Trans-Sumatran Express

The Trans-Sumatran highway by name may sound like a modern day road you’d expect to find in the West, don’t be fooled, it should really be named the ‘Trans-Sumatran dirt track, whiplash inducing, wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy passage’. The Indonesian busses are cramped, smokey, loud and the air-con is either on full or off, truly living up to the ‘no logic’ zone tag. The 17 hours overnight from Toba to Bukittinggi is not a nice experience but is essential, never before have my eyes been so dry that a thin layer of crust has formed over the cornea. For anyone planning to do this trip be prepared to be ill for at least 24 hours.

Bukittinggi is the main town within the Minangkabau highlands, and was once a Dutch hill station. You won’t hear anyone speaking like they have a mouthful of peas nowadays, but the centre piece of the town is the Jam Ganang clock tower which was built in the 1920’s as a gift from the Dutch queen. A stone in place claims that the clock’s faces are unique because the Roman numeral for four is displayed ‘IIII’ and not ‘IV’. I find it hard to believe that this was intentional and not just another typical Indonesian clock-up, no logic zone!


Bukittinggi has a zoo, and like all other zoos in Asia, it’s depressing. Underweight camels, three legged tigers and one armed monkeys, maybe this was some kind of zoo for land-mine victim animals. Seeing the caged orangutans was very different from seeing them in the national park, the male had a broken finger and the female was a little overweight like she’d got settled in a comfortable relationship and ordered too many Chinese takeaways, in all honestly they didn’t seem at all bothered by being locked up all day. The highlight for me was the baby gibbon, which isn’t even in a cage, this is the first zoo that I’ve ever visited where you can freely grapple with the animals…







We didn’t waste too much time in Bukittinggi as we wanted to check out the surrounding areas. We opted to rent a room, pardon, a shed in Lake Maninjau for a total of £2.50 a night. Like Lake Toba, Maninjau was also a volcano, but that’s where the similarities end. Maninjau has more of a local feel to it, in fact we were the only white people there. Fish farming is the main source of income for the people and it was nice to live a ‘back to basics’ lifestyle of washing in the lake and shitting in the woods. Here the locals use old school buffalo ploughs in the crop fields and have a genius idea of using trained baboons to climb trees to fetch coconuts…



One man and his baboon

The Harau Valley (pronounced like how a Chinese man would say hello…harrow) was a three hour drive away from Maninjau but we decided to jump on the bike and go anyway. We arrived at the valley just in time to spend a few minutes admiring the sheer cliff faces and see some paddy pickers before the heavens opened, for all the valley was beautiful it turned out to be too much of a literal pain the backside after six hours worth of driving…




What a pair of helmets

Our time in Sumatra has ended too soon. Sadly Indonesian visa regulations and the massive distances have restricted us from seeing any more of this enormous island. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the gentle, charming people or the amazing and interesting landscapes, but Sumatra has ticked all the right boxes for me. I believe I’ll be back one day to explore some more and to see if Indonesians can ever find some logic for their zone, although, then things just wouldn’t be the same. As usual I found an international Toon fan just as we were leaving for the airport, even though this one thought he was wearing a Juventus shirt…

Have you ever seen a Mackem in Maninjau? Not likely!

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The Biggest Bang Theory

Danau Toba, from space looks like a giant donut, and is the largest lake in South-East Asia. Superficially it is an amazing place, you can dream your days away on the ‘island’ of Samosir while swimming in the azure blue waters and trying some delicious local food. What made Lake Toba so special for me was learning the story that lies beneath the calm shores, only then can you truly appreciate the sheer mind-boggling beauty of this mysterious place.


Toba was once a volcano, until it erupted some 69 – 77 thousand years ago. The eruption was the most gargantuan that Mother Earth has ever witnessed, making some modern day volcanic blasts seem like nothing more than a few wet farts. The biggest eruption in recent history, Mount Tambora of 1816, was but one hundredth the size of the beast that was Toba.

It left one hell of a crater

Scientists believe that the Toba catastrophe sent the world into a 10 year volcanic winter which wiped out countless species and resulted in a bottleneck in homo sapiens. A bottleneck, as well as being something an Englishman might be on the receiving end of in a Glaswegian boozer, is also a term for a sudden drop in population numbers. Toba volcanic ash has been discovered in Africa, Europe and even as far as the UK. To comprehend the significance this explosion had on our planet whilst chilling with a Bintang and looking out onto the world’s largest crater lake, is enough to make your head spin. For more superlative Toba info check here.


It took Toba one thousand years to eventually cool down, it was then that the surrounding mountains provided protection for the Batak people, who are direct decedents of the mountain tribes of Thailand and Burma. Here they lived in isolation for many years and were among the most fierce people in all of Sumatra, known for their strict adat (traditional laws) and cannibalism. Thankfully human isn’t on the menu in the restaurants around Tanjung Tuk-Tuk, the main settlement on Samosir island.

Traditional Batak House

Batak Grave

Driving around Samosir is the best way to take in the scenery, one of the few sights include the ‘stone chairs’, a 300 year old ritual ground where the Batak elders would practice black magic, discuss legal matters and where guilty parties would be executed in a bloodthirsty manner. It’s 10,000Rp to get in, but a guide that can barley string an English sentence together is free. Part of the fun is trying to decipher exactly what the stone chairs are all about from what he tells you, I still don’t have a clue…

Batak torture device


Although Sumatra is a predominantly Muslim island, the Bataks are Christians after being converted by a bit of Dutch courage

Magic mushrooms grow in buffalo shite around this area and are a favourite pastime for locals. This could be the reason behind the crazy Batak art and architecture. They’re also widely available for the tourists if Toba isn’t magical enough…

Things ain’t as they seem on Toba…

Before I left Tuk-Tuk, I thought about that eruption all those years ago and how it led to mass migration throughout the world due to changes in climate. It got me thinking what the Earth could have been like nowadays had this historic event not have happened. White people in Africa, Turks in Germany, Africans in France, Afro Caribbeans in London, a mile long stretch of Indian restaurants in Manchester, imagine…


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The Bukit List

If you want to get out of Manado by far the easiest option is to fly. Recently I’ve heard a few horror stories about Indonesian airlines, a few weeks back an aircraft came in to land at Gorontalo airport and collided with a cow, what it was doing on the runway in the first place is beyond me, but apparently everyone on the aircraft could smell burning meat. Just a few days later, a plane overshot the runway somewhere in Bali, for a country that relies so much on the aviation industry it holds one of the worst safety records and it’s not surprising that all Indonesian airlines are banned from European airspace. Some of the tales you hear whilst travelling in Indonesia really do defy belief, one traveller I met quite fittingly nicknamed this country a ‘no logic zone’, hence I wasn’t looking forward to our flight to Medan.

Poor health and safety? What you talking about?

When I found my seat on the Lionair flight, I noticed an invocation card. The card contained various prayers for different religions that should be recited by any passenger hoping for a safe journey. The Catholic prayer contained the verse ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we beg you, bless us with a safe trip with good weather so that the crew of this aircraft will lead us to our destination safely’ – confidence booster!


Sumatra is the largest Indonesian island and the 6th largest land mass in the world. We skipped the capital city Medan and headed straight to the small village of Bukit Lawang to hunt out the Pongo Abelii aka Sumatran orangutan.


Orangutan is a Malay/Indonesian word thats means ‘forest person‘ or ‘man of the jungle‘ depending on who you ask. They’re the closest living thing to humans and we apparently share up to 96% of the same genetic makeup, although if you’ve ever watched Jeremy Kyle, you could argue that this figure is actually closer to 100%.


Pongo Abelii are unique to the Northern areas of the island and live within the boundaries of the Gunung Leuser national park. Their Bornean counterparts ‘Pongo Pygmaeus‘, are slightly larger in size and darker in colour. Bornean orangutans are not as rare because they reproduce faster, the males have a tendency to rape the females before they are ready whereas in Bukit Lawang, they prefer to go on a few dates and change their Facebook status’ to ‘in a relationship‘ before settling down to have kids…

Baby orangutan, cuter than a human baby

Orangutans are crazy strong, 3X that of an average human. They’re also super intelligent and there has been known cases of orangutans making hand tools to dig for termites. I remember watching a documentary once, where an orangutan checked into a 5 star hotel under the name ‘Dunstan‘, befriended a young boy and together they were so clever that they kept foiling any attempts to capture him, oh, hang on…

Male orangutans grow facial hair just like humans. This is Ramadan but I very much doubt that he fasts during the namesake month

Being within touching distance of one of these beasts really was a special experience, the last time I came so close to something so primitively man-like was when I had a run-in with the bouncer at Lloyds number one bar in Newcastle, the only difference is this monkey didn’t say “not tonight mate”, only looked into my eyes with nothing but peace and curiosity. The jungles of Sumatra are drastically decreasing in size every year because of deforestation and logging, so if nothing is done shortly these beautiful creatures may be no more. In the meantime I was happy to be able to tick ‘see a wild orangutan‘ off my Bukit list.


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Minahasan Delights And Disasters

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the Gorontalo ferry from the Togeans. It was only a week ago that the same voyage collided with a small fishing vessel, the real trouble started when the crew opened the main doors to rescue the fishermen and water began to flood into the hull, if there’s one way to sink a ferry, then that’s how it’s done. When we boarded I counted a grand total of six life jackets – there were at least one hundred passengers on board. That is just one of the reasons why Indonesia has a very poor record when it comes to transport disasters.

I couldn’t come to Indonesia and not trek up an active volcano. Since being put on ‘alert’ status two years ago, Gunung Lokon near Tomohon has erupted ten times, the last one back in March, can’t get more active than that. You’re not actually allowed to climb the volcano for safety reasons, but the security guards take the day off on a Sunday which is typically Indonesian. The guy at our hotel told us it was safe, so off we went…

Gunung Lokon

Hardened lava

A couple of hours hike took us to the crater where we had some nice views of the surrounding islands. A little bit of smoke was coming from the crater but no big deal, the main issue was the smell of sulphur AKA rotten eggs. As we began to climb to the peak an increasing amount of smoke started rising up from the crater and the views vanished, time to head back down. I guessed this was quite normal for a volcano of ‘alert’ status, but when I woke up on Monday morning and glanced over to Lokon I understood why you’re not meant to climb it.

V is for Volcano

The Crater

Time to move out

7am – Monday


The Minahasan people of North Sulawesi are well known for eating almost anything. Spicy bat can be found on the menu at some Tomohon warungs but if you want to taste rat, python or dog you’ll have to be invited along to a local party. We attended a seventy first birthday bash next to our hotel where I decided to reluctantly continue my culinary quest and taste a small portion of mongrel meat from the buffet. Dog, in my opinion, tastes very similar to lamb or mutton, it didn’t half make me have some weird dreams though. Those dreams turned to nightmares the following day when we popped into Tomohon’s daily meat market and saw the exotic food being prepared, then the dog taste from the previous evening seemed a whole lot worse. WARNING: Animal lovers might want to skip the next set of photos…

This little piggy went to market..

This little piggy wished he’d stayed at home…



Rat skewers…


Before, and sadly…



Let’s not forget…


From the heights of Lokon, to the underwater world of Bunaken island in just a few hours. Bunaken has some of the most spectacular marine diversity I’ve seen in my short diving life. In our half a dozen dives we saw rare pygmy seahorses, napoleon fish, black/white tip reef sharks and eagle rays to name but a few. We saw plenty of shelled reptiles at a dive site quite fittingly named ‘turtle city’. Giant green turtles slept in the coral while the smaller ones swam along gracefully. Some decided to hide within the rocks, but you could still see a turtle’s head popping out. This was the most Chelonia Mydas I had seen in one dive and thought it was great, the bloke from Ashington on the dive boat said it was ‘turtally amazing!’

20130923-094358.jpgFinding Nemo

20130923-094351.jpgDive buddies

The barely recognisable Pygmy seahorse’s colour depends on the type of sea fan it lives on

Underwater photos courtesy of Leigh Taylor

As magnificent as the underwater neighbourhood around Bunaken may be, it is under threat from a Chinese mining company who are attempting to bleed the island of its natural resources. The people of Bunaken are doing their best to keep them at bay for now, but I can’t help but think that the chance of making some quick and easy cash will eventually turn their heads. Also, Bunaken’s proximity to Manado means that a lot of the rubbish floats over from the city, on one dive we done after a storm I saw more plastic bags floating around than big fish. A 150,000 Rupiah marine fee for divers is in place to preserve the waters around Bunaken, sometimes you won’t be asked to pay it by your resort, I wasn’t. The Lonely Planet claims it goes to a good cause but those books contain so much incorrect information, you’re better off just using it as toilet paper. So, if you’re not asked to pay this ‘marine fee’, then don’t, I have first hand information that the money simply filters through into the hands of the dirty government, corrupt pigs. This is no more apparent than the sorry sight of a pile of dirty nappies washed up on the Eastern side of the island. Bunaken is an amazing place for now, but if nothing is done very soon by the Indonesian government and its people, then eventually it will resemble somewhere from the darkest depths of Sunderland…

Dormant volcano ‘Old Manado’ at sunset, let’s hope it continues to look like this

Back on the mainland it was time to leave Sulawesi, it’s been a delight to visit such an interesting place where death and diving play an important role in keeping this part of the world unique. With Mount Lokon still smouldering in the backdrop, I realised that I hadn’t seen an eruption this big since Joe F******* Kinnear’s foul mouthed rant at the British press!


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My Big Fat Sea Gypsy Bomber

The Togean islands are in a giant bay between the metaphorical arms of Sulawesi, and are very difficult to reach. A few days of sitting on busses, bemos, ojeks and boats left me feeling travel sick (as in sick of travelling) and furious I didn’t pack any sudocrem, but all was forgotten when we finally arrived in this beautiful, undiscovered gem…



The Bajau sea gypsies are the people of the Togeans, they used to spend much of their lives living on boats travelling the Sulawesi seas whilst diving for pearls and other marine produce. Now the Bajau have settled down in some permanent villages around the Togeans. They still possess some of their gypsy nature though and can be found doing a spot of tarmacing on the mainland and taking part in bare knuckle fist fights…


Typical Bajau house

Once you get to the Togeans there’s no TV, phone signal or Internet, a perfect place to escape from the real world and for once, forget about waiting in vain to see who Newcastle would (or wouldn’t) sign this transfer window. On our island, Walea Kodi, there isn’t much to do bar borrow a wooden canoe and play Andy Cole and Barry Venison stranded on a desert island for a few hours but thankfully, I’m a diver now…


Bagsey Andy Cole!

Our beach

In a world of smartphones and tablets, these plastic clackers are just taking off in the Togeans

The Teluk Tomini sea was supposedly recovering from cyanide fishing, but at some of the sites we visited around Walea Kodi and Melange there was very little sign of this and I got to see some very healthy looking reefs with amazing visability. The most interesting dive was the American B-24 Bomber which can be found just off the coast of Palau Togean…


The consolidated B-24 liberator was on its way back from a mission around the Pacific in April 1945 when one of the engines started leaking oil after being hit by a Japanese bullet. Lt. Henry Etheridge realised the aircraft would never make it back to base, so ordered his men to wrap up in their parachutes for extra padding and then proceeded to crash land the plane into the shallow waters whilst listening to Flight of the Valkyries. All of the crew members survived and hid out with the villagers on the heavily forested island until they were rescued. The B-24 is now settled at a depth of 22 metres, covered with huge sponges, colourful corals and is the home to dozens of scorpion fish. Many parts of the plane are still intact such as the propellors, wheels, cockpit with instruments, gun turret and you can even pop into the fuselage to see the parachutes that saved the lives of Etheridge’s men.





(Wreck photos courtesy of Steven Greenstein)

Our other dive sites included Ales Rock, Reef 5, Chris Spot and Hotel California which were all unique in their own way. Getting away from the Togeans was just as tricky as getting there, but was all worth it, especially when I finally checked the Internet and realised this blog had reached almost 5000 views, cheers stalkers! That means one thing, it’s competition time at likethewheels, the first person to comment on this post will receive a special postcard from yours truly, signed with a kiss…
(Previous winners are exempt, sorry!)

Sunset on Walea Kodi

‘Hotel California’ where the local fisherman escape from the rain and sing…Welcome to the Hotel California…

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A Matter Of Death Or Death

I don’t know why I bother with budget airlines, except from being budget, there’s nothing good about them. Air Asia have decided to try and trick its customers into believing they automatically have 20KG checked in baggage, then when you arrive at the airport you’re told otherwise and are asked to pay £20 per 15kg, double the price to book online. There was a queue of people who all had the same problem, so it is obvious that the deceiving website is designed especially so you will part with your cash at the airport. An extreme cheapskate will never be beaten by a corporate ploy, I simply payed half the price (or the same as what it would have been online) and only checked in 7kg. Once your half empty bag is cleared you simply put the rest of your belongings in plastic bags and carry them onto the plane. Tony Fernandes can’t even scam a budget traveller, never mind run a football club so it’s no surprise QPR were relegated…

Sulawesi is probably one of the weirdest shaped islands on earth, it’s as if when God created the world he decided to cough up a mouthful of phlegm onto the map and make it a mega island of Indonesia. Sulawesi’s main airport is named after Sultan Hasanuddin a well known leader, this made me realise that I could not name a single famous Indonesian person, if any else can, please let me know…


The Sulawesi pose

The Toraja is an ethnic group of Sulawesi and can be found in Tana Toraja (Toraja land). What makes the Toraja people stand out from the rest is the fact their lives and culture seem to revolve around one thing – death.


Toraja families save their whole lives to be able to have a special funeral for their loved ones. The more wealthy and important the person – the bigger the funeral. I’ve always thought expensive weddings were a waste of money for just one day, but at least the person is actually present to enjoy it…

When a Torajan kicks the bucket, a small funeral takes place a few days after the death. The deceased stays in the family home until the second, more elaborate funeral which happens usually during the funeral season in July/August, it can last up to five days and involve hundreds of guests. The funeral gets underway with a couple of reception days followed by bullfighting, cockfighting and kick fighting, which basically resembles two groups of football hooligans clashing on the streets. I was lucky enough to turn up at the funeral in time for the main event, buffalo sacrificing…


Torajans believe that the souls of animals should follow the dead into the afterlife. Again, the more animals put to the sword, the more wealthy the deceased. The funeral I attended had twelve buffalos being slaughtered one by one. The machete pierces the beast’s throat in a split second, but the death can drag out for what seems an eternity. The most spectacular refuse to give up and seemed to rise from the dead. Believe me, I haven’t seen anything as graphic as that since the ping pong show in Thailand…


The final moments

The aftermath


Kids playing with hooves, nothing is wasted

Possessions can be taken with a person in the afterlife, mostly in the form of cigarettes. Indonesians top the charts in the world’s smoking league so to prevent the living bumming tabs from the dead, graves are hidden in specially made cave cemeteries. Tau Tau are life size but not so lifelike effigies of the deceased that guard the cave from outside…

Coffins from inside the cave


Remains inside a coffin

One of the more realistic tau tau, or is it Des O’Connor?

The Tongkonan (traditional house) is said to resemble the bow and stern of a boat which Torajan mythology suggest brought their ancestors to this land from the North.

Toraja village

The more buffalo skulls the higher the household’s status

Pasar Bolu market has a livestock parade that is held every six days. Folk come from all over Toraja to try and grab a buffalo bargain. Buffalo is a status symbol in this community, good ones can sell for thousands of pounds and a rare albino buffalo can change hands for five figures, all to be slaughtered at a funeral, imagine the amount of confetti you could get for 20 grand at a British wedding…

Multi coloured chicks for sale

Indonesian coffee – fresh from the Honda engine

The deposit on a house

One man and his buffalo

It seems that here in Tana Toraja they will go to any leanths to give the dead a magnificent send off. Whether it be slaughtering enough cows to supply Burger King with a year’s worth of Whoppers or booking Elton John to sing the requiem. Funerals are the be all and end all of life here, and death, means business. Everywhere you will find coffin makers, tau tau carvers, cave builders, animal sacrifice specialists and of course, guides for the tourists. There’s never any worry of work drying up, even during a global recession people will still be dying. As morbid as Tana Toraja sounds, it’s one of those places you must see before you…erm…die.

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