Minivan hell in Java
Continuing my tour of Indonesian volcano lakes, I travelled the short distance from Bukittingi to Lake Maninjau, a smaller version of Lake Toba. I tumbled down the 44 spectacular hairpin bends, running so badly out of control that I ended up in the nearest bar and became trapped under a heavy bottle of Bintang beer. I hate it when that happens....
Lake Maninjau, Sumatra, Indonesia
I stayed in a pleasant hotel/restaurant which reached out into the calm waters on wooden stilts, and I did nothing very much other than eat, sleep and look at the view for a couple of days.
On the day I was due to leave I found that I had picked up the beginnings of a dose of tonsillitis. I sensibly decided to postpone my departure by a day, and opted for a gentle walk into the village instead. However, one of the guesthouses I passed on the way had a line of mountain bikes racked up outside, and the temptation proved too much.
I resolved to cycle all the way round the lake as a sure-fire tonsillitis cure, and wobbled off down the road, repeatedly checking my non-existent wing mirrors. On steep hills, I occasionally found myself twisting the right hand grip and feeling surprise when I failed to go any faster.
I returned to my starting point several hours later, somewhat knackered, and it was only then that I discovered the distance round the lake was about 70 kilometres. I'd have to say, though, that as a tonsillitis cure it seemed to have worked. By morning, I felt fine, and made an early start in order to gain as much southerly momentum as possible.
I made my traditional trip to the Police station to gain a typed permit for my journey, specifying Jakarta as my destination. As usual, the cops were very friendly, but took a short time to catch on to what I wanted from them. When they finally worked it out, they went along with my request, but in the manner of men humoring the insane (in case I turned violent). I resolved in future not to bother with this functionless piece of paper, as no-one but me seems to give a damn about it, and I have certainly never been asked to produce it by any officials.
My route Southwards took me through the busy town of Padang, where I did not linger. Instead, I followed the west coast of Sumatra along a road which twisted through a succession of sandy bays crowded with outrigger fishing boats.
The busy town of Bandarlampung was my last stop in Sumatra. The guidebook is rather dismissive of the place, describing it as simply a transit town on the way to Jakarta, but I thought it was a vibrant and friendly place. In addition, it happens to be the place where the Finest Noodles On Earth may be procured. Here's how: I asked the hotel guy where I could get some food. He pondered this request, and pointed helpfully up the street: 'That way. 500 kilometres.'
I thanked him very much, and, steeling myself for the 3 weeks forced march, set off resolutely for this distant oasis. Fortunately, there turned out to be a noodle joint a little closer than reports would suggest, and it was here that I scored these magnificent scrummy comestibles: Fried noodles with veg and meat and prawns, also a little bag of salad and two (count them - two!) types of sauce. Total cost - 1500 rupiah (15 US cents).
The name of this restaurant without compare is Koko, and I urge Egon Ronay to get his sorry ass down there and find out what he's been missing all these years.
The following day, I set off bright and early and boarded the ferry for the short hop across to Java.
Jakarta is only a couple of hundred kilometres from the ferry terminal on the Javanese side, and I confidently expected to knock this over by midafternoon. This was foolishly optimistic, for a number of reasons.
Although Java is nominally part of the same country as Sumatra, the differences in population and traffic congestion are marked and immediately apparent.
The island of Java is approximately 1200 kilometres long, and every square centimetre of it is chock full of minivans. Crammed in nose to tail. It would be impossible to fit one single more minivan on the ground anywhere in Java. I have a theory that the seismic activity around the Pacific Rim is caused solely by the massive and destabilizing concentration of minivans in Java. In fact, I hear that they are considering stacking them up vertically in some areas.
The solid wall of minivans which confronts you as you roll off the ferry oscillates sluggishly, and slowly slides aside as though by a natural process similar to continental drift, to reveal small gaps through which you can squeeze your bike.
As you emerge with streaming eyes from the obligatory diesel smoke screen produced by these vehicles, you confront the next wave of randomly blundering obstructions. And so on, and so on, as the countless, dearly bought kilometres crawl painfully beneath your wheels and the unevaporated sweat trickles down your legs.
In order to alleviate the difficulty of travelling under these conditions, the powers that be decreed the construction of several freeways, which converge on Jakarta from three compass points (approach from the North being tricky on account of all the wet stuff).
And, cleverly, to ease congestion and allow rapid travel, these freeways are forbidden to minivans...
...oh yes, and to motorcycles.
I wondered how rigorously they would enforce this restriction. I therefore conducted a short experiment, which culminated in a brief bike chase and a polite but insistent chat with the local traffic police. You never know if you don't try, and to be fair to the fuzz, they didn't even try to weasel any money out of me, so that's one point in their favour.
I gritted my teeth, left the freeway at the next exit, and ground onwards on roads which are, frustratingly, of excellent quality, when you can actually see them through the minuscule gaps in the traffic.
Message to overlanders from the residents of Java
Posted by Connor Carson at August 20, 2001 12:00 AM GMT