2017 Java Steam & Sugar Tour: The Humble Return Part 1

Last year was a major disappointment as I fail to run the Java Steam & Sugar tour. Despite of the high hope that I would run similar tour like what I did in 2014 and 2015, my advertisement went unnoticed. There were some interests, and some even booked their place for tour in August or September. But alas, they either cancelled the tour in last moment, or went silent forever.

But it doesn’t mean that there were no railway themed tours in 2016. The very first month of the year saw me taking a group of Malaysians visiting Tasikmadu sugar mill and traveling onboard DMU on street running in Solo. Then in April, a Frenchman wants me to take him to search for tractors in sugar mills in Central and East Java, which opened new insight on narrow gauge plantation diesel locomotives (whom some are dating back from prewar era).

Based on these two successful tours in early 2016, I was really confident that I could run Java Steam & Sugar tour for the year. I created the itinerary and advertised it extensively on the internet. The fact that several people showing their interest gave some hope that I will certainly run another Java Steam & Sugar tour for this year.

Alas, that was not to be. About a few weeks prior to the starting date of their selected tour, as when I asked re-confirmation of the tour, the bad news came. Some decided to cancel the tour due to variety of reasons, while some went silent. This made me upset.

On the other hand,  Geoff Warren, a friend of mine whom I guided on the successful Java Steam & Sugar tour in 2014 made an inquiry in late 2016 about tour to Sumatera. He asked me to arrange tour to visit several places around Jakarta, Banten, mount Krakatoa, Southern Sumatera, and lastly a ride on jungle narrow gauge railway in Bengkulu. All of them will took place in late August until early September. Geoff said that he will travel with Joop Versluijs (whom I have known him for almost 10 years, and went on a small tour at Kedawung with me in 2016), as well as his son and many more of his friends.

I did compile an itinerary and submitted to him. Geoff’s response was generally positive, although there were some revisions that need to be done to perfect the itinerary. I did some intensive research on his grand tour.  His request was very complicated as it feature inter island crossing, visit to a rather violent volcano, and a visit to what is probably the most isolated railway network in Indonesia.  So it require some extensive research and planning.

Unfortunately, as the year progresses my plan to go on grand tour with Geoff and his group did not materialize. A combination of personal problems (mostly related to failed railway tour sales) led to nervous breakdown on me. In addition at around the same time there was a series of cyber bullying by local railway enthusiasts in South Sumatera that directed towards me due to disagreement. Since I’m not familiar with the area, a trip to an unknown place accompanied by hostile host wouldn’t count as safe journey for me. In addition, around mid-year, a Dutch railway enthusiast who has been to Bengkulu isolated railway suggesting me against going there, as he look at my shortcomings.

Based on that, I regret to inform Geoff and Joop that I cannot accompany their group on their Sumatera tour. Despite of my rejection, apparently Geoff and Joop didn’t mind about that.

On a contrary, upon knowing that I also have steam tour package, they requesting me to arrange such tour at the end of their Sumatera one. They requested the tour to be held in early September for around one week. They initially mention several dates. But after some discussion, they eventually settle on the 8th to 12th September schedule. Since there are no confirmed booking for the original itinerary on Java Steam & Sugar tour, I decided to go ahead with the tour.

Initially, I offer them the eastern leg of my Java Steam & Sugar tour. But Geoff said that he is not interested to visit Olean sugar mill. He said that he had been there for too many times, and had seen the mill in its better days.

After I made some revision, I submitted the final itinerary which cover visit to sugar mills like Wringinanom in Situbondo, Jatiroto and Semboro in Jember area (including steam train ride), and Kedawung near Pasuruan. This itinerary is the one that is approved by both Joop and Geoff. So  we are good to go.

Just as the tour is about to proceed, I receive some bad news from PTPN XI (the owner of all sugar mills that we are going to visit). It’s not that they reject my permit; on a contrary they happily accept my party. But the problem is, the entrance fee to the mill has quadrupled! Up until last year, the entrance price for sugar mill was $5 or Rp 65,000,- per person. And that was only applicable for foreigner. Locals can enter the site for free. These days the entrance price is for foreigner is Rp 250,000,- per person. Locals must also pay too: Rp 100,000,- !

I was totally shocked and dismayed upon learning the price hike. Because when I submitted the itinerary, the pricing was based on the 2016 price. If we decided to enter all 5 mills, there is a good chance that I might make loss for this tour, something that I resented.

I decided not to inform them regarding of the price hike, due to the fact that they travel on a very tight budget. Any request for additional fund may lead to tour’s cancellation. Something that I tries to avoid.

Another factor that also led to cost increase is the accommodation in Jember. Although Joop suggesting one hotel in Jember with good quality and reasonable price, I found that this hotel is not available for 3 consecutive nights. Their standard room are available for first 2 nights, but not for the last one. I tried other hotels of good reputations in Jember, yet the result are the same: none are available for 3 nights. There are other cheap hotels that were available, but their reviews are poor.

Eventually, I settled with Aston Jember hotel, which is considered as the finest hotel in town, but not without problems. After some negotiation, I eventually able to book 2 rooms for 3 nights, at corporate price (which is lower than published ones). I even saw that they have one type of room that are not displayed on their website, but available in contract rate: the Standard Plus. Its price is not very far off from the hotel that Joop suggested earlier, so I dully choose that room. Only when I made the payment, I realize that the room is not suitable for my group: apparently it consist only 1 bed per room and don’t even have window! Of course, I must upgrade to Superior room which jacked up the price even further. But this is necessary to prevent major troubles.

This cost increase saga worrying me so much that I was overwhelmed with that. So much that I sluggishly preparing my clothing and camera for the tour, and almost forgot to bring my tablet and even forgot to bring my tripod altogether!

As their Sumatera tour commenced, I briefly lost contact with them. For a few weeks prior to the start of the tour, I was completely in the dark about their presence. That slightly worrying me because some payments are due. Namely payment for hotel and several other things.

Thankfully Joop’s wife did transfer some money to settle some important payments, so that reduce my anxiety a bit.

Finally, a day prior to the start of the tour, Joop resume the communication contact. He said that he and Geoff have just arrived from Bandung, where they transited after concluding their Sumatera tour. He said that he will stay overnight with Geoff at Pop hotel in Jalan Diponegoro (a main street in Surabaya). But he asked me to pick him up from his in law’s house in Ngagel Dadi, a low class suburb in southern Surabaya.

I would love to meet them, as well as collecting the remainder of payment. But since I was busy and tired after doing a day tour at mount Bromo, I decided to go straight to picking them up on following morning.

I woke up on Friday morning 8th September. Feeling slightly tired but also excited to go. I’ve prepared everything two days prior, in order to avoid chaos and confusion that would happen if I do everything on last minute. So this measure truly helps.

Still, due to anxiety and partial nervous breakdown resulted from worries about financial feasibility of this tour, as well as personal problems (like what I mentioned earlier), I almost forgot to bring some important things. First, when I arrived at Ngagel Dadi and tries to contact Joop, I realize that I forgot to bring my Samsung tablet! So we rushed to return back home and tries to retrieve it. But when we resumed the tour later, I realize that I forgot to bring my tripod along! Unfortunately, it was too late so I had to make up things by improvised.

When I went to Joop’s in-law house, I was greeted by the whole family. Apparently they held a farewell party for Joop’s brother because he is going to return back to Netherlands, possible after long stay in Indonesia? Geoff was also there. He greeted me and saying that the tour in Sumatera has been a big success. He never hinted any disappointment over my refusal to assist him on his Sumatera tour. On a contrary, he still kept his praise on me by saying that “The only missing on this tour is your presence. You would have been a valuable asset on our Sumatera tour, because your ability to sort out the problems” says Geoff. I thanked him for that.

Once we bid farewell to Joop’s family we proceed to Situbondo. For this tour, I’m accompanied by my brother who does most of the driving. The journey from Surabaya to Situbondo proceeded normally without any traffic jams or serious incident. We also got to try the new tollway that connect Gempol to Pasuruan, enabling us to avoid congestion at Bangil, which is nicknamed as “Bottleneck” due to its narrow main road.

As we approached Situbondo, we felt rather hungry. Geoff said he “wants some coffee”. For me and my brother, we saw this as a signal for lunch stop. Since I didn’t eat a lot in the morning, I felt a bit of migraine as a result of my hunger. So we stopped by at Handayani Restaurant in Paiton to have some break and meal. Once we finished our lunch we resume our journey again, feeling refreshed.

We resume our journey again. The drive from Paiton to Situbondo is not very far, and soon we arrive at the entrance of the town, where we encounter the level crossing of Wringinanom’s field lines. We stopped by at there, parked the car near the level crossing guard post, and start exploring. My brother stayed near the car as he is not interested to do so.

We went to the bridge that crosses over Sampean river.

This bridge is currently the largest narrow gauge railway bridge that remains in operation. There used to be bigger bridge somewhere, but none remain in operation as railway bridge.

The current bridge structure is actually quite new. The original bridge which had different design, was obliterated by flooding in early 2000s. The wreck of the outer spans can still be seen underneath, while the middle span was scrapped at the nearby scrap metal dealer.

It’s hard to believe that the river so calm like this can unleash such fury.

Since we didn’t see any train movement, we decide to return back to our car and made some inquiries at the level crossing gate guards. Upon meeting them, they told us that a few minutes ago, there were 4 locomotives heading south to the village of Kendit. They mention the location is near a high school.

We wasted no time and head straight there, where upon arriving we were greeted by the sight of 2 small locomotives parked on the street side.

The train crews were amused upon seeing foreigners taking train photos. One of the friendly crew asked me on where I’m from. I answered that I’m from Surabaya, and my guests are from Britain and Netherlands. He told me that a few weeks ago there was a group of British railway enthusiasts who visited the place. They went around and also chartered steam train at the nearby Olean sugar mill. I guess he might refer to John Raby’s group who went for similar Steam & Sugar tour.

When I asked him on where the remaining locos are, he told me that both had gone to the west to retrieve loaded wagons. He said that the place is “not very far” from the siding. I have to be aware of his description because city goers like me have completely different perception of distance than him.

I and Joop decided to walk following the line. Before that, I took the photo of this loco. I initially thought this loco was the rare British-built Baguley. Only when I read the “DIEMA” sign in front of it, I realize the loco was built in Germany.

We walked along the railway line to the west. Our place is actually quite near to mount Ringgit.

This heavily eroded extinct volcano is known as the icon of Situbondo, due to its unique craggy shape.

We walked further and we can also see hills in the distance. Not quite as good as mount Ringgit apparently.

The walk to loading point turned out to be long one. We got really exhausted.

Joop said he wants to photograph the train from a “nearby” bridge. “Near” is obviously ambiguous, especially if you look at this picture. Do you see any bridge in the photo?

As we walk along, we also came across some wagons being dumped on trackside. Thanks to their lightweight, retrieving them is not a very difficult task.

We went further, and Joop said the bridge is only a “few meters away”.

But as the aforementioned bridge came in sight, we suddenly see the loaded train approaching us!

The train travelled at walking pace, so it is very easy to follow

But if you want to get ahead the train, you must run quickly. And that proved to be quite difficult as we had to run through sandy and difficult terrain.

I was extremely exhausted and losing breath as well. I also sweated profusely, so much that my shirt becomes wet!

I struggled to follow the train, but thankfully it wasn’t long before I was able to return back to the Kendit siding and catch up with the loaded train.

The locos were detached from the train. Apparently this was done to allow one loco to pull the train into the siding, while other waits on the adjacent track.

Once the loaded train fully entered the siding, the other 2 locos (which we saw earlier) reversed, and then entered the same line where they will retrieve additional loaded wagons.

After two other locos went into the western line, the crew cut the train into two 10 wagons train.  This measure was done due to low axle load clearance on the bridge at Sampean river.

As soon as the loaded train departed, we speed up to the level crossing that we went earlier to catch up this train.

We did arrived before train and prepared ourselves to take photo of loaded train passing over the bridge. But as the sun goes down, we realize that our effort is futile. Even if the train passes, it would probably be too dark to be photographed or recorded on video.

So we decided to called it off and return back to our car…..except for Joop who went further to the south to investigate.

While waiting for Joop, I chatted with young level crossing guards and asked whether if the train had overtaken us. They replied that we didn’t. None of the loaded trains have arrived. They said that although the journey from Kendit to Wringinanom took less than 15 minutes by car, loaded train can take as long as 2 hours to reach the mill. That is due to its very slow speed, and occasionally worsened by derailment.

Upon Joop’s return, we bid farewell to the level crossing guard and head to the town for dinner. Situbondo have very little to offer when it came about culinary. But we still found one “Ayam Goreng Pemuda” who sell variety of fried and grilled chicken.

Once we finished our meal, we head to our hotel for checking in and overnight rest. The hotel selection is, inevitable, the Rosali Hotel Situbodno. The best hotel in Situbondo….unfortunately.






About bagus70

I'm an adventurous railfans who love to seek out the world of railway, beyond the border of my office.
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