Thursday, 25 November 2010

The day the heat became just too much...

I am generally an enthusiastic traveller. Everything about being somewhere new is an experience worth having, be that the sights, smells, sounds, people or activities. Even if, on occasion, that means grotty places to sleep, busy, dirty cities, or getting caught up in riots in South America. However, when reflecting back on Medan, for the first time I am struggling to find real recommendations, or many positives. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Medan were just as friendly and generous as those everywhere else in Sumatra. Getting slightly lost in the winding maze of the city centre, there was always someone happy to point out the right way. Similarly, our accommodation was lovely, with the first hot showers for nearly two weeks, so no complaints there.

On the flip side, Medan is incredibly humid, and very hot. It’s oppressive, not helped by the copious car fumes, and filthy river. The city centre, whilst not huge, is riddled with long streets and winding side roads, without signs or any other clues (although our rather basic map probably didn’t help!). It’s not set up in any way for pedestrians, and it is difficult to navigate through the traffic and haze of pollution.

On top of this, there is not very much to do. A couple of museums, a palace, and some mosques make up the bulk of the attractions, and can be done in a day at a push. After a short, hot walk through the centre, dropping in on a couple of attractions but beaten down by the continuous avoidance of traffic, the smell and the humidity, we eventually gave up and fled back to our room.

I’m not saying that Medan hasn’t got anything to offer, or that it is worth missing entirely. But I think a day is enough, and for us, two was a little too much.
We flew back to KL, and with just a day before the flight home, spent our last few hours in that vibrant, busy city, before saying a temporary goodbye to Asia…

Friday, 12 November 2010

Danau Toba - where time stops

Not far from Berastagi is the beautiful and vast Danau Toba, an incredible expanse of water with one of the most relaxed atmospheres of anywhere I’ve ever been to. Taking the ferry across to the island in the middle of the lake, we settled into our guesthouse for a couple of days of relaxing and soaking up the calm.

Our accommodation was a traditional batik house right at the water’s edge, extremely peaceful with only lapping water and the enthusiastic singing of the local residents to break the silence. Despite our initial plans of exploring the island and going out on the water, our recent pace finally caught up with us and we were content just swimming in the lake (which was cool but thankfully not cold), wandering around town, and eating the most amazing BBQ fish and pork which seemed to be the local speciality.

During the whole of our time in Sumatra, everyone we met was kind – giving directions and advice freely, smiling and greeting us warmly – but none as much as on this lovely island in the middle of the lake. I wasn’t surprised when I read that travellers ‘get lost’ for weeks or even months there – I would quite happily have stayed for longer (and probably have doubled my body weight with all the delicious options on the menu…).

All too soon it was time to return to Medan and the fast-paced life of a city, although the ferry ride back was certainly a jolt to the senses – the wind had picked up and the boat pitched sharply with the increased waves, giving everyone on board a rollercoaster ride. Getting back onto solid ground was definitely appreciated, even if it did herald the start of a 5 hour car journey.

Clambering up a volcano

Winding up out of the jungle, we headed slightly south to the volcano district of Berastagi. Situated at over 1000m above sea level, the temperature was still warm but lacking the intense humidity we had just left – a refreshing change. The main reason to stop at the town (except of course to see its giant cabbage statue…I’m not kidding!) is to climb one of the active volcanoes, which we set out to achieve the very next morning.

We had decided on Sibayak, which at 2094m was an accessible option even with the changeable weather conditions, and wouldn’t require us hiring a guide. We set off early, hoping the heavy mist of the morning would clear as we ascended, walking 45 minutes through the town and the outlying areas to the starting point of the hike. In retrospect, and if I were ever to do it again, I probably would have hopped on a local bus to the starting point – although a pleasant walk, it was 45 minutes of uphill, and had us puffing before even beginning the walk proper!

After paying a nominal fee for our permits we started off, and the path quickly and steeply twisted up the side of the volcano – it was quite hard going at times, particularly with the combination of heat and rain as constant companions. There was a moment of panic when we lost the next section of path – although the map our hostel had provided and my guidebook assured us that it would be easy to follow, the path had deteriorated terribly, and was broken and slippery in many places – so broken in fact that we hadn’t recognised it as a path at all! Later, on the summit, we spoke to someone who had been walking the route for years, and he confirmed that it was worst he had ever seen it.

We eventually made it to the top, and in brief moments of clarity between the thick mist we saw the bright yellow sulphurous fumaroles dotted around the crater, and the lush green valleys and fields below. A bit of a slog to arrive, but definitely worth the effort. Everything about the volcano suggested activity, with pillars of thick smoke drifting up from small holes, and ashy sulphur deposits mingling with the loose rocks.

The descent was just as tricky in places and took longer than we had expected; a nice cool drink back at the hostel was definitely appreciated. We spent one further night in Berastagi to rest our aching muscles, and then it was time to get back on the road again.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Taking a bath...

After being awoken by monkeys jumping around on the aluminium roof above our room the following morning (the sound better resembling a herd of elephants than light-footed primates), we set off on a two-day jungle trek through the national park.

Fortune on our side, we glimpsed more orangutans on our way up into the thick foliage, and this time they were far more playful (clearly more awake in the morning!), swinging around on the branches overhead and coming ever closer – one older female settled herself in a tree merely inches from my face. Even one of the babies seemed to have found her confidence, leaving mum behind as she attempted a few jumps and swings of her own. We reluctantly left them to begin the trek, which, following the pattern of every hike I let myself in for, was a combination of steep uphill’s, followed by equally steep downhill’s, then repeat until you collapse.

The humidity and slippery jungle terrain left me exhausted, although there was plenty to make the hike worth the pain – as well as the incredible trees and flora around us, we also spotted a variety of wildlife, from the cute Thomas Leaf monkey who became curious whilst we were having a break and literally came to sit right next to us, bringing a few friends (and one very sweet baby), to the soft-shell turtles resting in a stream, the huge tortoise blocking our path, and the massive monitor lizards crashing through the undergrowth.

We arrived at our camp in the late afternoon, next to a river which proved very inviting after our sweaty day’s walk. The murky water was cool and perfect for swimming, and spending the night exposed to the jungle (no tents, just a bit of waterproofing over a bamboo frame) and all its noises was remarkably peaceful and relaxing (even if the hard, bumpy ground did my back no favours!). In the morning we had a final swim before tubing back down the river to the guesthouse and getting ready to move on.

After a two-hour off road trip, we arrived at our next destination, the tiny village of Tangkahan, a small and out-of-the-way place, but absolutely worth visiting for the main attraction – an elephant centre. Run by a group of passionate rangers, the centre looks after the non-wild rescued elephants, and tourists can visit, helping to wash the elephants in the river and then go on a trek through the jungle, with the money raised helping to support the centre. It truly was an amazing experience – washing the elephants was a huge amount of fun, the large animals splashing around in the water, enjoying the rough brushing (mimicking the way they rub themselves against trees after a wash in the wild).

It was incredible how gentle they were, carefully walking and swimming around us and then accepting some food at the end. There was even an extra treat in the form of a baby elephant born just a month prior to our visit, who was a real joy to play around with (and, just like many babies, really did not want her bath!). After washing it was time for our jungle ride, and again we were reminded of both the power but also the grace of the elephants – walking along narrow trails and up muddy hills with steep vertical drops was at times a little worrying, but the elephants were completely in control at all times and we felt safe.

With a final bunch of bananas for our beautiful hosts, we left Tangkahan and the national park to head up, up and up out of the jungle and it's oppressive heat and towards cooler climbs.

Off to visit some relatives...

Most of our holidays have one main purpose, usually falling into two categories: wildlife we would like to see in the wild, and natural or archaeological areas of beauty. This trip was based around the former, and so we jumped on a plane from KL straight to Sumatra, one of the few homes of wild orang-utans. I’ve longed to see these incredible apes for years, and was becoming increasingly excited as we drove to the town of Bukit Lawang after landing at Medan airport, the gateway to Gunung Leuser national park.

The jungle hit us with its humidity, sounds and staggeringly tall canopy as soon as we arrived, and as we settled into our room we saw a first brief glimpse of our red-headed cousins in the dense forest opposite. Soon after we headed up to the rehabilitation centre, where orang-utans slowly weaned off of human dependency to live wild in the jungle, for the afternoon feeding of the semi-wild inhabitants. Here we struck gold – as well as a couple of females who had come for their supplemented diet, we found ourselves surrounded by several curious new friends, including four babies clinging to their mothers and tentitively exploring their surroundings. A few even came down from the trees and walked right past us, barely half a metre from where we stood. They were even more spectacular then I had possibly imagined, and definitely made us even more excited for the two day jungle trek we had booked for the following morning.

The town of Bukit Lawang was also a real delight, with friendly locals greeting us as we explored, reflecting the laid back and relaxed atmosphere. There were small cheeky monkeys everywhere – clambering on the top of buildings, swinging across the river and trying to get into our belongings. But I think what made the place really special (and would be the trend across the island) was the lack of a touristy set-up – we only saw a small handful of other tourists and everything had a far quieter and authentic feel to it. You could lose weeks just hanging out, watching the river rush by and the gentle beauty of nature all around.