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Roads less Travelled. Trans-Sumatran Highway 1973

INDONESIA | Saturday, 23 June 2012 | Views [1519]

Travelling the Trans-Sumatran - 1973

Rain sheeted down from a lead-grey sky. Banks of angry cumulus clouds crowded the horizon. Reaching skywards, they loomed over the city; it had been raining solid for two days.  At ground level the sodden, rutted surface of the terminal was awash with dirty, brown water. It foamed and ebbed in the potholes as overladen buses ground their way towards the exit.  Palembang Sumatra,wet season 1973: a by-gone era. Poste restante, rather than the mobile phone and the internet, was the traveller’s link back home; tourist buses were still a decade or more away.  I was about to begin a memorable journey. 

The destination was Bukittinggi via Jambi. The bus company was Tjap Matjan – Tiger Brand. The passengers were Indonesians - solitary travellers and family groups. And, me the only tourist, twenty-one years old, wide-eyed and thirsting for adventure.

The Jambi bus was a newish Dodge; its seats could best be described as functional. Each one was taken and every available space was occupied by bags, and boxes, cartons and crates, sacks and packs.

We edged through the crush of traffic; heavy rain was being driven sideways by a scything wind. Up front, a bus boy de-fogged the windscreen with a rag; passengers puffed away on clove-scented kreteks.

We left the city limits and the last of the asphalt.  This was the Trans-Sumatran Highway, a ribbon of road slashed through the savannah and scrub. Up and down the low hills it went, a mud-red scar ripped through a carpet of greenery. And the rain fell.

Our driver was a magician. We’d come to a morass - hundreds of metres of water and mud. He would stop to size it up, then in he’d plunge, wrestling with the wheel as the bus slew sideways, first left, then right. We’d tack like a yacht across a sea of mud, bucking and rocking, engine screaming, drive wheels churning at the slush and slosh.

Sometimes we made it through, sometimes not. Bogged to the axles meant work for the bus boys. Out would come long metal rods, 5kg hammers and steel cables which together provided a primitive, but effective, winch system. The rods would be driven a metre into the ground about 30 metres out front. The cables were then attached to welded lugs on the inside of the rear wheels; the other ends were hooked up the rods. The bus could then winch itself out. I lost count of the number of times we were bogged.

Only the driver’s skill got us up the hills. The gradients weren’t steep but the slippery red mud was a killer. Up the inclines we’d inch, engine roaring, tyres spinning until they smoked. But as long as we moved, our driver stuck to his task. His honour was at stake. Determination personified, he’d gun the engine and we’d crawl to the crest before beginning the slippery slide down. And still the rain fell.

We’d stop every few hours for food and coffee and, at one of these stops, I was befriended by a student, Henry Joseman.  Over a meal of nasi Padang he invited me to stay with his family in Jambi. ‘If we ever make it!’ he added with a laugh.



Night fell like a black shroud. I thought of our bus, sliding down those inclines. It had been dangerous enough during the day; what might it be like in the ink black of night? A relief driver had taken the wheel. Would he be up to the task? Thank God we weren’t in mountainous country – yet.

After a fitful night’s sleep, the black dissolved to reveal a landscape of secondary forest punctuated by small clearings dotted with rude shelters bordered by plantings of corn, cassava and bananas. Groups of kids, sleep still in their eyes, stood huddled, waving to the bus as we laboured by.

Around midday substantial houses appeared; it was not long before we began to encounter traffic.  And then the bitumen materialised. We picked up speed and we were soon disembarking at the terminal - weary, dishevelled and eager to rest.

Henry and I took a trishaw to his home. Here I was treated like an honoured guest. After a shower and a hearty meal I was ready for sleep. A comfortable bed awaited me.  I lay down and closed my eyes. The rain fell steadily, drumming gently on the tin roof. It bade ill for the next stage of the journey but I was past caring. I slept the sleep of ten men.

Next day, after receiving a warm send off, I boarded the bus. Soon after, we were moving, bound for the Barisan Mountains and Bukittinggi beyond. It was raining heavily.  Our bus was a 50s model Chevrolet. This time we were armed with a power winch – an obvious concession to the difficulties ahead. The bus had no windows. Instead canvas blinds could be rolled down to keep out some of the weather. There were no spare seats and an enormous load of goods was carried on top.

By midday, we reached the first of six crossings of the Batang Hari.  One bus at a time could drive onto a raft tethered to a steel hawser that stretched across the river. A strong current pulled us downstream and the hawser bowed and yawed as we struggled across.  Tree trunks, large enough to inflict fatal damage were being swept along; there were no life jackets. Our captain kept a close watch letting the engine idle so these dangers could slide safely by. We tied up to the far bank and lumbered up the steep exit point. Before long we were in secondary jungle forging a way between tall alang-alang grass.

 Around midnight, the raucous crunching of a differential disembowelling itself jolted me awake.  By torchlight, lying on sacks, our driver removed the mangled crown wheel and pinion . We were in a difficult spot, marooned in a mud sea somewhere between Muaratebo and Kota Baru. Nothing could be done except wait for dawn.

When the sun came up our spirits brightened for the sky was clear. It was now a waiting game. After an hour we heard the roaring engine of a battered four wheel drive as it ploughed its way towards us. Our driver handed over a note, and after a brief discussion, the vehicle lurched off. “All being well,” our driver announced, “we’ll be moving again tonight.”

With little food left and not much to drink a group of us set off to find some sustenance. Our drivers thought that there were a couple of small shopsin a hamlet we had passed in the night - perhaps an hour’s walk away.



It was good to be walking although there was plenty of mud to reconnoitre. Colourful butterflies flitted around. The road wound its way between low hills blanketed in a riot of vines, saplings, ferns and shoulder high grasses – perfect tiger country.

 We pressed on hoping that a vehicle might pass by, but alas we were alone save for the whisperings of the breeze and the occasional caw of a bird on the wing. After a couple of hours we spotted the village. My companions explained our predicament and we just about cleaned the proprietor out of her stock of consumables.

Refreshed we made our way back. Our fellow passengers were delighted to see us return laden with supplies. There was nothing to do but wait. Traffic was sparse but each vehicle that passed inquired after our welfare and wished us good luck.  

Night fell. We settled in our seats and tried to sleep. Then, around 10pm, the sound we’d been waiting for came on the breeze - Tjap Matjan’s breakdown vehicle!

As soon as it pulled up the mechanics set to work; an hour later we were mobile. There was no time to waste; we were behind schedule. We reached the fifth river crossing in the dark. Passengers stumbled into the quayside restaurant for food and coffee.

At first light we crossed and began the journey to the final crossing at Sungaidareh. This was the most dangerous. The river was at its widest and the current was very swift. With fast beating hearts we stood beside the bus; no one was game to remain inside. The raft was supported on   pontoons. In the bowels of each was a kid armed with a bucket. They kept up a furious bailing as we edged our way across. The far shore beckoned and we obeyed its call willingly. Safely tied up, we got back in and continued on into the foothills of the Barisan Mountains.

Progress was super slow. Our drivers took no risks on the winding road. The drop offs were formidable. We were in virgin jungle.  Immense trees – buttress-trunked giants – reached for the sky. Massive epiphytes and colossal ferns competed for space in the riot of foliage beside the road.

After a long, steady climb we reached a plateau. The rain stopped and the road improved. Small towns appeared. We were in populated country dotted with kampongs and cultivated fields.

Around 3pm we rolled into Bukittinggi. Tjap Matjan had conquered the Trans-Sumatran. We’d been on the road for four days. I was tired yet exhilarated. It was time to rest for a day or two. I ended the trip bidding adieu to our drivers, bus boys and my fellow passengers. I was filled with admiration for the skill, ingenuity, stoicism, and good heartedness of my companions. That trip kindled a love affair with Indonesia and her people that has endured beyond forty years and will no doubt last forever.





Tags: adventure, bus trip, indonesia, sumatra

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