Hiking the Cisadon Trail
The idea had been bubbling away in Bama’s mind ever since the start of the pandemic, but it only really developed as fellow Canadian blogger Caroline recounted her recent trekking trips in her home province. Eventually, a plan spontaneously surfaced one Friday at lunch break while both of us were working from home. “Why don’t we go hiking tomorrow?” Bama excitedly said. The weather forecast predicted clear blue skies; he’d already done his research on Sentul, an area south of Jakarta where tightly packed suburban subdivisions give way to a soothing landscape of fields and mountains threaded with walking trails.
I was, admittedly, less than enthusiastic. It had been an exceptionally stressful few days and I craved a weekend defined by total relaxation: sleeping in until a hearty breakfast of coconut rice with fried chicken was delivered to our door, watching documentaries on Netflix, reveling in what the Italians describe so beautifully as dolce far niente (“the sweetness of doing nothing”). The idea of being dragged out of bed before sunrise for several hours of physical exertion seemed like the antithesis of that. But I also knew it was a much-needed outing we could not afford to miss.
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Bama and I have agreed to set off from Jakarta no later than half past six in the morning. There are two very good reasons for such an early start: we must get on the highway before it becomes clogged with weekenders heading up to scenic Puncak Pass, and then begin the hike while the sun’s rays are not so strong. Our phone and camera batteries are fully charged by the time the alarm goes off at 4:45. I’m still groggy when I chow down on a carb-loaded breakfast of sweet and savory pastries washed down with soy milk. Ever the more organized one, Bama makes sure we’ve got all the essentials from face masks and hand sanitizer to a pair of water-filled tumblers (I later wish I’d packed one more). And yet, in the rush to leave, we end up forgetting one crucial piece of kit: sunscreen.
Cruising down the Jagorawi Toll Road, it is practically impossible to tell where Jakarta ends and the province of West Java begins. Decades of urbanization and unstoppable growth could not be contained within the invisible boundaries of Indonesia’s Special Capital Region: its concrete sprawl has long spilled over into the surrounding districts. A bucolic landscape once dominated by rice paddies, orchards, and fish ponds is now a bleak grey sea of factories, boxy malls, endless rows of townhouses, and haphazardly built urban villages. At last count, more than 30 million people were found to inhabit Greater Jakarta – an area only slightly larger than Delaware.
We turn off the highway at Sentul City about an hour after leaving home. Immediately Bama and I are struck by this vision of idealized suburbia, a master-planned series of gated communities bearing fancy names like La Vanoise and Imperial Golf Estate. The whole development has an artificial, Disneyesque feel. Rain trees flank the divided four-lane artery that acts as the backbone of Sentul City, its grassy median strip adorned with flower beds and coconut palms. I catch glimpses of a restaurant with thatched-roof pavilions on a small lake, then a golf course weaving between some of the larger dwellings.
The veneer of manicured perfection ends abruptly once we drive by another housing cluster down a side road, where the well-maintained asphalt morphs into a potholed village street. From there, the only way is up: past schools, modest homes, mom-and-pop stores, villas in various stages of construction, and a newly opened café with flower-studded placards out front. The foliage grows thicker the higher we go. Google Maps tells us to make one final turn up a bumpy track of rough stones laid in the dirt. To our surprise, even at this early hour, the small parking lot below the trailhead is already full. An attendant waves us through with the promise that there’s more room about 100 meters ahead; we don’t find anything, but there is a wide bend in the improvised road with enough space to park Bama’s car. It’s just past 8 a.m. when we finally begin the steep uphill climb on foot. Our goal is to reach Cisadon (pronounced Chee-sah-don), the tiny village marking the endpoint of the trail, in about two and a half hours.
Bama has warned me to keep my expectations in check. I already know the Cisadon Trail isn’t going to be anything like our unforgettable sunrise hike up Mount Prahu in Central Java’s Dieng Highlands. But this place already feels a world away from the sprawling megalopolis we’ve temporarily left behind. Being more than 700 meters above sea level, it’s noticeably cooler too. I’m initially surprised when Bama removes his surgical mask while nobody else is around. “We’ll put them on again if there are larger groups of people,” he reassures me. Any guilt I have about flouting a general guideline to mask up outdoors dissolves with the pleasure of feeling the fresh breeze on my uncovered face.
But then disaster strikes. We’re making good progress when Bama suddenly stops by the side of the trail, ashen-faced and overcome with a wave of dizziness and nausea. He stands listlessly while holding onto a large root protruding from the slope at head height. My hiking buddy later relates how everything in his field of vision had turned white, as though the brightness level on a computer screen was set to maximum. I’m filled with worry; there is nowhere to sit on this steep section, but Bama decides to wait it out and continue at a more relaxed pace after the nausea subsides.
We take comfort in the profusion of greenery around us, a protective canopy punctuated by prehistoric-looking tree ferns towering overhead. I run my fingers over the wet moss and delicate begonias that have colonized the bare earth where the road was cut out. Equally enticing are the occasional views of Mount Salak, a deeply eroded 2,200-meter (7,250-foot) volcano that more superstitious Indonesians believe to be haunted. The vistas stretch out toward four unfinished high-rise apartment blocks rising above the neighborhood mall at Sentul City. From our vantage point, the thick pall of smog hanging over Greater Jakarta is clearly visible.
Every now and again we come across a small bamboo shack with outdoor seating. Each one peddles a variety of drinks and snacks; instant coffee sachets are strewn up like garlands framing the counter. Local villagers relax in the shade and converse in the melodious tones of Sundanese, West Java’s predominant language and one that Bama speaks fluently thanks to his upbringing in the province. Then, on a flatter section lined with tree ferns, the sound of pure mountain water pouring into a small pool beside the trail grabs our attention. “Look how clear it is – you can see straight to the bottom. This would be impossible in Jakarta!” Bama exclaims. West Java is known for its abundance of fresh water, and sure enough, a series of streams cut across the path: we traverse the widest and deepest via some wobbly stepping stones. Prior research had also clued us in on the existence of Curug Ipis (Sundanese for “Thin Waterfall”), a little cascade three quarters of the way to Cisadon.
En route, we encounter groups of Korean expats and a handful of Westerners, though the great majority of our fellow hikers are mostly Indonesian. Some have brought along their kids, but I cannot say the experience is family-friendly because the trail itself is in such bad shape. Conditions here alternate between parts filled with loose rocks of different sizes, like a dry stony riverbed, and muddy stretches where the mire sucks at our shoes. “Just imagine what it would be like in rainy season,” Bama quips. The track is rutted due to frequent traffic from motorbikes (both the regular and off-road varieties), jeeps, four-wheel drives, and the occasional diesel-belching truck. Most frustrating of all is the presence of recreational vehicles, which force us to the edges at fairly regular intervals.
So it’s with a sense of relief that we finally arrive at Cisadon, even if it only marks the halfway point for our out-and-back hike. Encircled on three sides by steep forested hills, the hamlet lies in a semicircular basin of relatively flat ground. I count only a few houses ringing an open area where unprocessed coffee cherries and beans are being sun-dried on tarpaulin mats. There’s also an unusual foodstuff foraged from the surrounding area by eagle-eyed local villagers. Unlike in other places where Asian palm civets are kept in battery cages and force-fed to create prized kopi luwak (sometimes nicknamed “cat poo coffee”), the droppings we see with clumps of partially digested coffee beans were left by wild civets, which eat only the ripest and best-quality coffee cherries.
An unseen goat bleats plaintively from the back of a small shed. In the adjacent yard, Bama points out a familiar plant he once saw on Instagram. This is Gomphocarpus fruticosus, a unique-looking and deadly poisonous species whose bulbous, spiky seed pods remind me of inflated pufferfish. Cisadon’s nascent adventure tourism industry has led to the creation of several warung (informal eateries) catering to hungry trekkers and mountain bikers. At the center of the village lies two fishponds – empang in Sundanese. Both have rustic open-air pavilions where visitors can sit while enjoying a cup of coffee or tea, or even a plate of instant noodles.
Outside a warung a few steps from the fishponds, a twentysomething-year-old hacks away at young coconuts with his machete, peeling their tops into a neat pyramidal shape before making four deep incisions. Bama is initially in the mood for a glass of iced tea, but I convince him we’re better off having two natural thirst-quenching treats filled nearly to the brim with coconut water. It’s deeply satisfying to drink up the sweet liquid and scoop out the soft, juicy flesh at the end. Around us, village cats pace the bamboo benches and unashamedly jump onto the long tables to inspect coconuts and bowls of unfinished food. Hens and chicks peck at the dirt floor, while a very territorial (and noisy) rooster chases off his rivals the moment they set foot in the eatery. It feels as though we are enjoying our young coconuts in a barn or oversized chicken coop.
By now, the sun is more or less directly overhead. The long sleeves we’d seen on other hikers suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. Neither of us have any sunscreen, and with precious little shade along most of the route, we descend as fast as we can without actually running. It’s not long before we encounter another problem. I’d known my breathable, lightweight walking shoes were getting old, but I couldn’t predict that the stony Cisadon Trail would render them useless. On the way back down, I notice small rocks wedged into a widening gap between my left shoe’s upper and its thickly padded sole. Then I begin to sense a flapping motion with every step. We’re about 20 minutes from the trailhead when almost the entire sole comes loose. It is a comical sight, but I’m tired and frustrated and aching to get off the mountain. Bama picks up a dead vine on the trail and uses it as a temporary tie, eventually replacing the gnarled knot with synthetic raffia pulled from the dirt. At the end, I resort to undoing my laces and binding them tightly around the front of the ruptured shoe.
We’re relieved to reach the car after just 90 minutes’ hike. It’s no secret that Jakarta “exports” its notorious traffic jams to the nearby countryside on weekends, and this Saturday is no different. With a constant stream of vehicles snaking up the hillside on a road one and a half cars wide, the job of keeping things moving falls to the pak ogah, volunteer traffic wardens who welcome a small donation from passing motorists.
Bama and I are famished by the time we pull into the carpark of the recently opened mall in Sentul City. There’s a limited range of restaurants, so we have lunch at a Japanese fast-food venue. After devouring a beef curry udon with a large croquette and a taco-like pocket of deep-fried nori and crabmeat, I’m game for the matcha soft-serve ice cream displayed on the menu, only to find that the machine is broken. (The man at the cashier sheepishly apologizes.) Luckily, Bama has spotted a Häagen-Dazs outlet nearby so we go there for dessert. I end up having a scoop of tiramisu paired with an intensely flavored matcha – heaven in a cup. We might be sore and sunburnt, and my shoes may be falling apart, but ice cream does have a habit of making everything better. I can’t think of a sweeter way to finish our hike. ◊