After a few days I left Bengkulu with its deserted and extremely rippy beaches behind. I jumped on a bus heading up the coast and stopped at a couple of little seaside towns along the way. One of these, Ipuh, had a great beach at the mouth of a river. The whole place was strewn with tree trunks and debris, presumably from one of the recent tsunamis, and at high tide these would wash back and forth in the surf. For some reason along this long coastal stretch I kept getting asked where my bike was. Sure, it was welcome respite from the usual question, "Where is your wife?" accompanied by expectant peeks around the nearest corner, but damn it, it was a good question. Apparently the only tourists that came that way were cycle tourists - everyone gave me pitying looks like I was soft when I got on a bus.
Buses are definitely inferior to trains - I've always been a little suspicious of these non-rail traveling things: will they turn up? Will they go where they say they'll go? With how many chickens will I be sharing my seat? The bus from another beach town, Mukomuko, into the Kerinci Valley confirmed these suspicions by forcing me to wait seven hours for it to turn up, finally delivering me to Sungai Penuh near midnight. But when it did it rewarded me with interesting company, semi-shelter from the rain, crazy music (a monotonic monologist with violin accompaniment) and spectacular night views of the valley towns. I've been avoiding travel by night so far in order to fully appreciate the distances I'm covering - I don't want to just teleport between discontinuous points, I want to understand the true scale of the world (reconnaissance for future conquest you see).
Getting up early in the morning (and skipping breakfast - a bad move) I took another bus to the small town of Kesik Tua where I looked into hiring a guide for climbing Sumatra's highest mountain, and Indonesia's highest volcano, the 3805m Gunung Kerinci - I decided to go for that one in retribution for failing to climb Java's Gunung Semeru (Semerooo!!!). When the guide finally named his price of 1,500,000 Rupiahs for the two day trek - five times what I was willing to pay - I told him to get stuffed, hired a tent, bought some bread, biscuits and water, dumped my unread books at a homestay and marched up the side of the volcano on my own.
The walk to the campsite at 3060m (Kesik Tua is at 1800m, so don't get too excited) was fairly harrowing as mountain scrambles through thick rainforest go. I think I encountered the entire animal kingdom on my way up: snakes, leaches, some interesting spiders, giant centipedes, a variety of stinging insects and even a few orangutans swinging next to me with ostentatious ease.
It rained pretty much the whole time, turning the well-worn track into a cascading creek - luckily the actual path was largely irrelevant as I had to clamber up between tree roots and branches to make any progress. When I finally got to the campsite at the deeply uncivilised time of 3pm I found it was deserted like the rest of the trek (the guide at the bottom did say no one had climbed Kerinci for a while). Looking forward to a rest and some dryness I set up my tent - only to discover that it had no fly! Possibly the homestay divided the tent meiotically to double the revenue.
The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent dodging the increasingly frequent drops from the roof, trying to consume the dry bread and biscuits for dinner and reading Moby Dick in my drenched sleeping bag - it was a race against time as the splotches rendered each page successively illegible (I was particularly careful about the pages on the right).
Moby Dick is awesome by the way. Every now and then I come across a book like this that makes me see real life as a mere distraction from the storyline of the reading matter (and those biological necessities like eating and sleeping - what's the deal with those?). I totally identify with Ahab's monomania - at the end of the book (spoiler alert!) I was thinking, "Yeah yeah everyone's dead big deal... But hath the White Whale been slain?? That's the real question!".
Eventually I constructed a sort of tent brace out of water bottles that shed the rain a little better and got me a few hours of cold damp sleep and I drifting off to the creepy sounds of the jungle outside. Unexpectedly, when I woke up in the night a few times, I distinctly heard the sound of a woman singing at the campsite across from mine. There must be a later group also summitting the volcano in the morning, I assumed.
I got up at 4am to climb to the peak - and found that the other campsite was not only unoccupied but clearly had not been occupied all night. Had the orangutans managed to mimic human singing or had I gone crazy with the isolation during the night? Probably the latter.
Scrambling through thick overgrown rainforest on your own in the rain during the night in a foreign country is as spooky as it sounds. I kept expecting to get bitten by something or slapped by an orangutan (they do that I hear) or incinerated by a volcanic eruption or something. I was pretty thankful that I did not also have to contend with triffids, raptors or Japanese snipers. Luckily the views were spectacular enough to keep my mind off it most of the time, and eventually at sunrise I got some proper vision. I exhaustedly scrambled up the steep and loose rocks to the summit after dawn where the views of the Kerinci Valley (source of 40% of the world's Cinnamon I'm told - think about that), and the western coast of Sumatra spectacularified me - as did the 600m vertical drop into the sulfur spewing caldera below which I carefully avoided (see Mum: 'carefully avoided'). The descent felt like a disproportionately long way down - damn it, why can't I get all that potential energy back for free!?
At last I arrived back in the extremely scenic valley below Kerinci - the Shangri-La of Sumatra. I spent the rest of the day horizontally in my homestay room, nursing hot bakso soup and looking out of the panoramic first floor windows at the mountain down from which I'd just trekked, enshrouded in rain and fog, hoping the entire contents of my pack would dry at least a little (including the new toilet paper I'd recently acquired - Aghh!!) before I took the bus to Padang for some good old fashioned disaster tourism.