Shunning the prospect of what would have been a convoluted, hassle loaded day aboard Opelet minibuses, life on the edge seemed to make more sense, and so I resolved to hire myself another bike. The cheerfully cheap Yamaha 125 from the hotel soon landed me in the deep end negotiating a nightmare of heavy unpredictable partisan town traffic, but somewhat surprisingly I managed to track down the right road out of Bukittingi for the small market town of Baso, before thankfully turning right and leaving the frenzy behind on a twisty country road. The scenery had opened up to reveal the volcanoes like never before, and rural scenes of endless rice fields dotted with charismatic architecture found me appreciating the freedom a bike afforded. It had been a major blow upon hiring it that in contemplating my itinerary, the guy at the hotel had shown me a paper headline from 4 months previous, the major drawcard of the "Kings Palace" in a village called Pagaruyung was shown to be engulfed in flames, reputedly struck by lightning. It was a serious loss to local tourism and was being rebuilt, but that was small compensation to me. I retained my thoughts in that direction however, with other villages boasting waterwheels and other old houses, and though they eluded me in the main, finally it was a beautiful varying trip out to the hub town of Batu Sangkar. It was not without its charms and even the unusual request for my passport from a friendly local cop was obviously done more out of curiosity. I wasnt dumb though, he made do with a photocopy. It was a point of note that perhaps unexpectedly, there had been a singular lack of the meddling I had sometimes had to endure from the authorities elsewhere, Sumatra was much too friendly and relaxed for that. There was a fine large Maning Kabau longhouse in the town centre, exquisitely carved and painted as ever, and a flit around the main street revealed shopping centres which had been considerately built in harmony with the local architectural style. The boys at an unusually inviting restaurant struggled to understand "the gula" (sugar tea) and I could only guess that they werent even used to speaking Bahasa Indonesia, certainly not with tourists. It was here that I had my first full encounter with the local Padang cuisine, very popular and destined to become a default favourite, and it was similar in its presentation to the fare of Kurdish Iraq. There was no menu to consult, they simply covered the table to groaning point with a myriad of portion sized diverse offerings, you just took your pick and paid accordingly. Variously fried, dried or curried fish and chicken were the staples, though other delights included chili paste coated shrimps, chili and curry laced vegetables and even eggs which they managed to spice still within the shell.
Through necessity I'd had to break out my long broken sunspecs for the bike ride, but a chance opticians here had them fixed in no time, and the "Hello misters" here were toned with an air of surprise. I resisted the temptation of the 16K round trip out to the village of Belimbing which purportedly boasted a particularly noteworthy house, but managed to ask and understand alternative directions for the nearby hamlet of Limo Kaum, which promised more of the same. Approaching round the other side of Mt. Merapi now, my loop revealed rice paddies of super fluorescent green in terraces now, with farm folk tending them in conical pointy reed hats and men ploughing with buffalo. In an undisclosed subsequent hamlet a very large and old looking multi-tiered building too large to be a house was an unexpected marvel, and after a quick tea stop where the wifey wanted to take me home to a party, I bypassed the large town of Padang Pajang, noting some very grand contemporary architecture in traditional style. I'd been short changed with the amount of fuel I had on board, but it was only about 30p a litre here and you just bought it from any ordinary grocers or dedicated roadside stall out of a plastic bottle. The completion of the loop back to Bukittingi revealed an excellent vista of a very contrasting mosque and Maning Kabau house against the habitual rice and volcano backdrop.
With frequent stops for photos, fuel and lunch I'd still managed a loop of maybe 100Ks by 1pm, and so with plenty daylight left it was almost on a whim that I turned left just short of Bukittingi and headed for Danau Minanjau. Lake Minanjau was a side trip well represented in the guidebook but it was one detour I had initially resisted with little concern, I reasoned that after Lake Toba it couldnt possibly bear me much new fruit. How wrong I was. Looking at the map, it was a fair old jaunt to get out there but with the road initially proving straight and flat I hammered on at up to 80KPH, no longer wary of overtaking the locals. It was an abrupt change then as I descended switchbacks into a canyon, with the road being cut sheer through towering rock faces at some points, before grinding up another series of twists into the village of Murat. Nothing too exciting spare the views, I pressed on, occasionally getting caught out by the bad local habit of digging out potholes but not immediately filling them back in. When you ever saw roadworks in these parts the sites chosen often seemed arbitrary, the methods rudimentary. After a quick Pocari Sweat pit stop providing more stunning views of mountains and lurid green carpet far below, I started to both twist and descend more radically now, until I spied a telltale sign proclaiming "Kelok 44". Kelok meant turn, and the guidebook had foretold of a mammoth switchback section with the turns counting down to 1. Handy for pinpointing if you had a breakdown, but you wouldnt want one out here. The turns proved to be very steep and abrupt, with hard won control over rutted sections making it tricky to avoid traffic under the squeal of gear assisted braking. Soon though, a blowaway image of a shiny blue lake marooned by a towering cauldron of topography stole the horizon. Amazing. In between the turns I had to dodge the monkies as they chased after tit bits thrown from preceding cars. Negotiating turn 1 finally presented me with a straight in descent into Maninjau village, and I turned right along the one shoreline road, passing more extremely charming houses devoid of the habitual pointy gables in the main. They were still aesthetic wonders nonetheless of carved and painted motifs, ornate shutterboards and occasionally plaited whickerwork walls. The few Ks hence mustered overtly more touristy developments devoid of tourists save a lone couple, and I used the excuse of fuel and then a tea stop to search out some prime viewpoints. A magic moment materialised as a dugout canoe paddled underneath an overhanging palm tree, backgrounded by shack wielding fish farms and dark looming 500 metre high escarpments. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been. With the tourist cafes singularly dead, I plumped for tea at the one happening place in town, a 3 table shack where the locals played an untold game of miniature cards and irritatingly slapped down dice. Life was so comatosed here that casual enquiries and smiling ogles were deemed more important than service, but I got my tea in the end. I loaded up on water too since the Bukittingi region had been consistently cloud free and blazing, and I marvelled at the now deep brown hue of my Factor 30 arms too. It was the same rollercoaster road back up into Bukittingi, with the steep turns proving even more of a challenge uphill, complicated by stark contrasts of light and the maniac driving of others. By the time I reached the junction and made enquiries about the left turn into town, the light had begun to fade and it got cold negotiating the heavy free-for-all rush hour traffic which thought nothing of abruptly shutting you out or blocking the road if it suited them. And you were a mug if you respected the traffic lights. Thankfully my previous wanderings around town enabled me to identify the way home with little difficulty and it was with a certain incredulous relief that I managed to park up at the comfy Orchid Hotel without having bent the bike or myself. I'd been glad to have a crash helmet that day, certainly the adventure had warranted it, and it was one final surprise to note that I'd travelled almost 300Ks. Quite a trip. Pretty shattered with all that sun, fresh air and concentration, I stole myself into the freezing shower to see that my now bordering on black tinge was due to being caked in pollution. After briefly flaking out, beer was the order of the day, which doesnt explain how I managed ending up talking to the locals about entry fees for Telford College, UK immigration policy, and fucksake, how wonderful Islam was.