Sumatran Struggles – Beaten?

A double posting tonight – you might have missed Sumatra continued – Photos?
Sumatra is the toughest place we’ve been on this trip. We’ve given it our best shot, but after a month, we’re still a week from the ferry to Java. Legs are aching from the endless very steep hills, and skin is blotchy and spotty from the endless sweating and humidity. It’s time to take an easier path. I wrote that on a Jakarta-bound air conditioned bus.
Its tough because of the hills. After Toba, we made our way south, along the volcanic spine, for a way, before going West, so as to benefit from the coastal lowlands. Well, they are low, but they ain’t flat. For much of it, spurs or ridges extend to the sea. They’re only 100m or so high, and the coast road takes them in endless savage little hills. In the heat and humidity, we can’t climb fast, or without cooling breaks; progress is sometimes demoralisingly slow. Two of our last three cycling days gained only 60 and 52km, little over half our average. And there was a rest day in between two of them! On our last day of cycling in Sumatra, we were a week later than our planned crossing to Java, with 500 hilly kilometres to go. By 4pm we were still 40km short of the day’s target. Then, on a narrow bridge, this big bus had to wait behind us to overtake (nb: a technique unknown to Java’s bus drivers). We turned and signed “bikes in bus” to the driver. It worked! We covered the 40km to Krui in comfort. Well, sort of comfort, as the road remained the same bumpy corkscrew we’d struggled on. There we rested a day, and sorted ourselves onto the next day’s bus to Jakarta. That recovered one lost week, by skipping roughly 500km. I guess I should add as a postscript that we didn’t cycle east Sumatra, which the maps suggest is flat and swampy, and might have been easier, but less scenic.
Pictures of hills – oddly, we have lots…
It’s tough because of the heat and humidity. Shortly after starting, every day, we were soaked in sweat. Towards the end of Sumatra’s big hills, Clare started to suffer from heat rash. All day pedalling hard, then often sleeping in hot, stuffy rooms, was too much for her skin. Gid later showed some signs of this too, but generally coped a bit better, perhaps cooled by his stylish Bukittingi haircut or just baring a silver cyclists chest with shirt flapping in the wind. No wonder the girlies are all in fits of giggles. Clare bought some cotton clothing hoping it would be cooler even if not designed for cycling. It seemed to be working… The rash not getting worse.
Err, no pictures of the sweat and rashes, sorry.
Accommodation was difficult at times. Once out of the highlands, it’s way too hot to camp, especially in our rainproof, but poorly ventilated Scandinavian tent, as there’s rarely much breeze. Hotels and guest houses are usually good value, often offering AC, but thinly spread, though not so thin as  OSM and Google suggest. Although we’d agreed not to try for big distances, often mapped accommodation is over 100km apart, and not always do we find somewhere unmapped. We have new words – Penginapan, for lodging house; Losmen for inn. Rarely in electronic maps, these can be found in smaller towns. Even towns not on the map but deduced from a road junction – some surprisingly big towns show up that way. We’ve been taken in by locals, which was a great experience, but a hot, sticky night, fully clad, in a communal room. Once we crashed out in the utility block of the local police station, which isn’t uncommon for Sumatra cycle tourists. I reckon if you can stand the heat, you could sleep free most nights. If you can’t, fan cooled rooms start at little over $10, air-con from maybe $15, so long as you can find a decent sized town. We always aimed for aircon, for a night’s sleep and dry skin, although we didn’t always get it. It’s the best option to dry out laundry overnight – we’re only using two sets of clothes. Finally, aircon’d places have most vents closed, whereas the traditional method of staying cool is maximum ventilation; this means there’s many fewer mozzies in an aircon room.
One afternoon, we were pulled over by a roving Warm Showers scooter patrol. Mati offered us free accommodation pretty much exactly where we were heading. How cool is that? Well pretty cool, as it was a kind of substantial beach hut, with the best overnight breeze, and a very well aimed fan. A shame we were keen to press on, it would have made a nice beach break. There’s a fair number of Warm Showers hosts in Indonesia, it’s got to be a great option if you sleep OK in the heat.
No pictures of hotels, either…
Talking of beaches, we did see some surf, and some surf dudes, on the west coast. The best action is supposed to be out on the western islands. The coast we saw looked attractive for some surfers and maybe sea kayak too, but perhaps tricky, for sea kayak landings.
Though tough, Sumatra is a very rewarding place to tour. 2,300km long by the shortest road route, the mountain views are stunning, the rainforest, even roadside, is full of lush greenery and noisy beasties. The agricultural areas range from fascinating and colourful gardens and paddy fields to duller palm plantations. Some tourists find the palm oil plantations depressing, mostly as they often represent torn up rainforest. But they’re not so bad to cycle in. Sumatra is big, but it’s always had a modest population and limited development, so there’s not much history to see, it’s more the landscapes and the people there now that are the “sights”.
They are not all the same people – we see different cultures as we roll struggle through, but always the people are friendly. Each day is spent grinning and greeting. Clare realised she’d been wearing a fixed grin for 30 minutes passing through some town, so many folk wanted to wave and call. As usual after a couple of months in a country, we got up to a shamefully poor vocabulary of maybe 20 words of Indonesian. It was enough, with gestures, and a few Indonesians speaking English (“Hello” is the same, and all Indonesians know “yes”, “no” and “selfie”). I guess there are about the same number of selfie stops as India, but here it’s mostly girls. And very giggly ones too, at least two per scooter.
People…
With fairly heavily loaded road orientated bikes, and limited time, we stayed mostly on minor main roads. Like in most hilly regions, the minor roads rarely joined up to provide alternative routes. But away from Medan and its horrible road to Berestagi, traffic was light. We were there mostly in June: Monsoon downpours happened at times, but most days were dry.
A self-inflicted accidental challenge was that we left the Christian region around Lake Toba at about the start of Ramadan. Thereafter, roadside eateries were shut all day, we had to make very boring picnics from the small supermarkets. And there was a bit of a feeling of it being somewhat impolite to drink or eat in public. But we had to, as finding roadside  privacy proved as impossible as in India. The degree of fasting rigor varied as we travelled, some regions appearing more devout than others. It was a relief when it ended, by that time we were in Java.
Our final thoughts on Sumatra differ. Clare was thoroughly fed up with it by the end. The endless hills, and their brutal steepness, the enforced distances to hunt aircon, the problems with food, the heat, and the frequently off-road experience when we avoided the highway, was all too much. Gideon is more positive, but thinks to get a great tour there, we’d need a bit more youth and/or heat tolerance, a lot less baggage, fatter tyres and maybe suspension, and stronger legs. Oh and maybe three months, just for Sumatra, not Indonesia.
Clare claims North Java is flat, find out if it really is in the next blog!

2 comments on “Sumatran Struggles – Beaten?

  1. Paula Trahern says:

    Clare – we are so excited to read that you’ve made it to Australia. Everyone at school is so pleased and it has made a lovely end to what has been ‘quite a year’! I have updated the display in the hall and put lots of star stickers on Australia! We are all very proud of you and Gid. Lots of special GG silent cheers for you! X

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    • Thanks, Paula. If the display is still there we’d love to see a photo of it. Especially with our stickers. And thank you to the children for our silent cheer. Please thank everyone for their kind wishes. Now all we’ve got to do is get home. I’m sure you are all looking forward to your holiday. Let’s hope it’s a good one. Clare x

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