Editor's note: Laurent Granier, 30, of Le Mans, France, and Philippe Lansac, also 30, who hails from Tours, departed Paris in June 2000 for a drive around the world, much of it off-pavement, in a mildly modified Renault Scnic RX4. After more than four years and 22,000 miles, they are still at it, currently navigating their way through Central and South America. This installment recounts their experiences driving across Indonesia; in future issues, we'll catch up to them in Australia, and other far-off venues.
Leaving our Scnic RX4 in a sealed container in the capable hands of Malaysian customs officials, we part company with our vehicle as it sets out on a two-day sea journey alone from Malaysia to Indonesia. Without wheels of our own, we soon find ourselves at the rather fickle mercy of an Indian bus driver casting himself in the role of a modern-day Fangio. With our fates almost sealed several times, we hop off and board a boat to cross the Strait of Malacca. We set down at the port of Belawan, near the town of Medan, where we will be reunited with the Scnic. But, whereas administrative formalities in Malaysia had been as smooth as the trip across the strait, in Indonesia they were to resemble rounding Cape Horn in stormy weather.
The container boat arrives three days late, and the port of Belawan is not exactly what you would term "fun": A metal jungle, a dense web of cranes, and a labyrinth of containers 20 to 40 feet high in the middle of which giant stork-like creatures flex their steel biceps and spit diesel fumes as they lift 40-ton containers as though they were Legos. It's a jungle of middlemen, too: liners, agents, transporters, customs officials, police -a collection of shady people who hover around the pile of money that is represented by these ships and these mountains of merchandise, with each one trying to make his butter hoping to steal away with the biggest crumb when the cake is finished. To add to this misery, there is no trace of our container when the cargo arrives at the quay. We then have to sit through five laborious hours of checking through all the listings: "It is not possible! Where is this damn container?" We are burning up under the white-hot sun thinking, "We are never going to get out of here!"
Suddenly, a new listing flutters down like manna from the sky, with the famous sought-after number. But then, of course, the crane is broken-a long 24 hours later, the container is finally lowered onto the quay. However, we are not out of the jungle yet. The ubiquitous port customs officer shoots a suspicious look at our 4x4, and asks to check everything (go figure): Chassis number, engine number, registration plate. But everything is in order. Spited, he still searches, likely thinking, "But how am I going to get my bribe?" He starts to look in our storage boxes, then stops to go for lunch, comes back three hours later, all the while making faces and pretending not to understand anything we say. "We are not going to pay you anything. We have all the time in the world" we spit through our teeth with a big smile. We finally wear him out after nine hours of "patiently" waiting, and we are allowed to leave the port, satisfied that we have stood our ground in front of people who have the ability to alter our fate, but also incensed to have lost one week in this hell. All this to travel 100 miles between the two ports.
Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra, is indisputably a hellacious place of dust, blaring horns, and exhaust systems, with its heavy tropical humidity and 100-degree heat to boot. Give us some air! At the port, we pick up our four-wheel drive and leave for the coolness of the mountains in the middle of the island. There, at the bottom of a gigantic volcano crater, we set up our bivouac on the shores of Lake Toba, home to the Batak people. Aggus, a young batak man whom we meet, tells us, "My ancestors originally came down from the peaks of the Himalayas north of Burma. They found refuge here and stayed in their volcano, cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. They were cannibals, but quickly became Christians when the Dutch settlers arrived."
We were a little apprehensive about entering the world's largest Muslim country (especially right after September 11, when we were there) but ironically, the first Indonesians we meet are Christian! "Nowadays, we have to stick up for our rights, because Muslims are often given preferential treatment, to get a government job, for instance," Aggus adds. "But all in all, we enjoy mutual respect. The Muslim influence continues to be very strong, and we bring up our children so that they do not lose our traditions." In Indonesia, even though tension is felt in some regions, religious cohabitation seems to be working. What we have come across here is a moderate form of Islam. But there is very strong fundamentalist pressure, and Indonesians in general are wondering if the country will one day be shaken. The Bali attack in 2002 showed the current government's inability to deal with terrorist networks (especially difficult in a country consisting of over 13,000 islands), so worst-case scenarios are now within the realm of possibility.
From Toba, we take the Trans-Sumatran road to Jakarta. There has recently been rain, and landslides have turned the already rough trail into a quagmire. It takes us three days to cover the 1,000 miles separating us from the capital. Potholes, ruts, and mud banks take their toll on our rear-drive unit, and it starts to leak dangerously. We end up breaking a driveshaft and spend a few hours under the vehicle trying to wire on the ball-bearing casing. We are exhausted when we get to the island of Java, but we push on to Jakarta and still further to the east. At Bandung, we find ourselves the main feature of the local radio station's evening program. During the talk show, listeners call up to ask us questions. We are now adept at live broadcasts in two languages-English and Indonesian-and we were the guests at Jakarta's Radio One the week before. After a rendezvous with the local press, we head towards the coast via Semarang before continuing south to Solo, and finally arrive in Jogjakarta, cultural center of the island of Java.
After being introduced to the local press, we then set off once more on the next leg of our travel: The Bromo active volcano that is the centerpiece of the Tengger chain. The site is one of the most spectacular in Indonesia. The crater reaches six miles in diameter at its widest point, with jets of spewed lava sliding down its sides to form an immense sea of volcanic sand. From the throat of the crater rises the fuming summit of Bromo, spiritual sanctuary of the surrounding heights. A strange atmosphere of apocalypse emanates from the desolate landscape. We can't resist the temptation to bivouac in the midst of this superb scene, spending many hours on the crater's slopes of sulphurous sand and dust. This gigantic crater is as well a sacred spot for Hindus. When Islam arrived in Indonesia in the 14th century, most Hindus fled to Bali, but some took refuge here. Every day, pilgrims climb the immense stairway cut into the lava to meditate at the summit of the volcano.
East of Java is the Kawah Idjen Volcano. We have been camping for two weeks at the foot of this entrance to hell. A smoking crater hides a milky blue lake of pure sulfuric acid. Starting at 3 a.m., men go down to the bottom of this giant crucible to work in the open-air sulfur mine at the edge of the lake. With toxic fumes all around and rags torn from t-shirts pulled over their mouths as gas masks, the miners use moils to chisel away at the yellow rock and pry the blocks of sulfur loose. When their load is ready, they make their way up a narrow trail with over 50 pounds of ore on their shoulders. "If I get two loads out at 300 rupees a kilo, I can earn 50,000 rupees (6 euros) a day," we are told by Sukharman, a local miner. "It's worth it. That's twice as much as a farmer earns down on the plain." During the two weeks of our campout here, Sukharman gets to know us well. At day's end, we share the evening meal with his fellow miners in their shacks, with straw mats covering the packed earth floor. There's an oil lamp over in a corner. In the middle of the soot-blackened room, Sukharman is busy at the stove, singing away! Everyone is exhausted, but that doesn't stop them from kidding around with us while puffing on clove cigarettes. We will never forget the joy and courage of these men, willing to take on anything for a few more rupees to support their families.
The only shadow on the horizon is a rear axle that is beginning to leak more and more. Every day, we each assume the role of mechanic in order to refill the faulty axle, not to mention the transmission that is beginning to show signs of wear. After two years and more than 75,000 miles, travelling road and trail, we decide that repairs can no longer be put off. The after-sales team of Renault's International Operations, as partners of the raid, advise us and send a batch of spare parts to Bali, where a Nissan dealer there can supply the axle and know-how necessary to complete the repairs.
Then we are off to Australia, where we will travel for three months in an altogether different world of roads that go on and on, of sprawling, barren landscapes, places where a handful of cowboys can still be found. But that is a story for a future issue.