After a day off in Yogyakarta I could leave with something resembling a plan. I would head north to the other side of Java and follow the coastal road east towards Bali.
As the road headed north I could see Merapi looming to my left. My last visit to Yogykarta was in 2011, just a year after the volcano had exploded. I can’t remember why I went to visit it (I’d known that it was closed to the public) but I’d gone to check it out anyway. The park entrance was closed and neglected. Everything was dusty and I remember very clearly wiping a line clean in the ash layered across a swing in the national park entrance playground. It looked liked nobody had been there since the eruption. I had jumped over a locked gate and started hiking up the mountain along a trail. I didn’t walk very far but I did get high enough to get a glimpse through the trees of where the lava had burnt a hole through the jungle. A solid grey river had divided the trees on it’s way down to the low lands. It looked as if someone had emptied a giant bucket of cement from the top.
Now I was at a much safer distance, between Merapi and another mountain ‘Lawu’ which strutted out to my right. My original plan had been to climb the pass that goes over Lawu, but after the traffic jam ascent between Bagor and Bandung I decided to follow the village road that curls around the northern edge of the mountain.
The road was beautiful but a real workout. The gradients the village roads snake at are horrific in this country and awful on such a heavy bicycle. I’d made a good road choice though – Lawu was buried under thick clouds but the rice terraces stretching out around me were glowing in the sun.
In Madiun I stayed with Ammia & Geir (a Javanese/Norweigan couple) via Warmshowers. Geir was the first other white person I’ve seen in this country outside Jogya. They were in the process of moving (with their four year old daughter) to Norway. Can you imagine a greater culture shift? From the burning hot urban sprawl of an Indonesian town to a freezing cold village on the Norweigan coast. There could be a 40 degree jump there in winter – I’m not sure my body could handle that!
I was back on the main road eager to get across the island as fast as possible. I wasn’t just rushing for my visa, I was pushing on the main roads because I wanted to get somewhere quieter in this country. The longer I stay in Java the more likely it I’ll get run over on these ridiculous roads.
I’m cycling these places with my neck buff up over my face to save myself from the trucks’ black exhaust fumes. The air is so dirty my skin is layered in black grit by the end of the day. The other thing I really hate here is the litter. The Indonesians just chuck their rubbish everywhere. I don’t get it – they’re forever telling me how beautiful their country is and yet nobody seems bothered by the litter strewn all over the place.
But the people and their personalities make up for it. As I was stopping to take the above photo a guy pulled over on his motorbike and invited me to take a break at his fruit stall up the road where he loaded me up with free fruit – oranges, small brown lychees and snakeskin fruit. Shortly after I left another guy stopped me just to hand over a bottle of water before whizzing off.
In Jombang I stayed with Jennifer and her family. We headed out in the evening to the town square where everyone was out and about. It reminded me of Iran – people emerging at night to make the most of the cool air, eating small stall snacks and buying silly toys for their kids. I’ve come to the conclusion that Muslims need less sleep than the rest of the world. Morning call here is at 4am and yet they’re all hanging out way past my bedtime.
I really like the balance of faith in Indonesia (apart from not being able to buy beer anywhere). Some people are super conservative but others not religous at all. It seems like a very harmonious mix to me.
Unlike some countries, nobody ever questions me about my faith here. So I ask the questions and I stayed up chatting to Jennifer about her values. She wore the ‘normal’ hijab but her boyfriend had asked her to wear the longer one (which goes right over the chest). She told me that she wanted to wear it, but that people would judge her in the village if she did. Stick on a more conservative one and people will think ‘ooh – she’s gone a bit extreme’ but take it off and people will think ‘she’s gone a bit loose!’. I guess it’s not easy being a woman anywhere…
It was horribly hot along the northern coast. Mangrove forests lined the shore but so too did cactus plants. Everything looked very dry and I realised that it hasn’t rained a drop in a week now. That long rainy reason feels a lifetime ago already.
After those boring months seeing nothing but rubber trees and palm oil plantations those cash crops were finally a thing of the past. People were farming all sorts here and I discovered a new interest in what was growing around me. It’s mostly rice, but there are still patches of cassava fields and plenty of sugarcane too. Before I left Jombang I’d gone for a walk around the village with Jennifer’s father (an English teacher in a local school). There they could get four crops a year – rice, soya, peanuts and maize. Everything grows fast here.
More big mountains popped up to the south of me. Bromo’s peaks appeared – one of Java’s most iconic sights. I originally planned to cycle up there, but I’ve skipped it now as I’m short of time and I’ve been there before anyway. There are not many mountains I would have cyclde that high up to visit a second time, but Bromo is an incredible volcano. It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen last time here and even now that I’ve seen so much more of the world it remains one of the most breathtaking places. I fished out some of my old photos to remind myself what I was missing, and show you too:
Instead of Bromo I was going to climb up to Ijen Plateau (which I had skipped on my last visit). I left the coastal road and began my ascent inland. I reached Bondowoso as darkness fell and found a room for 55,000 (£3). I also stayed in a hotel in Sragen a few nights back and there I found a bed for 50,000. Accommodation is pretty cheap here if you find the right spots. The only downside? Mosquitoes. Just like everywhere. I haven’t seen a single mozzie net in this country. It’s as if they are trying to catch dengue or malaria. Surely no one is that desperate for a day off work? I either have to cover myself head to toe in DEET repellent or pitch my tent on the bed.
The climb to Ijen Plateau was brutal. One of the toughest days I’ve ever cycled. I left at dawn and made it to the top just before dark. 6.5 hours cycling to cover just 65km.
First the road began gentle, climbing through layered rice terraces and small villages. Then the fields turned into sugarcane before casuarina forest at 1,000m. The air was noticeably cooler already but my legs were burning on the steep road.
At 1,500m there’s a pass, before the road dips back down a few hundred meters. It’s no fun descending when you know you have to climb straight back up.
I stopped for a coffee – “Ijen Arabica” she proudly told me. The Indonesians cook the coffee in the water, so the drink is thick and leaves as layer of sludge at the bottom. I’ve grown to love it and the coffee from here is some of the most expensive Indonesian coffee.
The plateau was covered in coffee plantations. I have never seen that many coffee trees in my life.
There was one last big push to 1,900m and then it was finally over. My legs felt like jelly and I’d had to walk most of the last section. I pitched my tent at base camp (if you can call it that) and passed out in record time.
My alarm went off at 1am. I was wrapped up in my inner-liner and sleeping bag. I can’t have been less than 10C but it was the coldest I’ve been in many months. I remember being so excited when I had my first night above freezing temperature in China (for weeks I’d been down as low as -20C). I’d have considered a night like this boiling back then but now I was bloody freezing.
I pulled my fleece and down-jacket out from the bottom of my pannier (those have not been worn since Sapa in Northern Vietnam) and began the ascent to the crater summit. Yesterday had destroyed my thighs and now my calves were getting a real test as I hiked up in the dark. I needed more sleep to recover but still I was the fastest up the mountain.
Many tourists had arrived in cars to hike up for sunrise but I’d managed to beat the crowds and was all alone as I made my way down into the crater. It was eerie – pitch black but for the beams off head torches and the odd tourist hiking down with their face hidden behind a gas mask. Clouds of sulphur smoke floated up from the bottom from behind blue lights illuminated the thick air. Seeing the natural ‘blue fire’ is why we were all here in the middle of the night.
The miners were already at work. These guys walk down in the dark every morning to hack out chunks of the yellow sulphur. They carry an insane amount of weight all the way back to the crater lip and then down along the steep path to the road further down the mountain. One miner stopped me to ask for some water. I asked him how much he was carrying and he told me 90kg. I don’t quite believe that, but it’s certainly a crazy amount and one of the most strenuous jobs I’ve ever seen in action.
I declined a rented gas mask. I figured that if these miners could breath in the sulphur fumes all day whilst chain smoking their way up and down the mountain, then my super cyclist lungs could certainly handle it.
The fumes were nauseating at the bottom. Every now and then the smoke would blow in an unexpected direction and bury me in a cloud of sulphur fumes, leaving my lungs and eyes burning.
I made my way back up the crater and waited for sunrise shivering in my coat. Slowly the sun began to illuminate the world and for the first time I could see where I actually was. It was breathtaking….
You could see Bali in the distance, from where the sun was rising. I looked back to where I’d just hiked down – a huge turquoise lake sat at the bottom of a steep sided crater, with the peak just poking out from the higher clouds. It was extraordinary. I guess the pics can do the talking.
I hiked back down to camp, brewed a coffee and tightened my brakes while waiting for the morning sun to dry the dew from my tent.
The descent was even more insane than the climb up. Within about 30km I’d dropped from just under 2,000m to sea level. Good thing I tightened those brakes!
Bali was just across the water. I’d cycled over to the harbour and hoped on board the next passenger boat.
I have mixed feelings about Java. There were some very special moments on that island but overall it was a horrendous place to cycle. I am just happy to have made it off the other side still alive.
The pollution was awful, the traffic congested, the rubbish grim, the towns dirty and the drivers suicidal. Not a good place to be on a bicycle.
And yet – I still loved so much of that fortnight riding. The people were really wonderful to me, especially the cycling community who looked after me everywhere I went. I met some great people and made many friends along the way. Talking to so many people gave me a really good impression of what it’s like to live in Java.
There was one moment that I thought summed up my experience of Java perfectly. It was late one afternoon as I was on my way to an eastern city. The last of the sunlight was catching a long row of rice terraces and the light was bouncing beautifully between them. I stopped cycling to enjoy the view and cross the road to take a photo. The only problem was that I couldn’t get across. I waited and waited but the traffic was just too thick. I sighed and accepted defeat, watching through the stream of heavy traffic, keeping my camera in its bag. That moment right there – that was Java to me.