48 Hours on the Java Sea

Having traveled in Malaysia for quite a bit, it was about time to move further South and towards Indonesia. Starting from the island of Borneo, which itself is shared by two Malaysian States of Sabah and Sarawak, Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia’s Kalimantan, I was headed towards Pontianak first, from where I could be taking a ship towards Java.

800 kilometres across the Java Sea: the Pontianak-Semarang Ferry takes two full days for one way

After a few days in Pontianak (the only city in the world that is divided by the equator), I found a ferry that would take not only my motorcycle along, but I could go on the same ship. I preferred this option since it would let me skip a flight and sleeping twice on the open sea sounded like a cool experience.

I said goodbye to some Indonesian friends with whom I had been hiking around East Kalimantan. On the last evening, Tejo invited me for their “Iftar”, the daily breaking of fast amongst Muslims during the month of Ramadan, a truly social event with a common dinner and people sharing thoughts. Tejo said he was sad to have me leave and gave me a goodbye present: his hunting knife. Accepting it involved a small ceremony to make sure that there is no evil spirit involved. Borneo has quite a lot of stories of spirits and ghosts and whether they are true or not, you’re probably better off not doubting them. Tejo told me that the knife might seem dull, but it will be sharp when it needs to. If I should find it hovering one day, I might need to please it by killing a chicken. Well, that sounds entertaining. I tucked my new travel companion away in order to not intimidate the taxi driver on the way home.

Group picture on the last evening in Pontianak after Iftar, the evenly breaking of fast

The ferry was scheduled to start at 3 a.m. in the morning and when I came to the port, I first got to see heavily loaded trucks enter the ship’s trunk which made the ship rock quite a bit. Watching the ferry that would take me 800 kilometres to another island gave me the same feeling as entering an airplane — the anticipation of something new, of a fresh start. “A magic dwells in every beginning”, Hermann Hesse wrote, and it is this very feeling I experience whenever I am about to come to a new country or to a new place.

On the ferry, there were no cabins, only an Economy Class. You basically could choose a spot on one of the decks, place your piece of tarp, and that was your space. I found an inside area in front of the ship which was like a small movie theatre, air-conditioned. Perfect! Since it was towards the end of the Fasting Month and towards Eid Mubarak, a holiday week comparable to the Christmas holidays in the West, the ferry was rather crowded with people and families who were about to reunite with their relatives. 

Indonesian holiday was around the corner, so the decks were rather crowded.
After all the trucks had entered the ship, cars and motorcycles could go aboard and were secured.

The journey was said to take a bit over 40 hours and we set off. Amongst three Algerians, who were living and traveling in Indonesia and another German traveling with a bicycle, we were the only foreigners on the ship, which gave me quite a lot of looks. People were interested to hang out, have a chat or take pictures with me. It was just another example that even if you may feel alone during traveling, you will never feel lonely, as you are so approachable as a solo traveler. 

Luckily, the Java Sea turned out to be calm and I slept quite well. Many people on the ship were fasting, which means not to eat during sunlight hours and a good hour before sunrise. There were no real sleeping and waking hours during the ride, the days merged into another and were only scattered by prayer calls (which I like to witness) and food calls. Every now and then, there was a little more action in the theater space in front, I saw a cat jumping around and someone placed next to me who transported birds that could have their noisy hours. On the second day, the theater was transformed into a Karaoke space, to the great entertainment of the locals which didn’t seem to mind the max volume. During these performances, I would rather hang out at the top deck and enjoy the scenery of the Open Sea. 

Views from the top deck.
The onboard canteen.
The meal that was served three times a day: rice, fish, some fruit, sweet tea.

On the second afternoon, my GPS showed me that only a few hours were left until the port of Semarang. The ride seemed very smooth but suddenly, there was an emergency call and people were rushing towards the top deck. Since the announcement was only in Bahasa Indonesia, I didn’t understand what the emergency was about, and tried to make my own sense of the scene. I knew that this area is prone to earthquakes and seaquakes, but would this be much of an issue when on the Open Sea? Did the ship have a leak?

When on deck, the situation cleared: Someone had gone over board and instead of sending a rescue boat, the captain hat decided to turn the whole ship around. Knowing how to swim is not of self-evidence for Indonesians, but luckily, the person managed to stay afloat and after some searching and a few lifebelt-tossing attempts, he could be pulled out of the water alive.

I paid around 75 Euros for the journey for me and the motorcycle, so I really had not expected a high standard on the trip, which thankfully turned out to be pleasant. Finally arriving in and riding through the colonial city of Semarang in the middle of the night, again, made me feel the magic of the New. Hello Java!

Saying goodbye to some Algerian friends who, throughout the journey, invited me for food they had brought
Around 2 a.m., two days later: Arrived at the port of colonial city of Semarang

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