Exploring beautiful Indonesia

Jenny Tabakoff
(Australian Associated Press)

 

The tourists who pour into Bali pose a conundrum for Indonesia. The government wants them to keep coming, but would like them to explore more of this diverse and beautiful nation.

Bali is only one of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. The island is packed with four million people, and attracts about the same number of overseas visitors every year. Kuta, Legian and Seminyak have become a seamless metropolis, jammed with motor bikes, cars, “taksis”, buses, pushbikes and pedestrians. Often the pedestrians move fastest.

I am visiting Bali for the first time in 36 years, and the change is a shock. In 1980 we stayed in primitive losmens and dodged packs of wild yellow dogs. We soaked up the sun, bought sarongs, had massages on the beach, and gorged on cheap satays and nasi goreng.

Fast forward to 2016. The Balinese are as charming as ever, and the food and shopping are good (though not as cheap). Most of the beaches are reserved for beach clubs and hotels. Few people go into the sea, but the swimming pools are huge, and the cocktails inviting. Wild tourists have taken the place of wild dogs.

You can’t say Bali is spoilt, because people clearly have a ball there. But it’s not the same as it was.

So perhaps it’s time to glimpse Indonesia’s myriad other attractions.

Just west of Bali is Java, home to more than half of Indonesia’s total population. Jakarta, the busy, buzzy national capital, is on Java. So is the cultural centre of Yogyakarta, and its ancient temples of Borabudur and Prambanan.

Less well known, and even closer to Bali, is the province of Banyuwangi.

Banyu-where?

Banyuwangi is in Java’s far east – the bit closest to Bali. (Much of what’s on sale in Bali comes from Banyuwangi.) Ferries run constantly between Banuwangi’s Katapang port and Gilimanuk in western Bali. The voyage takes about an hour and costs a bargain 6000 rupiah (about 65 Australian cents).

Banyuwangi resembles Bali in 1980, only with a Javanese and Muslim twist. There are emerald-green rice fields, unspoilt beaches, fabulous scenery, three national parks, and a colourful and flirty welcome dance, the gandrung. And because only 50,000 foreigners a year come to Banyuwangi, it’s definitely unspoilt.

Of all Banyuwangi’s attractions, one is literally a highlight. You can climb a volcano, clamber down into its crater and see blue flames licking the sulfur. Welcome to Ijen.

You climb at night. Leave your hotel in the town of Banyuwangi around midnight, then drive 45 minutes to the start of the track. From here it’s a 3.5km climb (much of it up a 40-degree incline) to the rim of Ijen volcano. The walk costs 10,000 rupiah – about $A1.

At night it’s cool enough for a puffer jacket,