Touring in Indonesia: a motorcycle trip over Java and Bali islands

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

Located approximately 8500 kilometres away from South Africa across the Indian Ocean, Indonesia is a world on its own. ZA Bikers went on a motorcycle trip over the two islands of Java and Bali, to discover how different they can be, as well as enjoying the essence of slow pace touring on a Royal Enfield Bullet 500.

Indonesia is surely a world on its own. The country is a sprawling mass of 17508 islands where over 700 dialects are spoken. There are 268 million inhabitants, 87% of them being Muslims, which makes it by far the biggest Muslim country in the world. There are over 400 volcanoes, of which more than a hundred are still active and unfortunately, Mother Nature wakes up more often than not, with resulting natural disasters.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

The biggest island, Java, covers nearly a tenth of South Africa’s surface area, however, Java hosts 168 million inhabitants, over three times the South African population… Density is the keyword.

When it comes to motorcycles, Indonesia is also a world on its own! In 2017, 5886103 two-wheelers were sold! Yes, nearly six million! However, the market is suffering a recession, as more than 7 millions units were sold in 2012 – if only South African recessions where this mild.. Hey?

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

Honda is, by far, the giant, with a steady 74,5 % market share, followed by Yamaha (22,9 %), Kawasaki (1,3 %) and Suzuki (1,2 %). Locals are passionate about motorcycling and racing but although you’ll find millions of “99”, “93” and “46” stickers on the machines, it’s mainly a scooter country, as the best seller is the Honda Vario, a big wheel commuter.

On the main streets of most villages, I was surprised to cross a “start” and “finish” line. Reason: drag racing is popular amongst youngsters and the best racers are seen as heroes and can make quick money.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

It’s not compulsory to ride with daylights, but wearing a helmet is, although the rule is barely obeyed, especially in the rural areas. The most popular motorcycle gear is by far… wait for it, flip-flops! However, we dressed in full riding gear to cover nearly 1600 kilometres of road over the Bali and Java islands.

A genuine tourer!

Surrounded by several dozen 150cc scooters, the Royal Enfield looks like a genuine tourer. With 28 hp, compared to approximately 10 for most of the two-wheelers encountered on the road, the Bullet has enough torque for easy overtaking and making its own way. You can’t really ride fast in Indonesia and this is why the Bullet is the perfect weapon for touring. Due to the traffic density and the amount of trucks, reaching 80 km/h is not so easy on the main roads as well as in the countryside, where the tar is not much wider than a Toyota Avanza. (These tall-narrow-and rather-ugly MPV’s sell like hotcakes there, and it’s easy to understand why, due to the road conditions). You find yourself mostly cruising between 50 and 60 km/h.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

Indonesia is definitely not a big, wide open-space country, such as SA, but our tour guide whipped up some magic. After comprehensive research on all sorts of modern tools (such as Google Maps and Google Earth), he managed to find some extraordinary routes through exotic, charming and out of this world paths in the middle of primary forests, inhabited by the local version of the Big Five, being monkeys, varan-lizard, cobras, giant bats and last but definitely not least, some lone tigers!

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

The first couple of kilometres were done near the Sacred Monkey Forest natural area; and predictably, there are monkeys all around and when you stop, you need to be careful to not leave a pair of gloves or a set of keys around or else they will be stolen. Although to be fair, the local monkeys are not aggressive, like the Capetownian baboons. After this first taste of the Indonesian wild life, our tour guide, François, shared with us his deep knowledge of the Indonesian countryside and suddenly, our ride took on a different dimension. We find ourselves surrounded by a patchwork of several shades of bright green, being rice plantations, which nearly cover every square centimetre of the Indonesian countryside. Their clever irrigation system and shape of the terraces are so unique that UNESCO classify some of them as World Heritage Sites, such as the Jatiluwih, in Bali.

Much more diverse than it seems

Twelve days Adventure riding and Indonesia reveals its wonders – a lot of people, a lot of rice plantations, Hindus in Bali and Muslims in Java. You can’t assume that Indonesia is simple – it isn’t; it’s busy and it’s complicated.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

In the heart of Java island, we start to get into altitudes as high as 2300 metres above sea level, a mission which our Bullet coped with very easily, thanks to the torque of the thumper. Here in Java, there is another cultural group settled in the mountains called the Tenggers and they offered us, by chance, an extraordinary night, as we stayed over at the remote city of Podokoyo. They live in some 30 villages around a volcanic area, where the perfectly round craters of the Bromo and the Semeru volcanoes shape the landscape and are visible from a dozen kilometres away as they eject a small cloud of gas every twenty minutes or so.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

Reading in the stars, a local Shaman decides on an evening of celebration. The Tengger believe in the man-horse divinity. Tonight there is no other Westerner in sight but we quickly find ourselves surrounded by a dozen Tenggers, each one bearing a friendly smile and over-excited mind. Twelve Tenggers – in gold and purple outfits, complete with bells and trinkets, start a dance while straddling small wooden horses that are as colourful as the ‘riders’. The dancing becomes more and more animated; the Shaman contributing to the rising tempo by slamming his lash on the ground. A pot is filled with flowers, eggs, rice and the contents of a small perfume bottle. When this is done one of the wooden horse ‘riders’ drops to the floor, gathers up the pot, drinks half of its contents and throws the rest over his head. From here on in, things get much wilder. The drum beats deepen and the dancers become more and more ecstatic and entranced, some of them rolling their eyes back into their heads, a trickle of saliva dribbling from their mouths. Soon the scene turns into a frenzy where it becomes difficult to disassociate people from horses. One of the Tengger grabs a live chicken, rips its neck with his teeth, drinks some of the blood then shares it with whoever looks interested. Not content to end it here another celebrant takes a neon tube, breaks it, gathers together the shards and starts to eat some of them. I take this as my cue to leave the party and get some sleep. Was it a dream? Or was it true?, I ask myself.

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

The next morning’s ride brings us back to reality. After a lekker morning of sand riding around the volcanoes, we ride down again to sea level, going across an incredibly dense primary forest in which, for sure, tigers, cobras and many monkeys abound. Indonesia is truly fascinating and blessed with a variety of natural wonders…

Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume

Acknowledgements: many thanks to Vintage Ride travel agency, who gave us the opportunity to discover the Indonesian marvels. If you are tempted, several dates are scheduled for 2019. For more information visit www.vintagerides.travel .

You also might meet our tour guide François as he will now be leading the Vintage Rides tours in the Western Cape. Check out if you meet a bunch of Enfield riders near Worcester or Paarl.  

Frenchman Philippe Guillaume (locally known as “fearless Flippie” – a nickname given to him by oom Simon Fourie himself) has spent 8 years of his life living in Joburg. Phil is certainly the fastest geographer on earth: he holds a PhD in urban geography and a FIM Speed World record (5 135 km covered in 24 hours, at the Nardo oval track in Italy, on a Suzuki Hayabusa with the same set of Pirelli Angel ST tires).