Java | Volcanoes and Adventure

One of the reasons we chose Bali as home base for spending a year abroad was its proximity to other fun regional tourist destinations – chiefly among them, the island of Java. The world’s most populous island, blanketed with active volcanoes and cultural marvels, had been on the bucket list for decades. And being a mere 4 hours from our home in Sanur (via car and ferry), I wasted no time in getting there. Since many of the volcano-related highlights on Java required strenuous hikes in adverse conditions, the first trip of 2 trips over there (so far!) was a solo one. I was fortunately able to find a festive group of travelers with the same itinerary to share the experience with.

The pre-dawn climb to catch sunrise over the charismatic Mt Bromo crater did not disappoint! As an added bonus, Mt Semeru (Java’s tallest volcano) puffed out steam clouds all morning while Mt Bromo continuously simmered in the foreground. While it was too dangerous that week to  make it up to the crater rim itself, having an unexpected window of time allowed for a super fun motorcycle trip up to the stunningly beautiful Madakaripura waterfall. Thankfully we were able to find a route around the massive wildfires near Mt Bromo that had already shut off most access points!

Mt Ijen was next on the agenda, which required a brutal and rainy trek up to the crater rim at midnight – followed by an equally treacherous descent down into the crater. For the latter – respirators were necessary as sulfur gas clouds frequently blanketed the route with little warning. More than once I questioned the wisdom of continuing onward – especially after guide advised us all to kneel down and close our eyes (to prevent burning) when heavy gas plumes hit us. But once we got to the bottom, we finally saw the “blue flames” that Mt Ijen is so famous for. While not as extensive as in recent months, these burning sulfur gas vents were a pretty unique sight to behold nonetheless. Scrambling up mountains of sulfur deposits and watching sunrise along the shores of Ijen’s acid lake were pretty wild as well!

While being able to tackle adventurous treks without a small child in tow was great, I couldn’t help but think about how much Andy loves volcanoes – and quickly decided to arrange a return trip to Java with the family for Andy’s upcoming school break. Yogyakarta  (or “Jogja” as it’s more commonly known) proved to be the perfect place to begin the adventure. The lively Malioboro area in the city center was bustling with entertainers, restaurants, and art installations –  blissfully crisscrossed with huge sidewalks that are so sorely lacking on Bali. We posted up in the nearby (and highly recommended) Melia Purosani hotel, where Andy was blown away by the concept of room-service pizza and cake 🙂 Also nearby was a cool science center, complete with a planetarium and goofy photo-ready exhibits.

Transportation around Jogja exceeded expectations as well, starting with the surprisingly modern airport. With breezeways and live music, it felt more like Honolulu than central Java! The whole mid-day trip from the airport into the city center was also mostly traffic free, a refreshing break from the horrendous congestion of southern Bali. There was ample space along Jogja’s roads to allow for leisurely jaunts via tri-shaw, horse cart, or tuk-tuk.

But the most fun way to get around in Jogja was definitely the light up pedal carts! Alun-Alun Seletan Park, in the south of the city, is always full of local families and fun activities for the kids. The highlight though comes after dark, when dozens of light-adorned quadbikes shaped like Volkswagen classics show up. For a few bucks, you can hop in with the family and pedal around the park’s ring road with the endless flow of one way motorcycle traffic – easily one of our favorite memories from the trip.

Yogyakarta is also surrounded by tons of cool day trip ideas, including numerous (and bizarre) Instagram-ready theme parks that seem to be common throughout Java. We went to one called Lost World Castle, which is hard to describe so I’ll let Tara’s pictures do the talking here!

As Texans with a passion for toobing rivers wherever we can find them, coming across an outfitter at Goa Pindul was rather fortuitous. This particular run was mostly subterranean, with bat colonies just a few feet above our heads as we floated along! Pushing off of stalagtites to stay in the flow was a new experience for sure. With cool clear water and multiple cascades, this river ranks pretty high on the list of rivers we’ve floated around the world.

Of course no trip to Jogja would be complete without a trip to one of the UNESCO-listed temples that the area is known for, and Prambanan Temple at sunset lived up to the hype. The complex itself is so large that we often had temples all to ourselves, which felt pretty surreal when the evening call to prayers started blaring from the nearby minarets.

But as fun as Jogja was on its own, the main reason that we initially began our Java trip here was to catch the renowned Argo Willis train headed towards Bandung – and it’s easily accessible volcanoes. Andy, like his dad, is a train junkie – so heading into volcano country by rail was a real hit. As the tracks wound there way into the mountains, we were treated to incredible views of terraced rice paddies and jungle scenery. Spoiling ourselves with a night at the Hilton in Bandung was worth every penny too, Andy still talks about that breakfast buffet!

From Bandung we made our way up into the Lembang area – a mountainous region with much welcome cool weather. We rented a gorgeous cabin at Vila Air nestled among the pine trees, where we could have campfires in the evening. I may regret teaching Andy what a handful of pine needles being thrown in the fire does, but the look of joy on his face every time we did it made it hard to leave any pine needles left on the lawn. Spending a lazy day there feeding the neighborhood cats and building card houses was a great way to recharge before heading back on the tourist beat.

Like Jogja, Lembang made a great base for regional exploration. We had a blast at a nearby resort called Dusun Bambu that was nearly walkable from our accommodation, complete with canoeing, water coasters, kid rides, and a rabbit petting park of all things. And as the lone westerners there, seeing gals wearing Islamic headscarves laughing their way around the park gave the whole place a really exotic vibe.

Owing to the cool misty climate up in Lembang, there are strawberry picking farms literally everywhere – each trying to out-kitsch the others with silly signs and decor. Andy was far more into picking fruit than we’d ever imagined, and I gotta say, these were probably the best dang strawberries we’ve ever eaten.

En route to the volcano area, we also stumbled across a super cool orchid garden. The orchids themselves were impressive but just a minor part of the offerings here. Walking through the forested paths alone would have been worth the price of admission, and the random art exhibits scattered around the gardens just added to the allure. But the zipline was by far the highlight of the day – we still can’t believe our 4 year old did this without a hint of fear in his eyes!

After being patient all week, the time came for Andy to get his volcano fix. We’d heard reports that Tangkuban Parahu wasn’t worth the hassle and are glad we ignored them. This crater was HUGE and you can drive right up to the rim! All 3 of us were pretty wowed by the views from up top. From there, we headed south to Kawah Putih (literally “white crater”). This place is super spooky, with burnt tree skeletons from previous eruptions and a yellow sulfur ringed acid lake. It was shockingly cold up there and misty, creating an other-worldly feel.

Continuing along the volcano circuit, we made our way to Kawah Rengganis – with an insanely long suspension bridge high over the jungle below. Andy has always been a big fan of “sky bridges” and was so excited that he pretty much just bolted right across the valley upon arrival. This crater stood out from the others in that you can walk right up to bubbling pools and steam vents, lacking much of the safety infrastructure that one would find in the US! Near the foot bridge at the entrance, volcanically-heated water mixes with a local stream creating a pool with the perfect temperature for a soak.

To finish our time in Java, we opted for a long weekend at Glamping Lakeside Rancabli, the perfect antidote to our new home in Sanur on Bali. Cool breeze with occasional showers, car-free hiking paths, and the smell of pine in the air. We splurged on a luxury tent/cabin on the waterfront, with a hammock patio that seemed to pull us in like a tractor beam. Honestly I could have stayed here for a month, it was impossibly relaxing here.

Entertainment around the lake was never far away either, Andy loved getting lost in the “tea mazes” (the whole area is surrounded by tea plantations) and riding the hand brake carts down a hill track. Breakfast was even served in a giant pirate ship! At night, the staff would bring by firewood for a campfire and a grill set up. They’d light the coals and leave us with corn on the cob and a whole chicken to grill, along with various Javanese sauces. To top it off, the tent/cabins were curiously equipped with powerpoint projectors and large screens outside! We actually really loved watching movies from the upstairs patio hammock. It shocks me how few people we’ve met in Bali that have been to Java, but I hope this inspires at least one potential Ubud tourist to consider all that Java has to offer next door!



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  • Joanne HallNovember 18, 2023 - 4:50 pm

    I am living vicariously through your adventures!!! Wow what a great experience for all of you!! 😘ReplyCancel

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