Monday 31 October 2011

The sulphur mines and the Million Star Resort

From Bondowoso to the Ijen plateau was a good day’s ride and we camped by the trail-head
that lead the last two miles to the crater rim. The stars ripened like fruit before our eyes and now and again dusty men would shuffle past, bowed down under the weight of baskets filled with chunks of what looked like heavy yellow cheese.
Climbing in the dark, well before dawn up the steep path, we realized these were no mountain dairy farmers but sulphur miners working the night shift. As we reached the treeless rim an inkling of daylight revealed an eerie, poisonous landscape thankfully no longer common on our shining blue-green orb.
Down in the crater were blue fires burning holes through a yellow, steaming earth. Beyond lay a large, siren of a lake which invited, with its stark aquamarine, unsuspecting bathers into its beautiful but acid realm. Descending to the fires, dawn hid the blue flames and we could see liquid sulphur spewing, steaming and cooling into slabs. When the wind took the smoke briefly away two balaclavad men rushed in and broke off chunks of the heavy cheddar with
crowbars. Another loaded them carefully, 70kilo’s at a time, into two baskets tied to a bamboo pole. Waiting porters hoisted it onto scarred and deformed shoulders and began their twice daily journey, 90 meters up to the rim and 300 odd meters and 3 kilometres down to the plateau below.
We talked to one young miner, a jolly fellow, though they all somehow had a smile for us and a “Selemat Pagi”. He revealed openly if not proudly that he could earn about 8 Euros a day, and had moved here from the more expensive Bali for this work. Here he could bring up his family in a village beneath the volcano and since his buddy with a moped had joined him he could return home some nights and not have to stay on the mountain.
Anja saw this mine as some Breugelian vision of hell but (though I would maybe rig up some kind of  cable car system), I would rather do this that work 12 hours in a factory for half the money. Our man said that a farmworker earns a quarter what he does. 70 kilos is damn heavy though, whatever you get paid.
After returning to camp we ate a leisurely breakfast, cleaned the last of Bromo’s dust from our chains and sprockets, descended the rough old track 2000m to the sea through flowering coffee plantations, caught the ferry to Bali and flopped, dead tired into the nearest house for flopping.
We followed the North coast of Bali, stopping now and then to stick our heads into the sea and look at the corals and fish. Here was a slightly disturbing mixture of poor, dry villages with a five star “Spa” resort sucking all available water to lushly green its lawns. $100 a night was not really our style so we stayed in our own private million star resorts just down the coast, (what some folks call camping out).
A few days brought us to the boat to Lombok, the next island so we hopped on the boat hoping to visit the paradise Gili islands. On the boat we met Jorgen, a 75 year old, adventurous chap who, after travelling the world as a young man had settled in Australia. He kept us entertained with tales from his well lived life and strengthened our desire to have a look at Tasmania.
The boat arrived after dark so we shared a room and a fine evening with Jorgen before riding up the coast , slinging the bikes on a small boat with a reluctant motor, and being left on a white sand beach on Gili Meno.
This morning we rose before the sun, donned our masks and snorkels, stepped from our bamboo hut and swam out to see what the reefs looked like. Under the glassy surface the wonderful world once more awaited us. Hawksbill and giant green turtles let us free-dive and swim alongside till we reluctantly had to return for air. I could have caught a ride with one old fella but I figured it would be disrespectful to someone of his venerability. I think though I will finish this “Diary of a spoilt tourist” and see if I can’t find a younger turtle willing to take passengers.







Monday 24 October 2011

Hill with a Hole in the Top


We reluctantly rolled out of Batu Karas where we could have stayed a month or two, and headed east down the coast to Pangandarang. There was a white sand beach where the monkeys cracked sea-shells on the exposed reef. One could both snorkel and surf here but neither in ideal conditions. Onward to Cilacap where we turned inland and rode to Borobodur, the great Buddhist  temple. Impressive. Her we met Kanda, an adventurous Japanese cyclist who had just started his round the world trip in Bali. We spent the morning with him wandering the ruins and left for Prambanan, another temple complex where we sat amongst the ruins to watch the sun set. Before a town called  Wonogiri we happened upon a small hotel with a veranda and a view over a lake amongst the hills.
Our goal now was Gunung Bromo, the great volcano. We knew it would be steep and Anja was a little anxious. She insisted I did some internet research to see if anyone else had ever cycled the road we intended to take. The so called ‘Back door to Bromo’.
My admittedly reluctant and brief search revealed no guys on bikes crazy enough to take this road except Mr Pumpy, my cycle-blogging hero of old. Good old Mr P. had ridden this road in the opposite direction and described his descent (our ascent) as the most continuously steep and rough road he had, on all his travels come across. The intrepid fellow burnt through a set of brake-blocks and had to get off and walk some of the way.
‘It doesn’t sound too bad’, I reported to Anja and she looked decidedly happier about the 2300m climb ahead of us. We were taken in by Ekko and his family the first night, in a village with the wonderful name of Gubaklakka, so named after the sound the suspension makes on all the motorbikes and Jeeps around these parts. We managed a 6 O’Clock start the next morning and were soon pushing up a not so bad road made from concrete divided into small squares. This gave some purchase to tires, was far better than slipping backwards in the dust, but damn difficult to ride up all the same. Infact, I offer a challenge; if anyone can cycle all the way up this road with a full set of bags I will buy them both a pint and a pickled egg. All you hoard rushing to claim this prize will
hopefully not disturb the beauty and tranquility you will all encounter on this wonderful track.
So up and up we went, demolishing our water and food supplies till we had but a dry packet of noodles left for our intended camp. Suddenly there was a little hut selling aqua and last year’s biscuits, and a surprised old man who informed us that we were now on the crater rim. Bromo is an active, if mildly, volcano within the much larger crater of an older one. This makes for a rather unique landscape. Apparently we had now only to descend the outer wall, cross the ‘Sea of Sand’, climb a few hundred steps and we could peer into the innards of our beloved planet.
It all started off quite green and pretty but the sand got deeper and we had to push. The vegetation slowly died off and as a wind picked up we were struggling across an eerie land of ash which we are still spitting from our mouths and cleaning from our camera. There were cumulus clouds against the opposite wall some miles distant which sat but a few feet from the ground. And we could see steam rising behind a hill on our left.
We had made better time than we thought and as the dust cleared a little we could make out a settlement perched on the steep wall in front of us. Given the weather, terrain and impending darkness we abandoned the camping idea and kept going to Ngadasi, the village we could see.
On getting closer we were met by a man on a motorbike who led us back to his guesthouse and a hot meal by his fire. It had suddenly turned cold. He was keen for us to see the sunrise from a high viewpoint the next morning which was a 3 hour walk or an hour’s motorbike ride away. Hesitatingly he agreed to trust us with his moped and at 3.30 the next morning we left in the dark with a scribbled map into the dark and sandy crater. There was a thin mist on the ground and a sky full of juicy stars above as we floated across the soft and unseen surface of the plain and ascended to the frigid peak to witness a magical sunrise with, surprisingly, a few hundred other people. We never did figure how they had got there or where they had come from. From a more solitary vantage we witnessed the day get underway as we brewed some coffee and ate our bread and cheese.
The climb up Bromo itself was a short and crowded hike through deep ash. The mountain last erupted in January covering the vicinity in a few feet of ash.
This ash had covered the concrete safety railing on Bromo’s rim and as I turned to speak to Anja my forgotten rucksack almost sent someone on their journey to the centre of the earth. There was a steep scarp of ash ending abruptly in a vertical stone-walled hole that presumably went on down and down. The feeling, looking down, somehow surpassed vertigo, from which I suffer. There would be something so utterly final about falling into this abyss that we felt one might be able to accept this fact after the initial panic, and perhaps enjoy the flight. We spent some time in such powerful but futile reflection before returning to the guesthouse, packing our bags and pushing off on our more measured descent down the smooth and winding road to the sea.
What a descent it was, our hard rough climb of the day before was rewarded with 30km pedal-free cycling. First real steep then gradually relaxing gradients until we were cruising at 35 to 40 kmh without even having to brake. The mileposts whizzed by and we removed a scarf or a hat or a coat at every other one until we hit a wall of hot air, black fumes and noise. The North coast road of Java.
It’s a sticky wind that blows no-one dry. Damn, it was hot. It really sapped the strength. Maybe we were still tired from the Bromo climb because we barely crawled up the hill to Bondowoso where I sit and write this.
We are taking a day off to do some ‘housework’, sorting out Australian visas on-line and buying a flight ticket to Darwin. We have less than three weeks left on our visas and though we could extend them and continue down through the islands, we would be lucky to find a yacht willing to take us, and the flights from Timor are exorbitant. I am ready to close the Asian chapter of our trip. I long for open spaces again and somewhere where we will be inconspicuous. We are ready for Australia though it seems not ready for us; apparently they have a thing called the wet season that kicks off in November. Not sure exactly what this means in Australia, probably just a bit of cloud sweat!
Tomorrow we start another volcanic climb up a bumpy road. Well it was over the hill with the hole in the top or round on the dirty main road. My way or the highway I guess! Next installment should be from Bali, hopefully we’ll find some swell for surfing!
















Friday 7 October 2011

West Java, Indonesia

Leaving Jakarta

A thousand ships lay at anchor in the Singapore straits. Ugly tankers ploughed low troughs through the floating steel city and tramp ships piled overhigh with containers barely rocked in their wake.  Viscous water ganged up with smoky air to banish the horizon and the setting sun from sight and we arrived in TG Panang, Indonesia as darkness settled on this small but busy town on the island of Bintan.
As we looked for breakfast the next morning we found ourselves surrounded by the Lycra clad local mountainbike club. They looked far more out of place than us in the dusty surroundings but were excited at the chance meeting and wanted to drag us off over tropical hill and dale on their Sunday ride. Anja goes nowhere without breakfast so they disappointedly rode off without without us.
20000kms from Devon
The government run ‘Pelni’ ship to Jakarta was built some time ago in Hamburg and I must say the engines still ran pretty smoothly. The rest of the ship though was a stinking rusty hulk where the stench got stronger the deeper one went. Cockroaches did not so much scatter from our path but sidle reluctantly out of the way, confident in their superior numbers. Breakfast lunch and dinner on board was cold rice and a fish-head served in a polystyrene box. Hundreds if not thousands of these were then jettisoned with other waste from the galley porthole into the path of the few following dolphins who I hoped found my largely uneaten fish-heads and profited in some fleeting way from the existence of us greedy and filthy humans. So much for trying to be eco-hippies and not taking the quicker, easier and cheaper option of flying.
Could be Devon
The only other pale-face onboard was Paulo, an interesting Austrian chap who lived on Java and took this horrible boat because he was afraid of flying. He said there was a new boat that left on Wednesdays that was actually quite nice and they didn’t throw the crap overboard. So if you ever go this way take the KM Kulud if possible and not the KM Umsini.  Ironically a whole deck of the ship was first-class, quarter-decent and empty, all of the passengers being crammed into steerage. We just had to escape the atom-splitting Karaoke machine strategically placed in the only place with seats (well there was one small bench on the miles of deck to be shared between about 400 passengers but you had to fight for it), so we sneaked down to the deserted first-class deck and got a good nights sleep in one of the ‘lounges’.
Java Morning
We arrived only 5 hours late to a darkened, busy Jakarta dock with no more desire to ride the 16kms into the city. Paulo negotiated a taxi-bus for us and we eventually found a cheap hotel in the backpacker district. We had until now avoided bed-bugs. I guess we had been lucky. No longer. We moved to a different hostel and set out confidently on our bikes to explore the city. An hour later we pulled breathlessly into the gateway of the national museum and remained for hours in this interesting haven of calm, reluctant to return to the fray.  Neither of us it seemed had much desire to find the hidden delights of Jakarta. The traffic is bad but the fumes and pollution is awful, somehow unproportional, the worst we have encountered. We left the next morning.
For the next 130kms we wore face-masks but still had sore throats. The cycling was unpleasant and I was, until then, totally uninspired by anything Indonesian. All we saw were millions of people riding round on smoky-foul mopeds throwing crap of all kinds into any possible ditch or river. The strange thing was, people didn’t look that poor. I found myself getting angry with the whole nation. Ignorance is no-longer either an excuse or a reason for this level of pollution, all kinds of media are everywhere and most of the kids seemed to go to school.
We turned left and headed for the south coast figuring the roads would be quieter. The road was on our map and turned out to be a small lane leading into the hills. I didn’t care if we got lost, we could go by compass, anything to escape the damn highway. After a few kms there was no traffic at all and we were back in the world we knew, small villages, kids, chickens and buffalos. Behind us rose a volcano out of the haze and we began to climb. The road forked and forked again but we kept asking for unpronounceable villages that we rarely ever reached. The asphalt  lost either its way or its courage and we were left alone, pushing our bikes up a rocky track sunken between two fields. I was reminded of a favourite stretch of Devon green lane and as we stopped for a picnic, sitting on the bank looking out over the remaining tufts of forest to a cloud topped, dry volcano in the fern, I finally felt a wave of happiness flood my spirit. I believe I had imagined the whole world was a city and all the roads were lined with concrete mobile-phone shops which trapped  thick purple smoke and bounced amplified, combustive noise repeatedly against strained eardrums. I had awoken from the nightmare.
The Slaughterhouse
Up and up we pushed and crawled until we reached the tea which draped itself like a green blanket over all but the tightest undulation of the hills. These plantations are always a magical topiary garden even when one knows they have replaced the forest. The tarmac had worked its way up from the south to meet us and we cruised down a mobeus’ ribbon in new black asphalt, the only sound the wind in our ears and the suck of our trusty tires on the cambered curves. Bicycles were made for roads such as these. At night we stayed in a remote Losemen, a guesthouse for tired travelers, where we met a man from Jakarta here to buy some land. Iman was his name and he took us next morning into the forest to check out the dwindling water- source which was going to supply his timber crop with sustenance. It had not rained here for five months and the farmers were in trouble. So many times on this trip had we heard the locals complaining of unusual weather be it too hot too wet too dry or cold.
Wild West Java
The road surface deteriorated again and I was left repeating my old maxim that a good track is far better than a bad road. We rode a bad road for the next 200kms along the south coast of Java. On our right side the ocean released its frustration by pounding the coast with huge breakers and the sound followed us way inland when we were, for some unknown , led away from the relatively flat coastal strip and up a mountain only to be brought hurtling down 20% gradients to a place not far from where we were before. We had to let our tires down to half pressure to avoid being rattled apart and against a strong headwind we were struggling to make 70kms a day, camping sometimes under coconut trees with the sound of surf permeating our dreams.
One afternoon we cycled back onto the pages of our out of date guidebook and decided to overnight in a little beach village called Batu Karas. From the town of Cijulang where we accidently met the local antique bicycle club showing of their Dutch and Indian prides of joy, we crossed a pretty bamboo bridge, were met by the local English teacher and taken to the home of a lady called Marti who would rent us a room for what stretched into more than a weeks stay.
We reach the coast
We had stumbled onto one of Indonesia’s famous surf breaks and after watching so many people have such fun pretty much for free, we thought we would have a go. Many people informed us that there was hardly a better place in the world to learn to surf, owing to the sandy bottom and the regular and long right hand break. One could also watch the reigning and former Indonesian long-board champions practicing all day long.
Surfer Chick
After four days of being pounded and tumbled from 6am to 5pm I was cut and bruised, my rashes turned to sores then open wounds and my arms hung so heavy at my sides I could hardly raise my evening beer to my lips. It was all worth it to experience the silence as finally the breaking foam is left behind, the only sound is the ripple of water on the edges of the board and one can trace a line in the steep, curved wall of the wave with a finger while one glides beneath this fickle face. All other concerns disappear while surfing and one can step across the time-curve direct from morning to evening noticing only the waxing and waning tide, while those on the shore take the long way round via afternoon. The first time travellers will be the surfers of light-waves.
Surfer Chic
In this friendly community we soon new most people by first name. There were a few of us foreigners learning to surf, encouraging each other’s achievements and laughing at our failures, the more experienced ones helping the less talented. Being a bit of a loner I felt for the first time in years part of a club, one of the boys. One night we had a fish fry, grilling a massive trevally and eating till we were overfull. Thanks to everyone for a wonderful week: Ian, Jordan and Naiomi, Jake and Jake, Walter and Ilsa joining us on a swim up the green canyon, Mike for so willingly lending your longboard, Marti for cooking so many meals and making us feel at home and all in the Batu Karas surf club for creating the atmosphere that makes it hard for all to leave.
The swell is picking up and Anja is, after so much determination finally getting on her feet. There is time for a couple of hours wave-riding before sundown so I will leave you dear readers, to go and open up once more my thinly scabbed sores and batter again my tender ribs.


 Anja has figured it out and is catching almost every wave.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Into Singapore

In the Botanical Gardens
Happy Face
There are four ways into Singapore from Malaysia, Two roads and two ferries. We were on the west coast so the nearest bridge seemed the obvious option but we were informed that this new motorway bridge was not open to cycles. The next nearest was the causeway crossing from Jolong Badur to Singapore. This is apparently incredibly busy and the roads are unpleasant all the way. We had been invited to visit Ken and Elaine some friends of Dave and Nancy the cyclists we had met near Penang. Ken and Elaine lived in the Joo Chat area on the East side of the city which could be reached by coastal cycle-path from Chandi, the ferry port serving out two other options which were boats from the other side of the peninsular. This sounded more like us though it would take us an extra day to ride round.
After more palm trees but little traffic we arrived in Dusai where we treated ourselves to a 24 hour package holiday in a slightly dated holiday resort on the beach with a swimming pool and all. We got a special rate (it was very cheap) as we were adventurous cyclists and all and joined the other 6 guests in this 120 room, 5 floor, manicured hotel. Next day we ambled down to SG Ringit.
The “bum boat” to Singapore left when a few more passengers turned up, it is supposed to leave when there are 12 but there were only 4 of us and the bikes went on and off easily with the bags still on. All was quiet on the other side and we were alone going through security and immigration. No problem apart from my knife which was seen on the X-ray machine. It is illegal to carry a “weapon” in Singapore and apparently a breach of etiquette not to declare one if you have one.  So eventually there were 4 policemen and 1 policewoman and I in the little customs back room having a serious chat about the situation.  The knife was photographed and forms were filled out in different colours and superiors were disturbed from important lunches by hasty and whispered telephone calls. Was I worried?... Not at all, the problem Sima and the boys were trying to solve was how I could retain the knife without running a risk of being found with it by some other police down the road and getting into trouble. As we left England some surly and rude officers confiscated my little pocketknife and told me to bugger off if I didn’t want any trouble, here were 5 polite officers taking an hour of their time to find a way that I could keep a sheath knife. And they did.
 I was expecting not to like Singapore, thinking it was all city and silly rules and regulations but these police and the shaded 25km cycle-path which led us into town through a park on the coast had me enthusing about its virtues. Ken and Elaine lived in an apartment building surrounding a leafy garden and a couple of swimming pools. We ate home-cooked food with good company and Ken, a keen cyclist took us on a two-wheeled tour of the city, seeing all the sights from cycle-paths. When you know your way around, Singapore is a great city on a bicycle. The architecture is impressive, new and old and yes, the place is clean and it seems a lot of the draconian rules have been relaxed; it is possible to jay-walk without being strung up by the toes.
What we found strange was the high number of westerners here, notably young women with toddlers and young men with mobile phones.  The old harbour district has been converted into a pleasant if sterile bar and restaurant zone where it seemed antipodeans were on one side of the river swilling 4x, chewing steaks and watching wide-screen ausie-rules while on the other, in front of the rugby, eating fish and chips and downing pints of Guinness were, well, you know who. The place smelt like London.
Orchard Road
Indonesian visas were no problem, in fact, really fast and efficient. Ken rode with us to the ferry port where we caught the boat to the nearby Indonesian island of Batam where a ship apparently would take us to Jakarta.
Thanks Elaine and Ken. It was a pleasure meeting you both, seeing the sights of Singapore and recharging our batteries before braving Jakartan traffic.

Ken and the Marine Plaza

The Art Gallery