A little to the left, a slight move to the right, a minor change of saddle angle…nothing stopped the bolts of pain in my underside as we bumped along Sumatra’s backroads.

Turns out we still have a few things to learn about bike touring.  Here’s our latest lesson learned:

Two Months off the Bike + Brand-New Brooks Saddle= Intense Agony

And it wasn’t just saddle sores we suffered from.  With 20 extra kilos of “essential stuff” I’d lugged back with me from my trip to America, the bikes were weightier than ever. Five minutes of struggling up Sumatra’s first big hill (which comes as soon as you zip off the ferry from Java) and I was ready to ditch the new tarp.  The rain poncho?  Totally unnecessary.  And that extra rim Eric insisted we needed?  Not so crucial, I reflected, when faced with a 15% incline.

It took a few days of adaptation before we succumbed to Sumatra’s charms.  First we had to re-accustom ourselves to the motorbikes darting about helter-skelter, the cows and goats rummaging through rubbish piles in search of their next meal and the intense tropical sun pounding down on our pale exposed flesh.

And we had to get fit again. FAST.  Having spent almost six months in Indonesia, Eric had exhausted his options for visa extensions.  We have a month to get out of the country or risk the wrath of the immigration officials. There will be little margin for lingering on the shores of Lake Maninjau or calling it quits early when our legs are heavy with fatigue after a series of brutal climbs.

It’s been 10 days now since we wobbled out of Jakarta.  (I was actually really surprised at how unwieldy the loaded bike was in the beginning—I felt like a toddler taking her first cautious steps)

Here’s a bit of what we’ve experienced:

Noodle Soup
The first photo I took leaving Jakarta. We were careening through some tiny alleyways and I was struck at so much life going on–right out there in the open, not closeted behind closed doors.
Back on the Road, Sumatra
Early morning is still my favorite time to be on the bike. People are fresh and full of optimism. These women were heading off to the fields for a day of back breaking work yet they still had time for a smile and a hearty ‘Hello Mister!’
Food comes from the sea, whether it's octopus or just the regular 'ole catch of the day.  And Sumatrans like it hot.  Unbearably hot for most westerners.
Food comes from the sea, whether it’s octopus or just the regular old catch of the day. And Sumatrans like it hot. Unbearably hot for most Westerners.
The Bike Shop Guy
Cycling Indonesia means you’re never short of interesting characters to meet. The locals love to ham it up and this guy eagerly struck a pose for the camera.
Collecting Bird Nests
These odd structures that dot the Sumatran countryside are meant to entice birds to nest. The nests are then harvested as a delicacy for soups and such.
Full Moon on Sumatra
This was shot at daybreak on one of our first days back on the road. The night before we camped at a quiet country school and I was delighted to round the bend and set eyes on this spectacular sight.
Sure, you'll find plenty of folks who just seem to be lazing by the side of the road without a care in the world, but there are plenty of others busy trying to get ahead by whatever means possible.
Sure, you’ll find plenty of folks who just seem to be lazing by the side of the road without a care in the world. But there are plenty of others busy trying to get ahead by whatever means possible.
Cycling Sumatra, Indonesia
So far on Sumatra’s West Coast we’ve cycled through two National Parks. The forest is dense and home to more than a few curious monkeys. And there are hills. Steep ones. The ones that cause you to curse and swear you’re going to hitch a ride on the next passing truck (though we never did).
And of course you're never far from the refreshing sea!
And of course you’re never far from the refreshing sea!

Many Thanks!

A massive thank you to Paul and Raihan for making Eric part of your family in Jakarta for such an extended stay.

Thanks to the good folks at Missoula Free Cycles for setting Amaya up with the coolest wheels in town and not laughing at her less than stellar bike repair skills.

A big thanks to all the hosts from couchsurfing, the random individuals who invited us into their homes for the night and the teachers and staff at the many schools who offered us shelter.

Hats off to the folks at SteriPen for setting us up with one of their lightweight water purification devices.

Struggling through Sumatra
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5 thoughts on “Struggling through Sumatra

  • June 23, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    Hey Mark! Your blog has actually been a great resource and inspiration for Sumatra–just sad we won’t be ale to make in to Acech because that looks to be the very best part of the island.

  • June 23, 2014 at 8:35 PM

    Just curious, what did you use for water purification before the SteriPen? Do you also carry filters?
    Good to read you again, and of course the pictures are always great.

    • June 24, 2014 at 12:19 AM

      We had a highly effective carbon water filter called First Need made by General Ecology –could even transform muddy stream water into drinkable fluid. The steripen is just a purifier, but far lighter. At least we’re cutting weight somewhere!

  • August 30, 2018 at 5:09 AM

    We cycled the trans-Sumatra highway from Medan to Bukkittingi. Even back in 1991 – the highway was a bit too crowded for our taste. After looking at your West coast Sumatra photos – it looks like that road is much less hectic and beautiful. But then again, the trans-Sumatra heads through the highlands where the temperature is quite a bit cooler.

    Just like you – we would be up for going back to pedal the Atjeh province.


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