Another cool morning in Tana Toraja. The house is silent – Tony is away for a few days on business – and all I can hear are the chickens under my window. I boil water and pour it over the finely powdered coffee that I’d bought in the market the previous morning; stir, and wait for it to settle as sediment in the bottom of the glass. I wonder if this is why Indonesians always drink hot coffee from glasses, rather than ceramic cups? So that you can see whether the coffee has settled – and, as you finish it, when your lips are approaching the sediment zone?
This coffee is rich and dark, full bodied but not bitter; grown up here in the coolness of altitude with the gift of volcanic soil. As I travel through Indonesia, I always try to buy fresh coffee in the local markets, chasing the particular flavours of each region. The highlands of Tana Toraja, Sumatra and Timor produce wonderful toasty flavours that make you happy to be alive; but the coffee from coastal Maumere, in Flores… well, it’s through the negatives that you learn to appreciate the positives. Sacrilege of sacrilege, I think I might have actually thrown out the last of the Maumere coffee somewhere along the road.
I take my coffee out to the front porch. Tony’s house is built on the end of a row of traditional wooden houses inhabited by his various cousins. Opposite the row of living houses is a row of smaller traditional meeting houses. They are small, up high, ornate. The roofs, shaped longways like the arcing horns of the water buffalo, are made from trimmed lengths of hollow bamboo and thatched over. They are used for meetings, celebrations, ceremonies. It feels like a setting of old, old magic in which to sit and drink your morning coffee.
Down the other end of the clearing, I can hear Tony’s fighting cocks chortling away. They are sleek, carefully tended creatures, and they too have a role in the ever-important rituals to facilitate the passing of the dead.
I’m up early today, because I’ve got an expedition planned. My friends from down south were always telling me about this beautiful spot called Ollon – a village nestled high up the hills, where the views are spectacular and the road a challenge.
I strip the bike back to the necessities – tools, drinking water, spare tubes – and plot a route through the hills. I haven’t ridden off road in ages.
It’s going to be a beautiful day. The morning mist burns off within half an hour of setting out and my stomach is grumbling. I start peering about at roadside shacks for likely looking food offerings, and nearly overshoot a corner when I suddenly see doughnuts. It’s a Homer Simpson moment. I grab the brakes and park awkwardly halfway through the corner that I nearly overshot. Nevermind, chances of traffic are low. The lady is laughing by the time I tromp back to her counter and buy one of each kind of doughnut.
I’m still stuffing my face when a truck dragging a load of bamboo comes along. Mouth full, hands sticky, I watch mutely as the truck turns and the bamboo ends sweep toward my bike. To panic, or not to panic? Never fear, there’s a barefooted teenager on the back of the truck, and he gives the bamboo a strategic shove with one foot. The load slides past my bike with centimetres to spare. Another successful compromise in Indonesia’s hybridisation of road and car park; I seem to be getting into the swing of things.
It’s a good few hours of tiny winding roads before I hit the final turn-off to Ollon. The Ollon road is dirt and disappears straight up the hill. It’s steep steep steep and I’ve barely started when I feel the rocks rolling backwards under my tires. The traction goes, the traction comes back, a rock knocks me sideways and I lose momentum; now I’m sliding backwards down the hill. I put a foot down but the slide continues until the bike slips sideways and I let her have a little lay down.
I’m barely 40m up the dirt track. How embarrassing. However, I can hardly complain: I’d cruised off the main road without correcting my body position for the terrain, and as my dear friend Nat would say, with a big belly laugh: that train ain’t never late.
I’d passed a young couple on a scooter shortly before the turn; they had stopped at the foot of the hill. Now, they see my dirt nap and the young man sprints to help me. I’m a little embarrassed but, as always, I’m also touched by the alacrity with which people around here run (uphill, even!) to help others. No hesitation, and always a smile. He helps me get the bike upright.
It turns out that he and his girlfriend are going to Ollon as well – they are on a sightseeing day trip, same as me. He’s got a DSLR camera around his neck, and says Ollon is worth photographing.
They’re two-up on an automatic scooter on which they will slowly and surely pick a path through the wildest terrain. I learnt long ago that a local on a scooter can go places that KTMs fear to tread. Sure, I’ll be going faster, and having a lot more fun, but they’ll most definitely get there. Which is nice, because now I know that someone will be coming along to pull me out of a ditch later on if something should go wrong.
Righto, take two: I chuck beastie in gear and feel the back wheel spitting rocks down the slope as we claw for traction. The back tyre grips and we’re off: paying attention now, on the throttle, just stay on the line.
The road looks newly cut, the scars raw where heavy machiney has carved it out of the rocky hillsides; however it’s already been sluice back to jagged rocks in some places and deep deep ruts in others. So I’m going to say it’s about one wet season old.
It’s immediately obvious that nothing with four wheels ever comes this way: although the road bed is mostly wide enough, the only sign of use is a winding line of single track that snakes from smooth spot to smooth spot. Scooter suspension being what it is, you’ll find that the locals will plot a line that prioritises even ground over momentum or directness.
I follow that line around the flanks of plunging hills, up and down through shady valleys where water buffalo graze. There is a pine forest, then a stretch of soft black soil where the road has washed into deep, crazing ruts. Most challenging, though, is the scree of loose rocks that passes for road surface on the steepest slopes; they go all directions under your tyres, and only momentum and balance keeps this under-wheel chaos from pushing you off line. I’m concentrating pretty hard now, but the view is downright distracting. The hills are steep and getting greener; some of them have been hand terraced to prevent erosion, giving them an elegant scalloped look under the short green grass.
I can’t be far from the village when I find out why no four wheeled vehicles ever come this way. Ahead of me, the road drops down into sand and then re-emerges as tiny narrow shelf – single track only – clinging to the hillside above the stream. It’s a three or four foot drop into the stream if you mess it up.
Once, this would have psyched me out, but in actual fact there’s nothing difficult about the track itself. The trick is just to ride the track as if the drop weren’t there. Sweet as.
And then I’m at a wooden gate – welcome to Ollon. The landscape opens out in front of me: flat village green with stilted wooden houses set around the edges. The soaring green hills rim the village except to the left, where the ground drops away steeply to vast sandbars and the glittering currents of the river.
A couple of water buffalo look up when I arrive, and then go back to eating. Nothing much else stirs.
As the sun gets hotter, I retreat to the shade under one of the houses where a local couple are sitting, chickens running in and out. They serve cool water and coffee, and we sit for a long time. The water has the distinctive charcoal taste of drinking water that’s been boiled over a wood fire.
My fellow tourists – the couple on the scooter – show up and we go exploring together, up to the top of the hill above the village and down near to the river. It’s an impossibly beautiful day.
Later, when I ride back out to the main road, it takes me a fraction of the time it took me coming in. I ride smoothly, a bit heavier on the throttle, no dirt naps, no worries. I’ve already proven to myself that I can do this, and now I’m having fun.
Back to the main road, then back to Rantapao before dark. I reckon I’ve earned my post-ride beer today.
One of the best things in the world is finding yourself in a moment where what you actually have just happens to be exactly everything you want. This is one of those moments: cold beer, motorbike, and that feeling of delicious exhaustion after a good ride day.
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