…us. And we did Sumatra. As expected and yet surprisingly, the sixth largest island in the world gave us a hard time. Read more about it in this (overly) long report… for those in a hurry, the photo gallery is as usual at the end😉.

Aktiviere Karte Deaktiviere Karte

But let’s start where the last post ended: in Port Dickson, Malaysia. When we arrived at the small harbor area in the morning, there was already a lot going on. People and luggage gathered chaotically in front of the building. We soon realized that the situation was much more organized than it seemed and only required a little patience. We presented our Indonesian visas, bought tickets for us and the bikes, had all our bags weighed and the weight per kilogram paid for, had our passports stamped and boarded the speedboat to Sumatra. The six-hour crossing in the air-conditioned boat was calm and pleasant. With Fast & Furious 9 flickering soundlessly across the screen, we enjoyed an entertaining silent movie, accompanied by the fervent belching of the lady in the front row of seats😊.

On the Indonesian side, a crowd of “hard-working” helpers took care of unloading the luggage at the pier in Tanjung Balai. After completing the very basic immigration formalities, we were able to pick up our bags next to a scale… but only after we had paid the porters per kilogram of luggage! Our small starting penny in local currency was not enough, but was accepted somewhat grumpily and we were allowed to set of.
In the dark, we headed for the hotel we were planning to stay at. An unbelievable number of people, heavy traffic, honking horns, piles of garbage, the smell of sewers, the scent of street food, “Hello” from all directions and bad roads took us quite by surprise! Phuu, Indonesia promises to be fun!

The next morning, we continued on the main road in pretty much the same style and fought non-stop for a spot on the asphalt. Here is the 1×1 of traffic on Sumatra:

  1. The law of the strongest applies, we come pretty far at the bottom.
  2. Liner buses are at the top of the pecking order and race through the countryside and villages at 80km/h. When they come roaring down the middle of the road honking their horns, even trucks swerve out of the way. They never brake.
  3. Honking means “Go, go, go”, “Watch out, I’m coming” or “Away with you!”. The interpretation lies with the cyclist, as does his safety.
  4. Consistently only look ahead, which works very well in everyday life (unless buses or trucks are approaching😉

It was only on a quieter side road that we began to enjoy the drive through small-scale palm oil plantations. After the first “Hello Misteeer”, lots of waving hands, several selfies and an invitation to lunch, we were feeling reconciled with the country and looked forward to our onward journey with confidence.

Three older men from the local cycling club spontaneously accompanied us on the ascent to Lake Toba the next day. After a coffee together, we said goodbye and enjoyed the view of wonderful tea plantations and the descent into the crater. The largest volcanic lake in the world was formed 74,000 years ago by the eruption of the Toba supervolcano. According to catastrophe theory, the eruption led to global cooling and caused a genetic bottleneck in the spread of Homo sapiens. Not comparable in scale, but also tragic, was a ferry accident with about 190 fatalities that occurred on the lake in 2018 (in a storm and hopelessly overloaded boat). We were traveling the exact same route for the crossing to the island of Samosir. An identical, antiquated wooden barge was moving at walking pace, passengers and the “captain” were smoking non-stop and the band 4 Non Blondes were blaring the song “What’s going on?” from the loudspeaker…

Maybe David shouldn’t have researched it so thoroughly😉! Fortunately, the weather was glorious and the lake was as smooth as glass, so we safely reached the island of Samosir in the middle of the volcanic lake.

A short bike ride took us to the tourist village of Tuktuk. We spent a few quiet days in pleasant temperatures in idyllic but moldy accommodation by the lake. After crossing the island of Samosir and a short hike to a viewpoint, we tackled the 1000-metre climb to the southern edge of the crater. As was often the case in South East Asia, the effort made us feel really sick, we felt exhausted and had no appetite. On the long uphill stretch, I barely moved and therefore had a lot of time to think about which drink or food would not make me nauseous and give me energy: it was our rehydration solution ready to mix. Two cups of salty drink worked wonders and we felt much better afterwards. In the evening, we did some research on the internet about salt deficiency and realized that we had probably been suffering from hyponatremia for some time in the sweaty tropical climate with completely mineral-free water and sparsely salted food. From now on, we even added salt to our electrolyte solutions! This therapy miraculously cured us of everything that had been troubling us in the past days and weeks. The general exhaustion and loss of appetite was gone, we were hungry again, we felt no longer nauseous or dizzy, we had plenty of energy, our sitting problems disappeared and even the pinching in our hips and knees was gone. Wow, how good it felt😊!

For a few days, we cycled through the beautiful mountain landscape with rice fields in the valley and between wooded slopes. Coffee, cocoa, papaya, pineapple, mango, dragon fruit, mangosteen, star fruit, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, … pretty much everything grows here on Sumatra! On Sundays, we saw beautifully dressed women heading to church (the local Batak ethnic group is predominantly Christian), we marveled at the traditional houses and wondered about vans and motorcycles full of men with their dogs. A local explained to us that hunting wild boar with dogs is a widespread tradition in the region. Bloody and barbaric in our eyes… but that’s not how they see it here (see this article).

Shortly before the town of Bukittinggi, we crossed the equator, which was marked by a dilapidated monument. The guided short hike through the jungle a few kilometers later to a Rafflesia Arnoldis, the largest flower in the world, was more exciting. There was another attraction to enjoy in the village’s only café: (supposedly) organic Kopi Luwak. This most expensive coffee in the world is said to be delicious because the coffee cherries are passed through the digestive tract of wild cats before further processing… Our gut feeling told us not to try this rarity. When we read up on mass production with cage farming, we felt confirmed in this decision. And apparently there is no difference in taste between Arabica coffee and Kopi Luwak.
Today, the first Kopi Luwak importer regrets that he introduced the curiosity to the West 20 years ago. Read more in this article on theguardian.com.

Once again, I spent half of a break day in Bukittinggi in the hostel’s communal toilet. This was not surprising, as hygiene was not always at its best in Sumatra. In the absence of running water, there was usually only a large washbasin with a scoop in the toilets. This water was used for showering, washing hands, washing the backside and for flushing.

AA few days later, when I was feeling well again, David was stung by a bee and developed a severe allergic rash all over his body. Fortunately, he had no difficulty breathing and the rash cleared up after a few hours thanks to the three antihistamine tablets from our first-aid kit. The next morning, David was completely cured, which was necessary for the up to 20% steep mountain stage at the foot of the Kerinci volcano. Once we reached a high plateau, we pedaled through a green sea of tea plantations and enjoyed our last day in Barisan mountain range. Only a small pass and a long descent through the jungle, where a horde of Siamang gibbons gave an impressive concert, separated us from the west coast of Sumatra.

At sea level, the temperatures and humidity were far less pleasant than in the higher altitude inland. Until we reached the southern end of the island, 900 km away, not only the topography with its countless (steep) hills but also the climate gave us a hard time. David in particular was sweating like a bear, his T-shirt was often wet even before the start and had to be wrung out after the first climb at the latest. He simply couldn’t keep up his water and mineral intake, which caused him to lose his appetite and strength. The not particularly attractive route through palm oil plantations and only a rare view of the sea was not particularly helpful.

But the Indonesians did everything they could to make the route attractive! Everywhere we went, people at the side of the road happily greeted us with “Hello Misteeer”, “Hello Miiiss”, “Turist!”, “Hello Bule” (=foreigner), “My name is?”, “How are you!”, “Where are you from!” or “I love you!”. Children either used to hide from us, wave wildly or run after us. We were stopped for selfies on the street every day. Young women in particular overtook us several times on their scooters before the bravest one dared to whisper the code word “selfie”. Of course, we were happy to stop, which was met with smiling faces and enthusiasm. With lots of practice, we got better and better at making the right finger gestures😊. The situation when David could hear an employee refreshing his English out loud in a mini-market was also very funny. While David paid for his shopping, the young man kept waving to me through the window. When we were ready to leave, he gathered all his courage, came running out of the store and asked for a selfie. With the picture on his cell phone, he jumped back into the store, cheering loudly😊. Who can’t be happy in a country like this?

We made life as easy as possible for ourselves, didn’t plan too long stages and always stayed in accommodation whose existence we verified in advance. We always inspected the rooms critically and sometimes had to negotiate the price hard. Unclean rooms were as common as fresh bed linen was rare, we even had to move out of the room because of bedbugs and a faulty fan turned a room into an oven. For the first time on our trip, we had to “prove” that we were married by showing a wedding photo in order to be allowed to sleep in the same room.
As there was no accommodation on the route one evening, we knocked on the door of a police station. The policeman there seemed to be used to the request, routinely assigned us to one of the empty rooms and that evening watched an action movie together with David on the old TV set😊.

Three longer climbs awaited us until Bandar Lampung, which I looked forward to with some worry. The first mountain, with its up to 20% steep ramps, was to remain the most difficult. But it wasn’t just us who were challenged by the steep sections: on one section, locals had set up a “truck elevator”. They used small trucks and a dilapidated steel cable to pull their heavily laden colleagues up the mountain. The broken barriers and tire tracks showed that it was impossible for a truck to stop here.
In other blind, steep bends, men controlled oncoming traffic and collected money for their services with cardboard boxes. For two hours, we muddled our way up through the shady rainforest and reached the highest point completely drenched in sweat.

After more than four weeks on Sumatra, the southern end of the island at Bandar Lampung was within reach. We saw the busy, noisy and smoggy city entrance to Bandar Lampung as an introduction to the island of Java, our next destination. Our last evening on Sumatra was spent with a nice visit from Rai, an enthusiastic member of the “Federalist” cycling club. A few days earlier, a fellow club member had taken a video of us on the road without us noticing and had been looking for us via a WhatsApp group😉. Rai tracked us down and spontaneously drove to our hotel in the dark to give us lots of tips and contacts for our onward journey. The good conversation made us look forward to our next leg of the journey!

After a long day’s journey, we took the ferry from Sumatra to Java today. Here we spend the night in a hoel right by the port of Merak before meeting up with local federalists tomorrow😊…

This post was published on Mai 28, 2024.

Palm oil used for biodiesel

With an area of 120’000km2, 51’000km2 and 10’000km2 respectively, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are the world’s largest producers of palm oil. In contrast to Malaysia and Thailand, it is primarily small farmers who harvest the palm oil fruit in the province of Bengkulu. Palm oil is a “cash crop” in Indonesia, i.e. only oil palms are grown and the harvest is sold. The money earned is used by the farming families to buy food because they no longer produce it themselves. The monoculture requires a high use of pesticides and fertilizers and results in low prices with little opportunity for negotiation.
The oil palm is an economic miracle: the tasteless, heat-resistant and durable oil is pressed from the oil fruit. It produces 3.4 tons of oil per hectare, whereas rapeseed only yields 0.7 tons.

It is common knowledge that huge areas of rainforest are cleared for palm oil cultivation in Sumatra and Borneo. We tend to be less aware of the fact that the majority of palm oil in Europe is not (or no longer) consumed, but 58% ends up as biodiesel in the tanks of our cars, so-called “climate-neutral fuel”. Europe covers around 30% of its biodiesel demand with palm oil.

If the entire production chain (cultivation, fertilizer, transport) is taken into account, the carbon footprint of biodiesel from palm oil is many times worse than that of diesel from fossil sources (see www.regenwald-schuetzen.org (in German)).

As a result, the use of fresh palm oil as a raw material for biodiesel was banned in Germany from 2023… Since then, palm oil diesel has been relabeled as edible fat diesel in China. German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk provides a good insight: