Dr. Frazier’s Java Indonesia Adventure

June 13, 2010
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

I managed to find some off-road riding between small villages. It was fun jungle adventuring when dry  not so when raining and the mud became slickly adventuresome.
After reading through Carl Stearns Clancy’s book Motorcycle Adventurer and seeing no mention of Java it became apparent that I needed to conduct a trip through the island.

“Java, ‘one magnificent garden of luxuries,’ is much better known to the tourist, and everyone who has visited there seems enthusiastic over its charms. One man put it, ‘Java fulfills my preconception of what a paradise ought to be.’ Java is a little larger than Cuba, and is so mountainous that, in spite of its proximity to the equator, its climate is like ours in spring. Eight of the mountains are active volcanoes, some of which form the wonders of the island….

“I was told that Java’s resources as regards objects of interest and means of enjoyment would last one for several months. There is big game handy for the sportsman; Hindoo temples for the student of ancient architecture and civilizations; primitive customs to be investigated by the socially curious; a model government system for the observation of the political economist; a chain of unrivalled volcanos to delight the geologist and scientist; famous botanical gardens for the botanist; and scenery of unsurpassable beauty and grandeur for the motorcyclist. So much have I heard Java praised, in fact, that I have determined to motor through it at the first opportunity.”

So wrote Carl Stearns Clancy, the first motorcyclist to circumnavigate the globe in 1912-1913. I had been researching the Clancy story for 16 years, following much of his nearly 100 year-old route around the world for a new book titled Motorcycle Adventurer (www.motorcycleadventurer.com). For a myriad of reasons, Clancy never managed to pilot a motorcycle through Java, but his praise found me wanting to hunt it for him in 2010.

Java is part of Indonesia, an Independent Republic since 1945 after freeing itself from Dutch colonization that started in 1602 and then Japanese World War II occupation from 1942-1945. The country is made up of over 17,500 islands, the fifth-largest of which is Java. The 13th-largest island on the planet, Java is roughly the size of New York State in the U.S., with a population of over 124,000,000, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

The active volcano on the left is Mount Bromo  located inside a national park. The base parking lot area was easily reached by motorcycle  but I passed on the last mile hike up to the 7 641 foot summit  being a motor biker  and not a hiker.
The active volcano on the left is Mount Bromo, located inside a national park.

The island is almost entirely volcanic in origin with no fewer than 38 mountains that were all at one time active. The mountains run nearly the length of the island west to east, the highest being Mount Semeru at 12,060 feet above sea level. The primary language is Javanese and close to 90% of the population is Muslim, with a per capita income estimated at $3,900.

So the island is mountainous, lush, jungle-like, occupied by poorer people whose language I did not speak, with a religion not close to my native culture. Those elements, along with knowing there were millions of small motorcycles on the island, many well-paved roads and Clancy’s glowing endorsement of a paradise, spelled motorcycle adventure for me.

The first risk was forgetting that not all the world drives on the right side of the road. Java, as with the rest of Indonesia, followed the British driving style and chose to make their system left handed. As soon as I drove off the boat and onto the main road I had to remember to keep my left-hand driving style switch turned “On.”

With so many small motorcycles crashes do happen. Pictured here  the red motorcycle had spilled after the front wheel got caught in a crack in the road  dumping the driver and passenger. Neither was hurt as the speed was about 10 mph.
With so many small motorcycles crashes do happen. Pictured here, the red motorcycle had spilled after the front wheel got caught in a crack in the road, dumping the driver and passenger. Neither was hurt as the speed was about 10 mph.

While the main roads were well paved, most were two lanes and bogged down with many slow moving trucks, buses and an occasional ox cart or cycle-rickshaw. A nimble lightweight motorcycle served best to pass slower vehicles in tight spaces, which seemed never ending on the major routes. While most of the local motorcycles were in the 100-125cc displacement range, there were a few that were considered large that displaced 250cc. Most of the traffic moved along at a sedate 35-60mph so having a 1200cc -1800cc heavyweight cruiser or behemoth adventure motorcycle would have been manhandling unneeded horsepower and weight.

The gems of Javanese roads were the small roads that went over the central mountain range. Often these would be so tight and twisty only small cars and motorcycles use them. They would snake up through two mountains through green jungle and terraced rice fields, sometimes into cold gray clouds and rain, and then down the other side toward the hot and humid ocean routes.

Due to the closeness to the equator, Java received rain. Each day it seemed some driving involved either sitting under an overhang waiting for a few clouds to dump water and blow over or suit up in rubberized riding gear and slosh through the drizzle or downpour. On the mountain tops and ridges the rain was cold, but if I could man-it out long enough I would drive to a lower elevation where it would be a warm wet.

For the Western palate I saw both Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut fast food outlets in the larger cities  succumbing once to check the price and feed a minor homesickness for junk food.
For the Western palate I saw both Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut fast food outlets in the larger cities, succumbing once to check the price and feed a minor homesickness for junk food.

Food was never a problem with restaurants or stores being easy to find. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in a large city sucked me in for one meal, more to feed a Westernized missing-of-fast-food habit than a desire to quit eating the Indonesian fare. Bottled water was available everywhere, as was soda and bottled fruit juices.

For the beer swiller their fix was a bit harder to find for that end-of-the-day cold one. Some stores sold beer, as would occasional restaurants, but only twice did I see a sign advertising alcohol. Alcohol seemed to be sold more as the result of foreign tourist demand than for local purchase.

Sleeping was a mix of tourist hotels in tourist areas, guesthouses and some lower priced backpacker places obviously targeting foreigners. In non-tourist towns there were usually local hotels in the inner city, often near the bus stations. All sleeping places, whether a beach hotel or an inner city hotel, were within an easy day drive between points. But if I was looking for indoor sleeping versus the jungle in places in between, it would be the jungle more often than a mattress with a mosquito net. The best daily plan was to target a tourist destination and have fun driving little roads in between.

Pictured here is a happy German motorcycle traveler who had found a cold beer at the end of her day of motorcycle adventuring. I saw almost no advertising for alcohol  but some tourist hotel restaurants and tourist restaurants did serve swill.
Pictured here is a happy German motorcycle traveler who had found a cold beer at the end of her day of motorcycle adventuring.

During my time in Java I met not a single other American traveler. Those tourists I did meet were most often German or Australian. I saw only three clearly identifiable foreign motorcycle travelers, two traveling in the opposite direction that did not stop, but looked to be on KTMs with Australian plates, and one German lady adventurist on a Honda 250cc Tiger.

The biggest danger I found was traffic. Unlike India or Bangladesh, where the road hierarchy is based on size, and motorcycles being near the bottom with trucks and buses at the top, there seemed to be a limited mutual respect in Java of space for either motorcycles or bigger vehicles. Some horn honking would take place as a bus or truck would come up behind a cycle-rickshaw or ox cart to tell them to move over. Sometimes an oncoming car, bus or truck would pass a slower vehicle leaving me little choice other than to take to the shoulder of the road, but most often they would flash their lights and give me warning so I could slow down and take avoiding action. I had been warned before going to Java about the possibility of hostile people. In reflection I found none outwardly hostile while on two feet, but some were hostile in a sense when one foot was on the gas pedal of their vehicle.

Gas was plentiful, but varied in dispensaries. In and around larger cities there were gas stations, often with a mini-mart. Attendants would fill the motorcycle gas tank, carefully. Cash was the means of payment. I saw not one debit or credit card payment point at gas stations. Away from the main roads and large urban areas gas was sold by the liter from glass bottles in front of markets, motorcycle repair shops or individual houses, cash again being the only means of payment.

In the cities and on main roads gas stations were typical  but once away from these  gas was sold from bottles by the liter.
In the cities and on main roads gas stations were typical, but once away from these, gas was sold from bottles by the liter.

Small displacement motorcycle repair shops were in every town or village. Once my spark plug went bad and I managed to drive to a small repair shop. Not only did the mechanic replace my bad spark plug with a new one, he also topped off my oil for a total of $2.50 USD including 10 minutes for labour. Again cash was the only acceptable means of payment. I forked over the equivalent of $3 and told the mechanic to use the change to buy some tea or a soda.

I stopped at a Kawasaki dealer showroom to see what models they sold. It had a well appointed showroom with several new models on display, the largest being 250cc. When I told the owner I had a KLX250S in the United States, he wanted me to meet the one owner in town they had sold a KLX250 to, but the he was at work. With the import tax the Indonesian owner paid close to twice what I had for my KLX250, the high import tax being one of the reasons there are so few large displacement motorcycles in Indonesia. I gave some of my personalized travel stickers to all the workers at the Kawasaki shop and some for the KLX owner. All seemed very pleased to have a sticker from America.

As I moved further west towards Jakarta the traffic on the main roads became more congested and I became less interested in playing “dodge the oncoming bus/truck,” so

Pictured here is some typical paradise jungle riding  well away from the congestion of the main highways.
Pictured here is some typical “paradise” jungle riding, well away from the congestion of the main highways.

found myself avoiding the bigger cities and choosing the small roads in and out of the mountains.

Some of the forests I drove through were enchanting, with green tree branches and vines hanging over the road making it feel like a tunnel through the jungle. While I saw signs warning of tigers, snakes and monkeys, none showed themselves.

The mountain and twisty jungle motorcycling of Java was good. The people I met all seemed friendly and helpful, especially the motorcycle people, whether in shops or driving on the road. Eating, sleeping, and even imbibing were reasonably easy and comfortable.

However, as I stood on the shores of Java, looking westerly at the horizon across the Indian Ocean towards India, I realized the Java that Carl Stearns Clancy wanted to pilot his motorcycle in, on or through in 1913, was a far different Java than the one I had seen for him nearly 100 years later. The Hindu temples were still there, as were the volcanoes, jungle and interesting society. Java was still a paradise in places, but much of the rest of it had become a little worn, albeit by time or man. I, like Clancy, was wishful of having motored through this paradise in 1913, not a paradise lost but today a paradise made smaller by the advancement of man.