TRAVEL / Fowl play in Payakumbuh: Duck racing is the unique sport of West Sumatra. Sue Nelson joined the spectators

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The Independent Culture
THE PRACTICE race took everyone by surprise. Motorised and horse-drawn transport had been banned from the street, but a large part of the audience still stood nonchalantly on the track. Suddenly a burst of distorted commentary exploded from a loudspeaker. The crowd turned, gasped and - appropriately - ducked as seven low-flying competitors flapped overhead.

In Indonesia, duck flying races are unique to the people of Payakumbuh in West Sumatra. The races, which are held in different parts of the province by turn, sometimes take place in rice fields. On other occasions, as in Payakumbuh, a long straight street will suffice.

By 2pm virtually the whole town lined the main street. Young boys carried ducks by the scruff, legs or with a beak wedged under an armpit. Stalls sold souvenir stuffed frogs and 'specific cookies' - sticky, honeyed strands of glutinous rice. Nearer the market, sticks of skewered chicken smouldered over coals and Indonesians enjoyed kopi susu, coffee with milk, a strong, sweetened, layered concoction. Rainbow-striped canopies with seating underneath had been erected on the roadside to offer respite from the equatorial sun. A foreboding leaden cloud loomed behind a traditional horned roof. Although the Indonesian archipelago has two seasons - wet and dry - Sumatra's seasons are often cynically referred to as wet and wet. An umbrella serves two purposes: to prevent a scorching or a soaking.

The races are thought to have originated when duck 'shepherds', after noticing so few of the birds airborne, decided to train them to fly and eventually race them. Training follows a specific routine - and there are some basic entry requirements. All competing ducks, for example, must be local, female and aged between four and six months. More important, they must not be able to fly.

Getting the duck to use its wings is a pretty straightforward affair: it is simply thrown into the air until it flies. As there are different categories of races, from 600m to 2,000m, flying distances are gradually increased until the 'jockey' decides which is the duck's optimum class. During this training programme the duck is carefully fed and watered, bathed every three days - and allowed to sunbathe for two hours each morning before being returned to its cage.

Three days before the event, the pampering ends and the duck is put on a diet. Finally, on the morning of the race, the streamlined, feathered athlete is brought to the track. The ducks are shown both the starting and finishing positions; not only is the race held in the air, but the winner must land exactly in the right place. How the duck works this out is impossible to know, because the 'line' is not marked in any way. While contestants memorise landing spots, punters identify their favourites by the adhesive number on each bill.

The afternoon's races began when pupils from a local school performed a traditional welcome. A line of living costume dolls, accompanied by a small troupe of musicians, presented fragrant sirih leaves, for chewing, to each guest. Eventually the gentle clangs of gamelans and lute-shaped bamboo angklungs were replaced by the approaching sounds of drums and pianikas, like miniature pianos.

American-style majorettes, wearing sarongs from the waist down, flourished and twirled batons. Flagholders (too graceful to be truly American) exchanged their canary yellow banners for matching feather-tipped fans. The procession continued with marching Boy Scouts proudly carrying the national flag. Water buffalo pulled carriages and jockeys held ducks aloft for all to see. One of the audience pointed out a group of men wearing loose white suits. 'You will soon see a demonstration of silat,' he said. 'Do you know what it is?'

I ventured a guess. 'Is it like karate?'

'Not quite,' he replied. 'It is a traditional form of self-defence but it also utilises the power and concentration of the mind. Would you like to see for yourself?'

How could I refuse? The man excused himself and to my surprise walked into the centre of the main street on the baize carpet in front of the important officials. From the way everyone bowed, he was obviously the silat teacher. He stood silently for a few seconds until one of his pupils ran up to him, fists clenched. One by one they all attempted to attack him with hands, feet or kiris, a ceremonial dagger. But within a few inches of contact each attacker screamed, froze and then retreated in an apparent frenzy. Weapons were dropped and pupils growled and spat until 'released' by a touch and mumbled words from their master.

Initially I dismissed the demonstration as a fervent case of overacting. But then it became disconcerting as one man, face contorted in agony, smashed into the honourable guests. Afterwards he looked momentarily confused as if awoken from a trance. I felt a mixture of fear, fascination and incomprehension.

'What's happening? What's happening?'

A voice from the crowd answered me.

'The teacher has power inside. His pupils cannot harm him.'

It was time to see whether this power extended to others: the teacher beckoned me to join him for the next part of the demonstration. 'Just stand perfectly still and don't be afraid. You will not be hurt,' he assured me. He then rubbed my arms, muttering to himself, and left me standing alone and apprehensive, eyes screwed shut. A tingling sensation emanated from the centre of my body. No one made a sound. Seconds later war cries reverberated around me. My body stiffened nervously.

'Relax,' the teacher crooned, so I opened my eyes and watched a large curved sword clatter to the ground. It distantly occurred to me that I had just been attacked with a lethal weapon. Afterwards young boys tentatively approached with questions. 'Do you believe in the supernatural? How did you feel?' My answers disappointed them: 'Maybe' and 'Safe'.

With the parades and demonstrations over, the races began. Jockeys hurled ducks into the air and the crowd cheered, laughed and dodged the quacking contestants. It was truly a hilarious sight - especially when one duck either lost its memory or interest, landed halfway along the track and waddled nonchalantly into the shady gardens of a nearby bank.

But after the races, what next? There may be fame, a trophy and a portable television for the winning jockey - but what about the competitors? Do they become one of the many chilli-laden dishes that constitute the region's Padang-style food? 'Oh no,' laughed one jockey. 'These are special ducks.'-

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: The nearest airport to Payakumbuh is Padang. Fly to Padang via Jakarta with Garuda, the Indonesian national airline, from pounds 669 return (book with Indonesian Express, 071-491 4469). Fly via Singapore with Trailfinders (071-938 3366); return flight to Singapore from pounds 377, return from Singapore to Padang from pounds 133. From Padang there is a bus to Payakumbuh - fare around pounds 10.

TOUR OPERATORS: Indonesian Express (071-491 4469) specialises in tailormade trips. Exodus Expeditions (081-673 0859) runs two tours to the area. Explore Worldwide's (0252 319448) Tribal Sumatra tour features day treks in mountains and forest, 15 days from pounds 1,045.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourist office at the Indonesian Embassy, 38 Grosvenor Square, London W1X 9LL (071-499 7661), open from 10am-1pm, Mon-Fri. Dates and times of this year's duck races from Zurni Boer, Government Tourism Information, 31 Jalan Olah Raga, Payakumbuh, West Sumatra, Indonesia (010 62 0752 92907).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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