Harau Valley of West Sumatra, Indonesia
If you’ve been following this blog, you might expect this next entry to arrive from somewhere in mainland Asia — perhaps China or Tibet. We even considered heading straight to Mongolia to avoid the monsoon season in southern Asia. But one click of the Google search button changed our minds completely.
Our initial plan to avoid air travel has officially been scrapped. An ever-changing border situation between Nepal / Tibet / China, along with an expensive and high-maintenance Chinese visa process and potentially soaking wet rock, deterred us from making the overland journey northeast from Kathmandu. We heard of the perfect place to decompress from the rigors of south Asian travel from a friend — and it didn’t take long to find a wealth of information regarding the granite and limestone beauties that rise from the rich volcanic landmass that is Indonesia.
Several days – three airplanes, half a dozen buses, ghetto-fabulous microbuses, a few taxis, and a bechak (motorcycle with sidecar) later – we arrived in the Harau Valley of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Goodbye smog-stained city streets and blaring horns — hello lush, unspoiled jungle and howling gibbons. As we rambled through the last few kilometers of paddy-lined road, we were greeted by colossal 300 meter walls — a site that nearly brought us to our knees. We promptly checked into the Echo Lodge, the only official “guesthouse” in the valley, grabbed our gear and raced the 100 meters to the crag.
As we stood on the side of the road, jaws agape at the impossibly vertical and pleasantly chalked cliff, we were greeted by the local climbing scene. The moment we explained our undertaking to climb throughout Asia, the welcoming smiles turned eager to get us on their rock. Every ounce of apprehension and thought of our possible intrusion dissolved into the smiling crowd of seven. A tattooed man in a Petzl harness introduced himself as Alphin and pointed to a super steep twenty-five meter route just to the left of a dihedral. “It’s good man, easy, no worries,“ he beamed.
After days of traveling in seats that were made for people half my size, all I wanted to do was play around on something painless — iron out the wrinkles. Alphin assured me that this climb was exactly what I needed. So, I racked up, tied on my eight and stepped up to the volcanic conglomerate that is the Harau Valley. My movement, stiff and choppy, must have looked as if they just pulled my body from the back of a hearse. But it felt great to poke around at the finger pockets and find the elusive sweet spots.
As I ascended, I just couldn’t get around to trusting my feet. They felt mighty fine, but the slight protrusions that I was weighting resembled something like roughly mixed cement that has not quite had enough time to set. Chunky fragments of rock just barely glued to a wall. Four bolts passed, five bolts, about to click number six — then I’m off. Twenty feet of wall rushed past my face before Lisa’s ATC did the job it was born to do. Red warmness streamed from my palm. Great, I was in the valley fifteen minutes and I’d already taken a twenty foot whipper and given myself one hell of a flapper. Go Team USA. But right away, I was offered words of encouragement and supplies from the first aid kit — these people couldn’t be any friendlier. With a crooked little smirk, Lisa held up the fist sized chunk that was once my right toe’s resting place.
I returned to the rock, finished the problem, and called it a day. Though we expected to head back to our hut, we were ushered into the small, stilted restaurant across the road. We had no choice in the matter, for we were now honored guests of this tightly knit climbing community. The food was simple, filling and fantastic. Peppered fish, tofu, tempeh, veggies, barbecued chicken and rice – lots of rice. It was just what we needed. In addition to the delicious spread, we sat with these folks and talked, laughed & learned some of the local language – and finally realized why we were taking this trip. It was exactly what we have been scouring Asia to find. Sincerity and legitimate happiness were all around in this place and we were invited to be part of it. For the first time in a long while, we were not being gouged by touts and nobody had an “angle” to work on us — we were just folks hanging out and enjoying one another’s company.
After dinner, Lisa and I made plans to climb with our new friends in the morning and strolled back to our little jungle hut under a starlit sky. We were going to close out this long day with a cool shower in our open-air bathroom under the thick blanket of cosmos above. Upon opening the bathroom door, we quickly discovered that things were amiss. Before us was a blue-tiled scene of ruin: bath towels thrown to the ground, dirt all over the floor, mud (perhaps?) all over the toilet seat, partially uprooted plants lying on the tile, shampoo uncapped and oozing down the floor drain — and in the distance, the sounds of rustling tree limbs and victorious hooting drifted back from the jungle. Gibbons! Those damn scoundrels! I returned my glance to the carnage that lay before us, slipped around on the soapy tile and then noticed something very peculiar. My toothbrush had been uncapped from its happy little travel lid and carefully placed on the other side of the sink. I picked up the toothbrush and gave it a sniff - nothing. But I’m pretty sure that any toothbrush that has been left alone with a gibbon is no longer a hygienic dental device. Cringing at the nasty visual that came to mind, I flung it into the garbage and began clean-up duty. Sumatra is a wild place indeed.
Harau Valley Beta:
How to Get There:Start with a two hour bus ride from Padang’s airport to Bukittinggi. Hop on another bus to Payakumbuh. Take a low-riding, sub-woofered , pimped out, blue opelet mini bus (aka ghetto-sled) to the market area. Take a second ghetto sled to Sarilamak (don’t pay more than 10,000 IDR) Finally, a becha to Harua Valley.
Where to Stay:While Echo Lodge (ph +62 8126079983) is technically the only game in town (range 60,000-450,00 IDR per night), there are a few unofficial guesthouses to hang your sport rack at night. Our favorite being Ik’s guesthouse (ph. +62 2852 63781842). Set amongst expansive paddy fields and backed by a cascading waterfall, Ik’s is truly off the grid but still walking distance from the crag. Cottages run about 75,000 per night.
What to Bring:In addition to your sport rack, toss in a few quicklinks and a set of brass balls into your pack. Indonesians like to down climb everything. So, the only way you’re rapping off is by leaving gear, amigo! If you’re feeling up to a new project, bring a drill, a bag of bolts and have at it! This valley is bursting with potential and development is encouraged by the local climbing community. Basic hardware (ie. slings, draws, biners, etc.) is always a nice thank-you to pass along to the local climbers and is much appreciated.
What to Expect:Approximately 45well-bolted sport routes ranging from 5.8 to a whopping, whipping 5.14b! A large community of solid competitive climbers (nine were training for an upcoming comp in Northern Sumatra) Solid routes, smiling faces and of course, f***ing gibbons.