Oil and water

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Citria hotel

Flag of Indonesia  ,
Friday, March 21, 2008

My plan, coming to Singapore, was to apply for a visa at the Indonesian embassy there and catch a boat to Sumatra. Unfortunately, the Indonesian embassy required an exit ticket and 70USD to issue a 2month visa, and I could supply neither. Instead, I caught buses back to Melaka and checked back into the same hostel, to the surprise and delight of the manager. I explained I was planning to catch a ferry to Sumatra.
-Oh- I can sell you ticket!
-No, that's ok, I'll buy at the dock.
-Ah, Ok,. No problem

Somewhere in this conversation I made an egregious tactical error. I failed to illicit one vital piece of information, as a consequence of which, at 8am the next morning, I missed the boat. It took 2 hours to see all of Melaka. After 4 days, I was ready to move on.

The ferryboat to Dumai was quick, though sadly not quick enough to curtail the enjoyment of the 'in flight entertainment' - Mr. Bean. Customs were accommodating. I'd neglected to bring 20USD for my visa on arrival, but they were happy to hang on to my bike and passport while I took a motorbike-taxi to the nearest ATM.
The main reason for the existence of this port, and indeed this town, was to export the vast quantities of gas and oil extracted near Pekanbaru, 200km away. Consequently it was a small, functional, industrial town which reeked of petrochemicals. A smell, familiar from GCSE chemistry classes hung over the whole town, the smell of burnt ruler. I didn't linger.

I rode, instead, to Duri, 80km away, a similarly unappealing but less pungent habitation. A dormitory town for oil workers. Judging by the presence of three shabby but not rotten hotels, I guessed it was also an occasional destination for foreign managers or inspectors. This theory was lent credibility when I went to search of food.
I found a streetmeat vendor, selling chicken sate sticks with glutinous rice, and sat at his wooden bench to eat. Two men in overalls were already there, picking their teeth. I said hi.
-Hey! You Caltex?
-No, no.
-No, I'm a tourist!
-Tourist. Visitor.
I'm not sure they understood. Quite possibly there's a rumour spreading through Duri that a new corporation called Turis is moving into town.

+++++++++++GEOGRAPHY LESSON: YOU KNOW IF YOU NEED IT++++++++++++++++++++++++
Sumatra is the worlds 6 largest island. It stretches from about 200km west of the Thai/Malay border (across the Melaka strait) in the north to 50km (across the Sunda strait) from Java in the south, about 3500km in total. Dumai, where I came ashore, is a little south of Melaka, almost exactly halfway down the coast, about 300km north of the equator. The island has a long chain of extinct volcanoes forming a north/south spine, near the west coast, while the east of the island is low-lying plantation land. There aren't many towns or roads in the east. The area is marshy and prone to flooding, so, except where there's oil, its mostly not worth it. My route was to ride about 500km west from Dumai, over the mountains and down onto the west coast. Follow the coast south for another 500km or so, cross the mountains again and follow the main north/south highway, which hugs the flat land as close as possible to the eastern slopes of the mountain range, another 500 odd kilometers to Bandar Lampung, the main city in the south. Having only a one month visa, and no clear idea of how, when or from where I'd be leaving Indonesia, I was keen to make it to Jakarta as quickly as possible, so as to have as many options open as possible for moving on. (Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, situated on the north coast, 100km from the west coast, of Java. Java is Indonesia's main island, housing half it's 250 million population and most of it's industry and infrastructure. It's oriented east/west, about 1000km long, and lies about 1000km due south of Singapore).

So, I rode the 2100km to Jakarta in 17 days, with no rest-days. This was partly out of necessity, but also because there is very little tourist industry in Indonesia in general, and in southern Sumatra in particular. (guidebooks only mention two towns south of Padang, and then only to tell you which buses to catch away from them). If you were not riding through, there would be no reason to stop anywhere in southern Sumatra. However, riding through is an excellent reason to go there. The roads were great, there was very little traffic, and the scenery, whether palm oil or coffee plantation, jungle, mountains, or golden deserted beaches in sheltered coves, was always stunning. It felt similar to Laos, but with a coast, and with the kids shouting 'hey mister!' instead of 'Sabadi!' A rest day would have been spent in a small, undeveloped town without facilities or entertainment; I preferred to be on the bike in the countryside.

The ride from the east coast to the mountains was consistent. Low hillocks in marshy land, covered in oil-palms. The road was flanked by gas and oil pipelines for most of the route. Apart from a couple of afternoon storms, which always cleared up in time for me to dry out, the weather was baking.

I picked up two flats on the second day in Indonesia, and another on the third. Two of them, more distressingly, were in the hitherto indestructible front tyre. Closer inspection revealed that while the tread still looked new after 23000km, the side-wall had split. The rear was already booted with puncture-repair patches, so I decided the time had come to retire both, and re-tyre. I stopped at the very next village, which was small but heaving with crowds- it was market day. As I'd hoped, and had good reason to expect, there was a small bike shop, which had bargainous 26" tyres. 6USD for two nylon, Indonesian knobblies, (compared to 90USD for Bontrager slicks in Singapore, or 140USD for the Schwalbe Marathons they were replacing). Peter had spent a lot of breath in Tibet telling me how slow 2.25" tyres are, (he never mentioned them without adjectives like 'fat', 'chunky' or 'porky'. I argued that they were reliable, and had a great personality...) I could sense his approval as I finally replaced them.

Arriving in Pekanbaru involved crossing a wide, deep river on a very high bridge. The river is navigable- you can catch ferries from Batam (near Singapore) direct to Pekanbaru. Even with this reassurance however, I was very worried when a kid climbed up onto the railings and jumped, without hesitation, into the brown swirling water a long way below. Apart from anything else, the river was in spate (half the town was flooded), so there could have been logs or any other detritus being carried downstream. Honestly- where are the parents...

I found a room fairly quickly, but food was trickier. The main problem was that the flooding had cut off several of the subsidiary roads near the river, so I could see food, but I couldn't reach it. I wasn't about to complain though. The locals who'd been flooded out were either carrying on regardless, living in up to a foot of unclean water, or sleeping on an open platform near the highway.

Two days later I began the climb into the hills. The land here was less thoroughly exploited- there was some kind of jungle left, and plenty of monkeys on the road. The climb was steep, a gratifying change of pace after a long period of flat rides. I was in high spirits. According to my calculations, just before the top of the pass, I would cross the equator for the first time. In some way's, I'm a romantic. I liked the idea of popping my equatorial cherry by bicycle. I made a guess at the exact spot, took some photos, and did a skipping kora around the bike to appease the god Shi-Ma-No.
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