37 yrs old.absolute love of traveling - and photography, writing, health / nutrition, relaxation. ...Find out more!
I’m in Sumatra, my first ever visit to Indonesia, and it’s not quite for rest and relaxation. I’m back in my ‘other life’ – managing and massaging for a cycling team from Australia, and we’re here for the ‘Tour of Singkarak’, West Sumatra. The race is a week long so I’m ready to experience as much of Indonesia as energy and practicalities permit.
The good thing about the bike racing world is, though the days are long and busy, I get to see places and countryside that, I wouldn’t get to otherwise see, and, I’m exposed to perhaps more cultural display than your average backpacker, with race organisers vying to put on the ‘best tour yet’, so that competitors can go home and rave about what they saw, heard, ate, and how good the racing was.
Our flight from Kuala Lumpar was direct to Padang (one hour flight time) where the race begins, beachside. Padang airport and my first error: forgetting I needed to buy my entry visa before I went through passport control. However, it’s easy and cheap to buy ($25USD for one month, and you need to pay in USD) and I was pointed in the right direction, to a small booth just inside the doorway. Second error: the bag carousel is right there as you enter from passport control, and there are uniformed employees who will bring you a trolley and then get your bags (and they want to be paid for it, but they won’t tell you that - I mean DOH! Of course they will…. but I’d been up since 4am.) We were taken to our hotel, given breakfast which wasn’t much of a representation of local cuisine - such is the hotel world.
My very first impressions of Indonesia? Smiles, Blackberry phones and cigarettes! Young and old, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, they all seem to be smoking. There’s tobacco advertising everywhere on billboards and posters. It’s like stepping back into the 80s! And the cuisine – in this part of Indonesia, uses lots of spice. Salads that appear to have small pieces of red pepper and green beans are actually diced chillies. Thick hot curry sauces, rice, eggs, fish and chillies! Every night, dinner was out, many times at the local mayor’s house for whose city we were staying in and always included local entertainment. The opening night’s dinner had various groups performing, to welcome us, all clad in colourful dress with lots of gold. Reminded me of what I’ve seen, in Thailand.
Aside from the opening stage, beachside, every other day took us from one city to the next. The countryside was stunning: lush, green, palm trees, rice paddies and beautiful blue skies with big, shapely white clouds. And the support for the race was amazing – the roads were lined with people, taking time out of their day, to watch the riders and vehicle convoy speed by. I cut back on my water during the stages, as it was hard work finding a clear spot for a toilet stop – there were that many people. (Not so easy to pee readily, in a Muslim country!)
The first stage is a race around Padang – beach and ocean views for most of the circuit. The opening ceremony was big! Colour, loud Arabic dance music, dancing, traditional dress, red carpet… and heat. The sun and the heat were merciless. One of the highlight towns for me was Sawahlunto, a small town with a European feel, surrounded by lush, green mountains, plus, probably the nicest hotel for the trip, with a small balcony overlooking the street below. Every time I stepped out onto my balcony, there was a throng of locals nearby, to stand and stare at this white apparition (aka ME) before them. There is an old steam train from Sawahlunto which was to transfer us through lush landscaper to the start of the next stage. However, through a miscommunication we were taken by bus and missed this cool little trip.
We had a stage finish in the coastal spot ‘Gandoria Beach’, Pariaman and boy was it hot! However, the drive into the beach was stunning with a few kilometres of narrow, twisting, turning streets then opening up to the beach, of white sands, framed in palm trees with an expanse of blue ocean right out to the horizon. Picturesque is barely fitting of a description. It would definitely be somewhere for me to go back to.
The stage that took us from Pariaman to Bukkitingi included the famous ‘Kelok 44’, a mountain pass over ‘Puncak Lawang’ that has 44 switch backs – yes, 44! The drive up gives stunning views of Lake Maninjau which was formed after a volcanic eruption around 50,000 years ago. Bukkitingi, which means ‘high hill’ in Indonesian, is one of the larger cities in West Sumatra, with a population of over 90,000. It’s more famous for its ‘Lembah Harau Valley’ about one hour out, which is a spectacular natural playground of steep, vertical rock faces, waterfalls, greenery and a river. The lead-in for the stage end was a narrow, winding road (yeah, there was a kind of big accident near the finish!) and each side of the road was hemmed in by sheer, vertical sandstone rock faces reaching to at least 1000 metres in places. Nearby is ‘Bonjol’, where the line of the equator is officially marked. Basing yourself in Bukkitingi there is lots to do in and around the valley including rock climbing, rafting, museums and paragliding. Another highlight was Singkarak Lake which is located between Padangpanjang and Solok. It is 21km long and 7km wide, and houses an endemic species of fish, ‘ikan bilih’.
I’m going to sum up West Sumatra as: green, lush, rice paddies, palm trees, plains, mountains, amazing cloud formations, HOT (food and weather), smiles, cigarette smoke, blackberries (the phones, not the fruit), beaches, colour, music, mosques and friendly, friendly locals. And the cuisine: eat the rice, cos of the spice! If you’re a ‘low carber’, like me there are plenty of eggs, meats and fish, but be warned, the sauces they are served in are not going to be even remotely mild.
West Sumatra is home of the world’s largest flower, the Sumatran tiger, Malayan sun bear and the Bornean clouded leopard, to name but a few of the exotic local species. Maybe a safari is on the cards to check things out on a more up-close and personal level next time I visit!