By Alex Baum
Few parts of the world are changing faster than Southeast Asia. Ancient is hurtling at breakneck speeds towards modern.
Malls and McDonald’s might be lasting impressions for some. But pockets remain all but completely unaffected by the tendrils of globalization. Still as remote and pristine as ever, full to the brim with the kinds of adventures that dried up elsewhere on the tourist radar decades ago, it is here that many argue the real Southeast Asia still lingers. However, in Indonesia these pockets turn to vast swaths of untamed wilderness, especially once one crosses that threshold between the west of the country and its far less populated east. It’s safe to say that eastern Indonesia represents the last great unknown of tropical Asia, and some inspired and intrepid travelers are beginning to feel the pull of its mystique. Those with a real lust for adventure are bringing their bicycles and traveling these lesser known islands by two wheels.
Indonesia is a land of multiple personalities – some might argue one for each of its 17,000 plus islands. In simpler terms, it can be described also as a land of two faces: its intense, busy, and decidedly Asian west; and its eastern half – one of the least populated and seldom-visited areas in Asia, dominated by myriad seas, and embodying a much more Pacific island feel. Separating these two worlds is the famed “Wallace Line”, where in the late 1800’s, explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace noticed the stark contrast in Asian flora and fauna of the western islands versus the distinctly more Australian life forms of the east. As he strode down the path to uncovering the secrets of tectonic drift, giving birth to the study of biogeography, and independently developing a parallel theory of evolution to Darwin’s, it was this vast collection of eastern islands – known then as the Spice Islands and dubbed now “Wallacea” – that inspired such groundbreaking ideas.
Today, eastern Indonesia is known mainly to serious dive enthusiasts who seek in it’s crystalline waters for what is widely considered to be the best diving on Earth. Others come in smaller numbers in search of unique anthropological phenomena and age-old tribal living on display in places like Sulawesi, Sumba, Flores, and New Guinea. Just as so many of the cultures in eastern Indonesia remain relatively untouched by tourism and consumerism, so too do its natural bounties. Bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts trek into the sweeping jungles that cloak many of these islands in search of the weird and wonderful. Mountain climbers come in search of claiming never before-climbed peaks. And very quietly, a small stream of cyclists are beginning to test themselves on these remote roads.
As so many who have ever had the joy of cycle touring can attest, cycling is probably the best way to take in all that a place has to offer. You move fast enough to cover ground and slow enough to become a part of the landscape. The opportunities to be the first to fully experience a place by bicycle in Indonesia’s eastern islands are seemingly as endless as the islands here themselves. Be the first westerner a village has interacted with on a remote Moluccan island. Take the maiden voyage down a single track in the mountains of Central Sulawesi. Set up a campsite on a lonely beach in Flores where no one has ever slept. Or even be the first ever cyclist to pedal down a brand new road in Papua! These are the kinds of opportunities that abound in Indonesia’s east. You end up stumbling into them unknowingly, while in most other parts of Southeast Asia (and the rest of the world, for that matter), they’re difficult to find when you’re actively seeking them.
Eastern Indonesia offers adventure at a premium. For the cyclist, there are incredible cultures to encounter where the outsider is still a total novelty, immense areas of undisturbed and breathtakingly beautiful wilderness, and quiet roads almost devoid of traffic save for the smiling faces of surprised locals waving from the roadside. Perhaps most of all, there is the overwhelming feeling that you are among the first to ever do what you’re doing.
For those hardened travelers accustomed to navigating their way through these kinds of adventures independently and on a solo budget, and for those who have a solid foundation in the language of Bahasa Indonesia (which you will absolutely need in this region) eastern Indonesia is a playground. If you do not fit this description, fear not! There are a handful of small tour companies that offer fully-supported guided tours through many of these islands. Some, operate on the basis of custom-tailored tours, while others provide small day trips based out of hotels and small bastions of tourism. Cycle Indonesia has been operating extensive, fully-supported tours through Sulawesi, Bali, and Flores (with plans to expand into Maluku and Papua) for the last two decades and they provide a highly experienced mix of Western and local guides fluent in both English and Indonesian.