From Papua New Guinea (see previous post), I took a flight back to Cairns, Australia, and then (because it was the cheapest option), a bus to Darwin. I had been to the Outback before, but never as far from the coast.
Half a year earlier a friend from uni had taken me and a few other friends on a trip up North and we had visited some distant relatives of his, who lived a few hundred miles inland from Townsville on a cattle farm the size of East Anglia. Many years earlier they had fallen out with the only other people living in a perimeter of about 100 miles or so, and since then visits once a year from family were the only human contact these people had. They were the most loveliest people, I had never experienced hospitality like this, they literally tried to spoil us senseless within the constraints of a farm in the middle of nowhere, we were fed the best steaks you can possibly imagine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each the size of a doormat.
During meals, talk was often about the Japanese submarines just off the cost of Queensland, it was a real obsession for our hosts. WWII had never stopped for these good people. I’m sure many other travellers and guests had told them about the end of the War before, but weren’t believed.
This time, my Outback experience was not as intense and less personal, but it was great to see so much of it, including Mount Isa, or The Isa, as locals call it, a rough mining town of about 20,000 souls a bit over 1,000km West of Cairns. Over its lifetime, the mine is considered to be one of the most productive ones in world history. It was strange to see those rough miners walk the streets right next to families with little kids doing some sightseeing, but seemed to work well for everyone.
When we arrived at Darwin, a heat wave had just hit the town and it was 44 Degrees Celsius without a breeze, in short: too hot for my taste, so I was glad when I was on the plane to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei Darussalam. The first thing that struck me after I arrived from the airport was that the rumours had been true: the city is made of gold. It helps, if your personal net worth is $2bln and you’re an absolute ruler over a tiny country that sits on a ton of oil. Who wouldn’t feel tempted to gold-plate the whole town, it’s only a small town of 25,000 anyway (the metropolitan area is 250,000), of course we would.
You could sense immediately, that this is not the right location for a few jolly jokes about religion. A Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew walk into a bar.. Naw.. forget it. Everything felt extremely fun-averse and not at all my kind of thing. The one thing that I’ll remember fondly will be the absolutely brilliant floating villages in the lagoon. You can hire a boat with a driver and these crazy people will go through those tiny canals between the fishermen’s and trademen’s huts’ stilts at 50 or 60km an hour without consideration for their own or anyone else’s lives, it’s madness, but quite a nice adrenalin rush if you survive it.
From the sultanate my next leg of the trip was to Jakarta. I had eyeballed the newspapers at the stalls in passing, so knew, that the situation was a bit unsafe, but I had just started my gap year and wasn’t going to let some civil unrest make me lose out on a rather expensive (USD 1,450, dirt cheap by today’s rates) around-the-world student ticket, rebooking any legs would have cost a few hundred bucks, no way!
On the airplane, a Boeing 747, it struck me that I was one of only a handful of Caucasians. Most seats were empty and the few other passengers were traditionally dressed Muslims who didn’t look much like tourists.
There were tanks and armoured vehicles and thousands of soldiers on the streets everywhere, when I arrived at the City centre from the airport. I was born and grew up in Germany, and it turned out the locals really liked Germany. A lot of the soldiers, who seemed honestly amused by some crazy backpacker doing some tank-spotting on their home turf, asked me to have pictures taken with them in front of their tanks, as soon as they found out that I’m German, saying things like “Hitler great”, doing Nazi salutes and generally behaving like high school boys having a ball of a time.
I felt that now was not the right time to discuss politics and made my way to the backpacker’s.
And then I made a massive mistake. I was really tired and really hungry, so I didn’t bother about which stall to pick for my daily fill of street food, not realising that I had picked the worst one of them. I only realised after I had gobbled down three servings of Seafood Bami Goreng, that the stall owner had a stray dog helping him with the dish ‘washing’ (he did use some water from a plastic bucket after the dog had completed its cleaning efforts, but did not really make a difference).
As soon as I was back at the hostel, I felt sicker than I had ever felt in my life, before or after. It lasted for about three nights and three days, after that I was bullet-proofed for what lay ahead of me. I didn’t get sick from food a single time on the whole trip after that.
On day four I visited Batavia, the old colonial Dutch part of the city with the ancient harbour. All a bit run down, but truly beautiful. For centuries this was one of the centres of world trade and you can still see that some people back then really knew how to spend the money they made. Such rich history on every corner, you could virtually breathe it in. In my book still one of the most exciting places I’ve been to.
A few days later I took a bus to Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. I understood quite quickly why the other backpackers at the hostel referred to bus tours as Atari: it felt like you’re sitting in front of an Atari computer game where obstacles are travelling towards you at enormous speed and the aim of the game is to avoid crashing into them by zigzagging around them. In most cases, the bus didn’t even have to zigzag around oncoming traffic. Buses are by far the largest vehicles on the streets, because no sixteen-wheeler would ever make its way to these tiny, winding, deteriorated mountain roads, the biggest trucks are usually half the length of the busses.
For some reason the bus drivers (and apparently everyone else) take the view that this gives them the right of way, so they might overtake a timber truck twenty times their weight at enormous speed at some bend, forcing the oncoming truck, also twenty times their weight, off the road. I am still amazed that I didn’t see a single bad road accident happen during the trip (we passed by plenty, though).
It was X-mas day 1998. From Merak, still on Java, we crossed over to Sumatra within view of Krakatoa, the volcano whose eruption in 1883 could still be heard 5,000km away and the tremors registered around the globe. The highest tsunami waves were 50m with smaller waves reaching as far as the English Channel. It is said to have changed world climate for a couple of years because of the ashes darkening the sky.
Bukittinggi was awesome, too. In hindsight, I think it would have been a good idea to spend a few extra dollars, no matter how dear they were, to see some proper wildlife, some tigers or whatever, but back then I just really enjoyed the cultural experience of backpacking in an exotic country, I had no complaints.
Because of the economic crisis that had hit the country and the rest of South East Asia at around that time, people were incredibly poor, which was sad, of course, but they were also incredibly friendly and I still remember Bukittinggi for this. Nature, of course, was also outrageously beautiful. At just about 930m above sea level, the town’s elevation is only a few dozen metres short of the highest mountain in England. I enjoyed a few hiking tours before making my way to Medan.
Medan was the only bad experience during my whole trip. Already quite close to Islamist Aceh province, I found the people there thoroughly unpleasant, but never mind. After having been told to leave several bars because apparently they do not like strangers there, I was glad to be on an airplane to Kuala Lumpur the next morning.
KL was much cleaner and prosperous than anything I had seen in Indonesia, nice China Town, but overall, I felt it was a bit boring, a bit like Singapore is to me. The Petronas Towers were very impressive. People were correct and reasonably polite, but their strong Muslim faith didn’t exactly make them come across like party animals. No way I could have had some of the fun nights out I had had in Indonesia in this place.