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Nightmare or ultimate experience

The just recently completed trans-Sumatera highway stretches over the entire length of one of the biggest islands on the planet, a distance of over 2500 km. The journey from Bakauheini in the far south to Banda Aceh in the far north is certainly one of the most fascinating travel experiences of entire Indonesia.

The journey can also turn out to be a nightmare, full of frustrations and unconforting events. Much depends on a carefull preparation, enough time and a big enough resilience during inevitable delays and irritations, things that all travelers in Indonesia will eventually experience. Patience and tolerance are demanded and can make this journey into a travelling experience.

The way Jakarta-Banda Aceh can be done in one lap, but that's dissuaded strongly. The journey will take about sixty hours and is very cheap, a challenge for travellers which want to test their endurance. The time of collapsed bridges and flooded roads has passed, the roads are reinforced, but mainly during the wet season, landslides can cause unpleasant surprises. The delay normally doesn't last long. De national economy partially depends on the highway and can therefore not be closed down more than a few hours.

Start in Lampung

The first lap of the trans-Sumatera road (99 km) runs from the moor places of the Jawa-Sumatra ferry in Bakeukheini on the most southeastern tip of the island to Bandar Lampung, the capital of the Lampung province. From the beginning the road meanders along Gunung Rajabasa, with a splendid view over the island-filled Bay of Lampung. Rows of clovetrees, characteristic cones with light-green leaves, mark the slopes.

Over sixty km past Bakauheni the road descents rapidly towards the coast. From the shivering, blue bay, small islands rise above the water, as well as fishing platforms, which float on the water like giant spiders. Houses on pawls decorate the beach, separated from the road by a small stretch of mangrove swamps. Then the enormous warehouses and docks appear, the suburbs of Bandar Lampung.
The nest phase of the trans-Sumatera highway stretched over 385 km (nine hours) towards Muara Enim, over plaint which border to the eastern edges of Bukit Barisan. The road cuts through rubber- and oil-plantations and fields with corn. All rivers flow towards the east from Bukit Barisan, and create numerous crossings.

The beautiful green sawah's along the road are decorated with small houses to keep wild animals in the distance. Look for the traditional Lampung or South Sumateran rumah limas, wooden houses with a red roof with a highered floor. In the earlier days these houses were built with ropes instead of nails.

Sumatera Selatan and Jambi

After Muara Enim the highway stretched towards the northeast and several times it crosses the Kali Lematang, before it reaches Lahat. Just after Muara Enim a panoramic view shows the Lematang against a background of primary tropical rainforest. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon hords of buffalo's, busses and trucks battle for some space on the road. Separated from the hills of Bukit Barisan is Bukit Serelo, a bald peek on a steep hill.

Lahat is the starting point for reconnaissance through the Pasemah highlands. Passengers who get out here however, are not ensured for a good seat in the next lag. The highway north of Lahat offers numerous curves, and at clear weather, a view over the Bukit Barisan in the west. During the wet season landslides are common. On the steep slopes coffe is being harvested, and a rubber plantation stretches several kilometres along the highway. The next city, Tebing Tinggi ('high cay'), is above the river Musi, one of the biggest and most important of Southern Sumatera.
After that a straight way leads to Lubuklinggau, on the crossing with the main road to Bengkulu. The next 28 kilometres houses with plate roofings with monotone regularity come across the window of the bus, until the road, just before Bangko, crossed the Merangin river. Here Jambi province starts, with a little more to the west National Park Kerinci-Seblat.

The next stage, from Bangko to Muara Bungo (92 km), is very fast. From here a 212 km long road runs to Jambi in the east. Outside Muara Bungo a bridge over the river Tebo near Teluk Panjang offers a view over the mosque on the river bank. Fifty kilometres ahead the wide Hariri river gives water to the irrigational system for sawah's nearby. This is Western Sumatera and along the road the first roofs in Minang-style can be found.

Western Sumatera

Beyond Kiliranjao the landscape finally gets more nice. The highway climbs in curves into Bukit Barisan. Impressife limestone formations appear, green sawah's make the contrast very fierce against the edge of the rainforests. The high, white bark of the tree's are no less than the limestone pillars. In some places the vegetation grows on vertical walls.

The first towers of limestone, small but impressive, appears on the right near Sungai Langsat. A little ahead are five more, bigger, oval, stupa-shaped toys of Mother Nature. In the wet season landslides occur in this area. In the worst case that will delay you for a few (more) hours.
After the mountains a more hospit landscape with sawah's, small Minangkabau houses ans hills leads you to a small river valley that will lead you towards a crowded trading place of Solok.

The way from Solok towards Padangpanjang, 53 kilometres, follows the river Sumani towards the north until Danau Singkarak, a giant and very beautigfull crater lake. After thas the highway passes the eastern banks of the river Sumani and the bridge over the river Umbilinri, on which Danau Singkarak (Singkarak Lake) irrigates it's water.

Gunung Singgalang and Marapi

North of the lake, the road ascends, the view here is very nice too, and it crosses the fertile rice fields of Pandangpanjang after that. At the left side is Gunung Singgalang, and on the right Mount Marapi (not the one on Jawa), an active vulcano that regularly erupts a little. Both volcanoes are about the same size, a little less than 2900 metres.

Bukittinggi, about halfway the stage, offers a big variety in hotels, restaurants and an interesting environment. An ideal place to split up your journey, to relax a few days and to make small trips. The next stage from Bukittinggi to Prapat, the gate to Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir (Northern Sumtera), a distance of 500 km, is pretty aggressive. The journey takes about 15 hours. It's is recommended to stop the journey in Padang Sidempuan or Sibolga, so the road through Bukit Barisan can be done at daylight.

The road is asphalted, but small and curvy. With a good driver it can still be agonizing with all the sharp curves and traffic coming towards you. Luckily it's not that crowded on the whole, and the bus can't drive faster than 40 km an hour.

Try to be awake when the bus arrives in Bonjol. This city is named after Imam Bonjol, the famous Islamic leader of the Paderi-wars. His statue, high on a horse and waving fierce with it's sable, decorates the city (on the right). A monument just past Bonjol marks the equator.

Now the road ascends towards Lubuksikaping to descend there towards a long river valley with on the right side sawah's. The road lingers downhill towards Muara Sipongi and Hutanopan. Steep descends belong to the past, however there are many cliffs covered in forests. Ricefields covered with small houses, and bridges over the river mark the transition to Northern Sumatera.

Northern Sumatera

From Muara Sipongi the road follows the river Gadis until past Hutanopan. The village of Purda Baru has the biggest pesantren (islamic boarding school) of Indonesia, with students from all over the country. Hundreds of small huts give home to boys from six to twelve years, which spend their elementary school-time here. The people in this area belong to the Mandailing Batak, which changed to islam about 150 years ago.

Panyabungan is a crowded market place which has much activity on Mondays, the market days. Remarkable becaks and the motorised becak mesin give some extra color to the colorfull marketplace and also add multiple decibels of noise. After Panyabungang the roads runs across rice fields with white mosques. Passing brick factories this continues until Padangsidempuan, which is reached in the evening. Otherwhise get on another bus for the one and a hour drive to Sibolga.

Outside some very strange curves the next stage, to Prapat and Danau Toba, takes about five hours, and is fairly hard. The route to Tarutung takes about three hours, and leads along markets and deforested hills with in some places a pine tree. After about one hours the pass at the bottom of Gunung Sibualbuali (with a big hotel) the border betwen the islamic and the christian Batak, and mosques are gradualy replaced by churches. From here it's half an hour on a straight road to the crowded market place of Siborongborong.

A little further the curvy descend towards Danau Toba starts, alon spectaculair ricefields and impressive graves with statues ofmen with big eyes on horses, and elderly clothed in adat-clothes. On top of some traditional graves are houses, one almost big enough to live in. The enormous grave on the right, just a little from the road past Balige, is from the Batak king of Raja Tano. Next the road lingers through the hills around the lake, to recover again near Prapat.

The journey from Prapat to Medan takes about four to five hours, with just after Prapat a tremendous view over Danau Toba. After that, a meandering descend through the mountains follows, which end almost in the sea. Wealthy ricefields and rubber- and oil plantations decorated the nearby scenery. Mosques take their places again.

The last stage: Aceh

The sixhundred kilometres from Medan to Banda Aceh takes about fourteen hours. The landscape is nive, but Biruen alone, on about two thirds of the total distance, is good enough to break up your journey temporarily. You can for example make an excursion to Danau Tawar. Near Sabat, seventeen kilometres outside Medan, the road crosses a wide river and the traffic gets less crowded. The road runs along big oilpalm plantations and old rubber plantations. Just before Tanjungpura a big mosque can be found on the left.

The landscape variates: big ricefields (some can stretch upto two kilometres along the road), cocos-bushes, mosques with one or three domes, big rivers and birdges over estuaria, overgrown by mangrove and nipa-palmtrees. Far away the grassy feet of Bukit Barisan can already be seen.

The city of Lhokseumawe, a few kilometres from the road, is the proud posessor of a big number of bank- and governmental buildings, shopping centrums, five-star hotels and restaurants. When leaving this city, big storage places for oilcan be seen, that's where the city got it's wealth from.

How deeper you enter the province of Aceh, the more women and girls wear kerudung or jilbab, an islamic scarf which only allows the face not to be covered. These girls only visit Islamic schools. The mosques normally have roofs of iron-wood.

Through the biggest part of the trans-Sumatera highway, it follows a railroad track that has long since liquidated Dutch railroad. However the biggest part of the railroad still is there, most bridges have collapsed.

During the last stage the road leaves the ricefields and coastal cities to cut the northen part of Bukit Barisan. Lingering the bus follows the road through bush-covered hills and lonely pine trees. The a quiet route along a river and a fertile valley follow, until he destination can finally be seen: Banda Aceh in the far northern tip of Sumatera.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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