Dawn shows me my campsite for the first time. Under trees, on the edge of a lake, across the road from houses that look like they belonged in the Australian suburbs. Toto, we’re not in Indonesia anymore.


Well, actually we are, just a privatised corner of it. All of this area – and the enormous orange-lit mine from the previous evening – belongs to the mining company, PT Vale. I am camped in the company accommodation. Through the trees, I see medium-height white guys going to work.

At this stage, they don’t seem to notice me. My camp is still in stealth mode – bike and all my gear stashed under the black canvas cover, tucked in amongst the trees. Not for long, though. I have breakfast to make, ablutions to perform, gear to sort. Soon all my gear and a one-person picnic is spread on my ground sheet, freshly washed socks drying on my mirrors.


Unmissable. Still, the foreigners pretend not to notice and go about their business. I’d forgotten about that – the western habit of not making eye contact, not betraying curiosity in strangers. Now I find it frankly peculiar. I mean, honestly, if some random person with a motorcycle, all their belongings and foreign plates materialised across the road from my house in the middle of the night, I’d go and say hello and ask them what they were doing there. Wouldn’t you be curious?

I cook myself breakfast, read in the shade. By the time I’ve had a nap and repaired a couple of dry bags – holes worn through by vibration and use – it’s too late to go anywhere today. I put my feet up and figure I’ll spend another night here.

About 5pm, the security guards show up. They’re a little slow on the uptake – fearless enforcers of suburban safety – but word had gotten around eventually about the vagrant camped by the lake. What are you doing here? they ask me. Just camping, I tell them. I’ll go tomorrow.

Why don’t you stay in a hotel? they ask. It’s too expensive, I tell them. They seem to accept that answer, but still look genuinely puzzled. Then they go away again.

The next morning, I am drinking my coffee – the white people are still ignoring me – when an ample local lady rolls up on a scooter with two youngsters in tow. She marches down the hill, says hello!, tells me to call her Ibu Salma. She lives in the next village, a couple of kilometres away. Having heard of the stranger by the lake, she’s come all this way to say hello, and she’s brought a thermos flask of hot coffee too.

So we sit by the lake and chat for a while; what am I doing, where have I been. She tells me about her family, and that her oldest son has a motorcycle too – a new CRF150 – and likes to go riding in the jungle with his friends. He has a job in the mine, welding, and she’s proud of him. She tells me that I must come and visit them at their house tomorrow, and gives me her phone number – I am to call her, and she will come on the scooter and show me the way.

Gates are no obstacle to the hospitality of a woman like Ibu Salma.

* * *

Late that evening the eldest son comes down to the lake on his tricked out CRF150. It’s a lovely bike for the single track around here. We talk motorbikes for a bit. I tell him that I’d heard a rumour from friends in Makassar about some dirt bikes that sank into Lake Matano. He tells me that this is true – it was a ride event that he’d helped organise. The ferries on the lakes are simple wooden boats, and they’re no match for some of the winds that pick up on the lake. Nor, indeed, for overloading. But don’t worry, he says – the motorcycles were saved. The ferry was only half submerged by the time the other boats reached them.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZngiFT1UKU&w=560&h=315]

Water swamping CRFs, KLXs – heavens forfend. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

I mentally revise my plans to cross the lake by ferry and take the small road through the mountains. If these ferries sink under the weight of a few KLXs, there will be no experimenting with my KTM.

* * *

Later that evening, as I swim in the lake, I think about all the people and boats that had probably gone to the bottom of it over the years. Although warm on top, the water becomes bitingly cold as soon as you dive down. I stay near the shore, not wanting test this lake’s mysteries. It stretches 590 metres below my paddling feet; an eternity of cold freshwater lying unmoving for millennia in this dark rift between the peaks.