The job of ‘Chief Plugger’
Flores, the 6th island we have cycled through on the Trans Oceania Cycling Expedition, is now done and over with. As on all the other islands, there were no lack of surprises or challenges. To me, the biggest surprise after passing the Wallace Line and observing such dry places as Komodo Island from the ferry or seeing the Komodo dragon on Rinca Island, was that we were back in a tropical green country with noisy forests, vibrant rice paddies and stunning vistas.
Flores derives its name from colonial times when in the 16th century the Portuguese named the land ‘Flowers’, I assume for the obvious reasons. The tour’s original plan was to cycle to the transport hub, Ende, and take the ferry to West Timor where another set of vehicles would be awaiting us. But as we all know, plans made months ago do not always work out and the once a week ferry’s departure had been moved to another day. What now? We have a tight schedule to adhere to.
Many would say that my job as the founder of Tour d’Afrique Ltd is now a cushy one. I no longer lead tours and do not deal with the day to day logistical challenges. My job is cycling, testing the route with others, sweeping here and there, giving some advice and “plugging the holes”. And now, in Ende, there was a big hole. The ever creative Cristiano found a solution. There are local airlines that in one hour or so can airlift anyone from Ende to Kupang, our next destination. However there is one small problem. The maximum baggage limit is 10kg. Of course, with every cyclist having a bicycle and two bags this is no minor problem. No worries. Cristiano manages to find another ferry only 9 hours drive from Ende. It leaves at noon the next day.
A truck is found, bags and bikes are carefully loaded and I, as the ‘chief plugger’, is now needed to get the truck on the alternate ferry in Larantuka, the easternmost city on Flores. Sweeping the last rider into Ende, I take a quick shower and with our translator Sulistyastuti Sutomo – otherwise known as YaYang – squeeze into the front of a small truck. The two driver’s helpers sit on the roof of the truck – an acceptable mode of transport on Flores. At this point I was planning to write all about my trials and tribulations of sitting cramped in a van for nine long hours after a day of heat, climbing and taking photos, but then I realized what those two guys on the roof must have felt like and felt just slightly embarrassed.
In any case, we reached Larantuka at 1AM. I thought great – check into a hotel and get plenty of rest before boarding the ferry at 11AM. Except Larantuka’s gods had other plans. The first hotel, after a long search, was full, even though there were only two cars in the parking lot. The second hotel, though the lights were on, showed no signs of anyone anywhere and after 10 minutes we were back in the vehicle looking for a 3rd hotel. One was finally found not too far away with a receptionist at the desk. Yes, there was a room. A hot stuffy room. The employee headed to an air-conditioner that appeared to be from the 1800’s and turned it on, only to have me go into a shock from what sounded like a tank roaring into life. With pity, the receptionist offered me another room, slightly more expensive, and not as stuffy.
At 2AM, I lay in bed calculating that if I slept till 9AM I should be well rested for the 14 hour ferry journey and I nodded off. At 6.30 AM Larantuka’s gods decided that I had enjoyed enough sleep and sent a messenger to knock at my door. After a period of persistent knocking I gave in and opened the door. A line or two in the local language, Bokhasa, followed, but the gist of it was ‘would I like tea or coffee?’ “I would like to sleep” I yelled at the poor creature and slammed the door in his face.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Fourteen hours in the ferry’s VIP lounge (which turned out to be 18 hours due to engine issues) sounds really good, especially compared to the rest of the crowded quarters on the ferry. Except that for some reason, whether it was the gods or the captain’s sense of humour, the VIP lounge had the loudest, screetchiest, irritating alarm that I have ever heard in my life. It would be turned on at will, in the process making me jump up from my cushy chair. All, I began to imagine, to ensure sure that I would not get any sleep. Oh, and I forgot that the air conditioning in the VIP lounge did not work!
Add to all this one loud, obnoxious woman who, when not holding court on a variety of subjects, played loud music on her cheap cell phone and a toilet door that slammed shut each time the ship rolled with a wave. I searched the lounge for a hidden camera wondering if this VIP lounge was not really a university lab, testing unknowing Bules (gringoes) like me for their tolerance levels. After all, Kupang is a university town. No wonder I was watched with such intensity whenever I went on the upper deck.
But I write all this to simply tell you that being ‘chief plugger’ is not what it appears to be – though I would not give up the position for anything else in the world.
PS. The bikes and bags were delivered to the hotel in Kupang before the cyclists arrived from the airport. Now for the East Timor visas…