Toughing it out around Lake Toba

A flat route round the world I had never expected to find but gratuitous hill climbing is not for me.
We tasted hills near the start of our trip with a slice of ‘the castle route’ in Germany and after an extended trip along the Danube we were reintroduced to arduous peddle pushing when travelling south through Bulgaria. Since then we’ve travelled across Turkey, woven our way across the high lands in Azerbaijan, missed the Pamirs and the Himalayas due to ill health, visas and snow, gone up and down again through Myanmar and into Thailand before reaching my high spot – cycling along the coast looking out through the palm trees across the golden sands to the waves gently tickling the shoreline. But then I always have been a sucker for the sea.
Gid was trying to tempt me into agreeing to the mountain range in Northern Sumatra so we bargained – flat in Malaysia, missing the, I’m told, beautiful Cameron Highlands but seeing the historical towns along the west coast and going for the volcanic mountain range in Sumatra.
From Singapore we took a quick ferry to Batam, where an Indonesian cyclists, Zainal, and his family, kindly hosted us for three nights, while he helped us sort out our long ferry journey to Medan in Sumatra. After disembarking from the PELNI ferry, we headed west to Bukit Lawang, one of the best spots to see Orangutans. It used to be a rehabilitation centre for them, and a few still hang about, though living wild. It was another guided hike, and another expensive day, once the guides had finished arguing in public about who was to book the guiding. Excellent jungle walk and sightings though.
With the Orangutan spotting done and dusted we moved on the meat of the island tour; the volcanic mountain range that forms the north-south “spine” of Sumatra. Having assiduously tried to digest the verbal instructions from Matthew and Hans, as the smaller roads are often not on either electronic or paper maps, one wrong turning led to two days of savage conditions. Despite what I’ve said above I don’t give up easily but thought I was finally beaten here. Tracks that are more like river beds with smooth mini boulders and large rounded stones combined with a heavy downpour and the going gets tuff. At slow speeds tyres fail to grip and heavy bikes slide sideways. The local’s small motorbikes coped admirably, but we saw no three or four wheelers for hours.
Mid afternoon and our 100 km destination was light years away. Gid retorted that we knew it was going to be a long day as he grit his teeth and set to.
Taking shelter from the rain at a local eatery resulted in a fabulous outcome. The locals agreed there was no way we were going to reach Berestagi but one young lad said we could stay the night at his family home. One hour later, with even more muddy tracks and bike pushing, we arrived to a fabulous welcome.
Jusia, our young hero continued his good deeds the following day when he helped us both push our bikes up even more impossible tracks with the finale, a 1km long 1 in 3 track covered in slime which took our young muscle bound hero and two other helpers to get us to the top. It took all morning to get clear of the tracks and reach the road. We were shattered. During lunch, at the bottom of Berestagi hill, it started belting down again and didn’t really stop. Two tree branches and a fence came down as a squall went through. Once the worst had passed we set off, but caved in as soon as we saw a place to halt. Matthew later told us we’d been in Sumatra’s main brothel district, which explains some oddities of the accommodation. Midday day three we finally reached Berestagi … but hey – ho we knew it was going to be a long day.
Berestagi is one of those towns that tries to make a tourist’s silk purse out of not a lot. See the picture of the monument below, unusual in that it depicts Dutch troops … and is still standing. We saw a great grey plume over Mount Sinabung, to the west, but failed to take a photo as it was behind a load of overhead wires. By the time we’d cleared those, the plume was dispersed. Closest we’ve been to a real eruption!
Finally we began to reap the rewards of our labours. Our first accommodation was a campsite looking down above Lake Toba where we dusted off the tent and admired the curvatious mountains emerging from the waters edge. Well, “mountains”, actually they’re the edge of the gigantic volcanic caldera (crater) that Lake Toba fills. We couldn’t see the far side, it’s that big.
We easily found the ferry from Parapat to Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island, glided across the lake for a sunset hour, before collapsing into one of the many guest houses for a two day rest. The guidebooks were right; Tuk Tuk is ideal for doing nothing, and very scenic.
After two days rest, we started to make our way round the island; the panoramic views from the top of the volcanic mountain range stretching out across the water were truly spectacular. The frequent recession of mountains disappearing into the distance and cloud covered peaks a stone’s throw above our heads. Lush and varied foliage folding it’s way in and out of the grooves ascending from the water. Trees, creepers and even ferns at lofty heights above our heads. Occasional terracing attesting to man’s diligence.
Coming back down to the waters edge we saw entire villages out working the paddy fields: reaping, thrashing, threshing, ploughing, planting to keep the rice yield going.
Finally, I had to agree, it had been some of the most spectacular cycling we’ve done.

Route: Bukit Lawang, Namo Kelling (home), nr Sikiben (brothel) , Merek (Sapo Juma campsite), Parapat (just for ferry) , Tuk Tuk (rest stop). To exit Samosir we cycled to the south of the Island, stayed a crummy night at Nainggolan, before catching the morning ferry to Belige (Balige). This ferry isn’t on any map, another gratefully accepted tip from Matthew. From Belige was 6 days of hot, hilly, wiggly cycling to Bukittinggi, simply following the main road. A couple of days out of Belige we’d left the Christian area behind, and encountered the difficulties of cycletouring through Ramadan. All the roadside and small town eateries were closed during daylight. Shops were open, but finding somewhere lonely to eat “discreetly” was blooming hard on the Trans-Sumatran Highway as there’s houses and people everywhere. Not too many places to stay, either. The actual road wasn’t too busy on this stretch.

Camel trek – Thar desert

It was with great excitement that I climbed into the jeep to set off on our camel trek. That lasted until I saw the camels and started to wonder what were we doing now. The camels were loaded up, all we had to do was hop on. That was where the trouble started. With no stirrups to help, how was I going to get my leg over that hump. And this camel is as tall as a pony – when it’s still sitting down.
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The first couple of hours felt rather traumatic. I was so thrilled to be going on a camel trek, I wanted to snap away as we went but was too scared to take my hands off the saddle.  This was compounded by the terrible itch that, it was clear, my camel had.  He regularly half stumbled / lurched into a step, first his front leg kicked back then the back kicked forward but neither could reached this itch.
As time progressed I did get used to it and my camel husbandry improved; we were able to productively assist with managing and loading/ unloading the camels during our lunch break and at the end of the day. The camels wandered off if unhobbled and would have to be rounded up. Gid’s camel, even when hobbled, still made a break for it. The camel was tied into a sitting position, using his rein running down his chest to the hobble rope, only to shuffle along on his haunches. We started using the foot loops, which helped a lot, although locals don’t use them. By day three Gid, who was altogether more confident with the camels, was going solo and I could take photos at a trot.
The trip itself was awesome. We rode the camels, for an hour or two at a time, along tracks through desert scrub, across sandy sections and over dunes, visiting the odd village as we went.
The villagers are used to tourists so we caused some excitement but weren’t mobbed. Rather fabulously we were invited into homes and regularly offered chai which was made on an open hearth in the corner of their courtyard – homes here are designed primarily to keep the sun off and the goats out – any breeze is most welcome.  Most people were happy to pose for photos; some performed a mini concert. Even very old people came out to see us. It was delightful to get a glimpse into village life. A small donation was always exchanged: 50 rupees for chai or photos, or 200 for a mini concert. To put this in context, a  labourer might earn 250 rupees a day, that’s about €4, so a couple of tourist visits in a day is a big bonus, especially at present in Mr Modi’s cash crisis.
Children repeatedly asked for ‘school pen, school pen’. One 15 year old lad, able to speak some English, told us there was a village school. The teacher might come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, but then miss Thursday. He also told us he couldn’t read or write. That, it would appear, is not uncommon. Our guide, Harish, who had picked up English from tourists, proclaimed that he could not read or write but his younger brother could because school had opened, in his village, in 2011. Our second guide, Saleem, couldn’t spell his own name for us when he asked us to mention him in our reviews.
The desert camp experience was fantastic.  We learnt several desert life ‘tricks of the trade’ such as hollowing out a bed in the sand and, in winter, lining it with covered stones from the fire for extra warmth and how to catch a goat to milk it for fresh milk in the chai (someone else’s goat, that is, so it may be, ahem, not entirely welcome). ‘Washing up’ with sand we’re already familiar with from our background in canoeing and kayaking trips but it was a first for sleeping on dunes under the stars with gerbils scurrying around in the shrubs behind us.
The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. The Indira Gandhi canal must have done much to improve the water supply but, when the rains fail, as had been the case this year, the crops don’t grow and we passed a few ploughed fields where nothing was growing. Harish had to reach deep to get water from the storage tank. But it seems to be being managed – people and animals get enough to drink, and some fields are irrigated.
There’s quite a bit of wildlife, too, although apart from birds, we only saw gerbils, chipmunks and beetles, during the actual camel trek. There were several different large birds of prey, and also Egyptian Vultures. The high point was a lunch spot near to an eagle’s nest in a tree, we saw them visiting their chicks from a distance, but when Gid tried hiding behind a tree about 70m away, the parents spotted him, and waited on some rocks a km away before returning. So not much in the way of photos from that encounter.
End.

Agricultural Observations

Agriculture and Wildflowers

As we’ve pedalled across Europe, several trends are quite clear.

Firstly, I’m writing this in Serbia, on 4th June. Barley in the fields is nearly ripe, and wheat is well grown. Walnut trees – there are loads – have their fruit half grown. The locals are harvesting cherries and strawberries in great abundance. So the seasonal effect of going south is clear. I expect in August everything here will be brown and dead, as John Bull revs up his combine harvester. It’s rather the reverse of our 2014 Kent to JOG ride, where we followed, then overtook, England and Scotland’s harvest. Added later: We cycled through the harvest in Turkey (June/July). Most of Turkey is quite elevated, so the harvest wasn’t as extra early as one might expect. In Uzbekistan (October) the grain harvest was long done. But at the end of October, in the Wakham and Panj valleys, it looked as if the grain harvest was only recently done, probably the growing season starts pretty late there.

Second, from France thru to Serbia, there’s a lot more wildflowers than are tolerated in the UK: England’s farmland seems sterile by comparison. There are differences as we travel- German and Austrian crops are weed free, but they have a lot of deep verges and wildflower hay meadows. From Hungary on, there’s still a fair bit of unmechanised farming and, for example, fields left fallow or poppies in barley crops, contrasting with occasional big, clean (sterile) acres, presumably where big Ag is getting involved.

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