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Belching and Fuming with a Strong Eggy Smell

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 18 September 2006.

Indonesia, Country 24, Diary entry 8th-13th August 2006, Total distance in Indonesia: 6654km

I was back in Jakarta's city centre by about 3pm after my visit out to the Care project in Tangerang, so I decided to make use of the remaining daylight hours and drove out of the city before the rush hour could start. Of course there were traffic jams all the way anyway but after an hour or so it started moving more freely and I got on the excellent express toll road southwards to Bogor.

Deer grazing at the Bogor Botanical GardensThe one and only reason any tourists ever go to Bogor is for the Botanical Gardens. These large gardens are located right in the middle of the town and the rest of the town is circled around them, and I was able to confirm that the town has no other redeeming features as I made my way around town at a gridlocked snail's pace looking for somewhere reasonable to stay. Eventually I found a small guesthouse, the one which was most strongly recommended in the guide book but I hadn't investigated because I drove past it and didn't want to double back... silly mistake! Also staying in the guesthouse were a Dutch father and daughter, a Belgian family and a few other westerners I didn't get to talk to. It was nice to see that some tourists were making it out of the city.

The Botanical Gardens were a bit of a disappointment. On the one hand it was nice to stroll around some gardens which were quite well kept and very quiet even if they allow people to drive their own cars in (I think I was lucky to go on a weekday) but the orchid house was closed, which was the thing I was most interested in, and the river running through the middle of the gardens looked as filthy as anything I'd seen in India, and yes I'm including the Ganges. I did spend a couple of hours in there as it was a big park, and enjoyed watching the deer grazing on the palace lawns, but soon decided it was time to move on. But first, right opposite the entrance to the gardens was a Dunkin' Donuts... I know what you're thinking but it was actually the idea of a decent coffee that attracted me in, but yes all right I did have a doughnut to go with it. They had obviously decided to allow local tastes to influence their selection of doughnuts, which I thought very admirable but I passed on the durian doughnut and went for a standard honey glazed one.

A tea plantation on the highway running through JavaI managed to escape the Bogor traffic and headed another chunk of the distance eastwards through the tea plantations to where I'd decided to spend the next night at my next volcano - Gunung Papandayan. After a couple of wrong turns trying to get up to the top of this volcano I finally arrived at the car park where I was pleased to find that everything was not all closed due to imminent eruption as the Lonely Planet had suggested it might be. There are some advantages to having an old guidebook after all. I'd previously been annoyed with the Lonely P for not bothering to release a new issue - the information in the latest guide is at least three years out of date - a particularly long time in this country with the various natural disasters and terrorist incidents having such an effect on the tourist industry. Oh well, it's fun to discover for oneself I suppose.

Sunrise on Gunung PapandayanIt was COLD at the volcano car park! As soon as I got out of the car I immediately changed into long trousers, socks and shoes and dug out my fleece, down jacket and woolly hat. Still, it was to be my first night's camping in a very long time and since I'd been complaining it was too damn hot to camp then this was a nice opportunity to have a comfortable night's sleep. Hopefully being up on top of a volcano meant I might be out of range of the mosques' super-speakers but it wasn't all good up there. I know that camping on top of an active volcano sounds like a good idea but the sulphurous smell emanating from the steam vents made it difficult to breathe. I decided I couldn't worry too much about it if I were asleep so set up camp and after a quick sandwich I was in bed asleep.

Surprisingly, I didn't ignore my alarm and did get my lazy arse out of my nice warm bed to watch the sunrise. After a half-hour climb in the dark the sun was starting to rise over the horizon making it just light enough to hike without a torch, and a bit further still I found a nice convenient rock to sit on and wait for the sunrise. It was spectacular - the colours of the sun coming up and casting its light onto the plumes of steam coming out from the yellow vents, and gradually creeping up to illuminate the rest of the mountain... it was just beautiful, and better still I had it entirely to myself.

Some of the devastation at Pangandaran following the 2006 tsunamiBack at the car, after a leisurely breakfast and a chat with the stall owner who wanted to practise his English, I decided to get on the road, and with a shock I realised it was still only 8 o'clock in the morning. Normally time to think about getting up and doing things! The drive to the next stop was on very twisty roads but with beautiful scenery through terraces of rice paddies. After around three hours of driving I arrived at Pangandaran, another of those places on the expedition that has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons - three weeks before my visit Pangandaran was devastated by a tsunami caused by an offshore earthquake. Despite the similarities to the great tsunami of December 2004, early warning signs were not acted on by the authorities and no alert was passed to the resort, and as a result over 800 people lost their lives.

Broken boats on the beach at PangandaranArriving so soon after such a natural disaster is a real shock to the system. We had of course visited the site of the Pakistani earthquake also a matter of weeks after the event but having witnessed a fresh disaster once doesn't make you any more prepared for it a second time. Driving into the town from inland, the first thing you pass is a relief camp full of tents for those who have lost their homes, and then arriving at the beach the full extent of the devastation is clear. The buildings facing the sea are without exception totally destroyed - in some cases the buildings remain roughly upright but the force of the water punched through the walls leaving them in a treacherous state. These were not bamboo shacks, they were properly constructed concrete buildings and they had been swept away all the same. The beach was littered with the remains of boats that had been smashed by the wave, and only a few days ago were the last of the town's roads cleared of the sand and rubble that had made it impossible to drive vehicles along the streets. Apparently there had been a line of stalls lining the beach selling food, souvenirs etc. and these had got completely washed away leaving not even a trace.

I did not visit any of the aid agencies so I did not see the human scale of the tragedy, aside from seeing people clearing up, people collecting money from passing cars and the complete lack of tourists present in what should be their peak season. It was a shocking scene and I have nothing but respect for the aid workers who dedicate their lives to going into these horrific situations and do their best to help the survivors. May I take this as another opportunity to remind you of the Care International "donate now" button on the left of the page.

With the infrastructure severely damaged it will be a long time before Pangandaran is back on its feet again. I stopped in at one of the very few restaurants that was open a couple of streets back from the beach and patronised the internet cafe just to make a tiny contribution to keeping the tourist money but there wasn't a lot else I could do. I drove back out of town and drove on until it was starting to get dark again and ended up spending the night in a small place called Baturraden.

Baturraden is a hill resort with a mostly local clientele and crowded with hotels, so as a result and being midweek it wasn't hard to find a bargain place to stay. I parked the car, the sate man arrived with his mobile barbecue and cooked up a lovely sate in the car park and I relaxed with a beer and the laptop for the evening.

Agriculture on the Dieng PlateauIn the morning the clouds were low so there were none of the promised spectacular views so I got into freshly washed car (thanks to an enterprising local) and drove up to the Dieng Plateau.

Trying to avoid backtracking where possible I decided to take the small roads to Dieng and take the main road out, but this plan hit a stumbling block when at one junction the road was closed and with my neither my excellent Indonesian language skills nor my best charades could I work out why, but determined it would be closed until "jam dua" - two o'clock. Luckily another local came over and with some basic English explained that this man would escort me via an alternative route, only 2km longer. Well I soon found out why this route was alternative, taking me along dirt tracks barely wide enough for the Land Cruiser to squeeze through, bends that I couldn't manage without using reverse gear and even gradients that required low-ratio gears! The views were spectacular. As the road climbed the temperature dropped to quite mild and the landscape opened out, and the land was extensively farmed with vegetables such as cabbages, lettuces, potatoes etc. Whereas in Sumatra every spare flat bit of land was farmed, here in Java with much higher population even the steep bits are farmed. The volcanic peaks were just visible through the low cloud which had thinned since I'd set off in the morning and of course it was much more fun than a boring old tarmac road.

We arrived near Dieng at a chilly 2000m altitude and I tried to ascertain where the chap wanted to be dropped off, so in the end I took him to the village centre where his friend who spoke English advised me that it would be nice for me to give the guy some money for him to catch a bus back to where I'd picked him up... since he had his bags with him I assumed I was doing him a favour giving him a lift! But no, a tip was expected, and I paid it with fairly good grace since I really would have never found the track without him.

Aside from the views of the fertile farming land which really are the main draw card for the area, there are a few other sights. The first one was the Arjuna Complex of Hindu temples, which were built between the 8th and 9th centuries and abandoned for centuries before being rediscovered by Dutch explorers in the 18th century. I am obviously getting seriously templed-out now, as I turned up, snapped off a couple of pictures and then got back in the car, but in retrospect they really weren't all that special. The Central Javanese style of temple is basically a square box, and since the majority of the carvings had been eroded away they didn't have a great deal to offer. Next stop was Kawah Sikidang which is a volcanic crater with a large bubbling mud pool. In contrast with bubbling mud I'd seen in other parts of the world, this one was really going for it. The pool was large, maybe 15m by 5m but the mud inside was boiling away really fiercely rather than just simmering. Slightly worrying the security barrier, which was only a line of tape about trip-you-up height, was missing from around half of the perimeter so I had to be careful where I walked and once the camera was up against my eye STOP MOVING. I had the whole place to myself and I climbed the nearby hill to get as close to a bird's eye view. A quick stop at Candi Bima, another not-very-exciting Javanese temple and then on to Telaga Warna, a turquoise lake. Well they tell me it was supposed to be turquoise but with the sun well and truly behind the thickening clouds by this time the colour looked more like light grey to me. Added to this was the sound of petrol-driven water pumps chugging away all around the lake, pumping water out and along ridiculously long pipe systems snaking their way across the whole plateau to provide irrigation for the crops. It was a shame, but maybe if I'd been there a little earlier I'd have had a different impression. I descended the hill to the first town at a sensible altitude, Wonosobo, where I found the most swish hotel I've ever paid only 6 quid for, and with the local mosques acting as alarm clock as usual I had no need to set an alarm of my own for the next day, when I planned to get on the road early to complete the drive to one of Indonesia's highlights and its most popular tourist attraction - the temple of Borobudur.

Schoolkid inquisitors at BorobudurBorobudur is a stunning site, even for someone who has seen too many temples. A colossal Buddhist relic dating from 800AD or so, it measures a huge 118m along each side of the square base, tapering up in terraces: six square terraces forming galleries of relief carvings in the stone depicting typical Javanese life and Buddhist teachings, which close up are intricately carved and would have been painted long ago. On top of the square terraces are three circular ones with 72 latticed stupas each containing a Buddha in the lotus position. It is thought that the monument was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos, starting in the everyday world at the base and spiralling up to nirvana.

The lattice stupas at BorobudurI stopped at the base of the monument to take in its scale and was promptly intercepted by a bunch of schoolkids who had an assignment to hassle English-speaking tourists and ask them questions about their country, their job etc. I answered their questions and autographed their school shirts (!) and proceeded to the first terrace of the monument to admire the carvings.

With a monument this size and following the prescribed route of a complete clockwise circuit of each terrace before climbing the stairs to the next (except one which was closed for ongoing restoration work), it took some time to reach the uppermost circular layers, especially as I suffered three further schoolkid interrogations along the way.

Me at BorobudurThe latticed stupas are the real symbol of Borobudur and having seen photos before, to see them for real was very impressive. The whole temple had been covered by volcanic ash for around 1000 years before being discovered by good old Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, and since then it has been damaged by lightning strikes and terrorist bombs, but today it is hard to believe, the restoration work has been so successful. Inside the lattice stupas the Buddhas are in various conditions, and a couple of the stupas are missing leaving the Buddha exposed. Like Davros surrounded by his daleks (yes, sad I know). It is considered good luck to touch the Buddhas so despite all the signs everywhere telling you not to climb, some of the stupas had people straining to get enough reach to touch. Of course being the gangly westerner it was no problem for me.

A few more photos snapped off and I was climbing back down the massive structure and stopping briefly at an exhibition detailing (with photos, but the comments only in Indonesian) the restoration work following the 1985 terrorist bombs, I exited the compound and was thrust back into the inevitable tourist market clustered between the temple's entrance and the car park. I stopped at one of the countless warungs (food stalls) in amongst the tourist tat and had a quick fried rice, just for a change, but at a surprisingly non-inflated price, and headed on down the hill just 45 minutes to Yogyakarta. Well, 45 minutes to the edge of Yogyakarta, then another 45 minutes into the centre - I was back in the city again, and Javanese cities are horrendous for traffic. Without getting too lost I found one of the budget hotel areas and checked into a cheap guesthouse. This time the room wasn't as swish as the night before but the place has a nice garden feel to it, a swimming pool and cost only 3 quid a night. Suits me fine. Having been woken early in the morning every morning for the last several days by mosques, traffic, or cockerels I wasn't feeling energetic enough to explore the city, and in any case I had decided that despite the frenetic pace I'd set myself to reach my desired ship from East Timor I would stay at least two nights to have a day off from the driving. I explored the local area which consists of other guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and a lot of rubble, which wasn't obvious whether it was because there was a lot of building going on or if it was damage caused by the recent earthquake (two months before my visit).

The Taman Sari, or water palaceThe following morning I met again two Belgian girls, Griet and Femke, whom I'd briefly met in Jakarta. It turned out that their plans for what they were doing next tied in closely with mine - Solo followed by Mount Bromo - so I invited them to join me... so that means I had to tidy up the car of course! A job for later, there was sightseeing to be done, and the first place I went to see was the Taman Sari, or water castle.

Yogyakarta owes its existence to a sultan who built the kraton or walled city in 1755, but its more recent history is more responsible for how it is today. During the independence struggle against the Dutch in 1948 the then sultan locked himself in the kraton where the Dutch were reluctant to tread for fear of arousing the anger of the millions of Javanese who looked upon him almost as a god. The sultan allowed rebels to use the palace as a base, and since then the Indonesians have come to view Yogyakarta as a special place in their history. There is still a sultan today and the region is self-governing and answerable directly to Jakarta.

The Taman Sari was basically the sultan's swimming pool complex and though very decorative, it is now home to a load of guides, batik salespeople and puppet makers. There were three pools - one for the sultan himself, one for his wives (the lucky chap had 35 of them, one for each day of the month plus a couple spare in case of bad weather) and one for his kids - I forget how many but a lot. In their prime these pools must have been very luxurious but are now in urgent need of redecoration after decades of weathering added to which the recent earthquake had caused some big cracks in the structure and some of the decorative pieces had fallen away.

Our unintelligible guide at the KratonI walked on via an "I'm not lost really" route to the kraton, and inside to the sultan's palace. I paid my fees to get in (plus extra for the camera) and was issued my English-speaking guide who walked me through the main entrance and well into the first courtyard when I was about to ask wasn't he supposed to be telling me about the place? But he pre-empted me and started his lecture by telling me that the price for the guide is not included in the admission fee... bollocks it isn't, said I, and told him we'd go back to the ticket desk to check. Surprised this didn't bother him I did just that, was told yes the guide is included but may want a tip at the end. I thought that's fair enough if he's any good but shouldn't be expected. I told the guide to go and do something anatomically impossible and joined a French couple and their French-speaking guide.

Yogya royalty as Mr. SpockIn retrospect this was an unfortunate choice as their guide, a woman who must have been in her sixties and less than five feet tall with milk bottle bottoms for glasses, was almost totally unintelligible. Well it's over a year now since I've spoken any meaningful French and I knew it was inevitable I'd slowly lose it but I was getting a little disheartened by how little I could follow... until the French guy leaned over and asked me if I could understand what she was talking about!! That made me feel a lot better, I said I could hardly follow a thing, and later I noticed another much larger French group come past us sniggering whenever our guide spoke.

So I can't tell you much about the sultan or his palace apart from that it is very ornate, there are lots of gamelan musical instruments all over the place and many many portraits of the current sultan and his ancestors, with very classy ear jewellery that makes them look like Mr. Spock.

After leaving the palace I took a walk along Malioboro Street (named after a badly spelled Duke of Marlborough) which is the main shopping street and full of batik shops and other things I didn't really want, so I felt I'd seen what I wanted to see in Yogyakarta and returned to the guesthouse, tidied up the car to make space for my two new passengers and then had a quick swim and laze in the last of the sunshine with an International Herald Tribune I'd managed to pick up when I was out.

Temple at PrambananSo with my hitchhikers shoehorned into the car we set off for Solo, stopping along the way at Prambanan, another spectacular Hindu temple only about 20km outside Yogyakarta and one of the great sights of Indonesia but regrettably badly damaged by the Yogya earthquake. Though the main temples are still standing, they are in an unstable condition and visitors are restricted to viewing from quite a distance. Despite this they have maintained the already ridiculously high entrance charge which is of course 10x the price Indonesians pay. Perhaps they assume that tourists won't come this far and then balk at paying a few more dollars, but in our cases they were wrong and we took a few photos through and over the perimeter fence.

I climbed onto the roof of the car to take a better picture and noticed that the other hinge on the tailgate had also snapped - presumably it was already weak and with the other having broken in Sumatra, the twisting action on this hinge had proved too much. Fortunately I saw it before it was totally broken into pieces but it was something that needed fixing in the next town.

According to the book, the only thing really worth seeing in Solo is another sultan's palace, and after getting the hinge re-welded the palace had closed so I spent the afternoon wandering the streets just to see what I could find. The answer was - the most unpleasant town I'd visited anywhere in Indonesia so far. There were tramps walking the streets and begging for money, and one was even grabbed a handful of dust from the road and rubbed it into his hair, for some reason I could never work out. The stallholders in the markets were aggressive, and one guy riding on the back of a scooter shouted something in a very nasty tone of voice in my direction as he passed. The scooter stopped at the next lights and the guy got off and walked towards me shouting something in Indonesian which was presumably not very friendly judging by his tone of voice and the look of anger on his face, then eventually I understood part of his rant: "GO OUT INDONESIA!". Hoping that he understood another couple of English words, of which the second was "off", complete with raised middle finger in his face, I was expecting him to lash out, and I think all the bystanders were expecting it too, but it never came. I turned my back on him and walked away from his demented shouting. I was shocked though. Everyone in every country I'd been through to this point had been really friendly (except for the Indian gawpers maybe) and especially the Indonesians had been so welcoming to any tourists who brave the perceived risks to still come to their country after all the problems they've had, so to be greeted with this overt hostility was totally unexpected. It was very sad, but it was only one person.

Really it was because I was faced with leaving Solo thinking it had been a total waste of time stopping there that I made the effort to do one of the other main sights of the town. Every evening they host a traditional dance called wayang orang and we decided to go and have a look. Femke and Griet were a little wary of going in because they had been to a puppet show the previous night in Yogya and were stuck in there totally bored for two hours not understanding what was going on before being able to escape, so we decided to play it safe and arrive late, so worst case if we did get stuck until the end it would only be an hour.

The story, as best I could work it out, was basically that one person wearing very colourful traditional clothes and jewellery (including Spock ears) meets another person also lavishly dressed, they talk, the gamelan music starts, they fight, the scene ends. The next scene is the same, but with different people and with a different backdrop (maybe a palace room, maybe a country lane) but the same gamelan music, for which the word "cacophony" could almost have been invented. It was well worth going to, but after half an hour enough was enough and we moved on, back to the guesthouse to get some sleep ready for the long drive the next day.

Mount Semeru belching a cloud of ashThe drive to the bottom of Bromo was long and unexciting, and we climbed up the long steep road to the village on the crater rim - Cemoro Lawang. I'd originally planned to camp, but faced with an early start to catch the sunrise I decided I couldn't face an even earlier start to pack the tent down beforehand, the sunrise point being driving distance away, added to which it was pretty chilly up there once the sun went down. Accommodation in this part of the world is of a price where camping just isn't worth the inconvenience sometimes.

We had arranged to meet at 3:45am - normally a time of day for leaving O'Cardinal's - and thanks to Griet and Femke knocking on my door at about 3:50am I didn't sleep through the whole sunrise. We got in the Cruiser and drove to the entrance barrier past all the other jeeps there plying their trade (as they call them, they are exclusively 70-series Land Cruisers) and descended the steep rocky road down into the Tengger caldera, a vast crater 10km across and out of which have emerged three volcanoes: Bromo, Batok and Kursi. The area around these three volcanoes is known as the Sea of Sand for a very good reason. It is a vast flat plain of sand with a few 4x4 trails snaking across, and we took what we assumed was the correct trail through the dense low-lying cloud trapped in the crater (it was, more by luck than judgement) to make our way to the other side of the crater from where a road climbs to the highest point on the rim: Penanjakan at 2770m altitude, and from where the view stretches right across the Tengger caldera to Mount Semeru in the background. Mount Semeru is the tallest mountain in Java at 3676m and also its most active volcano, belching a cloud of ash into the sky around once every 15 minutes.

We arrived at the end of the road at around 4:30am and we weren't the first there... there must have been 20 other jeeps there before us so we climbed up and after a quick coffee to kickstart the failing system and defrost the innards a little (it was COLD!) we ran the gauntlet of jacket rental touts to arrive at the viewpoint itself. We managed to find a section of railing to call our own and successfully defended it against the other streams of people who kept on arriving until the sun started to creep above the clouds on the horizon at around 5:15am.

The landscape of Bromo with Semeru in the backgroundStrangely, a lot of people disappeared at 5:30am - they had been told they had to be back at their jeeps at that time, which was strange as it was only just starting to get interesting then! Many people do tours from Bali or other tourist centres, arriving in Cemoro Lawang late one evening, seeing sunrise and ascending Bromo crater the next morning and finishing by 8am to start their journey back to their resort hotels, but it seems a bit of a waste of time if you don't get to see what you came for! We waited longer, enjoyed the improving spectacle, the sun burned off a lot of the clouds trapped in the crater so we could finally see Bromo and Batok, and all in the presence of a much reduced crowd (though there was an Italian group so their volume made up for all the others who had already left). We were treated to a few more belches of ash from Semeru and finally made our way back down the road to the Sea of Sand.

Driving across the Sea of Sand was much easier in the daylight and without the clouds and we easily made our way across to the bottom of the pathway climbing to the rim of Bromo, just as all the package crowds were coming down. Perfect timing! We made a quick start to the climb partly to run away from everyone trying to sell us horse rides and partly to get away from the overriding stench of horse shit which permeated the parking area. The path was steep and sandy making it quite hard work, but finally we arrived at the bottom of a staircase taking us the rest of the way up to the rim.

The steaming crater of Mt. BromoAt the top the view into the crater was stunning. There is a constant plume of steam coming from the vent at the bottom of the crater, around which is a strong yellow colour from all the sulphur, but fortunately except when the wind gusted a little our way we couldn't smell it. There is a treacherously narrow-looking path around the rim which we started to walk around, Griet stopping part-way round because she was still recovering from some stomach upsets, leaving me and Femke to show the mountain who was boss by conquering it.

Finally we arrived back at the staircase, after all this activity it was still only 8:45am and DEFINITELY well-overdue time for breakfast! We drove back up the rocky road to Cemoro Lawang, had some breakfast after which I decided it would not be weak or in any way inappropriate to go back to bed to catch up on my sleep which had been so rudely interrupted. I slept until about 1pm and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the village - with the laptop and a coffee, looking at the overpriced postcards and peering over the edge of the crater to check the volcanoes were still there. They were, so we piled in the car again to head down to the Sea of Sand again with the idea of finding our own little sunset spot.

Actually when you're down in the Sea of Sand you realise that the sun disappears behind the rim of the crater well before it starts getting colourful, so we ended up driving right back up to the top of Penanjakan to watch the sunset from there. It looked like it was going to be a waste of time because the clouds had gathered again, but conveniently they cleared for us just as the sun was setting.

We spent the evening on a rematch of the previous evening's card tournament (second place = first loser, unfortunately) and got an early night after all the day's activities.

It seemed that the steep descents into the crater had been a little too much for my brakes, as I discovered when we were driving back down to the coast - one bend they were spongy, the next worse and the third they didn't work at all! It was an interesting moment but a few pumps on the pedal was enough to make the car slow down just enough to make it round the bend, with squealing tyres to add to the sensory experience. I pulled over and checked them out, to find the front left smoking. Not good. We waited a while for them to cool down and carried on, crawling in a low gear, and I gave the girls the option to get out and catch a bus down or risk their lives with me. They chose the exciting option and I ended up dropping them at the bus terminal on the outskirts of Probolinggo while I drove into the centre to try to find someone working on a Sunday to have a look (it had to be a Sunday!).

I did find someone, and we checked the brake pads to find the front left badly worn - after I'd checked in Medan and all was fine! But it looked like the master cylinder seals had gone and of course Toyota was shut. With new brake pads I decided it was OK to carry on as the road was flat from here, but I'd need to get the rest looked at ASAP. Toyota in Denpasar would be open the next day so I gingerly pressed on to the ferry port and crossed from Java to Bali.

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Comment from Ant
I bet that's not the first time that 2 young ladies have knocked you up at some daft time of night to see something exciting...!

18 Sep 2006 @ 13:54:05