
The driver speeds off to catch our one-hour flight from Padang to Batam. He's an experienced hand, taking both hands off the steering wheel to light cigarettes and put on his seat belt. At 80 km/h. Glad he's safety conscious.
Also safety conscious is the security man at the airport. He says I can't bring my tiny pliers on board. I had no problems taking it on board on the way in. No one asks me for my passport. Which is just as well, because the name on my ticket doesn't resemble what's on my passport. We sit around waiting for our flight, which is late. No one updates the flight information TV screen in the departure lounge, nor are the ground staff able to tell me anything; I have to leave the lounge to get information from the check-in counter and brave the security man again. An Indonesian passenger enroute to Singapore tells us what's going on and even when it's time to board the flight.
We have one last meal of nasi padang on Indonesian soil at Batam before catching the ferry to Singapura. Somewhere along the way, my handlebar grip is gouged. My headset is loosened somehow, so much so that my bike wobbles when I brake. And I wonder how my tyres got totally deflated during the flight since I didn't have the problem on the way in. And back in Singapore, someone throws away one of my bungee cords, which I need to secure my bag onto my seatpost rack. A friendly attendant helps me find it.
It's been raining while I'm on the ferry; during the ride, the only drops that fell were my sweat and from my waterbottle. Back on Singapore soil, I rush home in case it rains. I cruise at around 32 km/h until I see a roadie on a blue Pinarello. I blast past him and together we clock 40 km/h until I reluctantly break away as he's going a different route.
And thus ends the 401 km ride. Not a scratch nor a drop of blood shed (mosquitos excepted). The only part of the ride I truly liked was Danau Minanjau. Quite unlike the 1,000 km Malaysia ride, where I liked every part except one stop. I also get a sense of achievement, riding 1,000 km. I can cover 401 km in one month of riding. Cost-wise, the Malaysia ride was more cost-efficient too: about $250 for 12 days. Here, my nine days cost about $740. However, Bikerboey prefers the Sumatra ride, because "there're more things to see" and she likes mountains. She enjoys Buffalo Canyon too.