We rolled into Cirebon last night after somehow making about 640km in a single day in Java, 14 hours in the seat, that works out to an average speed of 45km/hr, which is actually pretty good going under the circumstances.
How is that possible when we’re on the highway No. 1 in Indonesia? I’m going to do my best to explain, so that next time i think that it might be a good idea to come back here on the bike, I will remember it, and chose more wisely. Flash back to today…
The road at this point is really good, 2 lanes both ways, so the collection of traffic that motors along at wildly different speeds is easy enough to negotiate. We flash past a constant stream of little moto’s, most of whom are doing about 50km/hr and keeping mostly to the left, in quick succession then, it’s a bus on the right (they always drive on the right), a small truck on the left and then another three trucks on the right. We’re passing a vehicle roughly every 5 to ten seconds, that makes a few thousand vehicles in a day!
The oncoming lane at this point is separated from ours by a median strip, only about a metre wide, and almost a metre high. At far too regular intervals there is a break in it to let traffic across the road, and the high median strip hides the motos waiting to turn right quite well.
In Indonesia you generally give way to traffic entering a road, (even on highway 1!), so I need to be watchful for these guys making turns infront of us, or for other people entering from the left, as they dont even look for oncoming traffic sometimes, they just drive out infront of you…
We continue, another bus, another 5 trucks, another 20 motos flash past, the odd moto passes us too, sometimes i try to follow them as they swerve like motogp riders between trucks and buses, but they’re a bit narrower than us, and a lot more brave, so we let them go.
The road narrows now to a single lane each way without a median strip, this doesnt mean that we stop overtaking, just that it now happens in the gaps between oncoming traffic, or on the lhs of traffic.
In Java either you are passing people, or they are passing you, there is no happy medium. I can only describe it as gently aggressive. We need to pass this many vehicles to stay infront of the odd crazy mini bus driver or we’ll be run off the road, plus it’s HOT, and we want to stay out of the acrid smoke from the coaches and old trucks.
A bus pulls out in front of us to pass a slow truck on the lhs (in the moto lane), the buses here are maniacal, and the driver sounds his horn in long blasts to warn everyone to get out of the way, thick black smoke spews out of the exhaust covering us, I hold my breath for as long as I can, but eventually give in and breathe some in.
With inches seperating the two vehicles the bus eventually gets in front and lurches back into the rhs lane. While this was happening a group of 25 bikes has accumulated behind the scene, some are now creating a third lane on the rhs and driving into the oncoming traffic waving their arms for the cars and other bikes to make way, while the rest now pour through the reopened moto lane with us in their midst, the briefly clear road is a good opportunity to make some ground.
Just as we’re getting back up to speed an impossibly old mad pedalling a rickshaw pulls infront of us, he’s wearing a baseball cap and two different colour thongs, I need to brake hard while looking behind to see if there is a truck close behind us…
I judge the mans speed and decide that I’m better off to go on his left, but so do another 10 motos so I cant slow down too much, instead we carry enough speed to miss him by a few inches and remain in front of the group…
It goes on.
Without warning, and seemingly without reason the traffic grinds to a halt, and all the motos, us included head for the gap on the left, just wide enough for us to pass the gridlock at walking speed with an inch gap either side of the panniers. We continue like this, in a congo line of little bikes for a km or so, before the cars lined up start to get impatient, and some have started trying to pass on the left as well, which obviously they cant. This now means the motos need to stop, which no one likes.
One by one we all head onto the dirt verge, which doubles as a pedestrian walkway sometimes, but not many people walk anywhere in Indo (they ALL have bikes), so we weave in and out of the stuff that cascades out of the shop fronts onto the street.
It goes on some more like this.
Eventually we reach the cause of the blockage, roadwork, one narrow lane each way, which this time really is just one lane! When this lane fills back up we stop and wait. The temp readout says it’s 42 degrees, and the fans on the bike are running continuously. Consequently the tank and seat, and my boots are starting to melt, so I turn it off and wait.
It’s been a while and the other bikes are looking for an out, the verge on the other side of the road looks passable, so a group of us cross the other lane, (more putting out hands and getting oncoming traffic to stop), and we get onto the far verge and keep moving. It’s quite rocky over there, which the little bikes dont like so they peel off quickly, but betsy doesnt mind so we stay there a little longer and pass another 100 vehicles, before the road returns to 1 and a bit lanes each way, and we manage to negotiate our way back onto our own side of the road.
And just imagine that in this complete chaos, there is not an iota of anger from anyone… except for Sally and I!
At another point we’re going along quite fast at maybe 90km/hr, again without even looking, two guys push a bicycke out on the road, it’s been loaded up with about ten lengths of bamboo pole, still rough cut from the jungle nearby, they’re at least 15m long, and consequently block the highway in both directions while this manouvre is being performed. It’s not a close call, I brake hard, as do a few other vehicles, the guys push like crazy and the bamboo lurches off balance, but somehow they get across the road and everything continues. I’m laughing at the absurdity.
My least favourite class of the road chaos is the Bemo. A bemo is a little van (think toyota hiace) that’s been converted into a mini bus, and usually painted bright pink or yellow, with mag wheels that poke out from the wheel arches, usually badly rusted, and with blaring sound systems. There are hundreds of them in every town, they use their indicators in some randoomised code of communication that we’re yet to decipher, sometimes left means right, hazard lights can be on permanently, or no indicators at all… They are like another subclass of vehicle that’s immume to whatever rules everyone else follow.
They stop literally in the middle of the road, (the highway!) to take on passengers, seemingly so they dont need to merge back out, I sometimes find someone stepping out of one in front of me as i pass on the left, and they enter the road wherever and whenever they like, slowly meandering as though they arent sure whether they’ll join the traffic or not. I hate them with a passion. Many of the market areas and bigger schools have a sea of them jostling around, filling the whole centre of town, like boats in a harbour, not really moving but rolling backwards and forwards.
At many of the intersections there are old men waving flags, a substitute for traffic lights (most of which are broken, and the rest mostly ignored). The men stand out on the road waving their flags like crazy, sometimes blowing whistles to try to make the traffic stop so someone can cross, either pedestrians, or to allow someone with a shiny new car to merge safely. The car throws some money at the guy in return, usually about 1000rp, or ten cents. The funny part is that the cars and buses usually respect these guys, but the motos will continue to pour through the gap for as long as possible until it’s blocked by the slow moving shiny car. Many times I’ve squeezed through what I thought to be a very small gap, and thought it was even a bit too tight, when in my mirrors I see another 5 bikes swerve and jostle through before the door is shut for a moment.
After only an hour or two of this chaos my face has turned black, quite literally, black from the pollution and dust, so whenever we stop for food the ladies try to get me over to the wash basin but Sal usually has a wet wipe ready to get most of it off.
Rereading this, it sounds really dangerous, which in some ways maybe it is, but it’s more the pollution and heat and painfully slow movement that makes it hard going. If you follow the rules, it all flows reasonably well.
The rules seem to go like this.
The slowest moving things (carts, cyclo’s bicycles and bemos) do not give way to anything, except buses, and even then, it’s begrudgingly.
The fastest moving things (generally motos) give way to everyone.
Buses are king, and you better get out of their way, or they will push you out of the way.
Any piece of passable road, footpath or median strip is considered appropriate to use when the traffic slows down.
Each lane can usually be split into two lanes, and sometimes a third is appopriated by taking one from the other direction. This happens often and without issue.
Traffic lights are ignored.
Old men waving flags are to be recognised only at the latest possible moment, and can be missed by millimetres, no offence taken.
Indicators are some yet to be deciphered form of communication that in no way relate to any intention to turn.
Lights are optional when driving at night.
Most women wear a hijab, some also wear long sleeves and gloves, however the odd completely naked man walking down the highway is ok.
I’m glad we finally made it to the ferry and into Sumatra, for this island we’ve opted to take the smaller roads and already it’s been dramatically different. Still slow going but no where near the traffic density of Java.
Until next time.