Category Archives: Java

Vespa Across Indonesia Part I

Jakarta to Bali, Traveling at the Speed of Whim.

Text and Photos Terry Donohue
Published in “Indonesian Expat”, March 2018, Issue 209
Follow the trip on Instagram @donohueterry

fishing boats, indonesian fishing boats, Java, Terry Donohue
Fishing boats, north Java

Ever had a crazy notion to ride a Vespa across Indonesia? Well, for years I’ve had this idea stewing in the back of my mind. Pouring over the maps and talking with friends and motorcycle enthusiasts, I plotted a trip from Jakarta through Nusa Tenggara all the way to Timur. Sure enough, most people thought I was crazy.

Now that I am free from the shackles of the “nine to five” and still blessed with a wife who is also my best friend, I set out on this solo adventure one hazy Jakarta morning last January. Riding my Vespa GTS, affectionately known as “Big Budi”, I spent weeks zigzagging across Java and Bali, visiting places that I have always wanted to see and discovering places that were totally off my radar. This trip confirmed that Indonesia is as fascinating as ever, and one of the world’s great touring destinations.

There is a long list of cultural and natural wonders that can guide you across the archipelago. Just pull out a map, start drooling and stick some pins in it. You can climb volcanos, explore rainforest, surf, dive and snorkel, however, one thing I learned is that the real thrill is in the journey, not in the destination. After a few days you will find yourself not caring where you are going or how long it’ll take to get there – and the feeling is liberating!

Java, Gunung Bromo, Bromo, Mt Bromo, Bromo Crater, Terry Donohue
The abyss of Bromo Crater

There are a lot of big name places to pin on your map like Bromo, Borobudur and Ubud, just to name a few. And though there is nothing like gazing into the fuming abyss of Bromo Crater, realize that many not-so-famous places will feed your adventurous spirit. Like following the bamboo bridges and walkways over headlands on the south coast of Java, or body surfing perfect waves in Bali at a beach more popular with cows than people, or cleansing your soul in sacred baths nestled amongst the oldest Hindu ruins in Java. There are also little-known waterfalls, canyons and villages throughout Java and Bali where you can hike into the clouds, stumble upon Viking-like fishing boats bedecked in Hindu and Muslim motifs, or be the first traveler that people have ever seen. You can do this if you have your own wheels and take the roads less traveled.

After a few days you will find yourself
not caring where you are going or how
long it’ll take to get there …

Java, Indonesia, Terry Donohue, mattresses
Stacked high with mattresses

Then there are the little things in life. Take time to have breakfast at a tiny warung on a busy street corner. Watch life go by. Men pushing carts stacked high with mattresses, becak drivers in search of the day’s first customer, or jamu ladies pedaling bicycles jingling with bottles of herbal medicine. Life in Indonesia is rich.

I stopped in a small town one morning to watch villagers carry their bananas to market. Sipping coffee and munching on fried bananas, I was approached by an old woman in a tattered batik dress. She lifted the load off her head and sat down next to me. Silently, she unwrapped a banana leaf and ate a steamed banana, and together we gazed onto the busy street. It was our “banana moment”. A precious slice of life.

When you speak Bahasa, people in the countryside may be shocked. In rural Java I stopped at a crossroad to ask directions from a group of farmers. They looked at me, eyes dilating as I spoke, and when I finished they all just burst out laughing! I asked again, but they couldn’t stop laughing. I never did get an answer…

Java, Indonesia, Terry Donohue, south Java, beach, green coconut
Go local with a green coconut, it’s a drink and a meal all in one – only 50 cents

Adapt to the Indonesian way of life and you’ll never have to worry about food or gas. Almost every village has a warung serving up nasi goreng or bakso. And if there aren’t any gas stations, who cares? Eventually you will see someone squatting and smoking next to a rack of recycled bottles filled with bensin. Let them finish their cigarette, then fill up your tank.

Though national roads will often get you to places faster than back roads, avoid them when you can. National roads are the domain of speed freaks racing from point A to point B. It’s unnerving when a behemoth, like a Pariwisata bus, sneaks up from behind and sounds a horn so loud that it blows your helmet forward.

Then there are the long-suffering traffic lights where you will bake in the sun while people indiscriminately flick cigarette butts out the window in your direction. No thank you. Get on the back roads where smiles beam from beneath coolie hats and people wave to you from fields so arrestingly green that you will have to stop and take a picture. This is the real Indonesia.

Bali, Indonesia, Terry Donohue, Ubud, Ubud market, puja
Daily puja at a Balinese temple

Besides packable clothing, a bathing suit, mask and snorkel, hiking sneakers and a warm jacket all you really need are the following:

  • A Scooter: Contrary to western belief, you don’t need (or want) a 1500 cc motorcycle in Indonesia. In fact, 125 cc will do just fine. I can see my friends back in North America falling out of their chairs as they read this, but it is true. If you have a scooter, buy a top box and go! If you don’t have a scooter, pack light and rent one at your next destination.
  • A Map App: There are many good apps, but I prefer Google Maps as I like the lady’s perky voice. Just be aware that she knows your every move. So when mother nature calls and you sneak off into the bushes with your phone in your pocket, you may be caught off guard by one of her sudden tirades: “Turn right! Continue north! In 400 meters do a U-turn!” which, of course, will alert anyone nearby of your whereabouts. Google Maps also offers alternative routes that will get you off the main roads and into some spectacular countryside.
  • A Booking App: When booking homestays and hotels, I find that Booking.com works great in Indonesia. Don’t book too far in advance, as you may find a gem along the way and change your plans.
  • Music: Load up your phone before you go as you will have lots of time to hear your favorite tunes and explore new music. Tip: I found that the Bebop will help you improvise your way through any convoluted traffic jam!
  • Language: Lastly, learn enough Bahasa to greet people and ask directions. Then load a Bahasa podcast onto your phone, learn more along the way and dazzle everyone.

Yes, maybe heading across Indonesia on Big Budi was a crazy idea, but what a great way to intimately explore this fascinating country – traveling at the speed of whim.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Resurrection of Krakatau

Published in Indonesian Expat magazine December 2017

Destruction

When Krakatau erupted in 1883, it became the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. Scientists stationed in Batavia (Jakarta) used seismographs to measure the earth’s movements and this information, along with eyewitness accounts, were telegraphed around the world through new transoceanic cables that connected every continent. It was one of the world’s first global news stories.

View Anak Krakatau, Krakatoa, Rakata, Indonesia, volcano
View from Anak Krakatau

There were no settlements on Krakatau itself as the ill-tempered island had been rumbling for centuries. However, the nearby coasts of Sumatra and Java were well populated by both Indonesians and foreigners, attracted by the rich volcanic soil, the fisheries and the strategic Sunda Strait, a busy shipping lane use for the Dutch spice trade.

The forces that had formed Krakatau Island lay deep within the earth’s crust where the Indo-Australian tectonic plate grinds beneath the Eurasian plate. This subduction process sends island-forming magma to the surface. In 1883, the island actually had three ominous volcanos: Rakata, Danan, Perbuwatan – and all of them were active. However, the magma chamber had been plugged by viscous rock for hundreds of years and the pressure that built inside intensified the eventual eruption on August 26, 1883.

Boat to Krakatau, Krakatau, Krakatoa, volcano, Indonesia
Heading to Anak Krakatau

It must have been a terrifying sight that afternoon when all three volcanos erupted, spewing columns of ash and mushroom clouds 50 km into the atmosphere. Pyroclastic flows (fire, debris and gases) ran down the mountainside and across the sea, traveling at over 160 km per hour incinerating everything in their path. For the people in South Sumatra and West Java who witnessed the event, their world turned black and warm, sticky ash began falling from the sky. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Scientists believe that the partially emptied magma chamber was then filled with a hotter, darker magma from deep within the earth, creating a lethal mixture. Gases expanded, pressure increased and by 5:30 the next morning there was a cataclysmic explosion that ripped the island apart.

Beach on Anak Krakatau, Krakatau, Krakatoa, volcano, Indonesia, volcanic beach
Black sand beach on Anak Krakatau looking towards Rakata Island

Over the next four and a half hours, there were two more explosions. The first one was so loud that it was heard in Perth, Australia 3,200 km to the south and Rodriguez Island 5,000 km to the west. It reverberated around the globe seven times and to this day remains the loudest sound in recorded history. The next explosion was so powerful that the island literally blew itself to bits and whatever was left standing collapsed into the magma chamber and disappeared into the boiling ocean.

The explosions caused deadly tsunamis. Boats in the Sunda Strait witnessed immense walls of water and the coastlines of South Sumatra and West Java were slammed by mammoth waves up to 40 meters high. By the time the damaged could be assessed, 165 villages had been destroyed and almost 37,000 people had lost their lives.

Resurrection

Today the only thing that remains of the original island of Krakatau is half of the Rakata volcano. Left scorched and devoid of life in 1883, Rakata regenerated at an amazing pace. Algae and ferns took hold within three years. Then grasses appeared. Over time trees took over the grasses and within 40 years the island was covered in dense jungle. Visitors today can explore the jungle and find two-toned chunks of lava, testimonials of the magma mixing that triggered the massive explosion and tore Krakatau apart.

Anak Krakatau, Krakatau, Krakatoa, volcano, Indonesia
Sulphuric gases rise from the top of Anak Krakatau

In 1930 Krakatau proved that it wasn’t finished yet. After three years of churning magma onto the seabed a new island was born: Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau). Regular eruptions have raised Anak Krakatau to the lofty height of 400 meters in less than 90 years – comparable to the height of the Empire State Building.

There are a few black sand beaches strewn with granite and lava rock. Areas undisturbed by volcanic activity are now covered in jungle. Birds sing and cicadas drone in the mid-day heat. At sunrise one is likely to be greeted by a biawak or two, cousin of the famous Komodo dragon. At dusk retiring egrets and seed-dispersing bats will cast silhouettes against the sunset.

Snorkelers will feel sudden currents of hot water, bump into chunks of floating pumice and get a fascinating look at underwater lava flows. New corals grow from the flows, temporarily providing food and shelter for marine life, waiting to be buried in the next eruption.

Above the jungle is a fascinating transition zone where pioneer species of grasses and trees establish themselves in the sterile ash and rock, laying the groundwork for future forests. Beyond the transition zone looms a barren and foreboding volcano. The trail zigzags upward through silty ash and lava flows of varying color. Sometimes the ground will feel warm as Anak Krakatau radiates from the inside out. Then the landscape becomes an other-worldly scene of bright yellow fumaroles belching out clouds of toxic sulfuric gas.

From the top of Anak Krakatau, looking out over the ocean at the distant Rakata, it’s difficult to comprehend forces so destructive as to make an island disappear, but gazing into the mouth of the crater, one can imagine how it is being reborn.

Anak Krakatau, Rakata Island, Krakatau, Krakatoa, volcano, Indonesia
Where there once was an island, now there is ocean – the view of what is now Rakata Island from the top of Anak Krakatau

Practicalities

The best way to see Krakatau is through a travel company

  • Door-to-door service from Jakarta can be arranged
    • Overland to/from Jakarta to Carita or Anyer
  • Boat to/from the west coast to Anak Krakatau
    • Volcanic activity will determine the trip – be sure to inquire
    • Boats do not operate during much of the rainy season

There are three types of trips

  • One day trips including hiking and snorkeling, returning to the west coast or Jakarta the same day
  • Overnight camping trips including hiking and snorkeling staying on Rakata or Anak Krakatau
  • One-day dive trips including hiking, returning to west coast or Jakarta the same day

On Java

  • Visit the ruins of the Fourth Point Lighthouse and see a 600-ton chunk of coral washed up by the tsunami in 1883
  • Visit the hills behind Carita to see what stopped the tsunami from advancing further inland

 

Ujung Kulon: A Wet Season Romp to Java’s Wild Coast

It was another steamy afternoon in Jakarta. I could see the ominous black clouds moving in, but for now I sat on my Vespa baking in the sun at the longest traffic light in the world. I watched the seconds count down on the digital display above, waiting for the light to turn green. Before it hit zero, the heavens opened up and I was caught in a torrential downpour. And you know what? It felt delicious.

Published in NOW! Jakarta magazine December 2017
See magazine layout    See magazine online

By the time I pulled into my garage, totally drenched, I had sketched out a plan to buck conventional wisdom and ride to Ujung Kulon National Park for a three-day trek in the middle of the rainy season. Why not?

Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia, bamboo bridgeUjung Kulon is located in southwest Java. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes a peninsula and the nearby islands. In 1883 when the famous Krakatoa volcano erupted, the ensuing tsunami obliterated the coastal villages and the entire peninsula was then blanketed in ash. Everyone who survived evacuated the area and the land was left to be reclaimed by nature.

Today, almost 135 years later, Ujung Kulon is the largest intact lowland rainforest left in Java and a safe haven for several rare and endangered species including the Javan rhino, the Javan gibbon, crocodiles, and even leopards.

Vespa, Cimaja, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, Indonesia
Arriving in Cimaja

I packed my Vespa and set out for the south coast surf town of Cimaja, joining the throng of motorcycles attempting to seep through the cracks of Jakarta’s legendary traffic like water escaping from an impossibly clogged pipe. When I finally made to the other side of Bogor I took an alternative road and entered a different world filled with small villages, rainforest-topped mountains and cascading rice terraces. This was the rural Java.

Terry Donohue, travel writer, Cimaja, tattoo, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Indonesia
New tats!

Predictably I arrived in Cimaja amidst an afternoon downpour, but in the morning I woke up to sunlight streaking through holes in the cloud cover and an ethereal prayer call that wafted across the rice paddy. I sipped coffee on my porch to the rumblings of distant thunder. By my second cup, the rain was coming down in buckets.

The weather made it impossible to take surf lessons, which was something I had in the back of my mind, so I donned my poncho and took a walk along a raging river where fishermen patiently constructed fish traps from river rock. By the end of the day I was sheltered in a tiny warung (restaurant) with a tattoo artist and two seven-year-old girls. We all got new tattoos. I know… who saw that one coming?

Vespa, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Tamanjaya, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia, rough road
The last 21 km to the park are is via a “jalan rusak” – a rough road

The next day I headed west over the cliffs and down along the coast through alternating rain and sun, stopping for a swim on a beautiful beach occupied by foraging cows. By late afternoon I was ready to tackle the last 21 km of dirt road to the national park. As if on cue, the sky turned portentous and the deluge began. I nimbly snaked my way around the puddles, some the size of swimming pools. When I couldn’t get around them, I went through them, hoping they weren’t bottomless pits. Locals in the paddies waved and villagers catcalled “Hey Mister!” as I inched by. I thought I was the only one crazy enough to be on the road, but then I was passed by two ojeks (motorcycle taxis) carrying bules (foreigners)! It was Martina and Marko, a young couple from the Czech Republic. We were about to become trekking companions.

Looking like wet dogs, we settled into our rooms for a cold bucket bath and a change of clothes. Over dinner we made plans with Budhi, our guide to be, for a three-day trek through the park overnighting in the ranger stations. Afterwards we walked across the laneway and bought supplies from a well-placed toko (store) that had monopolized the trekker trade. Then, oddly enough, I was directed to park my Vespa inside Budhi’s living room, interrupting one of his family’s favorite TV shows.

Java's Wild Coast, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia
Java’s wild coast 

In the morning Budhi led us through a village and into the forest. We came to a latte-colored river with a makeshift bamboo bridge. I grabbed onto the single railing that ran down the left-hand side and crossed over as the bridge swayed deeply under my weight. I paused to look upriver into a mysterious void, then downriver where it met the ocean in swirling sandbars. Further out I could see with the remains of ancient trees reaching out of the ocean like half-submerged shipwrecks.

Beyond the bridge we followed the trail to a primeval beach littered with giant logs and shaded by towering buttress-root trees. Monitor lizards posed on the beach like sentinels while the mangroves danced over the water on their roots. This was a wild beauty – this was Java’s wild coast.

We cut back into the jungle and it started to rain. Soon we found ourselves slogging through shoe-sucking mud one step at a time. The mud claimed my sneaker, so I reached down to retrieve it from the quagmire, covering my arm and chest in mud. Marko laughed and slipped on a tree root, catching himself on a thorny rattan. Martina sunk up to her calves and fell backwards with a splash, sending mud the consistency of a milk shake in all directions. This launched an uncontrollable laugh-attack that even our guide enjoyed. We must have looked like a band of drunken sailors when we blundered into a family of wild boar who tracked us with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

Beach, deserted beach, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia
An endless stretch of golden sand

A couple hours later we heard the sound of the surf and emerged from the jungle at the Karang Ranjang ranger station. Before us was an endless stretch of golden sand and a sparkling two-toned sky. It was a welcome sight. We ran into the water, shoes, clothes and all, and enjoyed the rest of the day body surfing and exploring the beach.

We all felt like Ninjas. We had overcome nature’s challenges and had a good time doing it. However, there was one additional fly in the ointment – the sleeping accommodations. The ranger station was hideous. Cobwebs, spiders, rusting beds and mattresses that should have been burned a decade ago. There were no fans, no AC and no mosquito nets. Geckos were everywhere, some of the cute variety like those that surprise you when you open your kitchen cabinets, but others were significantly larger with alien-like blue spots. The three of us looked at each other with faces that resembled a “Wow” emoji, then we burst out laughing. This is it?

The next morning, I woke up fully clothed and covered in repellent. I opened my eyes to the sight of one of those crazy blue geckos stuck to the wall 20 cm from my nose. I passed by Marko and Martina’s room and could see they were resting uncomfortably under a window tangled with spider webs.

I ran down to the beach and for a swim. On the way back I pulled up a few buckets from the well, rinsed off, and then joined everyone for a breakfast of yesterday’s rice, overcooked eggs and fresh papaya – breakfast never tasted so good.

Once packed, we entered the jungle and followed a line of cliffs that ran behind the beach. The dense canopy overhead kept us cool and the brilliant red flowers in the understory were a feast to the eye. The jungle was alive with monkeys, birds and giant snails that slid along leaves leaving a slimy trail. After an hour, we scrambled over some rocks and down to a beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. After a swim, we continued our trek marveling at the half-buried shipwrecks large and small, including the rusting hulk of an Indonesian freighter that the sea had violently ripped in half lengthwise.

Crocodiles, crocs, cooling off, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia
Crocs!

We never saw another soul until early afternoon when we came upon a lone fisherman huddled in a hut constructed of flotsam and jetsam. He made us coffee while I cooled off in an amber-colored river flowing out of the jungle. I was staring absent-mindedly at the ocean when Marko yelled “Crocs!”. I turned and looked upstream to see bumps breaking the surface of the water like eyeballs. I popped up like a cork flying out of a champagne bottle and took a good look. It was a stick! Laughing at myself, I joined the others at the top of the dune. Looking down into the same river was group of crocodiles lounging on the riverbank in the afternoon sun – mouths agape, just chillin’.

Storm, Java, West Java, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia
The blackness rolls in off the ocean before pounding the coast with rain

We continued hiking down the beach for couple more hours before being overcome by blackness and thrashing rain. After it cleared, we climbed up and over some cliffs, spooking a herd of banteng (wild cows) before reaching a rock-strewn river hemmed in by jungle-covered bluffs. We had reached the Cibunar ranger station, our next not-so-accommodating accommodations.

Cibunar, jungle river, Ujung Kulon, National Park, Taman Nasional, trekking, Indonesia
Where the river meets the sea at the Cibunar ranger station

That evening after a simple dinner, I fell asleep outside on a bamboo platform while counting shooting stars. It was all very dreamy until the rain came and I was forced to sleep in the “dungeon”.

We broke camp early the next morning under a foreboding sky and the haunting calls of Javan gibbons. Climbing up a valley we encountered a group from WWF who had just spotted a Javan rhino. With a total population of only 60 animals, we marched forward in hopes of a rare encounter, however the rhino eluded us, leaving only massive footprints. Suddenly, the wind kicked up, trees swayed, branches cracked and we were hit by a blinding sheet of rain. We huddled under a large ficus and watched the swollen river rage below. It was a show of power by Mother Nature. Thirty minutes later the rain abated, the clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the canopy illuminating twisted liana vines and trees with root systems large enough to stand under. Meanwhile, hornbills and other birds came out of hiding and started multiple conversations on both sides of the valley. The amount of wildlife that surrounded us was astounding.

After cresting a slippery ridge, punctuated by a few epic falls, we came out of the jungle at Ciujungkulon jetty where a boat awaited to take us to Pulau Peucang, an island where deer, monitor lizards and wild boar mingle freely with meandering visitors. I put on my mask and snorkeled into a titanic school of blue-striped snapper. Further out on the reef I encountered a very social octopus the size of bocce ball. Then a boat pulled up with dozens of clambering Indonesians swaddled in bright orange life jackets. They jumped into the water like migrating wildebeests, scaring everything in sight, including my octopus friend. As entertaining as it was to watch the flailing arms and legs underwater, it was time to return to the boat for the final stage of the journey.

Terry Donohue, travel writer, Ujung Kulon, Ujung Kulon National Park, boat from Pulau Peucang
Heading back to where we started a few days earlier, passing kilometer after kilometer of virgin beach and jungle

It was a 2.5-hour boat ride back to our starting point at the park headquarters in Tamanjaya. The trip took us past many kilometers of virgin jungles and idyllic beaches. The Ujung Kulon National Park is a far cry from the Java you probably know. It is certainly a wild and beautiful place.

As I backed my Vespa out of the Budhi’s living room and waved goodbye to my companions, I was struck by the thought that we sometimes sell ourselves short by avoiding the elements. We cower at the prospect of too much rain (or too much sun) and miss out on opportunities to connect with nature, embrace life and live like a Ninja!

Just then, as if on cue, it started to rain…


Fast Facts

Cost
About IDR 1,000,000 for three-day trek (three people) with guide and boat.

Food
Bring your own or buy basics at the park. Your guide will prepare meals.

Accommodations
Bring a tent and sleeping gear – you won’t regret it!

Don’t Forget
Be sure to bring a mask, snorkel, repellent, sunblock and hat.

History, Natural Beauty & Wildlife in East Java

Steeped in history, dominated by towering volcanoes and dotted with national parks, coffee and tea plantations, East Java has a lot to offer in a small area.

Published in NOW Jakarta magazine, August 2017
See online magazine        See magazine layout

My first stop was Surabaya and the sprawling harbor of Tanjung Perak, lined with warehouses and crowded with trucks, it is a port for both Bugi schooners and modern steel freighters.   Continue reading History, Natural Beauty & Wildlife in East Java