The International Steam Pages

An Innocent Abroad
Alone in Java, 2012

Wilson Lythgoe writes about travelling solo from Saturday 14th July to Thursday 26th July 2012 and then with FarRail Tours from Thursday 26th July to Saturday 11th August 2012: See also Andrej's Hoffman's 2012 pictures, given the limited real steam operation these days, the pictures are not dissimilar.

In 2003 I re-entered the rail fan community after an absence of around twenty years by travelling by train from Vietnam to Portugal. During that trip I spent a month in China rediscovering real steam and was again hooked. Since that first trip I’ve been back another nine times, each time for a month, and I’m still fascinated by the place and their dwindling number of steam engines. Most trips I’ve travelled on my own although I have spent a few days with tour groups when access is difficult due to remoteness or permits being needed. 

Back in 1983 I had visited Indonesia for the last of steam on the state railways and on a couple of quiet days discovered there were also steam locomotives being used on sugar mill railways. I had so little interest in these railways though it wasn’t until recently I found out the name of the factories and what sort of engines I had photographed.

With this background in mind my interest in Indonesian steam was reawakened earlier this year after some judicious prodding by a certain Rob D. After a period of hesitation I decided to visit Java once again. I say hesitation because Indonesia doesn’t enjoy a particularly good press down here in Australia and at the time I booked my airfares was listed on the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website as a ‘reconsider your need to travel’ destination. This classification has since been relaxed to ‘exercise a high degree of caution’.

I decided to fly into Jakarta (that way avoiding the ‘little Australia’ island of Bali) then travel by train to Tegal and visit the BIG THREE: Pangka, Sumberharjo and Sragi before carrying on by train to Banyuwangi and joining FarRail Tours at Situbondo for their Sweet Saturated Steam tour.

So at Rob D’s ‘suggestion’ this report will be based on my pre-tour adventures……….what I achieved, what I thought of Java and a little detail on how I did it.


Two nights were scheduled in Jakarta, mainly because I wanted to visit Taman Mini, and reacquaint myself with the big, black monsters of the state railway system that I’d known back in 1983 but first I needed to buy a train ticket to Tegal. One of Jakarta’s major stations, Senen, was a short walk from my hotel so I headed there. Big queues at the ticket windows were reminiscent of China and at the information office I was told that the next day’s trains were full! Not a promising start so activated Plan B by taking a taxi to Gambir station and trying my luck there. Immediate success! In fact it was so easy, as I already knew the dates I wanted to travel Pekalongan-Surabaya and Surabaya-Banyuwangi, I re-entered the very small queue and in minutes had all the tickets needed. English speaking staff and the necessity to fill out an order form for every ticket needed made it an easy exercise.

Taman Mini

Next it was off to Taman Mini using the TransJakarta Busway network and a system map taken off the internet. Not quite as easy an exercise as I had supposed……from the map it looked as if it was one bus one route but this turned out not to be the case. Still the locals were friendly and kept me heading in the right direction. Despite TransJakarta buses being free to celebrate Jakarta’s birthday they weren’t overly crowded.

Having made mention of the locals I’ll say at this stage what a great bunch they are. Right across the island I met a warm, friendly and welcoming people who were only too pleased to be able to help a traveller if they could. A lot speak some English, many speak it well and it was just amazing the number of ‘hellos’ I would hear as my day progressed. A ‘hello’ back or a wave of acknowledgement and in return you would receive a most friendly smile!

But to Taman Mini itself…….it was interesting to see middle class Indonesia at play and I enjoyed my four hours there but the railway section was disappointing…..locomotives covered in dust and grime with peeling paint and rust showing through. These were not the clean, well-cared for engines I remembered from 1983 and I went away saddened at how the mighty had fallen. 

Man and machine at rest……

Next door the Reptile Park was more interesting…..a Komodo dragon, crocodiles and snakes. Larger enclosures also contained live chickens and hens waiting for their residents to dine on!

PG Pangka

The following day it was off to provincial Java and the BIG THREE. First stop Tegal and my base for Pangka and its red locomotives. 

Getting there proved surprisingly easy despite some wrong information from my hotel. An angkot from near the hotel took me through Tegal to the Slawi road. Next a midi bus heading to Slawi making sure the conductor knew I wanted to go to Pangka. That would drop me off at an intersection on the outskirts of Slawi and I would be shown which road led to Pangka. The first angkot passing always seemed to be going there…..took about an hour all up. The return was slightly longer as it involved a tour through Slawi before reaching the starting point for angkots heading to Tegal. I never did work out where you could catch the slightly faster midi buses from.

A permit to wander for the day cost 200,000Rp (ouch!) but what a great day it turned out to be. Three engines were working: two of the Jung 0-6-2T on smoke box first transfer work between the two yards and an O&K 0-8-0T moving wagons into the mill. 

I enjoyed my day so much I returned the following and was pleasantly surprised to find I wasn’t required to purchase another permit. At the end of my second day I was still finding things to interest but decided to move on as I knew I would be returning with FarRail.

No 9, a 0-8-0T built by Jung in 1914, creeps through the undergrowth between the loco shed and the mill yard. The wire around the smoke box door is used to pull rakes of loris in the mill yard.

Locos 1 & 2 were being used to transfer loads between the loading and mill yards. A lori on the previous train had derailed and damaged the track and repairs needed to be carried out before either loco could leave. Both 1 & 2 were 0-6-2T from Jung in 1915….lovely little engines.

Loaded Pangka trains ran smoke box first and made a lot of noise! From its exhaust No 2 was obviously working hard as it approached the weighbridge. The two man sanding team is doing its best to help the loco gain traction.

With the sanding team resting No1 must have been having an easier trip than 2 had in the previous shot.

In the mill yard No 9 & 2 rest between duties:

PG Sumberharjo

Or as it is referred to by some: PG Slumberharjo!

From Tegal to Pemalang was only a short distance by becak, bus and another becak. My hotel was a stone’s throw from the main shopping drag and passing angkots signed A or Sumberharjo for a journey along a very pot holed road. 

I was impressed by the Sumberharjo photo fee - a big nothing - and was even more impressed when I discovered five engines in steam sitting at the entrance to the mill yard with a sixth in the empties yard. For the next two hours though nothing moved and I became less and less impressed!

Around three things started to happen with the locos taking turns to push loads into the mill yard. It was a noisy action filled time but I knew I should start heading back to Pemalang….after all Rob D had advised angkots would finish running before dark. Not quite true in this instance as it turned out the last one had left Sumberharjo at 3.30pm and it was now 4.30! 

As I wandered through the village wondering what to do someone with good English started a conversation and after I’d explained my problem said he would arrange for me to ride pillion on a motorbike. It wasn’t my idea of a great way to finish a day but apart from a very long walk it looked like my only option. Half an hour later I was underway with my (over) 90kg body perched precariously behind a much smaller local. On the outskirts of Pemalang we detoured to borrow a crash helmet so I could comply with the law and once suitably attired it was a case of ‘home, James’. Back at the hotel I again discovered what a hospitable people the Javanese were… payment was expected: I insisted though and it was finally accepted. I also discovered why cowboys walk the way they walk! 

The next morning it was shed visiting time after which the locos headed round to the mill yard entrance, where I first found them the previous day, and by 11.00am siesta had again started. By noon I was on an angkot heading for town and lunch leaving Sumberharjo to carry on without me.

No 9, 0-8-0T built by Du Croo & Brauns in 1925 pushes loaded loris around in the mill yard. This is just about as good as it got during my visit!

First thing in the morning the locos spend time at the shed being serviced and refuelled.

By mid-morning the locos were back at the entrance to the mill yard and settling down for their noontime siesta. In the background 6 & 11 are 0-8-0T built by Du Croo & Brauns in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Orenstein & Koppel built No 7 dates from 1929 and is also a 0-8-0T.

PG Sragi

Another short bus ride along the coast took me to Pekalongan. From my hotel it was any angkot down the street to the main road where I could catch a passing midibus bound for Comal. By telling the crew I was going to Sragi I was dropped off at a T junction just after two big bridges to catch another angkot heading to Sragi. Real easy. Coming back I used an angkot to Comal as they seemed to be more frequent before changing to a Comal - Pekalongan midibus. On my second day I left my departure from Sragi a bit late apparently and after half an hour wait with no angkots seen had to resort to the back of a motor bike once again. 

Now Sragi was just the best as I enthusiastically emailed friends after my first day there:

“Seven in steam today and ALL HARD AT WORK! What a difference to Sumberharjo. Triple pusher mid-morning produced best derailment seen so far. The tender loco a joy to behold amidst all these tank engines. Decided to spend another day and half here before heading towards Situbondo. Can Java get any better than this?”

It turned out Java could get better and it was Sragi, the following day, which produced the goods once again. This time there were to be two triple pusher trains: the first went off without a hitch whilst the second derailed even more spectacularly than the previous days. The loris on the train being pushed started moving rakes of empties on either side. Nobody noticed until all three rakes started merging at a set of points. Something had to give and two loads ended up on their side intertwined with five empties at various angles. The push was abandoned and twenty four hours later the mess was still being cleared away.

The permit fee for three days at Sragi was 450,000Rp and although I only spent two and a half days there it was excellent value considering all the actioning that was happening. I left eager to return a couple of weeks later with FarRail.

No 8, a small 1920s built Orenstein & Koppel 0-8-0T, moves empty loris into the loading yard. Taking a photo of a single loco doing something was a fairly easy job. Sragi locos seemed to work long and hard.

Even photos of two locos together were easy to take. On the right is No 8 again while to the left is one of only two working engines without a tank I saw in Java. 17 is Jung built 0-8-0 from 1911…….over 100 years old and still earning a living.

Three engines in a photo is starting to get a bit hard…….especially if you want something more than a static line-up. Again No 8 is featured.

Four engines…..that’s tricky but there they are in all their glory. I didn’t manage five in a photo though!

Sragi’s crowning glory….the mid-morning triple pusher moving from the loading yard towards the mill yard. First in the line-up is No 5 followed by 7, both big 0-10-0T built in 1928 by Berliner Maschinenbau. The third loco, No 12, is a 0-8-0T by Hartmann from 1912…….another centenarian still hard at work.

The going away shot as the train clears the first of the road crossings.

By Train to Banyuwangi

The only eksekutif class daylight train to Surabaya that calls at Pekalongan is the crack Argo Bromo. Away from Pekalongan right on time at 2.05pm Surabaya was reached just after 7.00. My reserved seat was in an extremely cold part of the carriage but by moving to the other end it was quite pleasant.

Next day it was eksekutif class again, this time on the Mutiara Timur Pagi to Banyuwangi. Not quite as upmarket as the Argo Bromo still a most pleasant journey and one especially scenic after Probolinggo. A journey to be recommended!

Ramadan had started a few days earlier and I was concerned that refreshments may not be available on the trains. I need not have worried as food and drink (non-alcoholic) were continually being bought through the train by the dining car staff.

FarRail’s Sweet Saturated Steam Tour

Has been well covered by the FarRail blog and John Raby’s Java blog plus I’m sure Bernd will post a full report on his website in due course. Any details I could add would just be repeating their efforts.

The tour did achieve a number of things that I would not have been able to manage as a lone traveller. Foremost would be the special charters at Asembagus, Cepu and Ambarawa……all major events and all trip highlights. Another plus was the tour visited a number of locations, which if travelling solo, I would probably have left off my itinerary. A huge advantage was being able to photograph in late afternoon light I had previously been missing out on due to relying on public transport.

And of course the major plus was that for over two weeks I didn’t have to think for myself 24/7 and there was always someone to enjoy a cold beer with at night!


A brief comment on hotels used may interest prospective travellers. Some were prebooked through the Accor Hotels and Agoda websites whilst others were researched through the same sites.

Jakarta: Hotel Ibis Kemayoran proved to be good value with an excellent restaurant. Possibly a little out of the way but the Golden Truly Mall was only a five minute walk away and contained a supermarket and large food court.

Tegal: Karlita International Hotel was good value with a guest computer available on the second floor. The Bahari Inn, used by FarRail, would have made the journey to Pangka easier though as the midi buses passed by on the other side of the road.

Pemalang: has no listing in its own right on Agoda and you have to access either Tegal or Pekalongan to source details. The Kencana was more than adequate although breakfast was not available until 7.00am compared with other hotels starting at 6.00. The other listed hotel, The Winner Premier, is on the Sumberharjo angkot route but a little way out from the town centre.

Pekalongan: The hotel used by FarRail in nearby Wiradesa, The Marlin, is about 10 minutes closer to Sragi than the Nirwana I used. The Nirwana had a good restaurant but was alcohol free. Those of the tour who dined at The Marlin said the food was good and Bintang available. 

Surabaya: Ibis Surabaya Rajawali was my choice being close to both railway stations. I find Ibis consistently good value and have seldom been disappointed.

Banyuwangi: Manyar Garden Hotel is a beachfront resort close to the railway station with good views towards Bali. Good food but no hot water, or at least there wasn’t in my room. 


Rob’s brief to me was to give an opinion on whether Java is still worth a visit and as he suspected my answer is definitely going to be: ‘It all depends……”

To my way of thinking it all depends on if you’ve been there previously. As practically a first timer I found it fascinating and certainly there are a number of mills I wouldn’t hesitate visiting again: Pangka and Sragi to name my favourite two. If you’ve been to Java in times past and experienced it when there were more steam engines and more field lines operational then I feel you may now be disappointed.

Another factor influencing my return is the cost of airfares. I believe I got a good deal on my Melbourne to Jakarta return ticket with a full service airline for Aust$738. This doesn’t look quite so good when compared with my airfare to China in October: flying into Shenyang and out from Chongqing is only Aust$776 for a much longer distance.

Time will tell whether I go back to Indonesia but be assured I found Java in 2012 a fascinating place……………..

Rob Dickinson