A Very Long Day of Mishap in Sumatra

Lake Toba:

In Lake Toba we found a traditional Batak house to rent for 4 dollars a night.  You crawled in through the 4ft high doorway, and the floorboards creaked a symphony every time you stood up, but it was a very fetching home. 

 our house

We spent our days riding around the island in a haze of tranquility, dreaming of living there forever. 



We made it up to the top of the island where fewer people lived, and everything looked cold and windswept.  There were more little shacks and shed-churches, and amazingly ornate graves with miniature Batak houses on top.


The pigs wore strange neck garments. 

We faffed about photographing houses, and bounced over rickety bridges and up gravel paths. 


We found a tent full of hand carved totem poles, still being made.

At night the kids from the restaurant next door sat and took mushrooms, giggling and whispering words to themselves over and over again.  We didn’t have any, but they are legal and grow there year-round. 




We spent time fixing broken stuff that we had needed to fix for months, sitting on the porch feeling domestic and peaceful. Adam did a bit of a bike service, sat down by the waters edge. 

We met an English cyclist who had been cycling round the world for 21 years.  He seemed amazingly sane, considering. 

An Aussie guy we had met elsewhere appeared too, and there were various guest house people milling about.  It was a relaxed, placid sort of atmosphere.  I am not entirely sure we should have left, thinking about it. 


The Last Few Days:

We have now finally made it from Lake Toba to Bukittingi, thereby laboriously traversing what looked at first glance to be a wholly insignificant distance on the stupid Indonesia map. 

It took us three days.

We set off gleefully:  The route round the island and back up our volcano crater was even more beautiful.  The houses were still stunning, the churches still peculiar, and the roads still scenic.



We scooted through market towns, with people selling the large and revoltingly odorous durian fruits from big piles on the ground, and little women in tea towels perched behind giant slabs of ponderous meat (dog??). 



The road grew somewhat holed and rugged, and it rained on our heads a bit, but not enough to put us off.

We meandered through palm plantation after palm plantation, from tiny roadside village to slightly larger roadside town. 


The churches turned into tiny tin-roofed mosques, the tea towel head adornments of the Batak women turned for the most part to Muslim head coverings. 

Whenever we stopped our attempts at Bahasa Indonesian went consistently horribly wrong.   We are going to have to get better at it.  Nevertheless, we managed to find decent grub in a restaurant with cool waiters and piped James Blunt, and a hot spring jacuzzi in the toilet block.

After more meandering we arrived in a tiny town with ancient-looking wooden houses with latticework and long shuttered windows, and nosed about looking for a hotel.  There was a sign for one, but it was definitely somewhat elusive. 

A long hour and a half later, we found it and rejoiced.  Then we saw the prices…

An hour further away as it was getting dark we found a great hotel with real beds, real food, and some very friendly folk in the middle of nowhere, and thanked our stars that things always turn out ok in the end…

We were to change our minds slightly the next day. 

We set off ok, at a reasonable 8.30am. We arrived, disheveled and displeased, at 10.30pm.

The day we were due to cross the equator began ominously wet and dark. 

The road became less and less road like as we went on.  As the second main road of North Sumatra, you would think it would be fairly well maintained.  Not so. There were potholes big and deep enough to park in. 

When the rain started, it filled and covered them all quickly.  This had the not wholly pleasant effect of suddenly hurling us into three feet of muddy water every few metres. 

After an hour or two of torrential downpour with intermittent showers, we were a bit damp, to put it mildly. 


We stopped for various cups of tea.  There was a general commotion caused by our arrival.  Small people sneaked in to peer at us from corners.  Women bounced right up to me and spoke unintelligibly but energetically whilst grinning and holding babies. 

 We spotted an enormous lizard by the side of the road, a metre long, with a forked tongue and an insolent glare.  It watched us watch it from the bike, but as soon as I pulled the camera out it gave us a long-suffering stare, and scurried off into the undergrowth.

Things were going ok up until that point.  Tiring, and wet, but ok.

Then we got ourselves fairly lost sometime mid afternoon, and, amazingly even for us, arrived in the same town twice, two hours apart.  

We blithely figured the map was wrong (not a rare occurrence), and carried on, whizzing past little towns with occasional ‘losmen’ guesthouses to make it to our arbitrarily chosen town further along to sleep. 

someone had been busy...

An hour and a half later we started wondering aloud to each other about the location of said town. 

Half an hour later we found a sign to it.  It was pointing 60 km in the opposite direction.  The town was so small we had driven straight through it without realizing. 

It was 6pm.  We were 100km from the equator, which means it gets dark bang on 6.30pm every day, no matter what. 

We rocked up to the next township 100km further down a very bouncy road as dusk approached, convinced cheerfully by the Lonely Planet that every town had at least one hotel.

It was getting very dusky, and as we pulled up by the curb to ask directions to a hotel we accidentally landed in an unseen ditch.  The rear wheel was immediately completely stuck.  Adam revved to pull the bike out, and lodged us further in.  I got off and pulled, stood in the mud.  I had just managed to dislodge it, when Adam revved again, and zoomed straight back in, only deeper. 

A guy appeared next to us, watching. 

I was unable to shift the bike this time.  It was just too deep.  I pulled.  Adam revved.  And covered me entirely in mud.

The guy next to us started asking us where we were from. 

When he went on after a bit to ask what we were doing, I got a little fed up.

After I had explained in short sentences what exactly we were trying to achieve at that precise moment in time, he did, to his credit, help give the bike a giant yank and haul us back onto the road.

Then he called his friend over to explain that there wasn’t another hotel for 50km. 

It was dark.  It was rainy.  The road was dreadful, and I was now covered in mud. 

Something had to be done.  We pulled up to a restaurant for a reviving cup of something hot.
The woman ran out and mimed that it had just closed. 

Having already established it just wasn’t our day, there wasn’t a whole lot to do but try to find somewhere to camp. 

We spotted a little restaurant, reassuringly open.  I went to the toilet.  By the time I came back Adam was completely surrounded by young girls with camera-phones.  The lady in charge grabbed me, stroked her fingers along my spine for a strange length of time, and sat on my knee. 

Four cameras were trained on us for half an hour as various photo combinations were tried and tested.  In between we were brought food. This didn‘t inhibit the photographers.  The smiling lady peeled me an egg and only stopped short of actually feeding it to me when I mistakenly took it out of her hand. 

There was no actual talking- there couldn’t be, neither of us spoke a word of each other’s language.

My smile was beginning to hurt.  My skin was the colour of bus-exhaust.  After 10 hours on the bike Adam’s eyes looked like someone had been repeatedly stabbing at them with a blunt instrument, and he had an impressive build-up of dead fly in the corners. 

I am not sure about those photos.  I don’t think they will be winning any prizes.  

We had been debating asking whether we could camp out the back of the restaurant.  There was water, toilets, and tea, which is basically a dream. 

After the egg incident and spine-stroking though I was less than 100% up for camping with our wonderfully happy, but slightly alarming hosts.  We continued to search for a camping spot, a little more secluded, if possible, where we might not be woken by an enthusiastic amateur photographer with a flashy mobile phone.

Things, however, did not improved as hoped.  The darkness seemed darker up the hill without streetlights, and the buses more deadly.  We witnessed a scooter accident. 

There were few great camping spots on the mountain.  I attempted to ask a lady with a shack-café halfway up, if we could put a tent up in her garden.  I am not sure I understood the answer entirely, but it seemed to involve us sleeping in the road… We carried on.

There were lots of enormous restaurants, which looked exactly like hotels, but weren’t, and in most cases emphatically not. 

The headlight started its little death ploy.  We had both conveniently forgotten about our intermittent headlight failure.  It struck with vigour, causing Adam to have to use the indicators as hazard lights and travel at a heady 20kph pace for much of the final incline.

Then the road pitched steeply back downwards, and there were sharp switchbacks all the way down into the valley.  I have no doubt it would have been beautiful scenery.  Who knows…

50 km later, we arrived into Pamakumbah in the pitch black, after a final hair-raising brush with death as our headlight failed entirely on a bend, with a truck hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road.

We had missed our Grand Crossing of the Equator.  It was going to be a beautifully symbolic moment.  We are now in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in our lives, and who knows when we crossed it.  I was going to test the water-down-a-plughole theory and everything.   

It was so dark we didn’t even see the sign.  Ho hum.

Thinking these and other somewhat morose thoughts we arrived into town. 

I squealed when I spotted a hotel, and we sprang off the bike and leapt into reception, where we were given the room rates to peruse.  We had joyfully picked our Economy rate when the manager appeared out of nowhere, sneered down his nose at my mud-spattered jeans, and told us they were full. 

On a busy intersection ten minutes further we found a shabby little guesthouse, and I led myself in secret prayer (including hymns), that they would let us in. 

They did, and promptly overcharged us for the second-worst hotel room I have ever slept in.  There was a bonus though- it came complete with bed bugs, stains on the sheets, and horrendously loud TV and snoring all night from reception next door.  We unfurled our bedbug-thwarting camping mattresses and our crooked limbs.  At least there was a bed, and we were in it.

 the deluxe en-suite facilities blew my mind

We were only about 20km from Bukittingi.  Today it took us about half an hour to get here.  It was all a lot easier in the light.

I, for one, am very pleased to be here. 


  1. Whew!!! Glad to hear you arrived .... finally! What a ride! From the comfort of my office it's easy to smile at your predicaments and experiences. Living the reality would be quite another adventure. Carry on, and fix that headlight!

  2. Great writing, and what a trip. We'll be taking the same route shortly. I can't wait!

    Keep your peckers up!

    The Barkingbikers.

  3. Odysseus had nothing on you lot. Sirens are everywhere. I am meeting friends for lunch. If the waitress strokes my spine, sits in my lap and peels an egg for me I will pass out, and probably wake up deflowered in a way I shall have difficulty explaining to my wife. You are brave.

  4. Hi Chuck, how's things? we do really really have to fix the headlight. the bike is also making strange noises now too. they are worrying. we have been advised by several sources to ignore them until the bike actually stops... hmm.

    Barking Bikers: where does your route take you? hope its a good trip.

    Conchscooter: There ARE sirens everywhere. She was a very sweet waitress. Alarming, but sweet. Recently a small wobbly lady also charged up to me at the station and grabbed my behind with almost commendable purpose. Sirens, I tell you.


Say hello. It makes us happy. Ta, Nicky. x

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