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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.

*            *            *

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.

Our first glimpse of the nearby hills on the ascent

An empty trail; begonias cloaking the hillside

Coffee cherries ripening on the branch

Mount Salak rising above the haze

Tree ferns galore; a motorcyclist emerges from the shadows

Below the volcano

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.

The fronds of a tree fern

Competing for sunlight

Colors suggestive of autumn; a motorcyclist zips past

Pointing skywards

Spot the jackfruit

A rotten specimen; other jackfruits up the same tree

A bamboo-built rest stop offering shade, snacks, and drinks

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.

Flower power; a profusion of greenery

An Indonesian flag among the tree ferns; unpolluted mountain water

Folds of the landscape

Beautiful leaves with ruby-pink undersides

Curug Ipis, literally “Thin Waterfall” in Sundanese; thickets of bamboo outside Cisadon

Looking out toward the southern suburbs of Jakarta

A cup of coffee with a view

Our destination – the tiny village of Cisadon

Nearing the final stretch

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.

A house on the approach to Cisadon

Pretty in pink; a guard dog sitting by the entrance portal to the village

Pointing the way

Coffee cherries drying in the sun

A rustic pavilion over one of the village’s two fishponds

The seed pods of Gomphocarpus fruticosus

Coffee beans and palm civet droppings

Fish being dried on the back of a pickup truck

A dirt path between the fishponds

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks again for a wonderful description of the area. In addition to your hike and destination, I had not realized Jakarta had grown so large. Statistics do not describe it nearly as well as your description of your trip out of the city.

    October 15, 2021
    • Thank you too for the kind words. It’s hard to grasp just how overpopulated Jakarta really is – when you look out over the city from the higher buildings downtown, it just seems to stretch on forever.

      October 15, 2021
  2. That story with the shoe has happened to me too. Some rope, or cable, or vine is the only solution while you’re still on your walk.

    October 15, 2021
    • I’m just thankful it happened on the way back down. And given how old my shoes were becoming, it would have made perfect sense to carry an extra pair.

      October 15, 2021
  3. I nearly lost a shoe along the Mt Salak trail when it got stuck in the mud—a hazardous trek that I can’t say I totally enjoyed although the end destination was a plus. Glad you managed to salvage your shoe, otherwise it could have been a painful hike back to the car.
    I often forget how a crystal clear stream can be a rare sight in some places. In the city where I live, all banks of waterways are lined with mini-forests to protect the streams for spawning salmon which keeps the water good enough to drink (almost—if bears didn’t drink from the same stream).

    October 16, 2021
    • Yikes. Your anecdote had me googling pictures of the trail up Mount Salak – it looks very gnarly and I imagine any hiker would need to have a lot of patience and stamina (and some trekking poles) to tackle it.

      I do wish Indonesia was as serious about environmental protection as Canada. It frustrates me to no end that most people here have such a careless attitude to littering and garbage disposal. A few years ago there was a viral video of a municipal worker on a raft cleaning a dirty river in Jakarta as a local resident tipped the contents of his garbage can into the water a little upstream. Tokyo is proof that a megalopolis can have clean waterways, but Japan is light years ahead of Indonesia when it comes to educating people to be considerate.

      October 16, 2021
      • Japan is light years ahead from Canada. Do you remember after Japan lost the world soccer match? The Japanese audience was crying while they picked up all the garbage in the stadium. Canadians would never do that!

        October 17, 2021
  4. Haha, James…I feel partially responsible for your pre-dawn wake-up alarm, your sunburn and your ruined shoes. I’m honoured though that Bama got some inspiration from my hiking posts and managed to get you guys out of the city. Thanks for the mention.
    I was floored when I read that Greater Jakarta has 30+ million people. That’s almost as many people as all of Canada. Despite the fact that you could still see the Jakarta smog and you had to contend with motorized traffic, the vegetation and views are stunning. I love those giant fern trees, the jack fruit, the views to the volcano and how green everything looks. It’s also nice to have those little huts selling snacks and drinks. I remember how refreshing the coconut water was in the heat of Sri Lanka. I haven’t thought of “cat poo coffee” since our trip to Bali. Good to know that the palm civets on your hike were wild.
    A similar shoe incident happened to a friend of mine years ago on a hike, and I since carry a small amount of duct tape (wrapped onto my hiking pole).
    Beautiful and entertaining post. I hope you’ve both recovered.
    P.S: What’s the real name of pretty in pink? (just kidding)

    October 16, 2021
    • You’re welcome, Caroline! We really needed the exercise and change of scenery after all these months of being cooped up at home. Bama and I are planning to take a few days off this coming week to go farther into the countryside. They’ve relaxed a lot of the Covid restrictions although we do have to check if the walking trails in that area are open. Right now it’s possible to watch a movie in the cinema, but outdoor attractions like nature parks and mountains are still closed. It’s not a very sensible policy.

      From what I recall, it only took a day or so for both of us to recover from our sore legs/feet. But the sunburn was something else. I must have been a sorry sight when we stepped into that neighborhood mall after the hike – I was about as red as a cooked crab. When the skin on my arms started peeling off in big chunks a few days later I looked like I had contracted some terrible disease. That’ll teach us to slather on some sunscreen before all our future hikes! And bringing along some duct tape sounds like a great idea.

      Ha! Bama thinks those pink flowers may be some kind of dahlia, but he’s not totally sure.

      October 16, 2021
  5. Mens sana in corpore sano. 🙂 It was December 2019 when we did our last proper hiking, and when the pandemic kicked in, so did this a lot more sedentary life we’ve been living. I was so worried that I would faint when the dizziness started — I never experienced something like that before. In my mind, while my vision got more and more blurry, I was thinking about where the nearest hospital/clinic is, how you would take me there, what about the car, oh no we’re far from Jakarta! That’s why I forced myself to stay up despite how much my body felt it was about to collapse. I’m glad things improved so we could continue the hike. And the best thing of all: the weather was just perfect for taking photos of the lush green scenery. I think next time we go hiking, I’ll bring a small amount of duct tape, just what Caroline suggested.

    October 16, 2021
    • We should probably take things a bit slower on our next hike – I’m not sure what I’d have done if you had really fainted on the trail! But otherwise it was a Saturday morning well spent. In hindsight, I’m glad you suggested this spontaneous excursion the day before. 🙂

      October 16, 2021
  6. First I have to say that I love the way you draw me in with your wonderful writing. Second – this was not an ideal hike – Bama’s nausea, the motor bikes, sunburn, your shoes! It’s a lot I think for a 90 minute hike. On the other hand it must have been amazing to “get out of Dodge” for a few hours, to get in nature for a bit, to get high enough for some nice views, and the meal and ice cream do sound heavenly. There’s nothing like ice cream to make everything all right again. Great storytelling James. I take lessons from you about including details to create atmosphere (the unseen goat) but always forget to make note of them when I’m out lol.
    Alison

    October 17, 2021
    • Thank you so much, Alison – I’ve learned a lot about writing and photography from reading your posts so that means a lot to me. In hindsight, the challenges we encountered along the hike made for a more interesting story! The first half of the hike ended up taking a bit longer than the 2.5 hours we’d planned, as it was mostly uphill and we stopped quite often to take photos. Hopefully there will be no motorbikes and jeeps on the next hiking trail we choose!

      October 17, 2021
  7. I enjoyed this outing very much! (In spite of Bama’s brief nausea and the sunburns, of course.) But the views do seem light years away from a smoggy city, and getting the body moving always (ultimately) does wonders. I had to laugh at your flapping sole; the very same thing happened to me on a hike around the rocky shoreline in Madagascar, and I honestly was not sure if I could continue. I flapped and slapped the whole way back through rocks and mangrove roots and finally made it out. Glad you guys got a nice shot of nature on a pretty weekend day!

    October 17, 2021
    • Judging by the comments so far, the flapping sole phenomenon seems to be a lot more common that I’d realized! Seeing all that greenery and clean air and water left us hungry for more time spent in nature. Bama has his eye on several other mountain trails outside Jakarta, and the next time we visit his mom, we’re planning a day hike on a dormant volcano within an hour’s drive of her house.

      October 17, 2021
  8. It was a bit scary reading about Bama’s dizziness and the vision loss. I hope gets it checked out even if he feels fine now.

    I’m glad you folks were able to get through the hike despite the lack of sunscreen and your shoe falling apart. I was half expecting a picture of your shoe with your toes sticking out! hahaha…

    Ice cream cures a lot of things. 🙂

    October 17, 2021
    • I had no idea about him “whiting out” until he told me farther up the trail – it seemed he was very, very close to fainting. Both of us plan to go for a medical check-up sometime in the near future. It’s been years since I last did one and I’m sure the pandemic hasn’t been great for my health and level of fitness!

      October 17, 2021
  9. James, your hike sounds well worth the effort despite the mishaps. Nothing like a dose of fresh air and nature. Sorely missing it myself although we did return to the beach yet again with the children last week.

    I’m glad Bama’s nausea subsided quickly, I ended up with a broken jaw after a similar episode. And shoe soles have an uncanny ability to come apart at the most inconvenient times…mine came loose in Rwanda 🙂

    October 18, 2021
    • On the whole it was a wonderful change of scenery and well worth the several hours of lost sleep. And I liked how we were above the smog rather than being in it for once. 🙂 I recall reading about your fall and broken jawbone but hadn’t realized it was because of fainting/nausea. These things can happen so suddenly and without warning.

      Funnily enough, Bama and I have been planning to get out of the city for a few days of hiking and sightseeing later this week. But there’s still some lingering uncertainty over whether or not the mountain trails will be open when we get there. Fingers crossed the weather and the Covid restrictions will both be on our side!

      October 18, 2021
  10. How nice that you have lots of green spaces and nature parks to explore in Indonesia. We are running out of places to explore here in Singapore. 😆

    October 19, 2021
    • We’re incredibly lucky that we can still go on weekend outings or road trips to places that are so different from Jakarta. But I think quarantine-free overseas travel will be off-limits for us until sometime in 2022. I’ve been following the news about Singapore’s new Vaccinated Travel Lanes with quite a few countries in Europe and North America, and the one with South Korea opening up early next month. All that must come as a big relief!

      October 24, 2021

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