Bike Touring in Indonesia, Not for the Faint of Heart
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Before packing up our tandem bike and flying to Indonesia we thought we were pretty adequately prepared for our 2 week jaunt across Indonesia’s most populous island, Java. We researched the weather, the culture, the sites, and of course, the route we would be following from Yogyakarta to Jakarta.
We listened to friends warning us about the dangers of riding in Indonesia. “The traffic is crazy” “The roads are bad” “It’s chaotic” they told us. Keep in mind this is all coming from friends who have never themselves ridden a bike in Indonesia. One look on Crazy Guy on a Bike showed us that tons of people have done bike tours in Indonesia, all very successfully might I add.
We don’t mean to dismiss the concerns of our friends, but really if all those people can do it, we can do it too. Our bags arrived safe and sound, we (as in Justin) got the bike put together in our hotel and took it for a spin. Two thumbs up, we were ready to rock and roll.
The following day we hopped on the bike for a day trip from Yogyakarta to Luweng Sampang, a waterfall and rock canyon 30km outside of the city. Little did we know that Yogyakarta is surrounded by mountains on 3 sides, and, as it turned out, all of the cool stuff we wanted to see and do was on the other side of the mountains.
We thought this would be totally cool. Mountains are gorgeous, we love them and we love riding our bike through them, so much so that we did a 2 week bike tour along the Tibetan boarder that lent us only 1 flat day on the entire trip. Let me tell you, those were some serious mountains, we rode over multiple mountains with summits above 4000 meters (14,000 ft) in elevation, the climbs taking 5 hours to complete.
The point is, we are no strangers to riding in the mountains, but the mountains in Indonesia thoroughly kicked our asses. Riding up the mountain to Luweng Sampang was like trying to ride up the face of a cliff. Starting the climb was akin to running into a brick wall. In an instant the mountain zapped all of our forward momentum leaving us gasping for breath and struggling to turn the pedals. We have never run out of gears so fast.
Pretty soon we reached gradients of over 20 percent and our slow forward progress was pushed backwards, literally. With every pedal stroke the bike slipped down the mountain, refusing to go forward. Apparently, if you didn’t know, this is what happens when you encounter a rode too steep to ride a bike up it.
Our only option was to push the bike, and ourselves, up the mountain on foot, a long, slow, and very hot process that left me regretting ever wanting to go to this waterfall in the first place. It was day one of our bike ride and we were already zapped.
Upon further investigation we realized that any road in the mountains that wasn’t a numbered highway was ridiculously steep. Back roads are not a smart idea when you’re riding through the mountains of Indonesia, which is unfortunate because riding on the back roads is how you avoid all of that crazy traffic we were so adamantly warned about.
It’s no wonder all the locals were so impressed to see the two of us riding our bicycle up the mountains (they would literally cheer us on as we rode by). Only a truly crazy person would put themselves through that experience, or a dumb tourist in our case. It all the sudden made sense now as to why we saw no other cyclists in the mountains, all the sensible people either avoided the mountains or had motors.
From then on we gladly joined the cars on the highway, whether we were riding in the mountains or on the flat. The traffic we were warned about was actually extremely safe compared to China. The Indonesians are much more aware and considerate when driving than the Chinese, and as a result we never once felt like we were putting ourselves in a dangerous situation by riding in traffic. The traffic certainly exists, and it’s loud and full of black smoke, but the trafficked roads are safe and allowed us to actually ride, not walk, our bike up the mountains.
Unfortunately, there are some parts of Java that aren’t connected by these glorious highway roads, forcing us to, once again, huff, puff, and push our way up the mountains. As the rainy season took its toll, we ran into more and more roads in the countryside that were getting washed away by the water. Back roads were riddled with pot holes and motorcycle traffic, making the going slow even in the flat areas. It seems in addition to being built at a reasonable gradient, the highways are also the only roads kept in good repair throughout the year.
For the first time ever, both Justin and I were literally begging to get out of the mountains. It doesn’t take long for the steep gradients to take their toll on the body, even when they’re short and passable by bike. A couple 20 percent climbs in a day is enough to wipe out even the best of them. Luckily, we weren’t riding straight through to Jakarta, but stopped for a day or two at a time in certain towns to spend time exploring off the bike.
Our route took us from Yogyakarta, to Dieng Plateau, to Pangandaran, and finally to Bandung where, exhausted from the exertion and confronted with traffic clogged roads through the enormous cities surrounding Jakarta, we opted to stop for a day in Bandung and catch a bus to Jakarta instead of riding all the way to the airport.
We had an amazing time exploring the diverse island of Java by bicycle, but it was a tough ride. The roads are not forgiving and the routes are exhausting. Bike touring through the mountains of Indonesia is definitely not for beginners, or those looking for a leisurely ride. Of course, if you come prepared and are looking for a challenge, with a lot of hard work comes great reward. We rode over mountain tops that overlooked volcanoes, and swam under waterfalls most tourists don’t even know exist.
Our words of wisdom for biking through the mountains of Indonesia: come prepared for 20% gradients, ride on the highways whenever possible, and, as with everything in life, enjoy the ride!
Interested in planning a bike tour in Indonesia? Check out our route below.
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