Cycling through Sumatra

Orang-utans are threatened by expanding oil palm plantations © Greenpeace/Behring-Chisholm

Orang-utans are threatened by expanding oil palm plantations © Greenpeace/Behring-Chisholm

In early 1995, sailing on a Greenpeace ship was still just a dream for me. I had applied several times over the years, but I never received anything other than the standard courtesy reply. If people asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I used to tell them that one day I’d love to sail on a Greenpeace ship.

But at that time I was in Sumatra. For a few months, I had been learning to surf on the island of Nias, famous for the surf break at Lagundi Bay. My board had just snapped for the second time and it looked like it was irreparable, so I was searching for the next adventure. I caught the ferry back to Sibolga in Sumatra and bought the cheapest mountain bike I could find to replace my surfboard as my travelling companion. So I had a 20kg bike and a backpack which weighed 8kg and held all of my worldly possessions.

The days were short and hot and wet. The roads were long and steep and wet. I had chosen the wettest time of the year to cycle through Sumatra. There were lots of days when I had to carry my bike over mud-slides with my pack on my back. Progress was slow, but I had no real itinerary and I was free to explore the beauty of the Sumatran forests.

Madeleine checking charts on the bridge © Greenpeace/Novis

Madeleine checking charts on the bridge © Greenpeace/Novis

Travelling by bicycle meant that I could stop where and whenever I wanted. The Sumatran people were always calling out, “Mau ke mana?” (“Where are you going?”), so I would stop for a chat and I usually stayed with families in small villages rather than camping alone. I was even lucky enough to stay with a park ranger and his family in Gunung Leuser National Park. They showed me rafflesia flowers that are up to a metre across and smell disturbingly like rotten meat.

I’d try to be on my bike by first light to catch the coolest and driest hours of the day. I’d get up with the first call to prayer (one hour before sunrise) and be on the road before the heat of the day. Those early hours cycling alone through the misty forest are some of my most treasured memories – the rich damp smell of growth and rot, the thick wet air and the sounds of the jungle awakening.

One morning I looked up to see an orang-utan (from the Indonesian word orang hutan, meaning forest man) spread-eagled in the canopy of trees that bridged the road. It was silhouetted against the sky with a halo of orange fur glowing in the morning sun. I stood for ages watching the true “man of the forest” moving thought the trees and vines.

It made me realise how precious these forests are and how we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent their destruction.

Zero deforestation now.

posted by Madeleine on board the Esperanza

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