When My Dad Was My Age: Backpacking in Indonesia in 1975

By John Blyth


After completing my medical degree at Liverpool University in England, I caused my parents much consternation by setting off to "see the world", and failing to return home for the next five years. I journeyed through Europe and the Middle East, down through Central and South East Asia, before staying a while in Australia, where I would later return and raise my children (both of whom, it would seem, have inherited my travel bug). This story is adapted from my travel journals, and documents my meandering journey some two and a half thousand kilometers from Java to Sumatra. It was possible to fly to Padang from Jakarta with the Indonesian domestic airline, Merpati  [as in, "It's Merpati and I'll fly if I want to"]. However, I decided to make the predictably murderous 48 hour bus journey through southern Sumatra, because Bill Dalton's Indonesian Handbook said there was a chance of seeing a tiger "shitting in the headlights". Also, it felt like a more authentic travel experience; and probably was. The photographs were shot on a Pentax Spotmatic II, using a 150mm lens.

Legian was a place of quiet beauty. Family-run losmens, lit by kero lamps. Sandy paths through coconut groves to a clean beach, with only a few hasslers wanting to be your 'friend', and sell you a fake watch. Hippies gathered to watch the sunset, appropriately primed on dope and special mushroom omelettes. A highlight for me was the Kecak, or monkey dance, a trance-inducing dance/vocal extravaganza by 150 performers, based on a story from the Ramayana.

Whatever they tell you the bus will be like, it is cramped, overcrowded and late to depart. The seats are tiny, but hey, it's not expensive.

First stop was the night ferry to Banyuwangi. There was a bit of swell and the steel ramp was bucking as the spectacular trucks blasted across to board. One didn't time it right and smashed its driveshaft. Had to get towed off backwards, with much drama. Safety margins are so tiny, even normal procedures are nerve-wracking. The bus just squeezes under the entry portal of the ship. 

Train travel in Java reveals endless ghettos of squalor on the outskirts of cities. Crowded shacks line the tracks, close enough to touch. Markets infiltrate the rail lines. Glimpses of memorable faces framed in wooden windows, babies on balconies, The impression is of a lot of people with no way out. Between cities, the country was mainly flat, often burnt, worked by peasants and irrigated by water buffalo-power.

Becaks and pushbikes cruise along the lanes parallel to the track. Whenever the train slows, urchins appear from nowhere, to run screaming alongside, hands upheld, while some passengers throw scraps. It's a strange, mindless kind of vibe.


Sunsets are enhanced by the active volcanoes of the Pacific ring of fire. The carriage becomes increasingly crowded, and morning brings a dismal scene of bodies, piss and mire. Apparently oblivious, family life continues placidly. A mother feeds her baby. A soldier cradles a sleeping child.

Coming into Jakarta, a sea of terracotta roofscapes, bodies crashed in an old station, featuring superb examples of antique rolling stock and a steam engine like Stevenson's Rocket. Then there are the taxis: Chevies and Morris 1000 vans, rebuilt and glorified in garish colour schemes.

Down by the waterline, are about two hundred Bugis schooners, the traditional trading ships of the archipelago. A forest of masts and rigging, rolled sails hanging like fruit, sailors indolently draped on spars or staggering under huge loads up slotted gangplanks. Much horseplay on deck.

Under another roseate sunset sky, a creaking wooden walkway winds between hovels, crowding over a stinking oily canal. The far bank consists of sunken boats and gutted warehouses. Kids and teenagers loiter on the rickety planks. Paraffin lamplight, cooking smells and guitar music from inside.

In stark contrast is the Sarinah department store, where white skins predominate, buying gifts, many of which would be impounded by Australian customs under CITES regulations. The National Museum features a fantastic collection of artefacts from all over Indonesia, which makes you want to go to Kalimantan, Sulawesi. There are treasure rooms of Ming dynasty porcelain, gold jewellery, carved stone gods, fine weaving [Sumba, my favourite], exquisite beadwork, basketry and beautiful, deadly-looking weapons from Irian Jaya

I got talked into a meal called rusak petis, which was disgusting, especially when I found out it was made of cows' noses, blood and old prawns.

Probably should have asked first.

In those days, there were 2 guides to cheap travel in Indonesia: one was Dalton's handbook; and the other, "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring", by Tony Wheeler, which I think was the first Lonely Planet guide. This seems to have become quite a successful franchise. It was fairly radical at the time; but bland compared to Dalton's effort. Thanks to him, I took becak rides through the extraordinary districts of Charak and Bungung Recho, in Surabaya. These are vast areas of brothels, catering largely to service personnel from the home base of the Indonesian navy. It's hard to describe the vibe; but it wasn't sleazy. By day, the girls all hung out together in streets of dolls' house shanties. It reminded me of the old Western film sets. Street performers and minstrels wandered around. At night the muddy, bustling walkways were lit by Coleman lanterns and lined with food stalls and carts of antibiotics. Everyone seemed to be smiling and having a good time. The ride home was surreal, passing miles of closed markets, junkyards and sleeping becak pilots; then cool quiet side streets to the Bamboe Denn.

After an uneventful [or at least, unrecorded] train trip to the port of Merak, I crashed in the crew's quarters of the ferry, having been kicked out of the bar in a manner reminiscent of an English pub. It was extremely hot, and I was woken in Sumatra by the classic taped muezzin call to prayer, with which I was to become very familiar. The bus selection/lottery completed, after much haggling and blatant lying about seating, price and timing, we headed off through pleasant grassy country, with a few villages, some of which looked like transmigrasi projects. There seemed to be a lot of cleared forest, but around dusk, it started to look more pristine, with jungle villages of beautifully stained wooden houses on stilts. The rich folk have outside stairways, verandahs and balconies; and delicately painted glass windows.


Full moon in an eerie jungle, when we stop for a wheel change in a remote village. Sounds of the night, and a rushing river. Medieval vibe strolling on a lamplit street, card games, mosque singing, men working in yellow rooms, talking in groups. Rush on through the night towards Lubuk Linggau, which I thought sounded like a perversion. Time twists like an acid trip through sleepless miles, peering hopefully ahead to catch a glimpse of those tigers; or dozing between spooky stops in strange transport cafes. Always Padang food and coffee. I'm getting very smelly. Strangely, though, the young Indonesian man sitting next to me seems as fresh as when we boarded- how is that possible? I'm also getting bilateral pre-patellar bursitis from my knees rubbing the seat in front of me. The road is never as bad as I expected, or remembered from Zaire. Rivers were crossed on canoe ferries, leaking enthusiastically. Bridges seem to have been destroyed, maybe by floods, who knows? The ferries are powered [sort of] by a mixture of outboards, poling and hope. Amazingly risky loading and disembarkation over loose planks. Long lines of trucks and local buses, powerful packed Chevies, painted with eagles, elephants, and artistic initials. Again, the cars are woodie versions of mini mokes, Chevies and Austin A40's from a bygone era.


Dawn- misty weather and brain, and another wheel check outside a jungle village. Maybe for prayer too. Feels African, particularly when a couple of small piglike animals scurry across the road- pointed noses, dark with red/brown head tufts, clawed feet, whiffling sound. Very strange, like a dream in a half conscious world.


Appalling music blasting in my ear- either a muslim drone or Godawful Indopop. Every sense is assailed- babies crapping, roosters crowing, ass aching. Still, I'm sure it only requires an attitude of mind. Mine starts to wear thin in some of the cowboy towns towards the end, especially Bangko, a crummy hillbilly place where you can't get food (because of Ramadan, I later realise). Some other towns had a better buzz- like Murtapura, Bukitkemuning.


I woke up sometime in the second night to find we've hit tarmac and are pulled up at an eating house in a nameless town, with a convoy of trucks carrying huge earth movers. Just keeps on getting more surreal. Then dawn on a lake and a few rice paddies and pointed Minangkabau houses and the corrugated iron first impression of Bukittinggi. Feeling OK, strangely, so head on to Padang through a lush pass, along a creamy river, waterfall, old railway, like a big dipper. Glimpses of small surf and islands. Picked up mail at poste restante, then headed back up to Bukittinggi.

A wonderful building in Minangkabau style houses a hopeless museum, and the zoo is predictably awful. People throw cigarette butts, despite the sign "Take pity on the animals". Panorama Park, however, exceeds expectations. White cliffs enclose a winding river canyon, with rice fields, beyond which jigsaw mountains stretch into wilderness. [Probably all palm oil plantations now]. A nice town in which to unwind. I met a Canadian couple and a Turk, whose cold responded dramatically to the placebo effect of panadol. And of course, there's that fantastic Padang food, where you take whatever eye-wateringly spicy pieces of undifferentiated meat you fancy from a selection in a glass case, eat with your fingers and pay according to how many bones you leave, or something like that.



The bus depot at 11 am is a cacophony of air horns from the unremitting succession of Chevies going everywhere. Leave at 12 and soon it starts to rain. Dark green mountainsides shrouded in wispy, or rolling cloud. Dense, dripping forest, feels like the real thing, as the road follows a rampant river, which turns red as the deluge continues. The road itself is a river of orange mud and the landscapes keep on rolling by. The villages too are a blast in the rain- mental collage of cameo scenes: willowy figures in doorways, wearing faded pastel sarongs, holding babies. The flash of a brown face in a window, as the bus grinds on. Flooded street markets, with splashing urchins and laden old women, picking their way among the stalls.


Dusk stop at another welcoming Padang joint- yellow light from the warm interior reflecting on the shining street. Almost a feeling of coming home, when I encountered a friendly, English-speaking local to talk to, who studied at Oxford, don't you know! I walked into the post office in Sibolga and the clerk said "You must be John Blyth". I had cunningly arranged to collect mail in this port, in case an alternate plan to sail from Bali to Sri Lanka had eventuated. There were 6 letters waiting for me (one of my mother's letters was addressed to the East Indies), but I doubt many travelers had used the service before. 



John Blyth spent a good half of the seventies wandering the globe, and has at some point, found himself on every continent (including Antarctica). He eventually settled in Australia, but he has yet to kick the travel bug, having just added Cuba to the extensive list of countries he has visited.