A Javanese Motorbike Odyssey
Originally Published in Asian Geographic Passport November 2011
Skeins of white mist swept across the road and the engine of my motorbike strained as I leant through another uphill bend. Below me a convoy of trucks was struggling through the switchbacks, and a troop of macaque monkeys watched lazily from the verge as I passed, their olive-grey fur beaded with dew. The steep slopes of the tea gardens faded into the cloud on either side.
I had set out from Jakarta at first light, and now, four hours later in a filling morning, I was approaching the symbolic starting point of my journey – the 1500 meter Puncak Pass, the portal to the great green uplands of Java. A few more hairpins, a few more stands of threadbare pine trees, and I reached the watershed. As I rode across it the weather changed instantly. The chilly mist cleared and a great bowl of green land opened below, the red-tiled roofs of villas and villages huddling under stands of dark trees, the raised beds of onion fields patching the hillsides, and the smooth blue strip of the road rolling away into a lost distance. I was relieved that my bike had survived the first steep ascent, but a shot of nervous excitement sparked in my belly.
Java is the green, temple-studded loadstone of Indonesia, a rough oblong of land swimming on its side under the equator, and held in place by a pair of huge urban anchors at either end of its muddy northern littoral – Jakarta in the west, Surabaya in the east. Over the coming week I would be exploring the wilder spaces between these monumental metropolises, choosing the byways over the highways, steering clear of big city gridlock, and plotting a course that followed the mountain spine of the island.
The bike I was riding was not some throbbing Harley or high caliber trail bike; it was a little 100cc Honda, the ubiquitous step-through run-around known in Indonesia as a bebek, or “duck”. What it lacked in horsepower it made up for in utility; more than 5 million of these bikes are sold in Indonesia every year. I had a map of Java clipped under the handlebars and a full tank of petrol. This was easy rider, Java style; it would be a 1450-kilometre odyssey of puddles, potholes and punctures.
Little more than 24 hours later I was already wondering why I had ever started out on such a big journey on such a little bike.
My first day’s ride from the heights of Puncak had been exactly what I had had in mind when first I pored over the maps. I had bowled through the green belly of the Preanger Highlands – a soft landscape under a lavender chiffon of haze, where busy, coffee-cultured streams cut through palm-clogged gorges – then banked north though blue-tinted pineapple fields across the flanks of the Tangkuban Prahu volcano, tracing my way through a web of back roads between stands of tall bamboo and villages where bone-white mosques stood alone in the rice fields. At dusk I had rolled into the old royal city of Cirebon, on the edge of the Java Sea, where I fell asleep in a cheap hotel with visions of empty roads unrolling before my eyes.
The following morning I wandered Cirebon’s faded royal palaces, places of old Dutch tile-work and cobwebby corners, and breakfasted on a spicy local specialty called nasi lengko, a refreshingly sour mix of steamed rice, fried tofu, beansprouts, soy sauce and chili. And then I set out east along the main coastal highway, passing inlets clotted with candy-cultured fishing boats, before branching steeply uphill into the mountains.
It had looked an appealing route on the map – a line cutting straight up the flanks of the main volcanic massif of Central Java to the upland fastness of Dieng – and at first it was. The rumbling trucks and gritty fumes of the highway were soon forgotten as I looped back and forth through stands of cool forest.
But then the road went to pieces. It was as if someone had simply peeled the tarmac away to leave nothing but a strip of jagged, football-sized rocks, rising at a near impossible angle. And so now here I was, wrestling with the shuddering handlebars as I edged upwards in first gear, fervently wishing I had a bigger bike. The engine screamed; an alarming smell of burning rubber rose, and to make matters worse, it started to rain.
It was already late afternoon, and I was making agonizingly slow progress. There were no villages along this tortuous track; the thought of a puncture or breakdown here was enough to prompt panic, but it was too late to turn back. Great grey cataracts of rain washed around me, and the temperature dropped dramatically as I climbed. In places the road was so rough and steep that I had to get down and push the bike between the boulders. The whole trip began to seem like a very bad idea indeed.
But finally, with great relief, I crossed the threshold in fading daylight and returned to a smooth surface. The rain was still sheeting down, but for a moment an unearthly vista opened ahead: rank after rank of swollen pine-lined ridges with tin-roofed villages tucked against their flanks, all bathed in the amber syrup of a hidden sunset. I was deep in the mountain hinterland of Java now, some 2000 meters above sea level.
I rolled into the chilly, rain-lashed village of Dieng in a blanketing darkness, and just meters short of the guesthouse I got my first puncture. It couldn’t have happened in a better place…
The Dieng Plateau is a strange mountain fastness; a patch of marshy, table-flat land ringed by pine-covered ridges in the belly of an ancient volcano. It is a place of running mists, turquoise lakes, and fractured hillsides where volcanic mud bubbles from the fissures. It is also home to some of the oldest temples in Indonesia. Before the arrival of Islam, Java was ruled by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. In the 8th Century Dieng was a holy place, and hundreds of temples were built around the plateau.
In the bleached chill of the morning I wandered amongst the weathered remnants of this lost era while a mechanic in the village patched my punctured tire. And then I set out along a route that whipped in great arcs through the mountains, passing the neat little town of Wonosobo, and cutting between the giant peaks of Sumbing and Sundoro.
I had slipped into the rhythm of my journey now, momentum bearing me through little country towns with mosques and churches. Java is the most densely populated island on earth, home to 136 million people. But often, pausing on the elbow of some mountain road, I found myself wondering where exactly all these inhabitants were.
That evening I reached the old royal city of Solo, once the seat of the mighty Mataram kingdom, the last major power in Java before the inexorable ascent of the Dutch in the 18th Century. I was halfway through my journey.
Over the coming days I crossed more mountain passes, and passed through more stands of green forest. On the slopes of Gunung Lawu, high above Solo, I wandered amongst the strange freak-show of carvings at the Candi Sukuh temple, one of the last to be built in Java before Hinduism gave way to Islam in the 15th Century. Elsewhere on the same slopes I came to another temple, Candi Cetho, perched on a high promontory above the tea gardens. A hard wind was gusting up from the plains below, and whispering through the pine trees, and the rising basalt terraces seemed deserted. But there were piles of petals in the inner recesses: this was still an active place of worship, for the little hamlet at the temple gates is home to one of the last indigenous Hindu communities in Java. This inaccessible spot lay above the tideline of Islamic conversion.
I spent a night in the little hill resort of Tawangmanggu, and feasted on rabbit sate with peanut sauce – a traditional mountain dish in Java – and in a damp morning, with shifting strips of mist snaking over the slopes, I crossed the watershed into East Java Province. I was south of the main mountain chain now, and the countryside was lusher than ever. Mineral-laden run-off from the mountains gives Java some of the richest soils on earth; this is a place where fertility has reached the point of infestation: banana plants sprout unbidden in the ditches, and given half a chance roots and creepers will tear a road to pieces in a few short seasons.
The low murmur of chanting in Javanese, and the sweet whiff of incense rose in the hot morning air. A thunderstorm in the night had left puddles between the paving stones, but they were steaming dry in the sharp sunlight. I was at the tomb of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. He died in 1970, and was buried next to his mother in his childhood hometown, Blitar. Today Sukarno’s reputation stretches beyond the secular: thousands of pilgrims visit his tomb – sheltered beneath a mighty Javanese joglo pavilion – to pray, scatter offerings of petals, and to absorb a little of the great man’s karisma.
I had spent the night in Blitar. It was the archetypal Javanese town with a grid of neat streets lined with colonial-era bungalows, a central alun-alun – a grassy square studded with huge banyan trees – and an easy pace.
I wandered through the town in the morning, feasting on the local delicacy, nasi pecel – rice with fresh greens, crackers, and a peanut and chili sauce that manages to be as fiery as a Sukarno speech and as fresh as a mountain breeze all at the same time. Then I clambered back into the saddle and headed north. My arms were scorched now from the long days of riding in the hot tropical sun, my bike was lagged with dried mud, and my map of Java was torn, stained and crumpled. But as I bore past the mighty Majapahit-era temple at Penataran, knee-deep in the rice fields north of Blitar, and rode onwards through stands of white-barked trees and long avenues of sugarcane, and down sandy tracks where old women in cultured sarongs ambled flat-footed between red-roofed houses, I was full of the sheer pleasure of the journey.
Many visitors to neighboring Bali are given the impression that Java is little more than an urban hell of monstrous megalopolises and howling highways. But most of the island – once you break free of the main thoroughfares – is a place of soft, calm greenery, warm light and sweet black coffee. It was my battered little motorbike that had let me access this world.
I was lingering over my journey now, eking it out, stopping whenever I saw a little bamboo warung – a roadside café – for coffee, fresh coconut milk or fried bananas. Darkness caught me on a rising road past the mountain lake of Selorejo, and the last prayer-call was echoing through the villages when I finally crossed another pass and my last stop – the mountain resort of Batu, southwest of Malang – appeared through the pine trees, a galaxy of lights strung across the hillsides.
I was on the home straight now. In a bright morning I took a rising road from Batu through fields thick with cabbages, potatoes, strawberries and everything else that will only grow in the temperate uplands of Java. Ahead the great cone of Gunung Arjuno, yet another of Java’s active volcanoes, trailed a fine white banner of smoke into a pale sky.
The engine of the bike was coughing and spluttering alarmingly on the gear changes, and a full service was overdue. But this was the final climb of my journey, and soon I reached the little pass above Canggar, hard under the flanks of Arjuno. It was all downhill from here.
The road twisted through dark forest, and on many of the corners I spotted coal-black monkeys, watching nervously from the branches. At one point, on a high saddle between two great gorges, a view opened of the distant Penanggungan volcano, the last sentinel of the mountain heartlands before the steaming northern coastal plains. I dropped through the final stands of wild forest, through the little town of Pacet, and back to a world of trucks, buses, grit and grime.
Towns coagulated into a continuous strip; the green spaces vanished behind strips of jerry-built shops. Train-lines sparred with the highway; the air thickened to an off-white murk, and jets roared low overhead, bowling for the airport of Indonesia’s second largest city. The end was almost in sight. A few more clanking bridges over pale canals; a few more ill-tempered intersections, and my journey through the heart of Java was over. Surabaya swallowed me up.
© Tim Hannigan 2011