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From Jakarta to Surabaya on a ‘Bebek’ – Tim Hannigan

The engine of my motorbike strained as I headed through the last hairpins toward the summit of Puncak Pass. Behind me, yellow haze was creeping up from the direction of Jakarta; on either side wisps of mist were sliding over the tea gardens and ahead lay more than 1,000 kilometers of road.

The previous morning I had unloaded my 14-year-old Honda Astrea — a 100cc bike meant for pottering around town — from the train at Jakarta’s Kota station. A pedicab driver at the station gate had asked where I was going. He was surprised when I told him: “Surabaya”.

Indonesia’s largest and second-largest cities are like a pair of urban anchors at either end of the north coast of Java.

I had lived in Surabaya for almost a year, and I had visited the capital a number of times, but I wanted to explore the space between, the heartland of the world’s most densely populated island.

For me there was only one way to make the trip: by the ubiquitous little motorbike known in Indonesia as a bebek or-Easy Rider, Java-style.

It was a week-long journey that would take me through startlingly beautiful landscapes of forest, rice terraces and volcanoes and along remote rural lanes and congested highways.

Hot water, remote coastline

After crossing the 1,500-meter Puncak Pass I traveled on past Bandung and arrived, a little saddle-sore, at dusk in Cipanas, a village at the foot of Mount Guntur near the town of Garut.

The place name means “Hot Water”, and as darkness fell and an unseasonable downpour pattered over the roofs I washed away my aches courtesy of the village’s principal attraction.

Geothermal activity in the looming volcano ensures that every hotel bathroom in the place is blessed with a constant supply of steaming hot water, and a chest-deep sunken bath tub instead of the usual chilly mandi tank.

Next morning I headed south along back roads through endless green hills and villages among the trees. At midday I reached the coast where an empty sweep of gray sand ran away into the haze in both directions.

There was no traffic on the potholed road as I traveled on eastwards. The coastline here was too wild and storm-lashed for fishing, and the soil was too poor and thin for much agriculture, but it was beautiful country to drive through.

The sun was already sinking low when I drove into Pangandaran. Strung out along a narrow isthmus with sandy beaches on each side the resort is West Java’s answer to Kuta.

But in July 2006 a powerful offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated the western side of Pangandaran, killing hundreds of people. Many hotels have reopened, but the damage was still plain to see, and the place felt rather forlorn and abandoned. I checked into an empty hotel and went to bed early.

Engine troubles at high altitude

Twenty-four hours later I was colder than I had imagined was possible in Indonesia, shivering over a bowl of soup in a guesthouse in the little village of Dieng, 2,000 meters up in the clouds of Central Java.

Not far from Pangandaran I had crossed the invisible border between West and Central Java. This boundary is not just an administrative one: it marks the division between the Sundanese-speaking western part of the island, and the Javanese-speaking east.

Under cloudy skies I had traveled east and north, and up through the cabbage and potato fields north of Wonosobo into the cold air of the mountains.

Java is an island of volcanoes. Great conical peaks had loitered on the edge of my journey since Jakarta; now I was deep among them.

The Dieng Plateau is a perfectly flat table of marshy ground in a collapsed crater surrounded by pine-covered ridges. It was a strange place of shifting mist, and was bitterly cold.

Perhaps it was the sudden departure from the tropics, or perhaps it was the severity of the inclines on the way up, but after hundreds of trouble-free kilometers, the bike had suddenly developed a problem.

It had spluttered and shuddered into Dieng and I made my way straight to a grimy mechanic’s workshop. One of the upsides of Java’s famously high population density, and its love affair with motorbikes, is that you are almost always within walking distance of some roadside shed where a man in oil-stained overalls can patch a tire, clean a carburetor, or fix a fuel pump in a matter of minutes.

While my bike was being repaired I wandered around the plateau on foot. Dieng means “Abode of the Gods“. Scattered across the plateau are the last handful of the hundreds of Hindu temples that once stood here.

Built in the 7th and 8th centuries, before the rise of the great Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, they are the oldest temples in Central Java. The temples are small, but in the running mist and stinging cold, an air of mystery hung around them.

Fresh from its high-altitude service, the bike ran smoothly back downhill the next day, all the way to the huge 9th-Century Buddhist temple at Borobudur.

With its nine tiers of intricately carved limestone, Borobudur is the apex of the Javanese architectural tradition, and the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia.

From Borobudur it was not far to Yogyakarta with its royal palace, warren of narrow alleyways, and easy-going atmosphere. That night as I sipped a glass of cold beer and pored over my map in a busy little cafe full of European backpackers I realized that I was over halfway through my journey.

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The next day I traveled along remote roads. Java is the world’s most densely populated island, and this overcrowding is apparently at its most intense in the fertile countryside of Central Java, but as I paused to take in the views across the fading ranks of hills I wondered exactly where all the people were.

Sometime in the early afternoon I crossed into East Java, and passed the town of Pacitan on its perfect horseshoe bay. The road was narrow, winding through forested hills with long views down to perfect, deserted bays. There was almost no traffic, and few villages.

Mosquitoes began to bite at my ankles, and behind me the sun slipped down into the milky cloud. Darkness was falling and it was still many kilometers to the nearest town.

I had started late from Yogyakarta and I realized I should have stopped the night in Pacitan, but it was too late to go back. I pressed on into the dusk.

And then I got a puncture. A moment of panic rose; it seemed that it couldn’t have happened in a worse place. But luck was on my side, and just around the next corner was a roadside shack and a crudely painted sign: tambal ban (tire repairs).

A boy in a red t-shirt patched the tire as the heavy darkness came down and expressed astonishment at my journey. When he was done I drove on into the night. Occasional lights marked lonely hamlets, but this was wild countryside, and it would have been a bad place to break down.

I was glad when I reached the top of a high hill and saw a broad plain far below, scattered with lights. Half an hour later I drove into the town of Trenggalek.

The home straight

I did not have far to go now, and the next day I took a leisurely pace through the rice fields to Malang, 450 meters above sea level.

Malang was a retreat from the heat of the plains for the Dutch colonists; a few fragments of their architecture remain and the air is still fresh.

The bike was coated in dust and mud by now, and my arms were burnt from long days driving in the hot equatorial sun, so I was glad to rest for the afternoon.

The following morning I took the high road past the hill resorts of Batu and Selekta, through a patchwork of small fields full of all the vegetables that will only grow in the cooler air of the mountains: carrots, cabbages, onions and potatoes.

A brisk breeze was sweeping the smoke from the distant peak of Gunung Arjuna into the running cloud. I crossed a low pass and dropped into dense forest and thick mist, returning to sunlight at the village of Pacet from where I descended again to the heat of the plains — and to the chaotic traffic of Java’s main roads.

On the edge of the town of Sidoarjo the road rose to cross a canal, and I caught a distant glimpse of the swelling dome and Ottoman-style minaret of the al-Akbar mosque.

The building, a distinctive landmark, marks the southern edge of Surabaya, and five minutes later as it slipped by to the left, the afternoon light reflecting from the blue-green tiles, I knew I was home.

Tim Hannigan