Take I: broken knee – head directly to hospital, do not pass go, do not collect $200;
Take II: customs hold up – the authorities are aware of your scam, try again later;
Take III: success.
After setting off for a 30,000km adventure in September 2017 it took until the 18th of July 2018 to embark on the first international leg of the journey. A broken knee, some lost teeth, minor breaches to Indonesian customs laws, a little grease to the bureaucratic wheel, and a successful Supreme Court acquittal padded out the 9 month gap between arriving in Bali directly from Darwin in late 2017 to finally leaving from a warehouse in Jimbaran, debunked of fanfare on an entirely unremarkable Wednesday afternoon in July to head due west across Indonesia.
To say that it was difficult to start again after 2 failures is a gross understatement. The first setback was painful (literally) and the second setback was a huge blow to the spirits and the hip-pocket. 9 months is enough time to drain the enthusiasm out of (pretty much) anything and so with childbirth-like relief I climbed aboard the trusty steed, Ernesto. The relief was short lived as not 15km’s down the traffic-ridden, belting hot Denpasar tarmac did the bike stop dead in the middle of the road with a busted fuse and a burnt-out brake line. Maybe a less-than-trusty steed…
Yey. 9 anxious months of waiting, planning, explaining and enduring the same joke and conversation day after day about ‘how far the ride had progressed’ and it had lasted all of an hour.
A friend of mine with a wealth of round-the-world motorbike experience once told me that the breakdowns are when the real adventures begin and when you really meet the people of the country you are travelling through. And yes, it was true. As luck would have it (needed some by this stage) the first driveway I pushed the bike into was a mechanic. A lovely man who I think appreciated the poor attempt to display my sparse Indonesian vocabulary (“hello, thank you, good morning, chicken”) and even sparser mechanical knowledge. Within a few hours we were back up and running. He wouldn’t take payment however I eventually persuaded him to accept the live mud-crab I was keeping on ice for dinner. Okay – off we go, back up and running and…nope. An hour later the electrics cut out and I was again, all too familiarly, stuck in the pitch black with a motorbike-shaped boat anchor. With my last spare fuse and all unnecessary electrics disconnected we limped to the first stop.
What a day. At least now, after 3 weeks of preparing the bike in Jimbaran, we had snuffed out the final bad links in the system – I only had to fix this minor wiring issue and there shouldn’t be any more problems now for a long time. Away we go!!! And…Wrong.
3 days later, after a very touching send off from Ubud, I found myself stranded somewhere in the Javanese mountains, miles from nowhere and without a person in sight. The chain had given way. Thankfully we had just reached the apex of the mountain climb and had begun the decent. We pushed the bike to the closest sign of life and found out that in a stroke of luck there was a ‘bengkel’ (mechanic) not far down the road.
After initially indicating that he was unable to help, the old man waved over a friend with his oil stained hands. A make shift trolley jack was fashioned from a few chunks of wood and the small village came out to watch the show. The people were exceedingly friendly and the old ladies force-fed us for the entirety of the 2 – 3 hours that we were stranded there (I loosely use the word stranded – the village was incredibly welcoming, I could have stayed a lot longer). After a little (attempted) talking and a lot of gesturing, I assumed we would hitch a ride to the next village and try to source a new chain (it being apparent there was not one in this village). In fact, it turns out the idea was to fabricate a new chain link. The ingenuity of these people is without comparison when it comes to backyard engineering. There are lots of things you simply cannot buy in Indonesia as the government has incredibly tough import laws and so the option is either to make it yourself or do without! They make everything themselves.
And so, some time later, once again in the pitch black, our saviour emerged with the brand new chain link. We were sent off into the night on the instruction that if we went “hati-hati” (slow) then the chain should hold up until the next major town of Malang. And we were rolling. Again! One our way…nope.
The homemade chain may have made it to Malang, however we wouldn’t. Only 2 km down the road we were once again rendered immobile – this time of my own mistake. In search of accommodation we were stopped on the road by another incredibly kind, generous and compassionate local. He explained there was no accommodation for miles and that we would be best to “make rest” at his house. On the way up his Everest-like driveway the bike stalled and fell, smashing the rear brake mount and melting the brake line (again). We weren’t taking a mountain decent without brakes on a fully loaded bike. Looks like we were stuck again…Again. By this stage there was nothing else to do but laugh. 9 months waiting and nearly another month preparing the bike in Bali to last 3 days on the road. Was the ride over? Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Had everyone who told me I was ‘crazy’ and ‘wouldn’t make it’ been right?
This night was a real turning point in the trip. The family that took us in had retired to the mountains to escape city life. From what I gathered, the father had worked for an energy company (a guess from a story about once travelling to Darwin to negotiate a coal deal) and moved to the foothills of Indonesia’s tallest mountain to farm ‘salak’ or ‘snakefruit’ (as an aside, a delicious fruit so called because of it’s scaly skin). He had moved to the country to find “Alhamdullilah” – which, strictly translated, means something like “praise to god” however he further explained that to him it had a deeper meaning that cannot really be expressed by words. It is about seeking and finding a sense of intrinsic peace and happiness with self. Almost the equivalent to the Hindu “Om”. It’s also used to express the satisfaction of achieving something through difficulty – “hallelujah” (argued by some, including Christopher Hitchens, to be the same word).
This hit me as it is what the whole ride was always supposed to be about. This ride was about doing something that would bring fulfilment, happiness and a sense of achievement. Then it became connected with a charitable cause, sponsors, fund raising, filming, publicity and marketing. This brought increased pressure with each setback and started pushing the ride away from everything it was supposed to be, and everything it was supposed to represent. It became a chore. It became an obligation. It became a source of stress, compounding with each mishap and time delay. There was no inner peace about it anymore, there was no “Alhamdulillah”.
That night I slept the deepest, most uninterrupted sleep I have had in over a year of planning this ride. I woke up in the morning to appreciate where I was. It was an old two-storey wooden home. There were very few pieces of furniture and nothing matched. I saw about 3 power points in the whole place and it appeared that a lot of cooking was done over the outdoor fire. There was a borderless view of the picturesque Mt Semeru. It looked fake. It was so beautiful that it honestly looked fake. Alhamdulillah, indeed.
From this point on I was not going to let setbacks affect me. I was not going to hold myself to what were ostensibly arbitrary time limits and burdens that I had placed on myself. I would deal with the issues that presented, as and when they unfolded. I would remain prepared however not overly stressed about arriving at a certain place at a certain time. Priority number one became completing the trip and nothing else. I guess it always had been – however my approach would now change. No more forcing square pegs into round holes. This was about what would work for me, not for others. This ride was to come back around and be a deeply personal matter. Less Instagram, less Facebook, less publicity – more Alhamdulillah. The rest would follow, or not – it didn’t matter, it was secondary. Actually…at this point I really do need to thank the sponsors – especially the 2 major ones, Hunter and Murdoch University. None of the pressure was placed by them. They have been incredibly understanding. Thank you.
Anyway, the next morning our new friends hired a pickup truck, loaded their family, the bike, and us into the back and took a 4 hour trip into Malang where we found a mechanic to take off the bandaid and apply the proper sutures. This fix also kind of represented the ride and what it was supposed to showcase: shit happens. It happens all the time. In this instance, the shit was breaking down in the mountains without a soul in sight. That’s pretty shit. But with a little thought, a cool head and some help from your neighbour, you can push through anything.
It took a week with the mechanic for the bike to be ready. It was now going to be tough work to make it up Sumatra in the given time limit. Lots of stress, lots of hours on the bike, lots of kilometres per day. The icing on the cake was another breakdown after leaving the mechanic, about 90 minutes down the road. Enter Alhamdulillah. Square pegs. Round holes. The decision was made to change the route. Shipping from Surabaya in Java’s east to Borneo and riding up the west coast of Kalimantan would cut out maybe 2 weeks of riding. And so, all the planning for western Java and Sumatra was cast aside and off we set for Borneo.
It would be the best decision made on the trip so far. It did successfully cut 2 weeks off the Indonesian leg and all of the time delays were made up. On top of that was the incredibly unique experience of a few days on a leaky boat in the Borneo jungle to see wild orangutans. This might legitimately be an experience that is not around for much longer. The Malaysians are doing a little better, however the Indonesians have absolutely obliterated the Borneo jungles. For 14 of the 15 hours riding up the west coast all that could be seen were palm oil trees. 360 degrees. If there is room to plant, and a person can conceivably scale a cliff face to harvest the seeds, then the jungle is slashed, burned and palm oil trees are planted. It typifies the Indonesian mindset on business.
The de-forestation might be a little more palatable if there was slightly more creativity about how it was done – and maybe even the foresight to diversify into a different crop. There’s simply nothing other than palm oil trees, as if it is the only thing that could possibly be grown in dirt. Every farmer has copied the farmer next door to him, as do smaller businesses in the towns. The attitude appears to go something like “oh, Garry is doing pretty well with his fruit shop. I think I’ll open one up, too. Right next door…” And then Steve sees this and thinks something like “oh, Garry and John are doing pretty well with their fruit shops. I’ll open one across the road…” It is to the point that on one street we were staying there were 4 dentists within 50m. Simply bloody ridiculous. Anyway – the forest. It’s gone, going, gone. Everything’s gone. Really. It’s not some tree-hugging hippy bullshit. They have slashed everything for palm oil. Everything.
But I digress. Am now sitting on a picturesque island in Thailand with the bike temporarily garaged on the main land. In between has been Malaysia, more breakdowns, an illegal border crossing and an overnight stay in a police station in Thailand. It will take a few more days to write this all up so I will leave with some parting words to Indonesia – goodbye, you were wonderful. Never have I seen so much diversity across one country. Your food was tantalising and I love that there have been wars started over which province has the better chicken soup. Your people really are the highlight – the smiles, the gestures, the kindness, the lady who chased us down on a scooter in the middle of Denpassar with her daughter holding on for dear life to hand back our half empty 600ml water bottle which had fallen off the bike. You will forever be with me, and I will be back to scratch a little more of your 17,000-island-700-language surface.