returning to Aust. Through Sumatra

Jul 6, 2004

Yesterday I put Doris on the SS MITRA UTAMA, a 60ft timber hulled tramp steamer that ply’s its trade between Penang in Malaysia to Belawan in Sumatra, Indonesia.
The forwarding agent in Penang was recommended by my fellow traveling companion from Laos, Simon, who is now in America with Suzy, his wife who are about to complete their around the world ride.
If you are ever in this part of the world get in touch with CAKRA FORWARDING AGENCY in Penang. 187 2nd Floor,Lebuh Pantai 10300. Ph. 2618419.

Getting back to Doris, it took about half an hour to get her cleared through customs and checked into the warehouse on the dock, the whole process on the Malaysian end was very painless for a total cost of $85Aust and about $3Aust for the wharfies, who looked after Doris, attaching the appropriate rope slings to her and hoisted her effortlessly onto the little tramp steamer that will get her to Indonesia, which should take about 19 hours.

Unfortunately, I can’t get on the little boat, I have to use the fast ferry from Penang, which takes around 6 hours, so it’s only the second time in nearly 12 months that I have traveled separately from my bike.
Penang is a funny place to stay, I have been here for 4 days and have had enough time to ride around the Island, go to a couple of beaches and have a look at the night life. My conclusion is, that unless you come here on a package deal, you know, luxury hotels, pools etc, and are oblivious how the island works, you will think you had a good relaxing holiday in a tropical paradise.
If you do it on a budget, and stay in a guest house, in the middle of China Town, you then understand the amount of influence the Chinese community has on Penang, they are like the worker ants in a giant nest, working and living on top of each other, with a constant din that goes on for 24 hours a day. Were the Indians are the money lenders and the Muslims, seem to blend in and are not as conspicuous, other than the noisy wailing from the mosques and of course, the veiled women.
I won’t be disappointed in leaving Penang, the place is so oppressively hot, much the same as Melaka, were I stayed on my way up. Although saying that, it must have been a hell of a place 100 years ago.

Well, you can’t say I wasn’t warned about the corruption on the docks in Indonesia, I caught the 9.30am Hydro Ferry to Belawan, Indonesia as planned, the ferry was chock a block full of Indo’s going back after a few days of shopping. The boat flew over the 270 odd k’s in 5 and half hours and got into Belawan at 1.30pm (Indo time).

The immigration is as chaotic as any Asian port, with all the Europeans singled out and made to pay the $25US for a 4 week visa. Total confusion arose, when 3 young American backpackers, 3 hippy Germans complete with a 5 year old daughter and myself were herded off to a little kiosk to be processed and given our clearances, the trouble was the yanks only had travelers cheques and the Germans only had loose change in a number of currencies and also refused to pay for their daughter, being the only seemingly normal person amongst this motley lot, I promptly paid the visa cost and was on my way.
Well, so I thought, as soon as you leave the comparative safety of the terminal, you are immediately confronted with a myriad of taxi and bus drivers, really in your face, touting their services, combined with the afternoon heat, it’s all you need when all I wanted was to find Doris and get on my way.
I was fronted by a young guy called SALOMO, he spoke excellent English and noticed that I was carrying a motorcycle helmet, and enquired if I needed some help in getting my bike, as he had helped Simon and Susie a few months before. These blokes are pretty sharp.
So I engaged him to find Doris, and then get me to the Freight Forwarders, this he did, in his beat up old mini bus, I paid the small sum of $3Aust to the Freight Forwarder, who happened to go to school with SALOMO, then it was off to the wharf to get Doris.
So far so good, then the inevitable shit happened, the foreman demanded close to $30Aust to release my bike, I first laughed at him, and told him he can do better than that! (After all, the Malaysian wharfies only asked for $3Aust) After a deliberation with his wharf mates, he came back with his counter offer, exactly the same as the first! This time I have an audience of about 10 hardened little Indo buggers, so I give in and paid him.
As soon as I kicked over Doris, a shit load of water spewed out of the exhaust, shit I have blown a head gasket, then I looked at the dash, my $2 compass that has survived since leaving Oz, was broken. That’s it I thought, I turned off Doris, dismounted and approached the ogling throng in a way only a half crazed Irishman can do! Were is the foreman? I demanded, he turned around in the crowd just as I screamed insults at him, and thrust the broken compass in to his hand, immediately demanding compensation!
It did the trick, he new he ripped me off, so giving me back $5Aust making him look good in front of his men.
This little altercation over, I asked SALOMO to find me a hotel and decided to have a good nights sleep and leave the morning for Lake Tobo. Hopefully someone was having a little joke with Doris, and put water down the exhaust, she is running ok at the moment.
You can contact SALOMO on 08126052651, Port Belawan, good bloke, and only charged me $10Aust for the whole afternoons work.
Next morning, I crossed my fingers, checked Doris’s oil and fired her up, no signs of water, no condensation. Great let’s get out of here!
Straight out onto the 4 lane highway, and towards MEDAN, until I got to the toll gates! Were I was ordered to turn around and told in uncertain terms by a policeman, “no motorcycles allowed on toll way”. I then suffered the undignified process of joining the great unwashed crowd of Indonesian back road traffic on a road from hell that on the toll way would have taken 20 minutes; I was subjected to an hour and a half of the worst road and traffic conditions so far on my travels.
Finally I fought my way on to highway 25, the mighty Trans Sumatra, no more than a 2 lane bitumen country road, I filled up with fuel and I was off on a reasonable ride to Lake Toba.

What a great tourist destination, the 2nd largest fresh water lake in the world, nestled a 1000m in the mountains. There is an island in the middle called SAMOSIR ISLAND, you get there on a vehicle ferry and takes an hour. I stayed in a great guest house on a peninsula called TUK TUK. I spent 2 days here, circumnavigating the island and just checking out the natural sites it had to offer. Thougherly recommended.
Alas, I have to keep going south, so I caught the 10am ferry to the mainland at a small resort town called PRAPAT, which has a bank with an ATM, but no money!
Straight down the goat track they call a highway for about 200k’s at a moving average of 30k/h, not much fun, considering the vagaries of Indo traffic, lots of mini vans in dilapidated condition going very slow and stopping anywhere they wished, and even slower Vespa’s with sidecars, used as taxi’s, combine this with the heavy, smelly diesel trucks on some of the worst roads in Asia, and you have the recipe for a very uncomfortable ride indeed.
I arrived in a small dirty backwater town called PADANGSIDIMPUAN around 4 in the afternoon, and looked for a decent hotel, this would have to be up there with the dirtiest towns I have stayed at in all of Asia so far, and the accommodation was no better. But I needed a room and a shower, at around $12A it was a total rip off, there was a thunderstorm approaching so I really needed to get Doris undercover before the downpour.
The bathroom consisted of a squat toilet, a leaky concrete water container with a bucket that you used for a multitude of uses, including your shower, cleaning your teeth and flushing the toilet. Typical backpacker crap, but at $12A? At least the bed was clean.

An early morning start and I set a course for BUKITTINGI, about 290k south. The road winds through the mountain range and presents a beautiful landscape, sometimes rivaling North Thailand, only diminished by the lack of rules that constitute driving in Indo. Therefore your concentration level is way up there; especially through the villages which are dotted along the road, basically they look all the same and are just dirty, smelly road blocks with the inevitable market centrally located with gridlock consequences. Good for playing chicken with the slow moving trucks.
You also have to watch the pedestrians, as the road is only 6m wide and the houses are around 6m away from the edge, you occasionally get a local who is not really concentrating on what he is doing, and walks straight on to the road, unfortunately the guy I encountered had a 6m piece of bamboo balanced on his shoulder, with 3m sticking out across my lane of road, fortunately the other lane was empty.
I even rode across the Equator without realizing it, about 50k north of BUKITTINGI.

I made good time on the twisty road and arrived in BUKITTINGI in around 5 hours; this town has a real lay back feel to it. I stopped off at a café in the centre of town, ordered a coffee and immediately started up a conversation with a Dutch guy who comes here twice a year and stays at a lovely little lake called MANINJAU. John recommended a hotel close to town for $10A a night, what a difference to the previous night! Total security for Doris, I locked her up in the hotels foyer, and really friendly staff too.

Because most of Indonesia is Muslim, I thought I was ready for the usual morning and afternoon indoctrination that this faith loves to indulge in, Oh no; I was totally off by about 100% the noisy barrage of intruding noise begins at 4am, lasts for 2 hours and is totally intrusive to these sometime Christian ears! It begins again at 6.00pm with the most monotonous drone I have ever endured; at least I could find a bar for a bit of reprieve. I personally don’t know how anybody gets things done in this environment, perhaps they don’t, the guys just sit around, drinking tea or whatever and the women seem to do most of the little work that appears to happen. With this observation, I don’t think the West has anything to worry about, especially productivity!
The next day John invited me along to have a look at his Chinese mates bikes, so off we went for a short ride to Johan’s place, (funny name for a china man) anyhow Johan lives in the typical 2 story buildings you see all around Asia, the ones with a shop with a roller door down stairs and a flat above. Arriving at the said abode, Johan greets us with a huge grin from ear to ear and opens his garage door.
To anyone who is into bikes it was Aladdin’s cave! Sitting along one wall was 3, 250cc BMW’s ranging from 1953 to 1958, with the later dressed with a home made sidecar, moving further along you come across a 1938 500cc NORTON, then a 1933 MATCHLESS. Christ! They are all in mint condition.

Johan was going for his usual Sunday ride, and of course he asked us along. The big surprise was he asked us to take all the BMW’s for a ride because they haven’t been used for a while! Of course we said yes, so off we went, following Johan in the BMW outfit on a cook’s tour of BUKITTINGGI.

The next morning I a woke to the usual drone from the mosque, it was raining lightly, so I packed up Doris, put on the wet weather gear for the first time in 4 months, and headed for PADANG on the west coast.
The 90k ride goes through some great mountain scenery and often crosses a defunct railway that the Dutch build in the colonial days. PADANG is a sea port and quite busy, as Indonesia is devoid of Road signs, I had to rely on my GPS to find the coastal road that will eventually get me to Southern Sumatra.
The road is only a secondary road, about 6 metres wide but good bitumen. Even a cruiser could manage this road. It hugs the coastline for about 50k then heads inland through the mountains, its twisty and pretty challenging, with the usual obstacles you expect in Asia, except with the worst drivers on the Planet!
This road rivals some of the scenic routes I have taken in Northern Thailand and Laos, however I could only manage a moving average of around 50k/h. so the 400k run to a little village called MUKO MUKO took me 8 hours.
I found a little hotel called the WISMA TERATAI, its run by a family of very nice people, who asked me to have dinner with them and generally made me feel at home. They were totally fascinated with my digital camera, they never seen one before!
Ask for Ian, he’s the father of the clan and a great host.
I was planning to head south to BENGKULU, an old British colonial fort, about 250k’s south and spend a few days there, Ian reckons I would be better going past there and staying overnight at MANA, which is on a new coastal road just finished in the last 2 years, which doesn’t show up on my map, so we will see what eventuates tomorrow.


I awoke at around 5.30am not to the screams of Islam but Mother Nature’s answer to whatever man can muster, the loudest thunder clap I have ever heard, it must be something to do with the tropics because it literally got me out of a very tempestuous dream, and I had ear plugs in! Anyway, Ian offered breakfast, so not wanting to offend mine host, I sat down to a fried egg and some rice washed down with strong black tea, Ian ate with his right hand fingers and I with good old spoon and fork. They use there left hand to wipe their bottoms you know.
I followed the storm south for the next 410k, on a road that you could only describe as having as many curves as a Bangkok Bar Girl. It makes the Mai Hong Son Loop seem like a ride to the corner shop. The only thing good about this road is that an Aussy construction company, called Transfield built all the new bridges across the rivers. It’s obvious the Indo’s built the approaches, because they are totally stuffed, and usually have a dirty big pothole waiting for you as you exit the bridge.

So far I have done over 800k of twisty, sometimes diabolical coastal country road, without a single straight more than a kilometre long and I have still about 400k to go.
I eventually got to a little town called MANNA, found a guest house in the centre of town for $7A, complete with the usual Indo bathroom, and right now I am trying to dry all my riding gear out, because I got pissed on for the last 120k, at an average speed of only 50k/h its bloody hard work.
So far the road kill stands at 2 chickens that I decapitated with my front wheel, a small parrot that tee boned my helmet, one small goat that I run over with my rear tyre and a large pig, that someone else hit, thank Christ it wasn’t me.

The next morning I am about 420k to my last destination, a called BANDAR LAMPUNG, it is the gateway to Sumatra, if you are coming from Java with an airport and cargo port, you get the vehicle ferries from BAKAUHEN, about 90k’s south.
The road hugs the India Ocean for most of its 320k south, then heads inland through a mountainous national park.
With longer straights and fewer villages, you can average a much higher average speed, sometimes the road meanders inland to avoid mountains etc, and again the scenery is awesome.
I was really enjoying this section of the ride, only about 160k to go; it’s only 11.30am and as a bonus, very little traffic. I was at that time glad I took Ian’s advice.

You know the feeling, when you turn a corner on a great ride and all you can see is gridlock traffic. You come to an abrupt stop, then wait a moment, get your senses in order, then consider your options, turn around or deal with the problem at hand and try and forge ahead.
Well I had the same problem, except in front of me, wandering up a mountain at the beginning of a nation park is the most disgusting quagmire of brown oozing mud that I have ever seen, churned up by the bogged trucks and slow wading motorcycles. The mud was about 12” deep, with trucks in both directions trying vainly to navigate the sticky slush, this horrible cake mix was about 100m long, with the only vehicles getting through were the little Asian motorcycles, these little buggers will go anywhere.
It was now midday and the sun was overhead and the temperature was rapidly on the increase.
What to do? I thought, just then a local bloke waded over to me and beckoned me through a recent trough gouged out by a 4WD.
Stuff it, I gunned DORIS, through the ruts, she was up to the task, until the ruts got too deep on each side and my bloody aluminum boxes were dragging through the mud, acting like great bloody brakes! I come to an immediate stop, about 20m from the end of crap. I just slung my leg off the bike and left DORIS wedged in the goo.
A couple of Indo truckies came to the rescue and gave me a push for the last 20m.

You beauty, out of the shit and on my way again, still climbing on a rutted out gravel road, I turned another corner about 1k from the last, and in front of me was an even bigger mud hole than the last, and this time only pedestrians and small bikes were getting through.
I decided to strip Doris down, and wade her through, and then walk back through the foot thick mud to get my gear, this plan worked, just keeping DORIS in first and using her good amount of torque from the big 650cc single, she just plowed her way through.
Then I walked back the 200m or so to get my luggage, this took 2 trips and I was totally stuffed when I finally loaded up Doris, and continued heading southeast.

Disaster again hit as I navigated this road I dubbed SATINS DUNNY, I come to yet another quagmire, the third so far, I was so tired, I just gave DORIS a gut full in first and hoped for the best. Half way though, the back tyre lost traction, and with the weight of my boxes, gravity took over and DORIS, doing her best imitation of a water buffalo having a mud bath, fell on her side.
I was total stuffed, it takes 2 people to pick up this bike fully loaded, so I just sat there, covered from head to foot in shitty Sumatran mud, waiting for an Indo bike rider to give me a hand. Then suddenly there was a thunder clap and the heavens opened up with buckets of tropical rain rapidly filling all the ruts in the sticky mud, then turning into little streams running rapidly down the mountain.

At this point I thought I could be sleeping in the jungle for the night. Throwing the bike cover over DORIS, I just sat under a nearby tree, waiting for the rain to stop and hoping the Cavalry arrives before dark. I decided to walk back down the road to see if I could fetch some help, I passed a sign with a picture of a tiger on it and something written in Indonesian, I later found out it said “do not stop on road at night, tigers about”.
The Cavalry eventually arrived in the form of 2 young Indo’s on bikes, they gave me a hand to get DORIS upright and soon I was on my way, covered in all sorts of crap towards BANDAR LAMPUNG.

Doris’s management system was handing the situation a lot better than mine, I was totally exhausted, I arrived at the first shit hole at 11.30am and it was now 3.30pm, a full 4 hours to go 30k, and I had another 130k or so to my destination, on a bike that was now on reserve and seriously needing a hose down before hitting any bitumen at speed.
Ah ha! A river crossing with kids washing their bikes, there must have been about 40 of them lining the shallow pebbly shoreline.
I did a youie and headed under the bridge to the now screaming and astonished teenagers, most of them totally naked, washing their little Asian bikes in the river.
I just rode DORIS, straight into the river until the water was about a foot deep, put the side stand down and jumped straight into the water, I just laid there, fully dressed in all my riding gear, helmet, jacket, boots everything was soaked, but I didn’t care, I just lay there watching the mud gradually dissolve and depart from my very tired body.
I was then confronted by about 20 young teenagers, many naked, offering to wash my bike… for a price.
A half an hour passed and I was still laying in the water, however I did manage to get my helmet and jacket off, and the kids were well on the way to getting the heavy mud off DORIS. I exchanged about $2A with the kids and took off toward my destination for the night, a very soggy 130k run, I eventually had to refuel at the typical corner shop establishments that are dotted along the road, as there are very few petrol stations.

I booked into an excellent hotel for $22A a night, put a cover over the bike, had a shower, and hit the sheets totally exhausted. Without a doubt, SUMATRA’s roads are the worst I have encountered so far, if the Aussies hadn’t built the bridges over the many rivers that this coastal road traverses, it would take you weeks to get down the coast.
I have decided to spend 2 days of recovery in BANDAR LAMPUNG and give DORIS a thorough going over before catching the ferry over to JAVA.
I have done a total of 2630k’s in SUMATRA, at a moving average of 55k/h.

VERDICT: Real potential for experienced adventure motorcycle riding, on REAL trail bikes only! A minimum of local language advised, the people are usually friendly, but reserved and shy, the food is so so (not close to Thai food). And everything is cheep. Shit I wish I was 20 years younger!
Oct 17, 2006
I enjoyed reading this tremendously !
I used to smoke Sumatra cigars, had the dream of riding my side car there one day.

Your writing, Tom taught me to better go after other dreams. Nevertheless I was THERE without any suffering, thanks to you!