Friday, October 13, 2006

Beach Therapy: Reaching Jakarta Escape Velocity

Metro mad. Hey, what a wacky name. If anything though, it's an understatement. In Jakarta, just the journey down to the supermarket to purchase a shopping trolley full of instant noodles and prophylactics can be enough to turn one into a gibbering, batshit, loonball. It's a jungle of money grubbing, urban paranoia out there. A grey, Post nuclear winter harvest of baso balls, perspiring cab drivers, irritatingly chirpy credit card promotions girls and ATM queues. This city can sometimes feel like a wire stretched across the hemispheres of your brain as taut as it will go before its snaps like some malevolent hypnotist's fingers, awakening the dreamer into a vision of hell.

It can sometimes take an effort of will to break the cycle of urban self abuse and drag one's sorry behind out-of-town. However, the effort is invariably rewarded with the supine sense of well-being that comes from communing with the glories of nature... except for the mosquitoes of course, they can get stuffed.

It can be easy to be down about this country when choking on the dusty, rectilinear, concrete hyper reality of Jakarta while simultaneously reading news stories about all the dreadful things that go on here. Outside the metropolitan area though, West Java can be one incredibly beautiful place. Volcanic highlands, deserted beaches, hot springs, forests and mountain peaks: all these can be yours and as a bonus, Indonesians living outside of Jakarta also seem to be generally more relaxed and amenable than their urban counterparts.

My preferred haunt is Pelabuhan Ratu which can be reached by traveling directly south from the capital until one hits the coast about 150 km or three to four hours drive away. I usually find that it's around Bogor that the sphincter muscles begin to relax and the air starts to freshen. After that, the final 40 km to the beach (don't miss the turning just before Sukabumi) are quite breathtaking. This road to the coast is in very good condition but is virtually deserted as trucks and buses dare not take it as they risk certain doom on the hairpins. The road winds through an amazingly lush and panoramic mountain pass before crossing a raging river and plunging down to the coast.

When you reach Pelabuhan itself, pick up a fish from the fish market ready to be cooked later in a beach hut Warung, all sizes are available, from little tiddlers to what appear to be basking sharks. Heading along the coast from town you'll find yourself on a gorgeous, 20 odd km beachside run from Pelabuhan itself to the town of Cisolok. The road takes in long deserted beaches, paddy fields, avenues of trees and various cheap(ish) hotels and restaurants. Along the way you’ll pass the huge Samudra Beach Hotel. Originally a haunt of first President Sukarno, a big Pelabuhan fan, but now simply haunted, the hotel is in a pretty sorry state of disrepair, if the truth be told. About 10 km along the road from town you'll pass a place called Pondok Kencana on your right. This is a spacious complex of very comfortable chalets run by Australian expatriate Mr. Leo. Opposite Pondok Kencana you'll find Ombak Tujuh, a hotel/restaurant/bar which features live music and is the nearest you'll get to nightlife on this peaceful stretch of coast.

A few hundred meters down the road is a small village called Cimaja. This is where the surfers hang out as the good breaks can be found here. Budding surfers should drag themselves down to Daun Daun, a cheap surfers hotel and also the Green Room, a surfers bar and hang out opposite. A friend of mine likes to joke that these surfing expats don't actually surf but instead carry their boards down the path to the beach to some secret bar every morning, only to return at sunset with a set of fabricated surfing anecdotes.

A couple of km further down the coast is a placid strip of sand known as Sunset Beach which is a good option for the non surfers. Here one can stay at Wisma Tenang, a cheap hotel that opens out onto the beach run by Dutch expat Mr. Charles. Opposite Wisma Tenang, Annie's Tavern, run by long time German expat Mr. Dieter, will provide you with hearty food, drinks and bonhomie. Another much loved place to stay is the Ocean Queen resort which can be found a further 5 km or so on from Sunset Beach, past the village of Cisolok. Moreover, a km or so inland from Cisolok there are some hot springs which are great fun to visit although it is seemingly not humanly possible to enter the hottest of the pools without boiling oneself alive in 20 seconds.

Pelabuhan Ratu is an excellent place to surf, re-harmonize your chakras or drink duty free vodka on the beach under the shade of a tree whilst some local Ibu massages your cares away. Unfortunately, business is not so good for the locals down here at the moment. The 1998 financial crisis did some of the damage to the tourist scene here however; last December's tsunami has also deterred many Indonesians from venturing within 10 km of the sea. The Indian Ocean is unquestionably dangerous and people drown all the time on Java's south coast; victims of the vicious undertow or the goddess who lives in the water, according to local legend. The waves can be tremendously enjoyable though, and you should be fine if you don't venture out of your depth.

The fact remains though, that while Jakarta teems with 11 million people 150 clicks up the road, on most weekends, Pelabuhan is a quiet place. There should surely be thousands here every Sunday but your average Jakartan seems to prefer to take his wheels inland to the heights of Puncak and Bandung. If you need to retreat from the psychic distress of overcrowding and get in touch with your inner, hippy self however, burn down to PR for a weekend of

Simon Pitchforth