“If you can reach enlightenment through suffering, I definitely saw Nirvana.”
WORDS: Adam Horler
Java is an intense place. From the minute you step off the plane onto the tarmac in Yogyakarta you are assaulted by the chaos of the people, voices and heat.
Java is a place formed by human hands, the world’s most populous island has small farms all across its landscape. At the same time, the elemental nature of Java is volcanic. The island is dotted with volcanic cones and is one of the most active spots along the ‘Ring of Fire’, a roughly semi-circular line of volcanoes in the Pacific. Central Java has a chain of eight tall conical strato volcanoes running from north to south and one, Merapi, is very active.
A friend of mine, Bryan Hoare, told me about some riding he’d done around the retreat of MesaStila on the island, which was unlike anywhere else in the world. Seven of the eight central Java volcanoes are within riding distance of MesaStila and, to our knowledge, no-one has ever ridden around all of them. So we decided we should…
We put our bikes together at Yogyakarta airport, overseen by a crowd of curious locals and then made our way through the motorcycle-infested streets of Yogyakarta. We broke free of the traffic onto less congested streets and made our way to Borabodur. The ancient Buddhist temple of Borobodur is the reason most people go to Yogyakarta and it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia.
As we ascended the seven tiers of the temple we were greeted by the sight of the cones of several volcanoes peeping above the mist and greenery of the plain. Pictures can hint at it, film even more so, but you really have to stand there to experience the true majesty of Borobudur.
We rode on, the last 30km in total darkness with just our bike lights and the flickering headlight of motorbikes accompanying us. Surrounded by the noises and smells of the tropical night it was one of the more memorable rides I have done banking 1229m of ascent.
Day one proper and the first major challenge of the week, attempting to ride our road bikes up the broken road of Mount Telomoyo. We knew no road bikes had ever ridden up here but before we attempted this we had 1400m of climbing of Javanese mountain roads to enjoy with lots of 16 – 20% gradients.
Telomoyo itself was just about the most fun I’ve ever had riding up a mountain. The steep pitches, coupled with huge potholes and sections of totally decimated pavement made for a lot of cursing, laughing and toppling over in the 40 degree heat of the afternoon.
A few cassette changes were made that night as the next day a loop between two huge strato volcanoes, Sumbing and Sindoro (both over 3,000 metres) was anxiously anticipated.
The first climb of day two lifted us 526m over roughly 10km. After a great descent, made more challenging by kamikaze moped riders pulling out of side roads, we rode around the base of Sindoro to ‘Plantation Road’, a thin ribbon of tarmac going straight up between rows of tea bushes into the clouds. As we started the ascent rain began to fall, a very welcome gift. It did not rain for long though and the thermostat was immediately turned up again, the humidity closing in.
The climb statistics alone do not really describe a volcano climb. Plantation Road had plenty of sections well above twenty percent. It’s a brutal test of mental and physical strength. 11.2km, 838m, 7.5% average gradient.
We were rewarded with a great twisting descent and a relatively easy 50km back to our base. The 145km and 3084m of ascent ensured we slept well.
Day three was an unknown entity. We were heading up between two more giant volcanoes,Merbabu and Gunung Merapi. Gunung Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has been erupting regularly since 1548. It last erupted in 2010 killing 353 and displacing 320,000 people. Fortunately, every eruption has been in the southerly, seaward direction, and we were passing Merapi to the north and west.
Merbabu was no less merciless a climb than Plantation road, 12km and 841m, with a horror stretch of 2.3km at an average gradient of 12.5%. By the time four of us had to bow out for the day, we had ridden just 106km, but climbed 2,895 punishing metres. The two of the party left rode into the night to face the last climb of the day, riding the last 30km over the shoulder of a simmering volcano.