Dicing with death to reach Brastagi, Lake Toba and the Sipiso Piso waterfall

And so after many years of not visiting Sumatra, I was on my way again to this huge and rugged island for the third time in a year! That’s just the way things work out I guess. The roll of the dice. You never really know where you are headed to next and it may even be the case that you are actually visiting a place for the very last time. How was I to know? After all, the sun may rise every morning but, ultimately, there will come a day when you see it for the very last time.

Having visited Pulau Weh for diving and West Sumatra/Jambi to climb Indonesia’s highest volcano (Mount Kerinci), I found myself on a Garuda flight to Medan for a short excursion in North Sumatra, an area home to the Batak people. Here in Jakarta, the Batak have established a reputation of being very hard working (at least by Indonesian standards) whether at the lower strata of society (as bus drivers or street-side tire repair workers) or at the upper levels (as high-profile lawyers, politicians and businesspeople…

Image of the day (10): taking the mick

Whoever designed this campaign poster in the wake of #UninstallBukalapak is, as we say in England (especially London), taking the mick...

Pulau Weh – a tropical island paradise but don’t expect any beer!

Pulau Weh is a tropical island paradise but with a catch: it is part of the extremely conservative province of Aceh, the only place in Indonesia where sharia law is enforced. What this means is that unlike in Bali you won’t be sinking endless bir bintangs or having a good time in a dodgy nightclub. In fact, you won’t be drinking any booze at all since Pulau Weh is as dry as a krupuk prawn cracker. For me, the prospect of no alcohol wasn’t that much of a big deal (I can survive a week without any bir bintang - just). But what did worry me was the thought of religious zealots looking to create trouble for my Indonesian wife and me. That European?! What’s he doing with an Indonesian woman? And is she Muslim or not?

Unfortunately, things have gotten pretty out of hand in some parts of Aceh, and in the regency of Bireuen, for example, restaurants are now obliged to ensure that male and female customers who are “not married or related to one another” do not share a table. More recently in Ba…

Ijen Crater: East Java’s tourist trap

There was a time when East Java’s Ijen Crater was pretty much unknown to tourists. And then came some magazine articles in the western press in the 1990s which poignantly described the tough lives of poverty-stricken workers at the site whose job it is to carry backbreaking loads of sulphur down from the crater for only a few bucks a day. These pictures rattled the conscious of do-good hipster types in the west and some of them then made their way to the crater to look for photo opportunities themselves.

Over time, more feature stories were done on the Ijen crater in other publications and this provided enough publicity to ensure a steady stream of visitors. Some cynics would label this as just another form of poverty tourism as the workers themselves didn’t benefit from their new found “fame”. And they’d be right. No royalties for them!

But few could have predicted that the Ijen crater would then become one of Indonesia’s most popular destinations, drawing huge numbers of eager touris…

Climbing Mount Raung – Majestic Isolation

There are very few places in Java where you can truly get away from the crowds. Even the island’s volcanoes have become busy places, a magnet for the country’s youth in particular, many of whom are seeking yet another opportunity to get that perfect Instagram shot. Some flock to the imperious Mount Semeru in East Java (as put on the map by the rather melodramatic 2012 Indonesian movie 5cm) while others visit popular volcanoes such as the twin Gede-Pangrango peaks near Jakarta, where overcrowding has become such a problem that the authorities have had to limit the number of hikers to prevent it resembling the chaotic Tanah Abang market during Ramadan.

But very few make it to Raung, a difficult-to-reach and isolated volcano in the island’s eastern-most regency of Banyuwangi, East Java. There are two routes to the peak: the so-called classic route from Sumberwringin in Bondowoso and the puncak sejati (true peak) route which begins in Kalibaru. Of the two routes, the puncak sejati route ha…

Climbing Mount Kerinci (part 2)

We arrived at the village of Kersik Tuo around 8 hours after leaving Padang. This, however, included a stop-off for lunch at a particularly dodgy Padang restaurant, which was as gloomy as a cave, and served us a very limited range of uninspiring dishes and, most disappointingly of all, no rendang! Arggg!!!

Climbing Mount Kerinci was certainly a slog, but not as difficult as Semeru (Indonesia’s third highest volcano), or I have been told, Rinjani (Indonesia’s second highest volcano). Whilst these two volcanoes have soul-destroying scree that has to be trudged through on the summit approach, this is not a problem at Kerinci, where the ground is stonier and therefore much firmer.

Trash, alas, was everywhere on the mountain. But this is what happens when a country is considered by its citizens to be an enormous rubbish dump. One person in our group said there were three ways (using an institutional/ formulaic type approach) to address the problem, namely: 1) providing ways for people to du…

Climbing Mount Kerinci, Indonesia’s highest volcano

Men can live anywhere and hence they do not need a house like women do

~ Minangkabau saying

So after more than 25 years I finally returned to Sumatra – this time to climb Indonesia’s highest volcano, the imperious Mount Kerinci.  I have fond memories of this huge and rugged island’s steamy jungles (especially around Bukit Lawang) as well as its many superb beaches (like those in Nias) and wondered how the island was holding up in this age of mass environmental destruction (Sumatra has reportedly lost more than 50% of its tropical rainforest in only a couple of generations).

We had an early morning flight and my taxi was supposed to pick me up at 5am. But it wasn’t there! It most certainly couldn’t have been held up in traffic since there isn’t any at this ungodly hour – even in madcap Jakarta. So where was it? I shortly got a telephone call but all I could hear was static and interference like from an incorrectly tuned shortwave radio. The taxi driver was trying to call me - no doubt bec…