THE CALM AFTER THE STORM
A couple, travelling the region by bike with their daughter, escape Java’s teeming capital to open up the far more enticing prospect of its gentle southern coast
A couple, travelling the region by bike with their daughter, escape Java’s teeming capital to open up the far more enticing prospect of its gentle southern coast.
languages, and certainly not for cycle tourers with a four-year-old child on board. This is where the adventure really begins and the fact that our Google searches leave us in the dark, excites us all the more. As we scurry around Cimaja stocking up on cash and biscuits, we push away any thought of the gruelling all-day climbs that our topo maps foretell, but pack camping supplies as insurance against villages we may not reach before dark.
Climb into the clouds
Beyond Cimaja we cycle out of our guidebook and into the unknown, beginning the long, unrelenting climb towards Jampang Kulon. Heads down, gears down, legs pumping, we inch ever upwards past forest giants draped with jungly vines and the odd makeshift shack selling esky-cold drinks and fried bananas. It’s hot, damn hot, and such is the gradient that it takes half a day to cycle 16km and conquer the 1,000-metre altitude gain. It’s just kind enough to keep us in the saddle but never levels out enough to offer even the tiniest reprieve. When our calves burn we stop to take in the ever-improving views and give our four-year-old, Maya, her own leg stretch. Having already ridden pillion for over 1,100km from Singapore to Thailand the slow way, she’s as patient as ever, happily enjoying her side-on view of the world from the back of dad David’s bike. Halfway up the range, at the only hole-in-the-wall shop for miles around, I suddenly realise that it’s our 16th wedding anniversary. Miraculously, there are tiny squares of homemade chocolate cake for sale, and we celebrate and savour the first of a hundred delicious small moments over coffee milk and sweet iced tea. Back in the saddle, the slow, sunny day lulls Maya to sleep and while she snoozes, we top out and coast effortlessly through lofty tea plantations, rolling along in chilly high-altitude air, relishing the dramatic change of scene. It’s the high point of the day in every sense, because after five kilometres, the road tips us back down towards the sea, rumbling over rugged gravel and braking into ridiculously tight corners.
We refuel mid-afternoon on nasi goreng – simple egg-fried rice – and pedal on to end our 65-kilometre day in Jampang Kulon, a mouldy room at the local penginapan (homestay) as our prize. We shell out Rp100,000 (US$7.50) for the ‘deluxe’ suite and throw our sarongs over the least mildewy of the four beds on offer, ladle ourselves with cold water scooped out of an oversized mandi – a tall tank that features in most Indonesian bathrooms – and sate our sizeable appetites on plates of cold tempeh, rice and fried greens. After an abortive search for nightlife in Jampang Kulon, we return with ice creams and spend a less than romantic night sweating under a single fan whirring hopelessly against the humidity.
It feels good to be out of bed and back on the bikes as we cruise downhill in the cool hours after dawn. Rolling past neighbourhood mosques and verdant paddy fields, we spin downhill to cross the wide, slow Cikaso River and wonder what dramatic waterfalls might be reached if we could muster enough Bahasa to convince a local boatman to take us upriver. The morning’s freewheeling ends with a rugged uphill grind away from the river that is simply too steep to pedal. I get off and push, cursing the cameras and the laptops, the drone and the camping gear that are weighing me down. The day stretches endlessly in a rigorous rhythm, the road rising repeatedly up jungle-clad slopes to fall in swift succession for fleeting, beautiful glimpses of the sea in downhill runs that quickly undo our hard labour. Fortunately, the scenery provides a grand distraction. At a tiny roadside shack surrounded by coconut sugar plantations, I successfully string together enough mediocre Bahasa to organise two hot, creamy coffees and enough fried sweet potato and bananas to fill our grumbling bellies. Throughout the day, we break to picnic in the cool of rubber tree groves, far from towns and villages and traffic, feeling the euphoria that peak fitness brings. But before day’s end, the road tugs us up and inland one more time. Before we return to the breezy coast, we have to endure a hot night in a window-less box, plagued by power cuts and bed bugs and eluded by sleep. At dawn in Sindang Barang, I get wolf-whistled for the first time while buying deep-fried tofu snacks from a street cart. So begins the best day of our Javanese adventure. Suddenly there it is: our first, wide open view of the south coast: a tricolour of white sand squeezed between a fringe of coconut palms and the big blue beyond. This deserted, rapturous scene accompanies us all the way to Rancabuaya Beach where we find sanctuary in a breezy hilltop bungalow, perched atop a perfectly arcing, bright blue cove where wooden fishing boats nudge onto a golden coral shore. Our daughter covets the bungalow’s deep, cool swimming pool, and later, at a seaside noodle bar, delights local food sellers with offerings of shells and pebbles and chatty conversations that need no translation. There are sand pagodas to build and discrete cold beers relished on our balcony while our beach-tired traveller sleeps and Indonesian bikers set off Saturday night fireworks to sheer delight.
At Rp300,000 a night (US$22), there’s little tempting us away from Rancabuaya so we fill another day with beachcombing and sand play and a gorgeous night spent swimming in the rain. When we do drag our little fish out of the pool and back onto the bike, the worst of the south coast’s hills are behind us. We ride on, paralleling the beaches for two blissful days speculating – as shapely surf breaks peel off untouchable, deserted headlands – just where we might build that perfect beach bungalow.
The Green Canyon
Reaching Batu Karas is bittersweet. The lure of gliding between the sculpted stone walls of Green Canyon has moved us many miles on the bikes, but having lived among locals for five days, the sudden rush of English chatter and fresh, white faces leaves us all at sea. In compensation, upmarket beach bungalows, good fresh food and easy, breezy bars, make life uncomplicated and restful. We make new friends and reunite with old ones who join a farewell family dinner with our local hosts, stoking a beach campfire and sharing a feast of just-caught, coal-cooked fish with fiery sambal and mountains of coconut rice. After a couple of days, the sedentary life leaves us flat so we escape again on our bikes, cycling to Green Canyon where we pay a longtail boatman Rp100,000 to take us upriver. The banks whizz by and suddenly the canyon walls flare upwards, squeezing the emerald waters into a rushing, narrow torrent. We jump out and grab hold of a knotted rope to pull ourselves upstream, delighting in the force of the chilly flow pushing us back. It’s a cheap, fleeting thrill that punctuates our adventure but will ultimately pale against all the self-determined kilometres and the tiny, intangible achievements that go into every day of every great journey. Covering new ground east of Batu Karas, the 38km of crowded, traffic-choked streets that lead to Pangandaran’s hopelessly touristy beachfront, quickly convince us that the best of our cycling is behind us. We decide to finish in Java on a high and throw our bikes onto a local bus, place a stack of rupiah in the bus driver’s hand and make a beeline for Yogyakarta. Our 570km of cycling before joining the surf groupies holidaying in Batu Karas, have blown our expectations out of the water. Being out-of-place never felt so awesome. In authentic beach-side villages, locals ogled us and children rushed to meet our tiniest traveller, endearing us to strangers at every turn. Conversations were sparked by curiosity and necessity both, garbled by language confusion of epic levels. Our coastal adventure has proved that the road less travelled lies just around the corner of your imagination. For once off our bikes, we head on, an historic Javanese city to discover, back streets to wander, culture to unearth, food in indulge in and a family trek through Nepal’s Annapurna range to plan.
A TANG IN THE AIR After days cycling jungle-clad hills, the south coast dazzles with perfect curls of surf and endless blue.
SWAP PEDALS FOR PADDLES From Batu Karas, boats navigate the slender Cijulang River up to the Green Canyon.
SIMPLY GORGE-OUS The chilly waters of the Green Canyon at Batu Karas are a balm for road-weary cyclists.