World Travelers:Indonesia - Riding the Ring of Fire

Text: Simon Thomas • Photography: Simon and Lisa Thomas

We are at the Butterworth dock on Malaysia’s west coast, and the morning’s already a scorcher. Stinging sweat drips into my eyes as I instinctively duck my head; mere feet above me, my precious motorbike is lofted high and swings like a 700-pound pendulum as it’s winched from the dockside to the ravaged hull of a weary fishing boat. After a full stop, we thread the blue nylon rope and lash my bike to the sun-baked deck alongside Lisa’s already secured 650 GS. The short 160-mile passage across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia to Sumatra will take two days. Indonesia here we come.

It’s the end of the wet season on the world’s largest archipelago. Here on the sultry island of Sumatra, the rains have yet to finish. At the Belawan dock, my left foot pushes down, and the audible “clunk” as first gear engages is reassuring. I sigh and let a grin smear its way across my face as we ride out into the congested Medan city traffic.

The Pacific Ring of Fire

Meandering in second gear, I let myself consider the ambitious journey ahead if we’re to reach northern Australia by June. Running 3,000 miles along the Equator, Indonesia’s landscape is dominated by volcanoes and is the world’s fourth most populous country (home to an astounding 200 ethnic groups and more than 245 million people). Lisa and I have six weeks to traverse a country comprised of 17,504 tropical islands. Many are uninhabited; some are even unnamed.

South of Sumatra’s largest city (Medan), the air is saturated, and we’re sweat soaked as I look to my GPS for the quickest escape route from the suburbs. In the gentle morning light, vendors open shutters and organize their stock to ready for the day’s trade. Squat wooden homes rub shoulders with bright brick stores with low sloping tin roofs that are vividly painted with logos of Pepsi and Maggi Noodles (a local favorite). A horse and cart rattle over the broken tar in front of a mint green wall. I’m jolted from my daydream as we’re buzzed by dozens of scuffed mopeds and we ease on the brakes pulling to a stop at traffic lights. To our right a local man walks the largest pink pig I’ve ever seen.

We are riding due south along the route “Jalan Bandar Baru,” a tar ribbon winding across a carpet of rolling green.

The Legend of Krakatoa

As the hours pass by, a pattern is building; when we emerge from one small town, we are instantly surrounded by lush green foliage for a few minutes before being thrown back into the sprawl and congestion of the next town. Volcanoes dominate Indonesia’s landscape, and with more than 130 lava-spewing peaks, this country is one of the most geographically violent places on Earth. In 1883, the infamous eruptions of Krakatoa off the Sumatran coast produced both one of the most intense volcanic events and the loudest sound in recorded history. The blast was heard more than 3,000 miles away. The eruptions and tsunami killed more than 36,417 people. On the outskirts of Berastagi, low clouds roll in, and we decide not to take the side roads around the Sibayak and Pinto volcanoes; it isn’t a big deal, as we’ll go by 32 more on Sumatra before we cross to Java.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2013 back issue.