SUMBAWA – INDONESIA’S SIDELINED ISLAND
I was the only tourist aboard the little JM Ferry –“We Serve Indonesia” – as it slid between the two spits of land guarding the narrow entrance to Kayangan harbour. Destination – Sumbawa, two islands east of Bali. We began to glide eastwards over a tranquil sea. It was mid-afternoon; intense heat. Shards of sunlight leapt off each tiny ripple generating an eye-squinting glare. Lombok, its smouldering volcano, Rinjani, obscured behind a thick veil of cloud, began to recede to stern. To starboard a succession of tiny, rocky islets poked their heads up, strung out like irregularly spaced beads in a jagged necklace. Dry and devoid of vegetation, save for squat scrub and dun-coloured grass, the golden beaches of these uninhabited specks looked perfect for the concealment of a hoard of pirate treasure.
Bali receives up to four million tourists each year, whereas Sumbawa two islands east, would be lucky to see ten thousand – and that suits me just fine. Part of the reason for this imbalance is its isolation; part is due to lack of tourist infrastructure. And part is due to some unflattering and wildly exaggerated comments in an early guidebook which painted Bima, the main town, as a hotbed of Muslim fanatics. Its unsavoury reputation was earned wholly because it was the birthplace of a group of would-be assassins who (with some evidence of connivance by the CIA) attempted to bring the life of Indonesia’s first President, Soekarno, to a premature end. Thus from the mid 70s, when they first reached these parts, Western travellers tended to avoid Sumbawa, or just hurry on through to more congenial islands further east. Consequently Sumbawa, a gem of an island, boasts large parts that have never seen a tourist. Not a single one of its pristine beaches has ever played host to a deck chair or, been stabbed by a beach umbrella.
After an hour and a half’s sailing the ferry terminal came into view. We edged closer, and the smudge that is Poto Tano gradually took shape. An unremarkable dot on the map it consisted of a few warehouses, a couple of mobile phone towers, some scattered dwellings and an abandoned market whose concrete stalls stood, sullen and forlorn, staring out to sea, scanning the waves for the expected boatloads of customers who never came.
I was first bike off the boat. A fist full of throttle saw me zing along the curving exit road that led to the port gates and the adventures ahead. Two k’s into the island and I came to a T-intersection: Sumbawa Besar to the left, Taliwang to the right. I swung right into a landscape desiccated by heat and the salt borne by onshore winds. Nothing could grow here. A few hardy souls picked their way through the mud flats and shallow pools looking for marine edibles. Stick figures against the backdrop of a shallow bay, sarongs drawn up to their knees, skin blackened by the sun, they bore witness to life’s harsh struggle in this unforgiving backwater. Their tiny homes were flimsy structures of thatched walls with nipah palm roofs. They didn’t appear capable of withstanding a half decent wind and most likely were re-built at the conclusion of each big storm.
After a while the road left the coast and climbed to a pass through some low, rugged hills – snake country. The valley beyond was broad and green with fields of corn and padi bordering a meandering stream. Women worked the land. They waved as I passed by. Traffic was scarce and I had little to do except enjoy the pleasure afforded by the ever changing vista of the open road which stretched before me – a magnetic presence pulling me towards the next stop on my journey – Taliwang. This town is famous for a dish known widely throughout Indonesia – ayam Taliwang or Taliwang chicken – and I was keen to sample it in its birthplace.
I pulled up outside a smart looking eatery in the main street and placed my order. Twenty minutes later I was tucking in to the fieriest chicken dish I’d ever tasted. It was literally covered in a red chilli-based sambal. Each mouthful was interspersed with a large spoonful of plain white rice and a slug of water. It was as tasty as ... and as hot as!
It was now late in the day and I had to get a move on to reach Maluk by nightfall. The road passed through pleasant farmland and the occasional tidy village. Then it climbed again through rugged hills, twisting and turning, following the contours to a high point before zig-zagging down to the next valley. Progress was painfully slow as the steep ascents and descents, coupled with poor drainage, meant that the road was no match for the short but savage monsoon rains that fell in these parts. These left the surface so badly gouged and eroded that I was forced to ride at walking pace over the worst sections – trials riding on the bitumen, or what was left of it!
Ten kilometres before Maluk the road straightened out and the potholes disappeared. It had been built courtesy of Newmont Mining, operators of the massive Butu Hijau gold and copper deposit located about 25 kilometres inland from the town. This operation, which began in the early 90’s turned Maluk from a tiny village into a boom town, as hundreds of ex-pat miners and engineers flooded in to build the roads and infrastructure needed for such a huge undertaking. Most have moved on, or have been replaced by locals, so the town has reverted somewhat to type. I headed for the Kiwi Bar and booked a room. I was the only guest. Sitting in the bar, an icy cold Bintang in hand, in was not hard to imagine what the place would have been like in full swing. The walls were festooned with stickers extolling the virtues of “CAT Diesel Power”, “Atlas Copco”. ‘Ingersol Rand Compressors”, “GM”, “Hitachi”, “Komatsu”and “Cummins”. There was an impressive photo of a gigantic python laid out on the back of a truck. Its belly sported a massive bulge which belonged – according to whoever was telling the story - to a pig or a child. Either could be true. I’ve seen a photograph of a snake that had managed to ingest the torso of a man leaving his legs protruding from its gaping jaws, as if to advertise the awfulness of the poor fellow’s death.
I spent a few days in Maluk, swimming, wandering the beaches and exploring the magnificent coastal scenery. The Honda really impressed me with its ability to handle the rough going. It took me to places a much bigger bike would have had trouble reaching simply because it would have been too heavy to manhandle around, or over, some of the obstacles encountered. Goat tracks, buffalo trails, paths through the scrub, dry creek beds – the little Honda was a willing explorer which never let me down.
It was Saturday night. Back at the Kiwi Bar I was enjoying a convivial drink when I started to leaf through some magazines sitting on the bar. Out popped an AFL fixture. I quickly saw that the Western Bulldogs were playing the Lions at the Gabba next day. For sure the match would be shown on the Australia Network. The only problem was the nearest spot to pick up the telecast – the Blue Lagoon Bar at Hu’u Beach - was ¾ the way across Sumbawa. I thought to myself: “About 350 kilometres. Say eight hours ridingat 40 kph average. If I leave before dawn I’ll probably make it in time.” Thus the plan was set. I was always up for a challenge and being a lifelong Bulldogs supporter this was one I could not shirk.
I finished my drink, went back to my room and packed my gear. A quick shower and into bed but getting to sleep was a different story. My mind was whirring, wondering what the next day would have in store for me. I tried to still my thoughts and take in the quiet sounds of the night instead. Eventually sleep came and I walked the street of dreams in blissful solitude.
I woke up with the first rooster just after 5 am. Half an hour later, on an empty stomach, I rode out of Kiwi’s gates and headed down the lane to the main street. Maluk was just stirring. A couple of shopkeepers were up sweeping their fronts, a bloke in his pyjamas walked a small child along the road, some horse carts trundled along to make their first pick-ups for the day. I filled up at the Pertamina servo on the outskirts of town and then headed north towards Poto Tano again.
The road took me past the Newmont complex at Benete Point where happily the stalls that had sprung up to provide the miners with early morning breakfast were in full swing. I ordered fried eggs, rice and coffee and sat down at a table. Workers came and went in quick succession, joshing each other and chatting up the waitresses as workers do. My breakfast arrived and I tucked in enthusiastically washing it down with the strong black Sumbawa coffee that would get me up and running for the challenge ahead.
Time to pay. I fronted the cashier, who I’d cast a discreet eye over whilst eating, handed over some readies and received my change. “There’s something I want you to remember,” I said. She paused for a moment. “What’s that?” she asked. “You’ve got a fantastic smile.” I replied. And with that she burst into the best smile you’ve ever seen. It’s always good to begin a journey with a happy memory as you never know how it’s going to end up! I jumped on the bike and headed off giving her a wave as I went. And she graced the day with another flash of her pearly whites! Just a small encounter on the road but one I’ll always remember.
Into the hills again but this time more prepared as I was re-tracing my steps. Traffic was sparse save for a few lumbering trucks and a couple of bikes. Before long I caught up to a couple of young blokes on a tricked up 125 Yamaha complete with clip-ons, mag wheels, race tuned pipe and after market shocks. I passed them on a rough uphill section. Before long they passed me and on it went time after time; good natured duelling in far western Sumbawa! As the road got better so did their fortunes. Real dare devils they launched themselves into the sweeping bends and attacked the hairpins with relish. I’d catch up on steeper, more pot holed sections and then it would be their turn again to fly past. Finally we reached the coastal plain. They gave me a wave and then tore on by. I didn’t see them again.
Approaching Sumbawa Besar after a two hour ride I saw a sign: ‘Dompu By-Pass’. I veered right. It turned out to be a bad mistake. The road was as rutted and broken as any I’d encountered, if not worse. Trucks bounced and bucked kicking up the dust. The road was wave-like in its perambulations as it wound its way through the hinterland of the town. Fine dust and grit choked the air. Driven by a hot dry wind it smothered everything. I kept going, determined to emerge from this dust cloud and breathe easy once again.
It was a good 30 minutes before the good bitumen re-appeared and led me to a T-intersection west of the town. I turned right towards Dompu and began the climb to the plateau. The next few hours were pure enjoyment: a good road, pretty farmland, busy little market towns without traffic jams, and then, beyond Teluk Santong, two hours of the most glorious coastal scenery as the road soared high above the sea clinging to the cliff side, before plunging down to the coast to cross the occasional dry river bed before climbing again. And, for the most part, other than the troops of monkeys that peered from the roadside, I had it all to myself. What a ride! It felt so good to be alive.
Around 1.00 pm I came around a bend high in the forested hills and beheld the splendid vista of the rich Dompu valley as it opened up below. The road hurtled down in a series of flowing bends, the air becoming noticeably warmer as the descent progressed. Before long I was at the T-intersection – Calabai and Mt. Tambora to the left, Dompu and Hu’u to the right. I swung right to Dompu town and stopped for a bite to eat – chicken satay – and a drink. Seven hours in the saddle and I was feeling the pinch; but only an hour to go.
I filled up and headed south over the river where women bent to their washing in the rocky bed, their kids bathing and playing beside them. On and on I went getting ever closer. Thirty kilometres left, then twenty-five. I was counting them down. Finally, I saw the first signs advertising accommodation. I was getting close now. I was headed for ‘Monalisa’ the first place on the right.
I pulled in and received a warm welcome from Robbie, the manager, who remembered me from the year before. A quick shower, fresh tee shirt and shorts and it was straight down to the Blue Lagoon. Was my trip in vain? Would I suffer disappointment when my goal was in sight? I swung open the doors of the bar. The big screen at the end of the room flickered to life with a talking head and the dulcet tones of Denis Cometti reached me from across the ether: ‘Good afternoon viewers and welcome to this round 15 clash between the Brisbane Lions and the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba. Beautiful day here in Brisbane, no wind to speak of, blue sky 23 degrees Celsius ... “
Beautiful day at the Blue Lagoon too - and it got better. I ordered a beer – the first of quite a few - and kicked back. The Dogs went on to win the game in a canter and I couldn’t have wished for a better ending to my day’s ride across Sumbawa – Indonesia’s sidelined island.