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WORDS: Adam Horler
Java is an intense place. From the minute you step off the plane onto the tarmac in Yogyakarta you are assaulted by the chaos of the people, voices and heat.
Java is a land formed by geological activity but dressed by human hands; here, on the world’s most populous island, small farms litter the landscape. The elemental nature of Java is volcanic. The island is dotted with volcanic peaks and is one of the most active spots along the Ring of Fire, that roughly semi-circular line of volcanoes found in the Pacific. Central Java has a chain of eight ‘stratovolcanoes’, tall conical mountains that run from north to south, one of which, Gunung Merapi, remains very active.
A friend of mine, Bryan Hoare, told me about some riding he’d done around the Javan retreat of MesaStila, which was unlike any other riding in the world. Seven of central Java’s stratovolcanoes are within riding distance of MesaStila and to our knowledge, no one has ever ridden around all of them. So we decided we should.
We put our bikes together at Yogyakarta airport, overseen by a crowd of curious locals, and then made our way through the motorcycle-infested streets of the city. We broke free of the traffic onto less congested streets and headed for Borobudur. The ancient Buddhist temple is the reason most people go to Yogyakarta and it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia.
After dismounting, we ascended the famous seven tiers of the temple and were greeted by the sight of several volcanic cones peeping above the mist and greenery of the plain. Pictures can hint at it, film perhaps more so, but to experience the true majesty of the volcanoes around Borobudur you really have to stand before them.
We rode the last 30km of the day in total darkness, with just our bike lights and the flickering headlights of motorbikes accompanying us. Surrounded by the noises and smells of the tropical night, it was one of the more memorable rides I have done banking 1,229m of ascent.
Day one proper brought the first major challenge of the week – attempting to ride up the broken road of Mount Telomoyo. No road bikes had ever ridden up here but before we attempted to be the first we had 1,400m of climbing on Javanese mountain roads to enjoy; and that meant lots of 16-20% gradients.
Telomoyo itself was just about the most fun I’ve ever had riding up a mountain. The steep pitches, coupled with huge potholes and sections of totally decimated pavement, made for plenty of cursing and toppling over but also plenty of laughing, despite the 40-degree heat of the afternoon.
That evening, a few cassette changes were made. The next day included a loop between another two huge stratovolcanoes, Sumbing and Sindoro, both of which stand at more than 3,000m.
The first climb of day two lifted us 526m, over roughly 10km. After a great descent, made more challenging by kamikaze moped riders pulling out of side roads, we rode around the base of Sindoro to Plantation Road, a thin ribbon of tarmac that rises straight up, between rows of tea bushes into the clouds. As we started the ascent, the rain began to fall, a very welcome gift. It did not rain for long, though, and with the thermostat immediately turned up again, the humidity began to close in.
Climb statistics alone don’t do justice to a volcano climb. At 11.2km, Plantation Road rises 838m and has an average gradient of 7.5%. With plenty of sections well above 20%, it offers a brutal test of mental and physical strength. We were rewarded with a great twisting descent and a relatively easy 50km back to our base. That day’s ride, 145km and including 3,084m of ascent, ensured we slept well.
Day three was an unknown entity. We were heading up between two more giant volcanoes, Merbabu and Gunung Merapi. The latter is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has been erupting regularly since 1548. It last erupted in 2010, killing 353 people and displacing more than 320,000. Fortunately, every eruption has been in a southerly, seaward direction, and we were passing Merapi to the north and west.
Merbabu was as merciless as Plantation Road, 12km with 841m of elevation, including a horror stretch of 2.3km at an average gradient of 12.5%. By the time four of us had to bow out for the day, we had ridden just 106km but climbed 2,895 punishing metres. The two of our party that were left rode into the night to face the last climb, riding the last 30km over the shoulder of a simmering volcano.