Archive for the ‘Mountain bike touring North Sumatra 2008’ Category

Thursday April 24, 2008

Got to the airport in record time at 6.30 am. Yawn. It was just 2 kms away from the hotel. As it was an international flight we were there 90 minutes before departure. As this was Indonesia, immigration officers would appear only 30 minutes before the flight. Could they be having breakfast or the first fag of the day?

We really miss our wives, clean air and some of our bikes, and in that particular order. So our Sumatra cycling video game in a smoky arcade is over. Could there be a replay button for Laos? Hmmmm.


the timeless cliffs on Samosir Island circa 1994


Medan is Indonesian for field or open space, or venue in Malaysian. With 2,5 million people, it’s more like a very crowded field, where everyone and everything competes for space. We see palatial homes next to the airport runway fence, shanties and card board homes hugging the river banks and traffic jams throughout the day.

Armpit of Sumatra? It’s what you make of it really. Yes, traffic is bad, but they do go with the flow, so start cycling early and quit before lunch. Hit the showers, and take a cab to the malls in the afternoon. Stay indoors till the day cools in the evening. I cannot stress this often enough : Buy something for the wife. Do dinner and see what else amuses you. Smuggling our dirty bikes into an elevator and into our room to pack them was our coup de grace. That was our day anyway.

we were going for the illegal immigrant dormitory look

We skipped the nightlife to pack our bikes and gear. Angels we are, because Medan’s nightlife, for those in the know, and I know cos I Google, read and hear a lot, of all sorts of shenanigans and debauchery. A moment of pleasure, a lifetime of regret, remorseful friends tell me. OK, I’m getting there, it’s Paid Sex. No self respecting Indonesian city can exist without it.

It isn’t even good value for money. You’re spending $$$, even more than say back home, (which I categorically dont, ever) expecting silky smooth Shimano XTR quality and if Lucifer is smiling, you might just get ahem, pre loved and many times over, Shimano Deore gear with squealing brakes and bad shifting. But what do I know, I spend so much time writing this journal and cleaning my camera equipment, I’m comparing the fairer sex with bike parts. I’m putting the blame on 10 days of second hand smoke that’s clouding my judgement. Someone please get me some fries.

Carbo at midnight after packing bikes helps me relax

Ours is a naughty hotel. It had a previous life as a not so naughty hotel. It’s the Pardede International* Hotel. You can’t tell at the reception. You check in, pay Rp 280,000 up front and follow the bell hop. Then you spot things out of the ordinary. At the back are individual buildings with shuttered parking lots. Rooms with no numbers. Tight security. Suggestive massage information on the room desk. If you go see the chief (ie.retired) massage madame, you can choose your own ‘terrorpist’ from a photo album. Chambermaids and waitresses are also extra comely.

For those interested in bike packing, as in packing to check in and fly, read on. Dont pack hungry. As you can deduce, I left my crank on the minibar, after sealing the box. Not cool. Try to get the best box you can find/buy. As you can see, ours suck, but it’s a step better than no box at all. Money grubbing bike shop owner, and I apologise on behalf of all non Indonesian Chinese bike shop owners reading. He insisted that it was a mountain bike box, with ’20 inch wheels’ clearly printed on the side. So it was small, but at least it was wide about 20 cm.

As Alvin panicked, sorry bro, and wanted to do the sandwich the sides of the bike thing, in the early hours of the morning at the smoky airport curbside, after riding in the rain, I knew that the frames, with wheels removed would fit in. As long as the box’s length covers the length from the fork’s dropouts to the rear dropouts. To make more space, all tyres were totally deflated. Our frames are 17.5 inch and 46 cm respectively. Larger ones, keep a measurement of it’s size, length and height wise, handy. Front racks might have to be removed too.

Our last supper in Sumatra at 12.30 am. Coffee, carbo and a fiery chilli sauce does help me relax

We then went out for a midnight coffee, the icy restaurant was shockingly smoke free and some waitresses made eyes at us. Wink, wink.

we made this just for Sleepy Al




Tuesday April 22, 2008

the calm before the storm

Today we will have the dubious honour of getting back to Medan by public transport, a mini bus or taxi. It’s about 350 kms of inter city and provincial roads that we have avoided, by cycling lesser roads. My mind and body has set aside 7 hours of tolerance for this, 8 at the most. And we have our back ups in the boot, just in case. I feel better already.

Erase last sentence. It took 15 minutes short of 12 hours. 9.15 am to 9 pm. We are alive and that’s what matters. Bikes survived too. Hilarious delays and one very sleepy driver, initially nick named Al Pacino, with profuse apologies to the real deal. We’ll stick with Sleepy Al for now.

Name later changed to ‘Sial’ or Malay for idiotic or damned, with some near misses with an oncoming police car of all things, and a couple of trucks. Jerky gear changes to go with his half opened eyelids and nodding head. The grand finale was the last 3 hours in the dark, wondering if any 2 oncoming headlights was a car or 2 motorcycles, side by side. Or if a single headlight was a motorcycle or a car with one good headlight.

Then there are cars and motorcycles without any lights. Lastly, the grim reapers of the road, inter city buses and trucks, with enough lights to light up the Starship Enterprise.

We hired a nice new Suzuki APV for Rp 700,000 or $75 for the 350 kms back to Medan. Mainly backtracking to Siborongborong, and then through rubber and palm oil plantation roads. Boring for cycling but a trip that should take about 7 to 8 hours, on a ‘normal’ day with an alert driver.

Rubber time dictates that our scheduled departure from the lovely Pasar Baru Hotel in Sibolga at 9 am, be stretched, like rubber to 9.45 am. Packed the bikes and drove to the taxi office 2 minutes away. To wait for the cashier to arrive. She starts work at 9 am it seems. At 9.45 she arrives with Sleepy Al, they rib and tease each other. We pay up and get a reciept. OK we have lift off, but Al heads south to the bus station, to drop off a letter. I get some bus station mayhem pictures. Fine.

We drive into the mountains to Tarutung, with Al gingerly taking each bend and pothole at cycling speed. What a careful driver, it was as if this was his very own car. We like him, and speculate that he might have gotten into a crash recently or just not this week.

After a nice lunch stop with a few sweet nothing calls to his girlfriend, and a few cigarettes, Al’s driving skills fell on par with Mr Magoo’s.

We asked him to stop and take a nap, sure, he says, but at the next view point and rest stop an hour or two away. I told him in my best threatening Indonesian that a split second of diverted attention could change our lives forever. He smiles and turns up the music. The music was pretty good, a slow rock compilation from the best of Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Scorpions and Bad Company. Repeated 20 times over 12 hours.

our hearse / taxi

To show off his other skills, Al lights up, drives, opens peanuts, works his cell phone with either one or two hands. He even clears the peanut shells off his jeans and too small a black tee shirt, by looking down of course. He drifts into the opposite lane a few times and traffic behind us does not over take for a while.

Meanwhile, the other Al, Alvin that’s next to me demonstrates the best brace position in the event of a head on collision at 100 kmph.

Just for fun I ask if he would let one of us drive. He agrees immediately! Inda Taxi couldn’t affford our rates, just as we couldn’t afford the ‘tax’ at the police roadblock that appeared 3 minutes down the road, but Al was awake for that.

Finally he takes a long siesta at a great viewpoint facing the lake’s southern shores. After a few good shots, the rain came pelting down as if to say, it’s time to move on or go keep Al company for a while. We slam both rear doors as we got in. Talk loudly like the country bumpkins we have become. I ring a bike bell. Al’s still out like a light even with Stairway to Heaven at max volume. 30 minutes of this.

Al’s phone rings. He wakes up, takes a quick glance behind and starts the hearse. As he accelerates, I tell myself to be more positive and trust in the Lord.

Maybe we should just drive of without Al when he uses the toilet at the next stop.

Just when Al turns into Alert Al, (more sweet nothing phone calls at rest stop No 3) we come across one of Inda Taxi’s Kijangs in distress. Helpful Al struts out of his hearse like the real Pacino going into a gunfight. The Kijang’s got a flat and has some rusted and dead bolted nuts that wont budge. Some passing cars and vans stop, but none carry the elusive ‘pipa’ or a long pipe, needed for more leverage other than the puny and worn out tools they had.

If not for the nice 20 deg C temps in this wet jungle near Prapat, I could be fuming and harbour thoughts of driving off without Helpful Al. It was an entirely workable idea. The Kijang wans’t going anywhere. It would take too long to catch up with us, even after it had a tyre change. We could leave at some 5 star hotel in Medan, give the Sibolga office a call, while we check in somewhere else. The taxi company would probably have look outs on the road into town, waiting to bash us up once they spot us. We wont stoop to their level.

Even Helpful Al was getting agitated when the Kijang’s driver, Ol Chubby tried in desperation, again and again to force and let the tool slip for the umpteenth time. He was really flogging a dead horse or rather Kijang, or deer in Indonesian. Lighting a cigarette, Ol Chubby had this great idea of removing our bikes and locking them in his Kijang, and yeah, all 8 of us could proceed to Medan 175 kms away. I prefer my hearse less crowded, thank you.

Gobloks !

I had a better idea. Be a man, drive that flatted beast to the next town. Ol Chubby took me seriously and managed about 20 feet of Sumatran jungle highway before grinding to a halt.

That must have loosened up some bolts, as a bemo with a small pipa stopped, Ol Chubby did the job, and yes, we might see Medan tonight.

Traffic got very heavy close to Medan, but that didnt deter Al from barreling down the road in total darkness, passing 5 trucks at a time while squeezing aside any God forsaken oncoming motorcycle. He did slow down and even stop for fleets of Battlestar Gallactica sized trucks and buses approaching us.

At our hotel in Medan, a sob story poured out that he had just drove the Medan Sibolga route last night and got zero hours of sleep. That explains it. Back to back 12 hour Sumatra highway driving. As he eagerly awaited a big tip, Alvin relieved him of his slow rock CD for Rp 10,000.

My tip for Sleepy Al was : GO GET SOME SLEEP!

Rubber time dictates that even in the most trying of times, and if you’re not on a stretcher or in an ambulance, it’s better to just grin and bear it. Jokes aside, this seems the ONLY way of coping with delays, breakdowns and life on the road in Sumatra.

On the flipside, you can get cold, hungry, horny or donate all your blood to the mosquitoes, in the jungles of Sumatra, but If you’ve run out of cigarettes, you’ve only got yourself to blame.


Monday April 21, 2008, 68 km (42 miles) – Total so far: 486 km (302 miles)

only 66 kms to Sibolga

Somewhere in our 66 kms on the Trans Sumatra highway today is a downhill stretch with a thousand bends, even through two very tight tunnels cut through solid granite rock. It’s fun to see the larger trucks and buses squeeze forward, then back up and repeat the manoeuvre again, inching their way through. Didn’t really have this problem, cycling by in 94. The occasional landslide can cut off villages and even towns from each other, but this road wouldn’t be the Trans Sumatra, if it didn’t.

The day started with a 10 kms climb out of Tarutung, which made us wonder, aren’t we suppose to be down hilling to the coast? Oh that’s the last 10 kms, so just enjoy the rolling hills in between. The road with a thousands bends can wind uphill too. We did get some fast 50 kmph downhills of course and had to decline a free ride in a truck whose, smoking driver took pity on us.

Rolling. rolling, rolling

As the road to Sibolga narrowed through some spectacular jungle with ferns as big as bicycles. I wondered how people in these seemingly harsh places get by on a daily basis. They probably did as their forefathers did. Scream and yell at passing bicycle tourists. Then there’s the daily rains, slime, mossy walls, broken, run down, muddy homes and always a faint to strong smell of chicken sh*t or worse, something man made.

A common sight were the women who seemed to be doing the bulk, if not all of the work, marketing, child minding, laundry, running the shops and food stalls. The guys, you know, when not farming or procreating, would be just hanging around, having a puff or two or three.

I was looking forward to Sibolga on this day when we seemed to be at our fittest, after riding all the mountain lake. It was great to be able to ride out of the saddle on small climbs without the body complaining, too much.

Kanak kanak Gila

Sibolga’s claim to fame would be it’s location and a staring off point to the Nias Islands offshore. Surfing’s big there, with the next landfall being the Indian subcontinent. Getting to Nias entails a 10 hour overnight ferry ride to trek swampy jungles, to see and stay with megalithic stone age tribes on the islands. Their manhood being proven by jumping over 10 foot high concrete walls. Near misses usually result in broken limbs.

Last year in stormy seas, an overloaded ferry took a dive and some 120 people perished. Think I’ll stick to rolling rubbe

Sibolga is actually worth two days for chilling out. There are some clean, by Indonesian standards, white sand beaches to the north and south of town and surely great sunset pictures among all the fishing boats down by the harbour. Intoxicating smells like drying fish and clove cigarettes. It would also be great to stay overnight on one of the floating fishing kelongs or platforms just off shore and soak in the salty air.

At the town’s night market, the hawkers we spoke to told us that the December 2004 tsunami had a minimal impact on Sibolga as the islands offshore shielded it from 3 deadly waves that decimated other coastal towns in Sumatra. One lady though lost a relative when he walked out about a kilometer, to an island off shore, picking fish off the sea bed, as the sea receded, before a killler wave returned.

There’s a stereotype in Indonesia that all Chinese immigrants are filthy rich. Though only 3% of the population of 200 million, they control 90% of the economy. During our rides, we see that a majority do not own tobacco, mining nor petroleum conglomerates, but happily run mom and pop stores, small eateries and motels. Most run honest businesses, but there are always a few mavericks to make life interesting.

The flash Wisata Indah (beautiful surroundings) Hotel in town has built an island resort offshore where else but on a private island, where according to it’s management, ‘you can do anything you want with whomever you want’ Cant find someone, they’ll arrange that too. Let’s see them arrange a no smoking island. I’d go.

Indian Ocean surf at sunset

Sunday April 20, 2008, 120 km (75 miles) – Total so far: 418 km (260 miles)

the dim lights of Pangururan

24 kms of granny gearing in 3 hours! And a land slide to haul bikes and gear to boot. Makes for very empty roads. Just great. Another 60 kms cross country before deciding to support the local buses for another 40 kms to Tarutung.

Visitors to Indonesia, forget about bringing an alarm clock. In any small town, you’ll get the sounds of life stirring from 6 am onwards. If you like sleeping late, you have my condolences. It’s tough, with traffic, horns and engines starting, or trying to, noses and throats doing the same, doors slamming and people generally shouting for no apparent reason. We got all these in Pangururan, including cigarette smoke from the room below, so what else is new? If you’re falling asleep in the spa of a 6 star resort in the Balinese countryside, then lucky you!

The sounds of nature are better, roosters crowing and birds chirping are my favourites. I wake up at 5 for those. But I digress, we have a long day and I had a sneaky feeling that riding a van the last 2 hours or so was imminent. 120 kms with a 20 km plus hillclimb at the start was a bit ambitious. I rode the same in 94 and was wondering if I could do it again. I didnt have any doubts on reaching the top but at what price? Fatigue, cramps, a migrane? What are those? A pizza and Coke at the top would be nice. Alvin was content to take a bus all the way up, but gosh, the shame of it all, where would we hide our faces, if we did.

I had to put myself in ‘Paul Mode’ a common friend of ours for whom the ride to Tele would a ride in the park. He would just ride faster as the distances became longer or stand up when the hills became steeper. Wannabe Floyd Landis.

Besides, I had just rain, mist and cloud in 94 for company and probably took six pictures on that miserable day. But I did meet Emi Yatagai, a sweet as Hello Kittty Japanese girl, cycling on this hill climb, whose husband was always a few hundred metres ahead of her. We rode the next two days to Sibolga together, as her husband, Koji Kubo was always way in front, and that was a good thing, for me. They’re happily settled in Osaka, having cycled round the world, for a few years.

Today’s weather was glorious and technology dictates that I take 250 pictures. Cycling seems secondary.

about a third of the way up to Tele

A small landslide gave me a hint that we had lo ride this.There were no public buses nor motor cycles for a while and from everyone I asked they told us to turn back. They had to make a huge detour around another mountain only to start at the base of the last hill to climb the 900 meters in 24 kms.

Seven landslides in the same spot over the wet season meant that this was not prime real estate for a tombstone. We had to hike over broken tiles and brick. remnants of graves, not houses. Three helpful locals who helped us carry our stuff about 100 metres, glanced wearily towards the hillside, just in case. We gave them a small tip for their help, saying have a good meal but nicotine would probably take precedence.

Surprisingly, the ride was not too streneous, as I was distracted by the Jurrasic Park like scenery every pedal crank of the way. Had the camera slung over most of the ride and paced myself gulping heaps of pine scented air. Our daily intake of 3 to 5 eggs each amongst other food must have played a part. Power Bars and Hammer Gels too. Passing traffic were either shocked or astonished at seeing 2 cyclists on the road and gave us a lot of space. A couple of oil tankers were slow enough for me to spot a driver lighting his cigarette with 5000 litres of oil behind him. That was as hilarious as Alvin telling me that he just saw a dog’s rear end, full of piles. Ouch! And who rides looking at dogs asses??? Well……….

more switchbacks into cool air

I knew Tele at 1800 meters was just a truck stop with half a dozen rusty shacks. Lunch was going to be dicey. Biscuits and coffee or something more exotic, but not combs please.

chicken head curry

There was even some gentle climbing of 20 kms along the main road passing by busy and messy market towns like Doloksanggul and Hutagalung. The rewards were long sweeping downhills for almost 40 km. We threw in the towel at Siborongborong, or rather threw our bikes up a minivan for the last 40 kms of heavy traffic to Tarutung. No point pushing it when dark rain clouds that were chasing us since after lunch were ready to burst. The heavens opened up once the driver turned on the ignition as we settled into the rear seat. Sumatran weather does have perfect timing. I’d like to think we’re being watched over every step of the way.

Just had to try another style of breathing by putting my nose through a six inch gap in the window for cool mountain air, as you might have guessed that every one of the eight men in front was bloody smoking.

Getting soaked or getting smoked. Tough choice.

Nap time !


Saturday April 19, 2008, 42 km (26 miles) – Total so far: 298 km (185 miles)

Can't get enough of this.....

Another great day on Samosir, due in part to our late check out at 12 to ride to Pangururan. A leisurely breakfast followed by really slow packing. With just 42 kms to ride today, and knowing that Pangururan, the island’s capital was just another one street town, there was no hurry to get there and experience in Alvin’s words, Nothingsville. It was hard to leave Tuk Tuk and restaurants with their western menus. The place deserved a whole week, but the 24 km hillclimb to Tele awaits early tomorrow morning.

Pangururan sucks, well slightly. It would suck big time if on a solo tour. By now we had gotten used to each other’s idiosyncrasies such that there would be no surprises when it came to food, rooms and cycling habits. Dreary rooms always looked better after a good bath/meal/massage and the knowledge that we would be gone in 12 hours or so. A cool evening breeze through the pink curtains made for a restful night’s sleep here.

The best hotel in town, ‘best’ being used quite liberally, had a bunch of policemen hogging the lobby lounge and grainy TV. Were they smoking,? Does Shimano make bicycle components? They looked quite surly too, unlike Al’s elegant set of wheels. I thought we were going to be interrogated for walking by their little ‘kingdom’ on our way to our rooms. Turns out that the poor fellows had to hole up in the economy rooms upstairs as their regular police quarters were full. To add insult to injury they even had to pay for their own hovels/hotel rooms.

Elaborate Batak family tombstones

We saw Haranggaol in the hazy distance from the northern part of Samosir and well as all the ridgelines we rode days ago, thankful that there we now on a much flatter road. After 20 plus kms we took a break at another megalithic stone age attraction. This village had a circle of ancient stone chairs in which ancient Batak kings would decide the fate of their captured enemies. In the middle of the circle was a stone chopping block, really handy for executions and lopping off heads. An open air kitchen and dining area where enemies are eaten.

This northern half of Samosir island also seemed to have more elaborate tombstones. It was almost like there was a competition between who could build the largest and most ornate. They were a stark contrast to some of the run down dwellings for the living, and if you’re not too picky, some make ideal campsites.

last remaining Batak houses on Samosir island with tatched roofs

The evening’s (mis)adventures came in the form of a well built and pretty macho Nicholas Cage lookalike that tried to chat us up, without much success. Said he was posted here for three months as a junior police officer. He had a hard time believing that we were on a cycling trip, so I had to out macho him by playing a few downhill cycling videos from my camera.

That’s what we get for killing time after dinner, getting a hair wash and scalp massage at Betty’s Salon!

Fertile Toba

Friday April 18, 2008, 15 km (9 miles) – Total so far: 256 km (159 miles)

On the ferry to Tuk Tuk

A profusion of used book shops with shelves of books in a dozen languages, is a sure sign that life on the island is as slow as the boats plying Lake Toba’s waters. With the other major pastime being jumping into the lake from a floating platform offshore, our bicycles are going to come in real handy. Might play tourist and check out some ancient granite tombs, human sacrificial and burial grounds in a ‘showcase’ type of village. Yuks! ‘Samosir’ loosely translates as ‘Island of the Dead’ I wonder why.

What a ferry ride across the lake today, blue skies, white puffy clouds and a 3 year old piloting our boat. Well he was on his father’s lap and steering!

Laundry, siesta, diving board into the lake. Pretty much sums up life on Samosir. Nibbled on steamed peanuts while watching our laundry dry in a cool afternoon wind.

Most guest houses have their own private pools and jetties

Rode to see the ancient 200 years old I think, stone coffins and got waylaid by some enterprising massage ladies in the middle of nowhere.

As long as we didnt mind the pounding music from the aerobics studio upstairs. We were invited too, as if we didnt have enough aches in our legs already. Round two tomorrow morning, maybe. We smell like a local coconut oiled, braakfast delicacy.

It was also nice to see more tourists returning to the island but maybe I spoke too soon.

The night wasnt that great though. Aeging partying backpackers trying to play guitar and sing till about 4 am below our balcony. Never heard American Pie being trashed so bad. Thank God for ear plugs! And Shimano cleats to walk and stomp over wooden floors above said backpackers, as I went through my routine from 6 am onwards. I think one of them removed my valve caps and cyclometer magnet the next morning, but hey I carry spares, magnets too.

Good, cheap, touristy food....I was pleasantly shocked !

Thursday April 17, 2008, 75 km (47 miles) – Total so far: 241 km (150 miles)

Some stretches are unknown territory for me today. Should be fun. Searching pictures from some photo sites, it looks like most of the 70 or so kms are a gradual downhill along a ridgeline high above the lake. A few cyclists have also cycled from the opposite direction, cursing at steep grades with nice views from their backs, so we shouldn’t be fussing while braking and over heating our rims too much.

A large onion market comes alive in Harrangaol on Mondays and Thursdays. Is our arrival a mere coincidence? No, had to plan and time it.

Since we’re staying by the lake shore, there’s going to be some climbing to do in the morning. About 500 plus metres, I think.

Downtown Harranggaol

That 10km climb today, one of many we did throughout in the mist and rain soaked jungle road at the top of the crater’s ridge line. Wasn’t so bad really, now that I’m banging away on the keys after a 3 course dinner and 90 minute oil massage from a very strong pair of hands.

It was long time since I had ridden through any kind of equatorial jungle roads in Indonesia. This one took the cake, with many kms of solitude. Tall pine trees, acorn strewn by the road sides, mist and fog around every bend, with stunning views of Lake Toba, when the vegetation allows.

The sounds of silence was deafening. Just rolling rubber and the ocassional gear change. I think we used every available gear we have today. I need to check our brake pads too.

Granny gearing at 7kmph to 10 kmph, then running out of gears at 50 kmph plus on a wet road for most of the afternoon. Sweating with every uphill climb and savouring a cool to chilling wind through our drenched jerseys. Pristine water teasing our skimpy mudguards and inner thighs. Bliss.

Keepping the power on

Had to take a break for about 30 minutes when the afternoon rains really came down after a brilliant lightning storm, as if to warn us to take cover, or else.

We were on a really deserted road with no signs of shelter, just pine trees and tall grass for many kilometres. It was a minor miracle to come by a lone house on a small hill, as we were pushing our luck as much as possible. The rain came down in buckets as we rode up a muddy driveway and into a porch where a family was busy sorting out coffee beans on a tarp. I let my rear Ortleib panniers stick out in the rain, the whole bike needed a good wash anyway, while Alvin got to chatting up a girl in the doorway.

We politely declined an invitation to sit in the living room, what with our messy selves. She had five brothers inside, puffing away and I’d rather be drenched than coughing. She drew a blank look when I asked if there was ever was an Indonesian male that didnt smoke. I guess the answer must be a NO.

Innocent voices

Rolled into Prapat, the largest town on the main land by Lake Toba near dark. Fended off some too cerebrally challenged truck drivers on the last 8 km descent into town. These guys honk, over take you downhill round a blind corner with 6 inches to spare, and of course cut into you when they like. Defying them would only instigate tailgating and I wondered if any would really stop after they’ve rear ended or side swiped you. I seriously didnt want to find out. A molotov cocktail or two might have come in handy.

Today was one of the rare instances when we had to have our headlights and tail lights on before dusk. As if anyone cared.

We are late. Must have been the many coffee and photo stops we made along the way, and shelter from the rain for about a half hour. I think there’s a better reason. Do we need to experience the dizzying nightlife of Prapat, with it’s dimly lit streets and half opened shops? Not quite.

As we like to take pictures, where low light and minimal cloud cover is a bonus, the next day’s weather on the lake, did not disappoint. It had to come sooner or later after the overcast skies in the Karo highlands.

After a quick bath, it’s off to a double dose of dinner at one of many Indonesian Chinese restaurants in town. They do open late. Another bonus.

I guess the tourist ghetto of Tuk Tuk on Samosir island will have to wait another 12 hours or so.

Wednesday April 16, 2008, 75 km (47 miles) – Total so far: 166 km (103 miles)

Today we’re on a mostly downhill road to one of South East Asia’s largest highland lakes, at 900 m above sea level and 100 kms by 30 kms across. The island in it, Samosir is 45kms by 20 kms, and is a tad larger than Singapore itself, but the latter isnt giving up without a fight. It just reclaims more land by deep sea dredging, ironically from it’s own or close to Indonesian and Malaysian waters.

To further confuse and complicate matters fot the geographically challenged, there is a small lake on Samosir island’s plateau itself. A lake on an island in a lake on the island of Sumatra. Those in the know will tell you that Samosir is not really an island, as a small concrete bridge connects it to the mainland on it’s western flank. Sort of a dubious peninsula? Eons ago, the Dutch dug a canal here to drain surrounding marshlands, to the anger of the superstitious local Batak people. Fearing that their ‘island’ would sink into the lake, we now have a locally built bridge. We ride across this in the coming days, granny gearing up 900 metres among pine trees and into the clouds. I can almost hear Dame Julie Andrews.

We left Berastagi bright and early, flanked by the area’s two steaming volcanoes on each side of a very quiet country road. Traffic became heavy after 20 plus kms as we made our was across a 1200 m highland plateau for the next 45 kms. Small cross roads towns with the odd bus station and market being the centres of activity giving way to quiet roads again once we rode 5 minutes out of them.

A slight detour of 3 kms off the main road led us to our first views of the lake, a dizzing viewpoint 300 metres high above. Nearyby was another ‘tourist object’ the Sipisopiso waterfall. An hour’s hike leads to the plunge pool below. No thanks, our legs are just starting out on the first long day of riding and we need to take it easy.

Does it cut like a knife ?

The green hillsides here are dotted with elaborate and swanky looking…..tombstones. The Batak Christians and Catholics have reserved choice spots on the highest hill tops with the best views. Some are not really filled up yet. There may be only one dearly departed in a tombstone with space left for the remaining family members, eventually.

Some tombs are really large and elaborate, with murals of the country side and lake on the horizon, and Jesus flanking the coffin itself. Not too creepy a place to camp out at, but dont take my word for it!

Lakeside, an old photo from 1994

The downhill run into Haranggaol is a dream to ride, just had to watch out for the many blind corners made scarier by flooded potholes and the oncoming truck full of produce and kids on top. I almost lost it around a 180 deg bend which had a speed bump designed for a total stop. It was the size of half a basketball and designed to stop even a truck, or dent a bicycle, it’s rider or rim or two.

Found a quaint but slightly run down guest house, The Horisan, (Indo for Horizon) just by the lake with our record low rate of Rp 60000 or just $6.50 so far. Icy cold bath water meets internally over heated bike tourist. No big deal. Easy if bath is just a scoop and splash from a huge cistern or pail job. Bathe in segments. Lather legs first followed by arms. Shampoo hair, if any. Wash off legs and arms. Soap torso, nether private places, and back. Wash off hair and head, then finally torso, NPPs and back. Keep super light quick drying towel nearby. Done. At least for me.

Tooth brushing? Slightly decadent, with 2 cups of bottled water.

The rest of the afternoon was lazy, just strolling for a change by the lake, with it’s many fish traps. It seems goldfish, orange carps are a delicacy here.

There’s something to be said for a cool night wind billowing through our window curtains, while I’m snug inside my silk liners, ready to snore and compete with the croaking frogs and crickets outside. Time check, just 9 pm.

the good ol mountain biking days 1994



Tuesday April 15, 2008, 25 km (16 miles) – Total so far: 91 km (57 miles)

Berastagi, (elev 1300 m) being the largest town in these Karo highlands, is one lush place, surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. A cool, sometimes rainy climate, with fertile volcanic soils, means one sure thing. Fruits and vegetables by the truck load. Grown to fuel a msaaive demand for cabbage, corn, carrots and potatoes for markets in the lowlands and as far as Malaysia and Singapore.

A two street town at the edge of a plateau surrounded by two steaming volcanoes, most people and thus traffic, breeze by Berastagi on the way to Lake Toba. A bus/truck stop, a day market and two rows of shop houses line the main street/strip.

The surrounding areas are something else and are best explored on two wheels. Quaint holiday villas dot the quieter hillsides, some dating back to late 1800 Dutch colonial times. Then there are the modern but secluded, megasized condo style resorts, full on weekends and mostly deserted on other days. I usually pop in to ask about the rooms and use a posh bathroom. We made an exception this time and went for a deluxe room at the Sibayak International Hotel today.

Rp 700,000 says the pimply front office manageress. What? And the price for poor cyclists? OK Rp 300,000, just for you. Yeah, we’ll keep it a secret. She went on, buffet breakfast included and free entry into a huge and smoky karaoke joint.

We got nice beds, bathroom, TV, dubious 24 hour massage parlour by the karaoke, huge pools and bike valets. The clincher was ‘the 24 hour hot water system’ in case one fancies a bath at 4.00 am. Our previous night’s room had just intermittent icy cold water and slimy walls. Not good.

If you can't smoke them, chew them

It would be great to climb the two semi active volcanoes here, Mt Sibayak (2170m) and Mt Sinabung (2451m) but our legs would probably be spent cycling offroad into the surrounding farmland and villages. That was what I thought the last time too, but cycling here, as in most parts of Indonesia makes so much sense. Not having to deal with public transport is a major plus. So too is cycling to soak in some hot springs north of town. If there are no updates, bear with me as I might be preoccupied with an in room massage or two.

Today’s weather seems more cooperative. Bright sunshine and blue skies. Clear morning pictures of both volcanoes. Didnt pray for good weather for the night though, so another timely deluge while we’re holed up in the swankiest people watching place in town…..MFC or Mexico Fried Chicken.

After dinner conversation was centered on ‘why the name??’ If you’re yawning by now feel free to switch to another journal! I might too.

We rode a whole 12 kms to a hilltop for 360 degree views of the city. That’s all the exertion for today, because photo taking does take time, and time is what we have a lot of in this 2 street town. Alvin even got his heavy Kalloy seatpost shortened by 5 cm at a bike shop this morning. If we have time tomorrow morning, which we do,we might just ask the guy to re attach the part that was cut off.

A beetle with exquisite taste

We had our Animal Planet moment when a stag beetle about 3 inches long planted itself on his Brooks saddle as we started to ride. There goes another 15 minutes spent on macro photography and comparing notes on composition, backlighting, depth of field etc etc.

The ladies at the market are much more considerate with their nicotine, they sell and chew them. Just watch out for the remains on the floor.

As the teenage smoke stacks at Speedy Net here are engulfing us while we bring our misadventures to you, I’ll have to bid one and all, a quick, cough, adieu……