And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…

Early next morning the deluge had departed leaving a blue sky full of puffball clouds and the air a tad humid. Around the hotel carpark, the block paving had largely dried out but here and there large puddles attested to the volume of rain on the previous day. Our hotel room looked like an explosion in a flag factory with sodden garments draped all over the furniture to dry them out. As related in the previous episode, our day of near-death encounters with heavy lorries and broken roads had ended in a monsoon storm that drove us off the road and seeking the succour of a cosy hotel. On top of that, having overcome the dead battery in Sumatra, we now had a busted spoke on Maggie’s bike causing a horrid front-end wobble. Looking back at these mechanical problems, at the time they seem like mini-disasters, but invariably involve the trip taking off at some unexpected tangent with a rush of delightful encounters and new friends. So it was to be in this case but not just yet…

A short ride took us to Borobodur, our abandoned destination from the day before. Here we had the delightful experience of actually turning a FaceBook friendship into a real one when, by pure coincidence, veteran SE Asia tourer Phil Stubbs wandered into the hotel we’d just checked into. Phil hails from Essex in the UK and had flown out to Indonesia where he bought a little 225cc Yamaha Scorpio, a perfect vehicle for touring the islands. We had corresponded on various issues on FaceBook, neither of us realising how close we were to one another in the real world.  Next day we trotted off to see the sights of Borobodur itself, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 9th Century, it occupies a most majestic setting against a lush jungle backdrop. The architecture resembles a huge wedding cake consisting of nine stacked platforms topped by a central dome all rendered in dark grey volcanic Andesite. The temple is detailed with 2,672 relief panels, houses 504 Buddha statues and the central dome at the pinnacle is surrounded by a further 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa weirdly resembling a troop of serene and smiling Daleks. Pilgrims worship in Borobudur by following the trail of staircases and corridors that ascend all the way to the top with the various levels representing each stage of enlightenment in Buddhist cosmology. The entire complex was lost to history, hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, was appointed governor of Java. He took great interest in the history of the island, which was certainly piqued when he heard stories of a lost mega-temple buried deep in the interior. Unable to make the discovery himself he sent the Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to investigate and he in turn found Borobodur.

The city of Yogyakarta would be our home for the next week or so. We found solace in the beautiful tree shaded garden of the Puri Pangeran Hotel, an ideal base to explore the city. Jeffrey Polnaja, a man with more contacts than an octopus playing drums, recommended a visit to see brothers Lulut and Yayak Wahyudi to solve our wheel problem. Travelling by bike, of necessity you will engage with many motorcycle repair shops but we never encountered anything that quite approached Retro Custom Cycles. Pulling up in the forecourt we were greeted by a huge smile and a warm handshake from Lulut himself. The entrance was home to a huge candy red American Dodge car and a coffee bar where, over an excellent Kopi Susu, we explained our latest mechanical mishaps. With Yayak and one of the lead mechanics fussing over the bike, the offending wheel was soon removed and sent for correction. While we were waiting we took a tour of the shop…

Race-flag chequered tiled flooring was home to a beautiful Harley chop and further back an old WLA Harley was being fettered for a customer. But it was out back in the cavernous workshops that the real treasures lay. Out of a palette of raw rusting ironwork, motorcycles were being handcrafted. Standard was binned and unique designs were given life in this Orc forge where rod, bar and plate were chopped, formed and welded to create machines of heavenly beauty. On a wall a row of brightly painted petrol tanks hung like teacups on a dresser, teardrop canvases of most beautiful line and symmetry. A new-model Harley, recognizable only from its engine, was having new bodywork hand made from aluminium, one of the technicians tinkering each piece into shape, final-forming it into body-jewelry that would later be burnished brilliant as armour for a road knight’s mount. Tour finished, we sat out front waiting for the wheel to return. A kitchen door opened and the mother of the family, a fine lady and beautiful hostess, kept appearing with fresh-cooked morsels for us to try, in case we were hungry. Then the wheel returned; a new spoke had been fabricated from a heavy-duty motocross item. A bent spoke had also been straightened and the wheel was trued; our latest batch of problems was put to rest.

In Yogyakarta we organised our first visa extensions and visited the grand palace of Kraton, actually a walled royal city within the big city and an easy stroll from the hotel. We also rode out to visit the Buddhist temple complex at Prambanan. Set in a splurge of greenery, Prambanan felt like the ultimate ‘walk in the park’ with a collection of four individual temple sites spread across several acres of gracious gardens and we contentedly lost ourselves within the tranquil setting for an afternoon. Riding east from Yogyakarta, the traffic finally began to ease as we left the horrid congestion of West Java well and truly in our wake. Roads now wound along paddy-field valleys taking us back into the mountains to a one-night stop in the city of Malang, springboard for what would prove to be one of our finest ever motorcycle adventures ever and that ‘something completely spectacular’ as promised in the header for this post…

Sleep… sleep… sleep… I am riding across an arena of slate grey sand enclosed by a coliseum curtain of sheer rock. I think I’m standing up on the footpegs; I can feel the bike slalom occasionally as the sand gives way but am reassured as the back tyre bites in and regains firmer ground. I glance in my mirror to check on Maggie; I know she hates this soft stuff but all I can make out from the recess of her helmet is the flash of a huge wide grin as her tyres spew little puffs of grey matter in her wake. None of this makes sense but then most dreams never do. A veil of cloud wafts down from the bluff and drapes a gossamer cloak across our path. We ride on and enter a ghost world, a road to hell lined with tussocks of spikey grass that point to nowhere, only tell us there is no way out. I glance back to see a phantom horseman ride across our trail and disappear off into the gloom. Both sky and horizon have vanished and we are two lost souls. Stopping, we kill the engines and dismount. There is no sound but the whisper of the wind and the tink, tink, tink of cooling metal from the bikes. The cloud parts briefly to reveal a glimpse of the squat form of an ancient temple some way off in the distance. It appears to be made of some black material and is festooned with pointed turrets. When I awake will this all rapidly fade leaving me just titillating fragments in the dawn from this otherworldly encounter?   As I survey our predicament I realise this is not a dream; this is Bromo and we have just ridden onto the crater floor of a very active volcano.

We left Malang and were soon ascending narrow mountain roads that led us up over the 2000 metre mark into volcano country. The mountains were magnificent but we began to suspect that yet again our GPS had led us up a blind draw as it seemed our base to explore Bromo, lay somewhat bafflingly on the opposite side of the mountain. We finally arrived at a gateway to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, where the rangers explained that to get to our destination we simply had to cross the crater! And so we descended a sharp series of hairpins that dropped us onto the Segara Wedi, the Sea of Sand, that carpets the crater floor and into a world like nothing we’ve ever encountered. We paused a while to ponder the way across and survey the stupendous landscape before us. The crater is about 10km in diameter and within the encircling walls is a little green jelly-mould of the conical Mount Batok. Next to this is the low, jagged and blasted caldera of Bromo itself, not so spectacular yet easily identifiable from the plume of sulphurous gases ascending to the heavens. Finally, nestled at the foot of both, is the Pura Luhur Poten Hindu temple, a low sprawl that looks like some forlorn outpost from a Mad Max movie.

You would think it highly unlikely that you could get lost in what is essentially a big circle yet that is indeed what happened. Riding across the sand flats for several kilometers, we were utterly blown away at the realisation that we were actually riding across the crater of an active volcano. Then realisation dawned that there seemed to be no obvious exit route back up to the rim. The blanket of cloud came rolling in reducing visibility to a few metres in all directions so we stopped and a mild wave of panic set in, a normal reaction I guess when you are so suddenly disoriented… Eventually a pair of headlights loomed out of the murk, a Land Rover whom we flagged down for directions. The driver explained that we had overshot and missed the exit completely. It proved difficult to spot, even in normal visibility, as the road was hidden behind a screen of trees and bushes but fortunately the cloud lifted enough to allow us to take a bearing and make our escape.

Next day we hiked down into the crater from the hostel town of Cemoro Lawang. The views over Bromo crater and Mount Batok from the rim in clear weather were simply breathtaking. Horsemen, looking like fierce nomads on their stocky little ponies, offered tourist rides up to the crater itself and jeep safaris were taking folk across the caldera. We declined these to walk across the floor of the crater, a hike that was every bit as exciting as yesterdays ride. From the temple we picked up a trail that led to a series of steps that marked the final ascent of Bromo itself. The views on up to the summit, then the panorama across the crater to the rim and over to the adjacent Mount Batok were beyond equal in all of our travels to date. We had truly attained something completely spectacular, yet all of this visual hyperbole was nothing compared to what happened next. The summit was circled by a narrow path making an ideal perch to sit and appreciate the internals of the volcano itself. The view was somewhat occluded by the clouds of steam belching forth but other senses now heightened as noses twitched at the stinky sulphur and, most spectacular of all, we felt the acoustics of the volcano rumbling. I say ‘felt’ rather than ‘heard’ as deep base notes resonated our very chest cavities, shaking us to the core. Slow brains processed all of these inputs and realisation dawned that we were listening to the actual sound of the internal workings of planet Earth, our home. It was a humbling experience, leaving one feeling so insignificant in the overall scheme of things yet standing in total awe of this beautiful and natural world. Bromo was completely spectacular and we will remember and treasure these days for the rest of our lives.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: East Java

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Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

Bukit Lawang and its Orangutan; all-round piece of pretty poetical paradise. We found excellent accommodation here in the home of Hans, a German, who had self-built a series of beautiful little lodges complete with hammocks out front. A fascinating man, every encounter yielded a bounty of stories about life in Indonesia. In 2004 he had found a little Eden for his family in a secluded cove just outside Bandar Aceh, part of a little beach community. On Boxing Day 2004 he’d just had breakfast on his veranda, overlooking the ocean, when suddenly the sea disappeared. The tide simply went out as if the ocean was draining down some huge plughole someplace way off the coast. He grabbed his wife and daughter and they fled for high ground warning neighbouring villagers to do the same. He watched in horror as instead the locals ran to the beach; the outgoing seas had left little pools full of stranded fish and people were running to take advantage of the unexpected bounty. Of course the sea was coming back, not as an incoming tide but as a Tsunami. Hans and his family reached high ground but his home and everything in it along with the entire community he’d lived in was completely destroyed. The wave came as a rolling wall, an incredible 30m (100ft) high and swept all before it leaving some 200,000 dead and missing and another half million displaced persons like Hans.   They eventually made it back to his wife’s family in Medan and subsequently rebuilt their lives, moving to Bukit Lawang.

Our travels in Indonesia were teaching us we had a long way to go on bad roads to get through the big islands of Sumatra and then Java. Retracing the route back to Berastagi, we rode around the northwest crater rim of Lake Toba for a one-nighter in Parapat. The mountain road to the South and East was one of the worst of the trip. Grandly titled as the ‘Trans-Sumatran Highway’ again this was B-road hell with sections through towns and villages badly mangled or muddy and everything delayed by slow moving trucks that seemed barely capable of 20mph on the downhill. Now and again all progress was by a toppled truck that had been loaded high, then slipped a wheel into a ditch and turned turtle. Yet the poor roads were amply compensated by the lush mountain scenery all around and paddyfield foregrounds populated by barelegged farmers sporting coolie hats. The idyll was rendered complete by occasional flocks of white egrets flitting across the scene and it was on this road that we finally crossed the equator, our first ever road crossing from north to south.

On to the Southern Hemisphere then, where our first stop was Bukittingi, a bustling little market-town with a huge canyon right on its doorstep. Bukittingi was also the Japanese HQ during their occupation in WW2 and we explored tunnels built by slave labour overlooking the canyon. Another day and a ride out to see the spectacular Harau Valley billed as the ‘Indonesian Yosemite’, not so grand maybe but stunning all the same. Beyond Harau lay Kelok 9, an insane highway construction into the mountains full of racetrack-width elevated hairpins, bridges and super highway so incongruous with the roads in the rest of Sumatra. Riding it was like a drive-it-yourself rollercoaster; a thrilling, grin-guaranteed run quite unlike any other road in the world and a definite must for all bikers.

From Bukittingi we set forth into more mountain country bypassing another stupendous volcanic crater lake to reach the city of Sungai Penuh. It was not to be. Just beyond the lake we took a short break at a gas station. On restarting, Maggie heard an audible pop and her bike died, the battery clearly suffering some traumatic incident. On inspection its case had blistered and distorted and a trip around the village shops on the back of a petrol-attendants scooter failed to yield a replacement. It is very touching, looking back on these mishaps, at how people just stopped what they were doing, took an interest in our problem and then mucked in to help. As it happened there was a battery shop across the road. The guy there reckoned that our AGM battery (a sealed, maintenance free unit) had dried out. He broke the seal and reactivated the battery with some acid and put it on charge for a couple of hours allowing us to become a roadside attraction as folk came from near and far to have a photograph with the crazy motards! Another beautiful aspect of travelling in Indonesia is the many encounters with children. They are all keen to practice their English and approach us with a respectful request to do so. It’s a beautiful way to engage with kids as we learn about where they live, their hopes, their aspirations and a small way for us to pay back the hospitality and kindness we have had thrust upon us in Indonesia.

With the battery recharged we limped on to Padang, a city on the coast and spent the next day in a fruitless search for a replacement. The problem is our bikes use a fairly heavy-duty battery compared to local machines.   Our motorcycles have 650cc single cylinders, which require a hefty charge to turn them over in the mornings, and we could find nothing suitable in the city even with a local helper tagging along. In the end the reactivated battery seemed to be holding a charge, although its capacity and performance was clearly compromised, so we figured the bike would run OK once started. In this manner we limped through the remaining 900-miles of Sumatra, reaching the mountain town of Sungai Penuh and then another spectacular mountain ride to Bengkulu along the southern coast. These days were fraught with occasional bad road sections on a sick bike and we decided to keep going with no stops for coffee or lunch lest we get stranded in the middle of nowhere with an expired battery. Each day the battery died a little more until finally, on reaching the surf camps of Krui, jump leads were required to get her started. That final ride took us on a snake of a road over jungle-crested ridges and into the city of Bandar Lampung where the battery finally expired outside the Kurnai Perdana hotel.

A lesson learned on the road is that ‘Rescuers’ come in all shapes and forms. We asked at reception if they could call a few shops we’d found on the Internet to source a battery. Dali, a young bellhop, volunteered to take me around on the back of his scooter and, in the third shop, we final found a battery that would fit. It had a slightly lower performance rating but we figured this would only be a problem for cold starts or if the bike was left standing, neither of which are a concern in our current environment. Once fitted, the bike fired up like a nymphomaniac on HRT with big smiles all around the hotel crew who had gathered to watch the resurrection.

And so it was time to leave the stunning island of Sumatra. We boarded the RORO ferry to Java with a somewhat heavy heart and plonked ourselves down on the open deck to enjoy a cooling sea breeze and the savour the volcanic peaks of Sumatra as they receded into the distance and into our past… Our reverie was interrupted by a summons to the bridge where a bunch of smiling officers and engineers bade us enter… “Would you like to drive the boat for a bit?” they asked as the captain vacated his seat allowing Maggie to take the helm. As you can imagine, we rode off the ferry to begin the next leg of this journey with crazy loon smiles on our faces.

Java is the powerhouse of Indonesia. Appreciably smaller than Sumatra, Java contains over 60% of the population of all of Indonesia and that makes it the most densely populated island on the planet! We had been in contact with Jeffrey Polnaja, organiser of the first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia due to take place this May and where we are proud to present a slideshow or two on our travels. Jeffrey had advised avoiding the north and central roads across Java, as they are one huge logjam, especially around the capital city of Jakarta. Our first stop was the city of Bogor a mere 95 miles from the ferry, yet it took us nearly six-hours to cover this. Part of the route was mangled backroads, one of those ‘GPS shortcuts’ that utterly failed to account for the road conditions and had us slipping and sliding through chocolate-mud highstreets choked with traffic. Then we reached Bogor, a place we soon termed ‘Bugger’ for it’s traffic, where it took us over an hour and a half to cover the last eleven-miles, inch-worming through the dense gridlock. There wasn’t even room for filtering as every avenue was choked with a colloid suspension of small bikes. We read later that, with a population of several hundred thousand people residing in an area of about 20 km2, central Bogor is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire planet! It all made for tiresome riding, as progress was slow with constantly kicking up and down lower gears and arms aching from overuse of clutch and brake. To be fair the driving is mostly respectful and folk generally give way and show courtesy to one another so we never really felt threatened from other road users. Had this been India, it would simply have been carnage.

For all the traffic mayhem, Bogor was a pleasant city and a refreshing change from Wild Sumatra. In colonial times the city was named Buitenzorg (literally “without a care” in Dutch!) and served as the summer residence of the Governor-General of Dutch East Indies. There is a huge botanical garden in the centre that made for an amiable days’ stroll off the bikes. We took Jeffrey’s advice and cut through tea covered mountains to the coast, where we had been granted kind use of a splendid beach villa for a few days at the little fishing resort of Runcabuaya. This was just what we needed as our bikes and kit had taken something of a battering on the coastal ride south through Sumatra where everything had been covered in a film of sticky salt-spray that bonded with dust, dirt and diesel particles to make it all thoroughly filthy and a tad smelly to boot if I’m honest. We temporarily transformed the villa into a gypsy encampment with fluttering laundry flapping in the ocean breeze. The bikes too had a thorough cleaning and it was during this process that I discovered first a broken pannier frame bolt on my bike and then, more seriously, a broken spoke in the front wheel of Maggie’s bike; the roads in Indonesia were certainly taking their toll on our trusty machines. The bolt was replaced with a spare from the small stock we carry but the spoke was more troublesome as BMW use spokes, that feed straight through the wheel hub, whereas most other bikes have a bent attachment so finding a replacement would be a challenge. It also explained the wobble that had set in to the steering at 40mph on Maggie’s bike.

Runcabuaya was a great place to eat seafood from a plate-sized BBQ Raya fish to an order of Udang (prawns), which turned into a plate full of mouth-watering small red lobsters, split lengthwise to expose a soft, juicy forkable flesh all served in a savoury sweet and sour sauce (a steal too @£6 for two!). Our next destination was the ancient Buddhist temple complex at the imposing sounding town of Borobodur but our attempt to reach there led to one of the most scary rides of the entire trip to date… We left the haven of our lovely beach villa for a lively ride along the coast on improving roads. We saw Chinese, lift-type, fishing nets along the river estuaries and more of the verdant paddyfields lined with coconut palms that would give Ireland a run for its money in any ‘forty shades of green’ competition. We covered over half the distance in good time, with just under a hundred miles to complete in the afternoon, when it all went horribly wrong. First another GPS shortcut had us riding a dried out mud-track that was like a half-plowed minefield with bomb-blast potholes and concerns about that front wheel with the busted spoke. It was only four miles but seemed to take an eternity until we were back on solid ground. Then we hit the roadworks…

There was a tailback of maybe twenty or so cars and trucks and we followed some small bikes, filtering to the front where we were presented with a lane of completely dug up road section alongside another lane comprising a new section of raised concrete road. There was nothing coming so we followed a procession of scooters up onto the new highway. In hindsight this is perhaps the stupidest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle. It was all very well for a kilometer or so until we met a few cars coming the other way. With our fat-ass panniers we slowed down and the cars moved over so we easily passed one another. Then a minibus and a small truck; again we were able to pass but now the margin for manoeuvre was smaller. Still we were nearly there but you can imagine the horror as I heard the roar of a hefty diesel and a belch of thick black smoke that announced the oncoming arrival of a huge blue lorry. I stopped as close to the edge of the road as I could as he moved over and started to pass. My offside pannier was hanging over the edge of the road, now become a precipice and my left foot was down such that I could feel the side of the drop with my sole.

Contact! He nudged my right-side pannier with his side-rails pushing the bike over. The raised concrete section was about two feet above ground level so if I toppled over now I had a long way to fall with the bike coming down on top of me and probably breaking an arm / shoulder if not my neck! I shouted at the driver and he stopped as I managed to tease the bike forwards to eventually get by, only to see another truck looming ahead. Fortunately there was an earthen ramp down off the section and I made my escape. I jumped off the bike, adrenaline flushing though my body, in time to see Maggie now in contact with the first lorry. I don’t know how she did it but she dismounted and with the help of some locals was propping the bike up against the side of the lorry, which was in firm contact and ready to topple the bike; had she stayed in the saddle it would have been the end of her! I ran back and together we managed to manhandle the bike along the side of the lorry and then off the road altogether. Five minutes later the traffic cleared and we were able to finish the section without further hazard. The local people who lived along the road were lovely, inviting us into their homes for tea after surviving our mishap!

In hindsight it was clearly a stupid thing to do but traffic control was lacking; they just assumed any bike could squeeze on by. To cap it all, the sky up ahead bruised to black and we rode on into a deluge of super monsoon that drove almost everything off the road. We donned waterproofs but it rained with such intensity we could barely see more than a few yards ahead. After a few miles we spied the warm glowing lights of a roadside hotel and abandoned the day to the weather. Borobodur could wait…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: On to Java