The last stretch up the coast is beautiful sunshine, blue skies. I stop for lunch at a roadside warung with a line of trucks pulled up in front. The truck drivers know where the food is good and cheap.
I tuck Beastie in between two trucks and tromp up the hill. Find the bathroom shack out the back, washed my face in the bucket of cool water, wiped the drops away with my buff, smoothed down the flyways from my plait. It’s not much, but it refreshes.
So I go and lunch with the truck drivers. The younger ones are too shy to meet my eye and pretend to be sleeping on the benches, but an older guy strikes up a conversation and we chat a little – just the usual, where are going, where are you from. He gets the gist of my budget travel (spend least money, hobo longest!) and gives me a recommendation for a cheap hotel in Poso. I take it gratefully.
That afternoon I somehow overshoot the town and find myself winding up through the mountains a road on so steep that it has been lined in places with ridged concrete. Eventually I stop on raised causeway with a dense foliage either side. It is late afternoon and the sky is promising me rain. If I get a wet arse soon, I have only myself to blame.
I turn off the bike because I am absolutely desperate to pee. This happens every day, just before you’re ready to stop for the day. You don’t want to stop just yet because you’re already looking for somewhere to stay and you’ll stop then…. which usually means that by the time you actually find accommodation, you’re gritting your teeth in agony as you try to negotiate a price and undo the luggage straps. This, of all of my routine, needs a better approach.
So it’s afternoon time, finding-a-place-to-sleep-time, and of course, i desperately need to pee. So I capitulate, I turn off the bike, I take off my helmet and gloves, I am about to duck into the bushes when I hear the cow bells. Lots of them, and close.
On the opposite hill, an old old man appears. He is shooing a mob of cows ahead of him. They are long legged and wander vaguely; big ones, little ones. They come towards me and envelope me and the motorbike; like a tide they part around me, flow to either side, looking at me incuriously with their big, deep eyes.
Behind them comes the very old man. I greet him respectfully; he greets me back. He doesn’t say anything else, but looks at me with naked curiosity, fascination. What am I, and what am I doing here among his cows? I feel like he has been bringing the cows down from the hill for many decades and this has never happened before.
* * *
Later, I find the cheap hotel and it is just as promised: cheap (five Australian dollars, so maybe $3.50 US?) for my own room, ensuite, and the privilege of parking my motorbike in any of a thousand concealed spots. The ensuite comes with a crop of lazy mosquitoes roosting like chickens on the surface of the bak mandi, but that’s par for the course. The girl from the front desk brings in the mozzie spray: we fog the room and shut the bathroom door quick. No worries. The sheets are clean and the fan is fierce.
The next day is hot and humid as ever, time to hit the coastal city of Palu. Metzeler have shipped me a new front tyre and it’s waiting for me there, and I am stoked. The fronts always last a bit longer than the rear, but this one’s already seen more than 13,000km and Sulawesi bitumen is famous for shredding your tyres. They must use a particularly coarse medium, but I’m not complaining: it rains a lot here, and between my Saharas and the Sulawesi blacktop, there has been not one slide through a corner yet, not one spin-up on takeoff. It’s bloody nice.
The island narrows suddenly when you get north of Poso – suddenly, it’s nothing but a spiny ridge, less than an hour to cross from eastern beaches to western beaches if you can find a road to take you there.
This, I soon learn, is the problem. I leave the east coast and I’m winding up into the jungle and it’s getting cold, getting damp: I’m riding into the clouds that shroud the mountain. The road glistens like it has been raining, but it’s on the condensation. The corners get tighter and tighter and I’m happier than the proverbial as bend the 690 through each dodgy little bend. There’s almost no-one else on the road, just me and the corners, just riding.
I wonder, for a second, why there is no-one else here. From looking at the map, it looks like one of the few roads that connect the east and west coasts in this part of the island. Enlightenment comes fast and I grab the brakes: a lineup of stopped traffic. Trucks and cars snaking around the hairpins.
What’s going on? I ride carefully up the wrong side of the road, find the head of the queue. The army has everyone stopped in their tracks. I turn off the bike and take off my helmet and start asking people what is going on. Everyone looks terribly relaxed.
There was a longsor, a landslide, they explain. The army is working on it. You can’t go through there right now.
So everyone just waits. Shacks cling to the cliffside of the road, stretching back along the traffic jam, and serve boiled eggs and coffee and instant noodles. Come and sit down, they say. You can’t go yet.
So I do. I sit down and have coffee and noodles and eggs. The reason that I didn’t pass anyone on the road is of course that the locals already know that it is cut. Every day, for several hours in the morning and several in the evening, the army cuts the road to use heavy earth moving equipment as they gradually clear the massive landslide that has obliterated kilometres of road. Each day, the local people know when they can’t get through.
There is a little girl on a pink bicycle with training wheels who is taking advantage of the stopped traffic. On the clear half of the road she rides up and down, trying out tricks and treating the sweat asphalt as her own, private domain. Her smile could light up the world.
I settle to admiring the motorcycles of my fellow travelers. There are the lovingly modified Vixions; the sexy red CBR. And as ever, in Indonesia, bikers are family.
By the time the road reopens – in a roar of engines and a scrum through the first corner – I am invited to come and meet their friends, have coffee, and camp out at the joint bikers’ secretariat.
It turns out that these guys know the guy that Metzeler sent my tyre to as well, but of course they do. I should stop being surprised by these things. In Indonesia, if you love to ride – no matter what it is that you ride – then you are family.
I’m on board.