School Study Tour to Lombok and Sumatra

Today I have something different to share with you all, I asked the wonderfully inspiring Mbak Caroline Hall, Indonesian teacher at Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College to share her school’s adventures of their latest school study tour to Lombok and Sumatra, Indonesia.

Take it over Mbak Caroline…

Hi, I’m Caroline. I’ve been teaching Indonesian for about 15 years and am currently at an all-girls state school in Geelong, and I’ve just come back from taking a group of students to Indonesia.

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I don’t know if it’s dedication or just a tenuous grasp on reality that saw me, with 16 teenage girls, heading off for 18 days in Indonesia. Other brave – or foolhardy – souls who were kind enough to come too were Ross (who kicked off his Indonesian learning this year and is doing a damn fine job), Jeremy (stepping in two weeks before departure to replace another staff member, because why not have a bit more stress?) and Bridget (a pre-service teacher who replaced a student who dropped out). I like to call it the dream team; you’ve got Ross, the tall, distinguished-looking chap, who is there to accept the respect; Jeremy, the Outdoor Ed teacher who is super-useful; Bridget the pre-service teacher (aka the energizer bunny), who just never stops being positive no matter what, and speaks Indonesian; and me, the short woman with strange hair that people are surprised to learn is in charge. Having a pre-service teacher along meant that we probably had more staff than we needed, but it was a great range of talents and very helpful for the different situations we were going to find ourselves in.

The first stop was a week at our sister school – SMAN 1, Mataram. This was our third visit since the ‘travel ban’ was successfully challenged in 2011 and we regularly host SMANSA students in Australia, along with other schools in the Geelong area. While we’re talking about traveling. You must be wondering how I managed to get a load of enthusiastic teenagers abroad? At the moment, there’s a massive myth that parents don’t answer the phone popping around in US schools, which, let me tell you now – is totally false. They love a call once in a while from their teachers! So… there’s your answer, keep up consistent communication.

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Our girls were a mix of nervous and excited at the prospect of a week with an Indonesian family, but the hospitality and kindness of their hosts prevailed over the nerves. For some girls it was their second time visiting and their former hosts were very excited to see them again.
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The school is always very welcoming and the girls had to get used to being treated as rock stars.
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The girls repaid their kindness by getting them to try Vegemite. It went about as well as you’d expect.
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We spent nine days in Lombok, going to school most days (including Sunday!), with day trips to Tanjung Aan and Sendang Gile waterfall in between. Lombok is gorgeous and it hasn’t been overrun by tourists yet, which is very nice!
CH blog post pic #7The Sunday consisted of celebrating SMANSA’s anniversary – it was a strange experience to stroll around Mataram’s usually busy streets with 1 000 other people.

Challenges during the homestay phase involved homesickness, students not drinking enough water, and some tummy upsets. Communication between staff and students in homestay wasn’t a big problem – most of the girls got local sim cards and jumped on various free apps to communicate when they had internet. Really, the biggest problem was the ease of communication, particularly how easily students can communicate with home! When a student messages you in the night that she’s spewed a few times and you tell her to stay hydrated and keep you updated, you don’t really expect the next message she sends to be one home, telling them she’s really sick and is going to hospital. Of course her parents didn’t hear ‘I’m tired, I feel sick and I just want some attention’, they heard ‘I’m halfway across the world and I’m dying’. For the record, she wasn’t going to hospital, she just needed re-hydration and after about eight hours (and a lot of me ordering her to ‘SIP THE Hydralyte! DO IT AGAIN. AGAIN!’ and she was fine. So #1 bit of advice – really drum home to students that how they communicate has a huge impact on their families!

Crisis over, the rest of the team enjoyed playing sport (in the heat, the brave souls!) and eating the mangoes that regularly drop out of the trees.

Language was a challenge that the girls faced in a range of ways. The ones who got the most out of it were the girls who had a go and weren’t worried about getting it wrong. Others were more reticent to use their language and their host sisters were very happy to practice their English. Luckily (from my perspective, if not the girls’!), most of the host parents had limited English and the girls really had to step up.

Another challenge was bonding a group of girls from Year 9 to 11, from a wide range of social groups. This is where Bridget came in really handy. She needed to do a project for Uni, so decided that teaching the group a Tari Saman would be a good idea. And it was! It gave the girls a reason to get together before we left, practicing it at SMANSA gave them something to focus on (and time out from the classroom when they needed it) and it gave us something to perform at the farewell party. Except we hadn’t counted on the school’s anniversary! Next thing you know, instead of performing in front of twenty-odd host families, we were at Mataram’s new mall, in front of two to three hundred strangers!

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Everyone quietly panicking together is a great team-building activity!

Because we run a trip to Indonesia every two years, I like to do something else as well as Lombok, as incentive for students to go on more than one trip. We’ve done study tours to Lombok and Bali and Lombok and Yogyakarta, but this time I wanted to go a little more adventurous.

I was a bit worried about how the burning season would affect us flying into Sumatra (apparently a lot of small airports weren’t able to get planes to land), but Medan’s huge new airport was able to handle the haze easily. The smoke was annoying, but didn’t interfere with our activities too much.

We exhausted the team by leaving Mataram at 4:00am, so when we arrived they were more than happy to hang out at the hotel, swim and team up to halve the size of our luggage (you should see the amount of stuff they managed to pack!!). I always worry a bit when we’re in an area where students might be tempted to sneak out and be naughty. A method of overcoming this – which I don’t recommend – is to have a student get her bag snatched about 20 metres away from the hotel. She was with the male staff members and it was the middle of the afternoon – the right time of day to be complacent. Three blokes on two motorbikes watched her, waited until the right moment then swooped in and snatched her little souvenir-Lombok bag right off her. It was the best-case worst-case scenario – her passport was in the hotel safe, her phone was in her hand and the only thing in her bag was cash. Ross and I got to spend far too long at the police station (it was like stepping back into the 70s – everyone smokes and women are invisible!), but at least the girls took our safety precautions very seriously after that. And sneaking out? Not on your life!!

Our first stop after getting out of Medan and driving through endless palm oil plantations was Tangkahan. It’s a really beautiful area and is only about five hours out of Medan. A former logging village, they’ve turned it around with elephants and eco-tourism. Again, we came up with an innovative way to keep the group from wandering off – a scary bridge!

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The accommodation was really basic, which I think is good for the students to experience (although the 4am rat that visited us and ate Bridget’s beng-beng chocolate bar during a blackout tried to make me change my mind).

I’m not usually a fan of elephant riding, but here at least it serves a purpose and the elephants seem happy and well taken care of. The flow-on effect is worth it – the elephants are useful, the jungle is valued and it’s good for the local economy. However, I would like to know if this guy likes his job…

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Either the whole town has tricked him into thinking he’s doing an important job, or they really do need to clean out the elephants before taking them to the river if they want to keep the paths and water clean…

If you don’t want to ride an elephant, you can visit the Conservation Response Unit to see the elephants (and the new babies!!), buy some merchandise and help wash the elephants. They will try to wash you back, though…

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The girls rated the elephants as a highlight of the trip and it was great to hear them talking about what they’ve learned and how eco-tourism can have a positive impact on an area.

Next stop was Bukit Lawang. In the lead up to departure, the team did a lot of fundraising. Their efforts were worth it and I’m proud to say that we raised $1 500 to donate to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (I got in touch with them via The Orangutan Project, who were very helpful). We had to deal with another scary bridge…

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…but it was worth it to get to Bukit Lawang (even if we had to deal with another day with no WiFi, oh no!). I was very proud of our girls as they presented a ‘cheque’ to Diana from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. If you’re interested in helping too, check out the Official Orangutan Foundation International.

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The next morning we got to see what it was all for, when we went wandering through the jungle to see if we could spot some orangutans. I’d been assuming we’d go to the feeding platform, but we bypassed that entirely and hoped for the best. I was a bit worried we’d run into Mina, an orangutan I’d met a few years ago, who had a bad attitude and a penchant for chasing people. Luckily, we didn’t meet her, but for a while I was a bit worried we wouldn’t meet any of her friends. I hoped that the girls would be happy with Mina’s cousins…

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…but I needn’t have worried. We were sweating and avoiding giant ants, when suddenly – orangutans!

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There were two babies who spent all the time beating each other up – we almost died from the adorableness of it all! Gibbons mocked us in the background, so (and this is where having ‘extra’ staff comes in handy) we split the group. The hardy ones pressed on to go gibbon hunting, while the ones who were left sat quietly and were rewarded with orangutans coming down to just a few metres away to check out the bule.

Those of us who pressed on couldn’t see a thing, even when the ranger pointed the gibbon out. It was loud and almost invisible, but eventually we spotted it!

I’d happily stay there for a month, but we only had a short time, so we stormed onwards. Next stop was Berastagi. The main reason for going to Berastagi is that it’s a convenient half-way point between Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba, but it is a very pretty town with two volcanoes nearby.

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I’ve climbed Sibayak before and wasn’t confident enough in the safety measures required to let students climb it. Sinabung decided to erupt recently and kept laying down a layer of ash, so it wouldn’t have been the best experience for them anyway. Brave souls, both of them, Jeremy and Bridget left at 4am, climbed Sibayak and were back before some girls were even out of bed. They were covered in ash, but very satisfied with themselves. I was equally satisfied at the 4am supervision I provided, while tucked up in my warm bed (it’s actually cold at Berastagi, it’s glorious!).

Because I know my audience (and I saw how a brief visit to an Alfamart transformed them from tired zombies to excited pixies), the main activity we did with students at Berastagi was shopping. They’d gained enough confidence in Lombok that we set them free in the market (in groups of at least 4 and they had to have a working phone on them). It was great to hear their recounts of how they bargained – ‘BU! That roleplay we did in class happened in real life!’ ‘Oh my gosh, you should have seen Jacqui go, she got two bags for the price of one!’ ‘BU LOOK WHAT I GOT!’ The shopping isn’t even that great at Berastagi – you should see the damage a group of teenagers can do at a market in Bali!

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Then we stampeded on through the Karo Highlands, because I don’t care if you’re 15 and not interested now, one day you’ll look back on this and think ‘Gosh, wasn’t that cool!’ They were pretty knackered by this point, because we set a gruelling pace and, no matter how tired they are during the day, if you bunk kids down together, they’re going to spend half the night whispering and giggling together. Toba was the next stop for a couple of nights, to rest and recharge and also see some cool stuff.

On the way we stopped at a traditional house so the girls could see just how good they’ve got it (and try sirih if they were brave enough, but ew…)

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There was the compulsory photo stop and narsis station at the Sipisopiso waterfall – I swear we got more photos with domestic tourists there than in any other spot (Bridget even joined a boy-band!). It was probably because Idul Adha ( meant that there was a long weekend and everyone from Medan was bertamasya-ing all over the place.

We couldn’t really see Toba because of the haze, but we still pressed on. We stopped at the tribal kings’ house of the Simalungun Batak in Pematang Purba, because that’s what you do on the way to Samosir.

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Lake Toba and Samosir has the perfect temperature range – cool but not cold at night, and warm but not insanely hot during the day. And it’s beautiful!

Because we were a large group, it wasn’t practical to go around the island on a bus – plus, we were all over being on the bus (the girls were conditioned by this point to get on and fall asleep). Touring Samosir by boat was tough…

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Ambarita, with its megalithic execution tables was stop #1. We immediately executed at least one member of the group (bringing back 95% of the group is still an A, right?), and the girls managed to do more shopping.

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Next was Simanindo for a traditional Batak dance and weird puppet dude.

You can’t leave out Tomok and the kings’ tombs.

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Behind the tombs there are some cool little statues that I was eager to share with the group. I don’t really understand why it’s hidden behind a huge dump of rubble, but if you’re brave and don’t mind clambering over stuff, you can still find them.

The girls went shopping some more! If anyone tells you there is no ATM on Samosir, just head to Tomok and you’ll find one. Still, I’d recommend bringing money with you, because I wouldn’t want to rely on the only ATM on the island.

The biggest challenge here was that the girls felt too comfortable and at home at the hotel. This meant they’d do things like leave their valuables lying around the hotel while they went to breakfast or dinner – sadly (inevitably?) some skimming took place – it was a good lesson to learn, while not too much stuff got nicked.

The original itinerary had us going straight from Toba to the airport and home. However, because I’m a nervous-nelly, I decided that a night in Medan (and all its wonders) was safer. Seven hours on the road, three of them at a standstill while everyone tried to get back to Medan after the long weekend, it turned out that it was a smart idea. Smarter than OH&S standards for child transport, too.

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The girls were exhausted, but were up for one last stop on the way to the airport. They had the choice between the Sultan’s Palace and the Masjid Raya and they opted for the mosque. For many of them it was their first time in a mosque and they learned a lot.

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And that was that. We made it home in time for a few days of precious holidays before it was time to go back to school. Challenges there involve explaining to people that it wasn’t a ‘holiday’ and we weren’t ‘lucky’ – it was hard work, but absolutely worth it for staff and students alike.

Terima kasih banyak Mbak Caroline for sharing your Student Study Tour to Lombok and Sumatra!

Such a wonderful adventurous experience for your students!

Have you taken your students on a school study tour to Indonesia?

Where did you go and what were the highlights?

I’d love to hear about your adventures!

*NB: All photos are copyright Caroline Hall


  1. Nicole says

    Wow! So jealous! I loved Bukit Lawang, Danau Toba and Lombok (although it’s been a very long time since I was an exchange student at SMU2 Mataram!) – can’t beleive that you managed to squeeze in that many locations. What an adventure – can I come next time?? 🙂

    • indospired says

      I want to join Mbak Caroline’s school student study tour too! Such an awesome experience for secondary students! Definitely shows what fun we can have with our students while learning of course! 🙂

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