Sunday, 12 July 2009

Attack of the killer fish!

I was flying out of Medan international airport (relax, you can smoke inside. Past passport control, 1st floor on the right!) with Being a low cost airline if your bags weigh more than 15kgs you have to pay extra. My bag weighs 20kgs so I paid the extra when I booked the ticket online. Putting the bag on the scales at check in I was, at first, surprised to see the bag was in fact 21.3kg! Then I remembered the paintings and shirt (dad, the shirt is mine alright!) I had brought when I was at Lake Maninjau. The employee of the airline stated the obvious but I replied that it was only a kilo over, so did it really matter that much. Turns out it did! I replied sarcastically that maybe I should take a kilo out of the bag and put it in my carry on luggage. “Yes, that’s fine” was her reply. I am still trying to work out the logic of that!

The flight took less time then it takes to read the in-flight magazine and by the time I was checked into the hostel in Georgetown I had only missed the 1st 9 laps of the German gp. Sadly there were no seats left on the Monday ferry so instead I will be going on the Tuesday morning one instead.

On Monday I went to the post office (exciting I know) in order to lighten my bag by 1.3 kilos, then I went to the mall. During my 30 days in Sumatra the laundry (wo)man managed to lose two pairs of pants. The pants in question had travelled with me from England and two years on the road is a long time. However, as any man will know you only replace underwear when its long since started to fall apart (unless they are your “lucky pants”, then you will never part with them)

Midday on Tuesday I was back on the island of Langkawi and I quickly got back into the routine. This time, as a bonus I had cable tv in my chalet…sweet! The staff at both the red tomato garden café and Debbie’s place remembered my order as soon as I walked in. All I had to do was nod, sit down and await the arrival of the mug of coffee or the pint of Carlsberg, depending on which establishment I was in.

After a few days of relaxing and watching television (1st time in over 30 days) I splashed the cash and went diving on the Friday (17th). I dived the same two dive sites as before but as the viz was down to 4m in places it looked altogether different.

On the 1st dive, me and my dive buddy were slowly drifting with the current above the sandy bottom near the rocks a few metres away when I felt a sharp and intense pain in my left foot. Avoiding a sudden urge to spit out my reg in order to say “OW!” I looked around….just in time to see a trigger fish about to enjoy the sweet tasting meat of me for a second time. It opened its wide cavernous mouth, with blood dripping off its large razor edged teeth and went to clamp its grotesque jaws around my foot. At the precise moment my left leg lashed out, trailing crimson blood in the murky waters of the ocean like ruby coloured meteors burning across a twilight sky. My bleeding foot smacked into the trigger fish’s hide with a righteous force that spun it around several times, disorientated and confused the killer fish was in no condition to continue its ravenous attack. So with blood still flowing freely from the gaping wound in what was left of my foot I swam away to safety.

Okay…it didn’t happen quite like that!! I suppose a pinprick of blood was the most I split. But this is my 100th blog so I thought that for once I would exaggerate what happened a little. Unless you really want to read a blog about a short fat bald man lounging around drinking coffee and beer with the occasional scratching of body parts.

And yes, in the evening I had fish “n” chips….and then they ran out of Carlsberg….hello Tiger!

Monday, 6 July 2009


Out of the hotel early and straight onto the bus!

Two hours later I was somewhere in the large city of Medan. The coolness of the Karo Highlands had been replaced by the heat of the lowlands and no matter how nice (?) the street comer was I needed to get to the bus station. I jumped into the sidecar of the rickshaw and enjoyed the breeze but not the scenery. Arriving later at the bus station my driver asked several people where the bus and or minibus to Bukit Lawang could be found. Every person gave a different answer and following a five minute ride around the general vicinity of the bus station the bike conked out and refused to start. Sensing an opportunity I paid the man his due and grabbing my bags made my way to the terminal building. Within seconds I had the answer and wandered over to where the bus was parked. (Its bus lane number 6 if you wanted to know). A wait of 45 minutes ensued and then being the 1st on I got a seat next to the permanently open rear door (for the cooling breeze). Three hours later the bus came to the end of the road and I got off.

The guy I was chatting to on the bus (he works as a trekking guide) took me under his wing and showed me a hotel, he got a free lift the kilometre or so from the bus station. To get to the hotel meant crossing the river (this is the same river that back in the winter of 2003 during a flash flood, with a 20m high wall of water, destroyed nearly all of the village, killing hundreds of people in the process). The suspension bridge was narrow with large triangles of wires along its length. It was also the only wire, bamboo and wood plank bridge that I’ve seen that went up and down…twice! As my rucksack is wider than my shoulders I had trouble getting past each of the triangles. Thankfully my man looked around and saw my inane struggles, he came back and after unslinging the bag we each held an end.

The hotel (Wisma Leuser Sibayak) started were the bridge stopped (there are loads of different places to stay within the village and further upstream. Prices start from 50,000 and go up to 600,000) and I got the last free room…yippee!


Once the vocalisation of male teenage hormones had finished at around 2am I decided I would “try and get some sleep”, the mosquitoes had other ideas! Waking up bleary eyed before 7am my urge for the sweet nectar of caffeine laced black coffee was overwhelming, two glasses later I was feeling almost human.

The kids making the noise from last night were in fact English language students from Medan on a study tour. I got my own back later…

The village is located on a gentle curve of the river with all of the shops and most of the restaurants on the east bank. Crossing the bridge by my hotel I bimbled upstream checking out all of the small shops, restaurants and THE ROCK BAR!!!!

Now, let’s get back to those pesky kids…

I was chatting to Tony (owner of Tony’s pizzas) outside his shop, when some of the kids (well teenagers really but as I’m almost 40 I’m going to be calling anyone under the age of 21 a kid) came up to me. Each of them had a small booklet in their hands; the less shy one asked if I could sign their book. Turns out, in order to improve their English they had to go out and actually talk with the western tourists. Kids being kids they were just going up to people and saying “hello mister, please sign my book” and not much else. Me, being me, made each of them ask me three questions each and as I usually like to answer a question with a question they had to work hard to earn my signature. By the time I had finished Tony, along with a couple of other shopkeepers were struggling to stop laughing. With looks of relief on their faces I left the kids behind and carried on with my upstream bimble. Very quickly I had left the village behind and strung out along the path were small guest houses, each one more quiet than the last.

30 minutes and 27 students later I reached the end of the path. Workmen were busy repairing the way ahead and as it was hot I found a reason to turn around and retrace my steps.

50m downstream from my hotel is a weir, the main effect this has is to create a large swimming hole. With a lazy breast stroke I could hold my position in the beautifully cold waters. Of course I still had to dodge the out of control blown up inner tubes that everyone was riding down the shallow rapids.

Later during the middle of the afternoon the skies darkened, lightening flashed across the sky and the roar of thunder echoed through the trees. Then it rained…heavily! Within 20 minutes the once clear waters of the river had turned a muddy brown, the pace of the river had doubled and it had risen by a foot. Within an hour the river was unrecognisable to the one I saw in the morning and it had risen even further. After 2 hours the storm abated but the river kept surging well into the night.

In the evening before beers and pizza I went to the hotel front desk and got a mosquito net!


Another early morning…damn you fresh mountain jungle air! At least the mosquito net worked!

The morning looked promising so I picked up my bag and meandered down stream along the riverbank. A few hundred metres later I was in need of a path, I found one lying nearby

The dirt track slightly muddy from yesterday’s downpour skirted along the fringes of the jungle past small holdings, simple huts and houses. A couple of kms wandering led through a small rubber tree plantation and up to a sign for the bat cave (I hadn’t realised that Bruce had moved). So off to the bat cave I went. As I approached the bat cave a man of undeterminably age woke up and leaned forward on his woven mat covered lounge platform, his finger pointing to a sign. For 5000 rupiahs I got to open a gate; it revealed the path to the cave. The steep and slippery mud steps led down to a small path that shortly ended at the mouth of a narrow gulley. Throughout the eons, water had cut a path down through the rock and to make it accessible a couple of wooden ladders made the big gaps crossable. Thankfully there were a myriad of hand holds because I really didn’t trust the wet and slightly rotten wood ladders with my weight (Oi! Less of that)

Just before the entrance I stood and watched but mostly listened to the small troop of monkeys marching across the tree canopy above me. When they had passed by I entered into the cave.

Note so self: it’s been over two years since you put fresh batteries into the torch. Next time don’t leave it so long

My amazingly brilliant lens frogman dive torch is only as good as the batteries what power it. I had a back up torch in the base of my cheap lighter (and some people think that smoking is bad for you….go figure). Inside the now dimly lit cave there wasn’t much to see because it was mostly dark! Light did enter through a sizable hole in one of the small caverns but the light was being filtered by the green of the trees. Leaving the cave I entered back into the light. One path looks pretty much like another and after an hour’s walk zigzagging from path to path I came across a small river. With my shoes off I paddled upstream and around a bend.

The only human making a sound was me, I sat down on the riverbank and listened to the jungle…


Ever since the early 70’s people have been coming to Bukit Lawang to visit the Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre located near the village within the 9000 square kilometre national park.

I was no exception!

I combined a visit to the centre with a 3 hour jungle walk on the way back, for this you will need a guide. The apes are being rehabilitated back into the wild but twice a day the rangers (and the tourists) go to a feeding platform to give any apes that turn up milk and bananas. The somewhat uninspiring menu is to encourage the orang-utans to forage for themselves.

As I was waiting on the bank of the river for the canoe to ferry me across to the centre on the opposite side I spied my 1st orang-utan. This ape was so mentally scared by years of captivity that it didn’t like the jungle, other apes or any other wildlife. It preferred to hang out down by the river, close to humans and their food! I watched it walk slowly across the grass and up the steps of the park bungalow, where it sat and watched the tourists come up the path.

The trail to the current feeding platform (they are moved every six months or so) was a short, steep and slippery affair. When we arrived the ranger started to “bang the gong” to let the apes know that breakfast was about to be served.

After an anxious 20 minutes wait a solitary orang-utan turned up. Her name was Suma and she is 32 years old and 3 months pregnant. She slowly made her way across the platform, sat down and got comfy. Then she leaned down to take the cup of milk off the ranger. Bananas followed the milk, peeling back the skins on each one with her lips. Several quiet minutes went by as all the tourist just stared at Suma until the nearby call of a male got her excited and she went off in search of him.

Now, with the guide, we slowly walked across the jungle floor trying to follow suma through the trees. She stopped high up in a large tree and as I was standing right beneath her looking up I got a second or two’s warning of the golden shower heading my way. Thankfully I moved just in time. Soon after that we lost track of Suma and so continued on along the trails, passing an amazingly cool and laid back Thomas Leaf monkey on the way.

The tracks through the jungle were steep and muddy. Walking along the ground I was still moving from tree to tree, using vines and roots whenever the going got almost vertical to maintain balance and a “not falling flat on arse” posture.

By the time I got back to the river and the village I was hot, sweaty and happy in the knowledge that three hours of jungle trekking was in fact enough for me. You can, if you want to, go on multi day treks deep into the heart of the jungle, where along with orang-utans, lurk elephants, rhinos and tigers! Or, if you’re fat, lazy with knackered knees you can just relax down by the river. Chances are you’ll find a cold beer very close by!

On Sunday I’m taking the bus to Medan and then the rickshaw or taxi to the airport and in the evening I‘ll be on the Malaysian island of Penang again, maybe in time for the German GP. With any luck the next day, because lets face it Georgetown ain’t all that, I’ll be back on the island of Langkawi. Hopefully I’ll be staying at the Shirin guest house, quaffing beers and gorging on a burger or two at Debbie’s place.

I do this; so you don’t have too….

…By the way you really don’t need to thank me

Friday, 3 July 2009

cabbages and volcanoes

After spending a week in Tuk Tuk on the island of Samosir it was time to move on. Despite the fact that I never got to fly here I really did enjoy my time.

The 1st bus I was on left from Tomok 5kms away and I was getting a lift there but I didn’t realise that it would be on the back of a scooter. With my fat arse perched on the back seat, my 20 kilo bag was hanging out over the end. On my right shoulder was my day bag loaded down with laptop and cameras. Making me nicely balanced…not! Needless to say the front wheel was very light and the young chap doing the steering looked relived when we finally stopped.

20 minutes later the minibus left and we headed to Pangururan, the capital city of the island, on the other coast. Once there I changed minibuses and it headed off to Berastagi. I, along with 2 other adults and 2 small kids, was on the rear bench seat that was built for three. After 30 minutes or so my arse finally found a position of tolerance on the thinly padded seat that nestled between the two metal bars that kept the seat up. As the bus climbed up the side of the ridge every bump or jolt produced short painful spasms at the base of my ribcage on the right hand side. By the time we reached the main road my tailbone was numb, my right leg that rested half folded up on the wheel arch was starting to ache. Two hours later the numbness and aching was starting to turn into outright pain. Thankfully at that precise moment we stopped for a break….thank F**K for that!

Smoking a fag and trying to walk off my discomfort I heard another shout of “hello mister”. Once again I had to pose for a picture with a young lady; she held on tightly to my waist and rested her head on my shoulder…this never happened to me in England you know! Back on the road and I now had the bench seat to myself. So I was able to get comfy and enjoy the scenery, an hour later I was in Berastagi.

My 1st impression of Berastagi was that it was a “shithole of a town”. Never one to go on 1st impressions I had another look and changed my mind. It was a “f**king shithole of a town!” The reason I came here was to get up close and personal with a volcano or two and I should be able to do that tomorrow and then bugger off anywhere else.

The next day

I woke up early (06:30...I know!!!!) and had to lounge around in the hotel till the people that worked in the travel agents downstairs came in and opened up. Yep, all the doors leading to the outside were locked! I was going to pass some of the time by having a shower, even if it was a cold one (I haven’ had a hot shower since Banting). Sadly the shower didn’t work so I went “Victorian” and poured bucket after bucket of cold water over my head. It was strangely enjoyable! Once the hotel was open I rented a scooter (100,000 rupiahs this time “because the roads go up and down” was the reason given when I asked why it was so much but I am lazy…) and headed to the nearby café for a coffee or two.

There are two volcanoes nearby, both of which are active. I went to the furthest one first.

Passing through villages and cabbage fields (cabbages are Berastagi’s claim to fame. So much so that they have a large sculpture of a cabbage at the end of the main drag in town) the volcano appeared through a large gap in the trees. It looked how all volcanoes should, impressively shaped with clouds of steam rising from the crater at the top. You can walk up and down it in 10 ten hours, allegedly! I meandered along various roads passing monkeys in the trees, coming to a halt whenever I saw the volcano from a differing angle. After a while I looked down and saw the fuel gauge. I had already used up ¾ of a tank. Well lots of time screaming uphill in 2nd gear does tend to use up the petrol a tad. I then decided to head back to Berastagi; I reached the petrol station in the nick of time!

Now with a full tank of gas I headed out of town on the Medan road. Several kilometres later (when DID I stop using miles?) a left turn and a signpost caught my eye and I thought, why not. So I turned left and headed up a small valley towards the hot springs and the second volcano. Four MILES later I passed the hot springs and kept on climbing. To my right loomed the volcano, its serrated edge cut into the blue sky whilst sulphur laden steam belched from a white gash on its green side as if it came from the nostrils of a sleeping dragon. I arrived at a “T” junction and turned right uphill. I saw a gringo couple walking the small road, sweaty from the steep incline. The look on the guys face as I rode by smiling was a keeper. The road was tarmaced all the way and flicking between 1st and 2nd gear I arrived at the “car park”. From there it was a very easy 20 minute walk (and I am a slow walker) up a series of steps and pathways to the crater.


As the path left the scrub behind the desolation of the place took hold. In the distance across a rock strewn barren landscape steam erupted from sulphur covered holes, the smell of which was caught on the wind. As I climbed higher I reached the small crater. Only one side remained intact, the stones coloured in places a yellowish green, whilst at the bottom of the shallow crater water had collected covering half of the sandy bottom. The other half was covered in peoples names made from small rocks and pebbles. People sometimes really do have too much time on their hands!

Walking further uphill I reached the edge and looked out over the countryside. From here I could see another four volcanoes off in the distance. The steam belched forth from the nostril of the dragon close by and I caught the taste of the primeval in my mouth. The walk back down to the car park was refreshing as the wind had picked up. I spent several minutes watching the clouds develop on the peak of the volcano across the valley.

Berastagi is no longer considered a “f**king shit hole of a town”. It has been upgraded to a “complete dump of a place”. However once you leave the city limits its beautiful…

Tomorrow I’ll be off to a place that doesn’t have roads and I may even get to see my long lost brother!