Worst Travel Day Ever
The day started out great with a leisurely morning in Penang, including time for a good coffee at the airport Kaffa. After an uneventful 1 hour flight from Penang to Medan, I was on the ground in Sumatra for the first time. It was only about 1:30 so it seemed like there should be plenty of time to take public transport for the 130 kms to the jungle village of Bukit Lawang and the orangutans. I took my time in the airport, hit up an ATM for some Indonesian rupiah, and asked at the info desk about the transport. First, there was an orange bus from the airport to Binjai (more a less a suburb of Medan)and get off at the Pinang Baris stop. From there jump on a small local bus to Bukit Lawang. I found the orange bus and hopped aboard. We sat and waited for a few minutes for the bus to fill up before rolling. About 20 minutes into the journey, we had the misfortune of a flat tire. The driver and his helper got right to it and had it changed in about half an hour, not bad but it turns out later on that half hour is important.
After some time in the chaotic traffic, we got to Binjai and started making stops to let off people. Stop after stop but no Pinang Baris station coming up. Finally, we get to a stop and everyone is piling off the bus. Right at that exact moment it starts really bucketing down rain. I get off in the rain and ask the helper guy what about the connection to Bukit Lawang? He said we (there was a Dutch girl wanting to see the orangutan too) should get a becak, a motorcycle taxi with sort of a sidecar for passengers, to another bus stop to connect to Bukit Lawang. Not exactly what I wanted to hear but what to do. We clamored into the becak, which thankfully the driver had covered with a sheet of plastic. We still got rained on but not the full brunt of it. Onward we went through more chaotic traffic, by now raining so hard you could just barely see the road ahead, adding to the excitement. Finally, we arrived at the other stop and got down, joining a lot of other people waiting.
As soon as we arrive and squeeze into the small sheltered area, a local man is chatting us up and giving advice. After some time one bus for Bukit Lawang rolls up but it is absolutely packed. Still, 3 or 4 somehow get on board, including one hardy soul who goes on the rooftop in the torrential rain. At this point, darkness is also beginning to creep in. Our new “friend” says there won’t be many more buses going our way. Thankfully in another 20 minutes or so another bus rolls up with empty seats. Buddy says to wait a minute but after seeing a swarm of people rushing to the bus we get moving too. Just as we were about to board, without warning the driver lurches ahead, angling right towards us. Nice move, luckily no one got run over. It seemed impossibly full but I’ll give the Dutch girl credit, she climbed into the back row with a full backpack. They had a wee luggage compartment at the back and I thought it could give everyone a bit more space if I put my bag back there. By the time I do this I am about the last to board, the only tiny space is right by the door. At this point, our “friend “reappears and says to me and the Dutch girl there is a special price for us because of the rain and may be the last bus, 50,000 instead of the regular 18,000 to 25,000 I had read about. I felt like strangling him and said no at first. As still more people showed up trying to squeeze in I quickly weighed up the option; waiting for another bus this day which looked bleak, hiring a private taxi at great expense if I could even find one, or staying in this dump. Reluctantly I agreed. They wanted the money in advance but I drew the line there and said we pay when we arrive. As we parted, I gave Buddy a suitably withering gaze. I am sure it still gives him nightmares (not).
You may think if you pay a premium price you would get premium seating, right? Well, my friends, not always Leaving Binjai, I thought we were impossibly cramped and would not survive the 2.5-3 hour journey like this. We stopped not too far along and I thought, great, we are letting some people off. Haha, the jokes on me, more people got on! Picture this, the bench seat I was on was no wider than a typical minivan seat, I would think seating for four maximum. There were seven of us mashed in our row! Some were semi-standing hunched over, one guy partially hanging out of the door because there was just no way we could squeeze in enough to close the door. There were about 30 of us on this wee bus and I would have loved to have taken a photo but I was so contorted up in a ball that if I had an itch I had to ask the person next to me to scratch it because I couldn’t move. To add to the ambiance, it is considered okay to smoke on public buses in Indonesia so a couple of guys were puffing away, just marvelous.
As we started getting closer to the jungle, the storm really started to show its might. I thought I had experienced strong thunderstorms before but I have never seen anything like this. Amidst the pitch darkness of the jungle, the torrential downpour was relentless, punctuated by lightning and absolutely earth-shaking thunder. There were a few times we hit some nasty washouts in the road that some of the ladies screamed, I am sure they thought we would get swept away. Eventually, the local people started to get off at various stops until it was just me and the Dutch girl headed to Bukit Lawang village center. I was amazed when we finally reached there in one piece. We got down and there were a bunch of local guys at the well-lit bus stop. One approached right away and said he was a local tour guide. I was rather wary after the scam at Binjai but this guy seemed okay. He organized a motorcycle taxi to get the short distance to the Bukit Lawang Indah guesthouse as it was still raining like crazy.
We got to the river’s edge and had to cross over on foot on a bouncy, precarious cable bridge. This journey just keeps on giving! The bridge was not lit but there was just enough light to see the rain-swollen river raging below us. It was quite a sensation walking across, looking down at the frothy, churning river while the bridge swayed a foot or two from side to side. Fortunately one of the guys who brought us carried my bigger bag so I didn’t have that throwing off my balance. After a mild panic attack, we did reach the other side and the guesthouse, boy was I happy this journey had finally ended.