Couchfish: East Java sojourn, day 1

Couchfish: East Java sojourn, day 1

Bike woes, sharks, surf, bamboo and more.

Best laid plans and all that. Before Will and I even get going we have our first speed bump. My bike is a rental and the owner tells me I can’t take it to Java. This isn’t uncommon as inter-island theft is a problem, and we have a solution at hand—Sam owns her bike, so I’ll just borrow that. Sorted. Well, not really.

It turns out Sam’s rego has lapsed, ahhhh some time ago ... so we sort that out—thanks Wayan! Then it seems prudent to get it serviced. Oil, what’s that? The service guy politely points out bikes run better with oil, so I get some of that. The cracked brake pads? Yeah, fix that too, please. The clutch is “almost broken” according to my new mechanic friend, but he doesn’t have a spare. “Just ride carefully,” he says.

Eat your heart out Dennis Hopper. Photo: Samantha Brown.

Then come departure morning, of course Wayan still has the rego papers, so our 6 am “let’s dodge the traffic” start gets nixed. Still, by 8:30 am we roll out, up the gang, and off we go—Java here we come!

Our first planned stop is Balian, roughly an hour and a half up the road. The normal route takes you on a big inland loop, heavy with trucks, through Tabanan, but, thanks to some new “according to Google” roads, we can cut straight through. Perfect.

Google Maps and I clearly differ on what a road is, but we make our way through and enjoy some gorgeous scenery along the way. It’s easy to forget how gobsmackingly beautiful Bali is when you spend most of your time in the south, but cruising over rice field covered hills in the back-blocks of Tabanan, yes, the West is the best.

Bali putting on the pretty. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

In a little shy of two hours, we are perched in my favourite Balian cliffside cafe, Deki’s Warung, the sets rolling in offshore. Far busier than mid-last year when I was last here, the tourists are well and truly back. As an assist for your next trivia evening, Balian is also Bali’s number one spot for shark attacks—Will forever in hope, thankfully disappointed yet again.

From Balian, we ride onwards to Medewi, another popular surf spot. The Umadewi’s lawn garden cafe overlooks the break and as they welcome non-guests, this is always another spot to take a break, have a coffee, and shake off the latest layer of concrete dust.

“No WIll, I’ve never been here before either.” Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I mentioned the tourists are back and nowhere is it more obvious than on the road. Long-distance buses haul customers to and from Java, driven by maniacs, every single one. Will is largely oblivious, earphones in, enjoying the scenery—I’m glad to reach Gilimanuk, Bali’s port town facing Java. Behind it, Ijen soars into the clouds.

Of course, there’s no better way to bid Bali farewell than with a serving of betutu, and while this place is forever wrapped as the best on the island, it isn’t. This isn’t to say it is bad, it isn’t—but the staff here can be so outlandishly rude and indifferent, they really leave a bad taste in my mouth—or maybe it was just the concrete dust.

Hi Medewi! Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We have a farcical rapid test, so shallow it seems pointless. This is where two years of Covid have got me—I’m complaining I didn’t get the nose javelin treatment—I guess what should one expect for 35,000 rupiah. Ferry e-ticket purchased, bike ownership proved and we are through. The Ramadan travel madness is yet to kick off (we’ll get that on the way back), so it is straight onto a ferry and Bali slides away.

The Javanese town of Banyuwangi is our first port of call. I’ve been here before so we don’t slow down, instead we ride into town, take a right, and then head up into the hills. I say hills but I mean volcano as Banyuwangi is wedged between the magnificent Ijen and the sea. As we steadily ride up, the peak teases us, occasionally poking out from the cloud crown that wraps it. At closer quarters, the forest thickens as the traffic thins. The roadside is dotted with restaurants, greenhouses and coffee shops—more open than I expect.

Bye Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Our target is Bamboo and B, a rustic example of bamboo madness I found trawling the web before leaving. A smart young staff greet us with a smile, check-in is seamless and before we know it we’re walking through the gardens to our bed for the night.

Apparently Belgian-owned, the owner is in Bali the staff tell me, but they’re enthusiastic and nothing could be too much trouble as she shows me the two rooms in the main structure, telling me as we’re first in, we can pick which we want.

Gurgling stream included. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

One is on the second floor, its open-plan overlooks a gurgling river below, and through a grove of trees, rice fields stretch out in the afternoon light. The second is a loft-style room, reached by a steep bamboo ladder. The views are elevated and impressive and apparently include the volcano in clear weather. For ease of access, we go with downstairs.

Staff tell me the place has been here about five years, and it feels it. Bamboo looks great from afar, but it can age quickly, particularly bamboo flooring, and it feels like in another season or two the whole structure will need a solid work over. This is to say it’s perhaps a little too on the rustic side of rustic for some, but the setting is so serene, and the place so wildly imaginative, it’s easy to look over the scruffiness and wear and tear.

The menu comes by WhatsApp, with a note there are plenty of places to eat outside if we prefer, but we’ve had enough time on the bike for the day, and we’ll eat in. Order whenever you want, they tell me, we’re available 24 hours.

Our abode. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This is the thing, I’m not saying it is easy to have great staff, but when you have them, they make all the difference. Hotel owners, please treasure your staff.

Later, chatting to staff about some ideas for tomorrow, they bring up Ramadan. Apologizing in advance, they say the nearby mosques will disturb us in the evening. I wave it off, saying I’ve lived in Indonesia for years and am familiar with the heightened activities around Ramadan. “It’s no big deal”, I say, “I’ve heard it before.”

“Not like this,” comes the reply.

I guess I’ll know in a few hours.

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