We are in Bali. You’d think that was great, but it’s not. It’s 4am and it’s not where we want to be after our Komodo adventure. All inter-island flights go through Jakarta or Bali and one ends up here frequently. In fact, we barely made it out of the airport, opting for a hotel right at the fenced edge of the airfield in a dingy area. It’s $40 a night and clean, so we can’t complain too hard.
Since leaving Labuan Bajo yesterday, we’ve all been in a funk. I think it’s just a natural down after the incredible high of the ‘Wunderpus’ diving live-aboard. Even the Labuan Bajo airport seemed to reflect that. To the right is the sad little shop, the only place anything was for sale.
Our plane is late, which was to be expected. Wings/Lion air is the budget domestic carrier and it’s good enough, but operates on it’s own schedule. Fortunately Bali airport is a little more robust than Labuan Bajo. We get a coffee and leg massages before our flight takes off.
We’re on our way to Java, the island home of 157 million people – more than half of all Indonesia and the most populous island on earth. It is the historical center of Indonesia from the Hindu Buddhist times, through Islamic sultanates and Dutch colonial rule to modern Indonesia.
‘Uncle Sam’ picks us up at the Yogyakarta airport. He’s a nice older guy with great English. He tells a classic Indonesian development story of being a taxi driver, learned dutch and English on his own and put three daughters through University. He’s Catholic, a minority on Java. We take an instant liking to him.
I found Sam searching deep in the Trip Advisor forums of a place called Joblang, 90 minutes south of Yogyakarta in the impoverished farming fields of southern Java. Joblang is not in Lonely Planet and doesn’t appear in the top 10 list of activities on Trip Advisor. Sam was mentioned, along with an email, as one of the drivers that knew how to find this place. I arranged with him ahead of time and he was great.
I’ve learned over the years that there is some good stuff lower down the Trip Advisor lists, which are sorted in part by the number of reviews, not only the rating. So some great stuff gets buried, like our awesome antique motorcycle with side car ride in Beijing. You just have to do some searching.
What they have there is a short but spectacular cave system. And being Indonesia, there aren’t lights and elevators and platforms. We descend and rise on a pully and ropes by a team of men and boys! And we use little flashlights and squash through deep mud in rubber boots they provide.
The descent is exciting. Yes it crosses my mind about whether it’s safe or not. I guarantee there are no inspections or regulations or insurance covering any of this. It’s some kind of community tourism activity they built to take advantage of a local resource. The good news is the $35 ticket probably goes directly into their pockets. The bolts and ropes and carabiners look okay… and they have a good track record. People have been doing this daily for years.
But still, as we descend, there are little heart stopping moments when the rope goes taught and we are still 10 stories in the air. The cave is 180 feet deep!
The air gets still as we lower, and I’m reminded of the information I had read about Joblang. The forest at the bottom of this cave is unique. The cave walls form a partial terrarium, keeping wind out and wet in. Moss and ferns cover every surface.
Amanda and I land on solid ground and are released from the carabiners that secured us to the rope. Emma and Lily follow us – much lighter and faster. I think the guys up top are enjoying this one. In a grim reminder of the consequences of a fall, a Chinese woman’s helmet drops from about 80 feet and crashes on the rocks bouncing high back in the air. The group of young Dutch backpackers go wide-eyed for a moment.
The cave itself is part of an extensive network of caves that run underneath java. Like much of south east Asia, the caves are part of a karst topography, which happens when porous rock and lots of rain create sinkholes and caves. It’s like a natural drainage system. When very old it can create the karst hills like the ones in Ha-long bay Vietnam or ones we saw in Yangshuo China.
The accessible section of cave is deep and not very long – only about 200 feet from end to end. This area is open and green, but we descend into a large dark, brown muddy tunnel with cielings at least 30 feet high, although it’s hard to tell in the dark. Each group has a small flashlight, barely illuminating the path. The opening is flat, but it turns to boulders soon. The young Dutch kids scramble ahead, the Chinese couple gingerly steps behind.
After 15 minutes we can see a heavenly glow in front of us. Light streams down from a huge open gap in the ceiling. This is our destination. A second opening connected by a tunnel to the one we entered from is illluminated around noon each day as the sun finds the path through the dense jungle overhead into the deep chasm.
This cave is also huge but it’s completely different. It’s covered in stalagmites, short and fat, and down below has a running underground river that scarily goes into a hole out of which one would never get if you fell. We are far from falling, though, it’s a safe fifty feet away. Still, with the muddy wet shoes and slippery rocks, we all tread carefully.
A little platform, the highest point in this massive cave room, has been created by layers of dripping water carrying little particles of limestone. It’s pretty slippery and wet, and dark of course, but kind of fun. Our boots, with no socks, hurt a lot by now so we all walk on our tip-toes to avoid the ankle rubbing.
It’s pretty cool overall. Caves always spark the imagination. What’s underneath? How far does it go? What lurks in the dark? I wish I could capture it on camera, but I know these shots won’t come out very will. I just don’t have enough light.
Back up the rope elevator we go. The hot jungle feels cool after having been in a dank cave with no air movement. They serve us chicken, tofu and rice in a little Styrofoam cup. The last thing we hear as we depart is the young dutch kid yelling “Can I have the chicken you didn’t eat! I love you vegetarians!”
The ride back is slow. Yogyakarta is a big city, full of the usual dusty motorbike and pedestrian swarm. Tonight we will be comfortable – we’re staying at a Hyatt resort that I got for $65/night!
I’m not sure what makes it so cheap. The strengthening dollar, weakening rupiah is surely part of it- but I suspect from the services they offer that a lot of their clients are wealthy Indonesians, most of whom are fasting for Ramadan. I wonder if that causes a drop in domestic tourism? It must have some effect.
The place is pretty empty. Lily and Emma go off on their own and play a lot on the water slides, stopping only to complain about the ‘annoying French kids’ – not sure what that’s all about. The Wifi is terrible, which is a bummer, but the food at the restaurant is pretty good, and it feels nice to be in a comfortable place.
Amanda and I take a long walk around the grounds at night, seeing a wedding reception wrap up. It has that classic wedding reception look. There is some music playing but only a few people hanging out at the tables, it’s mostly over. We are reminded of our own upcoming ceremony, which will be a little different.
I can’t believe it’s only been a day since we got off the Wunderpus. I make this remark everytime, but moving quickly slows down time. This 2.5 week trip feels epic in proportion. Tomorrow will be a big day – lots of ancient sites to explore, always one of our favorite things to do.
Bedtime. Cool, white sheets and the best mattress we’ve had so far… ahhhhhh…..