May 22, 2013

Indonesia - Part 4: Malang to Denpassar

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4-day Race to Bali

The day before I was going to leave Malang I was talking to a British couple, and they were telling me how they only had 9 days left on their visas, so they had to go to Bali as quickly as possible to get it renewed. After a quick count, I realized I didn’t have much time left either. I had 6 days to get to the immigration office in Denpasar, leaving me one week for processing.

Thus began the challenge.

Day 1: Malang to somewhere... (138 km)

I left Malang bright and early on the Sunday morning. I planned to go 197km, putting me at the base of the mountain for the next day’s 66km climb to the Ijen crater. Although the day started off nicely with a long gradual downhill from Malang towards the sea. By 8:30am I was definitely not going as fast as I would have liked, averaging about 22km/h. It was a damn hot day. I had an early lunch at KFC with a well-deserved nap; face-planted on the table. Not only is following the highway dangerous, but it also really tests your nerves, as a lot of buses don’t leave much space when they go flying by. About an hour after my lunch break, I was feeling pretty shitty due to the heat, so I pulled into a gas station, pounded a bunch of water and sprite, and passed out for an hour and a half on a shaded bench. When I woke up, I realized that it must have rained as well, and it was nice and cool out. I carried on with my cycling….and it got hot as hell again. Some teenager named Akmed started talking with me while driving his scooter alongside me. We decided to pull over at the corner store. I pounded more drinks and talked with him for 30 min. Nice kid. Speaks good English. I was the first foreigner he’s ever had the chance to speak to. Wants to go to university, but can’t afford it. Best of luck! I rode for another hour and decided to get a hotel. I figured if I rode the whole way, I would be too sore to climb the mountain the next day.

Day 2: Up to Kawa Ijen (108km + 20 in truck)

This is probably the most difficult day of riding I have ever done….or probably ever will do. If I had to put a statistic to this day, I would say it was 60% will-power, 40% insanity. The day started off with the last bit of highway riding I would do for a while. It was a little challenging though, as there was a big hill 1km from my starting line. Luckily what goes up must come down. At the 21km mark, I turned off the highway and started riding up my first mountain of the day. Not too bad, probably something like 700-800 metres of elevation. It definitely wasn’t easy, but you really just have to take it one hairpin corner at a time. When I reached the top, I stopped at the market in town and bought a small yellow watermelon, and to the astonishment of everyone there, I broke it open and started to eat it like some kind of feral animal. It was truly amazing. I’d covered almost 50km, all before 8am. Short descent to Bondowoso, which is situated in the valley between a bunch of mountains, and then 10km to Wonosari, where I turn off to start the longest climb of my life.

I had previously read a cycling blog and the guy described the descent of what I was about to climb as the most in-tune he had ever felt with his bike and the world…. almost like flying. He wrote that he reached speeds of almost 80km/h without pedalling once. It was a pretty shallow climb, but itf just went on forever. I might have only been climbing 5-7 degrees at the start, but it went on for several km before the road turned slightly. This road only went to farmland, a few small towns in the mountains and the Ijen Crater, but people still felt the need to ask me where I was going and then would proceed to tell me that I was crazy. I would just smile and keep pedalling.

On a nice sidenote I was taking a break beside a school and got to talking with one of the teachers and next thing you know I am doing Q & A with one of the classes. 30 minutes later…. back on the road. As I got higher into the mountains the road got a fair bit steeper. The fact that I rode 138km the day before was starting to take a toll of my legs. I definitely wasn’t climbing very fast, only around 12km/h if my memory serves. Eventually the rain came, which gave me a chance to rest at a roadside warung (cafe). Just for fun I asked the lady how much further to the crater. She said only 20km. I know better than to believe Indonesians when it comes to distance. So, I checked my GPS and it said 45km. I showed it to her, and she told me that my GPSwas wrong. Obviously, that had to be the case. After another 10km of riding up what was getting to be steeper and steeper mountains, I was taking a break on the side of the road when a big dump-truck pulled over. He told me that up ahead it was steeper yet and there was a lot of construction on the road. I asked him how much for a ride and he said Rp 20,000. That’s $2. No problem my man. So, we loaded the bike up in the back of the empty truck. I tried to place it in a manner to keep it from getting damaged. He took me 20km to Sempol, the coffee capital of Eastern Java. It was the most scared I’ve been since starting this trip. The guy was insane, flying around corners, swerving around oncoming traffic, and on a number of occasions nearly test-flying the dump-truck off the mountain. We made it without incident, and true to his word, the road was under construction and was absolute shit for about 10km of the ride.

It was definitely colder up there, especially when wearing sweat-laden clothing. I had me a nice chicken-rice soup and a good hot cup of java in the java capital of Java. Good times. So, 15km to go, through the plantations, lots of nasty hills, and I would be at the base camp. Just my luck, no trucks came by it was a long two hours of insanely slow riding. I arrived at the base camp and was told that the generator was broken so there was no water or electricity, but that I could have a room for $10 for the night…. not exactly a bargain. I decided to set-up my hammock in the gazebo. There was a little restaurant, so I had some friend rice with egg and chicken on it, 1.5 litres of water, 1 large beer, a coffee and a sprite. I was starting to feel a little better. I bought an extra bottle of water and used it after dark to give myself a ‘shower’. I was all tucked in by 7pm, fully dressed, curled up in my sleeping bag and freezing. I got up at 2:30am to make the trek up to the Ijen Crater.

Day 3: Kawa Ijen to Negara (78 km)

This day started really early with me trekking 3 km up to the rim of the crater where the locals mine sulfur. Along the way I met a 32-year-old guy named Sahari. He’s been doing this for 8 years, making an average of $270 per month, approximately 3 times the local wage.  I followed him on his journey up the mountain, shared my breakfast with him and tried to get an idea of what his life is like.

Sahari tells me that most of the miners are carrying between 70-100kg of surfer in bamboo baskets such as the one in the picture on the right. He makes the trek up to the crater twice a day, starting at 1am from his house and getting home around 1pm, so that he can spend time with his little daughter. When I asked him how long he plans on doing this for, he replied, ‘until I can’t anymore. Then I will use the money I have saved to open up a small business.’ Most of the miners are wearing rubber boots and have headlamps, but Sahari works everyday just wearing cheap flip-flops and walks in the dark without a light. I considered giving him mine, but I knew I would need it again on my trip.

He tells me that the worst part of the job is breathing in the sulfuric smoke every day, and that often he is trying to break off a piece of sulfur when the wind changes and envelopes him in a cloud of smoke and that it’s almost impossible to breath. After watching him fill his basket with sulphur and taking pictures, it’s time to start the 700 metre climb out of the crater and then carry on with the 3km descent to the unloading point. Watching him struggle his way up the hill silently, never uttering a complaint or a foul word is awe-inspiring.

The miners take breaks at strategic locations, using the natural formation of the rocks, or man-made resting areas to set the baskets down in an almost standing position. On one of his breaks, I ask if I could try lifting his basket of sulfur. Although it doesn’t look to be that heavy, I’m told that it weighs 75kg. I can’t possibly imagine doing this climb and descent twice a day. And I can’t blame it on my exhausted biking legs. It was just ridiculously heavy. All my years in the army don’t seem to matter much.

I meet one of his co-workers – if you could call it that – and he tells me he’s been doing this for 20 years. He’s only 38 and has broken his shoulder on two occasions when a small misstep can lead to life-threatening injury in a place where there is no readily available medical attention. As you can see his shoulders are covered in calluses from years of carrying this weight.

This expedition up Kawah Ijen into the insanity of the sulfur mining world has really given me a new perspective of what people are willing to do for loved ones. I’m certain the people involved in this type of manual labour are destroying their bodies not for themselves but for their loved ones and the opportunities that it will provide for them. Upon leaving Sahari, I gave him a pack of smokes and a couple dollars to help him have a nice lunch. Of course, he asked for more money. I wish I could have given him more, but it’s not a good habit to get into when travelling around SE Asia….so I refused.
Having just finished hiking up to the crater I wasn’t exactly fully energized but also realized that the vast majority of the day would be downhill. I was told the first 10km of the descent would be tough because of construction. It was really bad. There was an international bike race planned for 5 days later and they were trying to fix the roads before it. If Indonesian construction workers are anything like Malaysian workers, there is no way in hell that they will ever be done in time. That last 22km of the descent were great. When I got to Banyuwangi I still had almost 20km to get to the ferry terminal for Bali. I was tired. My legs were tired. I wanted rest. The boat ride was about all I got, because when I reached Bali, I realized that I had 140km to get to Kuta beach. I decided to push out another 30km for the day and to stop in the small Muslim town called Negara. Of course, along the way I stopped and had a quick dip in the ocean. In Negara, I met a guy named Suke who, even though still working, jumped on his bike and helped me find a cheap hotel. It was a shithole but cheap, so it did the trick. That evening he came by to visit and took me on his bike and showed me around, and even took me to his house and introduced me to his wife and kids. The next morning, I slept in a bit and got on the road at 9am.

Day 4 - Negara to Kuta (110km)

Last day of riding for a while. A good feeling. I thought that the coastal road in Bali would be fairly flat, but since the whole island is covered in volcanoes, I ended up spending the next 110km going up and down rolling hills. This is where it really paid off having a childhood in Canada, where we often held onto trucks and cars and let them tow us. Since my legs were completely shot, and any hills were painful, I tried to keep the climbing to a minimum. I would see a hill ahead and try to time my ascent with that of a slow moving truck, so that I could grab onto the side and let him pull me up. This often ended up being slower than if I had of just rode on my own, but definitely less work. By around 2pm I was arriving in Kuta. First thing I did was stop at a nice looking cafe and had an amazing club sandwich. Found a fairly cheap hotel for $15/night and went to bed.

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