Category Archives: Travels in Indonesia

Food of the gods on the island of the gods….

Chocolate truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The magical world of raw chocolate

A few years ago my  friends had a ‘decadent dessert party’ and we all took along a dessert of our choice, not surprisingly there was a lot of chocolate – including my own triple chocolate cheesecake. What had started as a very chilled affair suddenly turned into a mad crazy night of dancing, I assumed we were all on a  sugar rush, it only occurred to me recently that we were more likely high on chocolate.

Few foods can evoke such passion, sensuality, comfort and addiction.  What is it that makes chocolate so special?

Legend has it that the first cacao beans came from paradise and lent wisdom and power to the person that ate them.  Deep in the tropical rainforests of central America, ancient Mayans  used ground cocoa beans in wedding rituals and for healing magic. To the Aztecs it was known as the food of the gods; and it is said that the  god Quetzalcoatl, was  kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.

Most of us have experienced the ‘feel good factor’ of chocolate, its smooth exotic taste known to induce feelings of euphoria, even its aroma is enough to promote feelings of well being and happiness.  But if you are reading this while munching on a Mars Bar, its time to think again. While mass produced store bought confectionery might taste good and have a small amount of nutritional benefits,  this is sadly outweighed by vast amounts of chemicals, refined fats and sugars.

Raw chocolate, on the other hand provides a dose of pure natural goodness and is packed with magnesium, antioxidants and  a taste far superior to anything you will find on a supermarket shelf. In its purest form chocolate contains  an abundance of Tryptophan, a substance which triggers a reaction in the brain and creates a feeling of elation and giddiness. It is also packed with  Anandamide a name derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Also known as the love chemical, Anandamide induces feelings of euphoria…. just like falling in love. While cooking and processing chocolate destroys much of its natural goodness, raw chocolate is healthy for the mind, body and soul.

Raw Chocolate cake at Alchemy, photograph courtesy of Suki Zoe

A number of places in Bali are now making raw chocolate, but Alchemy, a quirky health cafe in Ubud has the best,  with its  gleaming refrigerator shelves stocked with a dazzling display of cakes, candy and chocolates that don’t just taste good, they are good for you. The slabs of dense chewy chocolate bars are seriously ‘to die for’ (or at least to ‘drive to Ubud for….’) I also love the homemade bounty bars filled with fresh shredded coconut, the dark peppermint infused Stevia Mint Drops and the coconut dusted truffles. Bali Buddha also has a good selection, including lovely heart-shaped chocolate truffles, while Desa Seni serves up a tasty range of energy balls – just the thing after a yoga session. The raw chocolate dream pie at Clear Cafe in Ubud also deserves a mention – it is positively dreamy! It is also worth paying a visit to Five Elements in Mambal, a divine eco retreat offering gourmet raw cusisine that provides one of the most profound dining experiences on the island. Actually, the first time I tried raw chocolate was here and it was a moment I will never forget.

One of the newest venues on Bali’s raw chocolate scene is the inspiring Bamboo Chocolate Factory, also in Mambal (just near the Green School.) The soaring bamboo building rises from a sea of tropical forests and has been created by Big Tree farms who work with local farmers to produce organic ingredients such as salt and pepper, vanilla, cashews and honey.  You can join a tour of the factory, which starts with  a cup of thick and creamy organic hot chocolate to get you in the mood. A guide will then lead you along the labyrinth of bamboo hallways and cavernous rooms, following the trail of the humble cacao bean as it is transformed into a delicious chocolate bar. If images of oompa loompas and rivers of chocolate are flowing through your mind, think again; but if you are remembering the movie ‘Chocolate’, with the beautiful Vianne sensually grinding beans on a stone you are a little closer, but still not thinking big enough.  Actually, the six tonne, 70-year-old Mélangeur is so big it has its own room – with two giant granite rollers that crush the cacao beans (fermented, not roasted) into a thick paste.  Twelve hours later the paste is ready for the conche which turns it into a smooth liquid, while a cold press separates the butter. In the cashew sorting room, nuts are hand selected and trimmed, before making their way into chocolate bars.  Back in the tasting room you can try the fresh slabs of 70% bitter chocolate, which is also on sale, along with cold processed cacao powder, and cashew chocolate nibs. Chocolate-making workshops are planned to start from August so you will be able to create your own sublime concoctions.

cocoa dusted truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe


Desa Seni Magic


At  Desa Seni  the path to well being is scattered with flowers…..

As my friend and resident Kundalini yoga teacher Daphna says, “It’s a place of peace and joy, from the moment you enter any stress evaporates…. it’s a happy place.”

Desa Seni has been keeping me sane for the past two years, a sanctuary that is most certainly my happy place, where I can escape from work and every day pressures, and  lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings and in the ancient practice of yoga. At early morning classes  I  watch the flowers unfurl as I stretch into sun salutations, while sunset classes are filled with the golden glow of dusk and the flickering light of candles against a crimson streaked sky.

I always feel like I am stepping into a fairy tale as I follow the stepping stones that lead through colourful vegetable patches and heavily laden fruit trees. Everywhere I look there is something of beauty that has been thoughtfully placed to create joy ; a quaint wooden bridge, an  ancient dug out canoe filled with flowers, a wooden statue decorated with frangipani, or a carefully labelled tree or plant.

I once spent a weekend at Desa Seni staying in one of the charming antique wooden houses gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago. My beautiful house came with a  written story that detailed its origins, and that of all the antiques that filled it. In the afternoon one of the staff dropped by with fresh fruit and herbal tea and when I woke in the morning there was a traditional Balinese offering placed on my verandah with a card explaining how to make the offering to my own small temple.

Tom, the ever-inspiring man behind Desa Seni describes how he saw the island “blooming and growing” but felt that no one was staying true to Bali. His vision incorporated farming, yoga, unlimited potential for creativity, and integration with the local community. His founding belief , “If we all give back, educate, inspire and nurture, the world will be a better place.” I love that Tom is a man of his word and Desa Seni gives back to the community on so many levels, from being organic and green, to free English and yoga classes for the staff, to organising beach clean ups and to sponsoring worthy organisations such as Sacred Childhood Organisation and initiatives such as Ayu Kita Bicara which raises awareness about AIDS in the community.  Through Kula magazine Desa Seni continues to spread the word and promote like minded people and businesses on the island.

Desa Seni reminds me to always take a little time for myself to reconnect with the magic and beauty of life – something that I sometimes forget. Here I see positive vibrations leading to action, and remember that we can make a difference. Love certainly isn’t all you need – but it’s a great place to start!

Donau Toba, Sumatra

Seventy four thousand years ago Sumatra was rocked by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of all time. Anthropologists believe that the resulting dust cloud that covered the earth killed most of the planet’s population. From the mouths of hell sprang the tropical island paradise of Samosir, perched in the middle of Donau Toba the world’s largest crater lake.


I travel by bus from the south of Sumatra, a long crazy night in which our driver, sporting an Elvis quiff and a purple satin shirt, has the radio cranked and sings enthusiastically for the whole journey. In what appears to be a nightly ritual, we also make frequent stops at the roadside karaoke bars where he croons Indonesian love songs while we all wait on the bus.

It’s a relief to arrive in Parapat, the gateway to Toba Lake, and I am just in time for the first ferry. We glide across the thermal waters, before us looms the mountainous island of Samosir, its peaks shrouded in mist. Covering an immense 1700 square kilometres Donau Toba is the largest lake in South East Asia, and Samosir, which is almost as big as Singapore, is the world’s largest island on an island.

It is a place of panoramic vistas, covered in sprays of bougainvillea, fields of sunflowers and dense banana groves. Traditional boat-shaped Batak houses with their enormous saddleback roofs and elaborate carvings line the shores of the lake. The Batak people who inhabit the island are descendents of an ancient war-like cannibalistic kingdom that was converted to Christianity by Portugese and Dutch Missionaries. The new religion was adopted with zeal and countless Church steeples poke out from the tropical foliage.

I rent a Batak house which sits like a beached hulk, just meters from the lake and is decorated with hand-woven blankets and tribal masks. It’s like being on a house boat, but without having to worry about sea sickness, and manages to be cosy despite its soaring ceiling.  These traditional stilt houses have a beautiful symmetry and are rich in symbology, featuring 3 levels of existence, the tall roof reaching to the gods, the middle part where the family lives, and the bottom part for animals and the mythological dragon. The tiny doorway is designed so you have to bow down to enter the house, thus paying respect to the people inside. The gables are decorated with carvings of serpents, lizards and birds and the side beams are adorned with large carvings of ‘singa’, a mythological lion with bulbous eyes which is said to radiate positive energy and will apparently shield me from disease and evil.  I have to say that I sleep incredibly peacefully.

I wake each morning and dive into the clear, glassy lake which is infinitely enticing with its soft water that is just cool enough to be refreshing. Life here centres on the lake. People wash themselves, their clothes and their dishes; children frolic; fishermen in tiny dug-out canoes ply the water, as they have done for centuries. Late one afternoon an angry black storm creeps across the lake, whipping it into a frenzy of waves.  By dusk the storm has blown itself out and leaves a swirling fog in its wake. I can just make out the shadow of a man washing in the lake; he sings a soulful lament, his haunting voice wafting like the mist across the water.

My house sits on the corner of the Tuk tuk peninsula which juts out of the eastern side of the island and overlooks a picturesque bay on one side and the vast expanse of the lake on the other. A tourism boom in the early 1990’s saw hotels and restaurants spring up all over Tuk tuk, but these days they are mostly empty and the island is quiet.

It is a peaceful and laid-back place where tourism is squeezed between daily chores; attending weddings; harvesting crops and drinking Tuak (palm wine,) a favourite past-time of the Bataks.  I am drawn into Orari restaurant one evening by the sign out the front which says, “Lake Toba Wine – maybe not the best but we try to be.” Bottles steeped with fruits and herbs line the bar, I choose one at random and the bar man pours me a glass. The sign is right, it’s not the best, but it is definitely palatable and has quite a kick which adds a slight weave to my walk home.

The Batak people are fun-loving, friendly and love to sing. The traditional music is folksy and rousing, and singing is a natural accompaniment to most activities; riding a motorbike; cooking; taking a bath in the river; and most enthusiastically, while drinking Tuak. I constantly find myself in random exchanges with people. As I walk down the street one day a woman calls out to me, “Hey you – I like your body, you not too fat, you normal, it’s good”. When I have a problem with the lights in my house I call the owner. He says, “I better call the electrician before he gets drunk.” He returns twenty minutes later and says, “Sorry, too late, he’s already drunk.” I am happy to make do with candle light.  One afternoon I chat with a local guide named Luca. I ask about the volcano that once lay beneath us, he shrugs his shoulders and says “That’s what the scientists say,” and proceeds to tell me the ‘real story’ of Toba lake. “A long long time ago a man caught a fish in a stream, but the fish talked to him and said don’t eat me because really I am a woman and if you save me I will become your wife, but you must never tell anyone I was once a fish. Sure enough the fish turns into a beautiful woman who bares him a son. One day, in a moment of anger he calls the boy a son of a fish and with this betrayal the woman becomes a fish again and weeps for every more, filling the lake with her tears.”

I rent a bright red automatic scooter, and set out to explore. My first stop is in Ambarita where the roadside market is brimming with hand woven blankets, miniature carvings of batak houses and hand tooled leather craft. On a hill behind the market a megalithic site set in a dark grove provides a silent testament to the island’s cannibalistic past.  The circle of 300-year-old stone chairs was once the conference area for Batak kings and a place for passing judgement on a criminal or enemy prisoner. At an adjacent site, the accused would be bound, and rubbed with chilli and garlic and then beheaded with a long knife. A local man shows me around and points out thespecial curved stone where the beheadings took place. He explains that the head would be thrown into the lake and the body cut into small pieces that were mixed with buffalo meat and boiled into a stew. “Fortunately,” he says, “we are now Christians and do not eat men any longer.”

Some of the island’s best preserved Batak houses are also found in Ambarita and are set up as an open-air museum which  incorporates another set of stone chairs built around an ancient banyan tree. The banyan is the tree of life for the Bataks and these majestic trees with their branches twisting and turning in every direction are found all over the island. Heading north I leave the lush rainforest, palms and banana plantation behind and find a sparser more mountainous landscape, with low lying areas planted with corn, rice and vegetables. Family tombs shaped like miniature Batak houses are so prolific that there seems to be no vista that does not incorporate at least one. Ancestor worship remains a strong custom on the island and the tombs are built above ground so that everyone can see and never forget. Some are quite small and simple, while others are huge and topped with large crosses and life-sized statues representing the departed.

I follow a rough and bumpy dirt track up into the mountains. The panoramic view allows me to appreciate the immensity of the crater and the cataclysmic explosion that caused it. Nature at its most furious has created a place of infinite beauty, peace and refuge, the island is the calm after the storm.

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge

At One With Nature

“The beauty of the  Eco Lodge is  that it can be enjoyed on so many levels , hide away from the world in a secluded mountain paradise, or put yourself out there as you immerse yourself in the nature, culture and  community.”

With a picturesque setting on the slopes of Mt Batakaru Bali Eco Lodge provides a genuine haven for those looking to immerse themselves  in nature and to experience the true essence of  Bali.Charming, secluded bungalows with names like Tree House and Jungle Lodge cling to the hillside, wooden verandas offer birds eye views of  steep valley walls blanketed in thick rain forest; far below you can see the sprawling coast of Kuta – so near,  yet  a world away. The first thing you will notice is the bird song– woodpeckers, kingfishers and  parrots are at play in the forest canopy, black eagles streak across the sky ,  the looming peak of  Mount Batakaru creates a dramatic backdrop. Natural building materials include local timber, like coconut and jack fruit,  while floors are made of hand crafted terracotta tiles. Fresh cut flowers, colourful woven textiles, and warm patchwork quilts (the nights are chilly!) create homely comforts.

Being Green

The lovechild of dedicated environmentalists, Linda and Norm Vant Hoff, the lodge is about as  ‘eco’ as it gets, with well documented  green credentials, including the ‘Responsible Tourism Award’ in 2007 and 2010 ( The tenets of sustainability, low impact building techniques , effective resource and waste management, are all faithfully adhered to, everything is in perfect balance with nature; but we sometimes forget that there is more to the environment than  physical factors.  From Norm and Linda’s point of view,  an eco lodge is “Sustainably connected to the natural, built and social environment”; and the lodge has become a valued  extension of the village and community of Sarinbuana. While you enjoy the magical surrounds, delicious healthy cuisine and a range of activities, you can also relax in the knowledge that   your stay  here contributes to the local economy on a number of levels: The lodge employs  26  staff from the village and have trained locals as trekking guides and massage therapists. Ongoing community projects include extensive tree planting, free English, martial art and football classes for village children, the sponsoring of a university student; and ongoing additions and  improvements to the school. It also  acts as a role model for responsible tourism; promoting low impact activities, with an emphasis on walking, bike riding, and swimming in the waterholes. Enormous value is placed on the preservation and promotion of  local culture, with popular workshops providing genuine insight into everyday life in Bali and the chance to learn traditional skills.   Learn Balinese Calligraphy, Indonesian language, and how to play a traditional instrument, or join the  village ladies who teach the art of  creating beautiful temple offerings, table settings, and cooking;  while Pak Ketut, a remarkable and inspired wood carver (responsible for  the ornate carvings in the bungalows) shares his craft and his wisdom.

A walk in the garden

When Norm and Linda first took over the property it was dominated by wild grass and coconut trees,  eighteen years on the gardens are flourishing with over 100 edible and medicinal plants. The garden tour is a   fascinating and informative journey with Manager, Putri, pointing out all manner of herbs, spices and plants, and explaining their traditional uses. Look out for the fiddletip ferns  – they make a great salad served with shredded coconut and Lombok chili, while the dainty  ginger flowers are equally tasty.  Much of the produce served in the restaurant is picked fresh from the garden, or sourced locally, including coffee and cacao, and home made ice cream is flavoured with the vanilla that grows here. A meandering path leads down to the water holes passing sweetly perfumed orange trees, dense thickets of mulberry  bushes ,  dangling passion fruit vines and a plethora of heliconia. Wooden benches and open air pavilions are scattered about the property, ideal for yoga, meditation and soaking up the silence. If you are feeling more energetic take an early morning hike up to the top of Batakaru, the track leads through the largest rainforest in Bali, home to luwak (civet) leopard cats and monkeys, emerging at a peak with  view stretching over to Lombok and Java .

The beauty of the  Eco Lodge is  that it can be enjoyed on so many levels , hide away from the world in a secluded mountain paradise, or put yourself out there as you immerse yourself in the nature, culture and  community.  Make sure you spend some time with Linda and Norm so you can learn about their various eco projects around the island, including saving the Bali Starling, permaculture, solar energy.  For Linda the Eco lodge has provided “A chance to give back” but she makes it clear that she gets back as much as she gives.  For her the greatest joy is, “To be connected to the environment, the people and the  land,  making a living and a life with local people who are incredibly talented.”  Here the Balinese concept of life, known as Tri Hata Karana is firmly in place – the three forces of happiness – harmony with god, harmony with man, harmony with nature.

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge

Mount Batakaru, Tabanan, Bali

24 hours in Jakarta

24 hours in Jakarta

Jakarta doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations ,but anyone who spends any amount of time in Indonesia is bound to pass through the sweltering capital at some point. I have 24 hours and am determined to find something endearing about the city which is home to ten million people. I arrive two weeks after the bombs, but apart from the area directly around the Marriot and the Ritz Carlton, life has continued as normal.

I fly in to Soekarno-Hatta Airport, and drive straight into one of the city’s legendary gridlocks. Slowly the traffic clears, and an hour later I am in the traveller’s enclave of Jalan Jaksa. It’s hardly Koh Sahn road, but the string of budget hotels, bars, restaurants, and travel agents, make it a convenient base.

Armed with a map, I set out to find the flea market in Menteng. I am expecting urban squalor and thick smog, but find myself walking down wide leafy streets filled with beautiful houses and lush gardens. The market on Jalan Surabaya is truly bizarre and crammed full of ethnic oddities from around the archipelago; scary tribal masks from Papua; antique shadow puppets; elaborate jewellery; as well as an eclectic mix of ancient typewriters; antique telephones; brass dive helmets and  worn out suitcases. It’s all so random. One stall sells battered golf clubs, tennis rackets with broken strings, and has a great collection of Led Zeppelin framed photos, as well as vinyl records with soundtracks from obscure 80’s films.


I could browse for hours, but there is an entire city to explore, and only 20 hours left, so I get on a train which zooms across the city. One minute I am passing over a clean, orderly street scene, the next, graffiti covered slums littered with trash and open sewers. In Jakarta, you never know what’s around the corner.

The city brims with contrasts and contradictions. Ancient mysticism meets mass commercialism; rich meets poor; old meets new; east meets west. It is also a true microcosm of Indonesia and all the nations’ religions, cultures and people are represented here in one great seething mass of humanity.

I arrive at Kota, the old city and push my way through the throng of pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and street vendors to Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah square). The plaza, one of the few remaining colonial relics, is ringed by old  Dutch buildings which now house Jakarta’s finest museums. Historically, the entire area was surrounded by a fort and moat, but the Dutch destroyed much of the city in the early 19th century in a bid to wipe out the disease that plagued the filthy streets.  There are balloon sellers, food vendors and people milling about as they do in city squares all over the world. I sit to drink a coffee and chat amiably with the old man sitting next to me. Out of the blue he tells me that his wife is older than him and he is worried she will die first. “What will I do for sex when she dies,” he asks, “Are you married?”


I take this as my cue to leave and make the short walk to Sunda Kelapa. Jakarta’s origins lie in this harbour town that served as stop on the lucrative spice trade for hundreds of years. It was conquered by the Dutch in 1619 and renamed Jayakarta, City of victory. The crumbling old port gives a glimpse into a by gone era, with its fleet of graceful Phinisi schooners ─ the last wind powered sailing ships in the world. These colourful wooden ships are the traditional vessels of the Bugis seafarers of Sulawesi and continue to ply the island trade route, as they have done for centuries.



A fisherman points to his small row boat and offers to row me up the river. We float slowly upstream, the tiny row boat dwarfed by towering hulls. There are at least 40 ships lining the dock, a truly magnificent sight. The same cannot be said of the port itself which is decaying and squalid with dilapidated stilt houses crouching over the putrid canal – this is Jakarta at its worst.


Night is falling as I climb back on a train. It is dark, hot and crowded, but all the doors are open as we lurch at high speed across the city. I worry about people falling out, or falling off, as the roof is also crammed with people.  We stop for ten minutes on the middle of a bridge, which is fortuitous as we are in front of the National Monument which shines like a beacon against the night sky. The giant obelisk, Jakarta’s best known land mark, is topped by a glittering golden flame, and rises 137 meters from the spacious gardens of  Merdeka (Freedom) Square. It symbolizes the nation’s strength and independence, and was envisioned by Soekarno, the flamboyant first President, who had a penchant for building extravagant monuments. It is rather phallic in nature, and is often referred to as Soekarno’s last erection.


I have a quick meal at a street market, then its back into the night. This time I hail a taxi, the traffic is heavy but I enjoy the chance to relax in the comfort of an air conditioned cab, and it feels like I am getting a private tour of the city. At one particularly fearsome intersection all the traffic lights are out and a lone policeman is trying to direct the traffic, its absolute chaos. We pass the glitzy Mangga Dua Mall, the biggest shopping centre I have ever seen, the opposite side of the road is filled with humble dwellings of corrugated iron.

Driving under a giant archway we leave Jakarta behind and enter into another realm, that of Ancola, ‘Dreamland’. The immense recreation park is home to Dunia Fantasy (Jakarta’s answer to Disneyland); Sea world; a Water Adventure park; as well as a beach park; hotels; restaurants; golf courses; and my destination, Pasar Seni, a stylish and charming arts village set amidst lush tropical gardens.  Its 10.00pm and things are winding down. A lively rock band performs for about 40 people and I wander alone through the market which is full of incredibly inspired art work. Many of the stalls also operate as studios and I see a number of artists at work. One is making life size replicas of animals out of thin silver and gold wire, another paints in a studio filled  with three meter high portraits of head hunters from West Irian.


I arrive back on Jalan Jaksa at midnight to find it heaving, the bars are noisy and overflowing and people are spilled on to the sidewalk.  My Indonesian friend calls and asks if I want to go out.  I am tempted, I have heard the clubs in Jakarta are pretty wild, but exhaustion wins, so the nightlife will have to be sampled on my next trip.

Early the next morning I am in yet another taxi, this time driving down Jalan Thamin, an impressive shopping and hotel district, which is smart, modern and filled with shiny sky scrapers. My destination is Taman Mini Indonesia Inda (beautiful mini Indonesia park) a sprawling cultural park. Once again Jakarta has me gob smacked, this place is incredible!  There are 26 full-scale traditional houses and pavilions, representing each of Indonesia’s provinces. A total of 15 museums showcase themes as varied as; heirlooms; sports; oil and gas; and transportation. There are also 11 parks and gardens. Each pavilion is like a mini museum and filled with artifacts, photos and traditional costumes and many have cultural performances under way. I explore the round houses of Papua; visit the Batak boat-shaped houses from Toba; get a glimpse into the life of the Dayaks of Kalimantan and the Toraja of Sulawesi; and watch a traditional dance from south Sumatra.  It’s kind of overwhelming, like doing a whirlwind tour of the entire archipelago in just four hours and I realize just how diverse this nation of islands is. It is Sunday, and the park is packed with local tourists, without doubt all of Indonesia is represented here on some level.





I wander through the herb garden and the flower park; discover a great second hand book stall filled with old picture books of Indonesia and a dog-eared Indonesian version of Men are from Mars Women are from Venus. I have a quick peak at the aquarium, which is interesting, but the tanks are depressingly small. At the Doctor Fish Spa three women are perched on the edge of a tub, feet dangling in the water which is filled with hundreds of tiny fish nibbling all the dead skin off their feet.


There is so much to see, but my time is up and with a final wistful glance at the IMAX Theater which is playing Road to Mecca, I am in a taxi bound for the airport, where, ironically I learn that my flight has been delayed by four hours. I treat myself to a reflexology massage at the Kedaton Airport spa which proves to be the perfect place to fill in time, with its comfortable sofas, herbal tea, healthy food and free internet.

Finally my plane is boarding and I feel a little sad to be leaving. I can’t pretend to really know Jakarta after just 24 hours, but my ‘taster’ has left me with a lengthy list of things to do on my next visit. I am surprised at how much I enjoyed my time here, but after all, it is a city that is full of surprises.

Into the wild; Sumatra

The jungle rises steeply in front of us and we cross the river balanced precariously on a dug out canoe. The wall of dense green foliage looks impenetrable but a narrow, muddy trail has been carved out and the ranger leads us to a small clearing and a feeding platform. We only have to wait a couple of minutes before an orangutan comes swinging gracefully through the trees. It’s a female, and her scrawny baby clings on tightly as she stuffs bunches of bananas into her mouth and scoffs handfuls of milk from the rangers bucket.

drinking milk

Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra is one of only two places in the world where orangutans can be observed in the wild. The Bohorok rehabilitation centre operated here from 1973 – 2004 and saw 200 orangutans rescued from captivity and reintroduced to the forest, joining the wild population estimated at around 2000. The feeding platform is the last vestige of the program and is a ‘fall back’ for any semi wild orangutans struggling to find food.

Hanging around

Coming back down the trail we see a huge male sprawled across a thick branch and further on another female hanging nonchalantly from a tree trunk. I chat with the ranger who says that he has the best job in the world. He tells me of the day his father died and as he sat weeping in the jungle, an orangutan appeared and embraced him. “Sometimes the orangs are more human than humans,” he says.



When I first visited the park in 2000, volunteers would carry the newest arrivals like backpacks up into the forest to teach them how to find fruit, build nests and even how to climb trees. The furry, comical creatures and the charmingly quirky village of Bukit Lawang captured my heart and I dreamed of returning to work as a volunteer. But one dark November night in 2003, a flash flood sent a 10 meter wave roaring through the valley destroying everything in its wake. The orangutans, high in the trees survived but more than 300 people died that night and much of the village was washed away, including 400 houses, and 35 guest houses. The road to recovery has been long, but five years on Bukit Lawang, quirky as ever, is once again flourishing and these days is far cleaner, more attractive and more environmentally conscious. There is a spirit of renewed hope and I don’t experience the aggressive hustle of last time, instead, as I walk up the river looking for a room people smile and say “Welcome. Thank you for coming”, and I know they mean it.

DSC03363the river seperates Bukit Lawang from the National Park

DSC03421 the garden inn

The most atmospheric place to stay is at the top of the village, near the entrance to the national park, the guesthouses are thoughtfully constructed, blending seamlessly with the jungle. I stay at Garden Inn, an extraordinarily pretty place filled with tropical blooms, the family is kind and the evenings are candle-lit and filled with the mellow strains of acoustic guitar. I accidentally  leave some mangos on my verandah one afternoon and get invaded by a troop of cheeky monkeys who have a bit of a party on my porch!  Nearby is the Jungle Inn, where carpenters have been busy weaving the art and form of the jungle into the furniture which is gnarled, twisted and vine like. Tables are carved from single tree trunks and the walls are a mosaic of river pebbles. They call it the ‘go with nature style.’

DSC03386 the jungle inn


Late one afternoon I sit by the river, dark thunder clouds tinged with the rosy glow of sunset hang over the forest. A king tree soars majestically above the jungle canopy, according to locals these trees are protected by the spirits of the jungle and almost impossible to chop down. I gaze across the river, scanning for wild life and right on cue, an orangutan emerges through the undergrowth and sits down on a river stone, seemingly lost in thought, until 3 cheeky monkeys start throwing stones. She takes a swipe at them and then ambles back into the trees.


With dramatic scenery, prolific wildlife and plenty of ambience, Bukit Lawang is a really pleasant place to stay for a few days. The river is great for swimming or floating downstream on a tube, there are a number of trails leading into the forest, and the Friday market is buzzing. Local  food is fresh, flavorful and wholesome. Dishes are simmered and served up with an array of whole herbs, such as bundles of lemon grass, assorted leaves and sticks of cinnamon.  Dadar, a specialty, are green pancakes, naturally coloured by jungle leaves and cooked with brown sugar and coconut. Best of all is the jungle tea, a herbal concoction that is said to be good for stimulating the blood. The Jungle Inn version comes unstrained and swimming in licorice, star anise, various leaves, nutmeg, seeds, and chunks of ginger.

DSC03811 jungle tea

Most tourists go trekking, often spending  a night or two in the jungle. Orangutans, monitor lizards, gibbons and monkeys are common sights, but the park is also home to sun bears, tigers and elephants, although these are pretty illusive. A guide is mandatory and those operating out of jungle inn are particularly good. Imbued with the spirit of the jungle they are knowledgeable, responsible and also good fun with many stories to share.



Two days climbing through the steaming jungle seems like a lot of hard work to me  ─  An elephant trek sounds infinitely more appealing, and so I find myself heading north to Tangkahan, on a motor bike with Rinto, one of the Jungle Inn guides.  He has warned me that the road is bad, but road is too kind a term for what is in fact a muddy, potholed and very bumpy trail. The trip can also be done by 4wd or by a rough bus ride from Medan, but the bike ride is great fun and for three hours we pass through rural villages, forests, rubber plantations and sadly, miles and miles of palm oil plantations – the scourge of the jungle. This is true Frontier country, the rainforests here are considered to be the lungs of the earth, but thousands of acres are cleared annually for palm oil plantations which provide quick, easy money. Locals face a dilemma, save the jungle ─ save the world; Or plant oil palms and feed the family?


The tiny and remote village of Tangkahan is a prime example of grass roots conservation where the community rejected the lure of palm oil and decided instead to set up eco-tourism. We cross the river by raft and make our way to the Jungle Lodge, tantalizingly perched over the river. It is infinitely peaceful here, a true wilderness with just four guesthouses and an elephant camp. Of the seven elephants that live here, three came from Bukit Lawang, emerging from the jungle just days before the flood. They were in a frenzied state and refused to go back. Locals were at a loss as to what to do with them, you cant have wild elephants living in the village, so they were trucked to Tangkahan to join the Conservation Response Unit, which uses elephants to patrol the jungle in search of poachers and illegal loggers. It’s possible to join the four-day forest patrol to Bukit Lawang, but I am happy with  a two hour trek.



I ride on Yuni, one of the Bukit Lawang elephants, she is cheeky and playful and her mahout (handler) deftly guides us across rivers, up and down steep muddy slopes and through dense vegetation. Its great to experience the jungle from up high and we stop to sample different fruits and medicinal herbs and leaves. We also see lots of Thomas Leaf monkeys, known as funky monkeys due to their black and white mohawks. Afterwards we wash the elephants in the river. Yuni lies on her side, I swear she is smiling as we scrub off the mud, she then saunters off, disappears underwater and emerges to gleefully squirt us all with trunks full of water. The guides seem to really love their charges and the experience is uplifting, positive and authentic. There are no tacky circus tricks here, although I do get an elephant kiss, when Yuni gently places the tip of her trunk on my forehead, but then Ardana joins in and plants a great big kiss right on my nose, which the guides find hysterical.

DSC03775a double kiss



DSC03761elephant pedicure

I wake early the next morning to birdsong and monkey chatter, my body aches from the bike and elephant rides, so I swim across river to a crevice in the rocks where hot springs bubble up. Completely alone, I soak in the therapeutic waters and soak up the tranquility, until Rinto arrives with a tube and we walk upstream to a gorge and a picturesque waterfall where I get a jungle massage from the pummeling water. We then drift gently downstream on the tube, stopping at Pantai kupu kupu (butterfly beach). Rinto tells me that if a butterfly lands on you it will bring great luck, but as I sit by the river in this hidden paradise, with hundreds of brightly coloured butterflies and dragon flies flitting around me, I already feel incredibly lucky.


DSC03684 Jungle lodge

About orangutans


Millions of orangutans once roamed the forests that stretch from China to Java, now they can only be found in small pockets of Borneo and Sumatra and their very existence lies under grave threat.  In the last 2o years the Sumatran population has decreased from 12,000 to an estimated 6500 and has been classified as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN, the World Conservation Union.


The Pet trade

Although protected by legislation dating from 1931, which prohibits the owning, killing, or capture of orangutans, they are still in high demand for the pet trade. A baby orangutan can fetch up to $500 in Jakarta and $5000 in Taiwan. A common method for capturing a baby is to track a mother, fell the tree she is in then shoot or club her to death.  Environmentalists say that for every orangutan in captivity at least three babies and their mothers have been killed by poachers or died from mistreatment. Orangutans breed more slowly than any other primate, with the female producing a baby on average only once every 7-8 years. A female will usually have no more than 3 offspring in her lifetime which means that orangutan populations grow very slowly, and take a long time to recover from habitat disturbance and hunting.


Shrinking habitat


It is estimated that the huge forest fires that swept though Indonesia in 1997 destroyed at least 30% of their habitat and drove orangutans to villages where they became easy prey for poachers. Clear felling for rice paddies, rubber plantations and the valuable hardwood trade also forces orangutans out of the forest in search of food. Deemed as agricultural pests by plantations owners, they are often killed.

Indonesia has one of the highest tropical forest loss rates in the world; an estimated 70% of Sumatran forest cover has now been decimated. The Indonesian government admits that the rampant destruction of its forests, estimated at over two million hectares a year has been an ecological and conservation disaster, yet illegal logging and forest conversion remain out of control. Many blame over-logging for the flash flood that devastated Bukit Lawang.

Palm Oil, the biggest threat of all


Now, orangutans face the gravest threat of all and that is an insatiable global demand for palm oil, a popular vegetable oil used in many food products, as well as cosmetics and increasingly in bio fuel. Ninety per cent of the world’s palm-oil exports come from the plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia. The low land forests of Borneo and Sumatra – the last remaining habitats for orangutans, are the areas favored for conversion. Over 80% of the land that has been deforested in Sumatra over the last 20 years can be attributable to the planting of palm oil and all unprotected low lying forest is at risk.


oil palm fruit

Growing palm oil is a lucrative business and the price of crude palm oil has risen steadily. Impoverished land owners see few financial alternatives and many give up their land to become small-holders or to work on the plantations.


oil palms towering over a cemetery

The problem with bio fuel


The biggest irony is the use of palm oil for bio fuel, a supposedly ‘green’ fuel, which has been heralded as a low carbon solution to climate change. Rainforests in some of the worlds most biodiverse eco systems are being clear felled at an alarming rate and replaced by oil palms. This quest for green fuel is actually causing more damage to the climate than the fossil fuels it was designed to replace.  The European Union has set targets for ten per cent of all transport fuel to come from crops by 2020. Currently, over seven million hectares in Sumatra are utilized as oil palm plantations, and the plan is to extend this by a further 20 million hectares.  Fires are used to clear the land, and peat bogs are drained to plant oil palms, a process which releases hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, making Indonesia the third highest contributor of CO2 emissions in the world. Environmentalists claim that currently, more carbon emissions result from deforestation and peat fires than are produced by the entire global transport sector. When a hectare of primary rainforest is cleared it releases around 65 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as can be saved annually by using the palm oil as a bio fuel.


A palm oil processing plant

The use of palm oil in itself is not the problem; the problem lies in the destruction of primary rainforest to grow the oil palms. There is plenty of degraded land available in Sumatra and Borneo, but palm oil companies can increase their profits by cutting down rainforest and selling the timber. The international community needs to demand that oil-palm concessions are not granted in forested areas, and that local retailers and manufacturers only source their palm oil from non-destructive plantations.


What about us?


The thing is its not just about animal lovers and conservationists wanting to ‘save the cute furry animals’. Yes, they are incredibly endearing and anyone who has ever had a close encounter with an orangutan can testify to what a magical experience it is, but the orangutans are just the tip off the iceberg. They are recognized as a “keystone” species for conservation, as they play an important part in forest regeneration through the fruit and seeds they eat.  If they become extinct there will be a knock-on effect on thousands of other species. Including humans, because we cannot survive without the oxygen created by the rainforests.

There is nothing quite like breathing the pure air of the rainforest, experiencing its silence and being imbued with its special energy. My time in Sumatra has inspired me to do everything I can to preserve these rainforests. One step at a time, one word at a time, it might not be much but its something. If this story has inspired you, check the following websites to see what you can do.

SOS Sumatran Orangutan Society

The key lies in education and SOS, the Sumatran orangutan society runs a number of programs to this end, claiming, “The success of orangutan conservation in Indonesia lies in the hands of the local people”.  Their aim is to empower the next generation of Indonesian conservationists through grass roots projects focusing on wildlife conservation. Programs include: Restoring deforested land: Touring educational road shows: The development of a conservation curriculum for schools in North Sumatra: Community forestry schemes to reinforce national park buffer zones and provide sustainable alternative incomes for people living adjacent to natural orangutan habitat: As well as a tree planting program that has seen the planting of over a quarter of a million indigenous tree seedlings to date.


Journey across Flores

Tree Fruit (Cunca Rami)Flores owes its name to Portuguese sailors who called it Cabo das Flores (Cape of flowers). It is a place of raw and startling beauty, fringed by coral gardens and surrounded by volcanic isles. Amidst the tropical flowers which cover the island are smoldering volcanoes, steaming hot springs and ancient villages where animist rituals are still practiced. A remote location in the south eastern corner of the Indonesian archipelago has saved the island from the excesses of the modern world and concessions to tourism are few, but that just adds to the magic.

My overland journey begins in Labuanbajo. I had been planning to travel by public bus, but when I meet a French couple who want to share a car and driver I am quite relieved. We head inland on the optimistically named Trans Flores Highway, a notoriously narrow, potholed, and torturously windy road that traverses the island. It leads us through dark bamboo groves, so thick that light barely penetrates; then forests of mountain pine; ridges covered in cloud forest and perpetual rain; and then back down into bright sunshine and dazzling valleys filled with flowers and vanilla trees. Passenger trucks with radios blaring zoom past us and are piled high with people, sacks of rice, goats and chickens. Oddly, each has an English name scrawled across the back, we see a ‘Bad boy,’ a ‘Sexy girl,’ and a ‘F**k you,’ particularly apt as it overtakes us on a bend and nearly collides head on with a bus.

DSC01780Our first stop is near the town of Lembor.  A small boy leads us up a hill where we get a clear view of a Lingko, a verdant green circular rice field shaped like a giant spider’s web. The patchwork of intricately planted field owes its origin to a traditional land rights system and is divided like slices of pie giving each family in the village a piece. The centre of the Lingko is a sacred place and the setting for ritualistic sacrifice and ancient fertility rites.

LingkoThe road weaves around the chain of volcanoes and mountains in never ending circles. There are pot holes the size of craters and in some places the road has been totally washed away and is just a stone filled ditch. After 13 hours we arrive in Bajawa, a market town nestled in the mountains.  We find a restaurant and I order the only vegetarian item on the menu – spaghetti with tomato sauce, an hour later it arrives, but the suspiciously meaty looking chunks turn out to be pork.  Flores is not the most vegetarian-friendly place and I go to bed with no dinner.

A lone peak-1

The Bajawa region is home to the Ngada people and traditional animist beliefs hold strong, including ancestor worship and gory buffalo sacrifice. It is possible to visit some of the Ngada villages and we arrive at Bena early the next morning. Cornfields, palms and papaya trees surround the traditional village which is set on a ridge in the shadow of a volcano.

Houses with high thatched roofs sit in two rows; most are adorned with buffalo horns, skulls and jawbones. Cacao and coffee beans are laid out to dry in the sun and in the centre of the village, tombs are marked by strange stone monoliths.

houses in Bena-1

Stone tombs in Bena-1Sharing the central location are ngadhu and bhaga, thatched parasol, and mini house-like structures which symbolize the presence of the ancestors and are smeared with blood after sacrifices. The village itself is stark, the only colour coming from bright intricately woven ikat textiles which are on sale. bena 008The older women are beautiful with hair piled high on their heads and sensuous blood red lips stained from the chewing of betel nuts. It’s hard to believe that villages like this still exist, but inhospitable terrain kept much of the island’s ethnic communities totally isolated until very recently. However there is no escaping globalization and I notice a group of men sitting on Coke a Cola crates.

women in Bena-1

A very bumpy dirt road leads us down to a narrow gully and the Malange Mata Air Panas (hot springs).Two fast flowing rivers converge at a small waterfall, under the shade of a giant mango tree. One is clear and icy cold, the other bright green and steaming hot. The water mixes as it cascades over the rocks creating the ultimate hot shower. We immerse ourselves in the mineral enriched hot pool below the falls. Dappled sunlight filters through the bamboo and palm trees and we emerge with silky glowing skin and an intense feeling of well being.


hot springs near Bajawa

Driving through small rural villages we feel like movie stars as kids leap around in excitement,’ Hello mister’, ‘Hello sir’, ‘Hello tourist’. The road winds around dense banana groves and passes steeply terraced rice paddies, cashew nut plantations, and one picture perfect volcano after another. We make a brief stop on the coast, at Penggajawa Beach. There is no sand, instead thousands of pebbles and rocks in pastel shades of blue, aqua, pink and red. Dark thunderous clouds are strung across the sky lending a moody backdrop to what looks like a giant mosaic stretching to the horizon.


Back in the mountains, we arrive in the picturesque village of Moni at dusk. With just a smattering of basic guesthouses and restaurants, this is the gateway to Kelimutu, the fabled three coloured crater lakes that are the most famous attraction in Flores. There is an air of excitement in the village as the new community house has been completed, and as I walk down the street people keep inviting me to the buffalo sacrifice that will mark the opening ceremony. It is cold and damp and I buy a beautiful, thick ikat sarong which covers me from head to toe, it’s warm and snuggly like wearing an open ended sleeping bag. The family invites me for tea and we sit on the floor around an open hearth. They want me to come for lunch the next day and the mama whose lips and teeth are stained deep betel blood red indicates with a throat slitting motion that they will kill a chicken in my honour. I don’t even bother trying to explain the vegetarian thing.

We are up at 5.00am and follow a muddy trail through thick fog to the lookout at Kelimutu. We can’t see more than a few feet in front, let alone the crater lakes. The mists briefly part and tease us with a tantalizing glimpse of a black lake, but a minute later we are again lost in the clouds. My French travel companions are bitterly disappointed, they have to leave immediately to catch a flight, but luckily time is on my side and I take shelter from the rain in a small hut. I could cry with relief when a man turns up selling hot coffee. A German couple join me, they had been here for sunset the day before and show me incredible photos. It seems hard to believe that we are in the same place. But gradually the rain eases and far below me, encased in pastel hued crater walls and surrounded by swirling mist, the turquoise lake glimmers like a giant gem stone.

Mists at Kelimut


the black lake at Kelimut

I return the next day, climbing through forests of pine and rhododendrons. Bright sunshine has banished the clouds and revealed a panoramic mountain view and an unworldly lunar landscape.  I  see all three craters and their fantastically coloured lakes; one the deepest, blackest sapphire, one the colour of melted chocolate, and next to it, fully revealed now, a luminous and shimmering lake the colour of turquoise.  It is the kind of scene that makes me yearn to be a painter; in fact it looks like a giant painter’s palette, but as happy as I am to see everything clearly, I preferred the atmosphere and sense of mystery created by the mists of the day before.

lakes at Kelimutu

The colours of the lakes periodically change, a phenomenon that is yet to be explained. Legends surround Kelimutu which is believed to be inhabited by the spirits of the dead. Those who were wicked inhabit the brown lake (which used to be red), the souls of the young live at the green lake, while the black lake is the refuge of the old and wise.

I spend a few relaxing days in Moni and visit the bustling market, walk in the hills and discover hot springs in the middle of the rice paddies. Eventually I descend from the mountains to Ende, a hot steamy coastal city. The airport is a big shed, and check-in is a table with a plastic chair. When I ask about a boarding pass the clerk laugh and tells me to sit anywhere except the pilots seat.

There is no cafe, just a man sitting under a tree selling bananas. I sit on the grass in a state of mixed emotions: relief that I never witnessed an animal sacrifice: happy that I will soon have a hot shower and a good bed: But more than anything I am incredibly sad about leaving this enchanting island which is like no other.