When a merry band of colleagues departed from Surabaya airport for an adventure into the wilds of Indonesia I don’t think any of us anticipated exactly how the adventure would go. We had arranged a trekking and snorkeling trip to visit Anuk Krakatoa, the child of the famous volcano that erupted in 1883, obliterating the surrounding area and sending shock waves around the world. Anuk Krakatoa and its surrounding islands are the remains of the three original volcanoes, and are situated between Java and Sumatra.
Getting there, as with everywhere in Indonesia, was a bit of a mission. A late night pickup from Jakarta airport (seriously one of the worst airports in the world, you spend almost as long taxiing as you do flying to get there!) lead to us all piling into a small people carrier with our driver, guide and luggage to take a break neck, four hour journey to the north west coast of Java, where our tour would begin.
Manoeuvring Jakarta’s famous traffic was not a problem at that time of night but Indonesian roads are not smooth and random potholes, people and traffic can cause sudden breaking and a bumpy ride. I was seated in the middle with no seat belt and I know the speedo hit 120km on a number of occasions. Obviously I didn’t sleep, even though it was the middle of the night, as I was permanently braced for impact.
Of course, that also meant I could witness the eerie, alien landscape of the chemical processing plants that line the northern coast of Java. Illuminated, futuristic factories spewing out god knows what into the environment made me feel like I was entering a sci-fi movie rather than the action-adventure I was hoping for.
We got to our destination in good time (not surprisingly at that speed) and collapsed into our insalubrious accommodation at about 3am. We took little notice of our location at the time but in the morning we discovered we were holed up in a house on a semi deserted housing estate. Apparently, many of these second homes were empty because relatives did not know the owners had them when they passed away. Hasn’t anyone heard of a will? Still, our place was comfortable enough and was only a pit stop before we headed to the port later that morning to catch our boat out for our volcanic island adventure.
The port was actually a small pier opposite a popular seaside playground offering pumping techno and banana-boat rides at 8am. Our guide, Bonsai, got us all on board and we were on our way, heading west towards the Indian Ocean and Krakatoa.
Bumping along for a couple of hours was fun at first but quickly got nauseating, especially when combined with petrol fumes, rocky seas and regular drenching as the waves over took us. The weather was not perfect and necessitated a change in our itinerary right from the beginning, which ultimately created a very memorable trip.
Our first stop was to snorkel off Badul Island coral reef. The water was crystal clear, if a tad cool, and the reef was very interesting, teaming with tropical fish of all sizes and colours. Many I had seen before on my adventures around Bali and Lombok but the reef was none the worse for that and there were spots of colourful coral and some new varieties to wonder at. The reefs around Indonesia are suffering the same fate as others with much damage and bleaching occurring. Our guides were mindful when it came to anchoring and warning us not to touch the coral, and a greater awareness is growing in the tourism community about saving their beautiful environments, but they are a small minority and a great deal of damage has already been done. While there was much less litter in the waters here than around Bali and the Gillis the coral is by no means pristine.
After a fried chicken lunch we headed to our accommodation on the island. We were only there long enough to dump our bags and admire an amorous peacock that took a great liking to our party, before heading to Unjung Kulon to go hunting for Java rhino. Don’t get me wrong. The only shooting would be with a camera, if we were even lucky enough to find one as they are the rarest rhino in the world, but it was a lovely opportunity to take a boat ride through some tropical forest and see what we could see.
Having arrived on the island we were eventually bundled into a small wooden canoe that we set about paddling along a murky green river, manoeuvering sunken tree trunks under an eerie canopy of rainforest green. Huge tree roots lined the banks and enormous seedpods from strange plants closed in on us from all sides. We rounded a bend in the river and were hailed by a canoe coming the other way. It was much larger than ours and carrying just two passengers, so the rangers decided we should swap boats mid river. By this time we had learnt that there were crocodiles in the area so I was already nervous about being on a river with only a small wooden boat between these frankly terrifying predators and myself. Moving seven people between two canoes was asking for trouble in my opinion. The canoes wobbled and bumped and I held my breath and prayed, ensuring I only trod in the middle of the boat and keeping my centre of gravity low. We managed without capsizing and continued on our way, stopping whenever we heard sounds of life on the banks. And we heard loads. Crashes, crunches and rustlings seemed to surround us until one of the rangers suddenly announced that a rhino was likely very close by. He shored the canoe and encouraged us to get out and go rhino hunting with him. Now, during the boat swap I had ended up moving from the back to the front of the boat, so I was the one who was expected to lead the expedition into near virgin rainforest and find the rhino. It was not a role I relished. Reluctantly I scrambled up a gully and peered cautiously into the undergrowth, more than a little nervous about what I was going to find. As everyone got off the boat behind me I had to edge further and further forward so they could climb up with me, until I was stepping into the unknown. Eventually a ranger overtook me and started carving a path through the forest using a machete; it was all very ‘Jewel of the Nile’. The going was very difficult, slippery and uneven. Most of us were not equipped for the adventure but it was one of the best experiences of my life. At one point we had to cross a gully. It was too wide to jump and quite deep, with muddy water flowing through it. The only option was to slide down the bank on my arse, step into the water and do a slippery scramble up the other side. The mud in the bottom of the gully formed a suction that dragged my shoes off and I actually ended up barefoot and mud coloured by the end of it. This could have gone on for hours, with not a rhino to be seen (mostly due to the noise we were making) but a group decision was eventually made to turn back as the light was fading and we had at least one hour of canoeing to do before we got back to the beach. The whole situation was hilarious and ridiculous and probably really dodgy, but very memorable!
On our return to the beach we ran into the sea to wash ourselves off as best we could before boarding the boat to return to our accommodation. Our captain (and chef) had prepared sweet potato chips for our return, and they were much needed. Delicious, deep fried chips of sweet potato that Bonsai (newly nicknamed Tarzan due to his vine swinging antics in the rainforest) then continued to fry in the bottom of the boat as we sped back home, using hot oil on a gas burner with the canister conveniently hidden in a cupboard held closed by the captain’s foot. It was a health and safety nightmare, but as with all these alarming scenarios in Indonesia, everything was fine!
It rained heavily that night but we were quite content in our accommodation, a kind of research station with rooms on a quiet island. We were fed fresh fish caught earlier in the day by our captain. In fact the spread was pretty impressive and all cooked in that little boat on a single ring gas stove.
The following morning we managed to escape to the boat before the peacock found us. We were island hopping, visiting another snorkeling site that offered yet more colour and variety before arriving at Peucang Island. The accommodation there was a bit more salubrious and our neighbours were deer, monkeys and wild boar, all of whom wandered happily on the lawn in front of our ‘villas.’ We arrived just in time as the heavens opened just as we were meant to head out and explore the island. I had my obligatory dance in the rain (I was already damp from snorkeling) then proceeded to sit out the downpour with tea and conversation on the veranda.
Eventually the rain eased and we set out to explore the island. Bonsai led us along a trail through the forest to a lookout at the other end of the island. Tropical rainforests after a downpour are magical places and exploring huge tangled banyan tree trunks and spotting deer, boar and more monkeys out in the wild is always a pleasure. Reaching the lookout at the other end of the island and being able to see clearly the reef below us, even though the waves were crashing against the cliffs, was also an astonishing site.
Later we travelled to yet another island to see a herd of wild cows, unique to Indonesia. No one can really explain their presence on the island or say why they are the only herd of their kind. They are simply there, and another good example of the unique nature of the Indonesian archipelago.
The following day was our last, and finally we were going to visit Krakatoa. I’d been looking forward to this moment for the entire trip. 2016 had turned into a year of volcanoes for me so Krakatoa was going to be my fifth. Getting there was another matter though. Bad weather had already altered our itinerary back to front and the weather had turned again. What had been a bumpy sea crossing the first time was a heart stopping one on our return. Huge waves kept threatening to engulf the engines making them heave and splutter, leaving us at the mercy of the open water. Several times the boat stopped as the captain nursed the boat into a calmer patch to allow us to continue. At one point I was checking the horizon for other boats in case we needed rescuing, and we even put on life vests just in case (for all the good they would have done) while the Indonesian crew calmly rode the storm as though it was just another trip, although they all got soaked. Still, as we approached Anuk Krakatoa we saw that the cloud that had shrouded it a few days before had cleared so we could see its cone. We headed for the shore.
Anuk Krakatoa is yet another distinct landscape: red and grey, dusty and gently steaming. Volcanic bombs litter the slopes and in places the shoreline is actually cooled lava, with flashes of green where nature fights to return to the area. We were not allowed to climb to the top of the volcano, as it is still extremely active, although we did wander on the lower slopes. Even there the heat was palpable. In places the lava was only five meters below the crust of the earth and steam vents puffed gently, as did smoke from the top. I could feel the warmth through the soles of my feet and as we descended down an ash track I took my sandals off and walked barefoot, as it was more comfortable than having pumice and ash trapped inside my shoes.
After one more stop for a bit more snorkeling in yet another crystal clear bay teaming with tropical fish, we turned our heads for home. The merry band was to part ways at Jakarta airport after a very memorable trip, in a year of very memorable trips around Indonesia. It certainly ranks as one of my favourite Indonesian adventures – so far!