After the night in my private dungeon, I was less than refreshed but perfectly safe. Could be worse.
I dug out my cooking pots and used the communal gas ring to boil some porridge; by the time I’d managed to repack everything onto the bike, I was hungry again.
The sun was shining, I was back on Route 3, and within the next few towns all the traffic had gone away. The road started winding up into the hills again, cutting away from the coast, and the afternoon became grey and damp. I could see that there had been a lot of rain around here; red clay from the hillsides was slumping onto the road in places, and in others the edge of the road itself had started to fall down the hill. Areas of subsidence were marked with plastic tape if older, but if new, sometimes only with rocks and branches placed on the road ahead.
Anywhere in South East Asia, if you see a small branch lying on the road, you ought to slow down and watch out. It’s there to you that there’s a surprise waiting around the next corner. Maybe it’s a broken down truck, or a landslip, or a wedding marquee; but if the branch looks like it didn’t get there on its own, then consider yourself warned.
Despite the dampness, I was spared real rain and the ride was pleasantly cool. That night, I ended up at a small homestay in the local ‘resort town’ of Pacitan, which has a beach and apparently – at certain times of the year – even some surfing. But there was no-one there. It was midweek, and there was a certain air of decrepitude down the near the beach. The lanes were sandy and deserted, and a stiff breeze blew grey clouds over grey water on a grey beach.
I just rested, ate fried rice, left again in the morning. I was headed to Yogyakarta; I had an invitation to stay with someone who had hosted a few overland travelers before. So I headed that way and met up with them and all was going well until I jokingly used the word ‘patriarchy’ in a sentence, and then all hell broke loose. Apparently listening to too much Alex Jones makes you yell at your guests about how they’re damaged feminazis with daddy issues who will die alone, because harmful gender discrimination can’t possibly exist because most western women get to choose who they have sex with most of the time and it’s all a conspiracy.
So I packed up my stuff and left.
I headed North again – I had to cross Java’s central strip of volcanoes and make my way back to the East Coast, because my visa was running out. You might have noticed that I’ve been hanging out in Indonesia for quite sometime, but all good visas must come to an end. If you’re specifically curious (and my apologies if you’re not) holders of more powerful passports can get a 60 day social/tourist visa issued outside Indonesia, which you can then renew every 30 days, four times, in order to stay in Indonesia for just under six months. So here I was, practically growing old in Indonesia; old women were starting to joke with me that I’d almost been there long enough to get married and start a family with a nice Indonesian man (and had I met their niece’s son yet?) So, finally, I was unable to avoid the inevitable: I had to scoot outside Indonesia for a minute and come back on a new visa. I’d found that the cheapest international flights were from Surabaya to Kuala Lumpur – so cheap even I could afford them – so I booked a dirt cheap visa run and now I just had to get to Surabaya.
Still on the practicalities – and again, my apologies to those of you who are just here for the intoxicating highs and tear-jerking lows of international motorcycle travel – I had even managed to secure safe parking for the bike in Surabaya. The Indonesian biker community has to be one of the most welcoming in the world and somehow – early in the piece – I’d been added to a WhatsApp group of local Indonesian bikers who like to help out visiting overlanders. What a resource! Any time you’re stuck and can’t figure something out you can drop a message to the group and they’ll call a friend who’ll call a friend who’ll call a friend… you get the picture. So, I was all hooked up. All I had to do now was get to Surabaya in two days.
I’d been expecting a hard slog to get out of Jogja’s urban area, but even the highways were easy. Not too much traffic, plenty of space to manoeuvre around the trucks, an organic style of traffic flow. In Indonesia, everyone who drives has excellent spatial awareness and always expects anything to happen at any time, so I feel generally feel very safe. In Australia, people will just run you over if they think they have right of way; here, everyone’s just trying to get by.
Now if you’ve spent any time in Java, you’re probably wondering why I’ve been wandering around Jogja and languishing in a dungeon in Dampit instead of riding and camping in the beautiful wastelands and crater areas of Mount Bromo. Well, my timing was particularly bad. As predominantly Muslim as Java is today, only a few hundred years ago it was all Hindu. Up on the mountaintops is where you’ll find the old Hindu temples, and so there’s no messing around up there during particular holy days. Bromo was closed.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you consider the high frequency of volcanic and tectonic disasters), Indonesia has plenty of other picturesque volcanoes. So coming out of Yogyakarta, I headed straight for the looming peak of Mount Lawu that towered over the green and gold rice paddies of eastern Java.
There, in the slanting afternoon sun, I stopped at a padang place for some late lunch. Jackfruit stewed in coconut milk; fried chicken; green vegetables; fresh chili sambal and rice, for about a dollar. I was in a village on a backroad somewhere, and people were surprised to see me. Teenage girls walking home from school looked at my bike curiously, and the gentleman who owned the padang stall chatted with me, patient with my stilted Indonesian. He was surprised by the length of my solo journey, and pressed an extra bottle of chilled water into my hands when I left – it was hot, he said, and I had far to go.
Further down the road, I stopped to buy an extra litre of fuel. The petrol was displayed in glass bottles by the roadside, but there was no-one around. I waited patiently for someone to appear. A toothless old woman walked by, carrying a bundle of sticks; seeing me, she gave a good cackle and sat down to spectate. A little bit later, an old man emerged from the nearby rice field and laughed in surprise as well. He sold me the fuel with while more old ladies, walking along the road, stopped off to watch and gossip. I didn’t see any young adults; I wonder if they were all off working in the cities while the old people grew the rice.
After months of sweating at sea level, you can imagine the cool shock of mountain air as the road hoists you up through the air layers. Rough warungs cling to the mountainsides to sell weekend tourists coffee and pisang goreng and a backdrop for their selfies, but it was midweek and the sun was going down. The road was mine. And what a road. You crest the mountain and as you come down the other side, it turns into a swooping ribbon of smooth, new blacktop. It’s a biking road: the surface smooth, the camber correct, the corners consistent, no decreasing-radius turns to throw you off the side of the mountain.
By the time I got to the crater lake at Sarangan – still high up on the side of the mountain – I was happy and chilled, the sun gone and the air filled with woodsmoke. Sarangan is a picturesque tourist spot, a little slice of the Alps; the hotels have wood fireplaces and the skies are pink and pink purple in the dusk.
I asked at a few hotels for their best rates; one was a beautiful villa overlooking the lake, two rooms, big beds with big fluffy pillows and hot water and a fireplace; much too nice for the likes of me, but I asked the price anyway since I’d already taken my helmet off. There was no-one else there, and the old man just shrugged and gave me a deal so good that I couldn’t refuse, about 30% of the normal rate. Still twice what I like to pay per night, but the siren call of hot water had me in its grasp. No worries, I told myself; I’d sleep in ditches a few more nights and it would all work out.
For now, I surrendered to the unspeakable bliss of scalding hot water. I bought satay and ate it in bed, and made a nest out of six fluffy pillows and slept like I was on clouds.