As soon as I walked out of the sweet little guesthouse that morning, providence immediately presented me with a Colt trolling the rounds around town in search of custom, and though I was sceptical as to the wisdom of it, I elected not to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was only going as far as Ketacane, about halfway towards Berestagi, but onward transport from there would probably prove more frequent than back here in the sticks. It filled up soon enough and headed out on another snaketrail up and over temperate rainforest clad mountains, narrow and twisty as ever with the same excellent vistas. Small periodic hamlets were very rustic, almost poor, and yet it was still apparent that people were happy enough with their lot, keeping buffalo and Benting cattle and tending corn, tomatoes and bananas amongst other crops. It was a surprise after a while to encounter a police checkpoint, the military's presence had so far been almost inpalpable which is perhaps not what one would have expected given the regions recent troubles. Every little settlement had a police post though, if thats what you could call the open air shacks more akin to bus shelters, but this one was unique in requiring a payment before a rudimentary boot and floor search, obviously for weapons. In GAM country I guessed old habits died hard. Aceh could be seen to be letting up its grip however as passing through another village named Ketambe a well tended church boasted a large rooftop cross with a shrine and prominent Christian tomb nearby. This was a revered spot for flora and fauna, considered a unique complete biosphere mustering countless endemic species, and though tourists were prohibited from interfering with its perceptible draw, a third of it had reputedly already been lost to illegal logging and clearance farming since its UNESCO recognition not a decade ago. We would never know just how many species had already been lost forever, and the atmospheric cloud swathed mountains reachable by precarious wire bridges over an adjacent river would doubtless suffer more.
The Colt driver hammered on in a frenzy as the road levelled to follow the river valley, before Ketacane materialised much bigger and grittier than Blangkejeren. It was a poor ommission from the guidebook even though there may have been no attractions as such, but I was fortunate enough that that another Colt crew took the trouble of transfering me to the out of town Medan terminal free gratis. It was a palatable 40,000 Rupiah on to Berestagi even if the promised immediate departure went unhonoured as ever, and in the process I was heartened to realise that at last I could string the odd sentence of Bahasa together and understand the tricky numerical replies. My first phrase committed to memory was unfortuantely "Saya sakit" (I am ill). I nursed myself with another of my favoured isotonic drinks, refreshingly devoid of crap, called Pocari Sweat, and for sure that is what it would soon become. We must have descended some, for the heat and stickiness were back with avengance.
A straight arduous road through many grungy villages was the worst so far, lined with many churches and Christian cemeteries, eventually climbing into a cornfield area. The devil may care driver raced other traffic one handed at motorway speeds, risking head on collision round blind bends, determined to continue his fun of not letting anyone else overtake. After some highly unexpected arbitrary wider sections with white lines, a stop at tiny Tiga Binanga offered little more memory than the persistence of kids selling peanuts, and poor people doing washing and ablutions in muddy pools at the roadside, there were bare arsed kids, even bare everything kids. Then an unusually tall local honey got on the Colt and sat next to me, which I thought was nice until I noticed that she had legs even hairier than mine. Unwooded hills around here perhaps were an indicator of the people's limited means, they were aesthetically pleasing but the many piles of firewood told a sad story.
With Tiga Binanga unmarked on my map I had no idea how far I still had to go to reach Berestagi, but it would be far enough given that the light was now fading. The road seemed worse than ever as mammoth potholes sometimes devouring the whole road were compounded by occasional mounds of compacted rock, and perhaps in a renewed urgency due to the darkness, Colin MacRae up in front of me drove like a man possessed. Doubtless he had driven this road half his life, but the manner in which he did it made me seriously think that ours might be shortly curtailed, sometimes opting to slew around half in the adjacent fields so that the broken surface wouldnt interrupt his maniacal speed.
Its as well to note here a couple of casual observations I had realised in this genre, first of all the fact that surprisingly they drove on the left here. That was generally only theoretical since more often than not the disruption of the road surface would dictate the most amenable course, even if that meant sideways, but then I recalled from a long untouched corner of a mind full of useless information that though the Dutch had been their colonial masters, Holland had originally driven on the left too and had only switched to the right to match the rest of continental Europe in the 1950s. Indonesia had gone independent early, as many a memorial and banner proclaimed on 17th August 1945, and so that explained that. They also had the unusual quirk here of relentlessly using their right hand indicators, even motorbikes, yet not to say that they were turning right but that "this is the extremity of my vehicle, you'd better miss it. And dont even think about overtaking". That was certainly preferable to blinding with your full beam every oncomer desperate to get home to his misses. I also couldnt help noticing the periodic payments the driver had to profer along the way, a wooden plank serving as a makeshift speed bump. Without stopping, lone teenagers would have a 5,000 Rupiah note slapped in their palm, and devoid of explanation I could only assume that it was a game I had seen similarly played in Pakistan. If you wanted to pass through their village unmolested then you had to stump up for the privilege, and that could only mean one thing. A mafia. They obviously didnt spend it on the roads!
As civilisation approached in the shape of sizeable Kabanjahe the road improved slightly only so that we could hurl ourselves along unprecedentedly around blind bends with similarly deathwishlike oncoming traffic to dodge, it was a toss up as to whether I silently commended Colin up front for his evident skill or sleighted him for his abandon. Certainly he instinctively knew how to best negotiate every last rucket, and the list of them to memorise was endless. The locals dozed nonchalantly having seen it all before. But then that was Asia for you, very normal things could appear downright crazy to a white man. At least from Kabanjahe I knew it was only a short hop onwards to my destination Berestagi, and after a whopping 10 and a half hours being variously hurtled or bumped around, it was a tremendous relief to be ceremonially dropped off right outside my chosen lodging to find it remarkably posh, sweet and most importantly, available. It was a travellers haunt strong on service yet strangely devoid of travellers, tourism was buggered in Sumatra and no mistake, and after the parochial vibe of the highlands felt almost like a city, with good services and standards, most importantly a workable ATM and a Bintang beer. I must admit I hadnt missed a drink apart from when I discovered it available but overpriced on Pulau Weh where the lifestyle was entirely conducive, such was the draw which Sumatra held on me. It was perverse to think that not so long ago I had been stuck in a rut in Bangkok with all the trappings of East and West and had silently despised it.
I chanced upon the lone travellers cafe in town, with again not a soul around, before stumbling across a few Western guys locked out of their hostel. They had already done the trek up nearby Gunung Sibayak, but told of the odd straggler still hanging around. I got back to my place to find the one main gate similarly locked at 10.30pm, and had to risk my life over a precipice and row of spikes just to get to my bed. Having just completed a large loop of Aceh province I was only 60Ks short of being back in big city Medan, and yet I must have still been unexpectedly high. My single blanket doubled over still couldnt ward off a remarkably cold night, and then the ubiquitous 5am holler from the nearby mosque sealed a restless night. How perverse, I'm sure Allah might understand that people just needed to sleep, allegedly it was he who made us that way after all. I doubt if the locals would have agreed.