Cycling through Sumatra Part 2: Barefoot through mud and goat poop

Children in Sumatra

Some kids cycled with us until we got too far away from their house.

Country: Indonesia

From Katia Maju Ponga Muan to Dusun Sungay Limau

Lesson learned: If the locals say, the way was “a bit bumpy ” you should expect more than a few potholes.

Laughed about: The white girl with the muddy feet.

Most wonderful miracle : Entertaining some young book-fans

Food we ate: Instant noodle soup.

Greatest challenge: mud and soil.

Days on the bike: 1 (more pushed than cycled)

Kilometers cycled: 19.37

Average Kilometers per day: 19.37

Total Kilometers cycled till Dusun Sungay Limau: 13955.91

Total days travelled till Dusun Sungay Limau: 800

December 2013: Cycling through Sumatra Part 2.

We said byebye to Sulbakti, his family and the neighbors and got back on the bikes. Every now and then we crossed a bridge that led over one of the many canals. The asphalt slowly disappeared and we rolled through hard sand. Every bridge was thinner than the one we had been on before and after about seven kilometers we found ourselves on a canal with a bridge that was yet to be finished.

The kids picked fruit from the trees and showed off their climbing skills. This girl up in the branches won.

The kids picked fruit from the trees and showed off their climbing skills. This girl up in the branches won.

As a substitute, a narrow wooden walkway was constructed next to the half-finished concrete bridge. Some planks were missing and the wood did not appear too strong to me, but when I saw a motorbike crossing the bridge with a few people sitting on it, I knew that our bikes wouldn’t be a problem either.

After that bridge we didn’t see cars at all anymore. Every now and then a motorbike, some cyclists and a few pedestrians crossed our way and that was about it. We were happy. This was rural Indonesia. We cycled far away from touristy villas on the beach, cocktails and crazily high tourist prices.

As we jolted from one puddle to the next through rocks, over branches and soil, we asked ourselves if this was really the right road. On the only map that I had found online, there was a yellow line that connected Kuala Tungkal with Pulau Kijang. I had imagined a wide and paved road but in reality we were cycling on a narrow trail that was less than a meter wide. The locals didn’t miss the chance to chat with us and we asked for directions in the few words of Indonesian that we had learned.

Local traffic in Sumatra

Cozy local sandy road

“Where to?”

“Pulau Kijang”

“….” [something that I didn’t understand]” (pointing in the direction we were going)

“Where from?”

“Kuala Tungkal”

“Where from – country?”

“Mexico and Germany”

“…” (moment of surprise and silence)

“Hot today”

“Yes, hot. Many sun.”

“Drinking many water”

The trail got thinner and narrower and the mud puddles got deeper. We had to get off our bikes often to push them through the mud. After half an hour we found ourselves pushing most of the time and riding only occasionally. To both sides there was nothing but high grass. We met very few people only and always made sure that we were not lost. „Straight and at the crossroad right“, they kept on telling us. It felt like days of pushing when we finally reached the intersection. Ahead was a wonderful wide road with space for two cars side by side and beautiful soil on it. We grinned. Looks like we made it through the worst. Sulbakti had probably never cycled through here when he told us in the morning “It can get pretty bumpy, especially now after the rain”.

Road condition Sumatra

In the beginning people fixed the biggest puddles with wood or branches.

We got all our motivation back, hopped on the bikes and rode them for full 80 meters. Then we were both forced to stop. What had happened? Well, the beautiful fine soil on the road was a bit humid and the soil-water-mix was like power-glue on our tyres. It was everywhere, clogged our brakes, mudguards and chain. 80 meters? Seriously? Looks like Sulbakti did have a good reason to warn us after all.

So we got our bags off, tried to dismantle the mudguards (for two of them we did not bring enough tools) and opened all brakes. Then we scrubbed the soilballs off with sticks. I could hardly work because two kilos of soil stuck firmly on each of my shoes and made me walk like on 10-centimeter-high-heels. Every time I scratched the soil off it came back within only two or three steps. Same for the bikes of course.

I continued barefoot and kept a collection of soil-and-mud-sticks in my front basket from now on. We tried everything. Walking only on the dry parts of the road (there were hardly any because it rained every night all night), walking the bike only through solid tracks formed by other motorcyclists and cyclists, riding the bike even if the wheels blocked, walking through the high grass. Nothing helped. We were tired. Every 50-100 meters we had to stop, hold the heavy bike in one hand, scratch soil off from underneath the rear mudguard with a stick with the other hand. What should we do? Should we walk back to Kuala Tungkal and get the ferry to Pulau Kijang? Or should we try to carry all our things one after the other even though that would mean we’d have to walk triple the distance?

Muddy mudguard

Why are they called mudguards if they can’t even handle any mud?

A nice man stopped and with a smile he told us that we only had a few kilometers to go. The further we pushed our bikes the more people we asked and with every person the kilometers towards Pulau Kijang grew. When an old man mumbled something about 10 kilometers we decided that it was probably better to stop asking.

In the afternoon we met a young man and a teenager who decided to slow down to our pace. All the other pedestrians had overtaken us in no time. “It’s not far”, they told us. “Just a bit more”. They helped us with the mud and eventually we really saw a house at the end of our trail, then anotherone and anotherone. We had reached a village! But it was not Pulau Kijang. Our two new friends walked us to the jetty where the ferry would stop to bring people to the other side of the river. Next to the jetty there was even a small shop and we bought three instant noodle soups and cooked them immediately.

The boys told us that it was about 10 more kilometers until we would reach Pulau Kijang and that the condition of the road was more or less the same. We had not even made 20 kilometers this day and we were completely exhausted, so we decided that it was better to spend the night here than somewhere on the mud-paths on the other side of the river.

By the end of the day we saw people again.

By the end of the day we saw people again.

The jetty and the little ferry-hut that consisted of a roof and only a roof, was the village’s main attraction and all young and old people met there, played, chatted and stared at the strangers. “It’s omly three hours by bike to Pula Kijang”, one of the younger adults cheered us up. But we knew that there was no way we could walk our bikes that quickly. Ten kilometers should normally be done in a bit more than half an hour, but in these conditions we knew we would probably need all day.

With the belly full of soup I looked at my bike. What I saw there was more soil, animal poop and mud than bike, so I pushed it into the river and some of the kids handed me fibrous pieces of coconut shells as a compensatory brush. With brush and fingers I tried to clean my bike as good as possible. Our new young friend stared at me. I guess he had never seen such a dirty white girl scratching goat-poop off her bicycle with her hands. Maybe he had never seen a white woman ever before. I don’t think that this small village has seen many foreigners. The reasons are obvious:

– There are no roads, no buses and no way to reach the village quickly. Unless you fly a helicopter or charter a boat.

– The kids were afraid of us and even the adults seemed to be wary of us.

– The tiny village shop sold us everything to ridicullosly low prices. A half-liter bottle of water cost 1000 Rupiah, that’s 0.06 €. We would never find so cheap water again.

This went on forever. It took as nearly all day to get 19 kilometers further.

This went on forever. It took us nearly all day to get 19 kilometers further.

We went to get some more soup and some seeds that looked like peanuts and just began to get our matresses readly for the night in the jetty when a lady approached us and offered us to spend the night in her place. Great! We got our belongings back on the bikes and followed her through a few meters of mud to the house. Before we could even say hello to everybody they offered us to take a shower. Everybody around us looked as clean as can be and the reason is that Indonesians like to shower often and intensely. Twice a day is normal, once is still okay, three times is nothing special either.

The lady led me to a wooden balcony. The entire house was constructed on poles and so was the balcony. Underneath us there was a pond with bubbling black water. I wondered if it was a temporary pond that only filled with water during the rainy season or if here around the eqator the rain fell all year long. She grabbed a bucket full of water from a big tank in the kitchen and filled it into another bigger bucket on the balcony. I took the small bucket and continued until the big one was full.

The balcony had a few wooden walls but the door to the kitchen did not close so I took a shower wearing my towel. In the corner o the balcony there were two planks missing. I wondered if that was a construction mistake, if they had fallen off or if this was maybe the toilet, because I could not find any wooden hut on poles in the garden, as most of the houses had it. Fortunately I had sweat out all the water that I drank and I did not need to find out. I would not want the pedestrians to see the things that fell off the balcony into the pond.

Very muddy dirty bicycle

I tried to rub the worst off, but it was extremely sticky and hard to clean off.

I grabbed my first ladle full of water and was quite surprised about its green color and all the little larvae twitching in it. Didn’t the lady get this from the kitchen-water? I decided to carry the bucket a bit further onto the balcony where the kitchen-light would not shine on it, so I wouldn’t have to see the water. That didn’t make it any cleaner but it helped me to shower anyways. Sometimes it is better not to know things too well.

When we both sat in the living room, everybody wanted to talk to us. Little by little all neighbors and friends came to visit and I think in the end the entire little village was gathered in the house. I got my mini-atlas and showed the kids where Roberto and I came from. After a moment my atlas, the family-pictures, my personal notebook and a small German-Indonesian dictionary were passed around. Everybody wanted to know more about what he or she saw. “Apa?”, asked the kids, “What?”, pointing onto one of the pages.

I explained as good as I could in the few words of Indonesian:

This is my grandpa.

These are handwritten directions in Spanish.

This is a German dictionary.

This is Roberto’s mother’s dog. She wears clothing because it is cold.

This is a museum in Germany.

This is a beach in Mexico, where Roberto lives.

These are addresses from friends that we made in Laos and who we sent pictures.

This is snow in my father’s garden in Germany.

These are sketches of bicycle parts.

This sketch wants to be a rocky lagoon.

Everybody’s highlight was a picture of my mother’s cousin’s young children. Everybody had looked at us pitiful when we told them that we did not have any children yet, so they were happy to know that there are still kids in our families. Everybody admired little Anissa and Elias and the interviews continued.

There was no TV, no cellphones and no cameras. The kids and adults spent time with each other rather than with electrical objects. When Roberto couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore and fell asleep sitting in his corner, the others silently disappeared and we both got some hours of the long-needed sleep.


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  1. I love those roads – yuk – I know it takes ages to get rid off the sticky mud

    • admin says:

      Hehehe, yes it does. But I am happy now that we did it. It was quite an adventure 🙂

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