Maybe we should have listened to Wikipedia: “Java is the world’s most populous island, and one of the most densely populated places in the world.” That doesn’t make it the ideal place for a road-trip, does it? Maybe we assumed a little adventure behind it or at least a cultural experience and in the end that’s probably what we got.
We, that’s the two of us. Simon, a young German I met in Tasmania and me. We set out our trip as a scooter road trip on Java, spiced up with some volcano climbing, some historical temple sightseeing and also some relaxing somewhere on a nice beach. Time: 2 1/2 weeks. Route: not set!
We hired our scooters in Surabaya, Java’s 2nd largest city that’s not worth mentioning otherwise. It’s big, busy and packed with many luxury shopping malls that don’t seem to be in relation with what 95% of the population can afford. From Surabaya we ventured south in direction of Malang. We didn’t know what to expect from the highways, but we were hoping for the better after the crowded streets of Surabaya had left us scared. But then it felt like the city would never end, as if there was one town after another and as if the dense traffic wouldn’t become less at all. 50km before Malang we left the highway in direction of our first BnB and finally the traffic eased as we drove through little villages and over little roads in between green corn fields. The sunset began, the light faded, the Imams started preaching and singing everywhere over their metallic sounding speakers. We arrived in the dark, but in one piece and counting only one mosquito bite.
The next day changed our image of Javanese roads completely. After the helpful guys of our beautiful BnB gave us a few hints and helped us with a health certificate required for our volcano ascent, we drove up the hills in direction of Mount Semeru. The busy wide road soon turned into a narrow track and it was pure joy to race up the mountain with our 125cc engines, surrounded by lush green forests, white streams in the canyons, coffee and tea plantations, little mountain villages and oh so often that gorgeous view over the vast valley of Malang up to the next volcano in the far distance. We crossed only a few other motorbikes and some vegetable trucks, either filled with young people with the same intentions as ours or simple farmers. Eventually we came by the huge caldera surrounding Mount Bromo and continued to the village of Ranupani where our trek began. Read on about the ascent of Mount Semeru in this post.
Back from Mount Semeru we drove straight to Malang and sorted out an accommodation via AirBnB. We were nicely welcomed by Yhosie and her kind family. They have a nice house close to the city centre, yet off the busy streets in an exceptionally quiet neighbourhood. Malang itself is known as Java’s cleanest city and for its mild climate. It does live up to that, but like most Javanese cities lacks the ordinary interesting sight. We spent our afternoon and evening searching for veggie food and discovering the busy night market. The next morning we left early for a rafting adventure in the hills west of Malang. After a quick breakfast on a local market, we started a two hours’ drive and got to test our scooters a bit more up the winding roads.
We had trouble finding the rafting base but with the help of some friendly locals eventually spotted it in the middle of a rice field. After some quick instructions, certainly limited by the language barrier, we jumped into the boat, just the two of us plus two guides.
The river started as a canal with some impressive drops but no major difficulties. The canal then joined a natural river and we floated under green palms and banana trees and along little villages. An easy raft, only spiced up by a few more drops of up to 3 metres. At some point we overtook a few local kids that did the descent in tire tubes and were pretty amused about us foreigners in our big boat.
On the way back we ran into a local festival. They had blocked half of the road for about 50 different groups performing dances in colourful dresses and joined by trucks pumping out loud music. What made it bizarre and surreal was that the festival took place on the main road, a busy one naturally and only half of it was blocked for the performances. The other half was still open for traffic and since so little space was available a never ending chain of vehicles polluted the whole village and therewith the festival, too. Nevertheless many people watched the spectacle from both sides of the road.
Yet another early start the next morning and we were on our way to Sempu Island, south of Malang. The first part of the road was incredibly busy again, but once we joined a smaller road in direction if the coast, it became another fun ride over a few higher hills, along green rice fields and small villages. Read on about the beautiful Sempu Island in this post.
After Sempu Island we decided to start a very long journey towards Yogyakarta to see the famous Hindu temples of Prambanan and Borobudur. That’s more than 400km and with the experience we had so far we knew it was going to take us two days to get there. People we told about our plans were either impressed or irritated that we didn’t have a guide and some told us to be careful and to stick to the main roads. The path we chose was had some beautiful sections, especially the winding roads from Magetan to Surakarta over the pass of Mount Gunung Lawu. Yet it was pretty tiring. We stayed the night at Madiun and reached the temples of Pranbanan at noon the second day. After a long visit, we continued to Yogyakarta, stayed overnight in Magelang and visited the temple of Borobudur the next morning.
Both temples were bursting with tourists, mostly Indonesian. Still there was a separate entrance for foreign tourists and we were shocked that we had to pay ten times the price of the local tourists, a whopping USD20 per person. But since we had made the long way, we agreed to pay it. The temples are impressive, especially the huge pyramid-like construction at Borobudur, that allows a beautiful view of the surroundings including the numerous volcanoes. Yet for the local tourists it sometimes seemed that the foreign tourists were more of an attraction than the actual temples. We got constantly asked to pose for photos next to the locals or arm-in-arm and we agreed most of the times. I’m still trying to find a way to check facebook for photos taken on that day at that place, I’m sure we’d be on quite a lot of them. In addition there were numerous pupils at the temples who were trying to improve their level of English by talking to the foreigners. They were very serious about it, initiating a longer conversation by asking a number of questions they had prepared in advance. Very cute and again we were happy to help each time.
After seeing the temples we rode to Jepara in one day in order to get the ferry to Karimunjawa the next morning. We chose some little roads, trying to avoid the traffic and the exhausts. We didn’t know that half of them were still under construction and therefore the surface was a mix of broken tarmac, gravel, dirt road and sand. Again, it was very exhausting, but we came by some villages that seemed forgotten in time with ancient wooden houses. Well worth it!
We arrived in Jepara just before sunset, checked into a hostel and then went out to eat pizza with two German girls in Simon’s age that we had met randomly in the hostel. Yes, he had asked for pizza for his birthday and that’s exactly what we managed to find. A little luxury.
And then we took the ferry to a paradise called Karimunjawa, again in a separate post. Well worth a visit!! Once back in Jepara we finished our journey with a one day ride back to Surabaya. Not much to report here, a bit of souvenir shopping, a short night in another hostel and waving good bye to Indonesia at the airport.
So was it worth it? Yes, very much! Those 2 ½ weeks were packed with intense impressions and travelling by scooter and staying mostly in homestays allowed us to be pretty close to those kind Indonesians, such nice people with a vibrant culture and way of living. Though we probably tried to cram a bit too much into it and the distance we travelled by scooter was too long. The super busy roads and all the exhausts probably weren’t the healthiest choice. With a bit more planning one could probably try to avoid the big roads and to follow the little mountainous ones.
These roads were definitely worth riding:
– The road up to Mount Semeru (Malang to Ranupani)
– The road from Gondanglegi to Sempu Island
– The winding roads from Magetan to Surakarta over the pass of Mount Gunung Lawu
– The road from Ambarawa to Kedungjati and further on to Demak, showing you real village life and old wooden houses, though it’s difficult and tiring