30 April

The Eastern sky was becoming orange1 when we arrived in Yogyakarta at 4:30 a.m. and walked from the station down to Gang 1 (in Indonesian cities, alleyways are called “gangs” from the nautical word gangway) where we found a cheap and quiet place to stay. After a mandi [an Indonesian bath/shower where you scoop water from a tank and pour it over yourself] we slept for a few hours, then spent the day quietly hanging out in the immediate area.

We booked onward bus tickets to Bali (R25,000 each) for Monday and also a sunrise trip to the Buddhist site of Borobudur2 for tomorrow.

1 An abiding memory of ours from that morning on the Senja Utama is that of the water-sellers moving through the carriages intoning the Indonesian word for water – “agua” – in low monotones like a collection of frogs: “agua-agua-agua-agua.”

2 Borobudur is one of the wonders of the world. Read an in-depth description about it on this Wikipedia entry.

Yogyakarta (Photo supplied.)

29 April

We spent all day hanging out in cafes while we waited for the evening Senja Utama Express to Yogyakarta [pronounced “jog-yia-karta”]. Most of the time we spent in a cafe showing Western TV programs. We watched Moonlighting, Sesame Street, Robin of Sherwood, and a hilarious episode of The Simpsons.

At 6pm we went down to the Station Gambier and boarded our train. Second Class was not very crowded and we managed to get two seats each. I slept on the floor for most of the trip.

The Senja Utama train, Java. (Photo supplied.)

28 April

The crossing from Sumatra to Java took 2 1/2 hours and we spent most of that time dozing in the air-conditioned second class lounge as the boat made its way across the mirror-calm water between the two giant islands. The coloured forms of thunder clouds over Java’s brooding, dark volcanoes made an impressive sight.

Between Sumatra and Java (Photo supplied)

We arrived in Jakarta at 8:30 p.m. after 36½  hours on the bus and, along with an English bloke that we have gotten to know on the boat, we took a tuk-tuk in to Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta’s version of Khao San Road and found a reasonably nice place to stay. 

Footnote: Jalan Jaksa, formerly one of the iconic backpacker haunts along the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail” through Southeast Asia, is no more. The scruffy backpackers have moved upmarket and the noodle joints and second-hand bookshops of Jalan Jaksa have been superseded by the internet and Snapchat stories. Check out this blog post by travel journalist James Clarke about the demise of Jalan Jaksa.

27 April

At 10 a.m. we boarded our super-duper-luxury-bus bound for Jakarta. The trip, although reasonably comfortable, was thoroughly unpleasant as the bus was crowded with chainsmoking Indonesians and contained an as yet an imagined horror of Asian travel: the non-stop karaoke video.¹

Sumatran Bus Station.

I passed most of the journey plugged into my Walkman and imagined what lay in the impenetrable blackness of the jungle.

¹Imagine this. It is night. You have just re-boarded the bus after a late dinner at some wayside joint in a jungle clearing. Every passenger, except you and your hapless companion, lights up a cigarette the moment they are seated…no notion of smoking outside while the bus was stationary. Now begins several hours of little Indonesian men screeching along to karaoke songs with the treble turned up to full. Your favourite horror is Winds of Change by the Scorpions, re-recorded by some local pop star who sings “winna-chain” instead of “winds of change.” 

But now the karaoke is replaced by some garish kung fu movie, with the colours all askew and the volume (and treble) up at full. Eventually, the movie ends. But the driver, more asleep than awake, leaves the video player running. The speakers emit a steady screech of static and white noise. No one else notices…they all fell asleep halfway through the movie.

You sit there, lost in a dark world of rage and hatred. Your girlfriend is asleep as well. Is this one of the circles of Hell? You rise, walk down the length of the bus and say to the driver, as politely as you can: TURN THAT FUCKING THING OFF!!

26 April

We got up early and set off to avoid the heat of the day. We had some breakfast at the Canyon Coffee Shop then walked over to the hill and down the steep road leading into Sianok Canyon. The canopy of trees overgrew the road and it was cool in the shade. Halfway down the road passed the lower entrances of some caves where Indonesian prisoners were held by the Japanese during World War 2. There was a brass sculpture affixed to the cliff face depicting the horrific treatment that was metered out by the Japanese to their prisoners.

Sianok Canyon.

At the bottom of the canyon, we began following the river upstream along a rough road cut along the foot of the cliffs and above the river. Patches of jungle alternated with rice paddies and clusters of houses. People were busy in the fields harvesting and threshing the ripened rice crops.

We stopped after about an hour or so and watched teams of local men and their dogs heading off for a day’s pig hunting in the jungle. On the way back down the canyon, we followed the river itself, wading along through the water past lazy, cud-chewing buffalos and small huts and farms.

Sianok Canyon.

In the afternoon we spent an hour exploring the labyrinth of caves beneath Panorama Peak but being Sunday, the place was crowded with masses of noisy locals.

Bukkitinggi Market.

Saturday, 25th April

We managed to sleep in until 9:30 a.m. as the night was cool and we weren’t awakened by heat at first light.

Saturday is market day in Bukkitinggi and the town was busy. Our first job was to arrange tickets on the “aircon toilet bus” to Jakarta for Monday: a 30-hour trip costing 51,000 Rupiah each. We then spent an hour or so in the colourful market where chillies, coconuts and fruits, were arranged row after row along with meat, fish and household goods. After that, we spent most of the day just hanging out.

FRIDAY 24 APRIL – EQUATORIAL CROSSING

We caught the “7:30” bus bound for Bukittinggi, 160km away in the Southern Hemisphere. The road passed through the jungle on the flats around Pekanbaru and then, after crossing several swift brown rivers, climbed over ranges of steep, densely-forested hills.

We stopped for a lunch break about 75 km from Bukittinggi then, at 1:05PM, we crossed the equator for the last time and we were once again and our home hemisphere, albeit a long way from home yet. The equator was marked by a peeling, white-painted stone globe amid the jungle.

Bukittinggi’s climate was immediately more pleasant than that of Pekanbaru’s. Built around and over a 900 m high hill (Bukit = mound; Tinggi = high) cloven by a deep gorge, and flanked on three sides by brooding volcanoes, the town was quiet and laid-back; its many winding streets linked by steep stairways.

We took a 5,000 Rupiah room in the hotel Tiga Balai on Jalan Ahmad Yani, and spent what remained of the day wandering around trying to keep out of the way of trekking guides!¹

¹Bikittinggi is the starting point for multi-day treks into the Sumatran Highlands.

Above and below: The Hotel Tigo Balai as it appears today. (Photo: Google StreetView)

THURSDAY, 23 APRIL – SUMATRA

At 7:30 we went down and bought our tickets which cost us 101,500 Rupiah (32 pounds) each, then took a taxi – an old beaten up Holden special – out to the airport where we had an hour’s wait for our flight. When the aircraft, a Hawker Siddeley prop jet, arrived, we stood outside and watch the ground crew poking about checking the oil and tyres before we boarded.

The flight over a turquoise sea dotted with a mosaic of small muddy Islands took 50 minutes. As we crossed the Sumatran coast we encountered some turbulence caused by gathering clouds. The masses of cloud resembled stacks of white coral and beneath them, the verdant green of the jungle stretched into the distance without a break save for a scattering of small dark lakes and the occasional logging road. Closer to Pekanbaru the forest had been clear-felled and the land was scarred by a criss-cross pattern of dirt tracks

We landed and collected our bags then walked down to the main road for about 700 metres beyond the airport and caught an Oplet taxi van into town.

A place called Tommy’s homestay had been advertised at Bong’s so we tracked it down and got a room there. We spent the afternoon sweltering in the windless atmosphere and heavy humidity. In the evening Tommy himself arrived, and with the formality of a Shakespearean actor introduced himself with the words “I…am Tommy.”

WEDNESDAY, 22 APRIL – SINGAPORE TO TANJUNG PINANG.

We left the Why Not crashpad at 7:30 a.m. and walked down to Finger Pier. Barry stayed behind at the crash pad as he was planning to head up North for a few days. At Finger Pier, we bought speedboat tickets to Batam Island where we cleared Singapore customs. The trip to Batam, which is in Indonesia (see map) took about 40 minutes and we were aboard a brand new, high-speed ferry complete with aircraft type seats and videos, so we passed the time watching Beverly Hills Cop 2.

At the port on Batam, we passed through Indonesian customs without a question and then changed our remaining Singapore dollars into Indonesian Rupiah¹. Outside the terminal, we shrugged off the taxi drivers offering to take us into Nagoya (the island’s main town) for 10 Singapore dollars and walked down a road a bit until a taxi stopped and offered to take us for 1000 Rupiah each: local price. 

Nagoya was a half-built, dismal place and we stopped there only long after changing money and negotiating a local price fare in a taxi over to Kabil on the southern coast of the Island.

In Kabil, we bought tickets for Bintam Island on a local boat. Speedboats ferry wealthy Chinese businessmen and their harlots across in 10 minutes for 10,000 Rupiah each, but the slow boat was almost as fast and would take us there for R3,000. We threw our gear onto a ramshackle canoe which ferried us out to the old wooden boat, then we sat on the bow deck as we crossed the straight to Bintam. The sun was brilliant upon the turquoise water and stacks of pure white thunderclouds towered in the sky. The port on Bintam consisted of a wooden jetty jutting out from a row of pole houses built above the water’s edge and, behind the houses, the bus station was simply a large tree.

We bought tickets for Tanjung Pinang and waited for half an hour for the bus to lurch out of town and into the jungle. It poured with rain during the 2-hour trip but was fine again by the time we reached Tanjung Pinang. We walked down to Bong’s Homestay which had been recommended to us.

We found a money changer and changed our last remaining Sterling cash (£40.00) and a £100.00 traveller’s cheque which gave us the large sum of 410,000 Rupiah. At the boat dock, we were told that the next ferry over to Pekanbaru in Sumatra wouldn’t leave for 3 days so we elected to fly with Merpati Airlines. The man in the office said they were closed so I would have to wait until 8 a.m. the next morning to get our tickets. That evening we dined alfresco at the local night market.

¹The Indonesian currency is called the Rupiah (pronounced ‘roo-pia”) from a Sanskrit word meaning “silver.”

21/4/92

After breakfast, we once again headed down to the Raffles Centre where we hung out in the air-conditioned comfort.

The movie Cape Fear was being shown so we walked down to the movie theatre and settled in, enjoying the air conditioning while we watched the movie which featured a great performance by Robert De Niro.

After the movie, we caught a bus up to Chinatown and wandered around there for a while but most of the area was being renovated so lacked any atmosphere. Back at the crash pad, we relaxed for a couple of hours then once again walked up to Little Indian for a rice meal at Cove Villas.