With a piercing scream of its whistle, and a hiss of escaping steam, the little locomotive slowly chugs away from the station, much to the delight of the school children who have gathered around with beaming smiles, their hands over their ears.
On board the two wooden carriages are 40 intrepid Aussie travellers about to enjoy an unforgettable 90-minute steam train ride behind a 115-year-old steam locomotive so special it’s built with rack and pinion gearing to negotiate the steepest sections of the dramatic mountain climb.
The scene is Central Java, Indonesia. The Indonesian Government Railways have thoughtfully preserved this iconic little railway which runs about 15 kilometres up a mountainside to the town of Bedono. The line is the last remaining section of a railway that ran from Yogyakarta to the north coast.
This nostalgic excursion is one of many highlights of the Great Java Rail Tour, conducted each year since the 1980s by train buff and Indonesian enthusiast Kevin Pearce. It covers more than 1800 kilometres by rail through some of the most spectacular scenery you will find anywhere in Asia.
With a population of more than 140 million the fertile island of Java is the most densely populated island on earth and its extensive railway system is used primarily to move people rather than freight.
The inter-city trains provide a much more comfortable journey than the congested roads and take less than half the time. Train travel is thus the perfect way to soak up the scenery and savour an exotic land.
Passengers on the Great Java Rail Tour are accommodated in two chartered air-conditioned carriages commissioned exclusively for the group. A 52-seat carriage furnished with comfortable reclining seats and boasting wide panoramic windows is attached to a special private lounge car where drinks and refreshments are provided and passengers can relax and soak up the everchanging panorama.
All journeys are undertaken in daylight with two- or three-night stopovers in exotic towns and cities along the route. Sightseeing tours to major attractions are conducted by road coach at each stop over.
The tour commences in the capital, Jakarta, after the short direct flight from Perth. Local sightseeing tours include China Town, the Jalan Surabaya flea market and the Sunda Kelapa harbour, where the largest fleet of commercial sailing ships in the world, load cargo destined for distant islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
Kevin calls Jakarta Asia’s best kept secret. He says its grand shopping malls rival those of Singapore but offer prices that will surprise and delight even the most demanding shoppers.
From the bustle of Jakarta, the group embarks on the first train journey, to Bandung.
For three hours the train winds around mountainsides, traversing bridges and snaking through tunnels built by the Dutch in the 19thcentury. The scenery is spectacular.
Two nights are spent in the historic Savoy Homann Hotel with tours to the mountain tea plantations, hot springs and the Tangkuban Volcano where one can step down from the bus on to the very rim of the volcano.
From Bandung the tour continues by train through more spectacular mountain scenery before reaching Yogyakarta, the foremost cultural centre and former capital of the ancient Javanese Kingdom. Local tours include a visit to the eighth century Borobudur Buddhist Temple, one of the great wonders of the world.
Continuing on by train the group arrives in the delightful hill town of Malang. The boutique Tugu Park Hotel is listed as one of the 100 most beautiful hotels in the world. The public rooms are adorned with priceless works of art and antiques. Guests are treated to a traditional High Tea on the balcony after checking in.
After two nights in Malang the group journeys by train to the port of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, for two nights at another spectacular colonial-era hotel, The Majapahit. The 106-year-old establishment was built by Lucas Martin Sarkies of the famous Armenian family whose collection of grand hotels included the the Raffles in Singapore. The delightful gardens and magnificently furnished rooms will amaze and delight even the most ardent traveller!
After sightseeing in Indonesia’s second biggest city, including a brief hop across the new causeway to the island of Madura, tour guests prepare to board their private carriage for the last and longest train journey back to Jakarta along the north coast. By now the train has become their second home. Before reaching Jakarta, entertainment and farewell drinks are provided in the lounge car to celebrate perhaps the most scenic train journey in Asia.
The next departure of the 15-day escorted Great Java Rail Tour is on 06 August. The tour costs $5298, and includes most meals, four and five-star hotels, all tipping, full porterage throughout, and return air tickets. Special guest on this departure will be former television news anchor and current Curtin FM radio presenter, Greg Pearce. Phone West Coast Cruise & Travel for brochures and information on 9335 4322.