Friday, 27 March 2015

Lake Maninjau and Rafflesia, the largest single flower in the world

Our route in West Sumatra with Bukittinggi at the centre

Bukittinggi, Harau Vallay and Danau (Lake) Maninjau roll off the tongue, and most peoples itinerary together, although many visitors seem to base themselves in Bukittinggi and do day trips, or an overnight to the two places on organised trips. As we had more time and wanted to experience them on our own, we decided to make our own way to each place and stay for a few days, So it was with Harau Valley, on our last blog entry and again to Lake Maninjau on this one.

One of 6 little kittens in a shop in Bukittinggi
In between we returned and stayed a night in Bukittinggi, we could have done it in one go (if we were prepared to pay 500,000Rp - £25 per person to Abdi Homestays preferred taxi service), but instead paid 250,000Rp (£12.50) per person just to Bukittinggi, which we still think was overpriced. Our onward journey from Bukittinggi to Lake Maninjau, booked by the fabulous Ling at Hello Guesthouse was only 30,000Rp (£1.50) per person, confirming the overpricing of Abdy’s, or at least his taxi service!

Water buffalo haul a plough in a small paddifield at Lake Maninjau
Hello Guesthouse is all that we’d hoped it would be, fabulous modern room with balcony and Ling, the friendliest, most helpful person we have met. She is quiet, modest, superbly efficient, unflappable and knows everything! We need a shared taxi booked to Lake Maninjau, 30 seconds later, that’s booked, we need a shared taxi booked back to Padang airport, 30 seconds, that’s booked, flight boarding passes printed, coach transfer ticket back in the UK printed, she knows where to stay in Maninjau, how to get there and back, how to catch the bus from KL airport to Melaka (another country for her!) and even what the weather is like in Maninjau. As we said to a German couple we met in a restaurant in Maninjau who also stayed at Hello Guesthouse and were impressed with Ling ‘How does she know all this? She knows everything!’

Stepped paddifields on the slopes above Lake Maninjau
Lake Maninjau is actually a large caldera ( formed by a volcanic eruption estimated to have occurred around 52,000 years ago. The lake is 8km wide by 16km long, has a maximum depth of 165m, is 460m above sea level and is surrounded by steep sided jungle clad slopes. The only access is the road constructed by the Dutch from Bukittinggi that undulates over the lower slopes and up to the crest of the crater where a fabulous view of the huge lake, some 200m below, protected by steep sided jungle clad encircling cliffs fills the entire view. 
Cloves and nutmeg dry in the sun
The road then plunges down into the crater, through jungle with occasional good views, round 44 hairpin bends (they are all numbered), watched by monkeys sitting on the crash barriers. The road is good, but it’s fairly narrow, so traffic can back up on the hairpin bends to give way to traffic coming the other way, but we arrived at the lake in the town of Maninjau where the road meets the 70km long circular lake road, told the driver which hotel we wanted to be dropped off at, turned right and drove about 2km to the Pasir Panjang Permai Hotel, whereby lies a story.

The lizards of Pasir Panjang Permai Hotel!
It seems that not many people visit this area anymore and we’re not sure why. Our Lonely Planet guide says that ‘since the crash in tourist numbers many locals have taken to fish farming on the lake to make ends meet’ and certainly there are a lot of the square fish enclosures surrounded by floatation devices and little huts with bags of fish food dotted about our side of the lake. Some people have suggested that Indonesia tightened visa regulations a few years back restricting the standard visa (which we have) to 30 days from 60 days and charging $25 and people stopped coming here. There is talk that this is changing, we heard next month, to a free 90 day visa on arrival, which may change things for the better if it does actually happen.

Panorama of Lake Maninjau from the hotel
The better Tan Dirih Guesthouse from the Beachfront Restaurant
The result is that the main town of Maninjau seems like a ghost town, gently decaying. The hotels, guesthouses and homestays have all seen better days, as have the restaurants, all still staffed with tired looking people, and all seemingly waiting for the visitors who don’t arrive. True we were here in the low season, seeing only a couple of other tourists (we saw only three other white faces in our 4 days there), the high season is apparently June to October and locals talk of more tourists here then, and although undoubtedly true, we can’t help thinking a lot of it is optimistic wishful thinking and the numbers are not that much more. 
Outside our room at the Tan Dirih Guesthouse
The fish farming has certainly had an effect on the lake, making the water quite green (but still with lots of fish) and, although our LP guide says swimming is popular, we didn’t like the look of it so didn’t go in. Lake Maninjau is visually more appealing than the other crater-lake we visited, Lake Toba, but because of the fewer tourists it lacks the facilities Toba has, which seems a real shame.

The Tan Dirih cat plays with a large cicada one evening
The driver stopped outside the lakeside hotel we had chosen and we went into the large, old hotel spread along the lake front and after looking at a number of very tired looking rooms with old bathrooms, we chose a ‘Super Deluxe’ room with air-con, a big but very old room with large balcony with old recliners right on the lake and Jackie negotiated a reduction from 400,000Rp per night to 350,000Rp (still overpriced for what it was). We were in a wing of the hotel well away from reception and we were the only people staying there, which made it feel very creepy! 
The only bit of mechanisation for rice that we saw
Jackie's TripAdvisor report on our stay there was entitled 'Seen "The Shining" This is it!'( It was such a shame, the people there were friendly, although spoke little English and the included breakfast was OK, but it just felt creepy! We woke on both nights there to something screaming, maybe a monkey, maybe the half metre long lizards who live beneath the broken slabs outside our room and swim in the lake each morning to catch their breakfast, we don’t know, but we decided we needed to find somewhere else for our final two nights there.

Leaving the lake behind and entering the jungle of the waterfall walk
After walking into town and looking at some sad old homestays and guesthouses that need even more refurbishment than the one we’re at we found a nice place two doors away, the Tan Dirih, which was a small guesthouse, reasonably smart and well kept, right on the lake shore with only 4 or 5 rooms. We were still the only people there, but it felt so much more comfortable and nice and we really enjoyed our 2 nights there. Western breakfast was included and it was 100,000Rp cheaper – result!

Lost in the jungle. Which way now?
Most of the restaurants in town catered for locals and were open little old wooden shacks with small grubby tables and chairs with unrecognisable cooked food in containers and drinks with questionable ice, so we pretty much discounted those. 

The waterfall!
One stood out, the Beachfront, next to the Tan Dirih, with coloured lights, nice tables and chairs at the lakeside and even an ‘island’ dining area, built on stilts in the lake and accessible via a wooden bridge. We ate there twice, the first was just OK lake fish, but the second was a very expensive and very disappointing venison steak that was tiny and overcooked and had to be eaten on a spoon to avoid it shattering if poked with a fork! The best place we found was Bagoes Café in town, still a bit old and grubby, but friendly people and nice reasonably priced food (including freshly caught lake fish, BBQ’d while we waited in a secret spice paste and washed down with ‘Bintang’ beer – yum!), even if we didn’t fancy their old but cheap lakeside rooms! The local ‘flying foxes’ gliding through the evening sky, looking like pterodactyls, were an added bonus.

A 'self timer' photo, we were alone!
Getting information on things to do was hard as ‘Rama Café’, recommended in LP, seemed to have closed, no-one else knew anything and there were no signposts. Went hunting for a waterfall, but went too far along the lake road and ended up on a nice circular walk through paddyfields and tiny hamlets, high up on the hillside with great views, which was good, but not the one we wanted. In the end the guy in Bagoes Café told us where the hot spring pool was (found it but didn’t fancy it – grubby!) and where the waterfall was, which we did do on our last day (after a day of ‘chilling’ reading and emailing at the Tan Dirih guesthouse).

Jackie's arm coming out in a nasty rash
Had a lakeside breakfast (toast and peanut butter – yum!) and set off assuming it would be a leisurely, easy walk to a waterfall and back. Found the concrete track off up the hill and ambled up through paddyfields, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove groves and a few houses until we reached the edge of the jungle where it got much steeper and rougher; the concrete track stopped and a vague track led into the trees. ‘Let’s tuck our trouser legs into our socks to guard against leeches and other things like lizards, scorpions and spiders that we knew inhabited these areas’ Jackie said and off we went.

And this was the harmless looking culprit, Dendrocnide Moroides
Generally following the stream we zig-zagged through jungle on steepening slopes through head high undergrowth, mud, loose stony slopes, crossed the stream on several occasions on loose exposed rocks, got lost when we scrambled up a slope away from the stream, having to retrace our steps back to the stream again, hanging onto roots to stop ourselves sliding down the slope into the stream below, but we did eventually find our way to a nice waterfall pouring over a semi circular vertical rock wall in amongst verdant jungle. We felt quite pleased with ourselves, we retraced our steps without difficulty, but of course we don’t know the jungle and what is and isn’t dangerous and one plant Jackie brushed against had her arm turning red in a big rash. It brought back memories of our visit to NE Australia where notices warned against touching a toxic plant, the Dendrocnide moroides ( Well, it turned out that’s what it was, giving an extremely painful stinging sensation that can last days, weeks or months and in some cases can be fatal!

Our saviours, Imam with two of his sons
Her arm is getting worse and we’re starting to get a bit concerned as we emerge out of the jungle and back onto the concrete track and that’s when we bumped into Imam and his two sons coming up hill on a motorbike. Imam lives in one of the houses on the track with his extended family in several houses and was on his way up to tend to his rice. His English was very good although he started speaking to us in Indonesian until I showed him a photo of the waterfall on my camera and he decided we were friendly people. Jackie showed him her arm and he immediately recognised it as being from this toxic plant and set off into the fields with his machete, looking for the same plant, digging up some of its roots, pounding them with stones until wet and then rubbed it vigorously onto her arm, making her wince. ‘Leave it to dry for an hour’ he said and, although it was still painful, she said it was a lot better. Today it seems to be fine, with only a light pain if directly touched, so a bit of a lucky escape!

Imam preparing the root antidote
The rest of the day turned out to be really enjoyable and totally unexpected as we spent it with Imam and his 16 year old son. After going back to his house nearby, meeting his family, having coffee and learning all about cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg he offered to take us up into the hills to find the largest single flower in the world, the Rafflesia arnoldii ( He occasionally takes people on trips up the 44 bends to the top and them down through the jungle to see the group of 12 waterfalls (we only found the bottom one!), a palm sugar production farm and the Rafflesia flower. He does little of it now due to lack of tourists, earning his money from his crops, teaching English and Biology in the local school. It was after lunch so we said ‘no’ to the waterfalls and palm sugar farm, but ‘yes’ to the Rafflesia flower. He charges 220,000Rp per person including lunch he said and since we felt we already owed him for helping Jackie’s sting it seemed like a bargain, so off we went, me on the back of his motorbike, Jackie on the back of his 16 year old sons up the 44 bends to the top and to fabulous views, in a huge gale.

Vigorous application to the affected area
Cinnamon Tree bark
He got lunch on the way and we set off down into the jungle on really steep muddy slopes with his son carrying lunch and walking in bare feet! We went a long way down, could only see steep jungle ahead and steep jungle behind on barely defined paths he had used before, listening to jungle insect noises and the occasional hornbill (he said). He used his machete to clear away nasty toxic plants and thorny specimens and we picked and slid our way down past huge nasty looking caterpillars and lizards, finding only dead and shrivelled Rafflesia on the jungle floor. He’ll only charge us half price if he doesn’t find any he said, but eventually his son shouted out, ran across up from us, Imam went up and shouted with excitement ‘come quick’ he said ‘this one is only a day old and only just about opened’, so we hurried as fast as we could through the undergrowth to this fabulous looking flower. It wasn’t the largest specimen, probably 400mm across, male rather than female so smaller, but it was perfectly formed and brilliant to see, we were so pleased to have bumped into him and done something so unexpected.

And this is a nutmeg
Imams house
Forgetting about tucking our trouser legs into our socks this time, Jackie stopped during scrabbling back up to find two leeches sucking away at her leg, one gorging away as the blood around it showed. They apparently inject a chemical in to prevent the blood clotting, so after they are pulled off the wound continues to leak blood, so she had blood stained trousers at the end and now has two vampire like marks in her leg. I took a quick look at my legs and found one attached, but it hadn't had time to settle in so it pulled off without problems.

Preparing for the motobike ride up the hill
We were back down by 5:00pm, showered and washed everything we’d been wearing and met him and his family again in the evening at his local school where we exchanged email addresses. He wants to come to England to obtain a UK English diploma to allow him to teach English in an Indonesian university, so maybe we can help him achieve that. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes as he said how much he had enjoyed meeting us and we certainly had a fantastic day. What a great way to finish our Sumatra experience!

Stopping off to buy lunch on the way
This morning we caught a shared taxi back to Bukittinggi and returned to the Hello Guesthouse following Ling’s instructions and we’re now back in our fabulous room with balcony (but very ‘loud call to prayer’ singing from the mosque opposite) for one night. Tomorrow we get a shared taxi to Padang airport, a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and then a bus to Melaka on the Malaysian coast facing Sumatra for our last three nights in SE Asia, before returning to the UK on 1st April.

The view from the top, Maninjau town, the lake and encircling cliffs
We just had time to go up to the Fort De Kock at the top of the hill to see ‘peg-leg Ging’, the very friendly cat with the badly healed broken leg who lives up there. He seemed very pleased to see us and enjoyed the fuss we gave him in front of the six local teenagers who looked a bit bemused at us.
It’s been great here, Sumatra’s a great destination, full of friendly people and lots to see and do. We’ve barely scratched the surface of Sumatra, let alone Indonesia so we’ll definitely be back at some point in the future. Malaysia and then home, here we come!
A very large stag beetle on the ridge crest just before we started down through the jungle
Jackie with our guides Imam and his 16 year old son just setting off
Pausing for a breather on the way down
Still going down...
Local wildlife. Is it dangerous? No idea!
More wildlife, no idea if it's dangerous or not, this is as close as we got!
A Rafflesia Arnoldii bud. It will take about a week for this to open to a flower
And finally, after lots of disappointments, a newly opened Rafflesia Arnoldii, the biggest single flower in the world!
Enjoying our final sunset from the deck of our Guesthouse on Lake Maninjau

1 comment:

  1. Poor Jackie, twice got by the hostile environment! Mind you, lots of lovely bits too. The fl ower, the spices drying must have smelt fabulous! Take it Jackie has recovered from her tummy bug too? lots of love xxx