Fresh and fattened from my days in Makassar, I rolled out in brilliant sunshine and high humidity. The objective was the white sand beaches around Bira, but of course I was taking the long way – up through the mountains, and down the other side. I could see plenty of squiggly lines on my map.
After a little bit of playing chicken down the middle of opposing lanes of traffic in true Makassar style, I was out of town and ascending rapidly. Soon we had some nice corners, then the cool air dried my sweat, and then suddenly I was in pine forest. Yes, Indonesia has pine forests, and the spicy almost-forgotten scent of pine sap started to tickle my nose. There were lots of warung and camping grounds among the pine needles; local tourists like to come up here for a totally different biome, and the novelty of being chilly.
The clouds were down on the mountain and a light rain cooled me efficiently. I decided that I already had enough memories of what it’s like to be chilly next to a pine tree, and headed down the mountain.
At first, I was plunged into paradise: valleys of verdant greenery. Rice fields, jungle, greens so luminous that they shouldn’t be true. I had one of those moments: I can’t believe I rode here. From the desert, to this. What a crazy, awesome thing to do.
Later, the rain got harder. The bitumen disappeared for a while. Soon I was in the back roads, just me and locals on scooters, the odd small truck. My maps started suggesting that I should turn right in order to take a direct route east, but each time the sight that greeted me was a precipitous clay track heading straight down the mountain. With the rain falling harder, I decided I wasn’t in the mood. I continued to cling to the mountainside, ending up further and further north as I descended slowly. There was a waterfall and a couple of small landslips over the road; it was enough to keep me entertained.
The afternoon was getting late and I resigned myself to a damp night on the mountain; the cold was making me tired, so I started looking for suitable flat spots beside the road. There weren’t any. My visor was fogging up, so I raised it.
Now my face was wet and cold too. My nose started running. The snot mixed with rain; super sexy. Suddenly, the road dropped out of the bottom of the clouds.
Just when I was so cold that I could no longer imagine being warm, the road dropped through the underbelly of the clouds. A few more kilometres put me on a strip of stupendously smooth bitumen, four lanes curving up a hill in an arc that had me gagging for a gixxer. Ugh, the torment.
I let the quality of the road seduce me into riding on as the light faded through dusk to black. I didn’t know where I was going; somewhere, anywhere to eat and sleep. On spec, I followed a back road until it turned to dirt and rocks, thinking that I’d surely find a secluded spot for my tent. Instead, big fences and gates appeared until I reached a dive camp. Bright lights, cold beer, Europeans. They said it would be $20 for a bed in a shared mixed dorm. They conceded that I was entitled to camp on the beach for free, but wouldn’t let me bring my motorbike down the hill to be close to my tent. It had been a long day; I was stiff, tired and hungry and losing my coordination, but I wasn’t going to leave my bike out of sight and earshot.
Where will you go? they said. You won’t find anywhere cheaper.
I shrugged. I’ll find something, I told them. I always do.
Forty five minutes later I was still threading the side roads near Bira Beach. I went to a small hotel that had been recommended to me, but they too wanted $20 for me to camp on the beach in front of their premises. I said no, thank you.
Momentarily demoralised, I parked in front of the bright lights of an Indomart, Indonesia’s omnipresent convenience store. I bought UHT milk for my morning coffee, paracetamol for my headache. I was opposite the masjid and I could see light spilling from the doorways; a young man came out, dressed for prayer in a knitted skullcap and white robes. He stopped to look at my bike, and asked where I was from. ‘Dari Australi,’ I told him, and we had a brief chat about my trip, and about my motorbike. Cool, he told me – mantap – with a smile and a thumbs up, before disappearing back into the mosque. I was left smiling too, my mood lifted, the earlier ‘special price’ of the hotel people completely forgotten.
Later that evening, I followed a tiny ‘homestay’ sign into a back alley and found a comfortable room at a modest cost. The family were surprised to see me; I fielded the usual questions about how I was alone and where was my husband, and we agreed on a price. I parked the bike inside their courtyard, covered and tucked out sight, and gratefully sluiced off the day’s sweat with cold water.
I was too tired to look for food, but in Makassar that morning, Isti had made sure that I left with sandwiches for my journey. Sweet kaya – a sort of coconut jam – on doorstop slices of soft white bread; after a day on the road and no food since breakfast, it seemed a meal fit for royalty.
It was now long after dark; the sheets were clean, I felt safe. I also felt exhausted. It had been a nice day of riding – beautiful scenery, unexpected altitude, the feeling of following a road into the unknown. But it had also been tiring: as the day draws on, there is the perennial anxiety around finding a safe place to sleep. That feeling ramps up each day as the sun gets lower and tiredness sets it; it’s familiar, but as a woman travelling alone, it rarely altogether abates.
Sometimes, it makes me tired. My mother always used to say, life wasn’t meant to be easy. Perhaps; but then I peek out the window at my dirty KTM, and I know that it’s good.