Java, Mighty volcanoes and grand temples.

Location: Gilimanuk, Bali – Cipatujah, Java, Indonesia
Distance: 814km

It was a wet morning to be leaving Bali. The rain never much more than a drizzle but that was enough to make a mess of the road for the short ride to the ferry terminal, carefully steering clear of the constant stream of trucks kicking up mud as they passed by.

From the grey Java slowly came into view, well the coast at least, nothing could be seen of the mountains above, which I’d soon be climbing. I stopped to stock up on some food before weaving my way through the streets of Banyuwangi to find the right road to take me up the mountain to Kawah Ijen, a beautiful lake in a crater know for the men who mine it’s sulphur.

The fickle weather was welcome at first keeping me cool on the lower slopes but some 4 hours and 2000m of climbing later I rolled into Pos Paltulding just on dusk and I was cold, tired and ready to crash. Although not overly steep, there’d scarcely been a moment’s break in the uphill run and the bad stretch of road as described by the Belgian cyclist Arnaudt was downright horrible – completely unrideable – which made for a fun hour or so of pushing. I had half expected to camp here but I was greeted by park ranger who told me officially the park was closed but I could have a room to sleep in for a small donation. I was warmly welcomed into a tiny shop and fed some noodles, eggs and all the rice I could eat in for next to nothing while I toasted myself by the fire and talked with the shop owners before finally retiring for the evening.

An early start saw me walking the rim of the crater just after 7am, arriving as the clouds decided part, letting the early morning sun shine on the brilliant aqua lake, wisps of sulphurous steam rising from its surface. Despite the early hour there were already miners making their way out from the crater under heavy loads of yellow sulphur. Some 430 miners in total work here but only about 150 on any one day. They carry out 3-4 loads of sulphur weighing 70-90kg each per day. I never found out exactly what they earn but I would guess close to not much. The ranger later told me that there was a man in his 70’s still mining sulphur albeit not as often anymore.

It was a rather sketchy walk/scramble down to the lake where the miners were at work. As strangely beautiful as it was the heat and pungent odour hanging in the air had me scrambling back to the rim soon enough.

Freewheeling out of Pos Paltuding was a nice change; quiet, smooth roads with zero traffic. The only interruption some kind of checkpoint where I had to sign a visitor book before being asked for a bribe of some kind, cue dumb tourist routine. Unfortunately the downhill wasn’t down the mountain but into a massive crater some 20km across which I had to climb out of again past endless coffee plantations before beginning the descent proper.

Because of its size and the limited visas – a one month visa I could extend only once – I had always known I would need to skip though some parts of Indonesia so the next day I caught a bus to about 100km to Probolinggo for the start of the climb to Cemoro Lawang which overlooked Indonesia’s most holy and famous volcano, Gunung Bromo.

I stayed in an overpriced hotel in Bondowoso but partly made up for that by the stupidly cheap food at the local night market, Rp5,000 meals!

Biting off more than I could chew is one way to put it. My legs were still getting over the 2 previous days climbing and I hadn’t made it half way up the 2300m mountain when it started getting dark. Slightly disappointed and with it starting to rain a bemo (mini-van) had stopped so threw my bike on the roof and squeezed in under a pile of backpacks. Fortunately in the bemo I met Dutchman Bart and his two daughters and together we found a hotel, some food and a beer to end a long day. We also arranged a Jeep for sunrise overlooking Bromo.

Early starts are never my thing but I somehow woke and found myself in the back of the Jeep by 4am for a rough ride up to Gunung Penanjakan overlooking the whole Bromo-Tengger-Semeru crater. Also, as an aside, there are no “Jeep”s, they’re all Toyota Landcruisers, I guess Jeep is simply easier to say. I had read Bromo sunrise was a popular event but this was something else. There was still a kilometre of parked Jeeps to walk past to get to the lookout at the top (unknown to us at the time we had arrived on some kind of holiday) where the crowd was crushing around the main lookout. We managed to find somewhere away from the mayhem and I set up the tripod and take in the views, which were, impressive, Bromo smoking and Semeru in the background spluttering ash once or twice as the sun bathed it all in warm, morning light.

We stopped at Bromo on our return which was just as busy. The staircase which climbs to the crater rim was at a never ending standstill so climbing up the volcanic sand slopes was a faster option. Although you can walk most of the way around the rim of Bromo, most people barely walk 10m from the top of the stairs which makes for a chaotic and dangerous balancing act. Fall one way and you roll back down the side of the volcano, dirty and bruised, fall the other and you will enjoy a bath in a boiling volcanic lake.

Although the practical way to get to Malang from Bromo is to backtrack to Probolinggo and then travel some 200km to Malang we decided to hire another “Jeep” to drive us across the Laotian Pasir (Sand Sea) to Tumpang and ride from there. I had originally planned to cycle this but from what I’d seen when we drove to Bromo that morning there would have been many a mile pushing through some very soft sand, plus I was able to split the cost of a Jeep between the 4 of us made it all the more affordable.

I took the day off in Malang, staying in a cheap but very noisy (next door to a mosque) dorm before jumping on a train to Yogyakarta. Unfortunately it was a later afternoon train so passing views of endless rice field and villages didn’t last too long.

Somehow I passed 4 days in Yogya, exploring the huge Pasar Beringharjo (market), stalls along Jalan Malioboro and eating dozens of different noodle dishes, sate meats and deep fried mysteries. With the help of a motorbike I visited both Borobudur and Prambanan, two of the grandest Buddhist and Hindu temples in the world. Despite the hordes of tourists their size made them both easy enough to find somewhere away from the crowds. Something I had experienced previously but hadn’t really taken notice of was the strange obsession Indonesians have of getting their photo taken with foreign tourists. I obliged often enough but eventually grew tired of it and there was always plenty of other unsuspecting victims close by. While in some small, off the tourist trail town I would understand this custom, doing this at Borobudur felt very odd.

Back on the bike I headed south and then west from Yogya along some very quiet roads, tiny paths and across some rice paddies. So far in Indonesia I’d taken it for granted that there was always somewhere to stay but upon arriving in Petanahan I learnt that was not always the case. With no hotel, guest house, homestay or any other official form of lodging I asked at a chemist hoping to find someone with a better grasp of English than I had of Indonesian. No luck there but my quandary was understood and I soon found myself at some local’s house – rather large by the town’s standards – and given a room. Eventually the daughter of the owner arrived and explained they rented out some ½ dozen rooms to locals who work in town but live somewhere else. I stayed two days and got to see a more personal side of Indonesian life, eat some home cooked meals and have more photos taken than I care to remember.

From Petanahan I road along the south coast of Java and the roads took a dive to the wrong end of the quality scale. The pot holed remains of a once flatish dirt road now embedded with fist sized rocks carefully positioned to make weaving around them all but impossible. At times I wondered how a road could possibly become so bad without it being some deliberate act. Brief interludes of freshly laid bitumen only my the returning to the rubble all the worse.

Riding into Cilacap I was greeted by a young student, Rudi who was eager to practice his English and show me a bit of his town. A nice change from some other approaches I’ve had who always want some kind of payment. Pangandaran proved a little disappointing due to its popularity with Jakartans as a weekend getaway; crowded, tacky and rather rough beach. The bad road continued and I had plenty of trucks for company now, kicking up clouds of dust and sand, but I was riding right along the coast so the views and a cooler breeze made it all ok. I passed the first machinery I can remember seeing on Java, a string of excavators filling the trucks I’d been following most of the day; a reminder of how much work here is still done by hand.

A string of guest house in the late afternoon was my cue to stop, eventually settling on a sad little room. It was half the price of the next closest offering but the desk fan required 3 jockey straps to bring its rattles under control. From here I’ll swing north to Bandung. My Visa is soon to run out so I need that sorted pronto.

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