TripbaliGazing over the Indonesian map sprawled out on the table, my eyes turned to the more remote Eastern part of Java.
I live in Bali and drive a motorbike, as most of us do living here. I thought, maybe if I rally the troupes, we could ride our motorbikes from Bali to the regency of Banyuwangi in East Java.
Three girlfriends answered the call, and we formed a plan for an 11-day trip.
Bravely, we figured we could go it alone and travel without a guide. Julie had done all the mapping work in advance, so she was the designated, leader. Anne, who is German and likes efficiency, became the sweeper at the back. With that sorted, we were off.
We planned two to three nights at each destination to break up the motorbike riding – and go adventuring in the National Parks using a hired driver. We were never more than four hours riding on any given day, and this worked very well. None of us had ever done motorbike touring before!
Java’s remote East is a land of endless lush landscapes, towering volcanoes, National Parks, and epic surf breaks. Our first stop in East Java was just outside of the Ijen volcano complex, Kawah Ijen.
The adventure was calling, and the next morning the alarm went off at 2.30 am and we crawled out of bed from our slumber, to experience the three-hour hike up to the crater rim and catch the sunrise over the crater lake. When we reached the rim, we donned our full-face gas masks. We then began the 45-minute descent into the crater, down a very precarious trail, which we shared with the miners who were coming up with their loads of sulfur. Their workload is heavy, as they carry up to 80 kg of sulfur in two baskets balanced on a pole across their shoulders.
They moved slowly, however, they were more than happy to set down their baskets and have a chat. Sadly, the famous blue flame was not seen due to the rain the night before. Nevertheless, it was worth the trip to enter the unique world of the miners.
Our next destination was to look for the clouded leopard and see the savannah lands of Baluran National Park, locally known as “Little Africa”. The park’s original rutted and rough road has now been replaced by a paved road that our tourist van negotiated easily. We first entered a beautiful green forested area, eventually leading to the famed sprawling savannah lands.
We got terribly excited when we saw our first deer, complete with large velvet antlers, and then we spotted some rare Javan water buffaloes called banteng out on the range. We all piled excitedly out of the van and went running over the savannah to a lone tree. In our exuberance, we did not see the sign in Bahasa Indonesia saying “Do not walk on the Savannah”. Our poor driver was yelling after us to watch out for snakes. When the ranger showed up, we soon got the message and came running back, accompanied by the sounds of barking deer, who were on the alert, watching the four of us running back and forth. We even sent the wild peacocks into a frenzy. They took flight and roosted up high in the trees.
Lunch on the beach was hilarious. We had to get into a large cage to eat our food. The monkeys hang out in large numbers here, so we ate our food imprisoned while the monkeys lurked hungrily outside the cage.
As the sun was setting and the full moon rising, we climbed the viewing tower at the park headquarters. We were on the lookout for the elusive clouded leopard, which is more likely to be seen at night. A shy, lone rare black monkey climbed the cell tower next to us, and we contemplated each other. Moments like this, when you are in the wild, are very honoring and as we gazed at each other, tower to tower, time seemed suspended in that prolonged gaze we exchanged.
We had no luck spotting a leopard, but we did run into the ranger, who showed us a video on his phone of a clouded leopard taking down a deer from the week before. It was fascinating to watch the action as the leopard, who was surrounded by a pack of ten wild dogs. The ranger explained how there are around 100 wild dogs in the park. They prowl for food at night and can smell a kill in a flash. “You best be on your way now. It’s dark, and the park gates are actually closed. Closing time is 4 pm.” He radioed ahead and had the exit station unlock and lift the boom gate. We broke another rule. However, they were all so nice about it.
The next part of the journey was onto the famed beach of Pulau Merah. On the way, we visited the ancient trees of De Djawatan Forest. We enjoyed this marvel of nature with rows of giant, gnarled towering trees and peaceful pathways for walking, with a few casual local cafes selling ice cream and coffee.
The highlight for me was entering Alas Purwo National Park. It was time for a bit of luxury. The glamping tented compound, JawaJiwaG-Land.com was only opened 18 months ago, and we were located in the depths of the park, at the famous G-Land surf break. Talking to one of the local surf instructors, he told me G-Land was one of the top five surfing spots in the world.
We did have some monkey trouble here. One very mischievous monkey managed to somehow open the canvas in the roof, climb into my room, slide open a drawer and eat my passport holder! Luckily, he didn’t eat my passport, but he managed to take a bite of my immigration paperwork, play with my bright orange earplugs, and eat two of my long-haul flight sleeping pills. Needless to say, we didn’t hear from him again.
There was plenty to do in the national park. We released turtles with the park staff on a beautiful wild beach that stretched 30 kilometers long, took an afternoon boat cruise through a mangrove forest on a lake, and got to see more savannah lands with endangered cattle and buffalo, boar, peacocks, and deer. Coming back home every evening to catch the sunset from the wooden ocean-front deck was a delight. The deck overlooked the vast labyrinth of tidal pools teeming with purple starfish, fluorescent green, and iridescent blue-colored coral and tropical fish. On our final night, a barbeque was organized on the beach, with an array of snapper, calamari, salads, hot baked potatoes, and icy cold drinks stacked in the chiller. We danced around the bonfire, singing, while the full moon rose above us.
One of the best things about travel is the people you meet on the way. That night, we met a gang of boatbuilders from Sweden, New Zealand, and Norway, who invited us to visit their newly opened Banyuwangi International Yacht Club. It was the perfect stop on our way back to Bali. We got the royal treatment from the Italian Chef, Mario, who presented a massive lobster on a bed of piping hot homemade spaghetti. He cut the lobster open for us with a bit of pomp and ceremony, accompanied by Italian music and wine. We also had parma ham and burrata cheese, a luscious panna cotta for dessert, and of course, a bit of homemade limoncello to help the digestion—a great end to a great trip. The four of us girls were presented with lifelong membership cards to the club, so I guess that means we will be back.
Tips for Independent Female Travel, Dos and Don’ts in Indonesia
**It’s generally safe for women to travel solo in Indonesia. Like everywhere else, the key is to always be aware of your surroundings.
**Many places in Indonesia are not pedestrian-friendly. Even if you’re walking on the sidewalks, watch out for motorbikes, as riders may use the sidewalk to cut the line of traffic.
**Always keep your bags close to your body when walking. Some bag-snatchers can even grab your handbags from motorbikes, so it’s safer to sling them across your front rather than just over your shoulder.
**Avoid public displays of affection.
**Wear a more conservative outfit when visiting local markets, villages, and more importantly, religious sites. Do not wear short shorts. Just observe how the local women dress and follow suit.
**Consumption, possession, and distribution of drugs are serious criminal offenses in Indonesia, punishable by imprisonment or even the death penalty.
**Avoid walking alone in deserted or dark alleys. Indonesians are very friendly, and if you ask someone to escort you, they usually will.
**If you get cat-called, just ignore it and walk by. Don’t cause a scene.
**Some regions in Indonesia are more conservative than others. If it’s a Muslim-dominated Island you are visiting, the dress code will be more conservative, so make sure you get enough information about that specific place before you go. Don’t assume everywhere is as it is in Bali.