February - March 2016
Monday February 22nd 2016
I went to Indonesia to see a total solar eclipse. It would be my first since the one I'd seen in Turkey ten years earlier. Indonesia was a country I had long wanted to go to, so I decided I would travel around Sumatra before the eclipse. My first destination was Medan, where I spent a day coming to terms with my jet lag, the tropical heat, and the incredible noise of a large Indonesian city.
Thursday February 25th 2016
I went to Bukit Lawang, on the edge of the untamed jungles of Gunung Leuser, and set out on a hike. I didn't have much time so it was just an overnight hike, but even though we only went a few kilometres into the jungle from the village, it still seemed pretty wild.
One of the attractions here is orangutans. A lot of semi-wild ones live near the village, as there was formerly a sanctuary for them nearby. So we saw our first ones very soon after setting off. I'd never seen any great apes before, and it was genuinely thrilling just to see these creatures that are so closely related to us.
The most famous local is Mina, who, so the guides told us, used to be quite placid, but after one of her children died at a time when humans were nearby, became very aggressive towards subsequent visitors. We encountered her and one of her children on the trail, and the guides warned us that she might rush us at any moment, and to be prepared to back off rapidly. But today she was calm. She came down from the trees to take food from the guides, then headed back up.
Friday February 26th 2016
We slept the night in a shelter by the river. It rained heavily and the hard floor of the shelter didn't offer much comfort. But waking up in the jungle could only ever be awesome. In the morning, a monitor lizard waded upstream past the camp. We then hiked downstream a little way, to the larger river which flows through Bukit Lawang. We covered most of the way back by raft.
Friday February 26th 2016
From Bukit Lawang, I wanted to head up to the far north of Sumatra. I got a minibus to Binjai, where I had a few hours to wait for the night bus to Banda Aceh. As it got dark, storm clouds were clearing.
Saturday February 27th 2016
A lot of terrible news has come out of Aceh. For a long time there was a separatist movement there with rebel attacks and government crackdowns leading to thousands of deaths. Then in 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused unimaginable devastation. But the tsunami ultimately led to the end of the insurgency.
With peace reigning in Aceh, it was safe for tourists to visit. I visited one of the main tourist sights, the PLTD Apung, which was swept four kilometres inland by the tsunami and now forms a permanent memorial to the disaster.
Monday February 29th 2016
I got a ferry from Banda Aceh to Pulau Weh, off the north coast. Just 60 miles further north were the Andaman Islands of India, but no boats cross this gap. So I contented myself with a couple of nights on Pulau Weh.
Monday February 29th 2016
I got the morning boat back to Banda Aceh, and bought a ticket for the night bus back to Medan. That left me with the day to spare, and on a recommendation from a local, I went to Lampu'uk. It was a good choice. A secluded bay, a broad sandy beach, a hut selling food and cold drinks, and nothing to do but relax all day suited me perfectly.
At one point, the peace was disturbed when a busload of tourists from Malaysia arrived. Two of them joined me at the gazebo I was sitting under. They were Hamed and Osman, retired civil servants, on a short trip around northern Sumatra. Their tour looked quite upmarket, and anathema to me as a backpacker. Different approaches to travel notwithstanding, we had a great conversation until it was time for them to return to their air-conditioned bus and head off to their next destination.
Tuesday March 1st 2016
Indonesia has volcanoes. It has a lot of volcanoes. Across the whole country, there are usually 10 or 15 of them erupting at any one time. I'm a big fan of volcanoes and I hoped I would see some of them. I had the misfortune at this point to be in the company of someone excessively cautious, who did not want to get even remotely close to volcanic activity. So while I spent a few days in Berastagi, not far from the highly-active Sinabung, I had to content myself with distant views. I didn't see anything that looked like an eruption, but clouds of steam rose from the summit in the evening.
Wednesday March 2nd 2016
Just outside Berastagi is another volcano, Sibayak. My travel companion consented to climb this one as it had last erupted more than 100 years ago. It was a steep climb to some epic scenery at the top, with knife-edge ridges around the crater's edge.
Saturday March 5th 2016
Possibly the most devastating volcanic eruption in human history took place at Toba. It's even possible that it reduced the human population to just a few thousand people, 75,000 years ago. Within the immense Toba Caldera lies Samosir, not really an island as it's joined to the mainland by a tiny neck of land, but close enough. It was a mix of a couple of very touristy villages and lot of agricultural land.
Sunday March 6th 2016
With time ticking down towards the eclipse, I headed south. A boat journey across Lake Toba took me to Parapat, from where I got a bus to Medan. North and South Sumatra have surprisingly poor overland connections, and travelling by bus from Medan to Palembang would have taken days. It was time I did not have, and so I had to fly.
Tuesday March 8th 2016
In Palembang, I couch-surfed. It was the first time I'd done that, and it was an absolutely fantastic experience. I stayed at the house of Sri, an architect from Palembang, normally resident in Bali, but back here for the eclipse. Her house accommodated me and five other travellers, a doctor from Sulawesi, a forestry student from Java and a journalist from Sumatra among them.
We all visited a park near Sri's house in the outskirts of Palembang. It was home to a large number of monkeys, which have come to a very happy accommodation with visitors. People feed them peanuts, in return for which they come right up to you and let you take photographs. We all bought supplies from the peanut sellers and passed them on to the monkeys.
Wednesday March 9th 2016
Eclipse day approached. The eclipse would happen early in the morning, and we decided we would watch it from Ampera Bridge, in the city centre. We decided it would be best to go there the night before, to get a good view point. Thousands of other people had also decided this, but there was plenty of space on the bridge. It was a night like no other, with my new group of friends from Sri's for company. We chatted and laughed until the small hours, then got some tiny amount of sleep on the hard road surface.
Wednesday March 9th 2016
There is a lot of luck involved in seeing a solar eclipse. Just a scant few minutes in which you want the skies to be clear. Today, sadly, we were out of luck. The day started with a fantastic sunrise which brought cheers from the crowds on the bridge. But it quickly clouded over. The eclipse began just an hour after sunrise, and by then it was fully cloudy.
It was my fourth total eclipse, and two were perfectly clear, so I did not feel too deprived, but I felt very sorry for my Indonesian friends. It would have been a first total eclipse for all of them. I still found it incredible, though, to experience a dramatic return to night so soon after dawn. The light at mid-eclipse was indescribably strange, and is not captured by my photograph. All of us on the bridge cheered and whooped, despite the clouds. And then, incredibly quickly, a second dawn arrived. Within minutes, everything was normal again.
Thursday March 10th 2016
The crowds streamed away from the bridge. I went back to Sri's, where we all spent the rest of the day just hanging out, tired and not very talkative after our night on the bridge. The next day I said fond goodbyes to an awesome bunch of people, with whom I had shared an experience that was not what we all wanted, but unforgettable nevertheless. It was goodbye to them, and goodbye to Indonesia, as I headed back to Europe. I flew from tropical South Sumatra to late winter in southern Germany.