Choosing where to go – on the beauty of cycle touring

To be honest, travelling the world has never been high on my list. I value change, I am interested in meeting new people and ever want to question my beliefs and prejudices about other people. But setting out to go around the world, going from one place to the next and always having to decide where to go and what to see and what to do is not something I wanted to do for a prolonged period of time.
So you might wonder why I am now cycling for quite some time and why it seems to be going well except for the usual complaints. Well, you see, because cycle touring is different. Sometimes it is not at all about the places to go to but all about everything in between. And that is so. much. more. fun. On the Indonesian island of Flores this became especially apparent.


The ferry from Sumbawa brought us to the small and rather touristy town of Labuan Bajo. It is well known as a starting point for diving and snorkelling tours and caters exceedingly well for the western backpacker.  There are bakeries, lovely cafes and a lot of shops that rent diving and snorkelling gear and organize tours. It was different from what we had in Sumbawa and I wouldn’t usually feel comfortable with the obvious focus on tourism.


But it was perfect at that time. In Sumbawa we were constantly in the centre of local attention whereas here we were just two out of many travellers. We ate exclusively local food before, we fought with the heat and stomach bugs and now it was time to indulge in some bread and a latte, use our hostel’s wifi and relax. In the end we didn’t go for a organized tour. They are rather expensive and we have so many beautiful experiences on the way that it was hard to justify spending so much money on one.


Further down the road we stopped for a night in Moni, another small town known as a starting point to the Kelimutu Lakes. These are volcanic lakes that change colours sometimes and thus are one of the major tourist attractions of Flores. Unfortunately the entry fees for foreigners went sky high in the last year, so once again we decided not to go for that.



Instead we ate pancakes and pasta in Moni and climbed down to a waterfall where we saw some locals wash their clothes.



We stayed in a woven bamboo house and enjoyed the panorama. It was beautiful and very relaxing.

And when we were in the rather unassuming town of Ende, Torsten found out that you can hike up a small volcano with supposedly quite nice views. You don’t need a guide nor pay entrance fees. So we set out to hike Gunung Iya.


We left our bicycles at a small store at the end of the road and walked through a rubbish dump. We found the trail head and walked up.


It was hot and exhausting and I was starting to regret it a little but all was forgotten once we got to the top.


The views down to Ende were absolutely stunning  and I fell in love with the colours of the volcano.

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And we could even see some smoke coming out!


So maybe we missed something in not going to the Komodo National Park for snorkelling. Maybe we would have enjoyed the Kelimutu Lakes. But who knows, we might have regretted paying three days budget just to view the lakes. Sometimes it’s hard to choose where to go and what to do when you could theoretically try and do it all. But for one I find it rather exhausting to go from one must-do to the next. I am rather surprised by people and things along the way. And I like not having so many expectations about what I am going to see and feel. And with tourist attractions it is harder to keep your expectations at bay. There are so many pictures about the Kelimutu Lakes that you might think you know what you are supposed to get. But of course it can still be different. The weather could make the lakes more or less impressive, the sun shine in a different angle or you might be in a bad mood and not enjoy it as much.


So this is why I want to free myself from checking things off an imaginary to-do list. Each journey differs from the next one and that’s good. I don’t want to fulfill a certain itinerary but rather work on having an open state of mind. I want to be open for the beauty of what’s right in front of me or for the challenge. I want to be surprised, I want to learn, I want to be overwhelmed and sometimes just do nothing.


It’s like having the choice of maybe seeing an elephant in the wild or going to the zoo to see one for sure. Or finding street art instead of going to an art gallery. I’m choosing street art and the chance of seeing an elephant over certainty. Somehow this seems more real to me.

Remarkable encounters on Sumbawa

Storytelling isn’t only about how to tell a story but a lot about the stories you choose to tell. Sometimes the process of choosing is a hard one.


Regarding our time in Sumbawa I could tell you about the relentless sun, the arid land and the dry air that made us crave iced drinks all the time. Or the evening sun that made everything so beautiful. I could tell you about stomach bugs that made cycling incredibly hard and progress slow. Or about water buffalos next to the road. But I choose to tell you about the people of Sumbawa, at least about some of them. Of all the stories that could be told, these seem to be the ones that are most important anyway.

In all of Indonesia (Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa so far) we constantly met people. By ‘met’ I mean we didn’t only see them but almost everyone greeted us. Mostly with a lot of excitement, a big smile and loud shouts of “Hello Mister”. Or “Bule” which means foreigner. And by ‘constantly’ I really mean all the time, every few seconds. In that sea of encounters there are a few that touched me deeply which shall be mentioned here. Sadly we never really caught their names, it didn’t seem important at the time. And I only have permission to publish one of the pictures, so you have to make do with the stories mostly!

On the first day

As we were low on water we stopped for a coffee, wanting to ask about filling our bottles. And it was there that we had the most heart warming encounter with the shop owners. They seemed delighted to see us and especially the woman and I had an instant connection. She was in awe of me and my heavy bicycle and remarked time and again on my leg muscles. It was one of these conversations where no one really speaks the language of the other person and still there is a deep conversation going on. There was something meaningful between us and I am still on the edge of tears when I think of her. I don’t think I will ever see her again but I will be forever grateful for that encounter. For the heartfelt interest in each other, for all the hugs she gave me and for their honesty.

Come here!


Another day we were just cycling through a village, waving and smiling at children passing by. It was long before noon and already unbearably hot. We were discussing having a break but not really sure if it was justified so soon. Just before leaving the village a man waved at us excitedly and shouted: “Come here! Come here!” We didn’t really need a lot of convincing to have that break after all.


So we joined a group of about 10 people who were passing the morning chatting and relaxing next to a small food stall. We were soon offered amazing food and coffee and enjoyed our meal all the while getting to know the man who invited us. To our luck he was a retired English teacher which made conversation easy. Once again we were humbled by this encounter. The group sent out so much warmth, interest in us and our journey and simply wanted to get to know us. In the next hour we learned some more Bahasa Indonesia, were invited repeatedly to stay the night and heard stories about life in this village. If anyone still needs a reason why to travel by bicycle – remember this! These chance encounters on the side of the road are worth sweating up a lot of hills after all.

Give me something cold and I will be in heaven


Later that week the sun was getting to me. The road was a good one, the traffic modest and the people friendly as could be. But I was once again fighting with a stomach bug which made cycling on flat ground more exhausting and cycling uphill seemingly impossible. I made use of every little piece of shade I could find (there weren’t many anyway) and we often stopped to ask for cold drinks.


Cycling in Indonesia has been exceptionally convenient as there are almost always food stalls around or at least small kiosks that sell biscuits and drinks. So it is not likely that you will ever go hungry or thirsty. Finding something cold to drink was a bit of a bigger challenge though. People in rural Sumbawa don’t usually have a fridge and rely on ice deliveries to make cold drinks. And ice doesn’t get delivered everywhere.


So when I spotted some ingredients to make Es Campur (Indonesian dish which mixes crushed ice and all sorts of ingredients like jelly, corn, condensed milk, fruit) on a table I turned around and begged Torsten to stop with me. We wheeled our bikes into a garden and looked around for the owners. A woman soon showed up, was visibly surprised about two foreigners turning up in her garden and invited us warmly to sit down and rest. She and her husband were amazing and we proceeded to have a conversation about our trip and about their lives in a mix of our broken Indonesian, a little English and with a lot of help of our dictionary. The couple originally came from Yogyakarta on Java and moved to Sumbawa to be near her parents. They do miss the culture and the people of Java quite a bit though and find it hard to cope with the quiet life in rural Sumbawa. On leaving we weren’t allowed to pay for anything and when I hinted at my stomach problems she whisked me into her house and gave me something to rub on my belly. I am so very grateful for the glimpse into their life and for their generosity with which they received us. Once again we were given a lot more than we needed.


Unfortunately – of course – this post doesn’t even come close to summing up all the beautiful encounters we had on Sumbawa. Not to mention the water buffalos, the salt fields or mountains that we saw. But it might give you a small glimpse into our time on Sumbawa and that’s really all a 1000 words can do!


A fiery welcome to Sumbawa

Imagine your ferry is getting closer to the harbour and you see smoke coming from the land. As we got off at the harbour in Pototano we saw a huge fire still roaring and a lot of people trying to save their belongings from about 20 shop houses and small eateries.


Luckily they seemed to have it under control and as far as we could see no one was hurt. Some time after the fire couldn’t get any further anyway, two fire fighter trucks arrived from the capital city Sumbawa Besar. We cycled away quietly talking about those people who  lost their existence in the matter of a few minutes with help too far away to get there in time.


When we stopped for a coffee a little while later we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw two other cycle travellers coming towards us! Tony and Mbahpolenk are from Java and were cycling from East Timor back to Java. We had fun getting to know each other and comparing loads (they travelled a lot lighter but then again, they won’t be facing winter on their tour 😉 ). Sadly they didn’t have much time as they wanted to catch the next ferry to Lombok.


I love how the colours of the goats go with the colours of the landscape.


A little later we came by a lot of people dancing in the street around these girls on wooden horses, carried high up in the air. It was a lot of fun walking along for a bit and we were then told that it was a wedding ceremony and the people getting married actually came from Lombok. As did the traditional music and the horses.


When it got dark we found ourselves in a small town without formal accommodation. We coincidentally stood near a military station pondering whether to go on or ask someone if we could camp in their garden. By then a police officer gestured at us to come over and asked what we were looking for. We told him that we were looking for a place to sleep and after some discussion with his superiors we were offered a place on this beautiful platform. It came with a bathroom and we were officially guarded by the military throughout the night. What an introduction to Sumbawa!




Cycling Lombok in pictures

After staying in Lombok’s capital Mataram for nearly a week, we were itching to get cycling again. Wanting to avoid the busy main road through the middle of the island we set off towards the north coast.

We cycled past a Chinese cemetery…
and I marvelled about all the tiny figurines and inscriptions.
This guy said Hi…
and so did they!
We cycled past many a paddies, this one with a small fire going.
People harvesting chillies.
Beautiful roads.
We cycled around some big mountains and over a lot of tiny but steep hills. But it was way too beautiful to complain!
The ocean was never far.
The evening light paints even the very dry areas all golden.
After a long day of cycling and a fruitless search for a place to sleep and rest, Mohammed picks us of the street and invites us to sleep in his home which he built himself. He provides food and is to date one of the best Indonesian-teachers we met. Still on the road I was starting to get worried of where to stay but once again it shows that we needn’t worry. Somehow a solution will always come, someone will always help.
In the morning we said a heartfelt goodbye to Mohammed and cycled the remaining hour to the ferry. More water, more islands, Sumbawa, here we come!


Cycling along Lombok’s north coast was a beautiful couple of days. Coming from Bali we noticed a big drop in tourist numbers which meant that we got a lot more attention from locals. So we cycled up and down the undulating roads, bathed in the views, enjoyed coffee breaks and lots of small talk about where we go and where we come from. And a mere three days later we were already on the ferry to Sumbawa!

Letting go in Lombok

In Australia we were lucky to stay with so many awesome warmshowers hosts and I missed having that connection to people quite a bit by then. (Unfortunately there are almost no active hosts on the islands east of Java.)  Settling into a cycling routine hadn’t been that easy for us here: As we constantly talked to people during the day, we rather enjoyed having a place to ourselves at the end of it. Of course that also meant that we didn’t really connect to people on a deeper level as we had many times before in Australia. So gladly I remembered reading a blog post from Drop the tension about a house in Mataram which is open to all travellers. Soon after I wrote a post on their facebook page if we could stay for a few days. The reply came within hours and we were invited to stay.


After Torsten’s stomach settled down we cycled to Rumah Singgah in Mataram and were welcomed by Babak.


He and his family open their house to travellers and thus bring a lot of people together. After we had been staying in guest houses in Indonesia so far this was quite the change for us. We shared our sleeping space with lots of other people and there was always a myriad of things going on: People come and go, share coffee and food, engage in conversation, watch TV and use the WiFi.


Mamak sometimes roasts coffee which smells amazing and there is almost always a pot of freshly made coffee around. The atmosphere is bubbly and still relaxed and I love it and simultaneously wish I would understand more Indonesian to comprehend more of what’s going on around me. Almost all fellow travellers are Indonesian. While we were there only a Danish couple stayed for a night.


On the first evening Imam asks us if we would like to join an overnight snorkelling trip visiting several islands off the east coast of Lombok. Sure, sounds great! On our own we don’t usually go for rather expensive tours off the bike but in a group we can share the cost and it should be a lot of fun to do that together.

Preparing for the trip was an interesting experience for us. Our group communicated mostly in Bahasa Indonesia and sometimes English which meant that we didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. We asked questions like what to bring along and what would we eat and should we bring our stove and would we have enough water? And who would drive the boat and where would we sleep? We are used to organize a lot of big and small things as we go along and food, water, a place to sleep are always high on the list. So we tried to do our part here but didn’t really succeed. Most of the time we weren’t entirely sure what would happen and how we could take part in the preparations. Maybe due to language barriers, maybe due to different styles of organizing. So we felt a bit insecure of how to proceed but then just decided to go with the flow and see what would happen.


In the end – of course – everything fell into place and we had a wonderful trip.


We stayed overnight at a small uninhabited island and slept outside on a bamboo platform.



We lit a camp fire, watched the sun fall and rise and had a beautiful breakfast with coffee from make-do mugs before we set out to snorkel in a few different places.


And oh my – the underwater world is just something else! If you didn’t feel peaceful before, it’s very hard not to be at peace watching all the colourful fish and coral.

So, what’s this about? Maybe one thought that stays is to let go. Sometimes things go a different way but nevertheless turn out beautifully. Sometimes you need to ask yourself what’s really bothering you and then try to let it go. And who knows, you might be in for a deeper and more satisfying experience if you open yourself to different ways of doing / thinking / living.


Most wonderfully, returning to Rumah Singgah after our trip felt like coming home. We had some more coffee, someone played guitar, some of us sang along with the correct lyrics, others just sang along ;). It was loud and lively and I went to sleep very happy that night.