The American stares at the queue of old Landrover Series 4x4’s, his brow furrowed in concern.
When you hail from a country where lawsuits are tossed about like beads at Mardi Gras and most forms of fun are strictly legislated, I can understand if he’s experiencing a bit of a dilemma. The Land Rovers don’t have any seatbelts, and they’re of a particularly classic vintage, to put it lightly.
The group of drivers tasked to take us on a 4x4 adventure, also resembles a motley crew of characters with their tattoos and bandannas.
They move with a type of outlaw pirate swagger, dragging heavily from their clove-scented cigarettes until their cheeks resemble that of an emaciated supermodel. The air is thick with the sweet smell of spices, tobacco and giddy anticipation.
The only visible safety precautions that seem to be taken are some bright yellow helmets that are tossed towards us, almost as an afterthought. There are probably at least seven safety bylaws from the state of California that’s being carelessly flouted, all at the same time, if the American is to be believed.
The legislation of fun
I’m standing on the foothills Mount Tangkuban Perahu, an active volcano on the island of West-Java in Indonesia.
While the American probably sees several lawsuits, I’m looking at a row of undiluted fun and adventure.
Try to understand; I’m a South African child of the Eighties.
Our parent's cars were permanently infused with a hazy smoke cloud and our vacations were spent on the back of bakkies (a pick-up truck), knuckles white as we clung on for dear life.
Seatbelts weren’t as much as an optional extra, as they were completely redundant. In our world at least.
Basically I was brought up on second-hand smoke, aspirational cigarette ads (Thanks, Malboro man and sexy Peter Stuyvesant skiers!) and irresponsible choices where dumb luck saved the day in the eleventh hour. At least our holidays were exciting.
As I’m staring at the row of Landies, I’m thinking one thing.
If your dad is a devoted disciple to Land Rover like my old man, you probably grew up with the Camel Trophy.
For the uninitiated, The Camel Trophy was an annual 4x4 competition for Land Rovers, held in exotic locations and over challenging terrain.
I can still recall watching the highlights on those lazy Sunday afternoons (In my mind, the highlights were always broadcast on a Sunday) my father’s cigarette smoke swirling in the beams of sunlight that filtered through the Venetian blinds. Outdoorsy, tough men would throw their Landies through forests and mud bogs in far-flung destinations whose names we couldn’t even pronounce, let alone find on a map. And as I’m standing here, at the bottom of an active Volcano in Western Java, I can’t help but feel a bit of that Land Rover magic.
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My Landie is a navy blue Series IIA, with fellow passengers that hail from the USA, Poland, Indonesia, Brasil and Germany.
The safety briefing is short. "Wear your helmet. Hands and legs inside the vehicle."
For a moment, the self-appointed safety official looks a bit hesitant.
“And please put away your cameras. It can get rough.”
At first, we cruise through the outskirts if Bandung, one of Indonesia’s biggest cities, surrounded by South East Asia’s transport of choice, the scooter.
Young girls without any helmets sit side-saddle behind their boyfriends, dragging on cigarettes. It’s all incredibly cool and extremely dangerous at once, which I guess probably makes it extra cool.
On other scooters, whole families are squeezed together like plump pieces of meat on a skewer.
Mum and Baby sit right in front, Baby on Mom’s lap while little Junior and his sister straddle the tiny space left at the back.
“Never Quit”, a cigarette ad cautions from the Indonesian version of a spaza shop. Yup, in Indonesia cigarette ads are still legal.
We make a left turn, and all of a sudden green tea plantations surrounds us, the air smelling like moss and foliage.
An old man with a walking stick and gumboots walk in front, showing us the way forward. The road is a bit rough, but your drink in the cup holder won't get knocked over.
We stop for a while between a rubber plantation for a coffee break, and enjoy a cup of Java, in Java.
Hold on tight
As we pull away, it’s obvious. The real fun is about to start.
If you want to expand your vocabulary of expletives and cuss words, place the equivalent of the United Nations of travel bloggers and journalists in a 4x4 and send them over some extremely rough terrain.
We shake and rattle through dongas and mud bogs. Luckily there are some panic straps you can cling onto for dear life, but you are still guaranteed to end up in your neighbour’s lap.
It’s not long before the F-bombs start dropping and I throw in a few whoppers that's also a name for a cat in Dutch.
I also learn a few deliciously naughty Bahasa gems, which is decidedly as rude as it sounds.
We plough through a muddy bog, and mud the same texture as melted dark chocolate seeps through the Land Rover’s cracks.
For a moment it seems like we’re stuck, but the driver takes a strong pull from his cigarette, slams the gearstick into first and refs the car into red. The Landy lurches forward, and the half of the passengers get slapped with a mouth full of mud.
The American’s white linen shirt resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.
I also realise why we were given helmets. Every time we plough through a donga, our heads clunk against the Landie’s roll bar.
If you take the age of these vehicles into account, as well as the state of the roads we’re driving on, I retract all the Land Rover jokes I’ve made in the past.
The Landrover Series IIA we’re driving reached a peak in production in the late 70’s. Almost half a century later he’s still a reliable workhorse in the jungles of Java.
We had to stop once for a flat tire, but the rest of the muddy roads were conquered like a champion.
For the remainder of the excursion, I faced the discomfort. The fact that my teeth’s fillings were being shaken loose, didn’t bother me either. As the Landie’s bonnet dipped beneath another mud wallow, I could see those mud-covered men on the television, struggling to get loose from another obstacle in a far-flung jungle.
Today it’s my turn.
*Disclaimer: Carla Lewis Balden visited Indonesia as part of the #wonderfulindonesia and #tripofwonders campaign, on invitation of the Indonesian tourism board. This article first appeared on Beeld.
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