there's nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop .
And an illustrated book about birds…
~ the Meat Puppets

Part 1: The journey there

It was with some trepidation that we embarked on our journey to Dieng Plateau in Central Java. One of the site’s 10 craters (named Sileri) had just erupted and a subsequently scrambled rescue helicopter had crashed into the mountainside killing all eight people on board. However, not being Indonesian – and more specifically Javanese - I didn’t take this unfortunate serious of events as some sort of omen, warning against travel. Instead, after checking to make sure that Dieng hadn’t been closed to tourists, I purchased tickets online for the last train leaving the following day. No way would I miss this trip.

We didn’t have to get to Gambir train station until 10pm so we were mercifully spared the soul-destroying torture of Jakarta’s insane traffic which inflicts the city most hours of the day. Even Gambir gets quiet late at night and what must be one of the smallest Starbucks in Indonesia, and maybe even the world, was closed – no reason given. Luckily though, the station’s Alfamart was still open (but then again, have you ever come across one which is isn’t?).

Generally I like night trains. The combination of traveling when tired and the satisfying motion of the train as it hurtles along the tracks always sends me to sleep. On this particular train, however, I had trouble getting the so-called reclining seats to actually recline. No matter how hard I pushed they simply wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t sleep in a completely upright position. So was I in for a sleepless night? Well, not if I could help it. We checked the other (empty) seats in the carriage and were lucky to find some that still worked - and so moved there.

Getting out of Jakarta is never easy - not even by train. It’s as though the city doesn’t want you to leave in case you never come back. Our train only made it as far as Cibinong before it came to an abrupt halt. A frigging train jam would you believe! The voice on the intercom told us there was a backlog of trains heading out of Jakarta and that we would have to wait for about an hour before we could continue.

The journey to Dieng Plateau is not an easy one and the train would only take us as far as Purwokerto, which we reached at the godless hour of 4.00am or shortly prior to the early morning shubuh prayers. From the train station we then took a public mikrolet to the bus station where we could catch a bus to Wonosono – the nearest town to Dieng Plateau. Although I hadn’t been expecting a super luxury coach with TV, sumptuous seats and air con I was more than a tad concerned to discover that the buses traversing the 3-hour Purwokerto-Wonosono route were basically old, bashed up minibuses similar to the Kopaja and Metromini wrecks in Jakarta. We certainly had the prospect of a bone-jarring journey ahead of us.

Although our bus was pretty much empty when it left Purwokerto at 6.00am I had that feeling you get when you realize something isn’t quite right. After all, why would a bus in Indonesia leave the bus station when it wasn’t fall? It didn’t make sense. And sure enough, around 10 minutes after leaving Purwokerto the bus stopped to welcome aboard a gaggle of giggling female factory workers. They were crammed in like sardines and despite being seated I had various female anatomy parts shoved in my general direction. This was not entirely insufferable I must admit and certainly far preferable to being trapped on a bus full of men chain-smoking clove cigarettes!

The discomfort notwithstanding, the mood on the bus was - in typical Indonesian fashion - extremely jovial (certainly unlike the morning 8.10 commuter train to Waterloo Station I used to take many years ago). Those who laugh the most are those who don’t take life too seriously it seems. The poor happier than the rich - the opposite of what you’d expect. One of the girls on the bus told me that they all worked at a nearby Korean-owned factory making wigs of all things - for export markets. This was a bit surprising since we seemed to be far away from anywhere. Then, about ten minutes later, the bus screeched to a halt outside a huge building - the wig factory - and all the girls got off!

The rest of the journey was certainly a hair-raising experience (not so much because of the wigs!) but because of the insane speeds that the bus reached as it hurtled toward Wonosobo. Worst of all was the overtaking of slower-moving vehicles: I could barely look when we raced on the wrong side of the road, only to pull over at the very last moment to avoid a head-on collision. Although the bus driver had no choice but to slow down on the winding stretches, we were still thrown around like rag dolls. And did I mention that the bus had virtually no suspension? Enough to churn up your stomach. And make your hair fall out! Heck I may need a wig as well…

Eventually, however, we reached Wonosobo and got off the bus in the town center rather than be taken to the bus station - which is basically located in the middle of nowhere. After taking a few moments to thank the gods for sparing our lives on the bus journey from Purwokerto, we then walked the short distance to the town’s very pleasant alun alun - the village square. It was a tidy and green affair, typical of so many mid-sized Javanese towns, and a plethora of eateries had set up stall to sell favorite Indonesian dishes such as bubur ayam, nasi rendang and roti bakar.

From here it was a short walk to where we could catch a mikrolet to Dieng Plateau. We made slow progress, however, as the mikrolet meandered along the twisty, narrow road, held up by improvised roadside markets, steadily gaining altitude along the way. The air thinned and it became noticeably cooler. Misty clouds hung over terraced fields which had been planted with vegetables. Right at the top of the pass, we came to a junction where there were several buildings, mostly shops, warungs, and homestays it seemed. And opposite us there was a wall with five huge letters on it: D I E N G.

Large sign at Dieng Plateau

We had arrived.

To be continued…


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