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. ◊