Huddled under a dripping canvas, sheltering from a thunderstorm and chewing half-cooked goat-meat satay at a crossroads town in southern Sumatra – why do I do this to myself, I ask the smirking youth beside me who is petting a blackbird, swaddled in a rag. Water streams everywhere.
Twenty-four hours on, across the sunlit waters, come the slip-slap of water against gently-moving dugouts and the soft plop as the fishermen cast their weighted nets. This is why. The only disturbance to the afternoon torpor is a monkey crashing through the shrubbery.
Secreted within Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan or Marching Mountains, Lake Ranau in Banding Agung is a rare treat for persistent travellers.
I had climbed down off the bus at Bukit Kemuning after almost four hours of stop-start travel on a crowded two-lane highway, constantly weaving, accelerating, braking. My bed for the night would be a cot within a cement-floored cell, with a tub full of cold water somewhere down a steep flight of stairs.
A bright, clear morning. With the weekly market under way, minibuses disgorge dozens of villagers and their bundles. I squeeze aboard the first of three diminutive buses to journey into the foothills of Bukit Barisan. Coffee bushes and banana palms cover the hillsides and the gullies in between are stepped to enclose rice paddies.
Now the road snakes downwards, each bend inching closer to a distant expanse of silvery water.
Kotabatu, end of the line. Everyone spills out. Habis, mister. But there has to be more than this . . . Char-tair, mister. Chartering the three-wheeler, I continue on.
A cluster of thatch-roofed cabins clings to the shoreline below the road. The Danau Ranau Cottages were built to lure domestic tourists from Palembang, the economic hub of southern Sumatra. But guests are conspicuously absent today
Banding Agung really is the end of the line, a settlement of half a dozen streets and three or four cafés, each offering the same stacked-up plates of cold congealed curries and dried beef à la Padang. In the smartest pension, the guestbook spans four years in a few short pages.
At the lakeshore jetty, blue-and-white launches slowly fill with passengers for villages across the waters. The squat cone of Gunung Seminung looms through the haze, stretching lazily to reach 1,880m.
Around the lakeshore, provincial authorities have set up faux-Chinese arches and a series of terrazzo viewing pavilions. Fortunately, the emerald of the rice paddies tumbling down to the shore overpowers these discordant structures. People soap their bodies and their laundry in the shallows.
It’s mid-afternoon on a sleepy Sunday and many of the storefront shutters have been closed. Primary school principal Ali and his mates slap down their chunky plastic dominoes.
As evening falls, the group re-convenes at the brightest of the cafés. Armando, a darkly handsome Minangkabau from western Sumatra, rose to sergeant-major in the police force before taking an early retirement. With their fragmentary English, self-taught from Radio Australia, and my pidgin Indonesian we discuss my marital status and the economy. This latter is such a burning issue that my companions discard the customary reluctance to discuss politics with foreigners.
Back to the lakeshore, I decide, in search of a little more ambience . . . The Danau Ranau Cottages have all those delightful Indonesian touches – haphazard wiring strung up under highly-combustible thatch, yowling cats, groundsmen spitting noisily below your balcony, tear-jerker pop music and cocks crowing at 6.30am and, of course, inquisitive young men who take a seat at your table, uninvited.
“Sendirian?” they cry. Indonesians are nonplussed by solo travellers. The setting does invite couples to gently latch their doors – secluded and spacious, furnished in passable style, the cabins with their high-pitched roofs are even equipped with porcelain toilet bowls rather than the usual squat variety. Balconies project out over the private jetty and the luminous waters. The cost of this indulgence is less than US$10 (RM37).
Restive by late afternoon, I investigate a path towards the waterfall at Air Terjun. As rain buckets down, a farmer beckons me to shelter in his earthen-floored cabin amongst the banana palms.
The family “transmigrated” from crowded East Java several years ago. We open a bottle of potent black rice wine whilst the thunderstorm runs its course. Four of his seven kids crowd onto a cot bed to stare at me. The walls above their heads are pasted over with pictures cut from magazines.
Down to the lakefront runs a potholed lane. Muslim schoolgirls, faces encased in lacy starched cowls, take seats on the passenger launches. Three uniformed teachers walk home for lunch, kids in faded red and white tugging at their skirts.
Bathed in the soft, clear light of early morning, Gunung Seminung looms over the lake as I trudge up to the main road. Another long day ahead on the road . . . W
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