Damn! I’ve turned into an ‘old timer’. I didn’t plan it that way when I left Australia in 1977. The plan was to travel overland to the UK on the hippie trail – on a budget. All I had was my rucksack, a white Akubra hat, my fiddle and $AUD1,000. That was enough, I figured, to get me to the UK where I was sure to find some work. Hmmm, fuzzy thinking at its best.
This was before Maggie Thatcher. England was in a slump. I didn’t know anyone there except an uncle I hadn’t seen since I was about 5 years old. But, hey, I was young, confident, and I had nothing else to do anyway.
I got as far as Bali on the first leg of my tour. Stayed there 3 months. That place is such a dream it was difficult to get up and keep going. I stayed at a Losmen in Legian for less than a dollar a day, breakfast included. Finally, I realized it was time to get back on the road. Jumped on a bus to Jogjakarta and stayed there for a few days. That was interesting. I even managed to meet one of the royal princes, an artist. He was a wonderful man, an artist of some repute. He showed me around his palace and invited me to a sumptuous feast one night. Going from his palace to my pokey little room was a bit disconcerting. But there was nothing holding me in that delightful town, so I jumped on a train to Jakarta.
Arriving in the city I was overwhelmed by the crowds, noise and pollution. Jakarta was definitely the last place I wanted to stay. So I spent a few days going around the shipping offices trying to find a ship to take me to Sumatra or Penang. No luck. I’d just missed one. I would have to wait at least 2 weeks for the next one. So I jumped on a plane and an hour later got off in Panang, Sumatra.
Panang was a small town with nothing to recommend it. By this time I had been on the road long enough to keep meeting the same travelers. They all kept saying head for Lake Toba. So my mate Ben and I went to the bus station. Ben was a fellow Aussie, a real adventurer. He’d spent 12 months in the Papua New Guinea highlands studying a tribe that had only recently given up eating ‘long pig’. Ben was an anthropologist. He told me tales of how those people lived that made shivers run up my spine. They were real stone-agers. He’d seen them take their spears and go out to make war on some neighbors in the next valley. Their rituals were about as primitive as you could wish. They surrounded themselves with taboos, superstition, and fear. It all made for a brilliant thesis for his PhD. This trip was his reward to himself for staying the course there.
Ben and I had got together in Bali because he played a 12-string guitar. We started jamming together and soon started putting a repertoire of songs together. The plan was to find work on our travels in hotels and nightclubs.
As we were waiting for the bus to Lake Toba a bunch of kids surrounded us. They kept asking us to play some music for them. So Ben and I took out our instruments, climbed up on the veranda of a building for a makeshift stage, and started entertaining our new young friends. Before long, the crowd grew to over 100 people. We played until the bus was ready to go. As we drove off our audience cheered and clapped us on our way.
Indonesian buses back then were primitive and crowded. We had chickens in the aisle, narrow cramped seats, and drunks up the back. Of course, when they saw that we had our instruments with us we were invited to join them. Since we could stretch our legs in the back seat I decided what the heck? Ben stayed where he was and tried to sleep.
Can you imagine being squashed between a very drunk Sumatran Batak Frank Sinatra on one side and Dean Martin on the other? There we were at midnight, drunk out of our skulls on the local brandy (pretty good stuff), singing ‘Come fly with me’, ‘Strangers in the night’, ‘I did it my way’, and so on. They only knew half the words, and even then they were so drunk they slurred them. But it was all good fun and eventually we managed to get some sleep before we arrived at Lake Toba, home of the Batak tribe.
The Bataks were headhunters 100 years before we arrived. They lived in longhouses, sometimes as many as 20 families all in together. The longhouses were still there, but by the time we arrived they were just tourist attractions.
Somewhere along the line some Christian missionaries had arrived and managed to talk the Bataks out of hunting heads. They all became Christians instead.
That reminds me of the missionary who was placed in the cannibals cooking pot, but they couldn’t make a fire under him. Thinking to impress them with White Man’s magic and hopefully get out of his predicament, he whipped out his Zippo lighter and flicked it into flame. “Oooh!” They all exclaimed. Obviously, they were impressed. He said to the chief, “You’ve never seen white man’s magic before, eh?” The chief replied, “Nah! We’ve all seen a Zippo before. We’ve just never seen one that lit up first try!”
Lake Toba had a few Losmens around the shore at very reasonable rates, so Ben and I checked in and spent our time swimming in the crystal clear lake waters, or sitting on the veranda playing music. Time drifted past in a smoky haze until one day I remembered to check my visa situation. Time to go. I had 24 hours to get out of Indonesia! Ben and I arranged to meet in Penang. I jumped on a bus, and a few hours later I was in Medan where I booked a plane to Penang the next morning. One night in Medan was probably enough. It was a picturesque town. The night market was good and I found a great little restaurant to while away the evening watching the crowds swirl past while I sucked on a few Tiger beers. There wasn’t much else to recommend Medan that I can remember.
The next morning I landed in Penang, where I had gone to high school back in the early 1960’s. Penang hadn’t changed much by then. The cross channel bridge hadn’t been built, the industrial sector in the southeast was only just getting started. I headed for Chulia Street and stayed at the Swiss Inn my first night. I moved the next morning after waking up at about 3 am to a loud ruckus going on up the hall. The security guard had found a dead Brit with a needle stuck in his arm. Apparently, he’d died 3 days earlier but no one had noticed until the people in the room next door complained to management about a bad smell.
Ben and I met up a few days later and we jumped on a train to Haad Yai, and then a bus to Phuket. We headed for Nai Harn beach. What a dump. The beach was lined with bamboo shacks I wouldn’t have kept a dog in. But that was ok, because the less-than-dog junkies were all staying in them. Ben and I headed around the headland to a beautiful little bay called Ao Sane where we hired a couple of huts on the side of the hill. From our verandas we had sweeping views of the ocean and the offshore islands. I spent days snorkeling among the coral reefs just a few yards offshore. At nights Ben and I would head halfway around the headland to a small restaurant that catered to backpackers. We’d sit there overlooking the moonlit ocean, devouring heavenly Thai food, talking with other travelers, and jamming with any other musicians who turned up.
Eventually, we had to head for Bangkok where we checked into the Malaysia Hotel. In those days it was the place to go. There weren’t many others anyway. By then, we were ready to go out and party, so we headed for Patpong, the only place in town. We stumbled from bar to bar in our quest. There weren’t that many. Finally, we ended up in the Mississippi Queen. What a place!
The girls wore knee high boots, making it look like their legs went up to their armpits. I sat at the bar and just ogled for hours. By the end of the night Ben and I had chosen a couple of lovelies and we headed off for a night of carnal knowledge.
We returned night after night and got to know the girls pretty well. A couple of nights after we arrived a girl handed me a cigarette. I wasn’t thinking through all the beer and took a deep drag, as I was wont to do. About 10 minutes later I started feeling distinctly interesting. I asked the girl what was in the cigarette and she told me it was heroin. The feeling was pleasant, but when I found out later on that I couldn’t get it up, I decided there was no way I would ever touch that stuff again! After all, I was in Bangkok to enjoy the women. What’s the point of smoking something that stops you having all that fun? We found out that most of the girls were hooked on it. From then on we were very careful. We sure didn’t want to end up in the Bangkok Hilton.
By this time, Ben and I had put together a good collection of songs, so we decided to head for the Philippines where we heard music was a way of life. There had to be some work there for us. We jumped on a plane and arrived in stinking, hot, noisy, crowded Manilla.