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Kuta

Alright, I have to admit this but I’ve been stuck in Kuta since I got here and I don’t even like the place. The 1st day here I looked around, decided the heat was too much and the place a tourist trap. In addition I came down with a head cold (don’t ask me how, I have no idea).

I had to plan my next few weeks: did I head off to the Gili islands or move on to Oz? In the end I decided Oz. I was fed up with the heat & humidity here and looked forward to the dry heat of the outback. All my energies went into tracking down an overland route from Darwin to Perth, arranging that and bringing my flight from Bali to Perth forward. Unfortunately the flight only goes two days per week and when I realised this I had missed one by half a day.

In the days before my flight (1am Thurs) I’ve stuck it in Kuta. Transport is such a pain from here that I would have spent as long getting anywhere as being there, plus the humidity made it unattractive. Bali doesn’t ring my bell and it a shame I couldn’t have gone straight from Bromo to Oz, or maybe Gili. In Sumatra and Java I found some of the nicest and most helpful locals on the trip, but in Bali they became pushy and reminded me of Cambodia, the other country I left earlier than planned.

I’m not keen on Bali, but I feel sorry for the locals as I feel sorry for all the Indonesians connected with tourism. The Bali bomb did huge damage to the tourist industry and continues to do so. Western governments don’t help as the UK Foreign office along with others recommends their nationals not to travel to this country (but its still OK to visit New York and Madrid). I even had to battle with my insurance company to cover me for my visit here as they initially refused to (the contract said nothing about FO advice being relevant and I pointed this out).

Bali bomb memorial

Hopefully I can put some photos up when I get to Darwin.

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Bali

Have arrived in Kuta, Bali. Kuta seems like a tourist nightmare, though I’ve only been here a couple of hours. The boat across between Java and Bali was the scruffiest commercial ferry I have ever seen. The gap between the two islands is really quite small but the boat took forever, particularly in docking. On the positive side the bus terminal was across the road from the entrance to the ferry terminal and I jumped on a local minibus to Denpasar. Around 5 hours later a swap to another minibus to take me across town to another bus station ond from there on a 3rd minibus to Kuta, Bali’s main resort. It was a long hot journey so not much more to add now.

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Gunung Bromo

My first efforts to leave Yogyakarta were set back when I missed my train. As you approach the station you cross 3 or 4 sets of tracks to reach the buildings. I had arrived on these tracks and had crossed them to buy my ticket earlier. In the evening as I arrived to catch my train east to Surabaya there were a lot of people waiting so I sat down with them. There were no information screens or signs about trains (there aren’t at any Java station) but the tannoy piped up with an announcement that was about my train. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand any of it apart from the destination name, but as the people round me didn’t appear affected I didn’t worry. There was no train in sight and I assumed it was late….. just then I heard the squeal of metal on metal. There was no train in sight, but the sound came from round a corner. I ran round to the back of the station to see the back of my train as it left the station on a set of tracks I didn’t realise was there. Nuts.

It meant one more night here before catching the morning train to Surabaya and changing on one to Probolinggo. Unfortunately the second train had a problem and didn’t depart for an hours so on arrival it was too late to catch a Bemo up the mountain. I found the hotel recommended in the guide and set out of food. Not much choice but a plainly furnished restaurant supplied some tasty food and cold beer. At the end of my meal a couple of local girls asked if they could show me their town whilst they practiced their english. Seemed like a plan, I was just rereading a book anyway. We wandered round for a bit not seeing much and when I asked about this they replied there was nothing to see in town. Still we chatted for a bit, covering all the usual question Asian tourist as a westerner : How old are you?? Are you married??? No!! Why not?? Do you like Indonesia?? Where is best?? Eventually the conversation moved wider and we all agreed George Bush is a dangerous idiot.

A submarine I spotted between trains in Surabaya!!

That night I was eaten alive by mosquitoes getting over 30 bites, lots of them on my hands which is unusual. Catching a bemo up the mountain to Cemoro Lawang was easy enough and I arrived around midday. Cemoro Lawang is a village perched on the edge of the Bromo caldera, formed by the collapse of an ancient gigantic volcano. In the crater are several newer volcanoes at least two of which are still live I had a quick lunch a then walked round to explore the area but this was limited by mist and rain. Over dinner I met a Dutch guy and a French guy and we hired a jeep & driver between us to take us to the sights at dawn tomorrow. As this meant setting off at 4am it was an early night.

The 4×4 was an old fashioned looking Toyota Landcruiser in good nick and covered in little flashing lights. It was rapidly christened the Christmas Tree. First stop was up a volcano that forms part of the north ridge of the caldera. To get there meant driving down into the crater and through the mist that collects there before driving up the steepest road I have ever been on to the top. When we parked up it was behind a load of other similar Toyotas (the vehicle of choice here) and amongst a set of tourist tat stalls. Walking past them to get to the viewpoint I noticed the locals glued to the Man United vs Man City match and it was a reminder of just how popular the English Premier League is with the Asians.

Arriving at the viewpoint was a shock as there must have been 50 or so people there all tourists but 80% Asian. The rest of Indonesia had been so quiet and here I was in loud chatty voices and constant flashguns. There were two main directions to look, to the east to the colours of sunrise and to the south across the caldera with Mt Bromo constantly steaming and Mt Semeru exploding a small cloud of smoke 20 km behind. As the sun rose it lit up what may be the most spectacular view of my life. I took over 30 pictures from which I’ll have to pick the best few.

The sky just before sunrise
The view across the Bromo caldera

After this we headed down in the 4×4 to near the base of Mt Bromo. You could hire a horse to take you the remain few hundred yards to the bottom of the steps that led up the side but feeling fit (and after my experience in Navajo country) I walked. It was easy enough until we got to the steps but climbing them you felt the atmosphere attacking your throat. It must have been gases from the volcano, however if you breathed through your nose it was OK. That made progress up the stairs very slow as my nose is particularly inefficient and breathing through your mouth made you gag and wheeze. At the top the view was OK but nothing after the views from an hour before.

The staircase up the Bromo cone itself.

We were back to the hotel for breakfast just after 7 and with it being so early I decided it was worth moving on. A Bemo down to Probolonggo, another across town to the train station before catching the 5 hour long train to Ketapang where the ferry leaves to Bali. It was after 4pm by then and with the early start and the heat of the journey I decided to call it a day. I found an nice resort hotel nearby ready to catch the ferry early next day.

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Yogyakarta

Caught the train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, a city midway way along Java, near the south coast. The journey itself was long, but very comfortable and I found an OK hotel near the station. Yogya has a reputation as a cultural centre and as the government licensed Batik art centre was open I paid a visit. Its a system of dying where molten wax is used to stop the cloth being coloured. Wax is added initially where you want white (the cloths natural colour) and then the clothe is dyed with the lightest colour. This is done until stage by stage using darker colours until complete. I ended up buying 4 smaller pieces, two that reminded me or Ozzie Aboriginal art and two with gecko symbols on them. I’ve come across geckos everywhere I’ve been in the tropics and as they eat mozzies I’m very fond of them.

The government sponsored Batik art shop.

After a couple of nights I headed to Kaliurang, a village 900m up Gunung Merap, one of the world’s most active volcanos. The hostel I was at was run by one of the local rescue teams and he and his brother are licenses to take people on treks into the level III hazard area. It was up at 3:20 in the morning to start on the hike up the volcano. This meant that although it was dark, it was also fairly cool whilst we had to climb. At around 5:30 we had got as far as were were going to be taken, still disappointingly far away from the volcano. Currently there isn’t a lavaflow to see however the volcano continuously emits a fair amount of smoke. Its was atmospheric watching the changing silhouette of the peak as the sun rose beside it.

One of the guys that climb the volcano every day to cut grass for their cows. When the volcano erupts these guys are in read danger.

The hostel only had cold mandis for washing and unable to face them I caught an early minibus (bemo) back to Yogyakarta. A mandi is a big basin / trough full of water you slosh over yourself with a scoop. Although I can take cold showers were you can gradually edge bits of yourself into the stream I hate cold mandis where you get hit by a scoop full of cold water at once.

Didn’t get up to much last night in Yogya, and tomorrow afternoon I catch a train to Surabuya, before connecting next morning to Probolinggo near Mount Bromo. Yes its another volvano, but being up high is much cooler than the lowlands and the heat in Indonesia is making me very lazy.

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Jakarta

I wasn’t expecting much from Jakarta apart from chaos and congestion. The chaos and congestion is certainly here (it probably has the worst traffic of any city so far), but so are some pleasant surprises:

1) My hotel, The Arcadia, has a delightfully designed interior, everything from the lobby and bar, the room doors & door numbers (I want those for my place) to the little wirework pyramid next to the TV holding vodka shots, chocolate and crisps.

2) The Ya-Udah Bistro nearby. Its Swiss run, has a fabulous long menu including many central European favourites, has excellent waitresses and is reasonably priced. A bowl of Hungarian Goulash, stuffed full of tender beef and mushrooms is less than a pound. It is one of my favourite eateries of the entire trip.

3) The older Kota area of town has pleasant open squares and colonial architecture, an incredible contrast to the concrete and tarmac nightmare of the rest of the city. On one side of the main square is the Batavia Cafe, described by Newsweek as one of the world finest bars. I’d have to agree, the colonial style building giving a fabulous atmosphere like few other places (the Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh and the Killermont Polo Club, Glasgow spring to mind). It pricey though so a quick, elegantly served beer is all I can afford.

The snack pyramid plus Rumsfelds testimony. Unfortunately the guy still has his job.

Also in the Kota area is the National History Museum that seems to make little attempt to actually tell the history of the country. From what I could gather there were a few Bronze Age people, some others (or maybe the same??) carved the shape of feet in some rocks, in the 16th century the Portuguese turned up and nothing has happened since. You can find out far more history from the background information in any Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. Most of the museum is taken up by a collection of 18th century colonial wooden furniture. Fascinating…..

One thing, Jakarta is hot & very humid; we are only 6 degrees south of the equator here and the wet season seems to have hung on longer than normal. My Scottish/Irish blood means have to head for air-con for the hottest hours of the day if I’m not to get drenched in sweat. Indonesia has very few travellers at the moment, apart from at Danau Toba every westerner I’ve met is an ex-pat working here. Its interesting talking to people who’ve made a life here as opposed to just passing through.

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Pelni ship Kelud

After two nights on the Pelni ship Kelud I arrived in Jakarta last night. It meant that I sailed across the equator; ideally I would have crossed by land but that meant a series of around three bus rides over 12 hours long to get south through Sumatra. Before that I spent two more days in Medan and can confirm that not only is it dirty & chaotic, it may also be the most boring place I’ve been. The signs on boarding the Kelud were good, I had a nice little cabin with a toilet & shower and it didn’t look like I’d have to share. As a whole the ship looked fairly modern, clean and tidy but gradually I realised Pelni wasn’t the most customer focussed operation, though the efforts to track down a timetable and tickets should have alerted me. The ticket said 2pm, but I was advised to be there early and was at the ferry terminal for 1pm. Just after 1 o’clock we were allowed on the ship and in half an hour everyone was on board and the dockside was deserted. Then, for some reason, the ship doesn’t depart until 6pm!!! I have no idea why the ship hangs around with everyone on board for over 4 hours and couldn’t find anyone who spoke enough English to tell me.

In those 4 hours I explored the ship and came to two frightening conclusions…. (1) there was nothing much to do on this boat and (2) that this boredom had to be suffered sober as there was no booze on board. Not a single beer!!! With Medan not having any English or second hand bookshops I also had read every book I had. Luckily I had bought a small Nintendo handheld game in KL along with a cartridge containing over 200 games. I’d hardly used it up until now and was wondering if I’d wasted my money. On the Kelud it kept me sane along with my gradually diminishing music collection.

I brought with me 10 CDROMs each containing around 7 CDs worth of MP3 music files. Something in the journey / my bag / ??? has been causing them to deteriorate and lose data. Worst affected were 2 of the 3 CDs that Seth burnt for me in California to replace ones already faulty by then. I have no idea what’s causing the problem but I wonder if I’ll have any music left in a few months. Jakarta is meant to be a good place to buy cheap CDs so maybe I’ll replace a few before I move on.

The idea for the next few days is to plan what I want to see in Java and how to get round them.

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Danau Toba

Danau Toba is a lovely place to be. Every direction you look sees the lake up against green hills and mountains. It’s also quiet here, running at a small fraction of its capacity. The people here are really friendly, not in the pushy way that has come across in most other parts of Asia. It’s sad to see them running with so few visitors and those of us who were there looked to spread our cash around the neighbouring establishments. Frequently you got the impression you might be the one customer of the day.

Danau Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

When I could I hiked around the area to get the views. Some days it was raining (its the start of the rainy season this far north in Indonesia) and I chilled out with books or films. Also available was BBC World and it was disquieting to see the news that the Americans, and possibly the British, have been torturing Iraqi prisoners. Unreal, as it appears that some of the US interrogators are civilian contractors and are exempt from court marshal. One of them has apparently been sacked for raping a teenager so that’s OK…..!!!???!!!

One of the other people at the Samosir Cottages was a Canadian raft guide, Jen. She was doing a quick your round Asia after living in Taiwan for a while and was showing one of the staff her photos she had on CD. Some of them were from the Full Moon party in April and 2 of them by chance contained yours truly bang centre. She didn’t realise but the Indonesian guy recognised me…. what are the chances???

After 6 days of trying I couldn’t get any definite news on what boats sailed from Sibolga, never mind buying a ticket. Rather than spending a day travelling there to be disappointed I’ve come back to Medan to try and get a boat down the east coast.

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Gungung Sibayak

Spent two nights in Berastagi, where I spent my free day climbing a volcano known as Gungung Sibayak. The peak is around 2000m and you have to climb 700m to get there. As has been my luck with these things low cloud obscured the view from the top. It was still atmospheric, very much a volcano in shape with a pool of water in the crater and jets of steam coming out of yellow sulphur stained holes.

One of the steaming holes on Gungung Sibayak. The mist meant no really good pics.

On the way down met up with Bob, a Liverpudlian expat who had just moved into a news house nearby. Over a cup of tea he recommended a place to stay on my next stop. That night had a drink with the few westerners in town including 3 girls who were Christian missionaries. I generally consider missionaries to be cultural vandals or even WMDs but out of character kept my views to myself.

After almost 7 hours I have arrived on the island of Pulau Samosir in the middle of Danau Toba lake. The lake has formed in the crater from an immense volcanic eruption 80,000 years ago and the island by a smaller eruption 30,000 years later. Not had much of a chance to explore but the scenery so far is stunning.

Tourism has obviously been badly affected in Indonesia by events of the past couple of years as most places are operating at a tenth of capacity. It leads to some stunning deals for me but I feel sorry for the locals.

My next problem is getting a ticket on a boat down the west coast of Sumatra. I already knew I had to catch the boat from a port with an exceptionally dodgy reputation, but it now appears I will have to buy my ticket in advance there as well. Despite the fact that Pelni is the national ferry company and has offices in every major town, for this boat I have to buy the ticket at the port of departure. It’s these little surprises that make travel in a developing country interesting…….

Sorry this is a bit brief but I’m on an internet connection 6 times more expensive than the one in Medan and around a sixth of the speed.

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Indonesia

I arrived in Medan, north Sumatra yesterday afternoon. If you discount the few hours I spent in Burma (Myanmar) this is my 10th country on the trip. The Rough Guide starts its description of Medan with “it has acquired a reputation as a filthy and chaotic metropolis with few charms” though it goes on to say this is somewhat unjust. I’ll be honest, I think the reputation is fairly accurate.

I’m also back to a country where customer service doesn’t have much of a meaning. All 3 components of the first meal I had here were cold & tasteless and the local Pelni ferry office didn’t have any route maps or timetables, not even on the walls. On the plus side although its a Muslim country you can still get a beer in some places and when you find a decent place the food is tasty and spicy.

Today is to spent planning the next week or so, changing money, buying malaria pills, etc, etc. My rough plan before getting here was to head to Bukit Lawang and check out the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and possibly do a jungle trek. Rumours reached me yesterday that much of the village and the centre were wiped out in floods. Checking the internet I found the Bukit Lawang Flood Appeal so I may head to Berastagi first and see what I can pick up on the traveller grapevine.