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In search of Sumatra’s equator

The equator is bloody long line.  I’m not sure how big it is, but it’s huge.  Ever since I
 was an impressionable teenager, watching “World Safari” on TV, and I saw Alby Mangles spray model Judy Green with champagne as she stepped across the line marking one hemisphere from another, it has been my life-long fantasy to cross the equator by foot. 

It had also been a life long fantasy to spray Judy Green with champagne – but I’m married now, so I’ve had to scratch that one off my list.  For the record, I have no life long fantasies involving Alby Mangles.

Then in 1993 or thereabouts, my sister returned from Sumatra, and gave me a t-shirt stating, “I crossed the equator – Bonjol, Sumatra, Indonesia”.  It was a great T-shirt, and I wore it for years – until the armpits rubbed bare. 

Bonjol’s Equatorial marker

But I always felt like a bit of an imposter wearing it, because I had never been to Bonjol, and I had never crossed the equator on foot.  Oh sure, I’d sprayed someone with champagne, but they were my mates Tim and Boothie on New Year’s Eve.  That doesn’t really count, because we weren’t on the equator, they weren’t Judy Green and they weren’t wearing chamois bikinis (thank heavens).

But things changed this year, when I moved to Jakarta, so tantalizingly close to the equator. Unfortunately, with work commitments, there never seemed an opportunity to cross it.  From time to time, I’d pull out the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guide and try to work out the logistics of a weekend jaunt to the equator, but it all seemed too difficult. 

I discussed this plan with my Sumatran friends, who couldn’t understand this fascination with Bonjol – the Sumatran equivalent of Gundaggi (a tacky moment in the middle of nowhere).  Basically they convinced me that there were far better places than Bonjol to visit in Western Sumatra, Muara Labun, Bukkintinggi and Lake Minanjau, to name a few. 

A double-check of the Lonely Planet confirmed the worst.  A trip to Western Sumatra was a five-day journey at the minimum.  So I had to shelve my Western Sumatran travel plans, I thought, for good.  

But then, my wife was sent on a five-day mission to Aceh.  I wasn’t allowed to join her, leaving me with five days to kill by myself.  That was when I started flicking through that Lonely Planet once more. It strengthend my resolve. I took five days leave from work for some cold, hard tourism in Sumatra while my wife was performing her good works in Aceh. 

My plane landed in Padang, the West Sumatran capital.  My choice of airline was determined by the winning combination of old planes, young pilots and crazy, crazy prices.  While I haven’t yet developed a phobia of flying as a result of using all these discount airlines, I wasn’t exactly pleased to hear a tinny rendition of “Mission Impossible” chirping from someone’s handphone during our take off.

Padang was very quiet compared to Jakarta and the streets were clean and wide.  While there were very few high-rise developments, the Padanganese were obviously very taken with their two pronged ‘Minangkabau’ style rooves, which arch gracefully to the sky, to emulate buffalo horns.  Not confined to traditional village houses, these peaks seem to adorn all the civic architecture – schools, police stations, public works, hotels government houses and so on. 

Traditionally, only the important houses (like the King’s house) were allowed to have 7 peaks – 3 on each side and one in the middle.  Modern Padang has been a bit more liberal in interpreting this requirement… unless the king has suddenly taken up residence in the railway station.  Less important buildings have two peaks, eg roundabout ornaments, rail crossings, weigh bridges, etc.  Coke vendors have three peaks – indicating a unique place within the social structure. 

Bukittinggi dawn

The bases of these wooden houses are curved like a ship.  Even out in the mountains the shipshape is retained.  Only when inside a King’s house did I understand the logic of this design.  The middle of the house is the “foyer” or lounge.  Then one step up at either end are the official receiving areas, where the king sits above his visiting subjects.  One step higher again are the royal bedrooms, so that when lying down, the King still rises  above all.  Perversely, the same design logic applies to ‘Jayco’ caravans.  Think about that one..

I stayed the first night with a friend of a friend at his wife’s house. Wife’s house?  Apparently the lines of inheritance are matrilineal in these parts.  But his wife, Susi still does the cooking.  A real Padang feast too.  Padang food is extremely popular throughout Jakarta, but nothing compared to the homemade fare on our table, including the classic beef rendang, jackfruit curry and ikan bakar (baked fish).

My friend Feri, who’d spent several years studying business in the States was concerned I might not be able to handle the chilli.  I loved the chilli.  It was the lack of cutlery that alarmed me.  But when in Rome..  So I ate with my fingers.       

They insisted I visit their village, Muara Labun, a mere three hours South of Padang they said.  That was another three hours further away from the equator, but how can you fight such gracious hospitality? I don’t know where they got this notion of a ‘short three hour drive’.  Perhaps a determined driver in a performance built rally car, driving with reckless disregard for life could have cracked the three-hour barrier.  But it took us all day.

The South of Padang barely ranks a mention in the guide books, which intrigued me since the crater lakes of Danau Di Atas (‘higher lake) and Danau Di Bawah (‘lower lake’), where we had lunch, were pretty damned stunning.  I tried talking to some locals, to get a handle on some of the myths and legends that surrounded these deep and ancient waters.  Apparently there was a large fish in the lake, and the local fishermen were very afraid of it. 

Okay, so that isn’t much of a legend, but, unlike so many other legends, this one was at least based firmly and soundly in logic.  Big fish = fear.  For once I could nod my head in genuine understanding.  Big Fish = fear. Yeah, I really got it.  I really did.

Of course I may have missed out some of the detail.  The fish had bug eyes, for instance, and the fisherman prayed to it, to let it know they only wanted to remove the small fish and leave big ones alone.  But the main message, ‘Big Fish = fear’ has a kind of universal resonance. 

There was a five hundred year old mosque in the centre of Muara Labun, with the unusual title of  “Masjid enam pulous kurang aso” or ‘mosque 60 less one’.  Legend has it that sixty Javan princes visited the area in the sixteenth Century, and each bought a pole with them to construct a mosque.  One died on the way, so it was constructed with one less pole.

There are many mysteries surrounding this mosque, such as “why not call just it ‘Mosque 59” or “Wasn’t there a prince strong enough to carry two poles the last bit of the way?” or even “Didn’t these people have servants to carry their poles around?”  Perhaps there was a big fish involved, I don’t know.  The mosque is now disused and completely riddled with white ants. 

We visited a waterfall and a coffee plant.  A tiny, family run business, “Mata Kopi” still roast their beans over an open fire in a hand turned barrel.  I offered to give this a try.  It’s funny how little things like this can give so much pleasure.  In this case, the pleasure was the barrel turner’s.  As soon as I was sitting in the hot seat, he was on his motor bike and roaring off into the distance. 

Turning the barrel was not difficult, but after a while boredom kicked in.  That occurred after approximately 75 seconds.   What these guys really needed was a satellite TV.  Wouldn’t that make life easier?

I spent two days in Muara Labun, leaving only one full day left, still was no nearer the equator.  On the bus back to Padang, everyone was laughing at me.  They didn’t receive too many tourists in these parts, and they thought I was lost.  I was half tempted to ask “Ke Mana Pantai Kuta?” (where’s Kuta beach?).  I arrived in Padang at about 7.00 pm, after the busses to Bukittinggi had stopped.  But the driver knew I needed to get to Bukittinggi, so he dropped me off at Minang Plaza to catch a Kijang (a 4wd). 

It was raining heavily and the road was half flooded.  Luckily there was a jeep waiting that was three quarters full. I paid my money and hopped in, but I had to hop out again as other passengers had to clamor in.  It was only then that I noticed that the driver was trying to change a tyre.  

Forget discount airlines.  Discount taxis take the cake.  While eight people were huddled together inside, blissfully pummeled by a pounding stereo, their car, which was already leaning on a 30 degree angle towards the flooded road, was being cranked further and further towards the water by a diamond jack.  While the jack was groaning under the weight of a two ton car and eight passengers, its ‘mechanics’ were lying under the vehicle trying to kick the old wheel lose.  I went out for a burger.  

When I returned, the wheel had been miraculously replaced without loss of life, although I still had some trepidation about the bald flat tyre that was now in place.  The subsequent trip was very quick, as we rocketed along the wet roads by a determined driver with a reckless disregard for human life. 

One day is a very short time to savour the sights a beautiful hill town like Bukittinggi, with its sprawling market, and nearby attractions of Bukit Lawung, Kota Gadang and limestone canyons.   The highlight was Danau (Lake) Minanjau, with its famous 44 hairpin turns leading down to the water.

I stopped at lakeside café to drink beer with some Germans, the first set of fellow tourists I had encountered in the whole of Western Sumatra.  They had arrived a week beforehand, and their archipelago adventure had pretty well ended there.  They saw no point in moving on.  I went for swim in the deep blue waters, keeping an eye out for the Big Fish.  Later I found a coconut palm lined café, that served char kway teoh, beer and had canoes for hire.  So by the middle of the afternoon, I was drifting amongst the fish farms in a traditional dug out canoe, with a beer or two under my belt, thinking life couldn’t get much better. 

But there was still something missing.  I was due to fly home in less than twenty-four hours and I still hadn’t figured out how to get to the equator.  Bonjol was almost two hundred kilometers away and the TransSumatran busses ran irregularly past it.  Even if I could catch a bus out there, there was no guarantee I could get one back.

Enter Yudi.  Yudi was a bloke, by the way.  He was no Judy Green, but the coincidence of name certainly made an impression.  Yudi was a Maninjau local who used to work as a tour guide until terrorism, tsunamis and earthquakes put pay to his day job and he had return to farming.  Yudi just happened to be hanging around the edge of the lake as I was heading back to the bus stop, and he just happened to speak very fluent English, and of course he had a proposal in mind.  He had a friend, who had a motorbike and, well, you know the drill.

I figured that Yudi didn’t have any champagne handy, but he probably knew where the equator was.  I explained that I wanted to get to the equator and then back to Padang for a 12.55 plane the following day.  Yudi reckoned we could just make it, providing we were absolutely ready to go at 6am.

He arrived at my hotel at 6.30.  The TransSumatran highway isn’t so much a highway as a maliciously winding goat track, but the dawn ride was nothing if not exhilarating. 

The Sumatran public busses are painted like dragsters – (flames painted on the side, spoilers, rows of driving lights, fat exhaust pipes, and pumping stereo) a long way from Jakarta’s humble metro mini.  In town they have weave their way slowly in between the ‘dompek’ carts, which are pulled by skinny ponies in bright red pom-poms, (looking like anorexic equine cheerleaders).

On the open road their true nature comes out.  Every hair-pin turn contained another dice with death, as we hared past omnibuses swaying at top speed through the mountain ranges. 

The Yudi tour not only offered thrills and spills, it offered a non-stop diatribe on local history, farming issues, world politics, Islam and marital advice.   Most of the topics merged into the one Grand theory of the universe.  Unfortunately there is no radio on a motorbike.

Perhaps the riding would’ve had been more subdued had we not hide from the police, stop for Nasi Goreng or push the bike uphill for fifteen minutes because we had ran out of petrol.  Who would have guessed that an empty fuel gauge really meant empty?

But we arrived at equator, just outside the town of Bojol, around 9.30 am. It was marked by a small concrete globe and painted line, and a museum.  The t-shirt vendors were well stocked.  They hadn’t bothered to change their design in thirteen years. 

There was barely time for a happy snap and a refuel before we were back on the bike for our race to Padang.  Things were going well until we passed a sign declaring “Padang 140”. Appparently there was a ‘mushola’ nearby and it was prayer-time. 

Part of me wanted to yell “Listen mate – I’ve been clinging onto the back of this bloody bike, for four hours now, wearing your stupid ice cream container of a helmet while you evade police and play chicken with the cliffs and the buses.  If anyone deserves the right to pray, it’s ME!” 

The part of me that respects culture and other people’s religions politely consented.  When you’re alone in the Sumatran jungle, it’s not a good idea to anger your driver.  Or his God.

Catching my flight was becoming an increasingly remote possibility, so we reached a new arrangement.  Yudi took me as far as Bukittinggi and put me on a Minibus that was going via the airport.  The bus didn’t leave the park til 11.15am – and it was normally a two hour trip to Padang.  Luckily I was in a performance rally vehicle with a determined driver, who had a reckless disregard for human life. 
I arrived at the airport at 12.45, ten minutes after the gates had closed and the other passengers had already boarded.  I talked my way through check in, and managed to board the plane during the safety demonstration. 

Alby eat your heart out!!

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