9th May Bukittinggi
Martin wakes up early and heads into town to try and find a guide. On route he stops at a mobile phone shop to pick up a 3G sim card; the shop owner kindly takes him to D&J’s cafe where he meets up with a guide.
At 930 metres above sea level, Bukkitinggi is dominated by three volcanoes, Merapi, Singgalang and Sago.
We will be trekking up Gunung Merapi (Fire mountain), which is expected to take 6 hours each way, ascending 1300m to about 2800m. Our guide will meet us at 10pm and we will make the 6 hour trek up the volcano in time for sun-rise. We just don’t realise how hard-going and challenging it will be…
Merapi is Sumatra’s most active volcano, sometimes deemed too dangerous to climb. There have been fifty large scale eruptions since the 18th century plus numerous smaller ones.
We pick up our guide Mowli from a nearby cafe and drive to the jump off point, arriving at 11pm. It is pitch black and we prepare for the trek up with extra layers of clothes, flashlights and waterproofs. There is a family living in a small hut nearby who agree to look after the car for a small fee.
A few minutes into the trek, we meet up with a group of about seven Indonesian teenagers also climbing the volcano, although they only have one torch between them and are wearing just flip-flops! They stop to collect some drinking water from a natural spring and camp near the bottom for the night.
We carry on, walking for about 25 minutes along a dirt track uphill until we reach a rickety bamboo bridge, which we manoeuvre and then cross into the jungle. The path suddenly becomes very steep, with large tree roots breaking up the path as we ascend. We both have a head torch each, which are great for lighting up the path, the only draw-back is that they seem to attract all the insects, so Nicole turns hers onto a red setting which seems to work.
Carrying on up the path, we have to climb over fallen trees, through narrow gulleys and overgrown jungle paths, up steep mud steps, clinging to stones to get around a deep grassy drop, and over many large rocks for at least 3 hours, seeing lights below from another group which are slowly catching up with us.
As we climb we can hear all the sounds of the jungle, the insects, birds and monkeys.
Our guide gives us a pair of gloves each, and explains that throughout out the next section we will need them to scramble up the path. The path becomes increasingly difficult with more and rocks to navigate, and steep gulleys.
Desperate for a rest, Nicole asks time and time again when we will reach the first stopping point, with always the same reply, that we are nearly there, ‘it’s only ten minutes further!’. An hour and a half later we finally break out from the jungle to a small rocky clearing where we have a brief twenty minute stop for some biscuits and coffee, and make a fire with beautiful views over the whole of Bukkitinggi under a bright star-filled sky.
Both of us are desperate for the hours long rest we were promised but are told we have to get moving or we will miss the sunrise! Mowli, at 55 years old and a guide for over 30 years, seems very fit and does not seem to be struggling at all!
The next stage of the climb proves to be the most difficult, up over a steep incline of loose rocks, which we take a zig-zag path through and up. At this stage Nicole is exhausted and unable to move, legs shaking, and feeling like jelly. We move a few metres at a time and pause for her to catch her breath before moving again. The oxygen levels are low and it becomes much harder to breathe. Just twenty minutes from the top she declares she’s not going any further, that it’s too far. After a lot of persuasion from our guide and the promise of a good rest at the top with majestic views, she manages to crawl up the last couple of hundred metres, reaching the volcano’s plateau, where we are greeted by the rising sun casting its rays over the surrounding volcanoes and countryside at the smouldering summit.
We stop for a while at the top, before walking over to the crater, leaving Nicole to rest while we climb to the second peak. There are great views of a deep blue lake in the distance; our guide Mowli, stands only a few inches from the edge of a sheer drop. I however don’t go so close. The guide stays at the bottom of the second peak while I head up, a long and narrow path with sheer drops on either side. As I walk, the wind picks up, which doesn’t help. At the top there is a small area a couple of metres wide to stand and take in the views of the surrounding area. The views from the top are breath-taking, I can see all the way to the coast and the tiny islands dotted around in the Indian Ocean.
I make my way down yet another narrow ridge, towards the main crater, which is puffing away in the distance. I get as close as I can bear, a metre or two away from the edge to look into the deep crater, conscious of the steep drop and the possibility of falling in.
In total the ascent to the peak takes us 7 hours, pretty much non-stop. From the top, we can see exactly what we have just walked through, a dense and unforgiving jungle, which looks a long, long way down………
The return journey of hell
The return journey takes up back down the same way we came up. We think it will be easier on the way down, but we are so wrong. Both exhausted, our legs tremble, our toes and feet hurt with every move, and we have sharp pains in our knees with every small step down, plus we have had no sleep.
We arrive back at the stopping point from the previous night, where our guide makes us more coffee and some Pot Noodles to keep us going.
The route back is endless and tiring; not quite believing we made it up this path last night, I’m sure if we had seen it in daylight, we would have given up quite early on! Nicole at this point is barely able to move, every step taking its toll on her knees.
We eventually make it back to the track we had started on, surely it wasn’t this far last night?! Half an hour later, passing rows and rows of chilli plantations, a sight for sore eyes, the car and a rest is finally in view!
11th May Padang
Still aching from head to foot from our crazy adventures yesterday, we leave for Padang on Sumatra’s west coast. The roads are generally pretty good compared to what we have experienced in other countries, although there are lots of slow-moving vehicles on the road, so have to continually overtake.
As the car brakes are feeling spongy, we pull into a local Toyota garage to get them fixed. We are told that the master brake cylinder may not be working correctly, so we would have to get replacement parts in Jakarta.
We arrive in good time driving along the beach road, passing waterfalls along the roadside and children playing in rivers. Reaching Losmen Carlos at Pantai Bungus, we take a beachside room and watch the fantastic dark red sunset over a cold Bintang and a nasi goreng.
We wake up on the beach and sit on our balcony with palm trees swaying and just the sound of the waves over breakfast. It’s a hard life! We watch the local fishermen working in unison to pull in their huge nets which are full of fish; they look like small mackerel or something similar. They work for hours, starting at the crack of dawn.
We take a day trip to one of the deserted islands off Pantai Bungus, in our own private boat, well, it’s a wooden long-tailed boat but it’s just us, the boatman and Kese, a cute kid from the losmen. We stop for a dip, the waters are inviting, warm and crystal clear. Martin grabs his spear gun, coming back with various fish, which according to the boatman are edible.
Carrying on to the island, which is fringed with trees leaning over the slice of sandy white beach, we swim over to the coral reef, which suddenly drops deeply to an aquarium of colourful fish and shoals, rays of sunlight shining though.
After an hour or two exploring, we come back to land for a lunch of fiery chilli rice with veg and some tea.
After a final swim, we head back, doing a bit more fishing along the way. The boatman doesn’t appear to be in a hurry, catching loads of fish with a simple hook and line. We arrive home just in time for sunset.
After a good nights sleep, we leave for the 325mile journey to Bengkulu, one of Sumatra’s most isolated provinces, surrounded by the Bukit Barisan mountain range. We drive through narrow winding roads, passing beautiful stretches of coastline and crystal seas surrounded by tropical green plantations with wide rivers weaving through them. Before we know it, it is dark and the roads we are now on have huge pot-holes with slow moving trucks trying to get over them. On route, there are lots of over-turned trucks, which have lost balance presumably from going too fast over the holes. Needless to say, the journey is slow-going and we finally arrive at 8pm.
15th May Krui
We make our way in the sunshine for the 200 mile journey to Krui, the surfer’s paradise which Martin’s sister had recommended we visit. The first few hours are spent on winding potholed roads through the jungle. The roads get progressively worse, and having to suddenly slow down for each hole makes the journey longer.
As we get closer to Krui, the road conditions improve, but we find accommodation here is way overpriced, very basic or full. We drive down to the Karang Nyimbor surf break, watching the surfers for a while. Eventually, we come across Sunset Beach losmen, which has good rooms a few metres away from the beach, with food included, so decide to take it for a couple of nights.
We spend the day relaxing, snorkelling and spear fishing.
We wake at the crack of dawn for the 210 mile journey to catch the ferry to Java, along smooth roads, able to get up to speeds of 70mph on some roads, as we whizz through small villages along the coastline.
After 60miles or so we ascend into the mountains where the roads deteriorate slightly, with patches of the road covered in potholes. The roads leading into the mountains are quite easy going.
We pass lots of kids working in the hot sun, preparing the road and directing traffic through huge ruts; we’re quite shocked as they look really young, between 8 and 10 years old, holding out collections in the hope of handouts. We stop and give them a few rupiah each. As they’re working to keep the road intact, the contribution will help not just us, but locals and other travellers in the future.
We had heard there were few petrol stations on route, however we were happy see one in every main town, being no more than 30 to 40 miles between each.
We are directed around to the back of the ferry terminal where there is a small queue of traffic, approached by elderly ladies trying to sell bunches of long broad beans and other vegetables. We wonder how long we might have to wait to board. The tickets cost 234,000Rp in total (£16.70 ) for two people and a car, and just 20 minutes later we drive on. Due to the height of the car we board onto the lowest level with the trucks, but are luckily put right at the front, so we can leave first. The crossing takes two and a half hours. As soon as we dock, the trucks start their engines, but the bridge doesn’t come down, quickly filling the compartment with fumes. Luckily we only wait for a few minutes longer before being able to drive out and into Java.