This is madness. We’re cycling out of Jakarta through traffic like we’ve never seen before: a surging sea of motorbikes and buses, trucks and taxis, all squeezing and racing and suddenly braking along impossibly slender streets. We push on through it (quite literally at times), following the lead of speedy motorbikes and hoping like hell that nobody clips us and sends us crashing into the gaping roadside drain.
There are no rules in this crazy mayhem. No one is sticking to his or her side of the road, and the pavement – where it exists – is such a shambles that everyone and everything is coming at me down the verge. Every few seconds I’m forced back into the fray by an endless stream of wrong-way motorbikes, pedestrians and guys pushing food carts towards me.
Our escape from Jakarta – Indonesia’s most populated city – starts early. The hum of honking traffic wakes me at 4am, but we wait an hour to get sleepy Maya up and onto the bike, finally pushing off as the sky lightens around 5.30am. Dave has plotted a route that we hope will be a little less travelled, but in a metropolis of more than 10 million people, there’s not much hope of empty roads.
As it turns out, our route leads us the wrong way up a very long street. I hook in behind a local tea seller cycling ahead of us, completely unfazed by the headlights racing towards us. We briefly follow an intimate route through backstreet markets and alleyways where life is waking for the day. Just as I’m relishing these early morning scenes, the road empties us into a sea of motorbikes and we are swamped in traffic. The exhaust fumes are hypnotic and we don face masks to lessen the burn.
A few hours out of Jakarta, our chosen route gives new meaning to the word ‘back road’, which past Depok, deteriorates into a skinny, potholed track. We bounce on into Bogor and arrive white knuckled and weary after an exhausting 50km run. Dave has heatstroke and our brains are fried!
Cycling south: Bogor to Benda
I’ve read that the Javanese traffic moves like a marvellous dance, but I’m not convinced. This is the second time we’ve tried to leave Bogor (the first ended when my bike tipped over and we all got a huge scare). After an early retreat back to the hotel we set out again this morning on a wider, more trafficked route, but it’s still a potholed mess. And just when I’m wondering why there are no casualties, I round a tight downhill to find a huge truck has tipped over and crashed through somebody’s house.
I can taste the exhaust fumes. This is not fun. We break for a feed of rice and for half an hour or so, we forget about the traffic and our risky route south. There’s a bird-singing contest in progress beside our roadside café and our daughter Maya is completely absorbed. It’s a great distraction but it doesn’t last long enough. When we re-enter the fray, a traffic jam stops us in our tracks.
By the look of the crowd that’s milling roadside, I have a fair idea of what’s happened before we see the skid marks and the motorcycle debris. I can’t bear to turn my head as I push my bike past. There’s a body on the road and it isn’t moving. Someone is coaxing the traffic jam along and I cycle slowly away, following David up the hill and hoping that Maya hasn’t taken in the scene.
I ride on praying and hugging the verge, but the reality of this ‘magical dance’ hits home and I want to throw up. When I catch up, Dave motions his finger across his throat. The incident has psyched him out too. Having spotted a train station a kilometre back, he’s keen to turn around and see if we can hitch a ride. The problem is, we can’t get our bikes across the road.
After wasting time waiting for a break in the traffic that never comes, we decide to call it a day and find a hotel. Our morning’s ride has been utterly intense and our nerves are frayed. We’ll tackle the rest of the ride to the coast after a good night’s sleep, with the crazy weekend traffic behind us and our eyes set on the sunny southern coastline ahead of us.
Day 3: Benda to Cimaja
Around mid-morning, somewhere past the junction where the bulk of the traffic turns east to Sukabumi, I realise I’m smiling. A big, happy, “hello mister” kind of grin that only briefly disappears on the rugged uphill climbs that separate the mountains from the sea. Dropping steeply to cross wild rivers we regain the altitude slowly, but the scenery is blissful and green. We tear off our facemasks and breathe deeply. It’s tough terrain, but the adventure now seems less risky and our safety more within our control.
When we finally hit the coast at Pelabuhan Ratu, 10 hours after setting out for the day, the sight of the sea is euphoric. By chance we discover a row of bungalows with ocean views which we share with fellow adventurers travelling by 4WD and motorbike – all several years on the road. The food is excellent, the bungalow views are stellar, and a Bintang on the beach melts away our troubles. We chase crabs along the sand and fall asleep to the soothing sound of waves crashing mere metres away.
Would I cycle out of Jakarta again? No. Would I recommend others follow? No. Was it worth it? You bet!!!