Back to Java

Sailing past Java last year I stopped just once in the Sunda Straits, the north-westernmost tip of Java, a couple of months before a tsunami devastated Carita Beach, where I anchored.

Anakrakata (Child of Krakatoa in Sundanese) is a small island in the Sunda Straits that has been growing from the remnants of the last big Krakatoa explosion in 1883. This was a world-wide event. It is speculated that Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream depicts the color of the sky over Norway after that erruption. In December 2018, a couple of months after I anchored off Carita Beach, a series of small erruptions caused the height of the island to reduce from over 300m to about 100m and the slippage caused a tsunami that killed over 400 people, mostly in and around Carita Beach.

It stays in your mind, that sort of thing, and I clearly remember the guys on the beach who filled my jerrycans with diesel, and the guy who spoke good English and gave me a t-shirt promoting his tours of Anakrakatoa, while telling me about the best anchorage so I could go there myself.

But there is also a family historical connection with Java. My mother was born and grew up there as a Dutch colonialist in the 1920's and 30's, and when I was a child I loved hearing about her and my uncles' childhood adventures. Somehow, I had allowed other things to subvert my desire to put flesh on the bones of those stories of volcanos, temples, colonial towns and small kampongs full of beautiful, peaceful people. It broke her heart to leave in 1949 when Indonesia proclaimed independance. Java was her home.

When I finally stopped in Langkawi for a rest I knew I'd made a mistake not stopping in Java for longer. Langkawi is a tourist trap. The locals are here to staff the resorts, drive the taxis and Grab cars, and man the shops. There are hundreds of yachts here, we are common, and we are an anachronism — tourists who don't stay in resorts; rich foreigners who don't spend money; travellers who stay for months. The locals gently fence us off and we only have other yachties to associate with. It is unlike Indonesia, especially the remote islands, where the arrival of a yacht in the harbour is an event and meeting the inhabitants of it even stranger. Like it or not you become the center of attention. I became very aware of the differences — aware of being the odd one out, my apparent wealth, my different culture, my isolation as an individual. Explaining that I travelled alone on the yacht often provoked the question 'Why?' and it is hard to explain that I happily live and travel alone when their lives are so deeply rooted and connected to place, family and friends. I don't really identify with any tribe, even the tribe of yachties, and so I don't really fit in to the only tribe in Langkawi that would have me. Mind you, all yachties feel exactly the same way.

So after six months in Langkawi it was time to fix my mistake and go back to Java to flesh out those childhood stories. I had some airline credits so the flight would cost nothing and all I needed was to book some flights, trains and accomodation.

Off I Go

I pack lightly, but decide to take the Nikon. It weighs so much my neck hurts but it still produces the most beautiful pictures. I fly Scoot, rebranded after some Tiger Airlines planes fell out of the sky. It is Singapore's no-frills airline and it's a basic, cattle-class-only transport system that goes out of it's way to let you know you are nothing special. Invariably, their flights dump you in Singapore in the evening to catch a connection early the following morning. I grit my teeth and bear it.


As I arrive in Jakarta I realize that I forgot to pack the charger and spare battery for the camera. I'd be lucky to get 100 shots before it died. So I man up and buy a genuine Nikon charger, just like the one back on the boat, and two genuine Nikon spare batteries, one of which turns out a dud. I can't tell you how much it cost because I have cauterized that part of my memory.

While I am waiting in the Nikon shop I pick up a new Nikon Z6 to play with. A shrieking noise errupts and I realize I've set off an alarm. The assistant smiles as she silences it and indicates to go ahead. It's light as a feather in comparison with my D700, the controls are in all the right places (unlike the D700) and the viewfinder is suberb! I want one! But there is no way I can afford a AUD3,000 camera.

If I was familiar with Jakarta I could use busses and trains, but I'm not, so I catch cabs and Grabs (Uber). Nobody walks here. There is no pavement anyway.

I am in Jakarta on a good day, the taxi driver tells me, it will only take one and a half hours to cover the 44km via the 'freeway' to get into the city — it can take three hours or more on a bad day. It is gridlock all the way, each car just inches from the one in front. Accidents are frequent but rarely serious unless there is a bike involved. For a short time we hit 60 kph until we come down the off-ramp and are back to crawling along city streets.

Jakarta itself has a population over 10 M. The Greater Jakarta area has 20 M, almost the entire population of Australia (24 M). Java has 140 M, which is a population density fourty times greater than Victoria, Australia, where I grew up. I travelled from Jakarta to Surabuya by train, a great way to travel, but each town along the way just merges into the next, and then the next, and the next... Between Bandung and Yogyakarta the endless towns are sometimes separated by farmland, but everywhere else farmland is often just a narrow strip between the tracks and the endless kampongs, and then a distant green smudge beyond the houses.


Bandung is my first rail stop after Jakarta. I am in the hills now where it's cooler and much frequented by weekend travellers from Jakarta. In colonial days Bandung was a wonderful retreat for the Dutch escaping the heat of Batavia (Jakarta).

In 1955, shortly after Independance, Indonesia hosted the Africa Asia Conference here in Bandung. This was a big deal and the beginning of a global realization that it wasn't just the Western world that could make powerful alliances. The conference spawned the Non Aligned Movement, which has since been chaired by such leaders as Suharto, Mandela, Castro, Tito, and Mugabe. In the West it is often portrayed as evil and subversive, but to others, especially those countries being pressured by the US, it is a symbol of anti-colonialism and a platform for small powerless states seeking independance. I find the Africa-Asia Museum a fascinating insight into the minds and motivations of the leaders of the time: Nehru, Suharto, Hatta, Zou Enlai, and others.


Back on the train, the  vivid green of the rice fields flashing past my window almost hurts. As we descend the hills surrounding Bandung the country becomes flatter and more densely populated, and the green fields give way to red roofs. 

I am tired from the lost night in Singapore, the frantic rush around Jakarta, and my efforts in Bandung. Now in Jogja, every time I go in search of another gallery, museum or cultural center I end up in a batik shop. I decide to spend an aimless relaxing day recharging my batteries. The highlight of Jogja is its central location for visting Borobudur and Prambanan — two of the biggest temples in the world — and I have booked a tour for the day after.

The sunrise tour of Borodudur left at 3am to catch the sunrise at 6:30. On the bus nobody is feeling very chatty, but when we get there this bundle of Chinese energy grabs my arm and announces in perfect English that I can show her Borobudur. Having no other commitments, I acquiesce. Her name is Joy, she says, and she teaches Chinese in Northern China. It turns out she is happy to have her picture taken so long as she can take some of me, and off we go to explore Borobudur. Neither of us have much idea what it is all about but we have a lot of fun exploring the place and among it all I take a few reasonable pics despite a rather grim sunrise. Mid-morning we meet up with the others and all of a sudden she's gone and I am off to the next sight — a Hindu temple — which Joy is not going to see. I am disappointed to lose her company, but as soon as I arrive at Prambanan I am accosted by an Indonesian 'intern' who offers to guide me around the place. For the next two hours she talks non-stop about every god, demon, spirit, and associate represented at this, the world's largest, Hindu temple site. Only 17 temples have been reconstructed as nobody seems to know how to reassemble the remaining 220. The place is vast! And the Hindu pantheon makes Norse sagas seem simple.

Both Borobudur and Prambanan were constructed around the 6th to 8th century. Borobudur came first, but then the Sultan converted from Buddhism to Hinduism, so he built Prambanan. Both eventually fell into ruin when the Arabs converted everyone to Islam. Only the Javanese could still smile after all that!

Back in Jogja, I was tired after the long day and opted to eat at the local buffet restaurant. In Indonesia it's called Nasi Campur and consists of a lineup of dishes from which you help yourself and take your selection to the cashier for payment. There are no meaningful food regulations in Indonesia. If too many customers are poisoned the place goes out of business so it's self-regulating and nobody has to worry about such fiddly things as the temperature the food is stored at. Nasi Campur is frequently put on display about midday and packed away when customers stop coming nine or ten hours later. If there is any left it's put away for tomorrow. In some places it is merely covered. I knew this. My excuse is that I was tired and the restaurant was convenient, but I should never have eaten there.

I have finally become pretty good at using a Muslim shitter, though they still make me shudder. By the way, the silver lining of the Muslim way is no paper, which is a lot kinder on the anatomy in such circumstances.


The next stop is Malang. The train from Jogja to Malang passes through the fertile plains of Central Java. Beyond the kampongs hugging the rail tracks, the green fields of rice and corn stretch to the horizon. We pass thru many small towns and one in particular stands out — Kertosono — the village in which my mother was born. It is nothing special, just another railway stop like all the others on this flat, seemingly endless, plain. But the plain does end and not far from Kertosono it rises from the flat to climb the hills to Malang and the countryside changes to terraces interspersed with patches of trees and jungle, big gorges, and rivers.

Malang catches the light in a different way. The air is clear, the sun is bright but surprisingly low and gentle, casting beautiful shadows across the earth, and it is noticably cooler here than in Jogja. Malang is a university town and that seems to lend this place a slower, less excitable, more relaxed atmosphere. It also means a lot of young people are around which is pleasant, and for once the food is edible. The first thing that strikes me is the streetscape — parks, gardens, flowers, and trees everywhere with streets in good repair and even pedestrian pavements, although they inexplicably fail to join up with each other so that rare Indonesian species, the pedestrian, is forced to step into the carriageway and dice with the traffic at each intersection.

Malang has traffic cops at major intersections. These amazing men dance with the traffic all day. They are both conductor and principal dancer in their own ballet. Armed with a whistle and a red flag, and dressed in nothing more distinctive than a flouro safety vest, they look more like clowns than cops as they bend the flow of cars, trucks, and motorcycles to their will. I watch their extravagant gestures as two of them orchestrate the traffic outside the station. How do they stay in sync? How do drivers even see them buried in the thick of this traffic?

I am staying in a very cheap but good hotel close to the center of town. Next door is a cosmopolitan restaurant that serves reliable food, so I eat all my meals here. I do not want another dose of the Java Jits. They serve an amazing array of selected coffees and I choose a Sumatran Mandheling Peaberry, which is mild, flavorful, and delicious. The black and white cat guarding the door sneaks in as the restaurant fills. It is completely indifferent to the crowd of feet, supremely and sublimely confident of its small space. Even the attempts of staff to evict it are ignored until a waitress finally tempts it outside again with a tasty morsel. Clever cat.

During the day I walk the streets and discover some surprising places. Around the corner is the Bird Market selling not just birds but snakes, lizards, rabbits, squirrels, and fish — everything but cats, dogs and chooks — maybe there is another market for them. Down a side path leading to the river is a plant nursery with an amazing collection of tropical plants. Like the rest of Malang, there is not one brown leaf to be seen.

At first I think the street outside my hotel is the main drag but then it dawns on me that I am actually in the station precinct which is a couple of kilometers away from Jalan Idjen. So next morning I set off for this famous street. The median strip is a fabulously manicured tropical garden, the houses are mostly colonial era but many have been modernised and extended. This is where the money is. Some of the houses are palaces. I'm looking for a museum, another war museum, which I find, but it's even more boring than the last one — nothing but guns.

I move off the main drag and return to my hotel via the back streets, which are almost as salubrious and up-market as Jalan Idjen. Buried between two small streets that diverge to create a triangle I find a strange park. It's actually a forest of very beautiful trees. I walk the length of it, looking for a way in and eventually find a formal entrance at the far end. The forest is a gift from a Japanese pharmaceutical company, says the plaque. I enter and am transported to a place of peace and quiet. Somehow, this small forest in the middle of Malang manages to block out the surrounding urban environment and create a bubble of tranquility. Magic.

My intentions to see Mt Bromo and Mt Idjen have been thwarted by the Java Jits and my time here in Malang has come to an end. Next morning I catch the train to Surabaya with reluctance.


Standing outside Surabaya Stasiun fumbling with my phone, trying to get my bearings and belatedly plan the itinerary I should have worked out on the train, I am hailed by a cab driver. I respond with a challenge for him: "I have one afternoon to see Surabaya. Where should I go?" Soon there are four or five drivers standing around planning a guided tour. One of the things I insist on is an English-speaking guide. Eventually, it's all worked out, a price is negotiated and off I go on a whizz-bang tour of Indonesia's second city with a guide who speaks no English!

Somehow, my smiling escort divines exactly what I want and deftly navigates the city to show me the Heroes Monument (more war museums), the docks, and some of the old colonial district of the town which, in contrast to Malang, consists of cramped dockside streets, rundown and commercial.

I wanted to see the docks for several reasons. One of my uncles departed for the Battle of the Java Sea from here, on a Dutch naval ship HNLMS Kortenaer. His ship was torpedoed. Most of the survivors were picked up by the Americans but he was left behind and eventually rescued by the Japanese to be interred as slave labour on the Nagasaki docks. The Americans then dropped an atom bomb on him but he survived that too, and was at last reunited with his family after the war. He died a few years later in Australia of leukemia.

The second reason for seeing Surabaya is because it was here that my mother was imprisoned by the Japanese. There are no memories left of this, apart from hers. I could not find any reference to the POW camps. They are just not important for the Indonesians and are totally eclipsed by their struggle for independance. History is indeed written by the victors.

My guide's whirlwind tour of Surabaya left me at the airport, exhausted but happy enough, with plenty of time to catch my return flight to Langkawi via another overnight stay in Singapore. I have to stop sleeping in airports!

Sitting in the cheap seats at the back of the plane usually means a rather bouncy landing and often some swaying as the pilot throws out the anchors or whatever they do on aeroplanes. Not this time. With no wind and light cloud the pilot shows off his perfect touchdown technique. A short ferry ride later I am back home on Anjea at Rebak Marina.

Sailing past Java the first time round was a huge mistake. I am so glad I've corrected it.

Picures here.


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    What a great description of a fascinating trip. Loved the photos too. Especially the ones showing the local people and the ballet of the traffic wardens!

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    I felt as if I was gravelling with you.

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    I felt as if I was gravelling with you.

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    Hi Dave! Nice to hear from you again and to read your story about Java! Enjoy your travels. Love from Scheveningen, The Netherlands, Nathan and Jennifer
    PS we live really close to the harbour now, so feel free to come by for a coffee with Anjea and Lesley

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    Ellen, you know I write for you.
    Alex, great to hear from you and I hope you're enjoying your virtual travels!
    Jennifer and Nathan, Lesley and I have gone our separate ways, but I might drop by very soon -- my coffee grinder just broke down!

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    Great reading, excellent, informative and entertaining.

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