The train to Malang contained only economy benches, and departed from Banyuwangi at 5am.
Perhaps this is why it’s such an underused route. Even The Man In Seat 61, international train journey guru, failed to recommend or even make Indonesian tourists aware of its existence. We found it merely through casual googling and the desire to traverse Java by rail.
We had arrived in Banyuwangi by ferry late in the afternoon and immediately bought our onward train tickets at the cavernous, leaky rail terminus. It was entirely empty: perhaps not surprising since they only had two trains a day; one arriving, one leaving. A cleaner ushered us into the information booth where we purchased a chit from a lady concerned we wouldn’t be happy with economy (not that there was an alternative), and then traipsed across the hall to get our tickets printed. The journey would take eight hours, and we had paid £3.50 each.
Waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning is no bad thing. Our hotel made us a packed breakfast, we saw the sun rise, and in these parts, even a minuscule drop in temperature is greatly appreciated. We shared the carriage with only a handful of other passengers, and gratefully spread over the narrow benches instead of squeezing onto one as per our tickets.
Unfortunately such luxury wasn’t to last. Within an hour we’d stopped several times and the train had filled out. Although the majority of passengers were Indonesian, we now shared with four archetypal backpackers, including the 19-year-old alpha male with a strong Yorkshire accent who furnished Peter with an exaggerated handshake, made some expansive comments about the state of the carriage, indulged in an overlong PDA with his recently-acquired German girlfriend, before stretching himself over a bench and falling asleep underneath a batik-print sarong.
Other more interesting passengers included Ronald, a Javanese man who was studying in Malang but had briefly returned home to Banyuwangi to vote in the local elections. He explained that we had chosen the right direction and the best day to travel: any other way and the train would have been packed. Instead, it was busy but not unpleasant. To our intense relief, the shabby-looking air-con was deceptively powerful, and the countryside nothing short of stunning.
Eastern Java is the least developed part of the island, and our journey cut straight through the middle. Mountain ranges lined the horizon, studded with distinctly flat-topped volcanic cones, and the scenery alternated between jungle, paddy fields, rusting stations and temptingly isolated villages.
Chatting to Ronald and gazing out of the window meant that the time passed far more quickly than we had anticipated and by early afternoon we’d made it to Malang.
This small city in the middle of East Java was formerly the Dutch colonial capital, and retains many historical buildings. Rather like Shimla, the summer seat of the British Raj in India’s Himalayan foothills, its noticeably cooler temperatures made it obvious why the Europeans had fled there from the overheated capital. Whilst every other Javanese city baked, Malang was already more pleasant and often became even more so after its daily downpours. Although equally as humid, it seemed more bearable; still, the vine-covered trees seemed to constantly drip, hours after the rain had stopped.
Remnants of the colonial past exist in the tree-lined boulevards, and their accompanying squat European houses. Whilst some buildings have fallen into disrepair, most appear to have been converted into houses for Malang’s Indonesian elite, complete with gates, security guards, and walls topped with razor wire.
In the city centre, what appears at first to be just another Dutch building surrounded by palm trees and fancy cars emerges as arguably the grandest hotel in the city.
More than that, Hotel Tugu is Malang’s answer to a museum, boasting a gigantic and impossibly eclectic mix of artefacts from across the continent and throughout the millennia. It’s free to explore for guests; visitors can either partake in a guided tour, or are quietly ushered in solo if they agree to buy a drink at the restaurant bar.
We wandered past the swimming pool, hemmed in by luscious palm trees and a wooden archway which looked like it might have been removed from Noah’s Ark, and into the labyrinthine hotel.
The bulk of its collection is local, focussing around the Chinese occupation of Indonesia, but random items abound – a stone animal from an Ancient Egyptian burial, a gigantic wooden totem pole, pillars of undetermined origin, photographs and sculptures on every available wall and surface.
Each public area has been transformed: a pink, candlelit hallway; a restaurant done up to look like a huge Berber tent; an incredibly spooky faux catacombe; an empty stage adorned with ribbons.
We were almost entirely alone and wandered through the place with our jaws scraping the ground. I’ve never seen a hotel like it.
Peter was so taken with the place that he enquired as to the price for a night’s stay. The answer? £250 for the cheapest room. Our accommodation – a lovely, stylish, but basic guesthouse, family-owned, with 1960s-style furniture and breakfast included – was £18 per night. Perhaps not, then.
Malang was unexpectedly lovely to explore. We were there at the height of rainy season but then that was the case throughout Java, yet I remember Malang as a fundamentally wet city. The palms seemed to leak moisture, and the huge fern in the centre of our little hotel’s open atrium was forever enduring great fat drops of rain. Several rivers bisect the city, along with countless canals and other tiny tributaries, all lined with houses; a bit like I imagine London’s East End used to look, albeit considerably smaller.
Tramping through these little side streets – alleyways, really – provided quite a sobering contrast to the nearby gated homes. The colonial powers have long-since departed but a considerable gulf remains. Nonetheless, it was these hidden areas whose residents provided smiles and welcoming waves; not to mention greater colour, vibrancy, and a far stronger sense of community than their impassive neighbours.
Malang was also responsible for far and away the best coffee we had in Indonesia – indeed, perhaps even our trip so far. One would think that as a bean-growing epicentre, and lending its own name to the humble drink, Java would provide endless opportunities to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee. Sadly, even here, Nestlé has embedded its claws and to our horror we quickly learnt that it’s considered far more sophisticated to knock back a cup of Nescafé three-in-one than the real thing. And even if you do manage to persuade your host that indeed, you really would appreciate a coffee using beans which were ground within the last 12 months, it’s likely to be served Turkish-style, which whilst packing a serious punch, often fails to deliver the more subtle aromas found in a truly great bean.
Thankfully we were able to indulge our coffee snobbery at Java Dancer, a nondescript hut-type restaurant serving tasteless Western food and truly incredible coffee in syphons and Aeropresses to Malang’s young middle-classes.
We visited twice and never saw another foreigner – not that we saw many in Malang at all. Nonetheless, it was in this city that we got our first taste of Christmas, with just a couple of weeks to go, in the form of some tinsel at a cafe near our hotel, plus our first (and second, third, fourth and fifth) rendition of Michael Bublé’s festive album. This appears to have been exported en-masse to south-east Asia with the promise that every public convenience with a soundsystem play it on repeat from 15th December onwards.
Not that I was complaining. I love a bit of festive Bublé.
I was determined to visit a volcano during my time in Indonesia and Malang was the perfect jumping-off point for Mount Bromo, which ticked all the right boxes: active, attractive, accessible. A combination of a TripAdvisor review which described the route as “hairy”, and the necessary midnight departure time, meant that Peter chose to sit this one out. And so it was that I found myself in a private car zipping through Malang’s silent streets on my way to visit a volcano which was in the process of erupting for the first time since 2011.
The uncomfortably early – or late – journey is required in order to catch the sunrise. Whilst I attempted to snooze, we made the trip in pitch black and good time, arriving at the upper reaches around 3am, still in the dead of night.
We were the first to arrive, and this was made evident when we swung around the final corner and suddenly the car’s interior was attacked with the glares of a dozen torches. As we crawled the final 100m, going as far as vehicles are allowed, the torch-holders ran alongside, hitting the windows, flashing their beams into my fear-widened eyes. My driver ignored them, but despite myself I was hugely intimidated, even more so when we ground to a halt at the crumbling edge of the asphalt track, the men circled the car and one attempted to open my door. As a single woman on a lonely mountaintop, my only supposed protector a man whose name I didn’t even know, I struggled to remain calm. By this point I was desperate for a wee but fear held greater sway and I cowered on the back seat, loathe to leave the car. Thankfully the driver had seen it all before, batting away the aggressors and leading me to the loos (a concrete block lit by kerosene lamps). It transpired that there was a further kilometre to reach the viewing point, and for those unwilling to walk it, these men offered overpriced horse rides. They were usually spread around the three viewing areas but due to the current eruption, only one remained open and so competition for customers was fierce.
Unfortunately for them, I’m allergic to horses and so wasn’t remotely interested. Still, as I trudged along in deep, enveloping darkness, with only my mobile phone to light the way (the one time I really needed a torch and I’d left the bloody thing in the hotel room), I came close to relenting. I had imagined that the path would be easy to follow – and during daylight, it was – but in the hour before dawn, it absolutely wasn’t. At one point I clambered up a steep slope, on my hands and knees, before deciding that the faintly discernible path really ought to be more obvious considering the popularity of this place. I scrambled back down again, to be pointed in the right direction along the paved path by a hot drink seller sat on the bend in the road where I’d gone unintentionally off-piste.
The climb was steep, rocky, mostly up flights of uneven steps, and the only benefit of the total darkness was that the drop off to the side was mercifully invisible. By the time I reached the top, my accidental mountineering mean that I’d been overtaken by a couple and their local guide, who were sitting on the concrete bench and patiently waiting for sunrise. Panting and sweating, I sprawled next to them to catch my breath, only then realising that directly in front of me, a gigantic plume of smoke stood out in faint relief against the almost identically-hued night.
As the sky imperceptibly brightened, the viewing platform filled with tourists – both local and foreign – clamouring and shoving to witness the spectacle. Even without the iPads in my face and queue for cliffside selfies, the sunrise was a bit of a let-down – none of the cool blues and bruised purples I had come to expect (thanks Instagram). But the volcano’s eruption stood out ever more clearly with each passing minute. The couple’s guide explained that for now, it was mostly ash but in a week or two, the fireworks would really begin, and it would be possible to see fire and lava spewing from the cone. I had no idea that volcanic eruptions lasted such a long time; I’d imagined them to be instantaneous, terrifying in their immediacy. Instead, fear comes from the ever-present threat; the rumblings which lead to nothing, and necessity to continue life as normal. It was the misleadingly constant wisps of smoke from Semeru, another volcanic complex south of the gigantic, ancient Tengger Caldera in which we now stood; the casual misdirection whilst Bromo prepared its devastating blow. It’s the knowledge that Bromo was only one of four active volcanoes within the 10km-diameter caldera.
Eventually, with the sun undeniably risen, and promises of colourful clouds well and truly banished, I grew increasingly bored of the American man roundly boasting about his skill at “gaming” the flight system (it’s all to do with air miles, apparently, but I still prefer the train), and headed back down. My return journey was peppered with groups of Indonesian girls pulling me into photos. By the time I reached the car, I was amazed to see that the mountain road, previously barren and isolated, was now rammed with Jeeps, horses, hawkers, and tourist latecomers.
We escaped past terraced rice paddies, inexplicably clinging to the fertile yet almost vertical mountainsides.
“Do you want to see the waterfall?” my driver asked. Yes, I said, why not? I’d paid for his services for 12 hours so I figured, might as well make the most of it. He explained that we shouldn’t go to the one my hotel had suggested since the rainy season had rendered it far too dangerous; he could take me to another instead.
We passed through towns and markets, fields and valleys, and back up into the mountains on the other side of the plains; from no trees to palm trees to pine trees, in the space of three hours. I figured the falls must be pretty spectacular to warrant such a hefty journey. The road became a track, the cars tailed off, and finally we weaved through a hillside forest into a car park with a dozen coaches. The driver gestured down a path. “Waterfall is there” he said, breaking into a new packet of cigarettes.
We seemed to be in some sort of small resort or adventure park. I passed a sad-looking rifle range and a peeling map promising tubing which never materialised.
I followed the path to its end and discovered a tall but otherwise unremarkable waterfall; pretty, unhindered, its spray a pleasant relief, but hardly worth the three-hour drive. As I rounded the final corner, I encountered a group of schoolchildren and Muslim women, all in hijab, lined up for a photo with an enormous banner. I hung back, but the moment I was spotted, it was with shrieks of excitement and I was once again pulled with no lightness of touch into the centre of the photograph. The women cackled and pushed each other out of the way in their efforts to be the one standing next to me. I was stroked, prodded, squeezed and pinched, and then manipulated into a variety of new poses with subsections of the group, including several children who were utterly underwhelmed by my presence and couldn’t understand the adults’ excitement (nor could I, to be fair, but it was hard to communicate our shared bewilderment). They even got me to rub a pregnant woman’s stomach.
I finally broke away and trotted off down the final stretch, only to be yanked unceremoniously into another family portrait, balanced on a rock formation next to the plunge pool. As we broke apart and clambered down, another family appeared, brandishing their camera. “Photo?” the daughter shyly asked. Of course I acquiesced, which gave free reign to the other families to follow suit. Later, a wifi connection confirmed that it was categorically off the tourist trail (133 google reviews, only a handful written in English, and all of those by Indonesians). No wonder they were all so astonished to see a western woman casually taking a solo stroll to a waterfall usually only visited by people from the local villages.
I was in so many photos that I lost count, and a brief glance at the nice waterfall became a 30-minute experience with my driver wondering where I’d got to. Sadly I only managed to hand over my phone once in order to grab a single shot of the multiple family portraits (above!), but I like to think that there’s now a village in East Java where all of the families display framed photos of themselves at Air Terjun Coban Rondo with a confused, unidentified white woman. We’ve all got to make our marks on the world somehow.