Head for the Hills: Journeys in Puncak
The rain starts off as a drizzle, pattering on the terracotta roof tiles directly overhead. Standing on the wooden balcony of our upstairs room at Novus Giri Puncak Resort & Spa, above a lush ravine some 1,040 meters (3,400 feet) above sea level, I take a deep breath and savor the cool mountain air. Then it hits me — an intensely familiar scent of wet earth mixed with a subtle pine-and-floral fragrance, a half-forgotten aroma from my childhood I can’t quite place. Was it the whiff of a summer’s outing in Canada? Or a foggy spring hike in the country parks of Hong Kong? All is quiet except for the low rumble emanating from a steady stream of vehicles snaking along the far side of the valley. This is how I become acquainted with the simple pleasures of Puncak (pronounced “poon-chaak”), a mountain pass in West Java that has long been a preferred weekend getaway for Jakartans.
Even though I’ve lived in Indonesia’s capital for the past six years, only now am I spending time in the area. It is the reputation for horrendous weekend traffic jams that has kept me away: an uneventful drive of less than two hours can sometimes turn into a 12-hour slog. As in so many other parts of densely populated Java, the development of transport infrastructure has not kept pace with the soaring levels of car ownership. Bama and I have wisely agreed to take a few days off to avoid the worst of the congestion.
Early on a Thursday morning, the visibility from the highway pointing south from Jakarta is better than ever. We can make out the trees covering the slopes of Mount Salak, a 2,200-meter (7,200-foot) eroded volcano, with astonishing clarity. Farther off to the east rises the twin summits of Gede-Pangrango, both topping out at more than 3,000 meters (or 9,840 feet). The uphill climb to Puncak begins in earnest only after we turn off the toll road. Casual eateries, workshops, convenience stores, and modest hotels line our route; the four-lane artery quickly narrows to half the size before expanding back to its previous width.
It’s just before 9 a.m. when Bama pulls into the near-empty parking lot at Cimory Riverside — a restaurant and attraction run by a local dairy company — where we pick a table on the terrace overlooking the Ciliwung. Looking out at the clean, clear water running over the stony riverbed, it’s hard to believe that this same creek becomes a trash-filled open sewer by the time it reaches Jakarta. On the opposite bank, across a red suspension bridge, lies the starting point of a forest boardwalk. Already I can feel my muscles relax.
Bama and I are famished. We both order a ring sausage with a peppery tomato and herb sauce, crunchy yet moist potato wedges, and a side of salad drizzled in Thousand Island dressing. There’s also a plate of panada to share; these deep-fried pastries are a North Sulawesi version of the Spanish-style empanada, enclosing a delicious spiced filling of minced cakalang (skipjack tuna). Washed down with a tall glass of banana milk and taro jelly, our hearty breakfast fuels us for the journey ahead.
We soon join the procession of motorbikes and four-wheeled vehicles snaking along hairpin bends on the ascent to Puncak Pass, which tops out at roughly 1,480 meters (4,855 feet) above sea level. The higher this route takes us, the more scenic it gets: tea plantations begin to appear on both sides of the winding two-lane road, where entrepreneurial locals have set up ramshackle eateries and tea shops with tin or tarpaulin roofs. At one U-shaped curve, we stop at a little place to soak up the views toward Mount Salak while sipping on hot bandrek — a traditional Sundanese drink that features a comforting blend of ginger, cinnamon, and condensed or coconut milk. The tea shop’s playful black-and-white kitten meows for our attention; Bama and I entertain him with the straps of our backpacks. Closer to the crest of the pass, near a rare gap between the makeshift warung, we pull over for a better look at the rows of tea bushes rising up to the clouds. It’s exactly the kind of scene you’d expect from a desktop screensaver.
My companion recalls traveling the same road during his childhood when it was cloaked in fog, and again while skies were overcast on a subsequent visit years later. We are lucky to see Puncak beneath the bright midday sun. Once we traverse the pass, the tea plantations give way to a patchwork of vegetable fields. The four-star Novus Giri occupies the high ground between two steep-sided gullies in Cipanas, which takes its name (literally “Hot Water”) from the sulfur-rich hot springs found at the foot of Mount Gede. Our hotel of choice has been around since the early 90s; the cozy reception pavilion reminds me of a national park lodge in North America, with columns clad in well-worn river stones and a high wooden ceiling supported by a web of exposed beams and rafters.
After checking in, we’re drawn to a strange tree on the grounds between the restaurant and the reception. A handwritten wooden signboard identifies it as a Kigelia africana, whose large, elongated fruit hanging vertically from the branches gave rise to its common nickname, the “sausage tree”. As if on cue, one suddenly detaches and lands on the paving stones with a heavy thunk.
It’s possible to spend an entire day at Novus Giri without leaving the resort. There are tennis courts and a pool to splash out in, a small spa (though it was closed when we were there), and kids can make a beeline for the “rabbit village” a little further downhill, where the well-fed resident critters are sometimes let out of their hutches into grassy enclosures. On a stone-paved terrace at the rabbit village, we take in the views over the adjoining forested gully. Wild-growing tropical flowers add bright flecks of color to the green canvas, and I spot an abandoned pavilion between the trees on the far side of a babbling brook that we cannot see, though the soothing sound of water running over natural stones is clearly audible.
From the hotel, it takes around 15–20 minutes to reach Cipanas’ main street on foot. Bama is keen to have lunch at a no-frills Sundanese warung in an open-air structure with a spartan, industrial feel. Servers plunk a bamboo basket of rice down on the table, then a deep volcanic stone pestle filled almost to the brim with an addictive chili, garlic, and shallot sambal. The potent sambal is a perfect complement to fresh vegetables — in this case lettuce, sprigs of lemon basil, and pohpohan leaves that have the flavor of young mango. I can’t help feeling guilty when I bite into my calorific double-fried potato and corn fritters, followed by a shared plate of tender squid served in a soupy sweet-and-sour sauce. Bama and I are so stuffed we end up skipping dinner that night.
Slowly, with bellies dangerously full, the two of us navigate a broken pavement strewn with parked motorbikes and wares spilling out from several stores, making our way past the tumbledown market to reach Cipanas Presidential Palace. Easily the oldest of six such official residences dotting the islands of Java and Bali, the main building is undeniably beautiful: its extended front porch, framed by slender columns and delicately carved screens, wouldn’t look out of place in Europe or even the US.
The single-story teakwood structure took shape in 1740 for a Dutch landowner by the name of Van Heots, and boasted its own gardens and private hot-spring baths. Before long, Van Heots’ Cipanas lodge drew the attention of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. It soon became a preferred mountain retreat for the top colonial official, who reveled in the hot springs, scenic location, and cooler climes, a combination that made the area a welcome respite from the sweltering coastal plains around Batavia (Jakarta). The palace is not usually open to the public — special permission is needed to visit — so we were content with admiring it through the cast-iron fence.
One place that does welcome ordinary folks is Kebun Raya Cibodas, an 85-hectare (210-acre) botanical garden established in 1852 by Johannes Ellias Teijsmann, who served as curator at the older Kebun Raya in the nearby city of Bogor. We leave Novus Giri early the next morning after breakfast, navigating narrow village arteries and following bright yellow angkot, small minivans that are the only form of public transport in these parts. The village houses frame vistas that alternate between the more conical peak of Pangrango and hulking, shattered Gede, where a plume of steam rises from the exposed crater wall. Both sides of the main road leading up to the gardens are lined with stalls bearing a cornucopia of well-tended plants. It’s a tempting sight for Bama, who somehow resists the urge to pick up a few potted specimens for his living room collection. “They’re bound to be a lot cheaper than the plants in Jakarta,” he sighs.
We’re by no means the first visitors to arrive at Cibodas Botanical Garden. Indonesians by and large are incredibly early risers — a trait that meant much adjusting when I first moved here from night owl–dominated Hong Kong. Families with small children stroll the stone pathways that crisscross the park. We pass groups of middle-aged visitors excitedly sprinting across the grass with picnic mats tucked under their arms. The gently rolling lawns are an inviting shade of green: it’s just the kind of place a certain musically-inclined nun from Austria would love.
Our destination is a small lake overlooked by a gazebo, and we’re in luck. The stars have aligned to create the ideal shooting conditions. I marvel at the water’s surface — flat like glass and smooth like a mirror. Sunlight drenches the entire scene in vivid color; the blue skies above our heads are streaked with cirrus clouds and small puffs of vapor. Pangrango peeks out over the manicured lawns. Barely half an hour later, low clouds roll in and envelop the landscape, completely changing its appearance. Here, about 1,360 meters (4,460 feet) above sea level, the air is cool but unceasingly damp. The moisture clings to our skin. Bama and I wander through a fern garden, examine the mosses growing at the base of a tree, and admire flower beds planted with a cultivar of the orange day-lily (Hemerocallis fulva). Nearby, there’s a pair of cottage-like guest houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the mountains of Europe.
The rest of our sojourn in Puncak is happily spent doing practically nothing — whether it’s sitting out on the balcony at the hotel, enjoying a leisurely lunch of Indian-inspired pizza and fries in a breezy restaurant atop a small shopping center, or watching Nat Geo documentaries in the comfort of our room. Bama says we’ll check out early before breakfast the next morning to avoid the inevitable crush of weekenders. It’s a decision both of us later come to regret. The smooth downhill traffic comes to a grinding halt at a bend not far from the barebones tea shop we stopped by on the first day for the views of Mount Salak.
I think nothing of it at first: this must be a brief delay caused by an accident or a vehicle breakdown. But 10 minutes of waiting becomes 20, then 30, and by the 40-minute mark several cars in front of us have made a U-turn. We’ve barely moved an inch. Several local men on motorbikes offer their services as guides to skirt the temporary roadblock. Then it dawns on Bama that a one-way system is imposed every weekend in Puncak, with only uphill traffic allowed until at least half-past 11 on Saturday mornings. We have no choice but to go back the way we came, cruising down the main street of Cipanas to seek out breakfast at a no-frills Chinese-Indonesian eatery before finding an alternative route home.
What should have taken less than two hours ends up becoming a five-hour detour down traffic-clogged arteries and potholed mountain roads. Trusting in the all-seeing eye of Google Maps, we zigzag through tiny villages as ominous rainclouds mass in the skies above. At the end of it all, a bumpy dirt road spits us out into the orderly grid of a master-planned industrial area, where we pass the factory producing Japan’s delicious Kewpie mayonnaise for the Indonesian market. The heavens finally open and a torrential downpour splatters the windshield; in the driving rain the outside world blurs into an Impressionist palette of colors. Much to our relief, the onramp for the toll road heading west to Jakarta lies just up ahead.
Getting home from Puncak may be a bit of a nightmare, though that doesn’t stop Bama and I from returning to the same area just a few weeks later. A prolonged wet season brought on by La Niña has given us months of mostly grey skies and rain. But all the forecasts point to a window of sunshine right at the start of Easter weekend — perfect for a hike amid the tea plantations we’d missed on the first visit. Instead of driving up from Jakarta in the wee hours of the morning, the plan is to acclimatize and get more sleep by staying at another hotel roughly 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) above sea level. This time we bed down on the western side of Puncak Pass, outside the town of Cisarua.
Right after sunset the temperature plummets: it’s much cooler than Novus Giri in the east, and chilly enough to warrant a light jacket. Neither of us have brought one, so Bama orders soto mie Bogor (a kind of noodle soup) for dinner at the hotel restaurant, along with a spiced coconut milk-and-palm sugar drink known as bajigur. I opt for creamy mushroom fettucine with breaded chicken and the Javanese herbal drink wedang uwuh, which gets its vivid red coloring from kayu secang — the bark of a sappanwood tree — and has a sweet and earthy flavor that’s deeply reminiscent of mulled wine, but without the alcohol.
When we set out from the hotel after a pre-dawn breakfast of soft bread stuffed with chocolate and coconut jam, the sky in the east is beginning to redden. The mountains are but dark silhouettes, specks of light on their slopes marking out individual houses and Puncak’s landmark mosque. Just 25 minutes later, Bama drives us into an unpaved parking lot right off the main road near the crest of the pass. Our starting point lies at an elevation of 1,400 meters (just under 4,600 feet), and with fairly easy gradients for most of the way, the hike should be a less-than-demanding walk through a patchwork of working tea plantations. We’ll turn around at the trailhead for the climb up Mount Kencana, whose summit route opened to hikers only a few years ago.
Bama and I find ourselves frequently stopping — not to catch our breaths but to soak up (and photograph) the beauty all around us. I’m captivated by the views back over the tea fields toward Gede and Pangrango under cloud-streaked skies, as the morning mist burns off a nearby hilltop crowned by two radio transmission towers. Rounding the next curve to reach a ridgeline, we’re suddenly struck by a painterly vista unfolding beyond a pair of trees, where the slope abruptly falls away. Neat rows of tea bushes march on and on across the rolling hills, following every contour and fold of the landscape. No longer obscured by the low clouds gathered atop a forested ridge, the rising sun bathes slivers of this bucolic scene in the golden light of dawn.
The rough, uneven terrain underfoot mirrors the stony conditions on the Cisadon Trail, which actually begins less than 12 kilometers, or just over seven miles, to the northwest. Our experience there had prepared us for this hike: we make sure to slather on sunscreen before leaving the hotel. I’ve also brought more water and am kitted out with newer shoes built for the outdoors. Thankfully, it’s much quieter than at Cisadon. Passing motorbikes are few and far between; only on two occasions do we come across a diesel fume–belching truck. I relish the chance to study Camellia sinensis plants up close without having to dodge jeeps filled with day-trippers. At this early hour, dewdrops fleck the unpicked tea leaves, radiant and green in the soft morning light.
Never mind the fact that Good Friday is a public holiday across Indonesia: even before 7 a.m., the tea-pickers are already at work in the fields. From the trail we hear the collective clip-clip-clip of their shearers, interspersed with the soft, melodic tones of Sundanese. West Java’s indigenous language flows gently like the gurgling creeks and streams that run through these well-watered highlands. Bama, being a fluent Sundanese speaker, walks on ahead. “Punten,” he says politely as we encounter groups of local villagers resting in the shade. I learn that the word simply means “excuse me” in formal Sundanese. The tea-pickers respond with “mangga” (please [pass]).
Bama and I observe how young tea leaves are collected in square sheets of woven fabric tied up at the corners like sacks; the contents are then emptied onto the back of a tall truck. Past the elementary school at Cikoneng, we come across a scene that feels as though it should belong on a movie poster: the lone village musholla (prayer hall) rising above a manicured landscape. As the trail climbs higher the views grow increasingly picturesque. Squint and you could almost be in Tuscany, except with vineyards swapped out for tea plantations. I take in the clear blue skies, the mountains, and the blissful sense of isolation. Here, less than two hours’ drive from a city of more than 10 million people, we have the trail almost entirely to ourselves. ◊
Ah James, I want t follow in your footsteps and visit the places you show me. I haven’t seen you post for a while, please keep posting. Cheers
Hi Elizabeth, thanks so much for the encouragement. There are many stories from my past travels that still need to be told… fingers crossed I’ll be updating this blog at least once a month. The next post will be on Bali – I was very fortunate to go there just the other week for work.
Please tell them. I am hoping to travel, and after surgery next week maybe I will. I do love to read about your adventures. Love to you and Bama.
That’s so kind, Elizabeth – I’ll pass the message onto Bama. Much love to you too. Wishing you a successful surgery next week and a smooth (and quick!) recovery. And may you get to travel soon.
Your description of Jakarta and traffic makes me want to stay away, but your descriptions and pictures from Puncak and the tea plantations make me want to book a trip tomorrow! Maggie
Well Maggie, it’s true that Jakarta is not a city for the faint-of-heart, but the place does have its charms! That said, Puncak was a wonderful change of scenery and I couldn’t get enough of the fresh mountain air.
I wasn’t aware Indonesia grew so much tea as I’ve never seen any sold outside of the country.
It’s quite possible the huge Indonesian coffee industry has stolen the limelight overseas. I guess most of the tea that gets exported goes to Singapore and other markets elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Same opinion. I have no idea that there are such vast tea plantations in Indonesia. I think people don’t even promote it.
Its just so green and lush! What a beautiful place!
Yes indeed – and it’s so very different from the concrete jungle I’m used to in Jakarta!
Your descriptive writing that appeals to all the senses along, almost poetically, with the incredible photos, always takes me on a trip.
And I don’t have to go anywhere to get there.
Lloyd, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post as much as you did. Thank you in turn for the positive feedback. Writing about Puncak was a struggle at times (not because of the place, of course) – I ended up putting the text on the back burner for a while because the initial version felt “flat”, and I didn’t have much motivation at the time. Good to know it all worked out in the end.
The Cibodas Botanical Garden looks magnificent in the early morning! You were in the right place at the right time. After one week in Indonesia, I recognised how quickly weather can change. The plantation view is anothe WOW. It looks so picturesque with the mountain as background.
Thanks to you, I know what the long fruit is called. I asked my guide. But he couldn’t tell the name, just warned that it is inedible 🙂
Had we slept in a little and gone to Cibodas just half an hour later, we would have missed seeing the lake and the mountain scenery at its best – good thing Bama and I are both morning people!
Where did you go during that week in Indonesia? I tried looking on your blog but couldn’t find any posts about the trip. 🙂
Haha I just came back from Bali on Tuesday. So it might take a while to publish. Still sorting through the photos 😛
At first, I intended to travel to Java. Would love to see Prambanan and Borobudur. But by mid-May, the entry regulations are still not clear (except for Bali).
Oh right, the other week on Twitter I do recall seeing a photo you took while in Bali! Hope you got to see a lot of the island and experience some of the local culture.
It’s a shame you weren’t able to come to Java – the government here has been very last-minute when it comes updating or changing entry rules for travelers. At least things are more straightforward now and ASEAN citizens don’t need a visa anymore!
Indeed. It was fortunate that we could skip the long queue for visa on arrival. Otherwise, we would need hours to clear immigration.
Bali was nice: diverse landscape, fascinating culture and architecture. I was lucky to see Mount Agung on a clear day. So majestic!
Looking at your beautiful photos of the lush, green countryside, it is hard to imagine that more people live on Java than in Russia or Mexico. But then you talk of 12 hour traffic jams and it makes sense! You were wise to take time off to beat the crowds. I can see why this place is popular with weekend trippers since it is cooler, greener and less crowded than the capital.
Glad to know you have a Kewpie factory and products in Indonesia – my fridge is full of their mayo and salad dressings.
I wish someone had the foresight to build a railway line or funicular up to Puncak like they do in Switzerland – that would be a great alternative to sitting in those terrible weekend traffic jams.
Isn’t Kewpie fantastic? I used to buy their mayo quite often to make Japanese egg sandwiches for breakfast. And I also love their roasted sesame salad dressing.
You know, if it wasn’t because of you (and the pandemic), I wouldn’t have explored Puncak this much. Apart from the trips my family took when I was a lot younger, my visits to Puncak were limited to corporate training sessions. And we were lucky with the weather! Now I have a completely different opinion about this part of West Java. But that’s the thing about popular places — the timing of our visit matters.
Yes, there’s no way I would want to visit Puncak on an ordinary weekend! In my opinion, the scenery en route to Gunung Kencana was even more beautiful than the tea plantations we saw in Kerala back in 2015. I’m thankful we’ve had the chance to go on several forays into the West Java countryside since the pandemic hit – first Batujaya, then the region around Garut/Tasik, and now Puncak.
Another thing to remember just if you visit Puncak again with James in the weekend, please enjoy your breakfast. And never try to going down before 2 p.m. Bam 😀
Hahaha, inilah akibatnya asal pergi aja tanpa riset.
Wow – this is so beautiful, thank you for the entry and for the lovely pictures. What a contrast to the densely populated city environment. I can almost smell the fresh air. I was also saddened that the beautiful mountain stream would eventually become an open air sewer.
Looking forward to your next entry!
Cheers, Matt! Those tea fields and mountains were like eye candy to us stressed-out city folk. If it wasn’t such a hassle to visit Puncak on weekends we would probably go a lot more often.
The next post will also feature greenery and a lake, but in Bali. I won’t say any more than that! 😉
What incredible scenery! From your early morning at that lake in Cibodas Botanical Garden to the almost fairy tale-like tea fields, both trips seems to have afforded the most blissful views. The traffic sounds even worse than I would have imagined – a 2-hour trip can really take 12 hours? That would make me tear my hair out!
The horrendous traffic out of Jakarta on weekends has become a fact of life… car ownership here is skyrocketing and the infrastructure just isn’t keeping pace. Plus most government officials don’t seem very bright. One recently proposed solution from a sitting member of parliament was to build an overpass to Puncak! The only place in Indonesia with real public transit coverage is Jakarta itself – leave the capital in any direction and you can’t get anywhere without a car or a motorbike.
So James, did you and Bama manage to hike that Gunung Kencana? I didn’t see you mention its short-but-painful steep climb “tanjakan sambalado” (sambalado = hot sambal). While every hikers always mention it, as something they won’t forget from their hiking trip to that hill.
Anyway, a few months ago I visited that place. Well, my plan was to hike and solo camping at Gunung Kencana. But when I arrived at Pos 1 (the last warung/parking area before the climb) the heavy rain with lightning came. After wait for an hour, I decided to cancel it, since it wasn’t conducive.
But the scary part is, when I try to get back the visibility was so poor, my phone was dead, and just realized that I left my handheld GPS at home. So I lost in the tea plantation and accidentally drove my car to the forest. It was so dark rainy evening. I thought that path will lead me to the main road, but it won’t. Fortunately, I met two local guys who warned me that the path would lead me to the dead end in the forest. There came another problem, the path was so narrow, with heavy wood in my left side and water gap in my right side. So I needed to drive my car a bit far away to the forest to find enough space to turning back. Horrible! Hahahaha.
Hi Bart, it’s great to see you here! Bama and I decided not to climb Gunung Kencana that day because the visibility wasn’t so good – going all the way up to the summit and not seeing Gede-Pangrango would have been a letdown. And I was not really keen about tackling Tanjakan Sambalado since it was still the tail end of rainy season. Both of us were happier spending more time in the tea plantations.
That failed hike and camping trip sounds like a crazy adventure… a shame it didn’t work out at the time! Hopefully the weather will be much better on your next attempt.
Well honestly, I am your silent reader James. I always enjoy your stories 🙂
So, are you going to hike Gunung Kencana someday? Since at the right weather, the view to Gunung Gede-Pangrango is very beautiful. Maybe we can hike together 🙂
Yes, I think I will eventually. That’s a great idea – we should plan a summit hike with Bama and maybe one or two other people sometime. 🙂
Siap, James! 🙂
Oh what a lovely green healing journey you took me on. I swear one day I’ll come to Indonesia to meet you both in person. And have you be my guides!
This place looks so beautiful, and I’d love to do the trail you hiked.
I can’t believe you’ve been in Jakarta 6 years! That went by fast!
It does feel like the past six years have gone by in a flash! And yet I know there are still so many places outside Jakarta I haven’t had the chance to see and explore. Please do drop me a message the next time you and Don plan a trip to Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia – I too would like to meet you both!
What a well-detailed and picturesque post, James. Enjoyed reading yours and Bama’s trip to Puncak. So much lush greenery all around wherever you went, and the mountain air up there really sounded refreshing. The Cibodas Botanical Garden is stunning and agree with you on the ideal shooting conditions – like a postcard view and you really took some great shots there. That is unfortunate to hear the trip back took hours because of traffic. There must be traffic everywhere there, even in many tourist places. But great to hear you and Bama went back for more sights and did the trip differently by stopping along the way. Sometimes you just got to find the easiest way, and then enjoy the experience.
Thank you, Mabel. The congestion was not unexpected, although some friends later advised us we should have left on a Saturday afternoon when the one-way arrangement switches to downhill traffic. Fortunately we encountered none of those issues on the second trip – getting there and back was a relatively painless experience!
Bama is right, the one good thing about the pandemic is that it has steered us toward domestic destinations. And these seem like the most enchanting explorations. Intrigued by the tea plantations…I had no idea either that tea grows in Indonesia. Is it good? I remember being surprised by the quality of Rwandan tea, was much better than some of ours!
That’s a great question. I’m not sure how Indonesian tea stacks up to Darjeeling or the orange pekoe grown in Sri Lanka… very little of it is exported given the huge domestic demand. Bama does enjoy his tea – I’m more of a coffee person – so a bit of research (and tasting) may be in order!