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Sumbawa Hard Way Round. Tepal - Sumbawa's Timbuktu

INDONESIA | Friday, 9 August 2013 | Views [2293]

Tepal road

Tepal road


My wrists and arms ached as I slowly negotiated another torturous descent some way along the track to Tepal, a remote village deep in the mountainous hinterland behind Sumbawa Besar city. I’d been tackling the dirt, rocks, slush and challenging gradients for an hour and guessed I might be half way but really had no idea. The guesstimates of locals in the last village before the bitumen ran out – Batu Dulang – had varied wildly. I was on my own in the forest and was likely to remain so for a while yet; just me and the road. And that’s the way I liked it unless, of course, trouble reared its ugly head - then I’d be on the lookout for the first friendly local to rock up and lend me a hand!

The day had begun well. I’d breakfasted at my mate Eric’s bakery in Jalan Hasanuddin. A plate of delicious lumpia and curry puffs washed down with a black coffee had sent the blood coursing through my veins. I was reminded of the old Shoshone Indian saying: 'The man whose spirit is not lifted by having a full stomach has been watching too much commercial television.'

So,I was set for the Tepal Track. I’d been on it the previous year but it had bested me. I was on a Honda Vario scooter. A good machine that had taken me down many a long, lonely track in the backblocks of Sumbawa. But the Tepal had a character all its own. It was an up, down, turn around, climb a little, dive a little, twist a little, squirm a little, scare-a-lot type of track. After tackling it for half an hour on the Vario I had to throw in the towel. The Vario’s combi-brake system might be OK on the Sanur By-Pass, or the Tangerang Toll Road, but out on the Tepal it was a nightmare. Imagine trying to negotiate a 35 degree downhill comprised of dirt, sand, and loose rocks, golf ball to grapefruit in size, and not being able to use the back brake independently of the front.  And, with an automatic gearbox thrown in for good measure. I must have been mad even to think about it. The penny finally dropped when I spent the last 10 metres of a particularly steep downhill in a semi-controlled slide legs out, like the pontoons of a catamaran, in a desperate attempt to keep the bike upright while slowing its progress.

But this time round I was better prepared. My steed was a Kawasaki KLX150 road/trail bought new a couple of months previously and just run in. The KLX was light, at only 108 kgs, and agile. The single cylinder 4-stroke packed plenty of punch and, as it’s always been my policy to travel light, there was no extra weight for it to lug around. The bike had already proven itself on the south coast track between Sekongkan and Lunyuk so, when I left the mango-tree shade of Eric’s front yard, I was feeling as confident as Mungo Park must have felt back in 1795 as he waved goodbye to Gao, on the Niger, to strike north for fabled Timbuktu.

I fairly zinged through the early morning traffic, crossing the bridge over the Brang Rea and heading out beyond the city’s environs. It wasn’t long before I was making my way steadily uphill between fields bordered by bamboo fences and the occasional rock wall. The road was good, the traffic as good as non-existent and the sun was climbing up a blue-sky staircase. All was well with my world.

I reached the beginning of the forest. Surrounded by greenery, sheltered by shade, the road began to wend its way downhill past the turn–off to Semongkat B, a village which could be reached via a beautiful sawah-encrusted valley. I’d passed that way the previous year but this time round I gave it a miss – Tepal was waiting for me somewhere ahead, perched atop a mountain ridge shrouded in early morning mist.

Deeper and deeper into the valley I went. I'd entered a world of giant ferns and almost perpetual gloom inhabited by nightjars and the spirits of the forest. Eventually the road bottomed out and I crossed a pretty stone bridge to begin the climb up the other side of the valley to Semongkat. I passed a number of fallen forest giants that had been rendered harmless by Husquvarnas. The road climbed steadily, carried upwards by a series of hairpin bends. After a long haul I spied the first houses clinging to the hillside, their red-tiled roofs prominent against the green backdrop of the slopes.  I swept on through, and out the other side, heading for Batu Dulang.

Immediately the road became much narrower. There were many blind corners as it climbed upwards through the forest. Away to the west the hills rolled in an unbroken line, blue to the horizon. The air was fresh and crisp. I pulled up to enjoy the morning. The air was full of birdsong and beyond my view I could hear a tribe of monkeys chattering in a clump of giant bamboo. I stood there taking in the view through a window in the greenery, soaking up the solitude. My reverie was broken by the sound of an approaching rider - the first for quite a while. The rider waved as he passed by. It was time to move, so I fired up the bike, clicked into first and took off towards Batu Dulang.

I pulled up outside a house. The family were spreading coffee beans out onto a woven cane mat. They didn’t look at all surprised to see me. Tepal was 3-4 hours away they said. It had rained two days ago so the road might be a bit slippery they warned. I thanked them for their warning and rode off.

At the end of the village the road took a sharp right turn and the bitumen came to an abrupt end. This was it – the main event. True to form the road began a steep descent to a valley bottom. I was in first gear using engine braking and the back brake only. My eyes were pretty much focused just ahead of my front wheel seeking out the loose rocks that had to be avoided at all cost. A quick glance up every few seconds to assess the best route through the mire or the sand or the loose rock, seemed to be the way to go, so that was the way I went. I must say I felt a lot more comfortable heading uphill. Not having to worry about a front wheel lock-up, or sideways lurch due to an errant loose rock, was a relief.

I met a truck travelling in the opposite direction and stopped to chat. It was two hours to Tepal, the driver said. The road was bad he added, ‘so be careful’. We parted company and I started climbing again. At the top of the rise the road flattened out and I found myself in slippery red-earth country the road sliced up with deep wheel ruts separated by ridges of varying thickness. I couldn’t ride in the ruts. They were too deep and not wide enough to accommodate the bike. So I took my chances with the ridges hoping that I would not slip off the top of one and end up arse over.

I did ok for a while but then the inevitable happened. In a maze of ridges I picked one that, unknowingly, narrowed to a razor’s edge. The bike dropped off to the left. I threw out my right leg but found only the space of a wheel rut. Somehow I found terra firma but my left calf found the hot alternator cover. Ouch, that hurt! Somehow, and I really don’t know how, I managed to get the bike upright again without getting off. Apart from the angry red mark on my calf all was well with me and the bike so I carried on stiff-upper-lip style.

I reached a scattering of shacks – this was quite unexpected as nothing was recorded on my map. I pulled up beside three youths lolling about on a veranda and learnt that the hamlet was called ‘Punik”. They said Tepal was still two hours away. They smirked and draped themselves over each other revealing perhaps the familiarity that might arise when young men have too much time on their hands and not enough diversions. I left them for the beckoning road.

I came to a morass and stayed hard left adjacent the bank, brushing up against the foliage. A narrow ledge took me beyond the muck and onto some good going. I rounded a bend and passed a platform atop the bank above the road. A pretty woman called out asking where I was headed. She told me that Posu village was just ahead – another surprise. Shortly after, I came to a clutch of houses opposite a small school beside a soccer pitch. Posu was home to sixty families who grew coffee and kemiri nuts on small holdings in the nearby hills. Tepal was an hour away – maybe.

The track steepened and worsened. On the most precipitous sections I encountered the remains of what had once been bitumen. Some parts that had been concreted had stood up to the punishing monsoon rains a lot better. If these sections had not been concreted no vehicle could ever pass that way in the wet – sliding down, out of control, bank on the left, steep drop on the right, every driver’s nightmare.

I came to a bridge. A couple of young blokes were tying loads of sticks to the seats of their Honda Supras. Tepal, they informed me, was at the top of the hill. I raced up the broken concrete ribbon, eager to reach my goal. I’d been on the road nearly four hours and had covered 60 kilometres. I pulled up outside the primary school and took a photo. Some kids came along and the teacher appeared. A tiny old man fronted up. He proudly told me that “Tepal village is the ancestral home of all the people of West Sumbawa.’ I looked around. The village had one main unpaved street. The houses had steeply pitched roofs and walls of woven bamboo. The people cooked on open fires using wood gathered from the forest. They grew coffee and kemiri nuts, they’d had electricity for four years, four-wheel drive Toyotas, which they called ‘hard-tops’, had been able to reach the village for the last six years. Before that people carried the sick to Batu Dulang to seek transport to Sumbawa Besar for any medical emergency - a lot of people didn’t make it. Only the toughest could survive the cold and isolation of Tepal, Sumbawa’s Timbuktu.

Pak Mardan, the school teacher, invited me back to his house in Posu so I followed him back the way I’d just come. We pulled up in front of his simple wooden home and climbed the steps to enter the living area. The season’s coffee crop was drying on a tarp spread out in the yard. Mina, Pak Mardan’s wife, greeted me with a smile. They were gracious hosts and kindly invited me to stay the night. I declined their invitation but promised to drop in again next year. Pak Mardan gave me some of his coffee powder as a memento of my visit and, when I left, the entire village had assembled to wave goodbye.

The ride back was equally taxing. I stopped at the top of a steep descent to allow a 'hard top' to make its way up from the bottom. Its driver weaved expertly along the wheel ruts. Three passengers were in front, three were in back, including one atop the spare wheel and it was loaded to the gunnels with supplies, Tepal's three 'hard tops' were its lifeline to the outside world. Every item bought and sold in the village arrived by 'hard top'. Their drivers enjoyed immense status and wielded great power. I was reminded of a saying of the Walpiri people of Australia's Western Desert: 'The man who insults a 'hard top' driver won't be watching any new DVDs for a month.'

I found the steep downhills hard on my wrists and arms and was thankful when I made it to the bottom of each valley. When I got to the morass I took the same route crawling forward via the narrow ledge; this time the foliage was on my right. It was the narrowest of squeezes. Inevitably, a trailing vine caught my brake handle bringing me to an abrupt halt and throwing the back wheel to the left and down into the morass. I pulled up on the bars and got my front wheel down into the muck too. Then, putting as much of my body weight over the back wheel as I could, I gunned the engine and clutched my way steadily forward. I made it on to firm going, feet and lower legs covered in muck, but I was over the last major obstacle. The rest of the trip was easy. I knew that as long as I concentrated on the road and lived in the now, as long as I didn’t puncture, I’d make it back to Sumbawa Besar by late afternoon.

On the way back I stopped by a rocky stream to wash the mud from my legs. Feet dangling in the water, surrounded by the cool of the forest, my thoughts wandered over the events of the day. What a great day it had been. I’d met some lovely people, I’d experienced a pristine environment, I’d seen some wonderful vistas – rolling, forested hills, giant trees, rushing creeks with crystal clear water coursing along their boulder-strewn beds, and I’d made it to Tepal – Sumbawa’s very own Timbuktu.

I arrived back in Sumbawa Besar at 3.30 and pulled in to Eric’s bakery.

“How was It?” he asked

“Couldn’t have been better,” I answered.

“I made it all the way to Tepal. And look here,” I added, pointing to the red burn mark on my calf. “I even came back with a souvenir - and some coffee! Put the kettle on and I’ll tell you all about it.”



Tags: adventure, indonesia, motorcycling, off-road, road trip, sumbawa



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