Cycling Sumatra Part 4: Beautiful pavement

El Camino en medio de la Jungla

One of Sumatra’s jungle roads

Cycling Sumatra Part 4: Beautiful pavement

Country: Indonesia

From Pulau Kijang to Pemantangreba

Lesson learned: There is no good reason to put oil into a valve

Laughed about towards: Cameras, cellphones, tablets, pretty much everything with a lens.

Most wonderful miracle: Volunteers repairing the streets and the first road sign after six days.

Food we ate: Rice

Greatest challenge: Find a place to sleep that is not fully booked

Days on the bike: 3

Kilometers cycled: 131.99

Average Kilometers per day: 44

Total Kilometers cycled till Pemantangreba: 13968.85

Total days travelled till Pemantangreba: 804

February 2014: Cycling Sumatra Part 4.


We slept until late in our dark and airconditioned palace. The mosquitoes did not bother me anymore. There was not a lot of skin left they had not attacked previously so if they really wanted to give it a try and search for a bit of skin – I wouldn’t stop them anymore.

A really cute little girl along the way

A really cute little girl along the way. Roberto loves to squeeze people’s cheeks.

We had just cycled a few minutes when we met our friend Riidha in the streets. She was on her way back home from school and bit us another farewell, while a man in his late fifties painted us a rather primitive but surprisingly accurate map of our way from here to Pekanbaru, the state’s capital.

So we made our way through the villages. We were lucky: the “never-ending puddle of mud”, as I had called it on the previous day, had ended and we cycled on little bits of concrete, pebbles of the size of fists and through some smaller puddles, hardly ever longer than a few meters. In fact the path was of such wonderful conditions that we would have been able to cycle more than half of the way – if we were not stopped all the time. Foreigners were not too common in the forests of Sumatra and many groups of young men on motorbikes, school girls with bicycles, couples on their way visiting the neighbors, young kids and old ladies stopped us to have a little chat and take a picture. We exchanged the exact same words all the time.

“From where?”
“Kuala Tungkal, Jambi”

“Far! Where?”

“Very far! You speak Indonesian?”

“Very little. Street to Kotabaru this?”


“Okay. Street to Kotabaru this?”

Our host Simon and his two beautiful daughters

Our host Simon and his two beautiful daughters

Then we took some pictures and were allowed to continue. One group of men did not ask for a picture, they stood in the middle of the path with a bucket that contained a few Rupiahs. The spot that they stood on, was newly repaired, they had put some big branches over the biggest puddles and attached them to each other with old motorbike chains. The provisory construction worked perfectly fine and we gave them a big tip. Those were voluntary workers, hoping to better the circumstances of transport for the entire community living nearby and we hoped they would continue the good work.

Few kilometers to go to Kotabaru the path turned into a very big and deep muddy puddle again, but there was one single 30 centimeter deep line where all the people ride their motorbikes. This was where Roberto’s tyre got flat. We did not quite find a place to fix, where our tools would not sink 30 centimeters deep into the mud, until Roberto saw a house with a small garden on the side of the trail Simon, the owner of house and garden, did not only let us repair our things in his garden. He also invited us to spend the night inside.

Simon, his family and some of his neighbors

Simon, his family and some of his neighbors – who in Indonesia also belong to the family. No matter what.

Simon grew up on the Indonesian island of Java, some bicycle-weeks further south. That was where he had learned some English and we chatted in a mix of both languages. Some neighbors come over for a chat and we switched to basic Indonesian with them and Simon’s wife and daughters. It was about 9 pm when Roberto lost the fight against his fatigue and silently fell asleep sitting in his corner. When one of the men noticed that, they all immediately got up and left.

I was unable to sleep and when Roberto woke up only two hours later, we both stayed awake listening to the nightly thunderstorm until 5.30 am when everybody got up again. I promised myself never to destroy my sleeping rhythm again.

Indonesian warning sign

This seems to be a rather serious warning. But my Indonesian is too limited to read it. Dilarang neans forbidden. How about the rest?

It was a Wednesday and yet we saw many kids with their self-made kites in the street during school hours. It must have been one of the many Indonesian public holidays.

We pushed our bikes through the big mud field and then cycled mostly and pushed only occasionally. People stopped us again, made small talk and asked for pictures. Today the general questions were slightly different.

“From where?”
“Kuala Tungkal, Jambi”

“Far! Where?”


“Oh! Your sister?“ (pointing towards me)

Roberto gave them a very confused look and pointed at both of our skin colors (that in fact were rather similar by now thanks to the sun), hair color and eye color, while I showed the silver ring that we had gotten back in Turkey in order to answer exactly that kind of questions. How could anybody consider we could be siblings? But Roberto understood that nobody really considered this option. The question about the sister was just a more polite way of asking if I was his wife of if he could hit on me. In Indonesian culture couples did not hug or kiss in public. We had to adapt this if we did not want to disrespect anybody and now nobody knew we were a couple. It was probably the lack of an army of babies crawling around us that made them doubt.

Beautiful pavement!

Beautiful pavement!

After a while we reached the bridge, a giant concrete monster that led over the Renh River. That was also when we spotted the first car in days. Now we knew that there could not be any more thin mud paths in front of us. We continued for some kilometers on pebbles, stones and mud until we reached a beautiful deep black surface – pavement! We had ridden without it for three days and two half days and we had really missed it. Many cyclists enjoy riding off-road and in general we also do, but with our rather low-class bikes and all that mud it had really not been too much fun.

The pavement’s quality was great, it was flat, and there was hardly any wind, hardly any traffic and hardly any holes in the pavement. We doubled our morning’s average speed of 8 km/h and really enjoyed cycling again. After two stops for fresh Mangosteen, Rambutan, Te Es, Milo Es and some noodles we reached the town Rengat at 2 pm. It was a rather big settlement of 10,000 or 46,000 people, I even read somewhere about 295,000 people, but that must have been the entire area.

Back on track

Back on track

Rengat was different to all other towns we had seen in Indonesia. We spotted historical buildings with fancy gardens, four public trash bins, a pedestrian’s way and hardly any houses on poles. We rode straight towards a hotel. It was only late noon but how could we just cycle past such a nice town?

The receptionist was not present and a young man who sat I the entrance hall watching TV, explained us the way to another hotel. The second hotel was full. That was quite a surprise for me, because the doors to the empty rooms were open and a lot of keys were presented on the reception desk. Well, probably there was a wedding and a big group of people had booked all rooms. The receptionist sent us to a third hotel that we never were able to find, so we decided to return to the first one and check if the receptionist was back. By then the man who had watched TV stood inside the reception, separating sheets of paper. After a while he admitted, that in fact he was the hotel’s receptionist. But yet we were not allowed to spend the night. Why not? Well … hummm … full.

Sleeping on the floor

We are more than comfortable on the floor – but we did not even get a place to camp in town!

There was not a lot we could do and we rode around a bit searching for another hotel. A Trishaw driver showed us the way to the fourth and last hotel of town. Again there were plenty of keys on the reception, not a single costumer visible and a lot of empty rooms with open doors. Yet – the hotel was filled up to the last little room. No, we could not sleep in the entrance. No, we could not camp in the yard. Why not? Also full. We explained that we had valid passports, valid visas, cash to pay for the night and we were not going to damage anything, but the owner did not change her mind. Her hotel was fully occupied.

Three full hotels on a Wednesday afternoon. I doubt that the owners had been completely honest with us, but I could not see the problem that hosting two foreigners could bring.

The hotel’s owner’s son got on his motorbike and showed us hotel number three, the one that we had never been able to find. That was, because it was situated in the very outskirts of town. The hotel appeared rather fancy and a night in the simplest room cost 300.000 Rupiah, nearly 20 €. But after 10 kilometers of searching a hotel, 85 kilometers in total and three “full” hotels we were too fed up to continue cycling and find a place to camp. At least there was wifi and breakfast – for the first time in Sumatra.

Bike shop Rengat, Riau, Sumatra

At the local bike shop

By the following morning a surprise awaited us: one of Roberto’s spokes had broken again. After taking several pictures with us, the hotel’s staff showed us the way to a bike mechanics, where we also got some brake pads. The old ones had run off completely empty after all those muddy days.

After 12 Kilometers Roberto’s inner tube jumped out of the tyre and got stuck between the brakes. I had never seen anything like that before. We had a closer look and soon saw that the great mechanics had had the creative idea to give some drops of oil to the valve, so it would slide easier into its hole in the tyre. But the oil wandered through the entire tyre and made the tube wobble around until Roberto rode around a corner that was tight enough for it to jump out.

Oil in valve makes tube jump out of tyre

Never put oil to your valve!

We were still cleaning and fixing when the daily spectacle started. Like in a theatre, the sky prepared every day for the same play. Before the play the curtains remained closed and some scene painters prepared the stage scenery. First the blue sky got some white spots, then the white spots turned grey and grew bigger while a bit of wind came up. The music in the background, hardly noticeable for the audience, was the wind in the trees and a silent grumble of thunder every now and then.

When the first loud thunder appeared, the sky’s color had already been changed completely to dark grey. This was the preparation for the play. The scene painters left the stage and now the curtains opened. On stage: one of the lead characters: hot and wet air! He is getting bigger and bigger. The soundtrack was a concert of thunder and lightning. Then this character made space for another central character called rain. First the rain performed rather softly, then it seemed to stop for just a quick moment and then the entire orchestra of noises set in. The rain had killed the hot and wet air within the first act of the play! The air was much fresher now and murderer rain was out there searching for more victims. Now it dominated the stage and big drops fell from the sky. Only actor number three, the wind, had the power to change their direction. The two were dancing and singing and fought for power all night long. They hugged, argued, disappeared shortly, yelled in thunder and played with each other until by the following morning, when they were both tired, the sun came to close the curtains again, clean up the mess on the stage and prepare for the next day’s play.

With our two new friends and helpers

With our two new friends and helpers

When we were back on the bikes, the curtains were about to open. The play started earlier than usual and we hurried up. After only two kilometers we spotted the first road sign after six days. We had made it to the main north-south-street! We stopped at the first hotel, because we rather watch the daily performance from the inside of a building. Who wants to sit in the first row in a play? Only the people who don’t mind being part of it, as occasionally the actors might wander down to the audience, pull a nose here, ask an embarrassing question there and pour some water onto somebody. No, we would rather sit in the back of the theatre.

The hotel was full. Why were we not surprised?

While we stood there trying to decide what to do, two girls stopped their motorbike. Ratih and Furi lived very near and decided to show us the way to another guesthouse, but we were not lucky again. Then they left by themselves telling us to stay where we were, they would find a place for us. And – voila – just two minutes later, when the curtain slowly opened, they were back. “Follow us!”, they shouted through the wind and just a moment later we found ourselves inside a cozy room in a cheap but friendly guesthouse.

Ratih and Furi left just in time before the rain won its battle and came back when rain and wind were both tired and had a break.

Furi told us that after school she sometimes helped out in a guesthouse on the main street. Yet we were only the second foreigners she had seen in her life. The first was a Brazilian cyclist. Now we understood that we must have been the first foreigners for a lot of people back on the way from Kuala Tungkal to here.

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  1. Pingback: Cycling Sumatra Part 5: Honks and hills | Tasting the cultures of the world by bike

  2. Mario Herrera says:

    Un saludo y gran abrazo a los dos por este esfuerzo y agradecerles las excelentes notas que envían en sus trayectorias.
    saludos !

    • admin says:

      Muchas Gracias Mario! Ahora estamos en Nueva Zeland pero pronto seguiremos en la rodada. Por el momento a trabajar se ha dicho!

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