Boat companions, Pak Wahyu and his family, on our 18hrs ferry trip from Banjarmasin to Surabaya, Java Island

10/Mar/09 to 11/Mar/09 : Banjarmasin to Surabaya on RoRo ferry

The 2 days ride across quiet country roads of S. Kalimantan took me into its busy provincial capital of BanjarMasin. It’s a city built on a delta island, surrounded by a maze of rivers & canals. Here, multi directional traffic, humans & “becak” or tut-tut trishaws choke up crossroads, resembling a mini Bangkok. I cross my fingers that this time there is a vehicle carrying roll-on-roll-off (RoRo) ferry plowing between its Trisakti harbour and Java island. It’s a big problem to find reliable info about ferry schedules or its services in Indonesia. This method is a bit kamikaze, I know. But it seemed appropriate for use here and in the Borneo jungles.

Once I arrived at the port it turned out quite easy. There were a few ferry agents’ offices lined up outside the port entrance, amongst some cheap travelers’ motels. Just missed a RoRo ferry to Semarang, Central Java ; however, luck was with me – another RoRo to Surabaya, East Java was due the next day. It didn’t quite matter where Surabaya was, as long as it’s in Java. Traveling with a bike has taught me not to be choosy. The soft spoken agent said the ferry carry “apa apa saja”, meaning anything and everything, and “jangan kuatir” (don’t worry) for the bike. He proposed that I buy a 1st class sleep berth instead of 2nd or 3rd class. Why ??  He said convincingly “tak bisa tidur, banyak penumpang, sakit tulang nanti” (can’t sleep, too many passengers, my bones will suffer), for a few thousand Rupiahs more ie few euros more. It was the soft bed that sounded like a better idea than the hard upright seat, while Kuda gets a berth in the ferry’s belly along with other foul smelling diesel trucks.

That evening, I found a decent looking hotel in BanjarMasin’s city centre, walked out and enjoyed an evening “Gado gado” meal by the roadside with the locals. This trip to Borneo has really been a great adventure for the child inside, with satisfaction similar to that coming down the wild Karakoram highway in Pakistan. My bike was not broken, and I was looking forward to the ferry crossing into Java. How do you explain when you’re feeling good ?

The Roro ferry, the M/V KM Kumala, berthed just before 6pm for its scheduled 18hrs voyage back to Surabaya. Mr. Ahmad, the ticket agent’s bossman was present, as he promised, with the paperworks to ensure what he called “smooth embarkation of my foreign bike” in case customs or police were out sniffing to “earn some cigarette money”. The ferry boarding was kind of exciting, after paper formalities, I just rolled into the ferry’s belly, into a dark corner where Ahmad helped me tied down the bike. Glad I brought ropes as seas can be rough. The local bikers didn’t bother tying their scooters at all. I must have looked silly to them. Oh well …

I’ve read that Indonesia’s inter-island ferries are generally overcrowded with passengers. Sometimes they go down in severe weather with the whole lot – then the authorites find out that the actual number dead outnumbered those on the passenger list (??). Soon the next ferry is just as crowded.

Ahmad said I can get a good sleep as the voyage weather forecast looks good. This RoRo is 3 storey high, has a 24hrs cafeteria, a Medic onboard, signs of new paint jobs over rusted steel plates & pipes, and safety escape signs everywhere – so all’s cool. Ferry was full, but not cramped like sardines. Just like Ahmad said, the passengers soon made their sleeping berths on available seats & floor spaces. Not that I mind competing, but I’d already splashed out for a 1st class berth – got a room with 4 empty bunk beds all for myself, what a luxury ! In a way, it allowed me to leave my belongings in a safe corner, so I had time for several long chats with Pak Wahyu, a friendly truck driver who was traveling with his family to Bali. That evening on the Java sea, we were treated to a singing & dance show put on for the passengers. It was happy hour onboard.

I was starting to enjoy this serene voyage ….. until this happened. While asleep alone in my room, I was awoken by a sharp pain on my right hand’s little finger. There was blood. Hell, something bit me. It was 4am when I in turn woke up the sleepy Medic to seek treatment for the cut on my little finger. When asked if there are rats, snakes or bats in the 1st class rooms, he smiled faintly, said “don’t worry, it’s nothing serious” ; deflecting the question, sprayed antiseptic on wound, bandaged my finger and sent me off ! Later, I threw a piece of bread into the room’s rubbish bin, switch off the light and waited quietly – sure enough, 2 huge adult rats came out from under the other bed and headed right for the bin. I lost my sleep. Its funny how all of a sudden questions like “why do they bite”, “do these rats carry disease”, etc start to repeat itself in my head. At daybreak I filled out a complain form to the Captain with my contact address & e-mail info. Frankly, I’d be quite happy with a reply like “Dear sir, we’re very sorry you got bitten by a rat on our ferry M/V KM Kumala … If you’ll accept, we’ll provide you with another 1st class free return trip plus free meals thrown in … no hard feelings. Thank you for choosing to travel on our ferry”. Never got a reply. Ok, the rat did not chew off my finger. But can you imagine, rats are going 1st class on the ferry.