The International Steam Pages


The Dear Leader's Pre-Tour Diary 2010

This series of pages from July and August 2010 records our travels from China to Malaysia and on to Java, Indonesia where we were hosting the 'Steamy Java Tour 2010'. Click here for the main Winds of Change index page. This one is really intended for 'friends and family' as some kind of newsletter but outsiders may enjoy the insight into the hard, but enjoyable, work that goes into organising a steam tour in Java.


I've been running steam tours to Indonesia almost annually since 1991 and it's interesting to see how the preparation has evolved. Back then, there was no fax and definitely no internet. Money was changed using travellers cheques and it could take an hour, literally. I actually started to plan that first tour more than 18 months before it ran and everything was done by letter, although when I was in Indonesia in August 1990 I did have discussions with a number of people in the country including the Forestry Department (now Perhutani) in Jakarta and I did look at the hotels I planned to use. I had a full time job then and all the organisation had to be done 'out of hours'. I advertised the tour only in the Continental Railway Journal and by the end of September 1990, I had the perfect number (11) and as it happens in the next 10 months no-one else signed up. I definitely under-estimated the difficulties of getting all arrangements in place from a distance but in the end the tour ran almost perfectly, starting in North Sumatra and then proceeding to Java. In those wonderful long gone days, we had to omit quite a few mills with steam (all those in the Kediri area for a start) because there was just too much to do.

Fast forward to Autumn 2009 and John Raby and I discussed (by email of course) having one last tour (like 2008!). In this case, I had been promised a core number from the International Stationary Steam Engine Society for a Sugar Mill tour on to which we could tack a small number of steam locomotive enthusiasts if demand was too weak for a separate tour. We drew up a plan for two parallel tours, with a Plan B to combine them, I made the usual estimates based on the then exchange rates, we circulated various newsgroups and I put the details on this website. I made tentative bookings for the special trains at Cepu and Ambarawa and vanished off to Burma to do some rice mill gricing. While Yuehong and I  were away, the stationary numbers melted somewhat but there were signs that the loco interest would be better than expected. By early 2010, the numbers were such that we knew we could run both tours with their own separate buses and John was quietly gathering numbers for his own extra week afterwards.

I have to confess that about then I was somewhat regretting agreeing to run the tour at all as Yuehong and I had found ourselves in the throes of relocating from China and the GBP (which I use to advertise a tour price) was shrinking by the day against the Indonesian Rupiah which is closely linked to the USD. Since the Autumn we had sold two small country houses and a flat in Beijing and in December 2009 we agreed to buy a flat in Penang, Malaysia - typically I used that visit to shoot material for our Funiculi Funicula DVD. We got Yuehong a UK visa and flew off on New Year's Eve to spend a month house hunting. January 2010 was the coldest there in living memory but after Northern China it was almost balmy; we found a bungalow we liked in the Forest of Dean and with the help of some of my old friends convinced Yuehong that living in the UK could actually be quite pleasant. When we got back 'home' in February, we had to prepare to vacate our flat at the end of March as agreed with our buyers and move into temporary accommodation, but before that happened we squeezed in yet another 3 week visit to Shibanxi.  At which point we had done our first packing and shipped most of our worldly goods into a temporary flat which then resembled a cargo warehouse. And in due course, the boxes were moved again to our country house as we had been gifted some second hand furniture which took their place in the flat.

By Spring 2010, the Loco Tour numbers were still growing to the extent that eventually we had to splash out and hire a second bus (making three in all). Although my good friend in Bandung, Lie Tjeng Chiao, has always been willing to "Dot i's and Cross t's", I have never used an agent in Java and firmly subscribe to the philosophy that the only way to do something properly is to do it yourself. With Indonesia, it's not a good idea to try to do business remotely and whenever I can I do like to have a recce trip to meet old friends and check out the special trains, charters, hotels and restaurants as best I can. Apart from the business side, it's a chance to see my favourite island without the pressure of having the group; it's so nice to walk into places time and again after two years away and be greeted by "Hello, Mr. Rob, where have you been?". It's good business too because it means that when our bus rolls up, the room keys will be on the front desk and equally importantly there ought to be enough cold beers in the restaurant fridge. Few of my participants realise that many towns in Java are now 'dry' and the beers didn't get there by accident.

So in April, we flew from Beijing to Penang where we did hope our new flat would be available but unfortunately our greedy vendor had put new tenants in while waiting for the paperwork to be finished. Still, it was a great flight with Cathay (so great I can hardly remember the details) and we had a pleasant few days in Penang where we were able to have a last (private) ride on the Penang Hill Railway to hand out copies of our Funiculi Funicula DVD to the staff who had been so helpful when I was filming. A couple of days later, I was proud to give it a first public screening to members of the Penang Heritage Trust who were amazed to discover that someone had done what the Malaysians had failed to do and made a proper record of the railway before it changed for ever. They sat entranced and afterwards we sold our entire residual stock of DVDs in a couple of minutes.

The visit was cut short and 'moving in' postponed to July. Air Asia now flies direct from Penang to Jakarta, and on arrival there we took the bus to Gambir, bought our train tickets to Bandung for the next day and took a taxi to the Hotel Batavia in the heritage area where our group stays. My emails had been totally ignored but when I mentioned the number of rooms we wanted (30) we quickly struck a deal. We checked in at the same rate and checked out the seafood restaurant at the back which I had spotted on a previous visit. It was a good excuse to sample the Peking Duck too! After which we whizzed up to Bandung to wine and dine (mainly the latter) Tjeng Chiao.

Cirebon was always going to be easy, the 4848 minibus service had an office just outside our hotel in Bandung and runs a door to door service. For half the journey we had it to ourselves. The Hotel Sidodadi is definitely a 'Hello, Mr. Rob.' place and we settled in quickly only to discover that the hotel had gone 'dry'. Even that was no big problem, as I had spotted a new Alphamart with a fridge 100 metres down the road on my trip to the ATM. Our regular restaurant which I refuse to call anything other than Maxim's was still up to scratch and definitely not dry. Next day, I visited PT Rajawali II's HQ, quickly arranged permission for our visits and afterwards the hotel insisted on sending us to the bus station in their private Kijang which was nice.

In Tegal, where I have never stayed with a large group before, I made the mistake of not checking the newish (and expensive looking) Bahari Inn first. Instead we meandered round several second rate hotels which were clearly not up to the job before checking into one. We took a late lunch in our regular restaurant on the alun-alun where there was no beer immediately available. However, of course, it was there by the evening - don't ask where it came from as there's none in the shops here. We jumped on a minibus to the Bahari Inn and a very large discount was immediately offered and accepted, business doesn't look too good here. I used their WiFi to check my emails and in return their own computer popped a nasty virus  - readily dispatched - on to mine when I used my 'memory stick' to give them our reservation letter.

Next day, we took our time, checked the emails again and walked round the corner to take a bus on to Cepiring. The mill here was closed in 1997 but has been renovated by IGN who hosted our 2008 party just before the mill first started milling again. We had an invitation to stay in the staff 'mess' and were royally hosted overnight. The eight remaining steam locomotives have been spruced up and together with most of the surviving diesel fleet mounted in the open space opposite the main office. I humbly suggested that some of the old machinery was also worthy of dragging out of the bushes. All too soon we had to move on and this time it was in style as we were offered a lift directly to Bandungan. It's my favourite hill station in Java and I have occupied Room 301 in the Kencana Hotel many times. A great bonus was finding a daily supply of durians in the nearby market, so for this we took a day out to relax although we had to pop down to railway station at Ambarawa to check they still held our reservation and take the opportunity to add a second special train as we had a large group.

In Solo, apart from checking out the Riyadi Palace Hotel we had to visit the local sugar (PTPN IX) HQ, track down the operators of C1218 and join up with one of my daughter's school friends who was teaching English here. We gave ourselves the luxury of three nights which allowed us to visit Tasikmadu on the Sunday to see their 'theme park' operation, it's hardly what our customers want to see but it was also necessary so we could arrange for the vertical boilered steam roller to be in use. We had an open mind on when and how to leave Java, but when we learned that C1218 was to do a public run on one day out of May 13th - 15th, it was clear that we should have to return here to sample it - strictly in the interests of testing for the group! To be safe, I booked our flight out from Solo for 16th May (Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur).

There was not much to do around Madiun except book the Kartika Abadi Hotel and visit Rejosari. Here we were able to arrange for 'Salak' - the jackshaft locomotive - to be steamed, but unusually the mill engineer was anything but hospitable and told us he wouldn't let our group inside his mill. Just why, who knows, it's in total contrast to every other mill and engineer on the island. One sad item was the apparent closure of the Rumah Makan Wijaya where I drunk cold Bintangs for over 30 years. I was pleased we could take the train on to Mojokerto where we were immediately made welcome in the Surya Mojopahit Hotel, the only place in town I would consider placing a tour group and then only a small one - fortunately the loco tour has no need to stay here. It's my kind of place, they usually have cold Bintangs in the office fridge, maybe not surprising as the brewery is just down the road and a major local employer. One reason to stop here is that it's the perfect springboard for a day trip to Surabaya on the train - we needed to visit the headquarters of PTPN XI, their magnificent building in Jalan Merak was formerly used by HVA, the Dutch plantation company in colonial days. Here one of the staff typed and printed a permit letter on the spot for me, but unfortunately there was no one there to sign it! I was given a 'blank' copy and in due course, the signed copy turned up at TC's place in Bandung. The HQ is just a short becak ride from Kota station but our onward train left from Gubeng and that meant a minibus. Gubeng is really a rather smart place these days and although we had a delicious Soto Ayam in a small place outside, I could not resist the cold Bintangs in the minimart on the main platform.

So it didn't really matter that our train was running late and even so we were in Probolinggo well before nightfall. We booked every air-conditioned room except one in the Hotel Ratna, booked the restaurant next door too and went down as I have done most years since 1976 to the Rumah Makan Malang. Unlike its counterpart in Madiun, it's still in business although I was sorry to hear that the owner had recently suffered a stroke and one his daughters was now effectively running the show. At some stage I had to visit Semboro, but the attraction of Situbondo proved stronger. Here I always put my group in the Rosali Hotel, but on my own I stay at the Hotel Ramayana next to the bus station. Location, location, location - it has everything I need in walking distance including this time a nightly supply of as many durians (6) as we could eat. Our evening eatery here is the Rumah Makan Kurnia and as always I left Yuehong and Moma to jabber in Chinese while I sank a Bintang. At lunchtimes we tend to go instead to the Rumah Makan Malang.

The news from Olean in 2009 had not been good and although it was pre-season there were plenty of staff around putting the finishing touches to preparations. They agreed to do their best to turn out a steam loco for a field train for us, but these days there's not much cane grown in the natural catchment area, but I was promised that the mill's interior was essentially as steamy as in 2008. I got much the same positive response at Asembagus although in their case the reason for less steam was the arrival of an extra large Japanese diesel which was surplus to requirements at nearby Prajekan. 

We now knew when C1218 was due to run and we had a day to kill so we relaxed in Situbondo, there was nothing much to do except guzzle even more durians. It's quite a pleasant bus ride over the hills to Jember but painfully slow and there was no possibility to sample the further durians parked by the roadside. The minibus across town and the bus on to Tanggul were racing cars by comparison. Long ago, I used to take a becak (45 minutes minimum) from here to Semboro, then it was a minibus but now so many people have their own motorcycles that demand has collapsed and an ojek (motorcycle taxi) was the only option. Fortunately, Yuehong was going straight to Probolinggo on the bus with our luggage! Semboro is a strange place these days, despite officially having a tourism programme, they actually do their best to discourage anyone from visiting. I tried hard to book a special here but one loco was reported 'too sick' and in the event, the other could barely move itself when another tour group arrived in June. The charter was terminated when the chimney fell off! As I write this page, it seems likely we shall just do the fireless locos here.

One feature of this recce was that bookings were still coming in on the WiFi which is spreading all over the island and so when we got back to Probolinggo we had to take the last AC room - since we now have even more bookings then that is one for TC to solve! Even Probolinggo has a proper western style restaurant (on the site of the former Hotel Victoria) and for a change we had a very nice steak there in the evening. Next morning we planned to take the train to Kertosono (via Surabaya) and then a bus to Kediri, but when we got to the station we found that the overnight rain had caused operational problems. We got on the 'previous train' running somewhat late and when we got to Pasuruan, we found the train before that sitting in the platform. The line ahead was closed owing to chest high flood water and we had to wait until it subsided and the track was checked. So we bought new tickets, jumped trains and were simply grateful we had not got up at dawn because our train was running a mere 8 hours late! The drinking water had almost run out so I made a return visit to the minimart when we reversed at Gubeng. We had no choice but to bale out at Mojokerto where it was already dark, but it did mean I could check WiFi in town, which turned out to be available in a new Indonesian style pizza place.

I had planned to visit Merican while in Kediri to learn of their steam plans, but that had to be abandoned as we had a long day ahead. To get to central Kediri required a minibus, big bus, minibus and becak, but each change took barely a minute. We quickly booked the hotel, first raiding the ATM outside as usual to pay a substantial deposit. Opposite we could stock up on our favourite Java coffee (3 kg would you believe) but after checking that the Rumah Makan Canton was still in business (confirmed by the people next door, they are always closed on Thursdays), we had to move on. Here we had an unusual bit of a hassle with the becak drivers who agreed one price and then demanded double on arrival. Worse was to come as the conductor of our express bus to Ngawi demanded a ridiculous sum for the journey, in the end we waited until we had just passed a local bus to Nganjuk, paid nothing and got off in the middle of nowhere - but not before I explained to all the other passengers that the conductor was a crook. In theory that should have allowed us to have lunch at our favourite Bamboo restaurant opposite the bus station but it had died... While it didn't take too long to get to Ngawi, the journey over the hills on the appalling road to Cepu was definitely of the character building type.

We had two things to sort here, the first of which was to negotiate with the Cepu Indah Hotel as I don't like the over-priced Hotel Mega Bintang at all. They were very accommodating even if their Bintang was overpriced and had conveniently recently completed an extra block of 8 rooms just for us. We enjoyed a street dinner of mutton satay and prepared to talk business with Perhutani - the other reason I was here was that Palawi (Perhutani's tourism arm in Jakarta) had completely failed to confirm price and arrangements for our July charter with friend Steve Noon in Jakarta, despite being approached some four months earlier. We went off to HQ on the back of a couple of motorbikes from the hotel and were shown into an office where we were introduced to Pak Imam who was in charge of such matters. It seemed that Palawi had finally written some weeks earlier but he had yet to get round to replying... The only way to expedite things was to talk with the administrator, Pak Andhi and he had a visitor. So we waited for two hours and then it was all over in ten minutes with a price suggested and immediately agreed without argument, being more or less an inflation linked increase on 2008. Well I did think so until Palawi in Jakarta reneged on the deal a few days later, demanding 50% more. I think my readers can guess my reaction to this, they were read the riot act, given an ultimatum and a deadline and just 1 hour before it expired they came back with a more sensible price but still increased which I reluctantly accepted. The Cepu Forest Railway is a treasure but it is not safe in the hands of such inept and dishonest people and I will never again have any part in organising a train here.

Anyway, at the time we had a smug grin on our faces as we left Cepu with seemingly all the pieces in the Java jigsaw in place. In Solo, we relaxed (yes, over a Bintang) and next morning went to Purwosari to ride behind C1218 - the story of that ride has been on this site for some time, the power of the digital revolution being such that it was uploaded not long after the fire was thrown out. We then flew back to Beijing via Penang, it was now two months before the tour and my bank account was swelling nicely as payments came in and it was time to send much of it on to Java so Tjeng Chiao could settle the big bills before the tour started. Unfortunately, just at the vital moment, the GBP decided to throw a 'wobbly', dropping to a one year low but there was nothing to be done and delaying things in the hope of a better rate would not only have inconvenienced him it would have run the risk of the kind of foul up in transmission which we had suffered in 2006 and 2008 (both the fault of third parties who shall remain nameless but who failed to copy and paste my instructions, instead retyping them and making a big enough mistake to prevent payment).

Meanwhile, a lot more water was flowing under various bridges in the UK and Malaysia and finally on 1st June 2010 we simultaneously 'completed' both flat and bungalow, it was pure coincidence but definitely time to crack open the champagne. It was only thanks to the internet, good friends and extremely competent lawyers and banks (yes such creatures do exist) that this was possible.  Since when we have at least managed to sort out the utilities in the Forest of Dean (internet again) but despite having good friends on the job we are told the garden there now looks like a hayfield. 

When we got back, it was time to pack in earnest. As in most families, in ours it is the female which is the greater acquirer of 'junk' and so Yuehong was saddled with most of the clearing up. My excuse was that I had already done my massive sort when I moved to China in 2004. While Yuehong got on with this and negotiated with the shippers, I sat down and prepared updated and more detailed estimates, completed the travel advisory and answered the enquiries which were still coming in. In Java, TC was quietly doing the business, although being TC he didn't always tell me. Then one day a very large van reversed down our country lane and suddenly the house was almost bare, to me the final confirmation that we were indeed 'moving on'.

This time I managed to pace myself rather better on the flight to Penang and after a night in a hotel and a round of office visits, we finally made it into a rather bare flat. It turned out that we had electricity but no water (yet). As always a friendly neighbour volunteered a bucket and there were showers by the swimming pool. We recovered a couple of large suitcases of essentials deposited with another neighbour in April and unpacked them. We celebrated with another traditional sea food dinner in town and with the insects whirring enjoyed our first night's sleep in our eagerly awaited new second home.

Java beckons in just over a week after this is uploaded (appropriately using the newly installed WiFi by the swimming pool!) but until then there's a real holiday ahead and a flat to be kitted out. And why, you may ask, "The Dear Leader's Pre-Tour Diary"? Well, Yuehong often accuses me of being a control freak. However, in such an enterprise as this, there is no alternative to ruthless organisation and pre-planning. "If it can go wrong, it will go wrong." as another tour leader discovered in June 2010 when he came to Indonesia without sufficient preparation. To my participants it may seem like an 'adventure', it probably makes it more fun for them, but for me that is the last word that I would ever let pass my lips.


In Penang, the flat where I wrote this just before the tour started, lacks homely comforts...

But this is the view out at dusk which is good enough for me and even the next condos along can have a certain ambience:

There are more (and frankly better) pictures of the environment in 'A Flat with a Sea View'.


Rob and Yuehong Dickinson

Email: webmaster@internationalsteam.co.uk