Hiking Harau 3: The Valley Floor

Saturday was a travel day. I returned my motorbike to Bukittinggi so I wouldn’t have to pay for it all the next week in Harau, then returned to the valley by bus. That took almost all day, which was fine because I was still exhausted from Friday.

Sunday I was ready to go again, but my long pants were away at the laundry. I decided to walk the roads around the valley floor because long pants are essential in the jungle.

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View from the road close to Abdi Homestay.

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Rock climbers right next to the big waterfall on the road through the valley where it narrows.

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They have some creative solutions to keep the birds from eating rice. Here are flags posted all around a nearly-ripe rice field and shirt waving around. The shirt is attached to a supple stick coming up from the ground and bent like a fishing pole. It is attached by a string that runs through a small hole in a tin can. The whole thing is balanced just right so that a slight breeze makes the shirt dance around and the movement of the string through the can makes a loud noise.

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A farmer just starting the daunting task of laying out careflly spaced rice sprouts in his flooded, tilled field.

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This bee was huge. At least it looks like a bee. It's almost as long as my thumb, and even thicker.

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A wicked looking wasp sitting on the next flower over.

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Here is a mature cinnamon tree that has had bark harvested from it carefully. They peel it off in strips to make those sticks of rolled up cinnamon we can buy.

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A bamboo irrigation pipe. It looks like someone just split the bamboo in the spot where they want the water to come out, at the uphill corner of this field.

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Me standing in a field of rice ready to be harvested. These golden fields are visible in that photo from my last post, the one where I was looking out over the valley at the end of my solo hike on the upper plateau. There are only a few fields of rice that are ripe like these so it's easy to spot.

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Storms can really roll in quick around here. Luckily, I was almost back from my walk and didn't get rained on.

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Back in town, I met these guys walking along the road. The shortest one right next to me approached and wanted to practice his English. He is a farmer and I think among his friends were a convenience store owner and maybe a teacher. All working men, but for three days each month they live at the mosque, where we're standing in this photo. For those three days they go out among the community and ask everyone to come visit the mosque to pray (Muslims pray five times a day, but coming to the mosque to do so is optional).

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Hiking Harau 2: Going Solo

The successful group trek around the top of the canyon was all I’d hoped for. But still, there were cliffs and jungle everywhere and I wanted more.

There is one trail to the upper plateau that is visible on the approach to Harau from the road. The upper section of the trail is exposed red earth, very visible contrasting with the greenery around it. It seemed to lead to a structure at the top, I thought maybe a temple.

So, after I got back from the Friday excursion with the Aussies, I decided to see if I could find the base of that trail I’d seen and hike to the top for another view.

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I didn't get a photo of the trail, but here's one I took while I was walking over to it.

This trail was not as obvious at the bottom as it was as the top, but still not too difficult to find. I’d already passed the trail head several times without noticing, but once I knew where to look it was easy. I scooted up the hill in 20 minutes. At the top was not a temple as I’d thought, but a simple structure with just a metal roof and some basic benches for resting and admiring the view. The views were nice but not as amazing as those I’d already seen earlier in the day.

I noticed that the trail continued on past the viewpoint back into the plateau jungle. I checked my watch. Three hours until dark. I was on my own and knew it wasn’t the greatest idea to hike off through the upper plateau jungle by myself. But the trail looked well trodden. I decided to give myself an hour to walk along the trail before turning back, enough time to make it back before dark with some cushion. A little risky, sure, but after all I am not just a wonk any longer.  Time to let my wild side out.

This track was well defined at first. Then, it faded as it also wound through some gambir. Other tracks were branching off through the fields, but I made sure to keep to the border of the fields and the jungle so it would be easy to find my way back. Eventually, the track became a clearer again and headed off into the jungle.

After some time I came to a fork. Though I was on the upper plateau, it’s normally impossible to tell any difference with the lower valley because the vegetation is so dense and the plateau is so large. It just seems like a hike through the jungle. I really wanted to break through that jungle to the edge of a cliff again, so I took the path to the left where I knew the edge of the cliff was relatively close.

I crossed two creeks and my self-imposed time limit was upon me when the trees parted and I saw I’d made it to just the spot I was hoping for and had a view out the other end of the valley.

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A break in the trees, finally!

And not just a view.  There was an alternate route down the cliffs, meaning I didn’t have to backtrack the way I’d come.  Just a bit further down, the view opened up even more and I got some great light filtering through the clouds for these photos:

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One of my best photos from the Harau Valley. The light was incredible, filtering through the clouds softly and emphasizing the nicest part of the valley floor.

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Vegetable gardens from waaay up high.

It was an action-packed Friday:  A failed motorcycle tour followed by two wildly successful hikes.

That evening, eating Ikbal’s delicious food, I decided to cancel my plans to go to Kerinci national park and stay in this hiking paradise for the rest of the week instead.  I wanted to see Kerinci but those two ten hour bus rides would have really cut down on enjoyment.  With such a short stay there, bad weather could have made it impossible to do anything at all.  And, Kerinci National Park is wilder and more pristine than the Harau Valley.  That definitely appeals to me, but it also makes guides more expensive and necessary.  I was willing to accept the risk of hiking alone in the Harau Valley where I’m never more than a couple of hours from civilization on tracks that are hiked most days, but it would be a different story down there.

So, I have a couple more posts about Harau to share when I get time to write.  I never matched that first Friday for single-day exertion, accomplishment, and photos.  Instead, I spread it out evenly over the next week with plenty of porch-sitting in between.

Hiking Harau 1: Group Trek to the Clifftop

Since I was still planning to head to Kerinci, I expected Friday to be my last day in Harau. In order to be sure to see some good stuff in my limited time, I signed up for the tour guide services of Riki, Ikbal’s brother.  We had communication problems from the start.  I spoke to some other westerner’s who’d just completed the Riki’s standard ‘jungle trek’, an all day walk through the jungle, including that hike to the top of the cliffs I’d been dreaming about.  These other westerners were very happy with the jungle trek, but Riki did not want to repeat it with me.  Friday is a special religious day for Muslims so he wanted be at the mosque at noon, not in the jungle.

I was fine with taking a break at noon, but I definitely wanted also to hike to the top of the cliffs, get a view of the valley, and explore up there a little.  I tried to communicate this, but he wasn’t getting it.  He had all kinds of other trekking ideas, but I couldn’t tell if they included hiking to the top, which is all I really cared about.  I’m still not sure if he was intentionally misunderstanding because he just didn’t want to go up there for some other reason, or if his english was bad and he didn’t want to let on.  Whatever the reason, the next morning I ended up sitting on a motorbike for two hours instead of hiking before I called off the guided tour and took matters into my own hands.

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This waterfall was very photogenic and I'm happy I saw it, but it's only a three minute walk from the road. I wanted exercise, not a motorbike tour of the valley.

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It wasn't what I was after last Friday, but the bottom of the valley even viewed from the road is spectacular.

Luckily there were a couple of adventurous Aussies, a father-daughter pair, who were also up for some trekking.  We set off on a trail together on the advice of a drink vendor who claimed it led to the top of the cliffs.  After some heavy sweating and a few is-this-actually-a-trail moments – precisely what I was hoping for – we were victorious.

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There were dense trees at the tops of the cliffs, as you can see in this photo. This was taken from one of the very few breaks in the trees that let us have a view down the back side of the clifftops surrounding the Harau valley, into the next (wilder) valley over.

Not knowing where it would lead, we followed the trail along the upper level.  It was not a ridge, but just a flat plateau with jungle.  On this trail, the jungle had been cleared in many places to farm something called gambir.  I couldn’t find an English translation, but Ikbal told me it’s a gum-like ingredient used to make that red stuff they chew in India.

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This is the only other view we got along the trail. This is a view back toward Abdi homestay at the foot of that waterfall.

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This is one of the gambir fields on the plateau. You can make out the rectangle where the jungle was cleared, and the house in the middle. Apparently the gambir is harvested and then processed in the hut. I gathered that processing the stuff is very hard work. The huts were all deserted when I was there because the price of gambir is down, but Ikbal says that now it's going back up and some farmers are returning.

We hoped that our trail would lead us to an alternate route down to the valley floor so that we could avoid descending the sketchier portions of our ascent.  Indeed, after an hour of walking we could tell that the trail was following a more gradual slope down to a place not so distant from Abdi.

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The trail ended here at this village.

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The road back to Abdi.

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These shelters are set up in the fields where rice is being harvested. Women take the rice stalks and beat them over wooden frames to shake the rice grains loose.

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On the way to the rice processing shelter.

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For anyone reading this who is considering a visit to the Harau Valley, the hike began on a trail taking off up the section of valley with three waterfalls near the road. To get to this area, you have to turn right on the road when it forks leading into the Harau Valley, then follow it about a kilometer to the end. We walked past all the vendor stalls, then veered right to find a vague trail that becomes more distinct in the trees following the right edge of the narrowing canyon. The trail is mostly flat for a while, less then a kilometer, before it rises sharply to the right and you have to climb up using tree roots. Later, there is another difficult section where someone has put a rope to assist with the climb. These are very difficult, only possible for the fit, and would be more dangerous if slippery from recent rain.

At the top of the canyon the trail forks. To the left there is a small bridge across a spectacularly deep, narrow gap dropping back into the lower jungle. After admiring, we took the right fork instead since this seemed more likely to lead to a view. The trail splits again soon after. Our first viewpoint is reached by taking the left trail just 100 meters. Then we turned around and took the right branch of this second fork and followed the main trail all the way to the village at the end. There are some other trails branching off. When we were there the main trail was always fairly obvious, but conditions could change and it is definitely possible to get lost up here. Be extremely cautious if you decide to try going without a guide. Take some food and LOTS of water for everyone. Though I did not always follow this advice myself, I do NOT recommend trying to explore these trails alone. There is a high chance of getting lost. I heard a story about a guy who got lost until after dark up there alone and only managed to find his way back down one of the very steep paths to the valley floor in the wee hours. Again, EXTREME CAUTION and go prepared to stay at least one night up there if you have to.

In all, this hike took three hours from the three waterfalls area back to Abdi.  I estimate that it’s about 5 miles (8 kilometers), but that’s purely based on personal experience with hiking speed and terrain, not on any GPS device.

Abdi Homestay in the Harau Valley

One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harau Valley was Abdi Homestay, owned and operated by the friendly chef Ikbal. He was employee #1 at the bigger, more expensive nearby homestay, Echo, but he quit a few years ago to go into business for himself. His philosophy, as he is happy to tell anyone, is ‘money is not number one, happy is number one’. In other words, he wants you to be happy more than he wants your money. He follows through too; he gave me great prices and let me pay what I wanted for some things like meals and short term use of his motorbike.

Of course, it is also good business strategy for him. With an attitude like that he will get great reviews from travelers and guarantee lots of eager new customers. Even now he’s busy sometimes.  On my first night in Harau, I stayed at a REAL homestay, with Ikbal’s brother Riki, because his huts were all full. Of course, by the time I left I was the only one there, so he has a ways to go before the money is really rolling in.

Ikbal cooks up some of the best Indonesian food I’ve had. Now I don’t like Indonesian food (a.k.a. fried stuff) too much generally, especially compared to other Asian cuisines. But even up against food in general, not just other Indonesian food, I’d call Ikbal’s cooking very good. Lots of vegetables, not too much oil, just the right amount of spice. His veggie gulai dishes were especially good. His wife Noni cooked instead of Ikbal for at least one night, and it was equally good. Ikbal tells me that once business picks up sufficiently he will build a kitchen hut and run a cooking school.

Ikbal and Noni have two kids, and one of the reasons Ikbal told me he started Abdi Homestay is that he wants the good habits of westerners, like caring for the environment and speaking English, to rub off on his kids. Unlike most other guest houses in the area, Ikbal caters exclusively to westerners and not domestic Indonesian tourists. It may seem like a negative for some westerners, especially if you haven’t been here, to be segregated from the local travelers, but I think he is right; the Indonesians tend to throw their trash everywhere and prefer to be herded to the most ‘important’ tourist spots regardless of how commercial they have become.  It’s not compatible with my travel philosophy. I love interacting with locals, but not local tourists, in Indonesia.   Even Ikbal has a ways to go before he reaches Western hippie standards of cleanliness/earth-friendliness. He tosses his cigarette butts anywhere when he’s finished, and the ground around the huts is not 100% trash free (though compared to other places in Indonesia I’d call it pristine).

Hut prices are as low as 60,000 (~$7) per night, which is what I paid for the most basic hut, in the low season, for an extended stay. I’m not sure what the others go for, but I doubt any are above 150,000 or 200,000, even in the busy season.

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View over the hammock on the porch of one of the huts at Abdi Homestay.

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Looking back toward Abdi from on top of a nearby ridge. The huts are hidden behind the trees just at the base of the cliff to the right of the waterfall.

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View from the porch of my hut, the cheaper one, which faced back toward the cliff instead of out into the rice paddies.

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The huts at Abdi. Mine is on the left, then a nice two story job with a balcony porch on the second floor next to it, and another nicer one in the middle right position. The newest, not quite finished, is the one on the far right. Each time I walked around this pond, I saw at least one frog jump into the water in front of me.

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The two middle huts at Abdi, with nicer light.

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No electricity here, but the kerosene lanterns and loud insect noise make a great atmosphere in the evenings. The cold water mandi is no problem either, since it gets hot during the day (mandi are water reservoirs used as a sink, shower, and toilet flusher. You never get the water in the mandi dirty, but ladle it out with a giant scoop for cleaning or flushing).

Rafflesia Flower

After seeing the Harau Valley last Wednesday, I knew I wanted to go back to hike there. But I had to return to Bukittinggi first since I’d left all my things there. I also wanted to go to Kerinci national park, home of the volcano Gunung Kerinci, at about 3800 meters (12,500 ft) the tallest mountain in Indonesia outside of Papua.

Even though Kerinci national park is a butt-numbing 10 hours away by bus, I told myself it was worth it, went to the train station on Thursday, and put a deposit on a ticket for Saturday. The deposit was only $3, so I wouldn’t feel bad about backing out later.

Also Thursday, I heard that there was a Rafflesia flower in bloom and decided that I should see the it before going back to the Harau Valley. The Rafflesia is one of the (but not the absolute) biggest flowers in the world. It can be more than 1 meter across, and I’d heard that it stinks like rotting flesh. They grow in Sumatra and Borneo, though most of their habitat is deep in the jungle inaccessible to casual travelers like myself. There is a place near Bukittinggi where local guides keep a lookout for the flowers, spotting about 10 per year. Each flower blooms for just 5 days, and I was lucky enough to catch one.

I rode the motorbike out to the Rafflesia area, still accompanied by P an A on our last trip together. We parked our bikes, met the local guide Johnny, and agreed to pay 40,000 Rp. each for his services. The flower was a 20 minute walk away through the jungle.

On the way, Johnny pointed out a cinnamon tree. I knew that cinnamon grows around here, but this was the first time someone had pointed out a tree to me.

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A cinnamon tree, seen on the way to the Rafflesia flower.

Johnny pulled out a pocket knife and pried off a piece of bark from the tree. I smelled it, and couldn’t believe my nose.  It looks like regular tree bark but smells like sticking your nose into cinnamon powder.

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Looks like tree, smells like cinnamon.

The Rafflesia flower is named after Thomas Stamford Raffles, the same British guy of Singapore founding fame, who presided over the rediscovery of Borobudur and Prambanan during Britain’s brief colonial rule of Indonesia.  Well thank you, Sir Raffles, for perhaps your greatest accomplishment: introducing the ‘corpse flower’ to the West.  Raffles and biologist Joseph Arnold are jointly credited with the discovery, hence its full Latin name Rafflesia Arnoldii.

It’s unclear whether I saw the Rafflesia Arnoldii, the largest flower in the world, or some other variety of Rafflesia.  The one I saw looks just like the Wikipedia photo of Rafflesia Arnoldii, but I think the guide said there is one flower larger that is even more rare to find in the forest here.

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Rafflesia.

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This is not the largest specimen, but apparently as time goes on those petals will open further and it will be 70 or 80 cm across.

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Flies are attracted to the stinky smell, but I honestly couldn't smell anything at all. A little disappointing after all the hype about the 'corpse flower'.

After seeing the Rafflesia, we were given a hard sell on some organic kopi luwak, civet poop coffee.  Supposedly it’s incredibly smooth and sells for $30 a cup in the West, but I declined. As a non-coffee drinker I figured that the pinnacle of gourmet coffee is no place to start.

Rafflesia mission complete, I said goodbye to A and P, my excellent temporary travel companions, and headed off toward the Harau Valley.

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A and me.

Harau Valley Teaser

Everyone already knows I spent the last week in the Harau Valley. But when I first went there, I was just planning a day trip with P and A, not even overnight. What I saw was amazing.

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I got better photos later, but these are the cliffs you see throughout the Harau Valley jutting out of the rice paddies. Seeing these on the first day, I REALLY wanted to find a way to climb to the top and look down on the valley, but we didn't have time.

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A waterfall, right next to the road with vendors selling snacks and drinks all around.

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Gibbons high in the trees near the waterfall. Gibbons are monogamous and I am told that each pair defends a territory of about 50 acres. The pair we saw was making loud whooping noises, each very distinct from the other. Apparently this signals to other gibbons that the territory is claimed by a pair. Unfortunately, this was the best photo of gibbons I got all week, but I heard them every day from a distance and caught glimpses of them swinging through the trees.

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On the way back from the Harau Valley, we stopped at a village to meet one of A's friends. Here she is with her mother. P and I teased A about visiting his 'girlfriend', but they're really just classmates. Here she is with her mom.

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And here is her niece, very shy compared to A's budding model of a niece.

A Minangkabao Village

I’m writing this blog post in a smoky, crowded internet cafe near the Harau valley. I’m sitting on the floor because there are no chairs. The local crowd isn’t shy; they are snuggled up next to me watching me type, asking about my photos, asking if they can be my friend on facebook.  For a long time they were talking to me and making it tough to concentrate on writing the blog, but I think they are getting a little bored now and only a couple are left watching.

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Last Tuesday, the 14th, P and A and I set off in the morning to visit A’s village and see some of the countryside around Bukittinggi. Shortly after leaving the city (which I’ve just discovered has a lot more people than I thought – someone told me 115,000) we ran in to a pig hunt in the rice paddies. Apparently the wild pigs are a nuisance, not to mention unclean according to Muslims. So, they raise dogs in order to hunt the pigs. Dogs are an unusual sight in most of Indonesia because they are also considered unclean, but the people here make an exception in order to hunt the pigs. They seem to be attached to the dogs here as pets also, not just raising them as hunting animals.

The hunt was huge. I would say there were at least 50 people and dogs at the edge of the road for the hunt. Most of them were just lined up waiting; they would let four or five dogs loose at one time. The dogs ran way out into the rice paddies and even into the forest beyond. There are no guns, the dogs perform both the hunting and the killing. My impression was it was an afternoon of fun for the guys with dogs, just like hunting back home.

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The scene at the edge of the road.

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Part of the masses waiting their turn to release the hounds.

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So many hunters they blocked the road.

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In the background, that pickup is one of the nicest hunting vehicles I saw. There are three dogs in the back.

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And they're off!

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Dogs can ride motorcycles here, too.

After stopping to photograph the pig hunt, we continued on along the roads near Bukittinggi.

The natives of this part of Sumatra are called the Minangkabao. Traditional houses look like this:

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The curved shape of the roof imitates buffalo horns.

Minangkabao means ‘Victorious buffalo’ in the Minang language. The legend goes that the Minangkabao people once settled a territorial dispute by a fight between two buffalo. Their opponents fielded the biggest, meanest animal they could find, but the Minangkabao chose to compete with a starving baby buffalo with sharpened horns. The big buffalo was not threatened and didn’t try to fight the baby, but when the starving baby tried to nurse it stabbed the adult to death.

Most of the houses around here don’t have the Minangkabau look though, and I saw at least one with decoration of a different kind.

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Someone has been studying the wrong kind of English.

Also along the road to A’s village, we stopped at a cave.

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Outside the cave, we met this nice gentleman. He was on his way out to scavenge some durian fruit from the trees beyond the cave. He only spoke the Minang language, not Indonesian, so A had to do all the translating.

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Getting closer to A's village...

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Here's the only Minangkabao style house I saw in A's village Even way out here, they've got satellite tv.

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Another house in his village.

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This one could use some help on the foundation.

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The village mosque, right next door to A's house.

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A's house is on the left, and his sister's house is on the right. They hosted P and I in his sister's house, probably because it's nicer.

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A's niece, so cute she's featured in quite a few photos here.

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Inside A's sister's house.

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This one was not shy.

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P and A's niece facing off. I think she won the staring contest.

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A's family doesn't have a fancy satellite dish, just that antenna hanging from the ceiling.

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A with his mom.

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A's sister and her daughter. The sister was all smiles until it was time to take photos, when she went stone faced until it was over.

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There's A's dad on the left. He is a farmer, and his mom used to be but now she's too frail for the hard work.

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They really enjoyed it when we showed them the photos we were taking.

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A better view of A's house. It could use a little work.

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Getting ready to leave.

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On the way home, we stopped at this gas station. There are totally modern gas stations here on the main roads, but this one was more remote. Even farther into the countryside, it's common for people to sell jugs of gas out their front door.

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Here's a more modern mosque in a village near A's. I see lots of shiny new ones as well as older ones around here.

Fort De Kock

Hilarious name, boring place.

Fort De Kock is the old Dutch fort on top of the hill in Bukittinggi.  I wasn’t too interested but decided to check it out since it was so close to the Orchid hotel in Bukittinggi.  I needed a day off from motorbiking last Monday the 13th after my marathon trip to Lake Maninjau on Sunday.

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--Old cannon or something. There was only a single sign explaining anything about Fort De Kock. The sign said the fort is named after a guy named De Kock, and when it was built, which I've already forgotten.

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Looks more like a picnic shelter than a fort.

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This ladder, the only way to get to the top of the fort, provided at least a little adventure.

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The pathway at the top of the ladder.

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Not much of a view from the top because the trees are taller than the fort.

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The top of Fort De Kock also features these lovely pipes and that big antenna.

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The ladder really was kind of fun, though.

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The pipes, from underneath. I wish I knew what they were for, but there was no signage whatsoever.

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Fort De Kock is also part of the Bukittinggi Zoo. After seeing this sad cage of chickens (or something), I decided to skip the rest of the zoo.

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Also, a ropes course. Not a chance I'm trying that.

One good thing did come of my time at Fort De Kock, though.  I bumped into another traveller, who I’ll call P because I didn’t ask permission to use his name here.  P is from Quebec.  He’s been retired for several years and spends a lot of time traveling now.  P had already met A, a local Indonesian college student, searching the park for foreigners to practice English.  So I spoke with both of them for a few minutes and we hit it off, plus I had been alone for several days so it was just nice to talk to anybody.  P felt the same,  and the three of us ended up spending the next few days together.  Sometimes the locals trying to practice English can be annoying, but A was a super nice guy and he was a pleasure to have along.

So from Fort De Kock, the three of us set off and saw a bit more of Bukittinggi that day.

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A walking bridge connects Fort De Kock with the rest of the Bukittinggi Zoo. This is the view from the overpass, down onto the main street of Bukittinggi.

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Jam Gadang, the Big Ben lookalike that sits at the center of Bukittinggi. It seems to be the center of tourism for a lot of the Indonesians that come to Bukittinggi, and there is a market nearby where you can buy lots of useless souvenirs.

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I sat down with P and A to have dinner and we got a nice view of Gunung Merapi at sunset from the balcony of our restaurant near Jam Gadang.

Over dinner, we decided to head out to A’s village the next day to meet his family and tour the countryside near Bukittinggi.

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I’m getting behind on my blogging now, so a quick update:  I’m still in the Harau Valley and loving it.  Lots of hiking here, I’m getting to know some of the trails well.  I have to travel quite a ways to get to a computer from where I’m staying (which doesn’t even have electricity), so I’ve been slow with blogging and communication in general.  I fly out of Sumatra on Friday morning from the Padang airport to Kuala Lumpur.  I think I’ll take a day before then to relax back in Bukittinggi and catch up with blogging.

Harau Valley Plans

Well not much time to write now, but thought I should update everyone on a change of plans.  Instead of heading to the Kerinci Valley for my last week in Sumatra, I’m going to stay in the Harau Valley near Bukittinggi instead.  There’s all kinds of hiking there and the rooms are cheap. There’s not enough time to do everything, so why waste two uncomfortable days on the bus when there are amazing things to see right here? Photos will be on the way in the next few days.

Around Bukittinggi, Panorama Park, and Lake Maninjau

Alright, I’ve been in Bukittinggi for five days now, about time I got some photos up! This time I remembered Aunt Peg’s comment on a previous post and tried to get a few more shots of the normal everyday life stuff that I’ve started to take for granted. Keep those comments coming, I aim to please.

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Typical street in Bukittinggi.

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Orchid Hotel, the big beige building on the right.

I’ve been taking it nice and easy around here; that just seems to be the pace of things in Bukittinggi. In the Apache Cafe, where I started eating often because of the wi-fi, the guy who always seems to be there says he’s a volunteer and only gets paid when business is good. Business does not look good. He told me that back in the 1990s, Bukittinggi was very popular travel destination for Europeans. He pointed out the door of the cafe and said “Back then, you look outside and all you see is white faces”. We look but all we see now is asphalt and the occasional scooter passing by. It’s not clear why popularity slumped. I speculate that it’s just out of the way and there’s nothing spectacular to bring people way out here, but it’s a nice spot with plenty to see and western tourist infrastructure already in place. I think it will probably become popular again someday, maybe once Sumatra gets a few more tourist-friendly spots to break up the 17 hour bumpy bus rides that currently wait those who try to travel between them by land.

On Sunday, I did make it out to Panorama Park, just a half mile from the Orchid Hotel. The panoramic view holds a nice river valley with stunning vertical cliffs below a nice mountain. It was a bit cloudy when I visited so I couldn’t see the mountain. There was a lot of trash strewn around the viewing area and that may have prejudiced my opinion of the view itself. It was certainly nice but I wasn’t overwhelmed.

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The view at panorama park. Maybe I'm jaded, but I found it mediocre.

There was a contingent of monkeys living at Panorama Park.  I don’t know what kind they are, but since I saw the same kind traveling in Bali last year I now think of them as the ‘normal’  kind.  If any readers know, let me know in the comments.

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Only a monkey could look comfortable in this position.

Like the monkeys in the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, these monkeys were a little sad, living on the scraps and trash of the human visitors to the park.  In Bali, I did my best to avoid showing all the trash and nastiness and managed to get some photos that made it seem as though I’d trekked deep into the jungle and spotted some wild monkeys living free and easy.  So if you saw those photos, it was a sham; this is how monkeys really live at these parks.

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Monkey drinking nasty rainwater.

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Monkey eating litter.

The Japanese built some caves during World War II when they occupied Indonesia.  One set happens to be right underneath Panorama Park.  I thought they were surprisingly spacious, plenty of head room even for a tall westerner.  There was a kitchen, dining room, and jail, all probably 200 meters under the surface.

I happened to be entering the caves at the same time as a tour group of Muslim schoolgirls, so I was featured in what seemed like hundreds of their photos of the caves.  Our communication was pretty good considering their broken English, my bad Indonesian, and their fits of giggling.

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Entrance to the Japanese Caves in Panorama Park.

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These tunnels were DEEP.

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My impromptu tour group for the Japanese tunnels.

I played futsal for three hours straight on Sunday evening, so Monday I was ready for a relatively sedentary day sitting on my motorbike all the way to and around Lake Maninjau.

Maninjau is about a hour’s drive from Bukittinggi.  The lake sits in the giant caldera of an ancient volcano, so I loved it for that reason alone.  It was also visually stunning.  The road to the lake has a section of switchbacks leading from the top edge of the caldera to the lake level known locally and by tour groups as the ’44 turns’.  Each switchback is numbered with a sign and the views all along are great.

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Awesome views of the lake from the middle of the 44 switchbacks.

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Rice sprouts above Lake Maninjau.

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Is this place even real?

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The 44 switchbacks were pretty fun for a motorcycle. I have no idea how the giant buses made it through some of those turns, but they did.

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Stopped at a shop at switchback 37 or so, I was mobbed by another school group.

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First person view, getting my picture taken with the students (surrounding me on each side, not pictured). I really do feel like a celebrity with all the stares sometimes.

Once down at the lake level, I drove about halfway around to a park on the other side.  These next photos are from the park and along the road there and back.

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No shortage of Indonesians who love having there picture taken. This group caught my attention from 50 yards away with the universal 'take my picture' sign.

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Just a passing truck of strangers happy to see me.

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Beautiful fields along the lake. See the kites?

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One of my favorite photos of the past few months. Check out this motorcycle social session: the cute little girl digging my camera and the others totally into their conversation, all hanging out in front of the local playstation rental shop.

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More stares, this time from some workers riding by on the roof of their truck stuffed full of something. Hard to tell if it's trash, or if someone is moving.

I had heard of a place with a great view of the lake, the top of one of the mountains along the edge of the caldera.  It is accessible by road but a good hour’s drive from lake level.  I was hoping to get there at sunset for a photo, so I wrapped up at the lake around 5pm and headed back up the 44 switchbacks.

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Looks like these pumpkin-ish things are a big crop for the farms just above Lake Maninjau. I saw lots of stands like this selling them for a mile or so along the road.

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Stopped to ask directions to the viewpoint and the guy with the yellow sleeves insisted I take their picture before leaving.

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The viewpoint at Lawang Top was foggy when I first got there and I was afraid I'd miss sunset.

Did I mention that Sunday was my birthday?  I didn’t get to celebrate much here in Bukittinggi, but you won’t hear me complaining, not when I’m in the middle of the biggest vacation ever.  In fact, you could say my birthday celebration this year has lasted months and continues indefinitely.

And my birthday this year was not just another day of traveling.  After the mist cleared, I was treated to a truly excellent birthday sunset over Lake Maninjau.

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One of the best I've seen.