This was never meant to be a gargantuan off-roading adventure. This was meant to be a shortcut. With the added bonus of a change of scenery, perhaps, but a simple shortcut nonetheless.
Leaving our friends heading for Banda Aceh and the lovely island of Weh, Chris and I decided that we were indeed in desperate need of a change of scenery and, even more importantly, some cooler temps. Google insisted there was no road across the volcanic Barisan Mountains which traverse western Sumatra, but rumours told us otherwise. Some evil motorbike overlander even went as far as to write ‘totally cool jungle off-road’ on one of the maps we came across, and the legendary tales of this elusive road, linking Blangkejeren to the east and Babahrot to the west, started to take momentum.
By the time we turned off westbound in Blangkejeren, we’d surmised the road was ‘quite good’ in fact, about 135km in length and had parts which ‘may or may not be slippery when wet’.
This shall now go down in my travel history as the understatement of the flamin’ century.
I read a BBC article yesterday, about the making of a psychopath. About how difficult it is to profile them because they are so adept at appearing charming, and normal, and friendly. Until they turn evil.
Well…this road we took was the epitome psychopath. The first 50kms out of Blangkejeren were simply stunning. We rode through a pine forest, saw autumn colours, admired buffalo cooling off in lakes. We were so happy and awestruck we completely let our guards down. But then again, evil hardly ever comes with a warning.
The gravelly bits started innocently enough. Just a few hundred metres here and there at first, certainly nothing to worry about. Until the road started to get steeper and steeper, and the gravel looser and looser. As you can imagine, an utterly charming motorbiking mix.
I hate loose gravel at the best of times (ie. when the road is flat) but riding on it at very steep angles takes 10 years off my life per 100 metres, on average.
It’s a pity that photos can’t quite portray the angle of a road. At least, not whilst you take them lying down.
As usual, I trailed behind Chris. I find this to be the safest way for me to ride on dirt roads, as while he’s busy working out the best route, all I do is follow in his wake. I then only make adjustments if I see him wavering. What I hadn’t counted on, was his bike stalling on the steepest part of an insanely gravelly pass. The scene played as if by slow motion. I saw Chris desperately trying to hold his bike upright and stop it from sliding backwards. His brakes just couldn’t hold the weight, at that angle, on such slippery rock. The moment he gently laid his bike to the side, I had nowhere else to go. Well….except horizontal, of course.
As I laid off the accelerator to prevent myself crashing into Chris, Pixie stalled too. My brakes? Bloody useless. I then did the most idiotic thing ever. As Pixie started to slide and tilt on the downhill slope (gravity’s a bitch), I should have simply hurled myself on the uphill side and let the bike go. But no. That would have been way too smart. Instead, I geniously decided to pit my left leg against the gravity-assisted slide of a 280kg heavy bike, thinking I’d have the strength to tilt Pixie the other (and much safer) way. Yes, I’m also still laughing about that.
I heard the ‘pop’ in my knee almost as soon as I said to myself ‘this may not be your brightest moment yet’. The agony was excruciating. I screamed into my helmet and was overcome by nausea, which is never a good sign.
In hindsight, it wasn’t a big fall at all. It was just an incredibly unlucky one. The big fall was yet to come.
A half hour rest and recoup in a shaded spot gave me the chance to catch my breath, confirm nothing was broken and conclude that I’d probably stretched or snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee. As soon as I could move my toes and at least put some weight on my leg, I instinctively knew it was a ligament issue. It’s been more than 20 years since I snapped a ligament in my right knee, but the pain is unmistakably unique and unfortunately familiar. Bugger. As I strapped my knee, Chris and I made plans on how best to continue. All the while, locals wearing flip-flops and riding shitty little scooters rode past us. Normally they’d be yelling ‘HELLOOOO MISTEEERRRRR’, stop for a selfie and to bum a smoke, but the road was too steep for them to stop. So they kept on trudging on, mostly walking alongside their scooters while revving at full throttle.
“Let’s do what we did in Georgia” Chris eventually said “You walk and I ride the bikes on the steep parts. Think you can ride the straights?”
“One legged? No worries!” was my reply. And that’s what we did next. He took one bike up, ran down, and took the second. And I walked. In the heat, on a steep gravel road, with a banged up knee. Funnily enough, the thought of simply turning around and going back to Blangkejeren never entered our mind. Although if we knew that this was just the first of 6 gravel-ridden mountain passes over a stretch of 10 kilometres – and not even the steepest one at that – we may have.
The second fall happened so fast I can barely recount it. I know I was riding in deep gravel on a straight, and that the descent literally came out of nowhere. I think I panicked and hit the brakes, which is what did me in. This time, however, I was smart enough to tuck my legs up and simply flew (literally) in whichever direction momentum dictated. The fall was again not particularly hard…had it not been for the pointy boulders on which I landed. ‘That’s gonna hurt tomorrow’ I thought.
I remember standing up and looking at the road. This time, I had been riding in front because Chris wanted to keep an eye on me. My fall had caused him to stop and stall, and he smartly laid down his bike to prevent it from sliding anywhere. By this stage, and because I’d been in deep religious contact with the gravel, we’d figured out that the gravel was granite. About the most slippery rock of all.
Anywho, I saw a motorbike box just lying there, in the middle of the ‘road’, thinking ‘that’s a weird place for a box to be, I wonder who lost it?’
That would be me.
Half an hour and a ratchet strap later, Pixie was ready to go again. Up and down two more mountain passes before a threatening storm started brewing.
I saw the hut just a millisecond before I heard the sound of a very small waterfall. The perfect emergency campsite. We set up home inside – a place we believed to be a praying hut due to the abundance of prayer mats – and decided we’d had enough for the day.
The obligatory photo op with passing locals soon followed. They didn’t seem to mind that we’d taken over the hut (we are still not sure how ‘religious’ the locals are up here) but they actually only stopped to eat and chat and didn’t take a moment to pray at sunset, so we now assumed they’re quite relaxed.
The night was one we’ll probably never forget. As the heavens opened up and the most incredible thunderstorm erupted, I bundled myself in my sleeping bag, whilst Chris settled in for the night in our camping chair. We didn’t put up a tent because we didn’t think it to be the safest place to be, to be honest. We knew passing motorists would inevitably stop, and Chris wanted to be only semi-asleep in case of any eventualities. Our minds are not yet set on locals in this region of Sumatra. Something makes me feel uneasy and I still don’t know what it is, but I’m certainly aware of this anxiousness so always err on the side of caution.
As darkness fell and the drowsiness effects of my painkillers took hold, the hut glowed and shook with a particularly massive lightning bolt . It was so damn eerie, and for the next few hours, I jolted awake every few minutes. Partly because of the thunder, but mostly with a heart-stopping feeling of falling into a void. It happens whenever I take a bad fall on the bike. It’s as if the body replays it over and over again in my sleep. It’s one of the most disturbing feelings I’ve ever had.
It’s called hypnic jerk, this jolting yourself awake just as you’re about to fall asleep, and it’s said to be exacerbated by anxiety. I often experience it after a hard day on the bike, and on this particular night, it would plague me for 10 hours straight. Half way through the seemingly endless night I dreamt a tiger leapt into the hut and attacked Chris, and just as I woke up from the nightmare, a colossal lightning bolt struck and I nearly carked it on the spot. Then I noticed the familiar glow of a cigarette towards the general direction of where Chris was sitting. It was too pitch black to see anything else, but I figured if Chris was really fighting a tiger he couldn’t be holding a cigarette. Although knowing him, he probably would.
What I’ll remember most from this night, however, were the ear-piercing sounds of the storm and jungle around us. Every time lightning struck, a nearby tribe of monkeys would go off their heads, screeching and carrying on. During the few quiet-monkey-minutes, the frogs and crickets would take over. It was a deafening madness.
The first light of day, and rays of sunshine, were blissfully welcomed.
After a heart-jumping cup of coffee and liberal application of Dencorub (I pretty much used it as a body moisturiser) we set off for our day’s adventure.
We immediately came across a termite-ridden tree that didn’t survive the storm, and provided a sorely needed (NOT!) chance to get the day started with a stint of gardening. Because what could be more enjoyable – at this stage – than spending an hour clearing a path through half-rotten trees?
We continued at a snail pace. Up and down, over and out. Me hobbling the steep parts and riding the straights, and Chris picking up the slack whenever I felt uneasy. For 7 hours straight. The walking did grant me incredible opportunities to soak up the stunning scenery, so there’s the fabled silver lining for ya.
The moment I cast my eyes on the freshly laid tarmac I was dumbfounded. I literally just looked at it like I’d never seen asphalt before. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Just as we were contemplating finding a place to pitch a tent for another night, the possibility of sleeping in a bed and having a shower in one of the coastal towns emerged as a literal light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t have a photo of my face when I first spotted asphalt, but this sums it up quite well…
Over the following 20 minutes, we would cover more ground than in the previous 7 hours. As the road turned steep I nearly laughed to myself – and the road – thinking ‘you can get as steep as you want mother f****, as long as you’re asphalted I’m the queen of the road!” I can get quite cocky on asphalt. I probably rode faster than I should have, considering my muscles were starting to relax and the cramps were setting in. The rains came again, they cooled us off, and we kept on riding. For the first time since I can remember, we rode past sunset, eager to get to the coast and leave this road behind.
We’re now going to take a few days to rest so that I can lick my wounds, recoup, and milk for sympathy. Then we’ll be heading for Lake Toba. Google tells us the road from the west coast of Sumatra to Southeast Asia’s largest lake is in good nick and fully asphalted, but the last time I believed anything anyone said about a road in Sumatra…I ended up soaking up the rays and listening to waves of the Indian ocean crashing right outside my hotel room.
Note : I always find the m/c will handle easier on gravel or sand if you reduce tire pressure by 10-15 lbs. Will be much more controlable by doing this .
Yes, always the first thing to do, but it was way beyond that at those steep angles, damn it! 🙂 Spent more time sideways than riding…
Hey! I could litterally feel with you when reading your story, your writing is just as amazing as your whole trip ! I’m looking forward to follow it from now on as one friend of yours – whose name I forgot as I u fortunately usually do – just draw my attention to your blog yesterday.
Hope you will recover well and send you best wishes from Sydney !
Thank you, Kim!!
Wow, I’m probably going to end up reading all your blogs at this rate. I get what you’re saying about the locals in Sumatra. We went through on a bus and got stuck in the jungle in mud overnight, sleeping on the bus. There was a young local guy who slept across the back seat and had it all to himself. He was kinda rough and I think I remember chatting with him and smoking kretek cigarettes with him. I thought halfway through the night, I’d let my girlfriend sleep in our double seat and try and claim part of the back seat as mine.
I only realised when we pulled into a town why this kid had dominion of the back seat. There was a door at the back of the bus and occasionally people would try it from the outside and try to hop on. On one occasion, he lifted up the seat and grabbed a small sickle that was placed there, jumping out of the back door and chasing people off, wielding the sickle. I didn’t look at my bunkmate the same after that.
Oh yeah, there was something else in this post that resonated. That jerking awake after a motorcycle crash. Just two months ago, I was riding in China, solo. I crashed in the dark on my first day out (at least I got it out the way). I slept by the side of the road in a tent. It was first too hot to sleep, then there was a massive thunderstorm with the lightning very close. Your description reminds me of this rather sleepless night, jolted awake, re-living the crash in your head.
I’m applying to work as a driver for an overland company atm. Your other posts on the trials and tribulations of working as a guide in overlanding were really helpful. I’ve saved them on my laptop- bookmarked. Thank you.
So lovely to receive your message. You made me re-read this old blog and oh my, the memories flashed back as if it were yesterday. I remember every moment, every ache. Wow. Thank you!
Excited to hear you’ll be an overland driver soon, woohoooo! Where and with whom? It is a wonderful family to join – I still count my overlanding years as some of my best, ever. A totally cool and unforgettable experience. I wish you all the best and loads and loads of fun. They’re a given 😉