The journey down to Lake Toba was similar to Berastagi. Read: triple the number of people to seats and Paul unable to get his legs in between the seats and his head from popping out of the roof. Oh how good it is to be of a smallish height. As we approached the ferry I listened to one of my many podcasts, ‘from our own correspondent’. It brought a smile to my face to hear one of the radio four news reporters doing a piece on why people in Cambodia find foreigners cycling so funny! They were specifically focusing on Kampot province, the area where I did my three days on a one speed bike.
Danau Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia covering 1707 square kilometers. It is big. The ferry into the center took close to an hour. Tuk Tuk, attached to a lager island, with over a one hundred kilometer circumference is the tourist heart. In days gone by it was one of the major stops on the traveler’s itinerary, championing a party scene that Hat Rin on Koh Phan gan, Thailand now holds. These days the island verges on a ghost town, with only a sprinkling of foreign tourists.
It’s a real shame that this is the case as the area is absolutely stunning. Renting bicycles and cycling out into the countryside was one of my finest cycling experiences to date.
Mountains to one side, glistening blue waters to the other, locals called out hello at almost every house we passed. We didn’t seem to find any of the noteworthy sights but it didn’t matter, with nearly thirty miles covered, up and down hills, it was a joy to see such a beautiful area of the world.
It would have been nice to have stayed there a couple more days although I’m not entirely sure what else I would have done. Unfortunately Sumatra is not kind in terms of getting from place to place. Our next stop, Kericini lay some five hundred kilometers away.
We started what turned into the most epic journey of my travels at two in the afternoon where we caught a ferry to the mainland. From there we walked to the clearly marked bus station, large and well organized, just with no busses. One travel agent sold us a ticket on the one bus going anywhere that by luck, happened to be our bus. The problem was it was a Sunday; that meant lots of locals on the move. We got given ‘extra’ seats or in other words a plastic seat in the isle. Considering the journey was overnight this was not great news but sometimes needs must. As luck would have it, someone upstairs intervened and two people failed to make the bus on time hence giving us…two seats!
I sat next to an English university student which was nice. She practiced her English and taught me some more Indonesian although I had to give up on how to ask for a room because the vibration on the final word was just impossible for me to say. It surprised her that I had never heard of England’s greatest export, Mr Duncan, and frankly alarmed her when I said we don’t eat rice three times a day.
The rest of the journey was a typical night bus affair, bumpy, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, the barest of sleeping times. Considering we were on the wonderfully named Trans-Sumatran Highway, finding ourselves on mud tracks and roads only just big enough for a car, with two busses attempting to pass each other, the journey was hard going. Unlike most night busses it was not over at first light. No, we didn’t make it to base until two in the afternoon, that’s twenty two hours, with only two fifteen minute breaks and a couple of packets of biscuits.
Actually it wasn’t all that painful, what was, was when we arrived at the bus office in Padang. Now the Lonely Planet has a lovely piece on Padang, with a good map and plenty of information. Except then it contains a box which states that just before going to print there was an earthquake that destroyed much of the city. With no reference points, no one speaking English and worst of all no form of transport, we were stranded in the pouring rain.
Eventually a couple of students passed by. One was Indonesian, the other Malaysian. With their help we navigated a number of oplets before arriving at a different office which could book us on a bus to Kerinici. I can’t explain just how stuck we would have been without them. We went over the road and had a taste of the famous Padang cuisine. The waiter puts around fifteen dishes on your table and you pay for what you eat. I enjoyed the beef rendang, a morning glory dish, omlette, oh and a whole dish of cow intestines. No one else wanted to help me out with that one. At one point an older lady came over and sat a chair away. She starred at us continuously whilst at the same time holding an in-depth conversation with our new found friends. She looked bewildered and confused. Was it the white skin? The language? The handling spicy food? No it was confusion over why we were eating rice with a fork and not a spoon.
After lunch, the first proper meal for twenty four hours we collapsed and waited for the bus. Alex and James disappeared at various times and brought back local snacks for us to try. By far the strangest was chicken feat in a curry sauce.
Approaching zombie status it was time for the mini bus to leave for Kericini. We got in and then the driver did. Finally a chance to sleep. But wait, no! We were in for a treat. Unknown to us the mini bus that we booked happened to have the best speaker system in the whole of Asia! Cue dance and then local music throughout the night at a near deafening sound volume. My tolerance levels were tested to their absolute limits. But the whole grin and bear it approach did just about work as we were dropped off in a tiny village at around three in the morning. It was all very picturesque with the volcano dominating above the tea plantations but my zombie status renders that image nearly defunct. Rather my enduring memory was Paul knocking on a homestay’s door and a wonderful if sleepy man greeting us and ushering us into a room. We hit the hay almost instantly.
Thirty six hours, the next day was a right off.