– ODO- 22415-22491km
– Location- West Jakarta
– Weather- 28-32 and humid on the ocean, some rain on the morning of the 27th
As part of cycling around the world, I try to fly as little as possible. After cycling through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and into Singapore I reached the end of the contiguous Eurasian continent. Between Australia lay the 17,000 Islands of Indonesia.
Information is scarce on the Indonesian ferry system for non-bahasa speakers like me. I scraped together a plan from Josiah Skeets post on The ferry from Singapore to Jakarta – What’s ‘Class F’ really like? (Check out my Podcast with him from last year) and some searches on the janky as hell PELNI website. PELNI being the state ferry company of Indonesia. The ferries work their routes back and forward loading cargo and passengers and completing the route at a rough schedule published a few weeks before. Luckily for me, the roughly weekly ferry from Batam to Jakarta left just when a freelance work project was due to wrap up. Batam is a small island across the straights from Singapore so my first step was to get there.
I left Singapore on the first ferry, at 6am in the morning. In true Singapore style, the terminal was clean and full of convenience stores and most of the other passengers seemed to be on their way to a golf resort. I chose the ferry terminal out by the airport so that I could get my bike on. The other port near the bay is in a shopping mall.
I felt so nervous that I arrived the full two hours before departure suggested on my ticket but even the staff didn’t arrive and open the ticket counter until an hour before departure. I checked in and it cost me SGP$10 for bike and SGP$10 for my extra bags. The staff took the bags and bike and I went through a temperature scanner COVID-19 screening and security. I boarded the short 45-minute ferry which was a modern catamaran type and took a clean seat watching ads for holiday on a widescreen TV. On the other side of the straight things changed. My baggage was unceremoniously dumped in a pile on the dock and I was on my own. Working through security and doubling back to take my bike and bags through a customs x-ray scanner. By 8 am I was in Indonesia, visa stamped and free.
You can’t buy PELNI tickets online, or anywhere outside of Indonesia. I called to ask and was not only told I couldn’t buy them but that my bike wasn’t allowed. I found a ticket office on Google Maps 20km across the Island next to where Google told me the Jakarta ferry would depart. So I set off and cycled from Batam City to a PELNi office. I found the office without trouble and the helpful guide took my passport and money and only paused briefly when I mentioned I wanted “Ekonomi” class. He did call in a friend to tell me that the port where the ferry departed was right back where I started in Batam city and the boat left in 2 hours. I jumped back on the bike, said my thanks and pedalled away.
Dripping with sweat I arrived back at the port to find hundreds of people packed around a tall metal gate at the side of the port building. A porter who spoke some English locked onto me and thank god! Some signal went up and the gate began to move. The crowed forged forward in a near panic. Everyone had two suitcases with laundry bags tied on until they couldn’t stand up. My porter took my fully laden bike and disappeared into the distance while I was stood in a lineup to be run past by the drugs dog. After a short bus to the ferry, my guide again took the lead and pushed my bike up the rocking gangway and into the bowels of the ship. No problem. Bikes weren’t allowed officially, but this guy helped me out for £5 and I was on.
After the initial rush and panic, there was still 90 minutes before the boat departed. Everybody sat around on their assigned bunks children played below and the elderly settled into a sleep that would last 30 hours. The economy bed was as I’d expected. Hot and dingy and, of course, right outside the toilet but I soon became accustomed to the plastic mattress. With the bike on board, the trip had passed a tipping point. I knew I would get to Jakarta now so I could finally relax.
As the boat pushed off I found a side deck to watch the smokey city recede. For the first afternoon, we sailed through tight-knit islands with blue water and white sand. Small communities dependant on the sea. As the sun set we came into a port down a shallow river, our huge ship dwarfing all the houses below. The horn blared out and we were back into the open ocean.
That night I had a shower in the tiny rusty cell of a room with a plastic pipe hanging loose from the ceiling as the boat rocked. I passed out from relief to be moving and slept deeply under the constant strip lighting. The gentle rocking lulled me softly through the night.
The next day was our full day at sea. I got up early and made my home on the top deck and stayed thereabouts for the next 24 hours. I saw some stunning sights and the pack of the boat. We were away from land now mostly but at once came out of the sea, a collection of houses. There seemed to be no land below, perhaps only a reef, but around 80 small dwellings on long stilts clung together. I saw people walking across boards between buildings and boats came out to fish from jetties surrounding the town.
In the water, I saw one dolphin and a huge amount of plastic waste- a sad ratio. Large oil tankers and container ships passed us by interspersed by the ever-present fishing boats in bright blues, yellows and reds, straining back against the drag of their nets.
I made so many friends on board. There were two other foreigners, one cyclist and a student who’d made it overland from France. The Indonesian passengers were equally as friendly, saying hello, inviting me for meals and talking through ad supported translate app between trips to the ships onboard mosque.
The food was also as I expected from my research. Plastic trays of plain white rice, some kind of fish or chicken with a terrible bone to meat balance and a sachet of chilli sauce. The highlight of the food was a boiled egg for breakfast. I sat in the morning rain and ate it appreciatively.
I was at sea for a total of 32 total hours, reading, making friends, watching the ever-changing waves, no phone signal, emails notifications to distract me. A calm settled over me like never before. I felt connected with everyone and the world around me. I felt a sense of motion inevitable motion towards my next destination. I felt alive.
For the same price as the PELNI ticket, AirAsia will get you to Jakarta in two hours. What you miss is the chance to do something different. A rare chance to choose adventure.