The Indonesian archipelago is connected by a network of giant RORO ferries. They take cars, motorbikes, and passengers, but those are the exception next to the blackened diesel trucks which fill the lower decks. This is how goods cross Indonesia: lashed haphazardly to lorries for days on end, joining together the narrow roads and ferry after ferry.

The guys who drive these trucks don’t have an easy life. There’s always at least two in the cab, usually three, and they rotate the driving. It’s hot as hell and there’s no air conditioning and the trucks go about thirty kilometres an hour and are falling apart; the guys wash at the roadside restaurants and sleep in the cab, or on the roof of the truck, or on shaded platforms by the road. There’s usually at least one older guy running the show and a teenage boy who gets all the shit jobs: he’s the one running to put the chocks under the wheels because the brakes don’t work.

These guys are not educated or affluent people. They smoke continuously, play cards; many of them drink, many are Muslim and some don’t fast during Ramadan. They can be a bit rough in their manners, and some people regard them with suspicion – the way communities often regard outsiders, particularly single men, who are just passing through with no ties to the community. And perhaps they are a bit rough, in the way of men who spend a lot of time in each other’s unvarying company.

But personally, I’ve never had any trouble. I get catcalled on the streets by teenage boys more than I’ve ever been hassled by truck drivers, and I see the truck drivers very often, for I share Indonesia’s roads and ferries with them. I eat at the same rumah makans, simple restaurants on the roadsides outside the towns and villages. I always look for the rumah makan that has the most trucks parked in front of it – the places where you can hardly see the building for the haphazardly parked lorries – because these guys know where the food is cheap and good. Mostly, when I walk in – solo white girl, big motorbike, clearly mad – they look at me but then look away. Perhaps they are shy, or perhaps I am just too foreign and strange to be relevant.

Occasionally the older guys want to talk, and they ask me where I’m from and where I’m going, pepper me with all the usual questions. They tell me where they are from, too, and about the families they hardly see. But mostly, the truck drivers just do their thing and I do mine, and we peacefully co-exist, side by side on the roads and ferries.

* * *

I have a lot of respect for these men, who work hard and somehow manage to hardly ever run over and kill any of the other living creatures crowding the roads under their wheels.

* * *

When I took the RORO ferry from Surabaya to Makassar, there were hardly any passengers. Just me, and the truck drivers, and a handful of business travelers, and old mate with the farkled motorbike who was heading home to Pare Pare. On the boat, I didn’t see any other women.

It had been suggested to me that I should pay the extra money to book a private cabin, because economy would be full of raucous truck drivers. But if you know me at all, you’ll know that paying extra money is not a thing that I do. As it happened, the passenger decks were almost deserted.

Economy class on an Indonesian RORO ferry consists of massive bunk rooms, where the bunks are really just two levels of linoleum-covered shelving. There are little dividers that extend to about the shoulder of a sleeping person, so that you’ve got a shady corner to poke your head into, if you like.


I prefer the upper levels of the bunks, because it feels less claustrophobic, better air circulation. Who wants to be down at foot level? But the locals seem to prefer the shadowy comfort of the lower bunks.

A middle aged business man who had chatted with my friend Kerry, on the docks, motioned to me that I should take the top row of bunks opposite his, rather than a completely deserted aisle that I was considering. That way, he could look out for me, and for my stuff. It was sweet of him, and I appreciated it. He offered me some sugary breads that that he was carrying, and we had a brief conversation in Indonesian – where was I going, where was I from, where was my husband? And then we’d exhausted the extent of my Indonesian competence. We each retired to our rows of bunks. We didn’t really talk again throughout the rest of the 36 hour voyage, but we exchanged a few smiles and he made sure to wake me up at meal times, so that I didn’t miss out on the food.

The boat departed at night, and as soon as the vibration of the diesel engines began pulsing through the ship, I felt instantly somnolent. I couldn’t hold my head up. I tucked my face into my jacket and gave into a floating black sleepiness.

The next thing I knew, the lights were incredibly bright and someone was yelling. Yelling about what? Were they yelling at me? Where was I? On a boat. Was the boat sinking? I crawled upright and as my vision cleared, I smelled food. The yelling was about breakfast. As in, wake up and eat it now.

The stewards came through with stacks of polystyrene containers, each with a scoop of rice, a boiled egg, a couple of bits of vegetable and some spicy sambal. They would take a passenger’s ticket and tear a corner off, then give you a meal and a cup of water.

I am learning that I don’t exactly get seasick, but sometimes at sea my stomach requires extra reassurance. Starchy rice is just the thing, and this morning – this starchy rice – seemed like the best rice in the world. How so delicious? In fact, I’d noticed that the rice seemed to be improving in flavour and quality the further west I moved through the archipelago. With apologies to my eastern Indonesian friends, the rice in Java seemed generally much nicer than in Bali or further east; and in the same vein, the rice in Sumatra was better still. Whatever the reason, you could not fault the boat’s fifteen year old barefoot stewards on their cooking of the rice. Quality – right up there. Quantity? Well, you can’t have everything. I finished my breakfast, and then ate three of the boiled eggs that Kerry and Novi had sent off with me. Perfect.

And still only 24 hours of voyage to go.


All at sea.

Instead of being stir-crazy, I was practically blissed out. Being on the road is a great adventure, sure, but it’s also tiring. You have to process new information and make decisions constantly; your internal autopilot doesn’t have the required programming for operating in new environments. So there’s always a surfeit of stimulus and if you’re on your own, the stakes are always high. You get tired.

So here I was: I’d sussed the environment around me, determined that I was safe, and now there was nothing else that I could or should be doing for the next 24 hours except lounging around on my sea-going linoleum shelf.

Life was great.


I got out my copy of Jupiter’s Travels and let Ted Simon remind me that I’m not the only one who suspects they might be doing this overlanding thing wrong most of the time. I had an other boiled egg, and remembered that maybe some of the stuff that I do could also be described as a little bit epic (at least in hindsight, with one eye closed). And then I had another sleep. And another sleep. And another sleep.

The sun came up and went down, the moon came up and went down.

In the grey of dawn, there was more yelling. Apparently, we’d arrived.

0 thoughts on “Just cruising: the roro ferry life

  1. Dan says:

    I read (a lot). You’re an excellent writer. I was there. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Dan, that’s a compliment that I gratefully accept. I always think that reading and writing have the potential to make the world just a little better, if only because we might accidentally develop empathy and insights into the experiences of people whose lives are unlike our own… Thank you for reading.

  2. geoffkeys says:

    Your blog brings back happy memories Grace. When I crossed from Surabaya to Borneo the 28 hour journey took 40 in the end. Why? Because we stopped to rescue the passengers from another ferry which we could see burning away merrily on the horizon. About 120 of them, plus their luggage. fortunately it wasn’t a car ferry and nobody died.
    Goes to show you never can tell!

    1. Oh wow, that’s a bit exciting! Glad there was a happy ending, of sorts! Yeah, I try not to think about all the things that could go wrong. I was a bit worried on one particular ferry crossing, but it wasn’t a roro ferry and that’s a story for another day…

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