South-East Asia has a reputation as a tourist magnet, but a rich, relaxed world lies beyond the hubbub, as Catherine Lawson and her family discover during 500 kilometres of pedalling.
Riding out of Jakarta is pure madness: the surging crush of motorbikes and buses, trucks and taxis, all racing and suddenly braking on impossibly slender streets. We dive into the mayhem before we lose heart, hoping like hell that nobody clips us, toppling our touring bikes into the unforgiving traffic.
Escaping Indonesia’s most populated city is anything but the road less travelled. In a metropolis of more than 10 million people there are no empty roads, but we battle on in anticipation of the uncharted riding along Java’s raw Indo coastline, three white-knuckled days away. On this harrowing escape from the city, there are bloody, turbo-charged spills that we patch up with bandages and gaffer tape, and a fatal collision that almost derails the whole crazy adventure.
There are skid marks and motorcycle debris and a body on the road that isn’t moving. Dave motions his finger across his throat and we push our bikes through the milling crowd with eyes averted, our heads full of ‘what ifs’ that leave us sombre and trembling. As we regain our calm, the road empties out, rising and falling through verdant hills to freewheel us towards the surf break at Cimaja.
We rip off our face masks and breathe in the salt air and, a few Bintangs later, muscle fatigue and those bloody images of road carnage begin to fade. An uncharted coastline stretches east of us, luring us towards villages that spill out onto white-sand beaches, where English falls on deaf ears and gruelling, all-day climbs end with daily hunts for a room and food.
But we don’t know any of this yet, and when our Google searches lead us nowhere, we stock up on cash and biscuits, pack camping supplies as insurance against the villages we may not reach before dark, and set out on one of the toughest, most exhilarating rides of our entire South-East Asian cycling adventure.
COAST TO THE CLOUDS
On the outskirts of Cimaja we cycle out of our guidebook and into the unknown, kick-starting the long, unrelenting climb towards Jampang Kulon. Heads down, legs pumping, we inch upwards past towering forest giants draped with jungly vines, and makeshift shacks selling esky-cool drinks and deep-fried bananas.
The heat is unbearable and there’s 1,000 metres of altitude to gain, so the road never levels out. It takes us half a day to cycle 16km, legs burning and butts in the air, so halfway up the range we stop to give our four-year-old daughter Maya her own leg stretch. Having already ridden pillion for over 1,100km from Singapore to Thailand, she’s as patient as ever, happily taking in her side-on view of the world from the back of Dave’s bike.
Stopped at the only hole-in-the-wall shop for miles, I suddenly realise that today’s our anniversary and miraculously find tiny squares of homemade chocolate cake for sale, which we wash down with coffee milk and sweet iced tea.
Back in the saddle, the slow, sunny day lulls Maya to sleep and while she snoozes, we top out and coast effortlessly through lofty tea plantations, rolling along in the chilly high altitude air and relishing the dramatic change of scene. It’s the high point of the day in every way, because after 5km, the road tips us back down towards the sea, making us rumble over rugged gravel and brake into ridiculously tight corners.
We refuel mid-afternoon on nasi goreng and pedal on to end our 65 kilometre day in a mouldy room at the local penginapan in Jampang Kulon. We shell out 100,000 rupiah ($10 ) for the deluxe suite and throw our sarongs over the least mildewy of the four beds on offer, ladle ourselves with cold water scooped out of an oversized mandi, and shovel down plates of untempting cold tempeh, rice and fried greens.
When we go looking for nightlife in Jampang Kulon, we return with ice creams and spend the night sweating under a single fan whirring hopelessly against the humidity.
It feels good to be out of bed and back on the bikes as we cruise downhill at dawn, rolling past neighbourhood mosques and verdant paddy fields. We spin downhill to cross the slow, wide Cikaso River and wonder what dramatic waterfalls might be reached if we could convince a local boatman to take us upstream.
The morning’s freewheeling ends with a rugged uphill grind that is simply too steep to pedal. I get off and push, cursing life’s possessions that are weighing me down. Rising and falling, the day finds its own rigorous rhythm. We stop to picnic in the cool of rubber trees, far from towns and villages and traffic, and begin to feel the euphoria that challenging exercise brings.
At a tiny roadside shack in the coconut sugar plantations, I string together enough mangled Bahasa to order hot, creamy coffees and an overload of fried sweet potato and bananas to fill our grumbling bellies. Afterwards, in fleeting downhill runs, we glimpse the sea.
But before we reach it, the road tugs us up and inland one more time and we don’t return to that breezy coast until we’ve endured a hot night in a windowless box, plagued by power cuts and bed bugs and eluded by sleep. There is language confusion of epic proportions, pigeons in the rafters and nowhere to buy food, so we boil packet noodles and tough it out.
At dawn in Sindang Barang, I get wolf-whistled for the first time, while buying deep-fried tofu from a street cart. And so, in this unlikely manner, begins the best day of our entire Javanese adventure.
Suddenly there it is, our first big sky view of Java’s southern tricoloured coast: an endless sweep of white sand beach, fringed by coconut palms and the big blue beyond. This deserted, rapturous scene accompanies us all the way to Rancabuaya Beach where we take sanctuary in a breezy hilltop bungalow, perched above a perfectly arcing, bright blue cove where wooden fishing boats nudge onto a golden coral shore.
Maya covets the bungalow’s deep, cool swimming pool, and later, at a seaside noodle bar, delights local food sellers with offerings of shells and pebbles and chatty conversations that need no translation. There are sand pagodas to build and a pair of discreet beers relished on our balcony while our beach-tired traveller sleeps and Indonesian bikers light up the night with Saturday night fireworks.
At 300,000 rupiah a night ($30 ), there’s little tempting us away from Rancabuaya, so we fill another day with beachcombing and spend the night swimming in the rain. When we do drag our little fish out of the pool and back onto the bikes, the worst of the south coast’s hills are behind us. We ride on, paralleling the coast for two blissful days past pure white beaches severed by braided green rivers.
RIDING THE GREEN CANYON
It’s the image that lured us to Java in the first place: light falling on Green Canyon’s soaring sculpted walls and a small boat pushing upstream against the gushing, deep flow. The lure of gliding through this stunning chasm moved us many miles, but reaching the nearby village of Batu Karas is bittersweet.
Its hyped-up backpacker scene and sudden easy living leaves us all at sea. We check into a small beach bungalow and share our hosts’ feast of campfire-cooked fish served with fiery sambal and mountains of coconut rice. We stoke the fire, sit back to a cold drink, and life becomes uncomplicated for a day or two.
Inevitably though, itchy feet ride us out of there and we pay a longtail boatman 100,000 rupiah to take us upriver into the Green Canyon. Riverbanks whizz by until the canyon’s vast stone walls flare suddenly upwards, squeezing the emerald river into a rushing, narrow channel.
We jump out and grab hold of a knotted rope to pull ourselves upstream, fighting the force of the chilly flow pushing us back. It’s a good thrill – cheap and fleeting – but it can’t possibly compete with all the self-determined miles and intangible pleasures of the past few weeks.
THE BUS TO YOGYAKARTA
Covering new ground east of Batu Karas, we endure 38km of crowded, traffic-choked streets that lead us to Pangandaran’s hopelessly touristy beachfront and become convinced that the best of our cycling is behind us. The beaches are dirty and dank bars hog the sand, so we throw our bikes onto a local bus, place a stack of rupiah in the bus driver’s hand and make a beeline for Yogyakarta.
Off the bikes in this historical Javanese city, there are back streets to wander and history to unearth. We play tourists, climbing Borobudur – a ninth century Buddhist temple – in time for sunrise, and lose our way in the underground tunnels that lead to Taman Sari’s secret pleasure pools. We shop and eat and take long hot showers and plan the next leg.
But after peddling 2,000km across five South-East Asian countries, our time on Java’s sublime southern coast proves impossible to beat. To feel utterly out-of-place is rare these days; yet on this untarnished coast, where villages spill out onto white-sand beaches and locals ogled us in a way that turned the clock back 20 years, we experienced something akin to a truly authentic adventure.
Children rushed out to meet our tiniest traveller, endearing us to strangers at every turn, and, challenged by all-day-long hills, no-frills living and epic language confusion, we returned to a time when conversations with locals were fuelled by curiosity and aided by phrasebooks, and routes were inspired by maps and magazines, not some stranger’s blog.
With no local transport system in place, it’s true to say that only self-propelled travellers will tackle this route, and fewer still by bicycle. But if you thought it impossible to escape the pack in South-East Asia, this wild coastal route proves the road less travelled is ready and waiting.
Fly Qantas (via Sydney) or Air Asia (via Kuala Lumpur) to Jakarta. The cycle from Jakarta to Cimaja on the south coast takes two to three days (160km), and it’s another five days’ ride (410km) to Batu Karas.
When to go
Temperatures vary little across Java but there is less rain and fewer tourists from May to June.
What to take
Bring your own touring bike, panniers, repair kit and spares (locals are more often motorbikers than cyclists). Pack lightweight clothing and carry lots of small currency. Come equipped with as much Bahasa as you can learn and a bright smile, to quickly bring out when things don’t go to plan (as the locals do).
Where to stay
You’ll find very basic Indonesian guesthouses (not always English-speaking) at Jampang Kulon, Sindang Barang, Rancabuaya (our favourite), Pameungpeuk and Cipatujah.
DISCOVER MORE ADVENTURES IN ASIA