Java, Bali, Gili Air, Lombok, Komodo, Rincon, Flores
5/12/15 - 5/1/16 33 °C
Flying out of Singapore's Changi Airport and into Jakarta is quite a culture shock. Looking up at skyline pierced with dozens of new high rise buildings one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a modern city, and it's true that is developing at an astonishing rate. However, cast your eyes down to street level and a different reality becomes apparent. The roads are choked with endless streams of cars and motorbikes with horns blaring. The pavements are an obstacle course and it is usually far safer to walk on the edge of the road and take one's chance with the traffic than it is to risk falling into the storm drains through one of the many missing or broken manhole covers.
Jakarta suffers badly from noise, dirt, pollution and on top of this there is almost nothing for the tourist to see or do. Even the public square in the centre of the city is just a huge expanse of shadeless, baking concrete with a very unimpressive pillar in the middle. Unbelievably, this took fourteen years to build. It is known locally as "Sukarno's last erection", so at least it provides some amusement (Sukarno was Indonesia's leader for many years).
Sadly, and despite the fact that the people were very friendly, Jakarta is one of the most depressing places I've been, so let's move on.
After just one day in Jakarta I took an early morning train to Yogyakarta, a far more pleasant city with an area near the station which is largely dedicated to backpackers. This means it is possible to get western food which can be a godsend. I just can't get used to the idea of spicy fried rice for breakfast. Give me an English breakfast anytime.
There's not much to see in Yogya itself but a little way out of the city, in opposite directions, are two temples. While not on the scale of Anghor Wat they are nevertheless impressive. The first, at Prambanan, dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries AD and is dedicated to the Hindu gods Bramha, Vishnu and Siva. My American companion for the day, Shana, and I were guided around the site by two young students desperate to improve their English. In Indonesia especially, foreigners are often asked for video interviews by students as part of their English courses. Having their photo taken with a foreigner is another favourite and you can find yourself in the middle of a large group of Indonesians posing for numerous photos. While at Prambanan I saw an Indonesian dance performance of the Ramayana accompanied by a Gamelan band. Despite a couple of clunky moments it was rather good and the music and costumes were excellent.
Yogyakarta street scene
The temples at Prambanan
On the other side of the city is the Buddhist temple Borobadur, an amazing structure around a thousand years old. It is now in excellent condition having been taken apart stone by stone and then completely rebuilt by archaelogists. It is a great draw for school parties and student as well as Indonesian families.
My next stop was a two hour local train ride away. Solo had little to offer other than a couple of rapidly decaying royal palaces which they should have been embarrassed to charge an entry fee for. And so it was on to Surabaya, a huge city at the eastern end of Java. It proved to be an interesting place, pats of it very modern but parts such as the old Arab quarter and Chinatown with dirty, crowded and chaotic streets packed with street stalls, traffic and people. There is also a factory where cigarettes are still hand rolled. The founder of the firm believed that smoking was beneficial to one's health, probably because he mixed tobacco with cloves which have an anaesthetising effect on the throat The factory is jammed with workers whose fingers move in a blur as they roll and pack cigarettes at an amazing speed. Also in Surabaya is one of the strangest attractions I've ever come across. Sitting on the bank of the river is a Russian submarine which was also used by the Indonesian navy before being retired. I walked right past it once without even noticing it. I guess one just don't expect to see such a thing in such an incongruous setting.
Surabaya street scenes
The Sampoerna cigarette factory
Surabaya was meant to be the jumping off point for a visit to the Mount Bromo National Park; a spectacularly beautiful area of volcanoes and forest. Unfortunately, Mount Bromo decided choose that week to erupt and the park was closed to tourists. I hoped that I might catch a glimpse of it as I passed on a train bound for the ferry port for Bali but it was raining so heavily that visibility was limited to a few hundred metres.
It was still raining as the ferry crossed to Bali and the island was shrouded in cloud and mist. It wasn't supposed to be like this!
My first view of Bali
In many ways though it set the scene for my visit. I found the island to be a disappointment - overdeveloped, overpopulated and far too many tourists. I guess timing my visit (unintentionally) to coincide with Christmas didn't help. There was one major highlight, though, and that was snorkeling at Pemuteran and Pulau Menjangan in the north west corner of the island. It's years since I've been snorkeling and I wasn't sure what to expec and my first impressions were not good. As I entered the water from the beach I was greeted with the sight of plastic wrappings of all sorts floating around on the sea-bed but as I swam deeper these gave way to a large variety of corals and the most amazing display of fish of every imaginable shape, size and colour. It was like being in a wild life documentary. At Pemuteran they are running a project to regenerate the coral, much of which has been destroyed by dynamite and cyanide fishing. Three dimensional metal grids and trellises, some supporting stone sculptures of Hindu gods, are submerged offshore and a small electric current is passed through them. This encourages coral growth and, judging by the amount of new coral growing on them and the number of fish that attracts, the project is proving to be a huge success. Pulau Menjangan, being part of a national park, has not been affected by the ravages of unscrupulous fishing practices and the coral reef here is in excellent condition and the number and variety of fish is staggering.
From Bali a large speed boat took me to Gili Air, one of three very small islands off the north west coat of Lombok - it takes about 90 minutes to walk around its perimeter. The Muslim population of the islands has seen the potential of tourism and they are exploiting it to the full. Apparently, the largest island, Gili Trawangan, has quite a wild party scene and what the locals think of the drunken excesses of western youth is anybody's guess, though no doubt they are happy to take their money. Gili Air is far more sedate, though there a a large number of bars and restaurants lining the beach and the whole place has become a tourist trap. Sadly though, the beach is not good for swimming as the sea is very shallow as the reef extends for about 150 to 200 metres from the shore before dropping vertically into the depths.
While on the island I ummed and ahhed about taking a four day boat trip to Flores before eventually deciding to go for it. I am so glad I did as it turned out to be the highlight of my travels so far.
The boat, the LMS Bintang - named after the local beer - was basic in the extreme.
Although there were half a dozen tiny box-like cabins with no room to stand most of us slept on thin mattresses on the top of the boat protected from the elements by a tarpaulin just three feet above the floor.
In addition to a crew of five and our guide, a larger than life character called John Carlos who claimed to have once been a pirate off Somalia (I doubt this was true but can't entirely discount ii - he certainly looked the part) there were 22 of us. Seven English, four Italians, three Dutch, three Germans, two Indians, one Canadian, one Finn and one French. Most were in their twenties but there were few of us in my age range which made for a nice mix. For four days we sailed past beautiful coastlines, occasionally stopping to snorkel or hike in the jungle.
On New Year's Eve we had a small party on board (we hadn't bought enough beer to make it a raucous one) and sat under a clear sky filled with billions of stars as the boat chugged along through a glass-like sea. New Year's Day was particuarly memorable. We had reached Manta Point where hundreds of manta rays congregate and hoped to see some. As we slowly cruised around the bay one of the crew sat on the prow of the boat looking for them. When he saw la group swimming by in the crystal clear water he would shout, "Manta! Manta! Jump! Jump!", and we would all hurl ourselves over the side of the boat, rise to the surface, adjust masks and snorkels and swim frantically after them. My first sighting was just a ghostly shape swimming quite a few metres below me and too far to see clearly. On the next jump I followed a pair and got a much closer view. I had given up trying to keep up with them and was aimlessly swiiming around when a group of mantas suddenly appeared right below me. They were only six or seven metre below the surface and were huge - five to six metre across. I started to count them and got to eight before becoming confused and starting again. About twelve enormous mantas swimming so close that it felt I could reach down and touch them. I swam with them for a few minutes before tiring and giving up the chase as they effortlessly disappeared into the distance. I climbed back aboard the boat with the others and we excitedly compaed our incredible and amazing experiences.
(Thanks to Andy Paul Riley for the pic)
Later in the day as dusk fell and we anchored for the night a colony of thousands of friut bats flew overhead, adding to the wonders of the day.
That night we had a proper party with plenty of beer brought out to the boat by a man in a small outrigger. We cleared him out lf his stock and sent him back to shore to replenish his cargo which once again we demolished.
And so, slightly hungover, we arrived the following morning at the islands of Komodo and Rinca, the home of the famous Komodo dragons. We saw quite a few basking in the sun and taking it easy. They were all near the reception centre and despite the wardens' avowal that they didn't feed them, I have my doubts. It wouldn't be good for business to have disappointed tourists leaving without a sighting and so i think some where encouraged to come to a place where they could easily be seen. Neverthless, they are impressive beasts and i wouldn't want to get too close.
Late in the afternoon we reached journey's end, Labuan Bajo in Flores, and many of us left the boat to find rooms in the town while some, including me, remained aboard for a night of free accomodation. Later that evening many of us met up for a grilled fish meal at one of the roadside eating joints which are set up for the night. I had a whole red snapper with calamari and fried potatoes washed down with ice-cold Bintang. One of the best meals ever! Over the next two or three days our group began to disperse to various destinations and I spent three days wandering around the town which is a magnet for scuba divers and boasts some excellent cafes and restaurants where i spent a lot of my time talking and eating with friends from the boat before flying to Sulawesi accompanied by some of the best memories of my life.