Do you want to sail to pristine islands, untouched coral beaches and flawless surf? Board the Island Explorer and join a group of surfers in a quest to find perfect waves away from the crowded shores of the known world.
Join the journey through Sumatra’s jungles, across volcanoes and along chaotic roads, through isolated villages and temples to the fabled Mentawai Islands and beyond.
As the ship drifts deeper into the wilds, its occupants gradually lose their connection with the “real world” and start existing in their own dreamland.
But the future becomes uncertain when the captain jumps ship and the stand-in skipper slowly becomes unhinged in the tropical heat.
Targeted Age Group:: 14+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
This was one of the most exciting journeys that I have taken in my life and I had to share it. Hopefully some of the people who read the book will be inspired to go on adventures of their own.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
They were all real people, but in some I have exaggerated certain characteristics slightly. Some characters are composites of several people who I met in the wilds of Africa and Asia.
The bus driver slammed on brakes and we came to a screeching halt by the side of the road, setting off a cacophony of squawking chickens, bleating goats and swearing passengers. I craned my neck to see what had happened, but the only reason for stopping was that our driver had spotted more people who wanted to travel to somewhere along our route. He was happy to pocket a few more Rupiah in fares and to let them squeeze inside. After all, he had his own seat all to himself. A barrage of hooting and shouting came from the vehicles in the traffic behind us as the bus swerved onto the road again.
We were on the Trans-Sumatran Highway heading for the mountains and this part of my journey had not gotten off to a good start.
I had landed at the town of Parapat, on the shore of the picturesque Lake Toba, after taking a ferry from the island in the middle of the huge water-filled volcanic crater. My next stop was Bukittinggi, but the lady at the bus station shook her head sadly when she saw my surfboards. The busses that went south did not take that kind of luggage and she did not know of an alternative way to get there. She shrugged her shoulders and then just ignored me. The woman in the line behind me at the ticket counter shuffled past and pushed me aside, ending my enquiry.
I sat around for a while, wondering what to do, when I heard the greeting that every traveller to Indonesia gets to know so well: “Hello Mister”. “Hello Mister” is used to address any foreign man or woman. This usually signals an intention to practice English with you, or it’s just a simple greeting. However, it can also mean, “I am a crook and I am now going to get as much money from you as possible, you stupid tourist.” The man who approached me fell into the latter category of Hello-Misterers. I could see it in his eyes and he knew that I knew that he was about to work me over. But he also knew that it was almost getting dark and that I did not want to spend an evening on the street in Parapat, or probably worse, in one of the cheaper local “hotels”. So with this unspoken understanding between us, knowing that he had me by the crown jewels, he proceeded to twist and squeeze. There were no regular busses that would take my surfboards to Bukittinggi, he said, but he knew of one that, by a very fortunate coincidence, was leaving for just that town tonight. He could arrange for my boards to be transported. This kind of allowance was not usually made, but he knew the driver and he could persuade him to take me along, at the right price of course. I had to understand that they would be making a special concession for me, so there would be a nominal extra charge.
What choice did I have? I had already spoken to some of the regular bus drivers directly and they were not prepared to take my surfboards, even after I had offered extra payment. Nobody could tell me of any alternative transport. My new agent smiled broadly, showing off a mishmash of gold teeth, ill-fitting dentures and tobacco stained gums. I smiled back at him, while trying to convert Rupiah to a more familiar currency in my mind, comparing his price to the cost of a regular ticket and thinking murderous thoughts. We finally agreed on a price and, after I had paid up, we walked around the corner to a questionable looking coach that was about to leave “any minute now”. I loaded my board bag onto the roof and found my way onto the bus. There were no luggage racks inside the bus and most people kept their bags on their laps. I put my twenty-kilogram backpack on the floor next to me and waited for the bus to leave.
Three hours later, after slowly filling up with people, livestock and luggage, it wheezed and coughed out of the bus station and lurched into the path of an oncoming truck, setting the tone for the rest of the journey.
I soon found out that I was on a local bus, which was really only meant for short distance travel; but it did go all the way to my destination. The local bus will never refuse one more passenger and it is always overcrowded. Everybody on the local bus chain-smokes clove cigarettes. The people here hate open windows and as soon as I opened one for some fresh air, it would be closed again. The offended person would indicate to me that the cold wind would aggravate his chest problems. The notion that cigarettes could be harmful to your health seems unheard of in Sumatra.
The first four hours of the trip were okay. Of course, everyone wanted to talk to the white tourist and they rotated through the seat next to me continuously. Within half an hour I got my first marriage proposal. As I would find out over the next weeks, this particular lady was by no means the only person who would suggest matrimony to complete strangers like me, but she was the most persistent. It went like this:
“How are you?”
“Fine and you?”
“I am more wonderful! Are you married?”
“You have girlfriend?”
“But she no here?”
“Good! Will you marry me?”
“Well, um, I don’t know you at all. What would your father say?”
“He like very much.” She turned to indicate an elderly gentleman sitting next to his wife a few rows behind us. He flashed me an encouraging betel nut-smile. She continued, “I get to know you well on this bus. We have many hours together!”
My heart sank. “But I’m not Muslim.”
“No problem. We have very good Imam. He cut you quickly, snip-snip, and he teach you Koran. My brothers also help you.” She pointed out three sinister looking fellows, who did not return my nervous smile. “Look, I have strong back, wide hips, thick legs!” She patted her ample thighs. “We have many, many children, me and you. You have camera? Come, take photo of us.”
The bus broke down just in time. We stopped at a little roadside warung and I escaped from my prospective bride to the dimly lit interior. While the bus was being repaired, I had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and chillies, spiced by Satan himself. As I wiped the perspiration from my face and my stomach signalled its extreme disapproval, I took some comfort from the knowledge that soon I would be blowing some noxious gasses back at the smokers on the bus.
Back on board, the fattest woman in Sumatra sat down next to me. She had a child smelling of poo on her lap and it seemed as if she had tried to disguise her own sweaty odour with a lot of cheap deodorant. She was so large that there was no room for my rucksack on the floor between us and she stared at it sullenly, motioning for me to move it out of the way. Of course, there was nowhere else to put it and I ended up holding it on my lap. I started regretting my purchase of that large ceramic Buddha head, which was now painfully pushing into my groin. The fat lady squashed me against the window and I began to wish that the next person would take their turn to sit next to me, but it seemed that everybody had had a good look at me by that stage and that this lady and her pongy baby were going to be my close companions for the next few hours.
Then it started raining.
The window leaked.
The woman fell asleep on my shoulder and crushed me against the side of the bus that was now streaming with water. I got rained on from one side, drooled on by the kid and soaked with sweat by the woman. As if this wasn’t enough, the cigarette smoke and the motion of the bus (manic bus driver as always) made me unbearably queasy. Gradually my legs became numb and soon I could no longer feel my feet.
When the bus broke down for the second time, I was very grateful for the chance to escape into the soaking rain. I don’t know what was wrong, but the driver pulled into some kind of garage and spent two hours welding the front axle. After that the suffering continued; the fat lady did not leave me.
At 5 a.m. we stopped again. Relief! This time we had run out of petrol and someone hitched to the nearest town with a large container. Eventually we got going again until we reached a bridge that was so rickety that all the passengers had to get out and walk across before the bus could drive over it. We got back on and continued our journey, still stopping periodically to pick up and drop off more passengers.
I was not the only one on the bus that was feeling unwell. A few rows in front of us a man started vomiting and everyone crowded around him, apparently to see what he had brought up, as if it wasn’t obvious enough from the smell that he had eaten some strong fish curry. Indonesians are the most curious people I know of. Then our afflicted fellow passenger threw a shopping bag full of vomit out of the window, splattering it along the side of the bus. Somewhere in the back a goat started bleating again. The driver kept on blaring his horn at every passing vehicle and he overtook the slower traffic wildly, almost exclusively on blind rises and hairpin bends. From time to time his head bobbed forward, as if he was nodding off, but he took several swigs from a bottle in a brown paper bag when this happened and this seemed to jolt him awake. From this point on I lost contact with reality, going through a sort of out of body experience. I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening around me. My head slumped against the vibrating bus window and I felt my brain juddering around in my skull as I fell into fitful sleep.
Eighteen excruciating hours after the bus had set out from Parapat we eventually arrived in Bukittinggi. I didn’t care what was happening anymore and I probably would have stayed on the bus for another eighteen hours, like a deluded hostage who falls in love with his kidnappers and refuses to go with his rescuers. But they dropped my surfboards onto the tarmac from the roof of the bus and that shook me out of my stupor. I leapt out of that bus and grabbed my board bag, cautiously inspecting the contents. Miraculously, there was no obvious damage to the boards.
Somebody handed me my rucksack and I staggered onto the road, feeling as if I had undergone some sort of religious conversion, or possibly that I had been brainwashed by the secret police to become a new man; a blank slate to start on afresh. I was a changed person: I had endured the Trans-Sumatran Highway and I swore that I would never ever in my life attempt anything like it again.
About the Author:
Dan Scheffler lives just outside Cape Town, South Africa
with his wife and son.
He loves rough travelling, mountains and the sea.
He is a doctor in general family practice, but tries
not to let work interfere too much with his surfing.
When the Cape winters get cold or the Southeaster
howls incessantly in summer, he escapes by writing
about wild places and tropical trips.
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