I have always considered the Jakarta – Bandung railway to be one of the great railway journeys of the world. The line follows the northern coastal plains until turning south near Cikampek when our train slows to a crawl as we grind our way up the first hill of the more than 700 metre climb to the city of Bandung. The railway crosses numerous viaducts and bridges as it winds its way upward through the rich cultivated lands of West Java. Continuously fertilized by ash from numerous volcanic eruptions this is some of the richest arable land in the world and these terraced rice fields produce three rice crops a year, a productivity which is unheard of in other parts of the world.
From the comfort of my seat I watch a ‘documentary’ of life on Java unfold. There are vast vistas of terraced rice fields, backed by distant lakes and rugged limestone mountains jutting skyward. The harvest has been completed and most of the rice fields are flooded with water in preparation for the next planting. Before me is a panorama of tiny terraced lakes separated by dark ridges of mud, each lake a mirror reflecting the sky as the rice terraces descend into the valley below. Peasants, men and women, clad in colourful batik sarongs and the conical straw hats typical of South East Asia work the fields, re-planting the bright green seedlings from their patch in the corner of the rice field into long wavering rows. Modern hand held tractors can be seen ploughing some of the fields. Have the water buffalo formerly used to plough the fields already been retired and turned into bifstek?
As we get higher into the mountains the rice fields are now confined to the floors of narrow valleys. Here the rice terraces appear to have been sculpted out of the earth, not by peasant farmers, but by an environmental artist trying to demonstrate on a grand scale the harmony of man and nature. Hillside slopes unsuitable for rice terraces have been cleared to grow cassava or bananas, and the land in between grows every conceivable type of fruit or vegetable found in this ‘Garden of Eden’. Around the villages, huge groves of bamboo bend and rustle in the wind, providing shelter, shade and a ready building material for the village houses still framed out of bamboo and with split bamboo matting for their walls.
When first opened in 1906 this track was an engineering masterpiece crossing 300 viaducts and bridges, including a 300 metre long bridge spanning a mountain ravine and a trestle bridge standing 100 meters above the Cisomang River. This trestle bridge now stands next to the new arched bridge that has been built to replace it, but looking down from the train into the white water below is still an awesome experience. At times the railway clings to a narrow track cut out of a rocky cliff and looking ahead I can see the front of the train curving around the next valley. We cross a deep ravine and look down to the torrent below, then we are plunged into the darkness of a 1000 metre long tunnel cut through a mountain.
The track is single narrow gauge which is doubled in places for trains to pass and we stop at least once for an oncoming train. On another occasion I can see an oncoming train across the valley and anxiously wait for our train to pull over and stop. This doesn’t happen and I am seriously afraid of becoming part of tomorrow’s headlines, but to my relief the oncoming train flashes past, and thankfully we were already on a double track.
The above is an excerpt from Archipelago – A Journey Across Indonesia to be published September 1.
Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago nation comprising as many as 17,000 islands spread over the same distance as Los Angeles to New York, or Perth to Sydney. Indonesia is also the most culturally diverse nation on the planet and its national motto had to be ‘Unity in Diversity’ as these islands are an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, languages and cultures.
Ian Burnet sets out on a journey across the archipelago to discover this rich cultural diversity. He describes how the early Malay people came to these islands and the influence of the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali. He discovers the heritage of the Indians, Chinese and Arabs who came here to trade in spices and sandalwood, he follows the rise of Islam and the traces of the first Europeans to enter Asia – particularly the early Portuguese traders and the priests who brought Christianity to these lands.
Travelling by bus, plane, train, ferry, boat, car and motorcycle from Java to Timor, he hops from island to island across the Indonesian archipelago, following the smoking volcanoes that form its spine.
Ian Burnet combines his love of adventure and travel with his knowledge of history to take us on a personal journey through geographic space and historical time, which will delight all armchair travelers.