Exploring Madura's Backroads
Originally published in Venture Magazine, April 2011
It is 8am and Surabaya’s morning rush hour is going at full tilt. A turbulent maelstrom of bikes, bemos, buses and SUVs is grinding through the heart of the gargantuan East Java capital, Indonesia’s second largest city. I, astride my motorbike, am in the thick of it, and I’m looking for a way out. Fortunately I know exactly where to find one.
I weave between the wobbling commuters and head north along hectic streets. Soon I’m riding along a new highway. Two years ago this was a road to nowhere, petering out amongst the fishponds and kampungs, but now it’s a mainline to fresh air and green fields.
The Suramadu Bridge rises ahead, a great hump of concrete and reinforced steel vaulting across a five-kilometer-wide channel. I pause at the toll gate to hand over the Rp3000 fee, and then hit the throttle and blaze across the spans. To the left an expanse of pale water opens. I can see the great fleets of cargo ships at anchor off Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak port. The sky arcs overhead; I cross the apex of the bridge, the breeze whistling in the orange suspension cables, and drop down into Madura.
I whizz past the ranks of new gift stalls that line the approach road, make a U-turn to access a little side lane I discovered on my last visit, and am soon riding through rice fields. Glossy banana plants line the ditches and ranks of palms and bamboo march towards the distant ridge of limestone hills. The air is clean and full of the smells of fresh vegetation.
Beyond a small village in a shady grove of trees I park my bike at the roadside and scramble up a steep rise to the top of a stony outcrop where I sit back in the rough grass and breathe deeply. Insects whistle softly and birds are singing. A warm breeze carries with it a whiff of salt and freshly tilled soil, and green treetops expand in all directions around me. There is not another human being in sight. I smile and glance at my watch – 9.30am. Only an hour and a half has passed, but I am already deep in Madura’s tranquil countryside, and Surabaya is nothing but a distant smoggy smudge on the southwest horizon…
I first visited Madura more than four years ago. I was living and working in neighboring Surabaya at the time and it seemed like an obvious place for an out-of-town weekend adventure by motorbike. It was only when I told my Indonesian friends and colleagues my plan that I learnt about Madura’s atrocious reputation.
The island is Java’s closest neighbor, a 140 kilometer-long hulk of low hills, forests and fields riding offshore like a ship at anchor, but no other place in Indonesia has such a negative reputation. According to my friends Madura was hot, dirty and disgusting. The local specialties sate (miniature kebabs) and the soto (hearty soup) were tasty, but those were the only things that counted in its favor. The Madurese people, they said, were rough, rude, aggressive, and quite possibly dangerous. I’d be lucky if I made it back in one piece.
When I discovered that none of them had actually been to Madura, I was all the more determined to go and see for myself. And how glad I was that I hadn’t listened to the slanderous stories! I soon discovered that Madura was a beautiful island, a tranquil retreat from big city chaos, and a place where sandy back-roads through the palm trees led to deserted beaches. As for the local people, they were warmly welcoming and full of humor. The only thing my friends in Surabaya had been right about was the sate and the soto – they were delicious!
Before long this much-maligned island was my first choice for an escape whenever the heat and noise of Surabaya wore me down. I would ride my motorbike to the Tanjung Perak port, drive aboard the rusting car ferry to Kamal, and then blaze away for a weekend of exploring.
I tried to convince other people that they should cross the Madura Strait and see for themselves, but no one would listen. Negative prejudices about the place run deep in Java, where rebel princes and mercenary armies from Madura caused headaches for the rulers of the ancient Majapahit and Mataram kingdoms, and where Madurese migrant workers in modern cities are often viewed with suspicion.
But now it has become a whole lot easier to reach Madura, and for the first time a few other inquisitive explorers are discovering the truth about this misunderstood island…
On 10 June 2009 the monumental Suramadu opened to traffic. Long planned, long delayed, and costing Rp4.7 trillion, it is the first major interisland bridge in Indonesia and a feat of engineering to boggle the mind.
The idea behind the bridge was to boost the economy in Madura, but the bridge has had another side effect. There is no more waiting at the ferry port, no more traffic jams; getting to Madura is suddenly quick and easy, and inquisitive Surabaya residents and travelers from further afield are starting to visit. Most don’t get much further than the end of the bridge where a mass of souvenir stalls and cafes has sprung up to serve this unexpected tourist trade, but there’s a whole island waiting to be discovered.
My own favorite Madura journey – one that I repeat whenever I get the chance – is a full circuit of the island. I ride first along the main southern road through the towns of Sampang and Pamekasan. In the dry season the countryside takes on an ochre-tinted dustiness, but after the rains it is overwhelmingly green. The road passes through open, airy forest, winds over the knuckles of the limestone hills, and bends along the stony foreshore.
The best place to be based for an exploration of Madura is its most easterly town, Sumenep. People in Java will tell you that the Madurese are uncultured and crude, but this little royal city is a refined, charming and friendly place. It was once the seat of a Sultan, and is home to a kraton, a palace, the last one still standing in East Java Province (of which Madura is a part). There are Dutch-era villas in the backstreets, a mosque with the most striking and unusual gateway I’ve ever seen (it looks like a pyramid of yellow and white icing), bustling covered markets, and a hilltop royal graveyard full of sacred tombs. The whole place has a sleepy charm, with the rattle of the becak (pedicab) still ruling over the roar of the motorbike once you leave the main roads.
But it is the countryside beyond Sumenep that shows Madura at its very best. Tobacco fields and dense forest give way to sprawling stands of palm trees and the road finally stutters to a stop at a huge, empty expanse of yellow sand backing a blinding blue ocean. This is Lombang Beach. On the weekends families from Sumenep drive out to drink fresh coconut juice and to dip a tentative toe in the ocean, but on a weekday you’ll have the place to yourself.
Beyond the beach the countryside is wilder and more rugged with stony fields running right down to the shore. This part of Madura looks more like the Mediterranean than Indonesia, and as I travel along the bumpy lanes here I can sometimes imagine that I’m on some sun-bleached Greek island.
There’s softer countryside and another beach at Slopeng, due north of Sumenep, and villages hidden in the trees where they still make traditional carved masks for wayang topeng dance performances. This is where some of the very best pieces on sale in craft shops in Bali and Yogyakarta are made.
I love to ride my bike along this north coast road, past fishing villages with brightly painted boats jostling in narrow inlets, empty beaches and white-walled settlements where they make fine batik. Eventually the hills on the left fall back to wider, broader rice fields with pale mosques standing knee-deep in the greenery, and the road turns south through Bangkalan, the main town in western Madura. And from there it’s just a short hop back to the bridge.
I’ve been doing my best to champion Madura as a travel destination ever since my first visit. It’s always been a hard sell, but thanks to Suramadu’s bridge over troubled waters there’s no longer any excuse not to make the journey along the island’s unbeaten tracks to empty beaches, quiet corners and warm welcomes. One day soon the world might catch on to Madura’s potential as a travel destination; you might want to get there first, before everyone else…
Today I have no time to make the journey east to Sumenep. This is just a spur-of-the-moment coming up for air, of the kind I’ve often been making since Suramadu opened. I scramble back down the hillside and climb back into the saddle, passing on through more shady villages and open fields where farmers are plowing with yoked brown cows, and then turning back onto the broad approach road to the bridge. But before I pay the toll and return to traffic jams and diesel fumes I have one more stop to make. It’s 11.30am, almost lunchtime, so I pull over at a roadside warung for a bowl of soto – it is delicious, after all…
© Tim Hannigan 2011