Saturday, 22 October 2011


From reports from other motorbike travellers we already knew that getting a bike across the Melaka Strait from Sumatra to Malaysia would be difficult. Possible but difficult. There is a passenger ferry that runs from Dumai to either Melaka or Port Klang but it does not take vehicles and there are no other vehicle ferries operating. Apparently what we had to do was to find a so-called "onion boat", negotiate a price with the captain and then wave goodbye to our bikes and pick them up again on the other side in Malaysia. We considered ourselves up for a challenge so we embarked upon Dumai with high spirits, thinking "how hard can it be?". Well, the answer is: Very.

After booking into a reasonably-priced hotel we went to the ferry office of the passenger ferry to see if there was any way they would consider after all to take our bikes. The answer was as we expected - No. We did have a no for an agent who apparently had helped some other people in the past and a guy from the ferry office tried to call him for us, however he couldn't get hold of him. Instead he called another guy who he said could help us. 10 mins later a short stocky man walked in and presented himself as Mr Muchsin. He told us that he had helped many travellers in the past getting their bikes or cars on boats to Malaysia and that he would like to help us too in exchange for us visiting and being part in some of his English classes at his language school. He said we could even stay at his home with his family until we left for Malaysia. As a traveller you learn not to take everything people tell you at face value, so at first we didn't know whether he was being genuine or not, but when he invited us round to his house to see his photo albums of all the people who had stayed with him we thought why not and followed him to his house. He runs a small English School for kids and young people and regularly invites travellers to visit and join in the classes to talk with the students. We met his wife and family and were showed countless photos of other travellers who had stayed with him including other motorbike riders. We also joined one of his classes while there and after that felt a little more assured and bid our goodbyes promising to return the next morning.

And so the next day we arrived on his doorstep luggage in tow and moved into a spare room in his house. He then took us down to the port to find out about getting our bikes on a boat. Now, I have seen a few dodgy old boats in my life but these ones definitely take the top prize. They were just old timber boats that looked like they could sink any minute. They were all being unloaded at the time so Mr Muchsin suggested we come back in the afternoon. We went back and joined another class with 12-13 year old kids who asked us all sorts of questions, like: "What's your favourite food", What's your mum's and dad's names", "What's your religion" (and see their shocked expressions when we told them we had no religion!) It was a fun experience but after the class was over unfortunately it was too late to go back to the port so we had to wait till the following day. We were pretty tired but Mr Muchsin wanted us to join another class that evening, this time with kids in their late teens. Again it was a Q & A session and the kids even wanted to know how we fell in love with each other which resulted in lots of oohs and aahs!
The next morning we went back to the port. Mr Muchsin approached some crew members on one of the boats but they just gave us the run-around demanding ridiculous sums of money for taking the bikes and refused to put us in contact with the captain or the owner of the boat. We went on a couple of other boats only to be shut down with lame excuses, telling us the captain was asleep. We even went to the harbour master's office who made a bunch of phone calls which resulted in nothing. Mr Muchsin kept on saying: "This is Indonesia!", explaining to us that corruption is still very much alive and kicking in the country and that nothing comes easy here as everything is running on what is called Indonesian Rubber Time (for the way it stretches). Even turning on the charm and telling the harbour master officials that our visas are about to expire produces to signs of emotion from them, they clearly could not care less if we were to be stuck in Indonesia for the rest of our days. I am sure that if we at this point had offered them some cold cash certainly a boat would have appeared but we weren't about to do that. As a side note, all government offices in Indonesia have large posters displayed with anti-corruption messages, but we are told that this is nothing more than words and that the reality is very different. The harbour officials did say they would call us if anything came up but we put as much hope in that as if hell was about to freeze over. The next couple of days were spent going to different ports around town, jumping onto various derelict boats to speak with people but always being met with the same blank expressions and getting nowhere. 
We were really starting to tire of this process and wondering if we would ever get out of Indonesia when we met Mr Rudi, the father of one of Muchsin's students. He invited us out to dinner and paid for everything. He drove us all over town in his air conditioned car (which was a big luxury for us in this raging humidity) and even stopped at a bakery to buy us breakfast for the following day! We had been talking about this weird snake-skin fruit we had seen around and this other delicacy we had tasted elsewhere in Sumatra and he promptly had his son go and buy both for us! He dropped us back at the house and said he wanted to take us out for lunch the next day and that he might have a friend with a boat we could put our bikes on. The next day we went for lunch with Mr Rudi and he took our bikes to get washed completely free of charge! That evening he picked us up again to go out for dinner with his family. Although we consistently insisted that we pay, he was always a step ahead of us and always paid for everything. He was so unbelievably generous and we felt incredibly pampered! As for the onion boat situation Mr Rudi was still awaiting the schedule for the boat of his friend. On the Monday we went to the customs house to sort out some paperwork and mentioned our boat issues to the people working there. The customs officer made a phone call and told us that it would be possible to get the bikes on another express ferry that apparently had taken bikes across in the past. We wanted to go straight to their office to make the arrangements but we were told we couldn't meet with them until the next morning but that it was as good as sorted and that they had agreed to take the bikes, the ferry would leave at 12pm the following day. With this new gained information we were very hopeful but we didn't allow ourselves to become too excited as, to use Mr Muchsin's words: This is Indonesia.
Good thing we didn't. Tuesday morning we find ourselves sitting in the ferry office. The chief officer is asking us for a ridiculous amount of money to take the bikes across, it is meant to be open for negotiation but when we try there is no change. The currency being haggled in has now changed from Ringgit to Rupiah and the price has actually gone up a bit! He then disappears for about 20 mins and when he returns he announces that he can not take the bikes after all. He claims it is out of his hands and that the harbour master will not allow it as the bikes are considered 'dangerous goods'. At this point we just want to strangle someone, anyone and wonder why the harbour master was not consulted yesterday! In the mean time Mr Rudi gets hold off his friend's boat schedule, today 5pm it says. But first the price needs to be agreed on. Initially they want $400 but with a bit of bargaining we manage to get them down to $150. Then it's back to the customs office to get our carnets signed off, however the person responsible for the carnets is out - great! When he finally returns after an our or so I think Mark has gained a few more gray hairs! After the carnets are signed off it's off to the port to find the actual boat, the unlikely named The Mississippi. We find it and of course it is as derelict looking as they come but at this point we would pretty much agree to put them on anything that floats just to get the hell out of here! To get the bikes onto the boat was interesting. We had to push them up a see saw gang plank onto one vessel then use a crane to hoist them onto our boat. With the bikes safely on board Mississippi we bid them farewell and nervously left the port hoping we would receive them in one whole piece in Malaysia.
The passenger ferry would not leave until the next morning so we stayed with Mr Rudi and his family that night. Him and his wife went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and brought us plate after plate of food until we were bursting. After breakfast the next morning we bid a quick farewell and thanks to Mr Muchsin before Mr Rudi took us to the ferry terminal where we thanked him for everything. His generosity was like nothing we had ever experienced before, we will never forget his kindness and we hope to stay in contact with him.
As the ferry sailed out of the port we both breathed a big sigh of relief. We had spent almost a week in Dumai trying to organise a boat. We always knew it was going to be hard, but not THAT hard!

Mr Rudi and his lovely family

Mr Muchsin with some of his students

Pretending to be an English teacher :)

Some more lovely students and one feral looking dude
Mark with Mr Muchsin and students
A bunch of girls from the local mosque stop by to say hi

First a ramp needs to be built

Then it's up the ramp

Tying straps onto the bike

Then it's time for the crane to do its work

 And...onto the boat safely!


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