800 Kilometers, 6 Busses, 5 Days, 3 Volcanoes, 2 Trains and 1 Temple

It’s been quite a trip through Java. Braving daunting distances on rickety old busses, we’ve covered a serious amount of ground. We’ve travelled alongside chickens, with our bags piled on top of us, feet inside a market trader’s basket due to lack of space on the bus. But we made it, and were rewarded for our endurance by some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Merapi was our first stop, where we groaned our way out of bed at 3am for a sunrise hike in the hills. Merapi is the most active volcano in the world, having had a full-scale explosion in 2010, the damage from which can still be seen in the landscape. The surrounding area has new forest growing amid the scorched remains of huge old trees, with lava trails hardened into new riverbeds.

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Next stop was Borobudur. It’s a huge, 1400 year old Buddhist temple that was overgrown by forest for circa 1000 years until it was rediscovered in the 19th Century by the famous Sir Raffles. The loving detail carved into each stone coupled with the beautiful landscape make an awe inspiring scene. My personal highlight is the tale of how historians have studied the boats depicted in the stone carvings. Doubts about the ancient Indonesians’ ability to sail to Africa had to be cast aside when they actually sailed a full-scale copy all the way to Madagascar.

Outside the temple of Borobudur

Outside the temple of Borobudur

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

Bromo was our next destination. Rising from a bed of volcanic ash, the lunar-like slopes of Bromo and its neighboring peaks are a photographers dream. It’s a shame Ferg’s SLR camera chose this moment to stop working. (And lucky we have a half-decent pocket camera too). It was my first chance to climb to the rim of a volcano’s crater and peer inside its mouth. With sulphurous gas swirling constantly from the centre I found it terrifying to be so close to such a natural wonder, and felt very far from home.

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We were unsure if it would be worth the journey to see another volcano at Ijen. It involved 7 hours on the worst quality bus we’ve seen so far (quite a claim) plus a further 3 hours in a jeep, and a vigorous walk. Astonishingly, it was worth every minute. Quite unlike the other 2, Ijen has a sulphurus lake inside its crater. It’s a steep climb, but as you round the final corner you are rewarded with a change in landscape so dramatic and unique, you feel you have entered another world.

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Java is quite simply the most astonishing place I’ve ever been. Arduous and uncomfortable, yes, but it has left me with a sense of being exceptionally lucky to have seen such things. It reminds you that ‘normal’ life at home is far from normal, the vast majority of people in the world do not live in a small semi in suburbia like ours.

I wonder how it will impact the children to have seen such amazing sights so early in life?

Indonesian Hospitality

We got the chance to visit an Indonesian home yesterday. The circumstances could have been better, but it did restore my slightly shaken faith in the good people of this land; I have an underlying belief that most people are nice. And it seems that most people are. But not everyone.

We should have seen the warning signs really. But after 10 hours of train travel, the offer of a private minibus from the train station all the way to our remote mountain village (rather than going to the bus station and taking a public bus) seemed like a great offer. The price was pretty cheap, and there were some French tourists heading our way also using the minibus, so we clambered on.

The first sign was that we went to their office first, where we had to disembark and pay. Not too much of a worry. Then they tried to sell us various guided tours; but not too much of a worry given that this happens a lot around here. The real warning sign was the National Park Entry Ticket they tried to sell us for 217,000 IDR each (the guide book says it costs 2,450 IDR). They had a copy of one with a date stamp, which they showed to us several times to ‘prove’ how much the price had gone up. I knew that was a scam, but we explained we would buy our National Park Entry from the park rangers, and they accepted this. We knew they were trying it on, but thought that would be the end of it.

About 4km from our destination, the minibus stopped and the driver claimed this was the park boundary (we knew from the guidebook this was not true). He tried to collect the 217,000 IDR from all of us. We all refused to pay. There was much discussion, and the Indonesian driver became very angry and insistent that we pay. He told us he wouldn’t drive us the rest of the way. He was scaring us, we didn’t like the situation at all. So, we got off the minibus and walked.

It was a grueling 4km. With a 20kg backpack each for me and Ferg, and the kids with a fair load each, we made slow progress up the seriously steep slopes in the dark. The kids did so well, no complaining, just one foot in front of the other, steadily gaining height. The Nepali training paid off. The stars were out and the mountains in shadow looked beautiful in the twilight. However, it was very hard work.

Eventually, after an hour, we stopped and sat down on our backpacks for some water and some peanuts. A family came out of a nearby house and asked us where we were heading. Neither our Bahasa Indonesia nor their English were enough for the full story, but they established that we were heading for Café Lava Hostel, it was dark and late, we had tired children and heavy bags, and they wanted to help us.

The man of the house took Ferg and a couple of bags on ahead to the hostel on his motorbike, while me and the children were shepherded inside for hot coffee, and offered some snacks. It was so lovely to be looked after by complete strangers, I found it very touching. The home was just a couple of rooms; the main front room containing a giant bed (that I suspect the whole family sleep on), a TV, a table, and stack of plastic chairs, which were laid out for us as visitors. The TV was showing what was clearly the Indonesian equivalent of the X Factor, and the family were sitting around with blankets around their shoulders (it’s cold up here in the mountains at night) drinking coffee, smoking the strange clove scented cigarettes that abound in Indonesia, and having what we would call in England a ‘Big Night In’! The house was very different to ours, the snacks and drinks completely different, but we were united by our appreciation of the X Factor and temporarily bonded over a pigeon English discussion of the merits of the various singers. What a lovely experience.

After several motorbike trips up and down the mountain, ferrying children, bags etc, we all arrived safely at our hostel. The kind man asked for no money, but we gave him some anyway. I am so glad that we met with this kindness to take away the bitter taste that the minibus driver left us with.

As we walked into the hostel, we met the French tourists from the minibus. It turns out that after a stand off, the driver eventually took them all to the destination, and the money was not paid. But hey, we had an experience on the way, and we felt safer walking. I would not have got back on his bus, who knows where he would have taken us. All’s well that ends well, and it’s public transport and meter taxis all the way for us in Indonesia from now on.