Three years ago, I looked out of my office window in Woking to see a Greenpeace protest unfolding outside the front of our office complex. Their message was to raise awareness over the destruction of the Sumatran rain forests, which one of the companies in our office complex apparently had a hand in.
Back then, I had no idea where Sumatra was, but now I find myself here today. To title this post “Sumatra” is a bit misleading, as I’ve only spend a short amount of time here, visiting areas towards the North East of this colossal island. Sumatra is only Indonesia’s third largest island, but, to put it in perspective, could fit the whole of Great Britain inside twice over. And this is just one of approximately 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia.
I’d left Myanmar over land, travelling to Bangkok before flying to Sumatras largest city, Medan. This whole process took almost 40 hours and left a lot of down time waiting at bus and air terminals. During this time I began to read about visiting Indonesia, places to go and visa requirements and found out that it was advisable to have an onward flight booked to avoid any sort of hassle on arrival. I’d already risked this in Myanmar and things had been fine and without knowing a date or a place I’d be leaving from, booking an onward flight is a difficult thing. But partly out of boredom and partly out of wanting to escape the need for a bribe at Medan, I spent a whole £12 on a flight to Malaysia (that I wouldn’t be taking anyway) just in case. Needless to say I arrived at Medan and the visa process was quick and easy and I found I’d just wasted £12…
After a delayed flight I arrived at Medan around 11pm, desperate for some sleep after an awful journey on a night bus the previous day. However, it took me a while to find a guest house with some availability, and I had managed to get myself an invitation to a wedding party the next day before even finding a place to sleep. So after finally finding a hostel, and sleeping for 12 hours, I went off to join in the traditional celebrations the next day with a group of people who had turned me away from a full guest house the night before. It was interesting to see the traditional ceremony, although I had to wear long trousers in 40 degree heat and had no idea what was going on for most of the time, but I still ended up dancing with the brides mum, the music only stopping briefly during the day for the prayer call from the nearby mosque. After the wedding my new friends took me on a family trip to the docks followed by dinner in town afterwards. A ridiculously friendly bunch.
The next day I set off on a trip to the village of Bukit Lawang, located next to the Gunung Leuser national park on the fringes of a vast jungle area. I’d signed up to a three day trek through the jungle, this being the place to go in Sumatra to see Orang Utans in their natural habitat. Although they are not kept in a sanctuary or housed near feeding stations, the orang Utans here are classed as semi wild, but still, seeing them swing through the jungle trees was an incredible experience, and their familiarity with humans means you can get right up close with them. Sometimes too close – as the famous orang utan ‘Mina’ chased us through a small portion of the jungle (her territory) only letting us move on when distracted by bananas and pineapples.
Over the 2 nights we camped in 2 separate locations, both by the river which flows through the jungle. The river was our source of drinking water for the time we were away, made fit for drinking by first boiling on our camp fire stoves. At night, we pretty much had to sleep on the bare ground with just a thin sheet. Not the most comfortable nights sleep ever but it almost added to the ‘jungle’ experience.
On the last day we took a leisurely ride back to Bukit Lawang on a makeshift raft made by tying several rubber rings together. This was a great way to finish as we bobbed along the river and through some small rapids back to civilisation.
The next day, I journeyed south from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba with the same group of people I’d trekked with. This was a peaceful, relaxing spot with some stunning scenery as you wind down through the mountains towards the lake.
We stayed on an island within the lake, samosir island – nearly 60km across. It was easy to explore on some scooters though and we made a full day out to the other side of the island. The inhabitants of Samosir are descendants from the Batak tribe, an old cannibalistic civilisation whose traditions have fortunately died away somewhat today. We were able to learn about their old ways, see their traditional buildings and at one point, even join in with a traditional dance.
On the way home, we decided to go against the locals advice and ride over the top of the island – throw the mountainous jungle terrain (they said we shouldn’t go this way, not that we can’t). At first this road was very pleasant, taking us way up high to vantage points overlooking the whole island, and then on to a lake within the island within the lake within the island – wow. But the fun was short lived as the road soon disappeared and was replaced with a combination of mud and rocks. When we finally got back to a proper road and managed to refuel, we found out that the locals who have lived on the island their whole lives have never taken that route. Which I guess gives us some special knowledge that not even the locals have!
We survived the ordeal though and soon I was travelling on to my final stop on my short tour round North Eastern Sumatra, the town of Berastagi. It was the 17th of August – Indonesian Independence Day, this year being the 70th anniversary. I’d originally planned to try to get to Jakarta to see the celebrations but plans had changed, and I was expecting a quiet day on the roads whilst the celebrations went on elsewhere. However, I was wrong, and as we drove through small towns and villages I found out that the roads were exactly where the celebrations were taking place, with marches and parades going on throughout the morning and afternoon. This meant diversions through narrow country dirt tracks with vans and minibuses going in either direction along these single track roads. What should have been a three hour trip took six, and was topped off when I had to get out and push not only a motorcyclist who had got stuck in the mud going up a hill, but shortly after that our own bus needed the same treatment.
I arrived in Beristagi to see the back end of the celebrations – the parades ending and marching off out of town again, a community singing and dance performance at the park and finally a game to see which group of people could make it to the top of a greased pole to win a selection of prizes.
There are two volcanos around the area of Beristagi – sinabung (which is currently erupting) and Sibayak. So I chose to trek up Sibayak. It was quite a cloudy day with the views over the surrounding area being somewhat obscured, but the views down over the mountain itself and into the ‘crater’ we’re pretty incredible and made the 5 hour round trip totally worthwhile, even if the strong smell of sulphur is still lingering in my nostrils.
There is plenty more of Sumatra to be explored but I think I have seen some of the highlights. I’m currently sat at the airport waiting to catch a flight to Jakarta amazed that I survived the bus journey back to Medan alive, but am looking forward to exploring the next island, Java, as I begin working east across Indonesia.