March, 2003. South central Java.
Information was uncertain during the great SEA travel slump of early 2003. The fear of passenger shortfall meant no guarantees from travel agents booking east from Pangandaran to Yogyakarta, so we were surprised the morning we traveled when a van arrived at the gate our modest resort on time, already well-loaded. Getting everyone seated and their luggage stowed turned into a game of full-contact tetris. At the Segara Anakan dock 15 kms. away - our passenger ferry was actually a no-nonsense commercial scow meant for hauling small loads of freight to and from isolated villages.
Thus began our half-day voyage through central Java's Inland Sea.
It sounds exotic and mysterious, as if one might find dappled light and large birds and not featureless tidal channels of ochre water filtering through a flat mangrove expanse. There was no verdant canopy overhead; these shores were lined with listless shrubbery growing too low to shelter our half-open boat from Java's midday sun. We were post-colonial versions of mad Englishmen, squinting into the haze, a flat drifting murk stretched ahead of us, untroubled by landmarks.
Exiled from habits of affluence for the next few hours, our little group of western travelers found places on the forward deck's hard perimeter benches. There was a shaded area aft in the crude pilot house but this meant crowding against the frightening diesel clatter of the boat's overtaxed engine.
It was a noise that drowned any hope of hearing coastal birdlife. We were left to don sun hats, stake out some deck space and read our books. Another option was to sit and stare forlornly outward. There were a few stops at remote settlements for exchanges of cargo, but the schedule didn't allow for shore leave. The picture above is a dredging operation that produced a decibal uproar even greater than our vessel's.
A certain kind of traveler derives a grim-minded satisfaction from these experiences and the assault on the senses is part of the bargain. Here was a fascinating slice of backwater authenticity - hard-working Indonesia unsullied by tourist frippery. My emphasis on the harsh is to counter what I've read in guidebooks and on the web about this journey; as if it's a jungle eco-cruise through a watery paradise. Maybe there is a passenger ferry without skull-crushing motor noise, but we didn't see it.
The Dutch built a prison on the great island south of the boat channel; it is now Indonesia's top maximum security facility. One look at the surrounding hectares of trackless marsh might well encourage a general hopelessness among the population and quell any realistic thought of escape. Below, a final vision of industrial dislocation: the refinery at Cilacap.
At Cilacap we boarded another van and drove until nightfall to get to Yogyakarta.