“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” – Anne Frank
“Excuse me Madam do you have any metal in your baggage?”
“On no no no, just clothes” I confidently replied to the security official in Heathrow Airport. It was time to head back to my little blue bike and in a bid to keep things simple I’d opted for hand luggage only.
“Are you sure Madam?”
“Umm, yes?” I replied, my confidence faltering. My gear had now been put back through the security scanner three times and I knew a search was inevitable. What had I forgotten about? A bottle of water perhaps? Some toothpaste that should have been placed in a little see through bag? A pair of tweezers? The security guard escorted me over to the search area and started to sift through my things.
“So there’s definitely no metal in here?” he asked once again? “Not even these?” he said and with a flourish pulled out a huge pair of pliers! Oh no…
It turned out, I actually had quite a lot of metal in my bags. Not only were there the huge pair of pliers but I also had a bottom bracket, a front hub, a bottom bracket remover, a multi tool, break cables and an array of allen keys!
Luckily for me the immigration guard was actually quite a nice chap and once I’d explained what everything was for he let me through with a word of advice; check-in my bags should I wish to bring half a tonne of sharp metal through airport security next time!
I made it through the rest of the journey without further drama and before I knew it there I was again, back in Indonesia or more specifically back in Kuta, God help me. After six weeks out of the saddle I was desperate to get back on the bike although slightly apprehensive of the “bottom breaking in period” that I knew was inevitable after a prolonged rest. Anyhow, I set about checking over my bike and preparing for a big moment – I was going to attempt to change my bottom bracket. After much faffing around and a possibly excessive number of YouTube tutorial videos I realised that I didn’t actually have the right tool and thus my chances of successfully replacing the creaking part remained, perhaps unsurprisingly, at nil. “At least I know what a bottom bracket is now” I thought to myself, “one step at a time” and with that I reverted back to my usual “maintenance” procedure which consists of nothing more than a bit of cleaning and some chain lube.
Riding through Bali was wonderful. It felt so great to be back on the bike again and the ever increasing distance between myself and the numerous drunk Aussies in Bintang t-shirts was an advantage not to be belittled (to my Aussie friends please don’t be offended, simply pay Benidorm a visit and be reassured that as grim as Kuta may be your fellow countrymen can’t possibly be as cringe inducing as mine).
I settled back into the riding routine fairly quickly and other than the painful process of having to get used to my saddle again I was feeling strong and refreshed and I loved my time in Bali.
I did have one slightly uncomfortable experience on my second night camping which was a first of the trip though. In my bid to find a quiet place to set up my tent I had left the main road on a dirt track leading to the beach. As Indonesian beaches go it was a bit shoddy with dark dirty looking sand and rubbish all over the place however a lady in one of the houses nearby said that it was fine to camp so I started getting set up. However the next few hours developed into some of the strangest I’ve had on this trip and actually, for the first time, I ended up feeling really uneasy and made the decision to pack up and relocate. The women who had appeared on my arrival was very helpful to begin with, helping me set up my tent and then offering me a beer. I accepted and joined her for a drink after which I was asked to pay – not just for my beer but for hers too and at a price that was very much more than it should have been. Not wanting to create a problem and potentially escalate the situation I handed over some money and then made my excuses to get back to my tent having been reminded of a valuable lesson.
Unfortunately that was not to be the end of things as the lady and a couple of her friends joined me again at the beach. They sat next to me chatting cheerfully and whilst they never actually did anything that was directly threatening they kept asking me what was in my bags and how much things cost, picking things up and taking particular interest in my necklace. They casually asked if I wanted to go for a walk along the beach, an offer which I politely declined not wanting to leave my belongings out of sight yet it was one they persistently came back to. Things definitely weren’t feeling right so I mumbled an excuse about the waves getting too close and quickly packed up my things and moved on. The women were friendly as I left, helping me carrying everything up to the road and wishing me a safe journey and things may have been fine had I stayed but I am a believer in listening to your instincts and should something feel wrong to remove oneself from the situation. I was pleased that I had left regardless of what the outcome of staying would have been. I doubt that I could have relaxed enough to get a proper kip anyway.
Back on the road and now fast running out of daylight I only continued a further 5km or so where I came across a volley ball court with a grassy boundary on which a shopkeeper said that I could camp. Feeling much better about the evening things improved even further when I found a tap under which I managed to have a rudimentary shower. It’s amazing what a difference washing your hair makes! By the time I got into bed I was feeling quite smug with myself so I guess it’s hardly surprising that just as I was zipping up my sleeping bag there was the roar of a motorbike, a click, a short buzz and hey presto, it was daylight again. It turned out that the evening’s volley ball practice was very much a go and before I knew it I found myself camped on the sidelines of quite a competitive volley ball game on a court that appeared to be lit with the most powerful flood lights in Indonesia! If you can’t beat em’ join em’ they say and so whilst my volley ball skills aren’t quite good enough for me to have made the team (I am officially only better at volley ball than one other person on this planet… yes Sally Clare, I’m talking about you) I did unzip my tent and watch the game for a bit. Everything seemed to be going well with the ball being smashed all over the place until it all came to an abrupt end when one shot was unfortunately misdirected, with considerable force, at one of the lad’s mopeds! We all held our breath as the bike tottered on it’s stand before regaining balance and then chuckles were stifled by all but one poor boy who very nervously inspected the damage. Judging by the look on his face it wasn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that the bike had been borrowed!!
Whilst not a great outcome for him, the incident did work out rather well for me by drawing the game to an early close and after 10 minutes or so the lights were flicked off and I was left, at last, to a peaceful night’s sleep.
The next day I jumped on a ferry to make the crossing from Bali to Java and I checked myself in to an absurdly cheap hotel, the price of which was accurately reflected in both my mattress and the 3 flights of excessively steep stairs up which I had to lug my 50kg of gear and bike. However, despite the questionable lodgings I slept like a baby and set off later than planned the following morning. It had been more important than usual that I get a decent start as that day I had a challenge on my hands. I had planned to cycle up to the active volcano Kawah Ijen in order to see some things that I had wanted to see for a long time, the Blue Fire in the volcano’s crater, it’s beautiful turquoise lake and the sulphur mine that is as active as Ijen itself. It was a mere 35km from my hotel to the starting point of the hike but in that short distance I was also going to have to climb an imposing 1800m.
I had been warned of the steepness of the road by many and had been repeatedly told that it would be too much for me to ride by disbelieving locals but as per usual, once told that it was something I would not be able to complete I was immediately resolved in my determination to do so.
As it turned out, they hadn’t been exaggerating at all and holy sh*t the road got steep!!! There were times when I was struggling even to push my bike up the tarmac and I would have to focus all my energy into 10 second bursts during which I’d manage to advance 5 metres or so before needing to stop and catch my breath. It was, by a very long way, the hardest 35km I have ever ridden (/pushed) a bicycle. Having made such slow progress it was hardly surprising that I ran out of daylight and so having clocked a measly 25km I set up camp on the starting blocks of a downhill mountain biking course and as I sat watching the sunset I wondered to myself how quickly a downhill racer could cover what had taken me over 8 hours.
Exhausted I was asleep by around 7pm. I am aware that this makes me a bit of a loser but it also conveniently allowed for me rise the next morning with the sun around 05:30, bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to tackle the last brutal 10km of uphill. Having eaten and packed up I was back to the climb less than an hour later feeling good bar one fairly serious concern – I was getting very low on water. With 10km still to go that, at the previous day’s pace, could potentially take me 4 hours I was down to just one bottle… and it was hot, really hot. My early start gave me an hour of cooler weather in which to begin but it didn’t take long for the sun to join the party and soon enough the pangs of thirst began.
Of course the road didn’t let up and the brutal incline was as, well, brutal as ever and so kicking myself for not having bought a spare bottle I grew more and more thirsty, more and more tired and more and more glum. It is worth noting here however that on a few occasions passing (waterless) farmers pulled over on their motorbikes and helped me push my bike up the road for 50m or so. I must have been making it look every bit as hard as it was but each time someone helped me my spirits were lifted a little and the next steep bend in the road looked a little easier. It’s quite a remarkable thing really – the seemingly unlimited amount of empathy and goodwill on this little planet of ours. Sometimes the simplest of actions are those that make the biggest difference.
Eventually, as so happens when you move continually towards a destination, I reached the Ijen base camp and upon my arrival I promptly drank, drank, drank, ate, drank some more, set up my tent, read, drank once again and snoozed. After such a tough 24 hours it was a blissful afternoon and I have to admit I really did feel proud of myself for having stuck it out. Despite what everyone had said I had now officially cycled up a volcano and it felt damn good.
My quest for Blue Fire, amongst other geological delights, began at 1am the following morning. In the dark I packed up my tent, left my bike at the camp office and began the hike up to Ijen’s crater. After summiting in the dark I headed down towards the sulphur mine and was relieved that I had got an early start. I was in the “lead group” of tourists so other than the miners and a handful of other keen bees the trail down to the Blue Fire was not busy. I picked my way slowly down the steep path and with the fumes getting stronger and stronger the lower I descended I breathed a sigh of relief – a very smoke free one – through the gas mask that I had sensibly hired. Finally, reaching the bottom I rounded the corner to the Blue Fire itself. It was burning and smouldering amidst tractor sized blocks of bright yellow sulphur next to a vent spewing clouds of sulphurous gas into the freezing night’s air. I was left totally breathless. Admittedly this was partly because I had readjusted my gas mask just as a huge cloud of fumes billowed into my face but also because THE BLUE FIRE WAS TOTALLY COOL!!!!!! Unsurprisingly it was blue but it was much bigger than I had expected – about the size of a mini cooper – and it looked like something that belonged in the depths of Mordor.
It smouldered akin to hot coals with tongues of blue flames whipping up into the air around it and darting along it’s breadth. It could have been alive. The miners were totally unfazed by it of course and went on with their business, loading up their baskets and trudging their way back up to the crater rim with nothing more than a scarf protecting their lungs and eyes. I however was memorised and sat staring into the flames as everyone has done into a bonfire at some time or another. Eventually it was the fumes that drove me back. Even with the gas mask on the air was sharp and acrid and before long my eyes were stinging and streaming and I was forced to clench them shut each time a cloud engulfed me. Reluctantly I retreated back up to the crater rim.
I have no idea how the miners deal with such extreme conditions, it is nothing short of remarkable. In an inconceivably hostile environment, amidst swirling clouds of noxious fumes what they put themselves through is really quite astonishing. The crater accommodates no machinery, the mining is all executed by hand and each heavy chunk of sulphur is loaded into a basket, carried 800m up to the crater rim and another 2km down to the base camp the other side. One load can weigh up to 80 kilos… yeah you heard right, that’s 80 kilos, in the dark, up a volcano, in toxic fumes and… in wellington boots. These men may not be large but they are unbelievably tough and my struggle to push (not carry, just push) my 40-50 kilo bike up an asphalt road not even nearly as steep as the crater trail, in daylight, whilst a little bit thirsty but with a limitless supply of fresh non toxic air was promptly put into perspective. The universe had put me back in my place.
My early start may have afforded me blue fire in the peace and quiet but as I reached the crater rim I realised that it was only 3am and with sunrise not until 05:30 I had a long wait in what was a freezing night. I found a small nook in the rocks in which to try and shelter from the biting wind and I waited for the day to arrive. To be honest, when it did, the sunrise was a bit of a let down. It wasn’t particularly colourful and the view to the east wasn’t that impressive but whip around 180 degrees and it was a different story. I had wandered farther around the crater rim in order to get a better view of the famous turquoise lake and as with the blue fire, IT WAS TOTALLY COOL!!!!
The milky blue water was so vivid it was hard to believe that it hadn’t been photoshopped and as the sun slowly rose it got brighter and brighter. Long lines of bright yellow sulphuric sludge (I know all the technical terms) streaked across the surface of the lake contrasting vividly with the turquoise water and off to one side the sulphur vents belched out their plumes of white smoke. Being down in the bottom of the crater the morning sun was initially too low in the sky to fully light the lake and so as everyone else began to make their way back to the base camp I decided to hang around for the shadows to recede. Before I knew it I was enjoying one of the biggest tourist attraction on Java by myself and it was completely awesome. The sunshine crept slowly across the lake pushing back the morning shadow and the colours got brighter and brighter. Sadly I am nowhere near a good enough photographer to capture even a fragment of it’s brilliance so you’ll have to either believe me when I tell you it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life or go and see for yourself.
After a few hours a quartet of tall, blond and beautiful backpackers appeared along the crater rim and wandered over and said hello. They were Dutch and German and after a while I decided to head back down to base camp with them. As the morning had progressed the shadows had dutifully receded but somewhat annoyingly the wind had picked up and the smoke from the vents was now drifting over across the lake and blocking the view that I’d waited for 2 hours to see!
It was nice to have some company for the stroll back down though and the group told me about a number of tourists they had passed on their hike up who had paid for a lift back down the trail in one of the miner’s wooden sulphur carts. “For goodness sake” I exclaimed, “as if they were getting a ride back down, it’s not exactly difficult, these miners must think we are so pathetic”… and then I fell over. “Ops” I chuckled, getting up and dusting myself off before promptly falling right back over. It wasn’t that the path was steep as such, but the volcanic ash was fine and silky and subsequently incredibly slippery. Over the next couple of hundred metres I fell over 5 more times and before I knew it I was looking so longingly at the wooden carts parked along the edge of the trail that I had to humbly take back my scathing comments about those “pathetic” tourists and admit that maybe, just maybe, I was one of them.