Robert Plant’s Lemon Juice: surviving the Trans-Sumatra Highway (Sumatra to Java overland)

Sumatra to Java overland: view of Gunung Kerinci (Mt Kerinci), Sumatra

A view of Gunung Kerinci (Mt Kerinci) across the tea plantations, West Sumatra: the best thing about my journey to Jakarta!

I flopped into a chair and ordered a plate of nasi goreng and a bottle of Bintang, now running on empty and entirely on autopilot. The nasi goreng was to satiate my hunger, the beer to celebrate my having survived the Trans-Sumatra Highway; it was hot and humid even in the small hours, and as I sipped the deliciously cold beer my faraway eyes were drawn to the TV screen, a DVD of live concert footage of Led Zeppelin in the 1970s (I think it was this one), Robert Plant exhorting me to squeeze his lemon, to squeeze it until his juice ran down his leg…

It was my second visit to Sumatra, but now I was making my way to other parts of Indonesia for the first time and I’d just spent some 36 hours or so travelling from Sumatra to Java overland, from Sungai Penuh in Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, mostly on a banged-out old clapper of a bus flagged down on the Trans-Sumatra Highway (following a long initial minivan ride to the highway!) – and that was after the previous day’s 10-hour journey from Bukittinggi to Sungai Penuh (with a change of minivans in Padang). Exhausting stuff by its very nature, but made even more so when you’re fearing for your life the entire time! Finally arriving in Jakarta at 2 in the morning, I dumped my shit in a cheap hotel and stumbled down the road like a weary seadog finally back on dry land, or maybe more like a good old-fashioned zombie. A hungry zombie, looking for some quick food before finally collapsing into bed.

The National monument in Jakarta


The first day’s minivans from Bukittinggi to Sungai Penuh had been reasonably pleasant (bar a lot of faffing around changing vans in the city of Padang), with some cracking scenery including views in Kerinci Seblat park of Gunung Kerinci (Mt Kerinci, Sumatra’s highest) and the tea plantations surrounding it (I detoured off the Trans-Sumatra Highway in order to visit the park, but really it needed a longer stay to be worth it). But seriously, that highway bus ride down to Jakarta on days 2 & 3 was absolutely ridiculous. There was only one driver, one driver the whole way from Bangko (at least, I think that’s where I switched to the highway bus) to Jakarta, and I think the bus had actually originated in Padang (or perhaps even further north than that), and I think he’d been the only driver from there too, meaning that same one guy drove, singlehanded, for at least 30-something hours with just three 90-minute meal breaks per day – breaks during which I observed him nailing a plate of food and then power-napping for an hour, running to the prayer room to quickly pray (for our survival?), and then calling everyone to board again.

Jakarta's skyline as seen from the National Monument

The Jakarta skyline

As if that wasn’t mental enough, the Trans-Sumatra Highway is a real mountain roller coaster in places and our man had a penchant for overtaking logging trucks on blind corners, pulling back in just in time to avoid a head on smash by a whisker – but not before I’d soiled my pants (again).

How he achieved this feat of endurance without killing us all, I will never understand. The one enjoyable bit of this Sumatra to Java overland slog was the ferry crossing, when I passed out for a couple of blissful hours in one of the deck chairs out on deck under the stars, the only useful sleep I could snatch on that terrifying journey.

A group of Indonesian tourists I chatted to in Jakarta

A group of Indonesian lads (tourists from Sulawesi) who stopped for a chat in Jakarta

So there I finally was in this cheap restaurant in Jakarta, a decent plate of food before me, a decent beer in my hand, deliriously tired but alive; I devoured my nasi goreng in short order and all I wanted was to go to bed… and yet I was utterly transfixed by the TV screen, rooted to my seat. Led Zeppelin cast a spell on me from four decades in the past, and I was mesmerised. Somehow, I’d never really seen or heard any of their live recordings before, never appreciated how god damn fucking tight they were, with how much heart and soul they played the blues:

…or how seriously fucking incredible Bonham’s drumming really was:

…but what the fuck was Plant on about with all the lemons, anyway? Actually, it’s a lyric borrowed from the one and only Robert Johnson, one which Plant loved to use:

Seems strange to say it now, especially as I was and am so into both heavy rock and the blues; but for some reason, Led Zeppelin had never really blown me away before. I guess I’d never listened to their stuff closely enough, perhaps due to the familiarity one automatically has with their more famous (and, Stairway aside, imo generally less interesting) numbers.

Well, they blew me away that night and I finally saw the error of my ways. I sat through the whole DVD, knocking back a few more Bintangs, and eventually staggered to bed at perhaps 4am. I then proceeded to sleep all day, only stirring in the evening when hunger roused me to head out into Jakarta’s bedlam. And over the following days and weeks I worked my way through Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, devouring it as I’d devoured that nasi goreng.

Thinking about it, I suppose I would always have eventually realised how awesome Led Zeppelin were; their brilliance would have demanded it. But we often attach certain songs, albums, and bands to episodes and periods in our lives (and I personally find this to be especially true during periods of travel), and I love the way that now, thanks to the way I really got into Led Zeppelin for the first time, whenever I hear Robert Plant singing about his lemon juice it transports me back to a 3am plate of nasi goreng in Jakarta, back to that feeling of exhausted relief at having survived the Trans-Sumatra Highway in between seeing the many wonders of Sumatra and Java.

Any thoughts or questions on either Led Zeppelin or the Trans-Sumatra Highway? Leave a comment below!

For more Indonesia posts, click here

Also see my Indonesia overland travel guide

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