Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bungus for a day

Back on the coast with a couple of days to spare I couldn't be bothered with lugging the gear around further so checked in to a cheapish hotel (for Padang) and decided to head to the beach for the day. I'd heard good reports about Bungus Bay, about 20km south of Padang, so it was merely a matter of hopping onto an opelet and taking the 40min ride down the coast.
There's the main harbour of Padang to pass by, but otherwise it's just jungle meets the ocean, very scenic indeed. Bungus is a pleasant bay with sandy beaches, rocky headlands and mangrove swamps. Kind of reminded me of the top end NT without the fear of meeting any snapping handbags!!! I wandered as far as I could before the rocks and mangroves forced me around.

Not really much to the place unless you plan to go snorkelling around the nearby islands or sit around writing a novel, or perhaps reading one. My opelet back to town now has the record for greatest number of people in one vehicle - 27 including driver and the money boy!!

More photos

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Searching for menhirs in Mahat

The regency of Lima Puluh Kota is renowned for its megalithic stones. They don't know much about these stones, and they aren't exactly being preserved in any meaningful way, as many are just by the roadside or in fields. It is thought that this fertile valley had the earliest civilisation/settlement of the 3 regencies in Minangkabau, but what these stones were for is still rather a mystery.I asked at my homestay, and a tour was organised for me to the remote valley of Mahat. Mahat is a bowl shaped valley, deep in the Bukit Barisan ranges of central sumatera, home to hundreds, possibly thousands of these standing stones. Many stand in fenced off fields, but knowledge about them is scarce.
The trip is long, about 2 hours each way by motorbike on poorly maintained roads. But the views are astonishingly beautiful. I doubt they see many westerners by the look of consternation on the faces of two young boys whose photos I took. My guide hadn't been to see the menhirs himself, so it was a voyage of discovery for both of us. The locals were of course very friendly and it was no trouble finding what we were looking for.
Along the way we saw some ingenious waterwheels, made entirely of bamboo, raising up water to irrigate the nearby rice fields. And we hit a few waterfalls on our way back - I may shortly be in waterfall overload!!

more photos

Wow Harau

This place is truly awesome. The valley narrows to 200 foot sheer granite walls on each side, green green jungle and picturesque waterfalls. Not to mention the friendliest most genuine people I've met so far. Everyone smiles and says hello. No they don't want anything from you, and no they don't speak english either. So my Bahasa Indonesian continues to improve. Five days in this paradise, where the frogs serenade you to sleep and you wake to the sound of the black monkeys calling out, can be ruined quickly by a bunch of local tourists who like nothing better than blasting the silence with the sounds of techno music at the highest decibel possible. Luckily, I spent every day on huge walks through the hills or jungle trekking so not much kept me from sleeping like a baby.More Independence Day celebrations were occurring in the nearby village so a few of us headed down to join in the festivities. Mostly games for the kids, like eating dry crackers dangling from a string (no hands) and trying to remove coins with their teeth from a melon which had been blackened with a torch so you can imagine the mess! They also climb a greased pole for bags of sweets, and do a marble and spoon race, much harder than an egg to balance. The people invited us to join in and are overwhelming in their hospitality. Truly a magnificent area.

I could have stayed longer, but new adventures beckon.

for more Photos of this stunning area

Empat puluh empat

There are 44 hairpin bends on the road down to the crater lake of Lake Maninjau. Fittingly, not only am I 44 years old but I stayed at Cafe 44, which has basic rooms on the lake edge and very good food.
Most of my time at Maninjau it rained, which made it hard to get out and about very far, or to get clear photos of the lake. Somehow I managed it, including walking up all 44 turns to the top (a distance of about 9km) and then, for no other reason than the quads needed exercising as well, I walked back down again. Troupes of monkeys hang out along the road hoping for food scraps, some even obliged with allowing me to take their picture.
One of the highlights of my stay in Maninjau was the Independence Day celebrations, when all the school kids dressed up in the various costumes from all over Indonesia and paraded through the streets. The bandleaders in the high heeled boots and frilly costumes and makeup really cracked me up!
Maninjau is all about chilling out and relaxing, but I'm not yet ready for that after only two weeks on the road. If you like doing nothing, Maninjau's the place. Oh and did I mention the yummo food??

for lots more photos

Minangkabau tour

Legend says that a javanese king wanted to conquer the people living in the hills above Padang but he was having some trouble doing so. In the end the fight came down to a bullfight. (Given that this society is matriarchal I find it somewhat surprising that it all came down to a show of machismo, but perhaps the ladies just let their men have some fun!) The javanese king brought along his prize bull, winner of many fights. The locals starved a young calf for a couple of days then tied knives to his head. When the fight began, the calf nuzzled up to the big bull, effectively disembowelling him and of course winning the fight. So Minangkabau supposedly means "the bull winners" and the traditional houses have curved roofs resembling bull horns.
As mentioned earlier, the society is matriarchal, with property handed down to the women not the men. On the surface this isn't obvious as men still seem to sit around smoking and doing nothing while the women work their butts off.

The easiest way to get a good gander of the area is to join a day tour of the region. Four of us in a minibus visited old villages, a waterwheel powered coffee grinding business, one of the nearby crater lakes, and some of the traditional meeting houses.

Apparently, the more daughters you have, the bigger you have to build your house as the husband moves in after marriage, not the other way around. It's pretty basic inside, with a small cooking fire in one corner as you enter. The meeting houses, however, are a bit grander, complete with all the kitsch trimmings.

Here's more photos

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Caves in the ricefields

The Minangkabau region, in which I've been travelling for the last week or so is spectacular. In particular the road between Bukittingi and Payakumbuh which is lined with verdant rice fields and a backdrop of karst formations. There's caves in them there hills!!

A place where the caves can be visited involves a 40min bus trip to the outskirts of Payakumbuh, then a short walk uphill to the caves. There was no-one else there while I spent my time taking photos and getting lost trying to find my way along the paths.

Check this photo, I reckon it looks like the jaw of a giant meat eating dinosaur! The trip back was a laugh, in an old rattler of a bus, chugging up the hills like it was on its last legs after a lifetime of too many fags. Packed to the eyeballs of course.more photos

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Baptism of fire

It was time to climb a volcano. Over the last few days I've been travelling with a french couple, Gerard and Chantelle, and we all booked the climb up Merapi.

Merapi is 2890m high and the climb begins at 1300m. We elected to do a day walk - many people climb at night to be on the summit for the sunrise - so the day began with a 4 am wakeup, for leaving at 5 am.

First hitch was that I'd been unwell, with a slight case of the squirts, so had had very little sleep, and no food since lunch the day before. I brought along some rice, and lots of sugar filled snacks, but had not got past the nausea to actually eat anything. I had taken an anti diarhoea pill, which held me in good stead for the day thank goodness.

Second hitch was that I had packed my large pack with lots of water, my camera gear, snacks etc in preparation for what I would need to carry up Kerinci, a climb which is a further 1000m uphill than Merapi. No sleeping bag and no change of clothes, but otherwise a fair go at practice for the big one. I was probably carrying around 8kg on my back, much more than any of my climbing companions.

At 5am, we headed off in the minibus for a half hour drive to Kota Baru. We stopped for breakfast - I declined - then drove up a small track to the starting point of our climb. It was only just getting light and the summit was completely clear. It was cool and not too humid, a perfect day for climbing.
The first part was fairly easy, along a path, across a bamboo bridge and then into the jungle. The path was strewn with garbage but it wasn't wet or slippery and it was fairly easy to scramble up using the roots of the trees for footholes.
After an hour the climb got more steep, and my energy was beginning to wane. I stopped for a rest and had some rice, then continued on. I was sweating profusely and feeling nauseated. The others were in no hurry so were happy to stop and wait for me. Only the problem with being last is when you catch up, they head on again so you actually get less rest, not more.

By 2 hours I was a wreck. Although Gerard had offered to carry some of my load, I had declined with the stubborn view that this was practice for Kerinci and if I couldn't make it then I was not going to make Kerinci either. My sand dune practice seemed a waste of time (admittedly I'd done less than I should have before leaving knowing I'd have a few volcanos to practice on before Kerinci) and I felt a complete failure. I decided to stop and let the others continue on without me for the further 2 hours to the summit and I would wait for their return. I had food, water and a jumper, I would be fine.

The others left. I took off my pack, put my jumper on and lay down and had a rest. Animals and birds started moving around near me. It was very nice and peaceful. I had at least 4 hours to wait.
I got cold, despite my hat and jumper as my shirt was wet with sweat. I decided I needed to move to somewhere where there was some sun coming through the canopy so I could warm up. I couldn't go down, as the guide would worry if I wasn't where he had left me, so I decided to go up.

I followed the trail, heading further and further up. A few spots were sunny, but also full of garbage. I decided to head for the treeline. Before I knew it I had reached it and could see the others climbing the scree above me. I called out but they didn't hear me. I decided I would climb the scree. This is where my boots came into their own as the stiff sole and ankle protection made scrambling over the loose stones not so difficult. The path zigzagged its way up a ridge and suddenly I was on the top!What a feeling of elation! I'd done it, climbed my first volcano, with a fairly heavy pack and with a funny tummy. But where were the others? The crater was deserted, but for a small party of young Indonesian students who looked like they had camped overnight. I asked them and they pointed over the crest of the crater. I crossed the crater to the further ridge and there was the active crater, spewing smoke and sulphurous steam into the atmosphere. The others were way over the other side so I followed the ridge path around to meet them. They were very happy to see me and glad I had indeed made the summit.

We had lunch and then it was time for the descent. By now the clouds had settled around the mountain and even though it was sunny on the summit we would descend through the clouds. Occasionally some cloud would come flying over the crater where we were picnicking and fog us in. Kind of spooky.

Down the scree was more difficult than climbing it, but again my boots proved their worth. Gerard began to have problems with his toes being squashed by his shoes, at least that was something I didn't have to worry about. As we descended further, the energy in my quads got less and less, such that I could only take small steps. More like a shuffle. Again I was last and again the others would wait for me and then head off when I arrived. In the end they went off ahead and I just took my time, though getting slower and slower. The final half hour was pure torture, but at last the minibus came into view and it was straight home to the hotel, hot shower and straight off to sleep. Not even the muezzins could wake me!!

I'm bloody proud of myself. I'm sore, and my tummy's still a bit funny, but I made it up and back in one piece carrying all that gear so I reckon with a bit more training I'll be ready for Kerinci.

for more Photos

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Large flowers and special coffee

Getting to Palupuh, a small village about 16km north of Bukittinggi, turned out to be a little more complicated than expected. What should have taken 30 min ended up taking over 2 hours. The hotel reception directed me to a spot just down the road where I could catch a minibus there. I found the spot, but just some deserted buses, so I walked a bit further on, to be redirected back. Yes, I was informed, this is the bus. So I waited. Along came others, some of us even sat in the bus. And waited. After about an hour there were 6 adults and 2 kids all awaiting the service. Still no driver. So everyone left and headed back to the main road to try and flag down some other transport. I followed. In the end we took a small opelet around the northern kampongs before alighting at an intersection and cramming on like sardines to a public bus. 20 minutes later I was in Palupuh.

At Palupuh it's just a matter of hooking up with a guide who will take you to see the Rafflesia. These are the largest flowers in the world. They come from a fungus which only grows on one particular type of Liana vine and they only flower for 7 days. They pollinate by exuding a rotten flesh smell which attracts insects. The one I saw was only partially open but you could still get the impression of them. It didn't smell too bad yet either!!

Also at Palupuh are the Amorphophallus lilies, which are the tallest flowers in the world. Unlike the Rafflesia, they are a tree meantime. You can tell they have flowered as the tree dies and the flower forms in its place, also exuding a filthy rotten flesh smell. Apparently the seeds can be easily propogated. The one I saw wasn't in flower, still a tree, and I can't really imagine it surviving a hot Geraldton summer anyway!

To my surprise there is another treat awaiting the intrepid traveller to Palupuh - the delights of Kopi Luwak. Kopi Luwak is coffee that has gone through an extraordinary process which takes the bitterness out of the taste and provides the coffee with a smooth almost chocolate like texture. The process is as follows: a small mammal, known as a palm civet, or luwak, smells out the ripest best quality coffee cherries and eats these exclusively, rejecting any that aren't that nice. The luwak also eats other fruits, small insects etc. After about 24 hours it shits out the coffee beans, which are of course the seed of the cherry. The luwak poos are collected, dried, then the husks removed. The beans are in fact green, which distinguishes them from non luwak coffee beans, these are then roasted and then made into coffee.

The Luwak poo at Palupuh is collected from wild Luwaks, who feed in the coffee plantations. The lady running the business gets paid $45 a kilo for one kilo of green (non roasted) beans by her Dutch and Australian import partners. In the west roasted beans can cost up to $1000 a kilo. Seems to me someone's getting ripped off here.....

I returned to Palupuh 2 days later to find the Rafflesia fully open and to appreciate the smell just that bit more. And to have another cup of Kopi Luwak of course. This time the minibus was full and we were off within seconds of jumping on the bus - all 17 of us!!!

For more photos

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Porn bus to Bukittinggi

It's really a simple matter to get out of Padang. Take a couple of opelets to Minang Plaza then join an aircon minibus for the 2 hour trip up into the hills. I jumped on a bus run by the R.N.S. company or PO R.N.S. for short. After the usually harangueing of every passerby in the north of Padang by the bus conductor to fill up the few empty seats we were at last on our way. It was bucketting down outside so I was more than happy to be travelling in relative comfort. The seats aren't too comfy and people smoke without opening the windows but hey, that's the adventure of it all. I sat next to a man from Payakumbuh who has given me the address of his brother in Kerinci and his phone number for when I head over to Harau. Hospitality everywhere!

Bukittingi is quite small, easy to walk around in a day, visit the famous clocktower and view the nearby canyon as well as an old Dutch fort and a very sad little zoo. There's a museum as well but it was closed.
I'm slowly making my way through the cuisine, luckily I love spicy food and lots of rice. I'm studiously avoiding the backpacker cafes and eating at the local restaurants, though sometimes the need arises for a cold Bintang so I must....

Yesterday I went walking to a local village where they make filigree silver jewelry so I bought some earrings as I forgot to pack any, silly me. Picked up a guide who showed me a more scenic route along the canyon, which would have been awfully spectacular before the earthquake last year caused most of the green walls to cave in so it's just muddy walls and a very rubbish strewn river running through it. It's translated name means Buffalo Hole rather than "canyon", I can certainly see the allusion!
Today I hit the markets, in particular Pasar Bawah, or lower market, where all the food products are sold. I am a total sucker for markets and could spend all day wandering around taking photos.In the afternoon I headed off in a different direction and ended up finding a lovely old traditional house down a laneway. While I was taking photos, the old ladies living there invited me in for refreshments and polite conversation. Yes I am practising my Indonesian language and seem to be getting somewhere.
The word is out that there are some Rafflesia flowers blooming in Palupuh so I'm off there tomorrow to check out the world's biggest (and smelliest) flower.

for lots more photos of Bukittinggi and nearby canyon, click HERE

Thursday, August 7, 2008


You'd be surprised how many people go surfing in Sumatra. The plane is full of surfers on their way to resorts or liveaboards on the Mentawai Islands. Outside this bunch of tourists, there are few other westerners and few Padang people speak english. So far I've been lost down a few side streets in my usual wanderings around town, I've had a great feed of the Padang food, and had some fun conversations with a few locals. There isn't much info available on Padang, it seems to be a transiting point rather than a destination in its own right, but it's really quite a pleasant little place on the seaside. It's loud, dirty and rundown, welcome to Asia!!

The old part of town is full of rundown Dutch buildings and old warehouses, lots of interesting architecture to photograph. A river runs through to the ocean so there's the usual fishing boats and evening promenading, complete with small food stalls. I had the most awesome barbequed corn for dinner - marinated in a mixture of spices and coconut - delicious.

Padang is known for exporting its cuisine throughout Indonesia. A normal meal involves the setting out of numerous bowls of different foods, from beef rendang to different vegs, to beans and fish. You get a big plate of rice, a bowl to wash your eating hand in and then you tuck in. You only pay for the dishes you eat, so the best bet is just to try 2 or 3 at a time and try a different 3 next time. I'm a sucker for rendang so that only gives me two other choices. I'm going to be here a while so it shouldn't be a problem.
I wandered through the market, taking the occasional photo and being asked by the shopkeepers to take pictures of them. What a scream they are and so happy to see their picture on the camera screen. Over in a nearby park some men began talking to me. One was a "gayboy" so we had a bit of fun with him playing up for the camera.

Back at the hotel it's surfers and more surfers. A really nice bunch of guys, many who work on the boats and gave me a few tips on places to go. A few scotches and vodkas later, I crawl into bed.

The hotel is a little expensive for my budget but still dirt cheap by aussie standards. It's a converted Dutch Bank, sitting right on the river with a breezy balcony just beckoning you to sit for a while over a coffee/beer etc. The rooms are huge and full of this amazing furniture. Had a little look at some of the other places in town, this is certainly the most atmospheric by a long shot.
More photos

Next I head for the hills.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

In transit

Red eye from Perth, after numerous cups of farewell coffee with friends, has found me sleep deprived in Singapore at 3 am. Clearing customs was a breeze, then a wait for the MRT to start up at 5.30am for the ride into the city in the dark.
Early morning Singapore is full of joggers, mostly Caucasian, and cleaners, mostly migrant workers sweeping paths and scraping up chewing gum from the pavements. And people sleeping on pieces of cardboard on benches and pedestrian underpasses. Come 7.30 and the place is alive with well dressed office workers on their way to a 12 hour day.
The cloak of tropical heat hits as you venture out from the air con comfort, but Singapore's clean, organised, sterile. I don't feel I'm in Asia yet.