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Indonesia

For years I’d always scorned about visiting Bali. It epitomized everything I hated about travel – mass tourism, overzealous hawkers and an abundance of Australian’s behaving badly. Statistically speaking, Indonesia (i.e. Bali), would be the most dangerous place I would visit, with an Australian dying every nine days. Sitting in the departure lounge of Darwin Airport, with the main demographic being males between the ages of 20-30, wearing singlet’s, snapback hats and sporting a cliché sleeve tattoo, I wondered which one of us would help contribute to the above statistic. The reaffirmation continued well into the 2.5 hour flight, with Bintang cans being ferried through the plane with reckless abandon. I stepped off the air-conditioned plane and took my first breaths of the hot, muggy South East Asian air and all my built up misgivings about coming to Bali were instantly removed. Looking back over the last month I still can’t believe most Australian’s never leave Kuta Beach or Seminyak.

After clearing customs, I marched past the gauntlet of touts offering a diverse range of amenities – taxis, hotels, beers, and even valium and weed. I guess it must have been my beard? No taxi or hotel was needed as I planned on sleeping at the airport. I guess I wasn’t really surprised to see other Australians wasting no time in getting started, with their favourite tour guide excitedly handing them a popped Bintang, which they proceeded to skull. It was in those moments that I actually considered turning to the dark side and saying that I was from New Zealand.

After setting up my bicycle in the morning I rode south to Uluwatu visiting a Buddist temple and watching some of the world’s most famous surf breaks. Later on in the afternoon I met up with PJ, my first Warmshowers host. Warmshowers is a little like Couchsurfing, but is exclusive for cycle tourers like me and after a few days in and around Kuta, the road was calling and I headed north through the mountains. Within three hours I’d managed to have my first accident. Going up a slight incline on a single lined country road, a truck didn’t give me any room at all, even though he had the ability to. My front wheel was forced into soft sand and I inadvertently fell inwards to the truck. My head smacked into the tire and my elbow broke the fall. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, but if I were going downhill I would have been on the 6pm news for all the wrong reasons. Anxiety started to kick in with my mind, contemplating how on earth I’d get through Java if I couldn’t even negotiate Bali.

Uluwatu, Bali
Farming Hills, Bali

After a quick ferry crossing I was on the island of Java – the most populous island in the world with 150 million people. The transition from the tranquil Hindi Bali to the frenzied Muslim Java couldn’t have been more noticeable. Alas it was good to be back in the Muslim world. Women wore headscarfs, beards were commonplace and various mosques all throughout the day would sing the call to prayer. Wild camping would become a thing of the past, cooking my own meals would be pointless, and constantly being the centre of attention would never make for a dull day. Shouts of “Helloooo Mister”, “Hey” and “Photo” would consistently be yelled out from all directions. Whilst many cyclists despise this sort of behaviour, I found it quite entertaining; the Javanese people only had the best intentions for a foreigner. Even the police, noted for their corruption by locals, were nice enough to let me sleep in their police station each night. I’d be given a shower, tea and a healthy side serving of photo taking. In return all I had to do was answer the uniform questions about my marital status, religion, if I was a bachelor and if I think Indonesian girls were beautiful. One night I even managed to score a bed in an actual cell – thankfully unlocked. ​

My first point of call in Java was Ijen Crater, which is home to a one kilometre wide acidic lake and sulphur miners who extract sulphur in horrendous conditions. I woke at 2am and made the 2-hour trek to reach the rim of the crater. Gas masks were for sale at 50,000RPH, but considering my exposure to sulphur working in the wine industry, I thought I’d surely be about to tough it out; a dollar saved is a dollar earned. We then cautiously walked down a narrow, rocky path which represented something like Mordor from Lord of the Rings. For 45 minutes I kept my eyes firmly focused at my shoes until we reached the sulphur extraction point. Bright blue sulphur flames, illuminated by the darkness, made for an amazing sight. It was there that I realised my buff cycling bandanna and merino jumper probably wasn’t the most cunning money saving contraption I’d anticipated. The wind had changed direction and a sulphur vent had pushed all the sulphur fumes in our direction. A sulphur storm ensued and visibility dropped to nothing. Tears swelled in my eyes, my throat was on fire and I could only take shallow breaths. This lasted for about a minute which felt like an hour. Fortunately things cleared up and I was able to start processing what I was seeing.

Sulphur Miner, Java
Sulphur Miner, Java
The path down to the sulphur crater, Java

The elemental sulphur is channelled through ceramic pipes and experiences condensation, resulting in the final yellow bricks. These bricks are then carried up by the sulphur miners and weigh between 70-90Kgs. The miners also didn’t have gas masks – or any protective gear at all for that matter. The long, draining journey from start to finish is made twice a day, for a poultry wage of $10 a day – my daily budget. I felt not only a great sense of amazement from the strength of these miners, but also an overriding guilt at the working conditions some people endure merely to survive and provide. I guess what most struck me was that the plight of the miners had been turned into a tourist attraction, with people even bringing selfie sticks into the fray. A part of me thinks such little innovation in the mining process is a result in the booming tourism dollars flowing into/from the area. I doubt my 100,000RPH entry fee would flow all the way down to the miners. And I doubt tourists would come if there was a massive conveyor belt transporting sulphur up the mine. It was capitalism at its worst.

Sulphur Miner, Java
Sunrise Over Ijen Crater, Java

Merely two days after ascending the steep inclines of Ijen Crater, I was once again pushing my bicycle trying to get to another one of Java’s many active volcanos. Mt Bromo is probably the most visited volcano, with many organised tours offering day trips including the famous ‘Sunrise Over Bromo’. I, on the other hand, could only afford the 217,000 RPI entrance fee (locals were only charged 27,000) and tormented my body with another lactic acid riddled climb. After reaching the pass, I looked at a faint line on my map and knew it just had to be cycled. I descended into the ominously named ‘Sea of Sand’ along a thin motorcycle track. At times deep trenches formed after years of use by locals, with there barely being enough room to move. Most of the time I had to walk as it was too difficult and dangerous to keep balance. As per usual, the less trodden path provided cycling nirvana. The steep track led me through a savannah valley, surrounded by volcanic mountains and flowers. The welcome silence made me question if I was actually becoming deaf. Crossing the sea of sand was like cycling across a lunar landscape and the variety of landscapes had me stopping frequently and admiring the beauty.

An international ultra marathon was being held in the area, with Ceromo Lawang- Mt. Bromo’s makeshift base camp- being overrun by trekking pole enthusiasts. The simple economic theory of supply and demand pushed the average price of a homestay up to 400,000; an absolute rort. After eating dinner I went to an abandoned toll booth, rolled out my sleeping mat and didn’t even change out of my cycling clothes. The exertion it took to get to Mt Bromo eventually compromised my ability to see the sunrise as I’d overslept. Nonetheless I went to the viewpoint to get a few disappointing photos of a hazy mountain and then cycled out of the crater with a convoy of 4X4.

Ceromo Lawang in the Early fog, Java
Cars at the Base of Mt. Bromo, Java

Many people ask why I travel by bicycle. Why not take trains and planes to get to cities and attractions quicker? The best way I can describe this is my stay in a relatively little non-descript town called Madiun. I’d arranged to stay with Ammia who was another Warmshowers host. She suggested that I stay longer to experience the Reog Festival in Ponorogo and with two other visiting tourists, Liza and Jose, we were destined for a good time. Ammia’s definition of experience was one that involves participation. As soon as we arrived the performers started fitting us out in traditional attire. Luckily Jose and I would be Indonesian warriors, requiring no makeup and a 10 minute fitting. Liza on the other hand would play a pivotal role in the performance by playing the Queen of the victorious King. She was swiftly moved away into another room where a team of girls proceeded to apply makeup and an extravagant dress.

The performance was about to begin and the three of us still had no idea of what was required or even if we had any lines. A short, stocky man who appeared to be the organiser, yelled at us in Indonesian with a big smile and that was our instructions. We made our way through the entrance of the performing stage and were immediately taken back by the size of the crowd and the deep, thumping music that was being played. My game plan was simple – follow and do as the other warriors. We walked around a little bit and I struggled to look like a tough warrior with a small smirk shining through at bizarreness of what I was doing. We then made it to the street where six small horses were getting saddled up. My heart was pacing as I’d never really ridden a horse before. And here I was nearly splitting my pants trying to mount a spooked out horse with a thick crowd of Indonesians recording my every move on their phones.

The stirrups were more catered for your average 5 foot Indonesian and not a 6 foot Australian. So the 2 hour horse ride began with an Australian playing an Indonesian warrior struggling to fit into the stirrups looking like he was trying to hump a cricket ball. Feeling like Alexander the Great and looking like Barbarossa I rode my horse throughout the surrounding villages, with people laughing and once again yelling out “Hello Mister” and “Boule” (foreigner). I’d even had a few people call me Osama Bin Laden. With people in their thousands, scooters rushing past, and loud dance music being blasted, it was just a matter of time before my horse would eventually have enough and try to buck me off. Fortunately this didn’t happen to me, but another one of the warriors wasn’t so lucky; getting thrown to the ground and scurrying away from an impending accident. After the horse party arrived back at the temple we then stood around for a good hour taking photos with just about everyone from Central Java. Later that night we would return and get VIP seats next to the stage and watch traditional dances and musical songs. The three foreigners were then invited up on stage to take part in a stand-up comedy show. I had no idea what they were saying, but I’m sure they were laughing at the colour of my hair. We went back to the guesthouse with a sense of satisfaction that many people will never get to experience what we just had.

The next morning it was confirmed that we weren’t dreaming as our pictures were all through the festival’s Instagram page. For many Madiun would be a small blip on the radar, but for me it’s so much more and I’m so thankful for Ammia and Patmo for giving me these unique experiences. It was hard cycling out of Madiun leaving behind some amazing people, and it was made even more difficult with the terrorist attacks having just taken place in France; a country that I had lived in for a year. Later that night fate once again played its part as I set up camp inside a mosque, after having been allowed to stay with permission from Ahmad. Luckily his English was a lot better than my Indonesian, and through a mix of both languages and Google translate, we were able to have an honest conversation about what had taken place in Paris. Not surprisingly both of us were shocked and saddened with what had transpired. I asked Ahmad many questions about Islam and he asked me many questions about life in Australia. The most moving moment for me was when I showed him my Facebook account and the changed profile pictures, hashtags and general outpouring of emotion from people all over the world. Ahmad’s face lit up with a beaming smile, “I’m so happy that people show love like this when terrorist attacks happen”. I had to give him an empty smile, as I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this sympathy is generally reserved for when Western nations suffer acts of terrorism.

My time Indonesia is nearly at an end. A quick jaunt to Jakarta and a 30 hour ferry to an island south of Singapore will bring an end to what has been an amazing month. Java can be demanding with the constant attention and 360 degree traffic. The roadside stalls often serve up meat that I’ve never tasted before and the combination of hills, humidity and heat have made cycling a challenging environment. But as usually is the case, the more effort you put in the more you get out. The memories and hospitality I have been shown far surpasses the above-mentioned difficulties. Indonesia deserves a lot more time and respect than spending a few days at Kuta. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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