Archive for the ‘Mountain Biking Bromo Tengger Semeru Park, East Java, Indonesia 2003, 2009’ Category

This fellow, Victor Esbensen, I hold him solely responsible for getting me into this bicycle touring, and sometimes camping enigma that I can’t shake off for the last two decades. I’m sure there are few others scattered around this blue planet that have fond memories of their times cycling and camping out with ‘Victor Bicycle’

He even stayed and worked close to where I lived. In late 80’s Singapore, it was rare to see a tall foreigner on a big white and blue mountain bike, buying takeaway rice and side dishes. Each time I see a sweat soaked Victor, always in a Hawaiian shirt and cotton bermuda shorts, I had to stop and say hello.

I think I’ve gotten rid of this itch to cycle off road in East Java’s mountains. Looking at some maps there’s Central and West Java to think off now. Better stop drifting away again, this page is for Victor.


Victor Esbensen, Jan 1989 heading home to Singapore


How Victor got to convincing 10 people who showed up at his house to see slides of volcanoes, to bike and camp the Bromo area, was a mystery in itself. He seemed the loner type, but opened up once anyone took interest in geology, photography and Indonesia. What started as a slide show, soon turned into a full blown meeting to organise a small expedition with people taking notes and pointers like a professor giving precise tips on what to study for final exams.

I recall some in the group buying new mountain bikes and racks, lovingly smothered with Saran Wrap, ready to be checked in at the airport. Victor and a few self appointed deputies took it upon themselves to guide and shepherd the rest for 10 days. As I mentioned before, as long as he had enough time to photograph in the morning and evening light, it didn’t matter if some of the the flock were brushing teeth or doing the laundry at 11 am in the morning when, we really needed to cycle off at 7 am. We would just reach our day’s destination a few hours later, mostly in total darkness. These delays happened a few times but all he could do was smile, pull up a chair and make another coffee. As much as he loved cycling, he also loved chilling out and watching people pack their stuff, I suppose. He reminded us that the only appointment to keep on trips like this was the flight back home, assuming one felt like going home, as there was always another flight.

In 1993, while cycling, kayaking and camping in the jungles of Malaysia, I remember Victor being rushed out to civilzation in the middle of the night. It took a whole 6 hours by riverboat and a Land Rover before he reached a hospital. His health deteriorated in the following 2 years. No doctor or specialist in Singapore, the US or Canada could precisely diagnose what really ailed him. He simply withered away. Maybe some exotic yet to be found tropical disease got him, as most of us would like to believe. There were no comforting answers.

In May of 95, a bunch of his friends, local and foreign, hired two bumboats and scattered his ashes in the Straits of of Singapore, close to the Indonesian Riau Islands. We figured that his final resting place would be the seas close to the country he loved so much, Indonesia.

Well Victor, I hope you’ve had a good read back in time, you know you’re responsible for my umpteenth time flying into Surabaya. Things have certainly changed a lot here, the man made ones at least. You would love all this digital stuff that’s going around, but stlll carry that big Pentax, just in case. Thanks also for putting in some good words with the guy in charge of the weather, while Paul and I were on our bikes. That helped a lot.

The mountains will be here forever, and so will you, smiling on us. I’m sure of it.


Would you ride your mountain bike here ? Nov 1995



Tuesday May 19, 2009

Cigarette tycoon's Singapore registered Rolls in Surabaya

I first visited Surabaya in 1989, then just a meek but interested passenger on one of ‘Victor Bicycle’s trips. That really was his Hash nickname. He was game enough to handle 10 people of various backgrounds and personalities, as long as he had the final say and was left alone to take his pictures. That in itself took hours but I was fine with that, having similar interests. After a week of camping and roughing it out on the sand sea and various villages, some were glad to part ways at the airport, and head back to the comfort of their homes in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. I was planning to fly to Bali, just an hour away. The certain someone whom I had taken a fancy to, had never been to Bali too, so that was quite convenient. Better still, she worked for the Hyatt chain, and there was one in Surabaya. While getting 50% off the room rates was nice, I was more worried about the ‘happy camper syndrome’ that had set in. Would we have a follower or two ? Let’s all bunk in together! Luckily everyone’s flights left earlier and we set off to tackle the city’s rush hour traffic.

Chinatown, Surabaya

Our present hotel, the Ibis is in the north of town, close to the harbour, Chinatown and the Arab Quarter. Far removed from the Hyatt, but that’s alright. That new CBD is just a cleaner mass of high rises, condos and malls. Canon and I were on a mission to capture dirt and grime, the new and the crumbling, wet markets, choked rivers, contrasts of old and new, rich and poor and had just a morning to do so.

And yes, the city is named after a famed battle between a shark (sura) and a croc (baya or buaya)

I’ll let Wikipedia shed more light,

I must have walked almost 10 kms this morning. On hindsight, getting around on crowded one way streets and diverting into the many side lanes would have been much better on a bicycle. We did not make it to the harbour to see the giant schooners and sailing ships that ply the Indonesian archipelago as another diversion cropped up. The Sampoerna Museum. It was an oasis of air conditioning and had the heady scent of cloves, once we stepped inside to dry our sweat soaked backs. As far as museums go, this privately run one beats some of those operated by some governments. The central theme here being a rags to riches story, with a couple of bicycles involved. From a viewing platform above the factory floor, the view of clove cigarettes being hand rolled by the thousands was quite a sight. I think there’s another one in the countryside, a veritable small town in itself where the real production takes place, with machines rolling billions of cigarettes a year.

Sempoerna clove cigarettes hand rolled by the millions

Our ride to the airport

All too soon, our trip was into it’s final hours. Our ride to the airport came 30 minutes too early, a rare thing in Indonesia. With Paul nowhere to be found, at the appointed time I loaded my box in the Kijang and set out to look where my instincts told me, the hotel massage parlour. Thankfully he was in the shower washing up and came out soon enough. As the driver had to wait a total of 60 minutes, he mumbled something about more money for waiting. I hope it wouldn’t get too nasty. Then the afternoon rain storm hit, delaying out progress, but we had ample time.  At the airport I paid him the agreed Rp 150,000 which he reluctantly accepted. Any more would have to come from Paul who likes to cut it too close when important schedules like flights home are on the cards.

Monday May 18, 2009, 5 km (3 miles) – Total so far: 232 km (144 miles)

On this our second last day of the trip, we had 4 options to get to to Surabaya city where would catch our flight back home the day after. Frankly I haven’t really figured out the best way to do this till today. Sometimes the best thing to do was to let things be. We had the whole day to get to Surabaya. Question was how much did we want to ride and tolerate a traffic choked highway? And how much would the alternatives of a minivan, taxi, bus or train cost?

The train was the fastest, if not the cheapest. Rp 4500 / 45 cents for the human and Rp 5000 / 50 cents for the bike. 2.5 hrs to cover 90 kms. Funny how the bicycle is held in higher regard. These were the official prices and we were issued tickets for both.

Paul thought that this was very unlike me, leaving things to the last minute. In fact, he was quite miffed at my lack of interest in finding a way to Surabaya. After checking out, I rode a slow 9 kmp/h only to stop at the Tugu Hotel to use it’s 5 star bathroom on the way to the station. Miffed or not, when the porcelain bus comes a calling, the GPS in my head and cramps in the bowels both locked on to the Tugu instantly.

Relieved, I came out to find Paul still clipped into his pedals and waiting to take off on a 2 minute time trial to the station. We still had 20 minutes to spare and it was great that today was a day for the solutions to find me.

Siti (bless her heart) at the City Hub Hotel checked and gave me the train schedules within 10 minutes of me asking, handled all our phone messages the past 2 days, and stepped out to bid us goodbye this morning. What a gem, all of 18 years old, who has 12 hour working days.

I had reservations for a nice final hotel stay in Indonesia’s 2nd largest city. It would be nice to get there early and get to see some of Surabaya. Paul agreed wholeheartedly when I mentioned ‘bike shop, bike box’ as a pre dinner activity.

Surprisingly spotless station at Malang

It turned out that taking the train was the best option. While it was not the Orient Express, it seemed to be passing the traffic choked roads into this city of 3 million people at warp speed. Then the rains started and there was a rush to close the windows resulting in more suffocation, as you know when the temperatures dip a little all the manly folk will light up. Not that they weren’t lighted up before.

The cast of notable characters on the ride, besides ourselves, were a karaoke man, a couple of teen MC Hammer wannabes, the one legged guy and an endless stream of hawkers peddling snacks, drinks, soft toys, school notebooks (the battery-less kind) and newspapers.

Even before the train pulled out of Malang Station, the karaoke man was jostling for space with our bicycles. Set up a speaker, plugged in a mike and started his rendition of squealing whatever. Some hawkers would place their wares on your lap and walk away, a soft sell tactic. They would then return and collect whatever they could not sell. The most interesting item was a honey bee (bees intact) male enhancement potion in a dirty bottle. The label had a woman with a big smile on her face. No sale. The snack peddlers had consistent sales throughout, but the one legged guy collected the most in one fell swoop and sat out side the reeking toilet to tally his takings.

We got out at the end of the line, Kota Semut (City of Ants, I wonder why?) Station, and out into a mass of people, rickshaws, motorcycles, and everything else from 2 to 16 wheels with well working horns. Amazingly the Ibis Hotel was a mere 2 kms away. I recognised it’s pink 10 storey ‘tower’ through the drizzle and we rode a very wet riverside road to get there. Locked the bikes in the employees parking zone and checked in with dripping panniers. Once we acquire the bike boxes this evening, the bikes will be stealthily rescued from their basement prison, brought up by the rear cargo lifts and snuck into our rooms to be packed in carpeted, air conditioned comfort. I know of no other way.

The rain came down in buckets again at dinner time. So much for eating at the open air food carts that throng the main road at Chinatown. There were none. We had a good recommendation from the Graha Sepeda bike shop for a nearby eatery before heading back across town in a taxi to our hotel.

With my bike safely cocooned in cardboard, I headed out at 11 pm to walk the wet streets in search of dinner # 2. The pickings were slim but I managed to find a Muslim noodle stall that was still open. There was a line of taxis parked nearby, a sign that the food must be good or cheap. They were both. 55 cents a bowl plus steaming hot Java coffee. Incredible.

Hauntingly wet in Surabaya's Chinatown

Sunday May 17, 2009, 55 km (34 miles) – Total so far: 227 km (141 miles)

We got up bright and early this Sunday, as I knew the Ijen Cycling Club riders will have some sort of a ride going on. 2 organised rides a month and they still haven’t covered all the trails aronud their town. Depending on your perspective, that’s a good thing. Word of mouth from some cyclists on the road did help too. To be doubly sure, I went down to the Semeru Bike Centre, tapped my friend Amien on the shoulder and almost gave him a heart attack. ‘”You again….when did you arrive??” We caught up after 6 years and over a few bottles of beer, way past the shop’s closing time.

Today’s ride was considered easy, over in a mere 3 hours, but for us city folk, it turned out to be a great sociable morning out with about 40 or so club members. It didn’t matter if one was riding, for a better term, a piece of crap or the best and the latest, dressed for a race or for the market, as the pictures show. Of late, the women cyclists have dwindled to a sad, zero. Afraid of the blazing sun and it’s effects, I’m told. That was my only complaint which I hope will be rectified soon, the lack of women, not the sun.

Goofing around before the start

A 45 km round trip along the flanks of the 2650 m high Mount Kawi just out of town. There was an easy route and a more difficult one which ended at the same place, an empty soccer field. Bringing up the rear was the club van, with dedicated bike and wheel racks, a whole lot of sweet snacks, the main meal of rice, chicken curry and slices of beef rendang, a spicy coconut infused slow cooked delicacy. 2 hot pots of coffee and tea. We gladly paid up our token Rp 20,000 / $2 fee for this ride.

The climbs began in earnest once we passed the city limits. Although still asphalt (the Indonesian term is rather cute, they call it ‘Hot Mix’ for obvious reasons) there were diversions through some remote villages where cobblestone paths then gave way to slick moistened volcanic earth. These were manageble in the middle ring but once the inclines got steeper, using the inner/granny ring proved futile. You would just loose all momentum and with front wheels sliding out and SPD pedals jamming up. Time to walk and enjoy the scenery of the cane plantaions and imposing cloud shrouded Mt Kawi around us.

When the mobile kitchen pulled up after 20 kms of riding, I took the cue from the others and plucked a giant palm leaf to sit on and set it on the ground next to my bike. The helmets came in handy as a deep bowl, just don’t spill any curry in it. The chicken and potatoes seemed over cooked. I figured that made it easier to digest and that was exactly the answer the caterer gave me. These guys don’t miss a thing.

After a 2 hour uphill slog, cold rice and chicken curry never tasted so good.

Might be getting too old for this cycling crap....

All too soon, the ride was over in 3 hours, then came the fast and tight downhill ride back to town. Everyone was a bit cautious after that crash at the start. That caution lasted a whole 5 minutes, as the pack started to spread out, disappearing round bends at 40 – 50 kmp/h.

Paul and I stayed right at the back, no chance of being rear ended, though we started to overtake most of them, closer to town.

In the next fortnight, while I am typing this, is the real biggie. Malang to Bromo, an all day ride and the exact same route we did 2 days ago. Recalling all the downhills, that’s going to be almost 75 kms of absolute hill climbing with a surprise thrown in at the end, more climbing offroad in the last 10 kms.

Maybe I should do some research on long term rental rates for one of those old colonial villas in Malang.

Soon after a nice lunch, the heavens opened up again, what a drastic change from a few hours ago. High thread count cotton bed sheets, here I come………our 5 am mornings were starting to take their toll.

After dinner, we met up with one of the local riders who knew the ins and outs of Malang. We drove by some really rough parts of town in the dark and ended up at the local massage district. The kneading and plummeling matched those in Thailand, painful today but you’ll wake up with a new body tomorrow. I had a masseuse of similar weight (67 kgs) walk over my back, buttocks and legs, hanging onto a pipe over the bed. She managed to get rid of 95% of my aches and knots. What a sensational relief. I’ve been to many spas too, but somehow their forte lies in scents, scrubs, aromatherapy and landscaping. These no frill places which use recycled hospital beds and torn curtains have people with very skilled hands and feet. Another deal of the decade at Rp 35000 an hour. I slept for 9 straight hours that night.

Saturday May 16, 2009, 25 km (16 miles) – Total so far: 172 km (107 miles)

A new hotel room at just $15 / Ro 150,000 a night

Malang is experiencing a revival of sorts. It’s common to hear the phrase, ‘Tempoe Doeloe’ really an old colonial way of spelling ‘Tempo Dulu’ which is ‘Old Tempo’ or ‘Times of Old’ Cities like Yogyakarta and Solo in Central Java have the same revivalist spirit going on. For the visitor, these are exciting times. Parades, town fairs, exhibitions of an era gone by are held a few times a year. I will miss one in Malang by just a few days. For us cyclists, I would have to time a trip when collectors of old bicycles and vintage cars take to the streets. The riders even play the part, dressed up in stiff cotton uniforms of the Dutch traffic wardens and policemen. To the real Dutchmen in decades past, this town with cool weather and clean air, was the Paris of Java.

In between breakfast and lunch, we cycled 20 odd kms in search of the local bicycle shops for Paul to brush off the dust from his Visa card. After gawking at suspension systems and endless Shimano stuff, I took off to see some old and new hotels, side streets, and generally try to take my mind of all things cycling related, for a few hours at least.

Malang's bird market, also has dog, cats, monkeys, poultry, rabbits, snakes, fish etc for sale

Friday May 15, 2009, 75 km (47 miles) – Total so far: 147 km (91 miles)


Lots of downhill riding and braking today. Almost 40 kms worth. To start off, a lot of climbing in and out off deep beautiful valleys before the road peaked high above Ngadiwono village. Then it’s a loooong downhill to Nongkojajar, passing through some very dense jungle, the last remaining bits of uninhabited forest on Bromo’s outer slopes. From Nongkojajar on, a winding but not too fast road runs 20 kms alongside apple orchards and cornfields as the elevation drops drastically. Having been used to 14 degree C nights the last 4 days, the humid lowlands were beginning to feel very sticky.

The last 20 kms into Malang was just pure highway hell, for cycling. So we got the works today. The good the bad and the ugly. Not to belabour the point, but if we did both Plans A and B at one go, yesterday, nerves will be frazzled.

Nothingness took a back seat on this, our last morning in the mountains. In it’s place were beautiful panoramas of the mountains and clear skies around Wonokitri. The place has prospered. Remnants of rusty zinc roofs 2 decades ago, while photogenic, have given way to remodeled homes of richer families whose members worked overseas or have benefited from tourism. While our room was small, we had the upstairs living room to lounge in and take in the views of the surrounding volcanoes of Arjuno and Penanggunan, slowly revealing their peaks as the sun burnt off the fog and mist.

Java has 27 live volcanoes, so many volcanoes, so little time, sigh.

the down hills are exhausting too

Paul has vanished into the hills, standing as usual. He just lives for these gravity challenging inclines. I do too, especially in the other direction. I catch up with him eventually, a dozen times, looking fully rested and sweat free, doing mundane stuff like tying his shoelaces or adjusting bungee cords. Thanks for waiting, man. Photography and sucking in fresh pine scented air is hard work too. We carry on again after I am mercifully given the usual 120 seconds to take a break. I pretend to take a leak again, buying some more minutes, to savour the views.

I get my just rewards on the downhills, riding alone again. I can’t help it, I have more stuff and gravity is a good friend if not treated recklessly. Mind the potholes and slight unseen bumps of lumpy tarmac, tuck in the knees and hope that you don’t have to practise your body rolls. Unclip the left pedal if that feels better.

There were some straights where you just let go, not the brakes totally though and let flight take over. I glance at the speedo passing 65 kmph, that’s enough, as this is when I’m reminded that a good hospital is in another country away. Paul likes his downhills below 40. My turn to wait

This scene was actually taken form the 20 km highway to Malang. In the foreground where I’m standing is also the highway dustbin, strewn with litter, mud and the occasional dead mammal. There was no real shoulder to speak off. If there was, it would be broken, filled with broken glass and other booby traps masquerading as pools of water. At one point it all seemed senseless, 3 hours of daylight left to cover 20 kms. I stopped to look at some rice fields, now I had to deal with big trucks tooting their air horns, seemingly concerned with my chosen moment to be stationary. Is there a problem, colourful tourist on a fancy bicycle ? Yes, you and your air horn are the problem !

Paul, need I say more, was way ahead, taking a whole lane with traffic backed up behind him, everyone maintaining 37 kmp/h, uphill.

Shy and not so shy

As the hill station town of Malang lies at 1000m asl in a valley surrounded by mountains, the last 10 kms were a breeze, we were going downhill and pretty much overtaking larger vehicles without too much effort. Friday night here proved to be dicey, without room reservations we looked at al the usual places . They were of course, “Full, try again tomorrow, no guarantees” The last resort, or so I thought was the Trio Indah 2. A hotel that aims to be indah/beautiful with a Trio in it. Go figure. Also 2 as in there’s a No.1, someplace else. $30 bucks, plus a buffet breakfast.

I was not a happy camper, sure it’s better than cycling in the dark, still looking for a room. Then came a most redeeming feature in the hotel receptionist. I asked her if there was an internet cafe nearby, and was given directions to it. In the parking lot, a 5 minute walk away, we were faced with this huge banner,

If not for putting a deposit, for the next 2 nights, and buying internet time at 20 cents an hour! I would have gone right back to give her a hug and a kiss.

Thursday May 14, 2009, 15 km (9 miles) – Total so far: 72 km (45 miles)

Going into the crater for the 3rd time n 3 days

Today is a bit of a rest day.  That meant a later start, more fiddling with camera and video, a late breakfast, patting the village dogs, a late check out and generally trying to squeeze 15 kms ofcycling and a touch of laundry during daylight. Plan B was to do those 15 kms and another 75 kms of unknown territory to the town of Malang. I’d much prefer Plan A. It’s a nice appetizer for Plan B, tomorrow. Plus, we were ahead of schedule.

My intuition told me that Paul preferred Plan B. He is so much the stronger rider, always cycling out of the saddle on impossibly steep climbs, but seeing that I concocted Plans A and B, down to the last kilometer, I get to choose again. 15 kms it is, into the sand sea for the third time, up a steep crack in the crater walls and and easy 7 kms down through shady pine forests to Wonokitri.

Out on the sand sea, we stop by for coffee again after a grueling 1.78 kms. No dogs to pat here, but a bit if drama took place when some horses decided to mutiny and took off with their owners frantically chasing them. One rider was even thrown off and landed on his back, out cold. We feared the worse, that was until a friend came along offering a cigarette, and the slightly bruised horseman’s universe was in sync again. Today’s coffee was also on the house, as the donated clothes fitted the slim woman very well.

My GT Zaskar at the same spot in 2003

I had always wanted to return to Wonokitri. It has an allure of nothingness, if that can even be explained. Mist and fog, wet and rusting zinc rooftops, simple houses built small and close for warmth, forlorn, flickering 25 watt bulbs for lighting and more nothingness in places to eat or sleep. Maybe it was watching a friend, Victor ingeniously bolting on an 18 tooth cassette cog next to his 24 tooth granny gear, one chilly morning in Wonokitri in 1989. Viola! He could cycle up a wall.

Victor was an expat from Canada, an accomplished photographer hauling a medium format Pentax, and about 50 rolls of slide film in his front panniers. Working in Singapore as a geologist, he had merrily organised this trip for a party of 10 newbies (to cycling and camping) His slide shows, with slides painstaikingly mounted on glass, of his escapades on a mountain bike in far flung Indonesian islands were always a treat.

He weaned me off spending money on road bikes and their pricey Italian parts. In place of such wisdom, I now spend quite a bit on touring bikes and their huge array of pricey touring gear. More on Victor later, as on that fateful, first bike touring and camping trip of my life in Wonokitri, in January of 1989, I thought I met the woman I could marry. I didn’t, but it was nice to be back all the same, in a nice well kept guesthouse too.

Nostalgia aside, Wonokitri lies on a steep ridgeline, as do the neighbouring villages of Tosari and Ngadiwono. All three, and many more less accessible ones are remnants of the ancient Hindu Majapahit empire that prevailed over Java before Islam took hold over the islands in the 16th century.

Wild scenery on the way to Wonokitri

Finding the Bromo Indah Lestari Home Stay of a certain Dr Matius Soemarno was a bit tricky. There were no signs, but when we passed a pink 3 storey Miami Vice drug lord style mansion, I knew that must be it. It was. The good Doctor was in a real hurry. He and the wife had to drive overnight to Central Java. A death in the family. I was given the keys to the place, to choose any room while the caretaker could only come by during the night. We got to see the lifestyle of an upper middle class home. 3 motorcycles parked in a corner of the living room. A piano and organ at another end. Leather sofa set. Spotless ceramic floor tiles. A stairway with chromed banisters led to 5 rooms on the upper floor. The rooms were in great condition for a 3 year old place. New matresses and blankets, very clean floors and views down the mountains with twinkling lights of the lowlands 50 kms away on a clear night.

They were in the process of installing water heaters, so this meant a quick splash of icy cold water on vital body parts, while the sun was still up.

While in search of beer after dinner, we came across a Balinese style Hindu ceremony at the village temple. Village elders and some priests were seated at the entrance, chanting prayers and burning incense in a purification right before everyone could enter the dining hall. Rows of dining tables were full of sweet cakes and fizzy drinks. They were still there the next day, untouched. I figured this was the pura’s or temple’s anniversary celebrations. Giant speakers were set up outside dispensing sage advice from the priests and a while later, of all things we heard hip hop music long into the night. The women were nicely coiffured and heavily made up. See? Plan A always works.

Wednesday May 13, 2009, 44 km (27 miles) – Total so far: 57 km (35 miles)

Breakfast with a view Nov. 1995

Guess what? The sun is out, and the skies a deep blue. The plan, or ride has been lengthened to cover the full length of the sand sea, climbing out of the crater and 2 downhill rides to remote villages before backtracking to Cemero Lawang. After weeks of anticipation it would be nice to put in some real distances today.

The white dotted line across the crater floor are actually whitewashed concrete blocks dividing the turf for the local horsemen and jeep owners. While the jeeps are literally blocked off from driving right up close to the mountains, the horsemen’s livelihood is protected as they can then sell a horse ride to tourists that don’t want to walk to the base of the stairs. We were approached a few times, and told that ‘no bicycle here’ or ‘park there’ and so had to rent a horse. Lamest trick in the book I thought, as we had brought our own aluminium (Paul’s a Trek carbon) horses. We were not falling for that one. To their credit, it was just another way to grab some tourist dollars, though I doubt that some of the very puny and tired, foaming at the mouth horses had any say in the matter.

Bromo is much greener in the 1st quarter of the year

The ‘trouble’ with having cycled to villages like Ranu Pani and Ngadas a few hours before, is that the trail or road does continue downhill for say 40 to 60 kms to other distant towns, losing up to 2000 m in elevation. Tempting at it was, we needed to turn back before we went on too far and ride back up the same way we came. We’ll have to leave that one for the ride to Malang town where a Sunday ride with the local cycling club awaits.

We got back from our big day out with a lot of daylight to spare, and even had a long chat with a French couple, on the sand sea. They had climbed Mt Semeru the night before and were now walking, 16 kms with full back packs to Cemero Lawang. Lucky me, I had a good tete a tete with a tall, stunning blonde, about her travels, before her husband showed up and paid more attention to our bikes and got my email, presumably to get more info about cycling in these mountains. Their local guides who spoke fluent French, were more than happy to tell me about our next day’s terrain and places to stay at the Tengger Hindu village of Wonokitri, our next destination. As always, it was prudent to double check on the latest news with the locals.

The last rainy season here in January saw a few villages cut off from civilisation, with many landslides and a few fatalities.

The road to Ranu Pani, 300 m above the sand sea where we climbed from and 2000m a.s.l.

Monday May 11, 2009, 6 km (4 miles) – Total so far: 6 km (4 miles)

“The temptation to visit Bromo crops up every few years. You could say it’s mountain biking into real mountains, smouldering ones at that. After 8 trips, I’m still not tired of cycling here, until I get bogged down in the sand sea again”.

It may be bad form to quote myself from a previous journal, but let’s see, there are some differences from the earlier trip. I’ve weaned myself off film cameras and the current ride passes through ‘new’ roads and trails and finishes off at Surabaya, Indonesia’s 2nd largest urban sprawl. While inflation is always rampant, the fall in the Indonesian Rupiah in recent months meant that, money wise, our expenses are actually going to be lower than they were back in 2003. There’s a different mountain bike to ride, and we didn’t get bogged down too much in the sand, rather volcanic ash as the nightly rains kept things very firm underfoot.

Mt Semeru 3742m was very active in Aug 2003

We landed bright and early at Surabaya’s spanking new international terminal. Maybe 0900 hrs was too early as a huge crowd bottlenecked before some frantic health workers who were handing out cards and scanning passengers for any signs of fever. Or so I thought. There were some odd machines spurting steam on our baggage and opened hands. Maybe the health risk of having planeloads of people crowd around each other waiting to have their body parts steamed, while chain smoking porters gawked, was much, much lesser.

Next on this morning’s agenda, customs and immigration. Indonesian customs are always fun. There’s a yellowish form to declare, and if you answer ‘yes’ to say ‘having foreign goods valued at more than US$50’ ( which everybody doesn’t, DUH ) you’re in for a lengthy, pricey chat with officialdom. Wouldn’t you rather be on your way? For once, we breezed through customs until, our driver from a supposedly reputable travel agency, was nowhere to be found.

It was at moments like these that Indonesia and some of it’s people shine. He was smoking actually. Just an everyday guy hanging out at the airport. He latched on to us the very minute he saw us. Once he had his hands on our trolley, that signalled to the other providers of transport that “these two are mine, back off” In these gloomy economic times, I don’t really blame him. His sales pitch was slow, a whole 40 minutes slow, as I scanned the parking lot. He had a new minivan, that’ll swallow two bike boxes and bring us to our mountain biking heaven in 3 hours or so. I liked him even more when he didn’t smoke while driving, kept within the speed limit, and quoted a fare that was highly negotiable in our favour. We are off to a false, but good start.

130 kms and one pee stop later, we’re dropped off at our usual Bromo Permai Motel just a few strides away from Bromo’s outer crater’s rim. It was time for lunch and the place was totally deserted. Most visitors here are up at 3 am, having madepreparations to see the sunrise 700 m higher up at some viewpoint that’ll require an expensive 4WD Jeep ride. Then it’s breakfast back to where ever they’re staying at and down the mountain. Bromo done. With out mountain bikes, 3 days is just about right to explore most of the trails in and around the crater. Motel staff who rarely see the same guests twice, become friendlier, topping up our water bottles, bringing hot thermos flasks and get inquisitive about SPD pedals and speedometers.

A lazy afternoon was spent cycling and getting used to steep inclines and bumpy roads around the villages that owe their existence to the fertile volcanic ash and many tourists, local and foreign, that make the Bromo region East Java’s premier tourist destination. New and higher park entrance fees are now Rp 25,000 /S2.50 for foreigners and Rp 6000 / 60 cents for locals. Though we’re foreign but can easily pass off as local city folk, we didn’t want to confuse matters, we paid the local rate. Keep the tickets handy if like us, you intend to pass the ticket booths frequently, though park rangers seem to liven up only when minivans and tourist buses drive by. Crazies on mountain bikes? Don’t interrupt my siesta.