Randy Ford – Traveling Through South Sumatra

Tiger Habitat in Sumatra

Tiger Habitat in Sumatra

As a companion piece to my last blog, I am posting the following travelogue. Perhaps it’s not a travelogue because it’s not a lecture. By any standard it is a personal account.

Muko Muko


Randy Ford

Our land has ben never any man from forign country

passing on as you by walk or by cycling,

So you are a brave man I say.

Couse our road is not well as they have sen.

This is your way to Muko Muko

Tjampangtign 29 Djuli 1970


South Sumatra July 1970

They assured us, my wife Peg and me, we could make it before dark, when the tigers come out. Ahead of us the “road” ran down the beach at low tide. We had been following hand-drawn maps for several days, and our atlas…not nearly detailed enough… indicated that we had been following a road, but it turned out not to be a road by any standard we knew. Our atlas of the island connected Padang and Bengkulu with a red line, indicating to us that a coastal road existed and that it was just as good for bicycling as we were used to. Had we known what we were about to face, we would’ve chosen the inland road to Djambi.

People south of Padang warned us about the tigers. All along the way my wife and I were told that because of these big cats we had to be off the road by dark. We took the warning seriously because people kept asking us if we possessed a gun and seemed surprised when we told them no. Once a tiger came into a village where we stayed and took a goat. We had a pet gibbon, which in our minds meant we had to be vigilant. Not just vigilant but super vigilant and wary of every sound.

At lunch time, on one of those first days, we found rare privacy in a small clearing next to the road. We were surrounded by trees, tall trees of an uncut jungle. Here we could lay our bicycles down and sit on two rocks and enjoy our bananas and sardines without fear of being run over. Chunni, our gibbon, was hanging pretty close, begging bites of banana when suddenly…crash, crash, crash…high above us and through the trees crash, crash, crashing so terrifying that Chunni jumped on Peg. Grabbing our bicycles we got out of there as fast as we could. Only later did we realize that the crashing couldn’t have been a tiger. A cat, even a big one, wouldn’t have been that clumsy.

We were still trying to get to Bengkulu. The road had become less and less traveled. We kept asking ourselves, why did they let their bridges go? At first, missing only a plank or two. Then, out of necessity, we had to play hopscotch with heavily loaded bicycles. Now, a bigger hurdle: and there were no more bridges. We surmised, right or wrong, that they had been destroyed during WWII.

The first river like that we came to meant that we had to unload all our gear…surrounded by the inevitable crowd…slipping and sliding with several loads down a very steep bank, loading it all in a dugout, and, on the other side, struggling up and down an equally difficult slope. Surely someone helped us, some boys, someone.

These were the days before the universal use of bicycle panniers. With most of our belongings in a huge wicker basket on the back of my bicycle, none of our equipment had been designed for bicycle touring. We had nothing high-tech. As a British acquaintance put it, we rode high in the saddle on “sit-up-and-beg,” wide-tire, single speed bicycles, bought in Malacca, Malaysia. Because of the basket and, no doubt, our white skin, people thought we were missionaries and asked us for medicine.

A steamroller abandoned in the middle of a jungle clearing confirmed for us that the road had once been maintained. As if to prove it to ourselves, we took a picture of the damn oddity. An oddity ourselves, wherever we went we created the same kind of awe. For all that attention, we paid a toll.

We were drawing huge crowds. No matter where we went, people…anyone and everyone who wasn’t doing anything that couldn’t possibly wait…would crowd around us…hundreds of them, hundreds and hundreds of eyes, all staring at us. As we tried to communicate, they would sometimes laugh out of embarrassment or consider us funny.

How curious they were about us! A white American couple traveling by bicycle with a black, white-handed gibbon. Chunni rode on my wife’s bike, sitting on her surrogate mother’s hip and hanging onto her shirt. (With the purchase of the gibbon in Thailand, we had unwittingly and naively become part of the trade that had created a market for tiger skins in Bengkulu. We would soon see more evidence of that pernicious trade.)

We had thought seriously enough about camping to carry a heavy canvas tent. Having crossed the equator just north of Padang, we expected rain, lots of it. With a tarp as a cover for the basket and by using it as a makeshift shelter, we could get out of a downpour, but counted on the rain for relief from the heat. We used our ponchos and the tarp, but never the tent. Not once could we have used it. Except later when we were trudging through jungle, we were rarely away from people; and people in that part of the world didn’t have a concept of camping and did have a strong custom of hospitality. Even though we needed the privacy of the tent, we were never allowed to pitch it. In fact, given the circumstances, pitching it would’ve been rude. No, not just rude. It would’ve been offensive.


Dear Mr. & Mrs Wandy


I hope you coming together at my house now. You

must come together with the man who bring this letter. I wait

you at home.

Or summoned by a letter with an official seal

Dear Sir!

I hope both of you come to me

at the Government office because

I want to get some information

from you.

You may come together with

a man, who give this letter to you

And I am waiting for you now.

Thank you

In the name of Government

Whenever we landed in a village at the end of a day, we could count on a ritual. We would be greeted by the crowds and the head man or an official and invited or officially summoned to an office or a home, where we could expect a long, warm reception in a room packed with men.

They would pour over our passports, which they couldn’t read. One by one, they would look at each page, while they posed the same questions in Bahasa Indonesia. “Where are you from? Where are you going? What’s in that big basket? How many children do you have?” (Back in the States Peg would later claim that our first child was black.)

Then the gentle haggling would begin, and on and on it would go until it was decided who would get the honor of having us sleep in their house. After the haggling, which was more like the give and take of bargaining in a culture where bargaining was more important than in ours, we would be led to the home of the winner for the night. We quickly learned the protocol and that we didn’t have a choice.

South of Padang, before we lost our road, we gave our tent away. That day Peg was literally asked for the blouse she was wearing. More valued to someone else than Peg, an exchange was made. I’ve forgotten what she got in return.

Women doing laundry in a river used to be a ubiquitous image that people photographed when they traveled overseas, just as people seemed to relish talking about the toilet facilities they encountered along the way. In that respect, we were no exception, particularly when talking about this stretch of our journey. A lasting image for me was a bus stopping so that the driver could bathe in a river.

Now these were very modest Muslims, and generally men and women would bathe in a river in different places, but by washing themselves inside their sarongs they didn’t need much separation to maintain their modesty. Out of necessity, we quickly learned this technique of bathing. We learned to hold up with our sarongs with one hand and with the other hand and a bar of soap how to wash the essentials. The rub for us was that the rivers were also used as a toilet facility.

South of Padang, before we lost our road, the day she gave her blouse away, my wife was led by a group of women and girls to where they used the river to bathe and do their laundry, and where the same river became their toilet. (Rather than face this, Peg said she would hold her bodily functions for as long as possible.) And to make matters worse, on this particular day, South of Padang, before we lost our road, curiosity overcame modesty and some of the males watched my wife wash herself: the very first white woman they’d probably seen bathing like they did. Lack of privacy like that made travelers like us want to lash out or, at the very least, scream.

Curiosity and the lack of privacy were obviously linked, and often got to us. Occasionally, we acted badly. Peg never got used to having people be drawn to her because of their curiosity, touching her face or her hair, her long brown hair.

Our road ended in Tapan. It was as inviting as posted land with a “No Trespassing” sign. Again we heard warnings: do not take cycling in the night and take your night in a house of the chief of the town. And again we were warned of the tigers.

We were told where we were going we couldn’t use “big money.” We changed some of our currency into “small money”: smaller bills and different coins than we had used before. It felt like crossing a border, with all the anticipation, excitement, and uncertainty of that. Naively, I, at least, thought we could ride through the jungle; but I hadn’t gone down the trail more than fifty feet before my front wheel hit a root or something, causing me to crash. My bicycle, load and all, fell on foolish me. Did I stay down? No, I hopped right up, righted my bike, and pushed it as quickly as I could down to the bank of a river. Forgot about Peg. I wonder now, after seeing me fall, why she kept going. No mud yet, just hard packed clay and I flew/slid down the trail. It would be the last time I would go that fast.

Now, instead of conquering a road with hills that from a distance and the prospective of a bicyclist always seemed bigger than they were, we were faced with a jungle trail that distorted our reality even more dramatically. Our perspective would narrow to a few feet on each side of us and, at the most, in front and behind us, to ten to twenty yards. And over and over again, we were told to stay alert for tigers and boars.

Now without a reliable map, except those drawn for us each day by the people we met, valuable pencil drawings on onion skin paper, we never knew how far the next village was. The distances didn’t seem far, a km—2 kms—1 km—l km—2 ½ kms, a total of 35 kms from Lubuk Pinang to Muko Muko. Then we tried to ride them.

It didn’t help that we soon encountered people who measured distance in terms of smoke breaks rather than kilometers. For instance, the next village was always so many smokes away. Not knowing how far we had to go to get somewhere safe (we never forgot that we were in tiger country, of which we would soon have irrefutable proof), we never knew how far we had come. From the beginning, therefore, based on everything we’d heard, plus having a gibbon with us, we had a legitimate fear. On top of all that, the sun was our only reliable clock.

At the river, we bargained for a ride across. Using our small money, as always, we wanted to make sure we didn’t get cheated. With the help of the boatman, we carefully balanced my bicycle across the bow of the dugout. Each time we crossed a river in this manner, we had to untie my basket and undo the rest of our gear. Again, I don’t remember what we did with Peg’s bike; whether we made two trips across this rather wide river, or somehow managed it all in one trip. I do remember, however, sitting up front, tall and straight and gliding up stream and floating back down to the exact spot across the river from where we started.

The boatman would’ve been resourceful. He would’ve known how to best manage bicycles with heavy loads because that trail was the main trade route. It was the only way, except for coastal steamers, to move commodities back and forth. A few times these traders passed us, pushing their bicycles, loaded with huge burlap sacks of rice or loads of pots and pans and the like, and we’d be amazed and envious at how quickly they moved. We literally were left standing, unless they caught up with us after we had slipped down. Slipping quickly became part of our job description, for which no one requested references.

The trail also ran through villages, a few houses with nipa roofs, perched on stilts. Depending on the population, clearings would vary in size. In some places, the trail would take us over a stile and through a village, past plots of tapioca, past some plots with matting tight as a basket and reinforced with stakes.

A few chickens, valued. Roosters, valued more, and when cooked especially for guest like us, hard to chew. Ate the bones for marrow. Something learned in the Philippines.

And goats. Because of the tigers, all of the goats and the chickens and roosters had to be kept penned-up in cages built high off the ground. And also because of the tigers, people rarely left their houses at night.

By then, we pretty much knew what to expect when we came to a river. We knew that all of the big rivers had to be crossed by dugouts, and by then we had become adept at picking our way carefully across bridges that still had enough ancient boards left to cross on. But when it came to smaller streams, we had to cross on two logs…one for walking and one for juggling the bicycles on; where if we slipped or were thrown off balance, we could’ve dumped our whole load into dark green water, as thick as a hearty soup and crawling with critters. To avoid such a catastrophe, I would take both bikes slowly and carefully across, often with the help of some other traveler.

On one particular day, for most of the afternoon we hadn’t crossed paths with a single soul. By our calculation, we should’ve come to a village. It had been an eventful day, and we were tired, a good tired, but by then we were ready for an end to it. Again, we had no way of knowing how far we’d come, and to our right, it seemed like the sun had suddenly accelerated setting. Remembering the rule that we had to be off the trail before dark, we now pushed our bikes in and out of shadows. As we hurried along, we worried, while the flicking light had a hypnotic effect. Disoriented, we couldn’t go back. Way too late for that. Earlier in the afternoon, we had seen a boar. Luckily, just as we began to really worry about tigers and boars, we were saved by a man who suddenly caught up with us. He motioned for us to follow him and walked with the confidence we then lacked. Sure enough, not far up the trail, we found accommodations for the night.

We were thankful to find a place, any place. There was but one choice available for lodging, a single room in a house on stilts in a small clearing on the banks of yet another river. That night we slept on a platform made of bamboo slats, next to strangers, fellow travelers. For an infinitesimal amount of money, we paid for our accommodations and a meal of roasted chicken. The proprietor killed a prized hen especially for us, or else we would’ve had to stick to the menu of rice and chili paste. Or maybe a huge bean, like a lima. The next night, after moving on, we didn’t get a chicken killed for us. We ate the rice, but skipped chili paste much hotter than we had developed a taste for.

The next day was terrible. Mud became our foe. We had to push and push our bikes through the thick jungle mud. We tripped on stones and hidden sticks, punishing our already sore-covered feet even more. Our thongs had to be discarded because the deep mud just slurped them off. Time after time I slipped and fell with my bike, so that most of our things became wet, if not muddy. I don’t how Peg made it. I certainly felt like quitting, but what choice did we have? Quit? In the middle of a deep jungle, there was no way we could do that. We ended up hiring the old man of the night before and another younger fellow to push our bikes. Still, we barely made it.

That evening we didn’t get the friendly reception we’d learned to expect. The little village seemed dead, and the few houses were falling down, and, like the bridges, might soon succumb to neglect. Our host seemed leery of us and didn’t have enough food for herself, much less for guests. Perhaps we caught her on a bad day, perhaps on a Monday when Tuesday would’ve been market day, and to buy anything she would’ve had to travel to Muko Muko. That evening, the river was so far away that the only bathing we did was to wash our feet and legs in a mud puddle. With all of our effort and pain, we only made a few kilometers that day, or approximately one long smoke.

On the advice of local people and after much discussion and misunderstanding (Peg had learned a little of the Indonesian language, but it was soon insufficient when no one around spoke English), we hired two men to help us to the next village (12 kms away, we thought). That day turned out to be much easier than the day before, but the condition of our feet continued to worsen. Peg’s wearing tennis shoes when the stones got bad didn’t help as she got two huge blisters.

The next day we were able to ride again and reached Muko Muko by noon.

We thought Muko Muko meant civilization and had been looking forward to a chance to recuperate in slightly better surroundings. We were badly disillusioned. Muko Muko’s post office was the only thing it had that the other places didn’t! Oh yes…and policemen! Here was another time we were summoned by a letter with an official seal. Dear Sir! I hope both of you come to me at the Government office. We knew the drill.

Anyway, we luxuriated for a day and half there. The owners of the traveler’s platform gave us a bedroom, increasing our privacy at night but not during the day. Peg, with the help of the girl who had given up her room, washed everything, the regular laundry and everything that had fallen in the puddles. I got the bicycles back in traveling shape. Then we rested and began getting our feet back in shape. All through this region, if we were still for long, flies got into the wounds on our feet. We had really gotten some nasty cuts and our feet were badly infected. We got penicillin shots and were beginning to think we might live (although I still walked painfully).

The road south to Bantal from Muko Muko to the midpoint between there and the next village was supposed to be bagus (good). But the first stretch turned out to be heavily graveled so that the one “motor” (as cars, trucks and buses were called around there) could come and go. We ended up walking a good part of it. We crossed the next river in good time, observing a water buffalo standing with only a head above water. In order to make Bantal before dark, we were supposed to reach midpoint by 10:00 a.m. But because we were slow, it was 1:00 p.m. when we got there.

Late, we had a decision to make. Could we make it before dark, when the tigers came out? Ahead of us the “road” ran down the beach at low tide. It seemed travelable now, but with the tide coming in off the turbulent Indian Ocean, how long would it remain so?

Squatting in the clearing where the road met the beach, two men ate with their right hands their lunches of chili paste and rice. Travelers, they carried the rice in separate aluminum canisters and shared the paste from a smaller container. They seemed friendly.

For a quick lunch, we had bought dried fish and fresh fruit, and we had some of the water we had boiled the night before.

After some discussion with the other travelers, which included some misunderstanding, the two men waved us on.

Did we really have a choice? Having taken us more than half the morning to get to the midway point, did it make any sense to go back? Yes, we had decided we would turn around if one of the men had indicated that it wouldn’t be possible for us to make it before dark. We knew we couldn’t camp there. We’d had given our tent away, but because of the tigers we couldn’t have camped anyway. And as far as we knew, there were no accommodations near there.

We peddled as fast as we could across the hard-pack sand, trying to cover as much distance as possible. Pretty soon we had to choose between soft sand and hard sand, where the incoming-tide was already reaching. Neither part of the sand was any longer ride-able. We tried to ride, then gave up and started pushing. Then we were forced into thick stones, and rocks, and bigger rocks, where we could hardly push at all. As we struggled, we had a few choice words to say. With tigers on one side of us and a turbulent Indian Ocean closing in on the other, we were starting to get panicky.

We could see how at high tide waves pounded boulders that replaced the rocks next to the trees. An abundance of drift wood gave testament to a constant battle.

Shortly, panic did come, and we both experienced primitive fear. Even before we needed to panic, we couldn’t control the urge to run. Being pushed into the big rocks, we considered abandoning my bike with the heavy load. We didn’t even think about ditching it in trees and coming back for it later. By then, the trees seemed dark and menacing.

I laid my bike deliberately down in the middle of the beach, all rocks by then, and helped Peg with hers. I could see that she was scared. By now, we had lost all sense of time, except the position of the sun told us we didn’t have much more of it. It was going to be a beautiful, unblemished sunset, but we certainly weren’t in a place to enjoy it.

So we trudged ahead, leaving my bike and most of our gear behind. Trudged on sore feet about ten yards, before looking back. Desperate. Defeated. Still shaking.

Disoriented, as people suffering from hyperthermia get. Only we were in the tropics. With darkness approaching, can’t say how close we came to madness, unless the decision at the clearing counted.

But were we really willing to lose all the belongings my bike carried, stuff we had so carefully pared down to essentials? I don’t remember if Peg and I looked at each other or not, we trudged back, somehow pulled my heavy bike up, and exhaled a ton of air. Everything weighed more now, especially our feet. Forward! The next hundred yards seemed farther than that. It seemed like we were back in the mud, only now we had to contend with huge rocks that threw our bikes off balance even when they were being pushed. Only with great effort did we keep them upright. Jarring, backbreaking work Just before we yielded to panic again, a mother and, we assumed, her son happened along. They didn’t want to help us. In a hurry, they had overtaken us and obviously had their destination in mind. Traveling light and moving quickly, the two unfortunate travelers marched right past us. Then, luckily for us, they stopped.

The degree of their indifference angered us.

Gesturing, we pleaded. With limited language, we used our hands. We gave them money, paying them well. It was our money that got them to help us.

The woman took my bicycle and instructed her son to push. I helped Peg, and while we made little progress, we decided to stick with these people. Regardless of where they went, we were going with them. It didn’t matter whether they wanted us to or not, we were going, and that was how it stood.

We, in fact, were preparing to go inland to their village when four very friendly men came along and offered to help us get to Bantal. Although we had paid the other people, we gladly accepted the men’s offer. All together we carried everything, reaching safety at 6:00, just as the sun was setting.

We waited for the Police Commander to arrive in a coffee shop. He would insist that we stay in his house. The men in the family gave us the front room and moved in with neighbors across the road. Little did we know then that we would become stranded in this friendly fishing village for two weeks, the guests of the policeman and his family.

Have a good day,

Randy Ford

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