[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
At the southern edge of Jakarta’s Merdeka Square I hailed the trishaw that would take me the first mile of what was certain to be an unforgettable 1,500-mile road-trip.
There were to be several more becak trishaws and bajaj motorised rickshaws, a couple of buses and taxis, a moped ride (loaded with my rucksack and camera bags), the roof of a crowded minibus and a ferry. And that was only before I crossed the Sunda Straits and arrived on the shores of Sumatra, where my journey could begin in earnest.
As the prow of the ferry cut its way through the hot Asian night I tried, unsuccessfully, to discern the fiery glow of Krakatoa Volcano against the night sky. I wondered what it must have been like for the unlucky people who were on hand on that August evening of 1883, to hear what has been called ‘the loudest bang ever heard by modern man’.
I had always wanted to visit Sumatra and I was now looking forward to a long road-trip – or more likely road, rail and dirt-track – up the length of one of the world’s largest and wildest islands. It may be that I had become a little ‘rock-crazy’ from six months of self-inflicted confinement on Bali which, paradisiacal though it is, is too small to offer potential for any major road-trips. As the great rainforested hills and valleys of Sumatra lay stretched out ahead of me, however, I began to wonder if I had underestimated the journey. I tucked into a typically tasty plate of fried rice and snatched a few hours sleep in a portside hotel before I made my rendezvous with the early train the next morning.
I began the long journey north in a train that laboured noisily as it climbed up away from the mangroves of the coast. To the east, before the forested slopes descend into the near impenetrable jungle swamps, vast areas had been felled for logging. But we soon entered the rainforest and I had my first glimpse of what has always been taken for granted as one of the world’s richest natural environments. Home to gibbons, monkeys, elephants, giant reptiles, ever depleting numbers of orangutans, tigers and rhinoceroses and countless bird and plant species, the Sumatran rainforest has been described as a hothouse of bio-diversity. And a hothouse it undeniably is. The steaming forest stretched onward for several hours, broken only by a few small towns where people waved as we rattled through. After a 10-hour journey we were only an hour late on arrival in Palembang, Sumatra’s second largest city.
Jam Karet (which translates literally as ‘rubber time’) was a Sumatran concept that I would become increasingly familiar with as I tried to link the chain of buses that would shuttle me farther northwards. Within three days – and five buses – I was travelling along the forested ridges of the Bukit Barisan mountains, which form the backbone of Sumatra. Where plunging jungle-covered precipices had not acted as a barrier to “progress”, the land yielded rich harvests of rice, palm oil, cocoa and rubber. Even the cattle were different here: gone were the pretty, deer-like cows of southern Indonesia and Java and we began to see instead small herds of hump-backed Asian Brahmin.
The buildings too had changed. We had left behind the Malay chalets of the coast, with their flower-decked terraces and little flights of ornately tiled steps and we had even gone beyond the rough bamboo shacks of the rural hinterlands. Every highland town had an assortment of Dutch-style churches, mosques and temples. Christian, Muslim and Chinese cemeteries surrounded the towns, betraying the cultural diversity of this part of Sumatra.
We were nearing the traditional homelands of the Muslim Minangkabau people and soon we began to see buildings made of carefully prepared hardwoods, with huge soaring roofs that slope upwards in two great arcs, representing the horns of their precious buffalo. In a little village near Bukit Tinggi, the cultural centre of the Minangkabau people, I was invited to attend a traditional bullfight. The bulls here were a particularly muscular and ferocious version of the water buffalo that are found all over South East Asia and, in a brute-strength wrestling match, pairs of these massive beasts fought each other in the slippery mud of a monsoonal downpour. I was relieved to see that none of the bulls were hurt – one of the animals is invariably intelligent enough to decide early in the battle that discretion is the better part of valour and to take to its heels amidst the derisive calls of spectators and the cheers of winning bettors. “Minangkabau!” they shouted “Minangkabau!” – for the name of their tribe comes from the Indonesian for ‘the buffalo wins’.
Just north of Bukit Tinggi I celebrated my tenth Indonesian crossing of the equator. Bright green rice paddies, almost luminescent in the first morning light, stretched out across alluvial plains that had been left by ancient rivers. Durian trees, with their potent fruits like spiked green cannonballs (but twice as ‘deadly’ because of their notorious smell), towered high over village meeting-places. We rattled onwards, under the shadow of Gunung Pasaman (at 2912m, one of the highest mountains in Sumatra) and were soon entering the highland domain of the Batak people.
The Batak were traditionally the most feared of the island’s warrior tribes. Although nominally Christian they still practise many of their animist beliefs, but have thankfully long ago left behind their headhunting, raiding and cannibalistic ways. The Batak heartland around Lake Toba – where once it would have been certain death even to enter – is now one of the most relaxing and hospitable places to visit in Sumatra.
Samosir Island, positioned neatly in Lake Toba’s centre, turns South East Asia’s biggest lake into a beautiful 400 square-mile ring of bright water. I took a ferry from the fishing village of Parapat over to Tuk Tuk village and rented a house for a few days’ rest on Samosir’s eastern shore. The bulbous Tuk Tuk peninsula hangs off the side of Samosir Island like a swollen papaya on the trunk of a tree. The village still has a wealth of the magnificent Batak houses, although there is now also accommodation available in slightly sterile modern chalets that might be equally at home either in Phuket or Majorca.
Even more than the Minangkabau, the Batak are renowned as master carpenters. The lovely single-room house I rented (for just a few dollars) was raised on stilts and its great buffalo-horn gables swept up to about 10 metres above the balcony. Yet in this majestic and spacious building the front door was only about a metre tall and I had to bend double and then haul my rucksack after me into the main living room and bedroom. This was where the whole family would traditionally have slept, and at the back another tiny door led to some steps and a ground-level stone bathroom which would once have been their kitchen.
Late that night I was woken by the crash of thunder and went out onto my balcony to watch what was probably the world’s most exciting laser-show, as apocalyptic lightning crashed into the mirror-like surface of this mysterious lake.
The morning was crisp, clean and sweet with the smell of steaming grass when I jumped on a hired moped and went off to explore. The little country road (the main highway on this sleepy island) snaked up the shore, twisting around a patchwork of paddy fields and winding through villages where I stopped frequently to look at the elaborate carvings on the houses. The gables were etched in a form of marquetry on a massive scale and at their centre there was often the carved head of a water buffalo. The roofs swept up in rows along the beaches, so that the houses looked like a fleet of mighty vessels that was about to launch out into the waters where men in their little dugouts tended schools of giant goldfish (one of Samosir’s main businesses). Pretty wooden churches, which would certainly be more at home in Holland, occupy pride of place in the larger villages, but beside many of the traditional houses a miniature copy stands as a reminder that the ancestors are still revered and welcomed among the homes of the living.
The hot springs of Pangururan Volcano at the northern end of Samosir, is another reminder of much less peaceful days on Lake Toba. The lake itself was created by the biggest explosion in the last 2-million years. Then, 73,000 years ago, this was where what has been called ‘the last super-eruption in the world’s history’ took place. Volcanologists have estimated that lava flows may have spread out over twelve thousand square miles and that the ash may have rained down as far away as Central Asia and the Middle East. There have been suggestions that the eruption of Lake Toba was responsible for a population crash around that time which brought the world’s human population to as low as just 10,000!
Michael Rampino of New York University, believes that a super-eruption of this sort occurs roughly every 50,000 years; and as you watch the steaming, sulphurous water bubble up through the fragile rock that forms the earth’s crust, it is easy to imagine that, as another volcanologist has said, we are standing on a time bomb.
It says something for the scale of this massive island that, although Samosir is just a tiny speck on the map of Sumatra, it takes about four hours to travel the length of the island…at least on my battered Tuk Tuk moped. As I raced the setting sun homewards I passed a group of pilgrims walking along the road. I stopped to talk to them, and to offer what was left of the water and fruit I was carrying, and was astounded to learn that these Muslims were walking from Medan (the northern capital) to Tuk Tuk. Since they were stopping to pray in every mosque along the way their journey had taken them four footsore months!
But as far as I was concerned Medan, my final destination, was just down the road. Just another four hour bus ride – by Sumatran standards just a short spin downhill, through still more of the most beautiful country in Asia.
As we wound our way out of the highlands I was clinging for dear life to the roof of a crowded bemo minibus. Car-wrecks had been sprayed yellow and mounted as warnings at the side of the road, and with every crazy overtaking manoeuvre I wondered what the realistic odds were of surviving a road-trip from one end of Sumatra to the other.
Even so, as I neared the end of my long journey, it occurred to me that the most exciting wide-screen, Technicolor, surround-sound movie in the world is still the Indonesian landscape from the roof of a speeding bemo.