• Saturday , 17 February 2018
Limping through the ring of fire: Sumatra, Indonesia

Limping through the ring of fire: Sumatra, Indonesia

Arriving in the city of Medan on North Sumatra was a grinding of gears for our psyche after the quaint charm of Penang, Malaysia. Dirty, sprawling, and choked with traffic, we have discovered Indonesian cities are not known for their aesthetics. We picked up the bikes from customs at the Belawn Port fairly painlessly and after a half-day of paper chasing and waiting we were cleared to go in the early afternoon. Our first obstacle was passing back through Medan before we could get to the serenity of the mountains. The traffic was abysmal under a searing tropical sun. At one point the crush of vehicles was so dense Shannon got sandwiched between two small trucks coming from behind and the pinch actually stopped her dead in her tracks and trapped between the stopped vehicles. Fortunately this contact happened in ultra slow motion owing to the crawl of traffic. I had to walk back and pop Shannon out like a cork from a champagne bottle. One of the truck drivers eyed my foreignness and tried weakly to extort some money out of us for some “damage” to his fender. Since he had come from behind the rules of the road in Indonesia clearly stipulate he was at fault and I, as well as the lorry driver, knew it. No fuss was made as we simply rode off.

After an hour or so we cleared the city and twisted our way into the cool green of the mountains but the relief was fleeting. Blackening skies opened up and sheets of relentless tropical rain punctuated with lightening on all points of the compass made the remainder of our ride a soggy affair.

Somebody did a bad job tying his flip-flops to his bike today and lost one during the ride. So here I am wearing one of Shannon’s on my left foot while walking to the only store in the village of Ketambe to see if I can find a new pair that fits. Aceh, Sumatra.

Ketambe is a quiet and remote village in Aceh, Sumatra. The town’s primary importance to travelers is as an official entrance to the Gunung Leuser National Park to see wild orangutans and other wildlife. Ketambe itself is a great place to watch paint dry, but also, it is a serene and peaceful village to visit. Places like Ketambe are difficult to get to and we are definitely at an advantage having our own motorized transportation.

We stashed the bikes and gear in Ketambe for an overnight trek into the jungle in hopes of seeing wild orangutans. After a few hours of slogging through the muddy forest we came to our lunch spot and, to our surprise, we were greeted by a school trip learning about the park. The students all spoke some english and we spent the next two hours meeting everyone, taking selfies with the youngsters, and comparing stories about our lives. It was a engaging afternoon spent with wonderful people. Gunung Leuser National Park, Aceh, Sumatra.

In Northern Sumatra the Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the most diverse and untouched tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia. This forest is one of the last places on earth to witness the critically endangered orangutans in the wild. It took us a couple of days but we finally found a number of orangutans but only at a distance, they kept out of harms way high in the forest canopy.

A monster of a tree with a natural doorway through its trunk. Our guide explained to us that we could walk for over a month heading North-West through the center of the park and not see another human, this is remote country without roads or even trails once you get a couple of days walk into the forest.

Our trusted guide, nicknamed JFK, has been guiding in this forest for over two decades. We were lucky to have such experience on our side. JFK was a very enjoyable companion. In camp we traded ghost stories over candlelight and shared our histories with each other, the sort of candid cultural exchange between new friends that make travel worth every penny and inconvenience. The green gators on our legs are to keep the legions of leaches from crawling inside our trousers.

It may not look like much but our camp in the jungle was comfortable and dry. The tent was made with lightweight plastic sheeting and was whipped up from scratch with a machete and some twine. We even had a camp cook that served tasty Indonesian food cooked over the campfire.

We have been fortunate and for the most part have managed to avoid wet seasons throughout our trip but Sumatra broke our long dry streak. We saw rain, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, every day for our first three weeks in Sumatra. Landslides, mud, and boots full of water became just another facet to the exotic wonder of riding the length of Sumatra. But, the rain didn’t ruin our moods; it never gets cold, the Indonesians are some of the most friendly and helpful souls in the world, and we were free to ride wherever our hearts desired.

We rode over 2,200 miles in Sumatra, first north to the northern most point in Indonesia in the island of Weh and then all the way south until we ran out of island. Three weeks in and things were going great, no appointments to keep, plenty of time on our visas, and a renewed sense of adventure after sanitized Thailand and Malaysia. That was, until we left Lake Toba.

Lunchtime at the side of the road. This photo is a good representation of what our first couple of weeks in Sumatra looked like; lonely mountain roads, stunning scenery, and always watching the sky for the next downpour. We were rained on so much in Sumatra that the sheepskin seat pads we have had since Seattle began to rot and smell like dirty socks stuffed with cheese. We finally had to throw them away once we got to Jakarta.

The freedom of the open road is a joyous thing. At higher elevations in Sumatra you get pine trees and a different kind of green than found in the lowlands. Aceh, Sumatra.

A fishing boat on top of a house in the city of Banda Aceh. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Banda Aceh was laid to waste. The peak height of the tsunami was measured on the west coast near Banda Aceh, and reached more than 30 m (100 ft). Today life has returned to normal and the city has come back to a healthy life.

Aceh province is a special semi-autonomous region of Indonesia located at the northern end of Sumatra. It is the only area in Indonesia that is under Sharia law and we were uncertain what this meant for us as foreign visitors. Ache ended up being a friendly and harmless place for us and we enjoyed our visit to the region very much. It definetly has a different feel then the rest of Sumatra but as foreigners we were not expected to change our behavior aside from Shannon needing to cover her legs and shoulders (no shorts or strappy tops in public).

Pulau Weh is an active volcanic island to the northwest of Sumatra. Small, laid-back and surrounded by incredible diving and snorkeling reefs, Pulua Weh has the look and feel of the Hawaiian Islands without the cost or crowds.

A proud little boat nosed into the current in the village of Iboih. All the little black specks under the surface are fish, thousands of them. Pulau Weh, Aceh, Sumatra.

We always find the best camping spots when we don’t need them. Out for a day trip to explore Pulau Weh, the Northern most bit of real estate in Indonesia.

Pulau Weh is pretty much the perfect place to not think too much about anything and just enjoy being alive on planet Earth.

Riding south down the coast of Sumatra with lush forested mountains on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. Lhok Nga beach at sunset, Aceh, Sumatra.

Fuel stop in North Sumatra. It is always unnerving buying fuel from a guy on the side of the road with a jerry-can full of blue liquid you hope is clean gasoline. I sooth my worries with a critical mind; if this guy is selling bad fuel he would be run out of the village, right? No matter really, the pump gas here is also petty grim so there is no getting away from crappy fuel in remote parts of Sumatra.

Most campsites we have had on this trip are chosen for a combination of location, security and convenience but occasionally we win the lottery and score a real gem that borders on magical. This spot overlooking Lake Toba was not only free but we were the only people there. Camp spots like this in SE Asia are as rare as finding a diamond in a dog turd.

The north end of lake Toba at sunrise.

Notice the drops of water on the clear panel of the tent? It rained most of the night and soon after this photo was taken it started again. Supposedly it is dry season, if so, we would hate to be here during the wet.

A traditional house of the Lake Toba Batak people. Samosir Island, Lake Toba, North Sumatra.

Shannon’s bike zippy had been burning an increasing amount of oil since we arrived in Indonesia, nothing to worry about we thought but something to keep an eye on. Leaving Lake Toba Zippy was suddenly very difficult to start and later in the day refused to go at all. Each day Zippy got a little worse requiring an hour of tinkering each morning just to light the engine. At this point we still had a thousand miles to go to get off Sumatra.

We became deeply concerned about breaking down for good on a remote road or in a wild camp site so we toned down our adventure riding and kept closer to major north-south roads, always mindful that at any time we may need a truck to haul Zippy. Over the course of two weeks we nursed the broken bike down the length of Sumatra. By no means we were not having fun, but we did adjust our trip to accommodate this new reality. Riding around the world is nothing but a long chain of compromises and adjustments, always adapting to what the road throws in our path.

This is a look of supreme frustration coupled with a zen acceptance of “life is what life is”. Shannon’s motorcycle decided to act up as we left Lake Toba. The bike was hard to start in the morning and two hours later it died while passing through a small town and, like in India months ago, it refused to start. I towed Shannon behind my bike to the nearest hotel and began diagnostics and troubleshooting. My final verdict was that the cylinder compression is very low due to either leaky valves or worn piston rings. Shannon’s bike has been burning a liter of oil every two days so I was not surprised that problems were afoot. I was able to get the bike running but Zippy is defiantly sick and we have no idea how far we will get until she dies for good. I made a list of everything I would need for a top-end rebuild and ordered the parts from the US to be sent ahead to Java. We knew we still had two more weeks on Sumatra so we hoped that the parts order would arrive in Jakarta the same time we did.

In the small villages where we stopped on our way down the length of Sumatra nightly dinner was an adventure unto itself. With no menus or common language we often just pointed out an array of different foods from the display along with rice, Padang style it is called. We never had a dish we didn’t like and a full meal for two of us rarely cost more than $3 USD.

Shannon’s bike is getting worse and becoming more and more difficult to start. I decided to swap carburetors and air filters between the two bikes to see if the starting problems followed the components into my bike. No such luck, my bike ran just fine with Shannon’s parts. Further proof Zippy’s problem is not something I can fix without new parts. Now all we needed was Zippy to keep starting each day and get us off of Sumatra. Bukittinggi, West Sumatra.

Homemade oil injection system. To start Zippy each morning I had to pour a few teaspoons of motor oil into the cylinder through the spark plug holes, this procedure would temporarily boost the compression enough to start. Once Zippy was going it could not be turned off again so we would go the entire day with the engine running even through fueling, toilet breaks, and lunch. Zippy’s condition deteriorated a little each day and now the bike wouldn’t idle without trying to stall, over-rev when the engine got hot, and it misfired constantly. I feared the tough old girl was not long for this world. A nagging worry enveloped us and now each day was a mission just to make it a little closer to Jakarta.

A quick lunch on a running bike. Fortunately once we were moving in second or third gear Zippy ran fine and our minds could concentrate on the stunning scenery and potholed roads.

This is one of our first full riding days in Indonesia without any rain. Too bad we can’t shut off the bike and have a look around.

Workshop with a view. Our bike problems did not stop us from having a wonderful time on Sumatra. We found plenty of great places to stay and everyday on the road brought a new delight or adventure. Krui, South Sumatra.

You know when they take the shock paddles to the flatlined hospital patient to start the heart?, this is that moment. The following day would be the last time Zippy would start but this bike gave her life to do what we pushed her to do. Zippy went over 1,000 miles from the time she got sick and she delivered us to within 10 miles of the ship that would take us to Jakarta before her heart finally gave out. Krui, South Sumatra.

Zippy finally refused to go another inch in the city of Lampung at the southern tip of Sumatra and I ran the battery flat trying. Two hours to midnight in a moody thunderstorm I towed Shannon the final distance to the port. A fellow Suzuki DR650 rider who had passed this way a few weeks earlier had told us about a little known RO-RO (roll on, roll off) ship that the long-haul truckers use to get from Sumatra directly into Jakarta. We made the midnight sailing and arrived in Jakarta the following day.

We successfully made it off Sumatra under our own power and Zippy was given another lease on life once we got to Jakarta, but that is another story.

Sumatra has a handful of known tourist destinations but outsiders rarely visit the bulk of this huge island. Having our own transportation opened up vast territory for us to explore, and Sumatra was a unique and special place for us to ride. Passing through villages, rice fields, mountain passes, and untamed jungle on our motorcycles was our dreams distilled. Sumatra overland lived up to every expectation, we lived the dream that occupied our thoughts all those years ago when we ate lunch at our desks imaging the world we could discover if we could chuck it all and hit the road.

Once our ship docked in Jakarta I towed Shannon out of the port facility. After we were outside the gate we pulled over and waited on the side of the road just shy of a crawling traffic jam. Foreign motorcyclists don’t usually pass through here let alone stop. The locals quickly got over their shyness and we made many new friends while waiting to be rescued.

HeRoe (in blue shirt) is a factory trained Suzuki mechanic working for Suzuki Sunter in Jakarta. From Sumatra two weeks earlier we introduced ourselves to HeRoe via Facebook and told him our need for a truck and a top end rebuild for our sick motorcycle. HeRoe was our hero and met us outside the port with the company truck to take Zippy to the Suzuki shop. In the middle of gridlock we pushed Shannon’s motorcycle between cars and through the traffic to where the Suzuki shop truck was stuck in traffic. With a heave-ho the bike was lifted into the back and off we went to find a new lease on life for poor Zippy.

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