Java, Solo Ascent of Volcanic Mt Semeru

Java, Solo Ascent of Volcanic Mt Semeru

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Bromo and Semeru

I awoke in my tent at dawn and peered outside. Grand volcanic Mt Semeru towered over me, its perfectly symmetrical, conic slopes clearly visible in the crisp clear air. I had arrived at my solo camp the previous afternoon, hiking in from tiny Ranu Pani village, the entryway to remote Mt Semeru in central Java, Indonesia.


Distant view of Mt Bromo area

Ranu Pani village itself is extremely remote and of no interest to anyone except to hikers hoping to summit the mountain. I’d reached the village via a nerve-wracking supply truck ride up a muddy track on a narrow, razor-sharp ridge line during a heavy rain storm. (Details of that ordeal here)

Mt Semeru is Java’s highest peak at 3676 M / 12,130 ft. Semeru is also Hindu Indonesians’ (read ‘Balinese’) most sacred mountain. More importantly to hikers, Mt Semeru is Java’s most active volcano, randomly spewing out deadly toxic fumes. Unfortunate hikers do occasionally die from getting caught in Semeru’s fumes while up on the crater rim.

But Semeru’s potential dangers didn’t put me off summiting the volcano solo. As soon as I’d read ‘Java’s highest peak’ I was hooked. And my climb was about to begin.

There at camp I ate a hearty breakfast while enjoying a beautiful sunrise against the majestic volcano. Then I gathered my things and set out. I left my tent standing with most of my possessions inside. From my camp at the base of the mountain, summiting Semeru was ‘simply’ a half day hike up to the crater rim and back.

It was just a short walk across a flat open meadow to a scrubby forest covering the lower flanks of the mountain. From there, the trail ascended up through the rather barren forest, and then it was another short hike up to the bottom of Semeru’s gray ashen slopes, the volcanic cone itself.

I was greeted there by more than a dozen wooden placards commemorating all the hikers who had died trying to summit Semeru! Gulp. That was a rather dramatic and chilling start to a mountain climb.

I noticed from reading the placards that most of the victims had been young teenage Indonesian guys. I guessed that they hadn’t really known what they were doing climbing a tall, remote mountain. I supposed they hadn’t come properly prepared with rain gear, cold weather clothes, extra food & water and a medical kit.

Perhaps some of them hadn’t been careful while ascending to watch the way back down and thus had become lost. They could have been caught in foul weather or in a waft of Semeru’s toxic fumes. Mountain climbing – any mountain climbing – is serious business, not to be entered recklessly. And teenagers tend to be reckless.

I have to admit that those grim signs made me pause for a moment. But I was an experienced hiker. I’d been hiking since I was 10 years old, over two decades at that point. And I’d been hiking/mountain climbing solo for 5 years, including a two-week trek of the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepal Himalayas. I’d even climbed another ashen-cone volcano – Japan’s magnificent Mt Fuji.

More over, I was prepared. I had two liters of water, electrolytes, a meal and snacks, warm clothes, a Gortex rain suit and sunscreen. I knew how to keep myself safe and prevent myself from getting lost.

I gazed up the steep, seemingly endless gray ash slope of Mt Semeru. From here on I’d be completely exposed to the elements, be it scorching equatorial sun, wind, clouds, rain or storm. And a possible belching fume from the volcano. Luckily it was a clear, blue-sky day. Most likely my only weather danger would be sunburn. And I had my sunscreen to take care of that detail.

I stepped out from the shady forest onto the exposed loose dry ash and began my ascent.

The trail was simply a narrow worn path of hikers’ footsteps imprinted in gray ash. It was firmer than I’d expected, considering the entire cone was nothing but loose ash. Thankfully the going was pretty steady, with not nearly as much back-slipping as I’d experienced on Mt. Fuji.

The trail was not very well marked. A few piles of rocks (cairns) had been placed here & there, but not consistently. Occasionally a stone was painted white or red. That was about it. Mainly I just had to make out the firm path in looser ash.

I ascended only a short distance before I noticed that the entire mountainside consisted of a series of vertical ridges and troughs, running from way up the mountainside somewhere to the base of the cone. By the time the troughs reached the forest at the bottom they were exceedingly steep, deep and wide, like canyons.

I realized it would be quite easy on the way back down to accidentally descend into the wrong ravine, making it  very easy to get lost. So I made a point as I ascended to repeatedly look back the way I’d come, to recognize the faint trail as well as how my entry point looked from different heights

I continued climbing up the steep gravely ash slope, periodically looking back to re-check the trail and descent. Happily nothing unusual happened. The weather remained clear and sunny. And I simply continued slogging up the volcano until I eventually reached the crater rim nearly 3 hours later.


Looking down inside the crater

I’d left my tent at 6 am and reached the summit at 9 am. It was cold up there, and windy. Despite being situated just 8 South of the equator, and it being a clear sunny day, Mt Semeru’s rim was cold at 3676 M / 12,130 ft. I pulled on all my warm clothes and my gortex jacket.


Lash on the summit of Mt Semeru

The views were simply gorgeous! I was surrounded by a sea of heavily forested mountains. Not far off  was the massive cone of Mt Bromo, Java’s most popular volcano and one of the island’s most famous tourist destinations.

I sat down in the ash and ate my canned meal while absorbing the stunning views and enjoying my successful solo summit. I also kept a watchful eye on the inner crater, a deep dark gray ash pit. I didn’t want any toxic clouds to puff up and catch me off guard. Luckily, Mt. Semeru was quiet that day.

At 10 am things changed rapidly. Suddenly heavy clouds rolled in and engulfed the mountain in a thick white blanket. The gorgeous views disappeared.

I knew I had to get down as quickly as possible. The clouds could bring rain, which would be cold and possibly make the trail slippery & dangerous. Even worse, I suddenly realized by looking down the way I’d come, I might not even be able to see the trail anymore!

With that realization I jumped up, grabbed my things, snapped a few quick photos, and made a hasty retreat. Fortunately, I could still make out the trail as I went along. And I only had to descend a short way before I emerged below the clouds. Luckily they were only hugging the very summit of Semeru that day. Below them a clear blue sky was shining in every direction and all the way down the mountainside.

The descent was very steep. Ash began sliding around everywhere, which make walking very tiring. It dawned on me that it would be easy to slide down, like skiing, if I had something to ride on. But what?

I remembered that I had an old grain sack that I’d picked up somewhere to act as a rain cover for my pack if necessary. I pulled that out, placed it on ash slope, sat down, and pushed. And there I was, gliding down Mt Semeru! That was great fun and made the descent much faster.

As I slid down the volcano, I kept my eye on the faint path and my entry point way down below. Even so, at the very end I went down the wrong ravine! At some point down inside that steep ravine, I realized I was in the wrong place. I was amazed. Id’ been so very careful. Imagine if I hadn’t been paying attention. How very easy it was to get lost there!

So I climbed back up & out of the ravine. I reassessed my position. Luckily, had just gone down one ravine over from the correct one.

Soon enough I located the correct exit point by scrutinizing the area even more carefully. Then I climbed down to the forest edge and found the ‘tombstone’ signs. Whew, I’d made it!

I never saw another soul the entire day. It was just me and Mt Semeru.


Mt Semeru billowing fumes – views from Lash’s camp

I returned to my camp, relaxed and ate, then packed up and headed out. With a couple more days of hiking I would reach nearby Mt Bromo and explore another fuming volcano, albeit one full of other hikers and tourists.

Java, Kawah Ijen – the sulphur miners of Java

Java, Kawah Ijen – the sulphur miners of Java

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Zoom in to Java’s Eastern edge on Google Earth and the pale blue disc of Kawah Ijen’s lake is one of the first distinct features to emerge into view. But, forget lakeside villas and water skiing, this is the world’s largest acidic lake, with a pH as low as 0.13 (pretty much battery acid) – a clue as to why the crater is both a strange medieval-style workplace and an adventure tourism highlight.

Ijen’s 200m-deep lake hides an active volcano and the single set of sulphuric fumaroles which emerge there have become a lucrative, if hazardous workplace. For the men who toil under the stars at Kawah Ijen, the ore they mine offers higher wages than other unskilled labour, even if such wages come at a high price, whilst the spectacular sights, sounds and smells of their workplace helps pull the tourists in.

1 ferry, 2 buses, 1 taxi, 2 trains, 26 hours and no sleep after leaving Karimunjawa, I stepped onto the platform at Ketapang Station as the sun started to ease down, happy to be immediately swept up by tour operator Leo for a “blue flame” Kawah Ijen tour. Six or so hours later, I’m back in Leo’s 4 wheel drive at 1am with tour buddies Priscilla and Victoria from Sabah, first speeding through a deserted Banyuwangi, then slowing abruptly as the road pitches upwards. Contrary to the 2013 Lonely Planet, the surface is now excellent, though clutch-destroyingly steep, and it’s an hour up to Pos Patulding – the ranger station that marks the start of the trek proper.

Cool, dry and quiet under bright moonlight, the steep trail up is just 3km long, often taking a direct vertical over traditional zigzags. At first we are alone in the dark, then oncoming traffic starts to pick up – miners with full loads pass on the way down or we cross them resting, loads balanced on clever ledges cut out of the trailside bank.

Ijen’s crater rim is sensed rather than seen – acrid fumes start to bite at the back of the throat before, suddenly, we are on the edge. Under a near full-moon and bright stars, the flaming blue rockface near the vents below is clearly visible in the distance, even as acid plumes do their best to hide it away and, after barely a pause, we continue on – leaving both the crater rim and our travel insurance behind. The trail down into the volcano looks a chaos of boulders and rockfall, but is easy to follow with the headlamps of both miners and visitors breadcrumbing the winding route. Within minutes we’re low down on the crater wall near the acid lake, where fires lit by the miners keep the sulphur flowing down ceramic pipes until, rapidly solidifying, it’s chipped off into blocks and loaded into baskets.

The scene is like nothing I’ve witnessed – around the vents the rockwall burns bright blue in the darkness and, but for the modern attire of the workers, the experience feels like some vivid scene from a fantasy movie. Occasionally the edge of a hydrogen sulphide cloud swirls around, acrid and unpleasant even through a fume mask. Guide Yanizar tells us we are lucky – the night before the wind and acid clouds conspired and most visitors chose not to risk the crater descent.

Cooled, the lemon-yellow blocks are strangely attractive and nowhere near as odourous you might expect. Baskets full, for the miners the real work begins here – a steep rocky climb up and out to the rim before the long walk down, first to the inital weighing area, then onto the processing station, all while carrying somewhere around 75kg (and, since this is Indonesia, smoking at the same time). As Yanizar explained, two trips per night nets the miners about 150,000 Rupiah (£9). And the sulphur? It’s used to bleach sugar, vulcanise rubber and in cosmetics – seemingly banal uses for a substance which literally has to be ripped from the Earth’s fiery heart.

For us, the short climb back out of the crater starts in the dark, but ends in bright sunshine, our pace beaten by a typically fast tropical dawn. Amusingly invisible in the dark on the way down, the first surprise is a big sign explaining how visitors are banned from entering the crater. Once back up at the rim, we circle anti-clockwise for a kilometre or so, rising gently to a cluster of abandoned buildings with great views both into the crater and East to the sea. With perfect conditions on my visit, the constantly-changing early morning light framed the crater perfectly, floating on a sea of clouds above Java’s Eastern edge.

This new perspective and the risen sun reveals the crater whole. On the sulphur vent side, little or nothing grows for hundreds of metres around the fumarole – life poisoned by the constant acid clouds. On its Northern shore, the lake is just twenty or thirty metres below the crater rim – no doubt ready for a future earthquake to split this weak point and send a toxic torrent into the valley below. Sunrise complete, photos taken and masks packed away there’s just a steep, knee-destroying descent left to enjoy back to Pos Patulding.

Part the way down at Pondok Bunder a weighing point and rest house has a small shop for refreshments, plus some very sociable miners happy to explain the technique for carrying the sulphur baskets. I think I could have walked about 20m on the flat carrying the 75kg load I tried, and didn’t even consider picking up the 105kg basket pair. The miners are friendly, decent working men – I was happy to give approx 10,000IDR to each miner who I photographed or “borrowed” a basket pair from, which was accepted with reserved thanks – nothing awkward at all.

I was back at my hotel by 9am, and on a ferry across to Bali within a couple of hours more after 16 hours very well spent. Even as it grows in popularity, Kawah Ijen was a real highlight of my trip and I’m glad I skipped the crowds at Bromo to explore it, but do think carefully about whether you want to risk entering the crater as there are significant risks to consider. If it’s not for you, I’d still recommend walking up to the crater rim in the daylight as many do – a lovely short trek in the cooler air of the volcano’s slopes.

Java, Visiting rural West Java

Java, Visiting rural West Java

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Cianjur._ton-800 Opslaan

As I prepared my trip to Indonesia, I came across a note in the Lonely Planet guide, detailing the option of doing a Homestay in Cianjur. Another perfect adventure for the independent traveller! Here is my report.

The fact that the area is supposed to be quite rural kind of eluded me on journey there from Jakarta. In West Java in particular, the streets are lined with houses, which obscure the view of the landscape that lies behind them.
Cianjur Adventure is Yudi Sujana’s project and offer excursions into the area surrounding Cianjur. It’s the perfect way to experience Java away from the tourist masses! During peak season in July and August the price for full board per night is 25 USD (250’000 IDR), a little less during off-season. The whole thing is very well organised. Prospects are laid out in the houses, describing in detail all excursions and transport connections to the surrounding cities.
A homestay is also promised, however, it isn’t one. During peak season guests are divided up in the large house, which can house around ten people and is maintained by staff, and two bamboo bungalows, which stand isolated at the edge of the village. In the large house, the atmosphere with the other guests is somewhat ok. Staying in one of the bungalows, however, is pretty lonely. There, every meal is delivered by either Yudi or a courier. Thus, these bungalows are only suited for people who want some peace and quiet and a nice view.
When I addressed the homestay dilemma, Yudi told me that a homestay would actually be possible with a family. If it is really important to you, stress the fact during your inquiry that you will only be coming for a real homestay!

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!
Room in the large house

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!
View from the bamboo bungalow

The Excursions
Local Market
At the entrance of the market is a rather beautiful mosque.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

In its layout the market does not really differ from other markets in Southeast Asia.
The rice is presented in half open sacks. Fruits and vegetables are piled high in large round bowls and the meat is found on tables and hooks and one can even watch as it is being cut up right there and then.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

A fruit that origins from Malaysia and Indonesia is the salak, also called snake fruit due to the way its peel looks. Upon opening the fruit’s flesh resembles that of a lychee, but less juicy. The fruit tastes a little like starch powder. The salaks grow at the foot of a type of palm tree.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

Hiking through rice paddies
In the afternoon, hiking through rice paddies was on the agenda. From the main street one wanders first through the small alleyways in order to end up, relatively abruptly, at the end of the village amidst some rice paddies, which are lined by brooks and only interrupted by trees, a few houses and the surrounding hills.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

My guide was a local boy, who was about 16. We also went to some of his relatives and with a little English and some sign language he asked whether I would like a fresh coconut, to which I said yes. Quickly he climbed a palm tree and cut down two of them. I was relieved when he got back down, because he looked unsteady as he was climbing.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

Local farming village
First we rode around the area for an hour on motorcycles. I felt like a celebrity since the locals kept waving and shouting at us over and over again. Afterwards we wandered around rice paddies, small plantations and now and again through some small villages, where I was always welcomed in a friendly way and with a smile. Repeatedly there were also some astonished looks, since I am tall and built broadly and someone like me passing through is probably a rare occasion.
Lunch was served in a classical wooden house in a small settlement by a hillside. Just beforehand I was able to observe the heating up and caramelisation of some palm sugar, which is then poured into a hollowed out bamboo tube until it solidifies. The final product is a cylinder about 15 cm (6 in) in height and 10 cm (4 in) in diameter. For a taste I was offered the freshly caramelised palm sugar mixed with coconut pulp and it was just delicious.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!

Lunch was rice with two types of vegetables and meats and tasted also really great.

Would you like to get to know the village life of West Java and spend a few days in Indonesia away from the tourist masses? Then Cianjur is the place for you!
Peek into the traditional kitchen

The way back also constituted of a stroll through rice paddies, plantations, etc. but taking a different route.

Excursions: Further Options
Also on offer are the visit to a floating village (I found some comments online, which called this trip boring), botanical gardens, tea plantation and hiking on the Mananggel Mountain (only for experienced hikers, since the more beautiful route requires climbing a passage).

For your travel planning: There are several ways to get there. For about 50 USD you can have a private chauffeur pick you up in Jakarta.
I decided to travel there by minivan in a collective transport, which picks up at the hotel in Jakarta and drops off at a petrol station in Cianjur, from where a member of staff picks you up on a motorbike. This costs just over 10 USD.
It is also possible to get there from Bogor or Bandung.

Java, Malang, Charming city in East Java

Java, Malang, Charming city in East Java

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Malang in East Java has managed to retain that certain charm. There are a few beautiful corners in this city, where one can linger to “recharge those batteries”. Here some tips on what you can get up to in a day in Malang.

You can get breakfast in a bakery with local specialities behind the luxurious Tugu Park Hotel. From the Tugu roundabout, the bakery is located in the Jalan Kahuripan after 50 meters to the left.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
In the centre of the Tugu roundabout is a small park featuring a beautiful pond.

After breakfast, one turns – passed the Tugu Park Hotel and the Splendid Inn, both of which one should have seen from the inside – onto Jalan Majapahit and after the Splendid Inn straight to the right onto Jalan Tumapei.

After a few metres, the Pasar Burung, where you can buy birds and all sorts of utensils for the Indonesian household, starts.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
The birds on offer are being studied intently! At a different stall, chicks in various colours were for sale.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
Whole bunches of bananas are also on offer.

For the unafraid among you: Try the rice mixed with live ants. I did not do it, in part for hygiene related reasons.

The market stretches over a distance of 400 metres along the street and runs, after a river bridge, into Jalan Majapahit. Just after the bridge, I came across a stall with live crickets, which are perfectly suited as living food for birds or reptiles.
Just at this point of Jalan Majapahit, there are three tourist information centres. Here you get information on trips to the Gunung Bromo and other volcanoes, as well as about ancient Hindu temples in the surrounding area. Furthermore, a city map, which aids in the orientation, is available here.
After a few dozen metres you’ll see a cathedral on the left side of the road. Unfortunately, it was closed.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.

Further along the road, after another 100 metres, there’s the Toko Oen Restaurant, which spoils its guests with Dutch specialities. Just behind it is the central park of Malang Alun Alun on the left and Jami mosque on the right. The mosque does not permit non-Muslims to enter. I therefore focused on a visit to the park. During the day there’s not much going on, yet in the evening there’s all the more: You can watch the busy bustling of people in the park and at the many markets surrounding the park.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.

To get to the next attraction, the Pasar Besar, one has to go across the park diagonally and walk a block on Jalan Halmahera southwards. Then turn left onto Jalan Pasar Besar. All shops on the right hand side already belong to the market, which by itself did not impress me too much. It was rather dark and dirty, even by Asian standards. Otherwise, it is fairly typical for an indoor market, in case you have never seen one.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
A shop on Jalan Besar with a large selection of headscarves

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
If you walk down Jalan Besar to the end, you’ll find Malang’s Chinese temple.

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.
Just before the temple, I also noticed this neighbourhood of new builds, in particular because of the colours.

Now it should be about lunchtime. You can get lunch somewhere around the Pasar Besar, or in a more comfortable atmosphere, somewhere around the Alun Alun Park.
For your afternoon schedule, I would recommend having a nice cup of coffee or tea at the Tugu Park Hotel. For those who like it a little more casual, go to the Bhaswara Café, probably a student café, which is located at the Tugu roundabout in the direction of Jalan Thamrin.

For the evening program I also have the perfect restaurant tip! The Inggil Restaurant was recommended to me by a hostel owner in Yogyakarta and the food there is exceptionally good. The servers are very professional and dressed in beautiful, traditional uniforms of the region. The restaurant is also furnished with authentic local objects to the degree of kitsch. In the entrance area, there are also some historic photographs of Malang. As I studied the menu I couldn’t resists and ordered a real decent amount. Everything was delicious and not at all expensive!

Malang, a charming city in East Java, is a great place to spend a day while you are travelling Java. Click here for a full day’s activity schedule.

The Inggil Restaurant is located on Jalan Gajah Mada, from the Tugu roundabout 200 metres on the right hand side.

For your travel planning: You get to Malang from Yogyakarta by night train. From Surabaya you can reach Malang by train or bus. Best to get the train ticket in one of the many Indomaret branches, which is much quicker than getting it at the train station.

Java, The Borobudur

Java, The Borobudur

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In January 2012 I was on Java, Indonesia. 
Really enjoyed my visit there a lot. I loved the people, they were kind and helpful! I traveled from Jakarta to the other end of the island to go to Bali!  
A temple you can not miss to visit is ofcourse the Borobudur. 
I loved my visit there, walking through the stupas!!
The Great Borobudur
To see the Borobudur on the end of the road rising up high, it’s impressive! It is much higher than I expected. Well, it is build with 9 platforms, each with several Buddha statues.
The Borobudur, or Barabudur, is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Magelang, in Central Java. It is a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.
There are 72 Buddha statues in total on the Borobudur. 
Many of those statues are inside the stupas. They say that it brings luck to you when you touch the Buddha inside the stupa. So that is what I did ofcourse. That year was my best year ever, vacation-wise, that is. I was 11 weeks travelling that year, so I was very happy and lucky!! 🙂
I just walked around and around. There are so many people on the Borobudur you can hardly make a picture without any people on it. I just managed to make one without, it is my greatest picture of the whole holiday. 
Seeing the world over Buddha’s shoulder. 
The area is surrounded with jungle. 
But there is also another temple to visit there, it’s called Prambanan. A part of this trip was also to visit that one ofcourse. Also a great building. It is a 9th century Hindu temple, the largest one of Indonesia and one of the biggest in South East Asia. The main tower of the temple is 47 metres high.

Java, Expressly Java

Java, Expressly Java


Time for the evening news… “Villagers in Central Java, Indonesia, have saved an express train on the main Jakarta to Yogyakarta line from disaster by flagging it to a halt only three yards from a washed-out bridge. Five carriages were derailed but no-one was hurt in the emergency halt …”

One month earlier. Six in the morning, bleary-eyed in Bandung. We’re rubbing our eyes in a line that stretches across the station concourse in this West Javanese city, waiting for the counter staff to switch on the lights behind the grilles and fire up their terminals. Strangely enough this impressive computerization doesn’t yet permit reservations more than three days ahead.

Locals mill about, preparing to scramble for third class bench seats on the 8:30 local train at half the cost of our seven dollar Bisnis Klas tickets (we have decided against Eksekutif Klas). A stream of blue-overalled porters and tea and newspaper vendors eddies past.

Three days before in Jakarta the queues at Gambir Station had seemed impossibly daunting. The message was clear enough – all train services are fully booked over the New Year break.

Yet knowing that appearances are not always to be trusted in Indonesia, I had still pressed forward with the throng, against all odds, then to be beckoned inside to the administrative offices where within minutes three seats to Bandung materialised – with no suggestion, lest you ask, of backhanders.

Now in Bandung, arming ourselves with a Time magazine after some haggling over the cover price, plus chocolate cashew buns and sesame coated bean paste balls from the Holland Bakery stall, we are ticketed and ready to board the 7:30 Pajajaran Express for the five hour run across Java to Yogyakarta. Add a hand of lady finger bananas and we can confidently rebuff another vendor’s audacious suggestion that we’ll go hungry once aboard.

This is the way to go – settled into our allocated seats, we lower the upper window panes and lean back to savour the experience. The chimes of the traditional gamelan orchestra and the reedy notes of a solo bamboo flute float out of the public address. As we gather speed out of the city, morning sun throws a rich golden hue across the flooded rice paddies. A parade of stewards begins, bearing pillows, drinks, snacks and menus. Hungry, indeed.

The Pajajaran Express winds sinuously through the minutely terraced volcanic hillsides of West Java, sometimes too steep or too high even for rice. Here the rich red-brown earth is bared to receive and nurture other tropical crops. As the hills recede, rice paddies stretch to the horizon, the still brown waters punctuated by tender new shoots of rice aligned in meticulous rows. Tiny human figures are bent double, weeding, hoeing, transplanting.

A patchwork of emerald green is stitched together by clusters of terracotta red roofs and tree-clad volcanic ridges.

Sometimes a rushing brown river passes underneath, its steep gorge fringed by coconut palms or by a belt of bananas.

We are blissfully untroubled by the dramatic possibilities which will only become evident from the evening news a month later. Calmly, we watch cottages flash past, whitewashed stucco with solid Dutch shutters, woven cane and courtyards of packed earth.

At Tasikmalaya we slow to a halt long enough to select from the myriad of offerings thrust towards our open window, declining the deep-fried bean curd but delighting in an ingenious fan folding out to form a collapsible sunhat.

The afternoon sun glares down as we clatter on through a less tidy, lowland landscape, nearing Java’s southern coastline. Thatch roofs, rusty iron and coconut groves exemplify this countryside, and rivers now run wide, turgid and green. Still the towns and stations flash past in the now-familiar livery of whitewash and sky-blue.

Mid afternoon and dead on time we rattle into Yogyakarta, the seat of a dynasty of Sultans and the heartland of Java’s cultural heritage. A major festival is nigh and the street vendors are hawking conical paper trumpets of red and gold. As the sun sinks, Jalan Malioboro, the main shopping street, will become a pulsating mass of stalls, barrows and bodies. Back into the fray!