In November of 2009, four South African kayakers teamed up with four Indonesian paddlers on an expedition to explore the rivers of the Solok Selatan regency of West Sumatra. After eleven days we had managed to paddle four beautiful rivers, and claim several first descents. In a series of articles I will uncover this oasis of paddling and tell our story from start to finish. (This On Friday the thirteenth, Andrew Kellet and I left Cape Town at 08:00. We flew up to Johannesburg and met up with Celliers Kruger and Hugh du Preez who also brought our brand spanking new boats with them. We had a close encounter with Emirates as they wanted to charge us R400 per kilogram (about 35 US Dollars) of excess luggage. With four creek boats, we were nicely over. Somehow, luck was on our side and by weighing Andrews boat only (which was an empty, small Solo), we convinced the check in counter man that all the boats weighed this little and were the same. Obviously this was a blatant lie as the other three Solo’s were all the large size and Celliers and Hugh also had a lot of gear inside their boats. Eventually we got everything on without paying a cent and away we went.

The first flight went off in a haze after I requested a double brandy and they brought me two of those little bottles, effectively making it a quad brandy. This wasn’t smart but I felt the need so indulged a bit, then more. With the cabin being pressurised to an altitude of about 2500m, and given the fact that I live at sea level, and the fact that it was a lot of brandy, I got pretty hammered. Oh well, lesson learnt, mostly. First stop was Dubai and this was something new to me. I quite enjoyed the airport and just looking at the shops and the people. By then we were getting very tired and not even my 26 US Dollar meal that I bought at Burger King for Andrew and I could prep us up. Next flight was to Jakarta, still with Emirates, and I was so tired I don’t even remember taking off, sleep just overcame me. I can honestly say it is the best airline I’ve flown with. Although I’m no expert I’ve been overseas a few times and on both flights we had the most leg room, and also the best in flight entertainment I’ve seen. That flight was spent drinking water and sleeping.

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Hugh du Preez at the airport in Johannesburg. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0006_E1 copy

From left. Celliers Kruger, Hugh du Preez (thinking about his next chess move) and Andrew Kellett reading while sitting in Dubai. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0010_E1 copyHugh (left) and Andrew waiting in the corridor at the second Jakarta airport.

Once in Jakarta we waited an extremely long time for our boats and paddles, and began to wonder if they were still in South Africa! We also had another flight to catch and had to get to another terminal so time was of the essence. Eventually we loaded up and things went into scramble mode. When I walked out of the airport the first thing I did was look up to see if there wasn’t a big heater blowing hot air onto me. There wasn’t. Jakarta is bloody hot and ultra humid. It makes Durban feel cool. We were immediately offered help by loads of people and because we needed to get to the other terminal we hired the services of two chaps who had cars. We loaded up like sardines and took the ten minute drive. I’m not sure if it’s even another terminal, it seems like a different airport, on a smaller scale, but really close by. At super speed we unloaded the boats and went to the check in counters for our final flight up to Padang with Lion Air. I was drenched in sweat. Our boats and all our other gear went on the plane without any questions or problems, easy! We were relived. Once through we had to wait again. It was 19:00 local time, and we had been on the road for a long time already. Andrew bought some beers and then later Hugh went back to get more. We sat in a corridor and waited. Just outside the boarding room was this long corridor and about twenty people stood at the entrance smoking, right next to a no smoking sign. The flight was delayed a bit so they brought us food in polystyrene boxes. Rice, crumbed prawns, crumbed crab sticks and something similar to a crouton with crab meat on the inside, it was really good! That last flight had very limited leg room, but luckily the flight was quite empty with maybe only forty percent or less, of the seats taken. Hugh took a seat at the emergency exit as he could not fit into his seat. It was Saturday night then.

Touchdown in Padang and within minutes we had all our gear, boats and paddles. It must have been a world record. We also finally met our host for the trip, Toto Triwindarto. After so many mails it was great to meet him in the flesh and see his ever smiling face. The fun didn’t stop though and we were greeted like movie stars by Mr. Yul Amri, the head of tourism for the Solok Selatan regency, a photographer, and a young lady and gentlemen dressed in traditional clothing, who presented each of us with a beautiful flower necklace. We had arrived! Those necklaces were a gift from heaven. Not only did they look extraordinary, they also masked the stench gathering on my tired body.

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Touch down in Padang, with all 4 creek boats making the flights too! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0016_E1_CR copy Ah, so this is how it feels to be a Hollywood star! Feels good :-)

From here we drove into the city and again I noted how warm it was. It was close to ten at night but the streets were busy with motorbikes. Most of the riders were not wearing helmets - perhaps to get some relief from the oppressing heat. We were taken to a road running next to the ocean, but unfortunately we could not see it, and sat down at a restaurant called Safari. We sat outside and listened to the hum of hundreds of bikes as people jovially enjoyed their Saturday evening. I ordered something which was labeled as Laksa Seafood. Of course I had only a rough idea of what it was, but I braced myself for what would come. The meal arrived as a pasta looking dish, only the noodles were very thin, and almost see through, just like some sinking fly lines these days. Mixed in were prawns, calamari and a few other things, including some tiny chilli’s which were supposed to be very, very hot – I tried them. Luckily I can take a bit of hot food and ate every single one with relish! They were exceptionally hot though and to be honest, I wouldn’t eat them every day. This was washed down with a 750ml Heineken. Supper was delicious.

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Earthquake damage in Padang. More photos of this in my final article. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0031_E1 copyWe tanked up some fuel and then started the final leg of our journey.

From here we bid farewell to Yul Amri and company, and took off with Toto and our two drivers. The time then was about slightly after midnight and we had a long drive ahead of us we were told. The road leading out of Padang was very steep and hence quite slow. Luckily the temperature decreased as the altitude increased but sleeping was difficult with all the twists and turns. At about 02:30 I started nodding off while Andrew had been sleeping nicely on the back seat already for the past hour or more. My head bobbed, jerked and snapped around as I lapsed into and out of consciousness. Extreme braking, constant hooting and hard cornering made life challenging, but the brain fought hard to get in some shut eye and overcome the body. Let me quickly introduce the hooting strategy employed in Sumatra while I’m on the subject: When you approach a blind corner, you hoot. And these roads make Norway’s roads look straight – a 200m straight section would be considered long. So imagine the hooting for the corners. If someone overtakes you, you hoot. If you approach a car coming from the front, you put your right indicator on, move over to the edge of the road or slightly off, and again, you hoot. If you are doing the overtaking, you hoot, many times. This is surely to get the other drivers attention, in case he didn’t notice you were only driving 1m behind him in the first place! Oh yes, maybe two more occasions. If there are people or animals next to the road, you hoot several times to get their attention. And then the final one, if your mate is at the side of road, you hoot, and perhaps throw a wave. So basically, there was a lot of hooting... A hell of a lot.

We arrived at the hotel at 04:00. It had been a journey from hell. Hugh managed to throw up. Perhaps a combination of the driving and general strain a long journey puts on the body. At 04:10 we got into the room. Our journey had ended, at least for the next 6 hours or so. We had been on the road since leaving my house in Cape Town for 51 hours non-stop. Not fun.

At 12:00 I woke up, went outside, took a few photos and then was chased in by the rain. Andrew was still sleeping so I went back to bed and woke up at 13:15 again. I felt a lot better, I think we all did. We had breakfast, looked at some maps, and then realised we pretty much had no maps. Well, nothing like a standard 1:50 000 type map – I got the feeling things would be interesting. After breakfast, which consisted of rice, some puffy chip type things and a boiled egg, we climbed into some different vehicles and took the drive to the house where we would spend the remainder of our trip.

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The hotel we stayed at. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0036_E1 copy

View from the hotel. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0044_E1 copy

View from our hotel room. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0046_E1 copyThe huge map of West Sumatra and the little photostatted copy which didn’t even have a scale to it!!!

We arrived late at our house but it was pretty cool. I can’t even remember which of the other Indonesians were here first, but I think we met one of them here, I think it was Sigit, who Andrew later nicknamed Billy. A large, wooden house of traditional construction that was already over 100 years old. It was made with a gentle rocker when viewed from the front and this they tell me is to safeguard it against damage from earthquakes. The roof was steep and ornate. Have a look at the photos, you’ll see what I mean. The main part of the wooden house had a large, let’s call it area, which had our dining table, some couches and a television (with satellite). From here there were three bedrooms that came off to the back and separated by curtains. Andrew took the top one, which is at a slightly elevated level and supposed to be the room of the most important person staying there. I was in the middle one and then Celliers and Hugh shared a room next door to me. Everyone was happy with the arrangement it seemed. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay. The existing family had pretty much moved out for us, while we moved in. It was very kind of them. I’m not sure how it worked, but I know we supplied the raw materials for cooking purposes, and they prepared excellent meals for us, three times a day if we were home during lunch! When I say we, I mean the Indonesian government, as they were the ones who were sponsoring the trip. In case you didn’t know, they were the ones paying for everything once we arrived, it was pure bliss. Of course we had a certain mission to accomplish too, and that was to run these previously unrun rivers and ascertain the potential for commercial rafting and kayaking in the area. The trip definitely created more exposure for the area and at a stage we were filmed by a crew from national television, interviewed the people from newspapers and even had a conference at some government offices, but more of that later.

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A river underneath the main road bridge. This rapid 2 people would later run and I would name it Tick Tock… West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0054_E1 copy

That same river under the bridge joins up the Batang Liki in the background. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0064_E1 copy

On the way to our house we stopped over here and took a few photos. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0065_E1_CR copy

A sign outside a store. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0075_E1_CR copy

Celliers showing an excited little girl her picture he had just taken. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0080_E1_BANDW copy

Caught in a serious moment. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0084_E1_CR copy

A mosque. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0089_E1_CR copy

Flowers nearby – beautiful. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0093_E1_CR copy

A photographic studio on the other side of the road. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0105_E1_CR copy West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0106_E1_CR copy

Hugh rocking the boats as the kids shrieked with laughter. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0109_E1 copy

Hugh the Pied Piper. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0110_E1 copy

Leaves, beautiful leaves. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0114_E1 copy

A typical view down the road. This is the main road through the area. Everyone lives next to the road pretty much. Where there isn’t road, there’s thick jungle. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0116_E1_CR copy

Some guys like to airbrush their mudguards. I’ve not seen that before. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0129_E1_CR copy

Houses next to a tea plantation beneath Mount Kerinci. Also spelt Kerintji and actually pronounced like this. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0131_E1 copy

Steep roofs. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0135_E1_CREL copyThe view from our car as we cruised around. That’s tea on the left side.

Soon dinner was served, and we wondered how our first meal would turn out. The answer was easy - we might not lose much weight here. Supper comprised of two different types of coated chicken pieces, some sort of leafy salad and rice (we ate a lot of rice) covered with a spicy sauce with slivers of soft bamboo. It tasted really, really good! After dinner, we idled around, checking out some of the photos of the rivers. They looked like fun. Then I ‘showered’. This form of showering was new to me. One would stand next to a water reservoir inside the bathroom, and use a plastic ladle to wet oneself. Soap is then used in the customary fashion, and this is naturally followed by many scoops and the water being splashed or poured onto one’s body, combined with lots of rubbing. It works well, and probably saves a lot of water, although water is not a problem in this place it seems. With that done I felt a hundred times better and sat in my room filling in my diary. I only keep a rough diary for trips otherwise it becomes impossible to write these stories. As I looked up at the light, I noted the lack of insects, how strange. If this was somewhere in Africa, away from the city, the light would have been festooned with hundreds of creeping, scurrying and flying beasties. Sunday 15 November was over.

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The view from the window in my room, looking to the left. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0142_E1 copy

The view to the right. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0144_E1 copy

And the view straight out. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0154_E1 copy

My bedroom where I stayed in the entire duration of my time in Sumatra. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0158_E1 copy

The main area of the house. Not the raised area on the left hand side. This area is also used for important meetings and the most important people are on the elevated section during that time. Andrew’s pink curtains to his room can be seen in the far corner. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0159_E1 copy

The kitchen that churned out quality meal after quality meal. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0162_E1 copyThe main steps into the house. Note the curve to the house.

Monday came eventually, after listening to the television while Hugh sat there until after midnight, the cat caterwauling twice during the night and awakening me rather suddenly and at 04:30 the mosques going berserk. This was also something new to me. Not that you don’t get mosques in South Africa, but where I live I don’t hear them in the mornings. Eventually I was up at 07:10, feeling pretty rough from a broken nights’ sleep. I really need a lot of sleep, otherwise I’m quite cranky, or so they tell me. Breakfast was a simple affair – noodles with some sauce, and also some hot sauce. Due to transport problems, we could not paddle that day, which was incredibly frustrating for everyone, especially Hugh. We outfitted our boats and applied the Tirtaseta stickers which you’ll see on our boats in the photos. This is the name of Toto’s kayak school and tirta means water while seta means white. So – Waterwhite, directly translated. But in their language they often reverse things from the way they’re spelt to the way they’re said so it actually is said as Whitewater.

Celliers and Hugh played another game of chess and as per usual, Celliers won. This would be a recurring theme. We lazed around some more and were then taken on a walk through an area just near to our home. There are over a thousand traditional houses in that area and it is known as Gadang. At first we were not that motivated but once there, it was really quite special. The houses were super cool and the people extremely friendly. The few that could speak English came to shake our hands or ask where we were from. They invited us into their homes to have a look and offered us tea. We saw how they dried rice on large plastic sheets and tended them with wooden rakes and huge storage containers made of local wood and paneled with woven sides. Monkeys and skinny dogs on chains and ultra thin chickens hopping out from under ones feet and all the time surrounded by smiling faces. Although these people are very poor, they are still happy and not a single child asked for money or was dressed in rags – quite different to back home. It was good to be there. Soon the rain came and we returned back to our base and just in time for lunch, which once again, was delicious. Consisting of chicken, rice (surprise, surprise), some sort of sauce and as per usual, plain water.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent listening to the rain and playing chess. Supper came and went and consisted again of rice and chicken and a few other things. We would not starve, of that I could be certain. This was followed by more chess and things became desperate as Hugh and I teamed up in an attempt to dethrone Celliers. After about six attempts we got him! This took place at around midnight. That night, we also met our two remaining Indonesian paddlers, Agus and Puji. Their English was limited (although we later found out it was quite good and they were just shy) but we all got along fine. During the course of the trip we all got to know each other more and more and by the end, it was sad to say goodbye to the new friends we had made. It was a great bunch of people.

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The view from our driveway, looking out across the street. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0172_E1 copy

Neighbours washing. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0173_E1_CR copy

Interesting flowers. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0175_E1_CR copy

More flowers in our garden. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0186_E1_CR copy

And more… West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0190_E1 copy

Bamboo in the garden. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0193_E1 copy

The view down the street. Somewhat different to the view down my own street. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0196_E1 copy

Another cool flower. What can I say, I love flowers :) West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0199_E1 copy

Our home for the trip. What a great place to stay! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0202_E1 copy

Mild traffic. This is the main road, and it usually pumps!!! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0206_E1 copy

Looking left. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0214_E1 copy

Bikes are way more popular than cars. And there is no limit as to what you can transport on them. We later saw 3 goats and 2 people on 1 bike. And also just 6 people on a single bike. Crazy stuff! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0217_E1 copy

Breakfast – noodles, eggs, sliced tomato and sliced cucumbers. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0230_E1 copy

Checking our overnight gear inside the house. Amazingly, Hugh actually fitted inside his Black Diamond tent. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0232_E1_CR copy

Celliers Kruger looking for photographic opportunities. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0241_E1_CRP copyA lovely butterfly I eventually managed to capture a shot of before it disappeared again.

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Looks like candy floss on that bike. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0246_E1 copy

Coconuts. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0249_E1_CR copy

Weed eater. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0253_E1_BANDW copy

4 people on a bike, no problem. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0256_E1 copy

The gutters next to the streets are large and deep. Obviously they need to handle a lot of water. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0259_E1_CR copy

Smiling, laughing kids loving the camera. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0277_E1 copy

Hugh fooling around on a motorbike. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0283_E1 copy

Celliers (left) and Hugh engaged in battle. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0290_E1 copy

Someone’s pet. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0291_E1 copy

Lot’s of jungle. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0293_E1_CR copy

Rice, drying in the sun. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0302_E1 copy

The people here have an appreciation for beautiful things. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0304_E1 copy

Another mosque. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0307_E1_CR_BANDW copy

An old lady smiling from her vantage point. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0333_E1 copy

Watermelons, not. Sorry, I couldn’t think of a more obvious caption than just bananas… West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0335_E1_CR copy

Some sort of fruit, which was pretty big. Actually it was HUGE. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0340_E1 copy

A silo for storing rice. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0342_E1 copyIn the area of Gadang, home of a thousand traditional houses. Aren’t they quite something?!


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MORE flowers. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0360_E1_CR copy

Inside one of the homes. These people aren’t minimalists are they? West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0361_E1 copy

Check out those couches! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0384_E1 copy

An alleyway. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0393_E1 copy

A busy looking garden in front of another ornately decorated house. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0407_E1_BANDW copy

A dog in bad condition. Shame, my heart goes out to these poor animals. They are definitely at the bottom of the food chain here. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0421_E1 copy

Rambutan. Which is the word for hairy. So it’s a hairy fruit. Similar to a litchi, also with a white flesh inside and quite tasty. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0422_E1 copy

A traditional house. Note the curve to the house which is to safeguard it against earthquake damage. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0423_E1_CR copy

A young man and his chicken. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0440_E1 copy

Yet another flower of some sort. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0443_E1 copy

A side street which leads back to the main road. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0453_E1 copy

Another traditional house, this time painted in some more unorthodox colours. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0456_E1_CR copy

This wall have been carved like this by the lady staying here. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0459_E1 copy

Another monkey, also chained up. Shame. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0473_E1 copy

Hugh making a connection to another sad soul. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0482_E1 copy

Hugh du Preez and his friend. Cute little bugger. Check how long his arms are! West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0494_E1_CR copy

Rain outside by bedroom window. West_Sumatra_Nov_2009_0500_E1 copyCelliers about to do more damage.

[click to proceed to part 2]