The train leaves at 7.30 in the morning. Dad has us up while the world outside is still silent and dark. We shuffle to the kitchen for breakfast. Atang brings in omelettes and his ‘nasi goring special’ on steamy plates.
We half sit, half lie on the table. Our bodies can’t take in any food and poor Atang’s early morning effort would go to waste but for Dad and Johnny who seem just as awake and hungry as ever.
Once again the suitcases form a line by the front door but this time there are only three cases and a small extra bag for Bart. Dad’s plan is to take the train all the way to the tip of East Java and then cross by ferry to Bali, so he insists we will travel light. Kiah’s magic transforms our clothes into tight rolls so plenty of things fit into each case. Half of one case is just for Dad’s books.
We rally a little when the angkut arrives and we pile in to take a window seat each. Kiah is sad to wave us good-bye but happy to be taking a holiday to see her family while we make the long journey East and then back again.
Atang rides ahead of us on the bike – he can get there just as fast he tells Dad – and will help to sort out the tickets. When we arrive at Banding station there is a sudden forward rush of people who emerge onto the platforms like a scene in a musical. One moment the stage is bare, the next, the buzz of street hawkers, travellers and workers fill every space along the forecourt and the station unfolds into an impromptu market and meeting place.
Dad and Atang easily find each other in the crowd and the ticket haggling begins. Dad convinces the clerk that he wants second class tickets not first class. “There is no adventure riding in first class,” Dad tells him and then insists, “the people in first class are no fun to talk to.” The clerk laughs and shakes his head at the same time, “Sangat jauh,” he reminds Dad.
We spread out across the platform and breathe in the dust and the smell of oil and the smoke from kretek cigarettes rising from the clumps of railwaymen resting from their night shift and porters ready to start their day.
Every type of train seems to be set out on the multiple tracks which converge on the station. Old steam trains, small wooden box cars, new heavy engines with square noses.
We find our train on Platform two and race along to look at the engine.
“I thought it was going to be a steam train,” Matt says in dismay.
“Diesel,” says Tony. Our engine is one of the great oblong hulks of modern machinery and not the ancient steam engine we dreamt would be hauling us through the mountains.
Dad whistles us back and the ceremony of getting bags and all of us into the same carriage and onto a seat each begins. The train is busy but not too crowded so we can spread out but still find seats close to each other. We wave from the windows to Atang who stands as a still lonely figure while the rest of the world seems to swirl around him.
“Sampai jumpa..” we call to him until the shriek of a whistle and screech of iron on iron silences our yells and marks our slow departure from Bandung. We crawl out through the suburbs and watch the morning bulge of traffic held back by the bells of the railway crossing.
The rumble and clack of the wheels on the track and the slow draw of the train through the mountains takes us away from the fumes of the city and into the warm, moist air of the volcanic foothills that form a cradle around Bandung.
Over the first bridge, built high across two shoulders on the mountain side, small households hug the railway line and their neat lines of crops press tight between the rail and the dark hills which lurch up and up behind their homes. On the other side, a cascade of the rice padi terraces runs down and down the precipice into the valley floor deep below.
A sense of freedom rolls over us as the train builds speed and the rhythm of its movement takes us ever deeper into the mountains – up and up and up – until she turns and starts the long descent toward Cilacap and the sea.
If you happen to be a bit of a train junkie – and I have always loved travelling by train, possibly because of this early wondrous journey – then Indonesia is a fantastic place to explore. Even some Indonesians find this strange as many younger middle class Indonesians (like many younger middle class Australians) are fairly ferried from place to place in the dreaded car and thereby only ever hear strange tales about catching trains.
But I can assure you that rather than shrink wrapping the planet and flying over it, travelling by train in Java is easy, efficient and an amazing way to see the deep interior of the country (I haven’t travelled to other islands in Indonesia but I’m sure if they have trains they are worth trying).
You can book tickets online for long haul trips from the Kereta Api website and pick them up ready to go at the station and the cost of travel is very reasonable. Amenities can be basic and I assume there are delays but all the trains I’ve ever been on have been fine.
For shorter trips on the commuter line (say Jakarta to Bogor) you need a card and the fares are incredibly cheap (I was impressed when I thought I’d paid $5 to go to Bogor and then realised it was actually 50c!)
The National train service, Kereta Api, is in a rapid state of redevelopment and the next few years could see major changes – the Chinese have bid to build a super fast train from Jakarta to Bandung starting sometime soon. Travelling by train is also now recognised as a major requirement to improve Indonesia’s productivity. After years of building roads and selling them cars, Japanese companies are now investing and exporting their rail technology and Jakarta will have its first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line, co-built with Japan, by 2018.
Unlike our fair city of Melbourne, the administration in Jakarta is also pressing ahead with a fast train and commuter railway services from the main Soekarna-Hatta International Airport.
But if you still prefer to take your travel more leisurely you can find the remnants of the great days of steam in Indonesia from when Dutch and English manufacturers provided locomotives for passenger and plantation use. Some of them are still in use in sugar refining but, as you would imagine, many were scrapped for their metal after WWII.
Some locomotives have even been repatriated and are now in collections in the UK.
You can read about the last 10 places where there are working locomotives in Indonesia at Mas Bagus Adventure blog
And for some nice images visit
or see these great images from the Indonesian Locomotive Group on Flicker