October 2008


It was October 2008 and the notes from the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics were still hanging in the air as I began my journey along the grandiosely named "Trans-Sumatran Highway". My journey was to take me from Bukittinggi northwards along the mountainous spine of the Sumatran highlands to Lake Toba, a distance of some 508km but a predicted journey time of up to 20 hours.

My vehicle for this trip was a small minibus known locally as an opelet, which was designed by the manufacturer to carry eight people; used by the Indonesians to carry roughly four times that number. Unusually I was the only passenger that day.

My driver introduced himself as Rokok, which I thought a little unlikely, this being the Bahasa Indonesia word for cigarette. I assumed he had assimilated the name due to the vast quantities of them that he smoked.

Presumably inspired by recent Olympic achievements, Rokok had evidently decided that this would be a good opportunity to go for a P.B. - a personal best time for the trip from Bukittinggi to Lake Toba. It was exactly 8-00am. We set off at break-neck speed.

Nothing could stop this boy……. and I don’t use the word in a derogatory manner. From all appearances he was only a boy. I'm sure I still had stabilisers on my bicycle when I was his age.

We raced on our way. The scenery was stunning. Forrest clad mountainsides and in between endless terraces of paddi-fields clinging to the valley walls - surely the most beautiful of all man's efforts to rearrange the landscape. And although it was the Rainy Season, today was gloriously sunny and the crystal clear sky was dotted with the type of clouds that only serve to draw attention to the blueness of the firmament. It was the sort of day that records are meant to be broken. Scrawny chickens and plump children scattered as we roared through dusty villages, the blare of Rokok’s horn competing with cries of ‘Hello meester!’

But then, disaster! We met a tailback of stationary traffic: at least ten assorted lorries, buses and other opelets, veritable gridlock on the Trans-Sumatran Highway. The road ahead had disappeared down the mountainside; ‘Flood or earthquake, maybe,’ explained Rokok, phlegmatically. I would have accepted defeat, but not Rokok. Unbelievably he began edging the opelet past the other vehicles until we were at the head of the queue and the very edge of the recently formed precipice. At this point I'm ashamed to say I abandoned my position by his side. He was clearly intending to try and negotiate the remaining strip of road, which to my eyes looked about half the width of our vehicle. Although I felt slightly treacherous I decided that if I was going to plummet to my death I would prefer to do it in free-fall rather than in a small metal box, so I decided to walk.

With the offside wheels on the remaining strip of tarmac and the near-side set half way up the hill he started off. This tilted the opelet at a precarious angle and I began to think guiltily that my presence in the passenger seat would have created a modicum of stability. To my great relief (I had grown fond of this guy - and besides, my bag was still on board) and to the obvious admiration of other onlookers, he made the crossing without breaking sweat. With a blast of the horn, presumably for no other reason than he hadn't used it for a good ten minutes, he lit up another cigarette and we were on our way again. We resumed our frantic dash past Rumah Adat houses with their buffalo-horn shaped roofs and traditionally thatched Batak dwellings.

As we screeched to a halt outside my chosen hotel in Parapat I checked my watch. It was 18-59. A sub-eleven hour journey from Bukittingi to Lake Toba. I wondered. Was I sat beside the Roger Bannister of the long distance opelet driving world?

We made our goodbyes and as he drove away he gave three loud blasts of this horn.
If long distance opelet driving ever makes it onto the Olympic programme, Indonesia must surely start as one of the favourite nations

When the 30th Olympiad of London 2012 comes round, look out for a man named "cigarette" proudly wearing the red and white vest of Indonesia with a gold medal in one hand and a 'Capstan full strength' in the other.

K McKenna

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