Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Island hopping across Indonesia - Chapter 19

I'd arranged to meet Ian again in Bali. He'd been home saving money for the last 10 months since Christmas and was eager to do some more travelling. Our rendezvous had all been organised through letters and the odd phone call, so as you can imagine, I was worried that it may not all go to plan. All that he knew was the date and time that my plane would arrive at Denpasar airport. If all had gone well on his end he should have been there the day before me.

The night before my flight was probably not the best time to go out and get hammered. I don't even recall going to bed. One minute I was out drinking on Queen Street and the next I was being vigorously woken up by a taxi driver (deja vu). Thank god that I'd had the foresight to arrange an airport taxi.

Taxi, or no taxi I was still a little late to the airport and for the first time in my life I got bumped off a flight (I never knew that stuff like this really happened). Typically, this was one of the only flights that I really couldn't afford to miss. I just hoped that Ian would stick around at the airport waiting for me.

I was bumped from my nice Air New Zealand (airline of the year) air craft, to a Garuda plane. Within 10 years Garuda would be banned from all European flights due to two horrific accidents. This puts it into context. The flight was three hours later than my scheduled flight but there was nothing that I could do. I just had to sit back and pray that (a) Ian would be there waiting, and (b) my plane would actually reach its destination.

This wasn't the only thing bothering me though. I only had a single ticket to Indonesia and all the guide books told me that this was against immigration policy. To enter the country it was necessary to have an onward or return ticket. Because I wanted to weave my way by land and sea across South East Asia I was loathed to purchase a ticket that I wasn't going to use. Needless to say this was one of the most stressful flights I've ever taken.

My plane arrived (so that was on less worry) and I headed for immigration. My hands were sweating profusely as the officer flicked through my passport. "Ticket!" he spat at me, with real anger in his voice. "Sorry!" I replied pretending that I had no clue what he was talking about. "Plane ticket!" he said without even having the decency to look at me. I handed him my ticket and crossed my fingers. "No good!" he told me and pointed back to where I had just come from. "You must go now!" he shouted. "Go where?" I asked him. "Go back to where you came from," he told me before calling he next immigrant to his desk.

Shit! What was I going to do now? I had no ticket or desire to return to New Zealand but they wouldn't let me into Indonesia. Maybe I could live in the no man's land between the arrivals gate and immigration for the rest of my life. And what about Ian? Hopefully he was still outside waiting for me. There was nothing else for it, I had to try again.

I tried again three times before I had any kind of result. First I tried sympathy, next I tried anger, and finally I begged. The begging seemed to work best in case you ever find yourself in this situation. Two more guys came and escorted me into the office of the chief immigration officer. This guy looked nasty and wasn't in the mood for my begging. Once again I was told that I would need an onward ticket. "Okay!" I told him, "can I go and buy one?" To cut a long story short, he agreed, and I was allowed out of the airport to buy a ticket, but the officer took my passport off me.

Ian was there waiting for me "where the bloody hell have you been?" he asked me. I filled him in on the details and we walked off together to try and purchase a ticket for me.

After 30 minutes I gave up and went back to immigration. "I can't find one," I lied. "Well then you must go back to New Zealand," he informed me. I was about to leave when he had a sudden change of heart. "How about a present my friend?" he asked me. Was this a bribe situation? "Okay," I said "how much do you want?" "It's up to you," he told me. I'd only just arrived in the country so I had no idea about the Indonesian currency. I pulled a big wedge of rupiah out of my money belt and handed it to him. He seemed appeased. We shook hands and he said "That's the way it works, you give me a gift and I give you a gift." He stamped my passport. I had been indoctrinated into the ways of Asia. I later calculated that the money that I had given him was only around $10 US dollars. A bargain for me and a nice little bonus for him.

I met up with Ian once more and we walked to our room, or losmen as they are known in Indonesia. "It's great," Ian told me. "It's only $2 a night and you get a really good breakfast included." I was going to like this place, I could tell already.

Ian was right, the breakfast was wonderful. Papaya and pineapple followed by eggs on toast. I'd never even heard of papaya. It would seem that I had a lot to learn. For example, the local transport came in the form of a mini-bus which waited for the seats to fill up. This was called a bemo. In our room there was no shower, just a large tiled area filled with cold water with a ladle to scoop it onto yourself. This was called a mandi. This world was so new to me, I loved it.

One thing that I wasn't too keen on was the cock fighting. It seemed that there was a guy on every street corner, sat stroking his cock (innuendo intended). Cock fighting appeared to be the national sport. Not great for a guy who is scared of birds and who loves animals. The mere thought of it made me sick. And stories of backpackers who were betting on it just irritated me.

Bali was an all out assault on the senses. The colours, the sounds and most strongly the smells. I'll never forget those aromas that I first encountered on my first days in Bali. One smell that I would prefer to forget however is the terrible pong of the durian fruit which was everywhere. I've since heard that it has been banned from some supermarkets in the West and I can perfectly understand why. Conversely, the smell of clove filled cigarettes permeated the air throughout Indonesia and they smelt wonderful. I generally hate the smell of cigarettes but I loved the smell of these cigarettes. Their lovely aroma was to become one of my overriding memories of my whole Indonesian experience.

After a few days we were eager to move on so we caught a bemo to Ubud. This was a chilled out little place with a nice vibe and some amazing architecture  The main attraction for me here though was Monkey Forest just on the outskirts of the town. I had long been fascinated with monkeys and longed to see them in a more natural environment. There were signs everywhere around the entrance to the forest that said "Do not feed the monkeys!" Although when we went to buy our tickets to the forest the lady tried to sell us a bag of nuts. I'd only been in Indonesia for a few days and I was already noticing that rules were there as suggestion rather than a law.

As soon as we entered Monkey Forest I was attacked by the ferocious little bastards. I threw my nuts at them and ran away. But even this wasn't good enough for them. They knew that I had more nuts in my pocket and they were eager to get at them. After 15 minutes of incessantly getting attacked we left the forest. I'd seen a side to monkeys that I'd never seen before. It was time to re-evaluate my love for them.

Halfway through our first week we hired a Jeep to drive around the island. Ian was our designated driver and I was happy about this. The traffic on the island was insane. Being one of the most densely populated islands in the world, congestion was something that people had come to live with. We headed out to the east coast, first taking in the Mother Temple of Besakih - the most holy temple of the Balinese Hindus (Hinduism accounts for 85 % of the island). It was located on the slopes of Mount Agung, and thinking back this was probably the first temple I'd ever seen. I was impressed but eager to get back in the Jeep to do some exploring.

We'd met a Danish girl and a Canadian girl in Ubud and they'd decided to come on the drive with us. It was good to split the cost four ways. And a wonderful day was had by all, as we meandered around the island stopping off anywhere that took our fancy. The most impressive stop of all was somewhere high in the mountains from where we could view the stunningly beautiful rice terraces. It was here that we also got a view of a local farmer lady as she squatted to take a pee. She seemed unperturbed by the fact that four foreigners were staring down at her as she emptied her bladder. She even found time to wave at us with a big smile on her face.

A week in Bali was enough. We only had two months in Indonesia and we still had two more islands to explore. We got on a bus and headed west for the ferry port of Gilimanuk from where we would head to Ketapang in eastern Java.

On the short ferry trip to Java we met Andy, a long haired hippy guy from Australia. Andy was also heading through South East Asia via land and sea, so we invited him to join us. Suddenly we were three.

Java felt instantly different. Bali had felt more chilled out and arty, Java, on the other hand seemed more lived in somehow. I almost felt like I'd gone from a holiday island to a real place (if that makes sense). Although not the biggest island in Indonesia, Java is home to 50 percent of the people. Like Bali it felt congested although unlike Bali, Java felt more like the mainland than an island. The fact that this was predominantly a Muslim island was instantly noticeable by the amount of female headdresses (or whatever you call them).

We headed first to the small town of Probolinggo which was the jumping off point for Mount Bromo. I'd been looking forward to this part of the journey for some time because Mount Bromo was an active volcano and I couldn't imagine many things more exciting than visiting an active volcano. I just hoped that it didn't choose our visit to erupt.

The next day we took a small bus up a very windy mountain road to the edge of the Tengger Massif park. This was as close as we could get to Mount Bromo. Here we booked into a very basic hostel before heading off to watch the sunset. We were still a mile or so from the volcano but from our elevated position we looked out on to the most extraordinary volcanic landscape.

In the distance we could see three peaks, and two of them were smoking. A large expanse of desert, known as the Sea of Sand, stood between us and the peaks. As we stood there and stared at Mount Bromo smouldering away, Andy turned to me and said "Strewth, it feels like the land that time forgot. I'm just waiting for a dinosaur to appear mate." I had to agree. If a terror dactyl would have flown past at that moment I probably wouldn't have batted an eyelid.

The next morning we got up far earlier than I am accustomed. It was cold and I had little will to leave my bed. It was only the determination of the others that forced me out of it; "Come on, your lazy fucking Pom!" Andy shouted. "We've got a volcano to climb." He was right, I had come far too far to just lie in my bed in a shitty room.

Ten minutes later and we were walking across the Sea of Sand in the pitch dark. Fortunately, there were enough people with lamps to help light the way. This was good because none of our group had planned this far ahead. It also allowed us to see the guys who were trying to sell us horse rides to the volcano, so that we could attempt to avoid them. We couldn't walk more than 10 meters without one of these guys emerging from the shadows and persisting in trying to sell us a ride. "You want a horsey? Horsey very good! Horsey very strong! Horsey take you to volcano." No matter how much we told them that we didn't in fact want a horsey the guys refused to fuck off.

By the time we reached the base of Mount Bromo the sun had almost risen and we could actually see what we were doing. We had been under no illusions that we were the only people making the trip across the Sea of Sands but nothing could have prepared us for the amount of fat tourists on horseback which we were confronted by as the darkness lifted. Where had they all come from?

The excitement was building as we ascended the large amount of steps that lead up to the inferno within. One thing was for sure, it was far too early for me to be doing so much exercise. My lungs had already started to revolt. I can't imagine how a smoker would have felt. Mind you, I almost wished that I had been a smoker as we reached the rim, and smoke from the volcano started billowing into my face. At least, it would have meant that my lungs would have been somewhat prepared for the sulphurous fumes.

I can only describe the view from the rim as remarkable. Below us was a fiery pit surrounded by volcanic ash. As we walked around the perimeter of the volcano we could feel the heat created by the flames below. As a kid I had been fascinated by our coal fire, I could literally spend hours staring into it, hypnotised by the flames. As I stared down into the volcano I was rekindling the same feelings. It was drawing me in. It seems that Andy had been having similar feelings too. "Let's wait till everybody has gone and climb down into it," he said, with enough determination for me to think that this was a good idea. Ian declined, but of course I agreed.

All the tourists left around 30 minutes after they had arrived, and only the three of us remained. Before I'd got a grip of my senses I was descending into Mount Bromo, and my senses were getting a grip of me. The intense heat and sulphurous fumes soon saw to that. We'd only gone about 10 meters down when we decided to turn back. "Fuck that!" Andy shouted, "let's get out of here." The next 15 minutes were among the most scary of my life as we scrambled to get out of the volcano. As soon as we got a grip on the sides of the crater, bits broke off and we were left further down than we'd first begun. Fortunately, Ian had not been as foolish as us and he was able to first take our photo and then help us out. It was such a relief to be back on terra firma.

The previous evening Andy had worked out that we could avoid a very long bus journey the next day if we took all our stuff with us and continued hiking around the back of Mount Bromo to the next city of Malang. This turned out be a splendid idea. What followed was one of the most memorable days of my whole trip, as we hiked our way through mountains and forests. Along the way we saw innumerable black primates the likes of which I have never seen before or since. And what's more they seemed as curious about us as we did about them.

The day seemed to last forever and that was fine by me. I was having such a wonderful time passing through small villages where we were greeted with the same enthusiasm that a rock star would be welcomed with back in the West. It was all quite surreal and amazing.

Malang, was in contrast an anticlimax. Nice enough but nothing in comparison to what we had just experienced. As we entered the city a teenage girl on a moped approached us and clearly wanted to practice her English. At this stage in my life I was totally unaware of the rest of the world's obsession to learn English, and the opportunity for travel that this could have afforded me. Throughout the next six months of travelling through South East Asia we were to encounter hand written signs for English teachers in hostels, shop windows and even farmer's fields. I wrongly assumed that I was not qualified enough for this role. Who would have known that  16 years later I would become an English teacher in South Korea? It pains me to think about all the potential years of easy travel that I missed out on.

How I got to the next destination of Yogyakarta is a little hazy. By this, I mean that twenty years have siphoned my memories of this part of the journey somewhat. I am assuming that we got there by bus and it's quite possible that we travelled along with the luggage on the bus roof. I know for a fact I spent time in Indonesia travelling on the roof of a bus. Whether it was this journey or not is a different matter. One thing is for sure though, I got very sick in Yogyakarta and spent most of my time there in bed. This is a great pity because by all accounts there is a lot to see.

I'm informed by Wikipedia that this city is named after the Indian city of Ayodhya and that Yogya means 'suitable, fit, proper' and karta means 'prosperous, flourishing' - so a city that's fit to prosper. The only thing that prospered during my time there was the local pharmacy as I endeavoured to quell my diarrhoea. A few days in bed aided my recovery and luckily on the last day I was able to zip around the city on a bicycle taking in all of the sights that the others had spent days absorbing. These mainly comprised of temples, palaces, museums and fantastic architecture. 

Yogyakarta is described as the hotbed of political and intellectual thought, and boasts an incredibly rich and artistic cultural heritage. All I can say is, thanks a lot body for letting me down at such an in-opportune moment.

A few days later we arrived at Borobudur, and my god were we in for a visual treat. Along the way we'd picked up another few recruits to our ever increasing gang. Paul from Norwich, and his Danish girlfriend Brit. We were all suitably impressed by what we saw.

Borobudur ranks along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar as one of the great South East Asian monuments. I've visited them all now but back in 1993 I'd never even heard of them.

This impressive Buddhist temple was built in the 9th century but abandoned in the 14th century following the decline of Hindu kingdoms in Java and the Javanese conversion to Islam. The scale of the place was quite magnificent and consisted of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms. There were nearly 2000 relief panels (sculptured) throughout the temple which illustrated Buddhist teachings. The main dome which was located at the centre of the central platform was surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside a perforated stupa. The whole thing was a complete visual feast.

And even more wonderful than all of this was the fact that there was nobody there. I'm not even kidding, we had the place totally to ourselves. Now, given it's importance in the league table of world monuments I have to wonder if we just got lucky. Maybe, we were there at exactly the right time of day, week, month or year to avoid all the crowds. Or maybe this fantastic temple was severely underrated back then! Who knows, it may even be under visited even now! But given its awesomeness I very much doubt it. I like to think that Buddha was shining down on us that day.

I don't even recall paying to go in although I am sure we must have. As we sat on the temple and watched the most beautiful sunset it felt like the temple belonged to us. In 2010 I went to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the feeling I got was completely opposite to the feelings I felt when we visited Borobudur. At Angkor Wat there were so many people there that I spent the day trying to avoid being in people's photos.

Our hostel was so close that we could actually see the temple from it. As I still wasn't feeling too well I decided to have a massage there. This was given for free by the hostel owner herself. But this was no ordinary massage (no not one of those). She dipped the edge of a coin in Tiger balm and then scratched across my back with it until I was left looking like a tiger myself. The scratches stayed there for over a week and made it look like I'd been involved in some kinky sex practices.

We broke our journey to Pangandaran up with an overnight stop at the port town of Cilacap. Judging by the reactions of the locals it felt like we were the first visitors to ever visit the place. We left early the next morning for a wonderful backwater trip on a small boat to Pangandaran. If there is a better way to arrive in a place I am yet to discover it.

Considering that Pangandaran was Java's chief beach resort there was very little there. Fortunately we had a nice little group of people together now and we were a self contained unit. That wasn't to say that I didn't like the place, I actually liked it a lot. I especially liked that fact that we had the beach and surrounding forest to ourselves. Apart from on the second day when we were entertained by about a hundred people doing martial arts on the sand.

On the first night we went to a very cheesy show in a bar. This turned out to be hilarious and is one of the things that very clearly stands out in my memory from this time. The entertainer was a man of around 40 years old who was dressed in a black silk dressing gown with a golden dragon embroidered on it (I seem to remember wanting one of these from the Brian Mill's catalogue when I was a kid). Anybody who entered the bar was greeted with a rendition of a song which I can only assume he'd written himself. The only words that I actually remember are "welcome to Pangandaran," which he sang in the style of a crooner. He quite wonderfully backed this up with a most bizarre stage show. During the act he stood in the corner of the room with his back to us, whilst running his own hands down his back as though he was being caressed by a lover. I laughed so hard that my ribs hurt for days.

The next day we went naked hiking. Four of us, although I can't remember which four, took off our clothes and wandered naked through the forest with only our rucksacks on our backs. It felt wonderfully
liberating. I thoroughly recommend it. At the end of the hike we were rewarded by the most beautiful rock pool, which sat on the top of a cliff and looked down over the ocean. As we sat their in all our nakedness I looked out to sea and clicked my mental camera.

On 17th July 2006 an undersea earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale triggered a tsunami in Pangandaran. Over 600 people died and almost 10 000 people were injured. Much of the resort was destroyed as the water came as far as half a km inland. I only wonder how many of the people that we met there some 13 years earlier were among the dead.

From Pangandaran we headed to Bandung for a few days on our way up to Jakarta. Bandung was once labelled "the Paris of Java" although I was at a loss to see why. It was a bit of a congested nothing town as far as I could see. Why is it so many places in the world are named "the Paris of this", or the "Paris of that?" I've heard it so many times that the shine has been taken off the label.

Over the past 20 years Bandung has always been known to me as the place where I bought my sister an evil looking puppet which her boyfriend didn't like putting on the wall because it scared him. I bought the puppet in our hostel after a "magician" came there on our second night and enthralled us with a quite bizarre show. During this show he stabbed himself several times, hit himself in the stomach with a sword and put skewers through his own neck. He then went round the audience selling evil puppets. You can say a lot of things about Asia but you can't say that it's not random.

I have a feeling that we stopped off in Bogor on the way to Jakarta too but I can't recall one single event from the place so I won't even try.

Jakarta was far too hot and congested to enjoy. We'd already spent five weeks on Java by the time we arrived there so we were eager to get a ferry to Sumatra. Once we'd purchased our ferry tickets however we still had a few days to kill. On the first of these days we went to an amusement park which turned out to be quite fun, but on the second day I elected to stay in my dorm all day under the air conditioning unit. It was a day well spent.

The ferry (Pelni) from just outside of Jakarta to Padang (halfway up the island of Sumatra) turned out to be the best option for us. It was wet season and it was likely that the bottom half of Sumatra would be not be possible to negotiate by public transport. This was fine (or so I thought), because I had a bed on the ship and we would be provided with three meals during the 24 hour trip. What I didn't anticipate was the fact that almost everybody on the ferry would get seasick. By the time we reached Padang the smell was almost unbearable. In an aim to combat this unpleasant experience I immersed myself in my sleeping bag and slept for practically the entire journey. I only ventured from my sleeping bag twice during the whole trip and both times I slipped on somebody's puke.

From my very first sight of Sumatra as we approached Padang on the ferry, I knew that I was going to like it a lot. Even from a distance it looked beautiful. My instincts proved to be right.

We didn't hang around in Padang, but from all accounts this was a big mistake. Oh well! We live and learn. Instead we headed straight for Lake Maninjau which we had been told by various sources was a must see place. Our sources were not wrong.

Lake Maninjau was wonderful and the perfect place to relax. Set against a mountainous backdrop, this crater lake was possibly the most beautiful lake I'd ever seen. I'd spent a lot of time in the English Lake District as a kid, and the lakes there are beautiful but always too overcrowded. Conversely, it felt like we had Lake Maninjau to ourselves.

Our guest house could not have been better situated. Our room looked right out over the lake, which was located approximately 20 feet away from the front of the guest house. Better still, it was incredibly cheap, $1.50 a night if I remember correctly. Yeah, that's right you heard me, $1.50 for a great room in a perfectly idyllic environment. As we were to find out, everything in Sumatra was cheap.

We'd met a couple of brothers from Birmingham (England) on the ferry and they were hilarious. Anybody from the UK will tell you that the Birmingham (Brummie) accent has to be the funniest accent around. I can't really emulate it in writing but it is incredibly slow and drawn out. I can't even listen to people with a strong Brummie accent without laughing. Add this to the fact that these guys (John and Dave) were incredibly funny anyway and you'll realise how well entertained I was.

The guest house owner rather kindly lent us some large inflatable tubes to use on the lake. The lake being around 10 feet below the guest house terrace, we found it rather fun to leap from our elevated position straight into the water. If we held our tubes behind us we could land in the water on our tubes. If it sounds amazing, that's because it was.

Whilst we were floating around on our tubes John and Dave told us an hilarious tale about their trip to Pangandaran. A monkey had stolen Dave's wallet and headed up a tree with it. No matter how much they tried to coax him into giving it back he just wouldn't do it. The boys spent the best part of four hours waiting, during which time the monkey ripped up all the bank notes and threw them out of the tree one by one. Eventually, when all the money was ripped up the monkey tossed the wallet down at them and took off into the forest. The way that John and Dave told this story was absolutely hilarious - "Yow shud of fooking seen it Andy, our kid was hopping around like fooking Zeberdee (springy cartoon character) trying to get it back. The boys called each other "our kid" or "kidda" the whole time. It took us almost a week to find out what their names really were.

Later that night the boys got hammered on cheap whiskey whilst floating around the lake in their tubes. This would have been all good and well had they not got so annihilated that they fell asleep. Miraculously they were awoken by a fisherman as the sun was rising the next day. They'd drifted to the middle of the lake and it took them the best part of the next morning to get back to the guest house. 

From Lake Maninjau we headed to the really cool market town of Bukittinggi. The drive there was stunning as we snaked our way along the road past waterfalls and raging rivers. I sat in silence taking it all in whilst feeling happy to be alive.

In Bukittinggi we decided to go and watch a water buffalo fight. Now hear me out before chastising me for this. I will be the first person to tell you how much I hate the bull fights that you see in Spain. The cruelty of such an event fills me full of anger and hatred of those involved. The buffalo fight in Bukittinggi however was a whole different ball game entirely. 

We turned up in a field outside of Bukittinggi at 2 p.m, as we had been instructed to do. But there wasn't a soul in sight. After half an hour we were just about to make a decision to leave and go back to our losmen when a procession of about a thousand people turned up, all dressed in Wellington boots. The leader of this procession, who was wearing a rather swish pork pie hat was leading a water buffalo behind him. A second water buffalo was being led by a guy in an equally swish hat who was positioned near to the rear of the procession. One minute our group were standing in an empty field and the next we were surrounded by a thousand or so people and two very large water buffaloes. Things were about to get exciting.

The second water buffalo did not appear to be liking this game at all. We stood and watched him as his eyes rolled around their sockets and he took a pee which lasted for the best part of 10 minutes. The first buffalo could not have looked more confident as he strode around the muddy field. It was as if Mohammed Ali had been thrown in the ring with Mr Bean.

Our first indication that the fight was about to begin came when a wave of excitement rippled through the crowd and they all ran to the middle of the field and formed a large circle. Excitedly we joined them on the periphery. The ring master then stepped into the middle of the circle, waved a little red flag and the fight was on. Or I should I say that fight would have been on if the petrified buffalo had not barged its way out of the circle and run full speed across the field in the direction of the nearest village. It even leapt a five foot high wall in its quest to escape.

What followed was a half hour wait until the buffalo had been retrieved and dragged unwillingly back into the ring. During this period the crowd were angry because there was big money on the fight and I can only assume that many of them felt let down.

When the buffalo was finally dragged back into the ring the fight proceeded. This turned out to be a visual treat for us as the two buffaloes went head to head and pushed each other around the field. The owner of each buffalo was given the task of rousing their beasts up in an attempt to give them an aggressive edge. This included hitting them on the arse with a large stick and generally shouting at them in an accelerated manner. As far as I could see their job was quite unnecessary because the betting crowd were also doing their best to rouse the buffaloes, by employment of such tactics as kicking, shouting and even punching the beasts.

The field was large but during the fight the buffaloes used up every square inch of it as they endeavoured to push each other into submission. The crowd followed their every move. I would have loved to see the whole charade from above, it would have made quite the spectacle as the circle of people moved around the field. Rather like a living human corn circle.

Eventually the second and more cowardly buffalo decided that he had once more had enough and took off across the field at lightening speed. A few of the locals were knocked to the ground and trampled on in the commotion. This time the buffalo was never retrieved and as far as I am aware he is still alive to this day living a solitary life in the mountains to which he was heading.

When it was established that the buffalo was not going to return an air of disappointment fell upon the spectators as they made their way home. Our group were in agreement this had been a wonderfully entertaining day and one which we were sad to see the back of.

No trip to Sumatra would be complete without a trip to wonderful Lake Toba or Danau Toba as the Indonesian people call it. This 450 meter deep lake is set in an extinct volcano and surrounded by stunning mountains and rice fields. In the middle of the lake there is an island that is so big it could house the whole country of Singapore. The name of this island is Samosir Island. The principal town on the island being the curiously named Tuk Tuk. This is where we headed.

Once there we booked into a room which I can only describe as the best deal that I've ever had. The room was in a wonderful wooden house which was made in the traditional Sumatran style known as Batak. This style resembled an upturned boat with a large roof which came to a peak in front of the house. Think about an ark and you'll get the right idea. The entrance to our room was so close to the lake that I could run from the room, jump and land in the water. And I know because I tried it. The cost of the room per night was, wait for it ....... 50p or 75 cents. A bargain at 20 times the price.

We were awoken the next morning at sunrise by the magic mushroom man who propelled himself past our dwelling in his canoe, and shouted "mushrooms." Unfortunately we declined his kind offer although I doubt that I would show the same restraint these days in the knowledge of what a wonderful experience I was missing out on. Once again you live and learn hey!

The next morning I dived (from the room) into the lake and immediately lost my watch. This was most annoying to say the least because it had been a leaving gift from my work colleagues and even had a compass built into the strap. It became my quest over the next three days there to try and find it. I failed miserably. On our last day the guest house owner asked why I was diving so incessantly, and when I told him he sent his son out to help me in my quest. His search became even more incessant than my own. When we eventually left the room we had to wait for his son to re-emerge from the water before we said our goodbyes. I can only hope that his search was successful and the watch served him well.

During our time in Tuk Tuk we'd hired a scooter and spent the day riding around the lake. Hiring a scooter over the years has become my favourite thing to do when travelling. It enables you to see so much of the landscape for very little cost. This day was no exception, the view was wonderful. If we felt hot we dismounted and dived in the lake. How could life get better than that?

Next up was Bukit Lawang which I have to say was my favourite spot in Sumatra and possibly even Indonesia. Bukit Lawang is famous for its orangutan sanctuary which is in my estimation a must see place for any visitor. The centre was founded in 1973 with the purpose of preserving the decreasing orangutan population due to deforestation and hunting.

The rehabilitation centre was located on one side of the extremely fast flowing Bahorok river and a the main part of the village of Bukit Lawang was on the other. My sister had been there the year before and by all accounts the village had developed rapidly in just one year. Guest houses had sprung up all the way down the river with flimsy rope bridges to reach the opposite bank. The orangutan rehabilitation centre was a little further up river and could only be accessed by a small boat which the boatman pulled across the river with the aid of a rope which had been stretched across from one bank to the other.

Besides the orangutan reserve there was another great reason to go to Bukit Lawang, and this was the extremely dangerous river tubing down the Bahorok river. For less than a dollar an old truck inner tube could be purchased and any willing madman could jump in the water and be cascaded down the river for four hours until he/she reached a road bridge. Once the road bridge was reached the daredevil could then remove themselves from the river and jump on the next bus (along with their tube) back to the start point. Here they could proceed to get very drunk in celebration of their insane act. So this is what we did.

On our second day there Ian, Andy, Brit, Paul, the two Brummie brothers and I hired a tube and cascaded down the Bahorok river. And it was more fun than I'd had in years. Brit unfortunately only made it to the first rapid where she was dragged under water and almost drowned. We were doing a good job of persuading her to continue the trip until a water snake floated past us and she ran for the shore. Rumours that there had been many tubing deaths over the past few years didn't help our efforts to get her back in the water, one little iota.

That night we went to a jungle bar in a wooden hut which jutted out over the river on stilts. The hut looked like it could fall down at any minute and this all added to the excitement. By midnight everybody had left apart from me and one other guy. I went over to chat to him and we had an amazing small world experience. It had been a while since my last one so I guess that I was due another. This one was possibly the best one of all.

The guy (who's name I don't recall) had been travelling around South America the previous year but had spent two weeks in London for his friends wedding before heading out to Sumatra. During the conversation he told me that before his travels he had been studying electrical engineering at Cambridge University. This rang a bell in my head. "Oh really! My best friends girlfriend also studied electrical engineering at Cambridge, her name is Sarah...". Before I could even complete her name, the guy shouted out "Neal".

Not only was the guy great friends with Sarah but during his two weeks in London he'd met up with her and my best mate (Dangerous Dave) for a drink. I couldn't believe it. I hadn't seen Dave for 18 months and this guy that I'd just met in a hut in the Sumatran jungle had been out with him a few weeks early. Small world experiences were going to have to work very hard to beat this one. Miraculously I would have an even crazier one eight years later but that's for another book.

The next day we crossed the Bahorok river and headed for the orangutans. I love animals particularly primates. Of all the primates I love orangutans best. These remarkable creatures are the so human-like it's unreal. Everything about them is human-like apart from the fact that they are gentle and really quite charming. The similarity to humans is reflected in their name - in Indonesian/Malay orang means "person" and Hutan means "forest", thus "person of the forest". If you ever see them up close you will realise how accurate this name is.

As we were walking to the view point an orangutan graciously swung down over the path, reached down and touched one of the Brummie brother's head. "Fucking hell kidda, did yow see dat," he shouted out in his hilarious Brummie accent.

The view point was a good 100 yards from a large wooden platform which had been constructed to feed the orangutans. On the platform there stood a guy with a big pot of porridge and a pile of bananas. When we were all in position the guy pulled a ladle from the porridge pot and started to bang it against the side of the pot. At first it appeared that nothing was going to happen but slowly the orangutans began to appear. Our first alert of their presence was the noise of the trees swishing around in the distance. Our attention was diverted to the source of the noise and within seconds we were rewarded by the sight of a female orangutan with a baby casually hanging from her shoulders. It was a magic moment.

For the best part of the next hour I stood there hypnotised as wave after wave of these most beautiful of primates swung down from the trees and came to eat their porridge. From a distance they could have easily been mistaken as humans as they stood and ate from their bowls in the most human-like manner. A few of them tried to steal the bananas when the guy wasn't looking which prompted him to lose his temper and bang the the ladle loudly against the platform. One of the offending orangutans put his arms up in shame and cowered against the nearest tree. I left for our guest house a very satisfied man. How could my life get any better than this?

The next day as I was leaving Bukit Lawang I attempted to recreate the excitement of the previous day by running through one of the restaurants and diving from a 10 meter platform into Bahorok River. Leaving behind me a comical scene as the waiters endeavoured to catch me. It was a fitting farewell.

Ten years later on 2nd of November 2003 Bukit Lawang was hit by a flash flood which totally destroyed the town killing 234 locals and five tourists. More than 1400 people lost their homes. It seems that in Indonesia disaster followed in my wake.

Sometime in the latter part of November 1993 our group headed to Medan from where we took a ferry to Penang in Malaysia. My two month tour of Indonesia had come to an end but a month on the Malaysian peninsula was about to begin.

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