Sat, 23 Aug 2003

Ambarawa rail tour a real adventure

Bambang M, Contributor, Ambarawa, Central Java

As the whistle blew, the old funicular locomotive and its two cars resembling the ones in cowboy movies jerked to life and began to move noisily.

Slowly it pulled away from the train station in Ambarawa, one of the oldest in Java having been built in 1873, heading for the nearby Bedono station.

"It will take us about an hour to get to Bedono, which is located some 10 kilometers southwest of here," said Sudono, head of the Ambarawa station, the tour guide of the day.

It was an unsurprisingly long journey, considering that the cars were almost 100 years old -- they were first operated in 1907.

"In Indonesia, you can find funicular trains in only two places now. One is in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, and the other is here in Ambarawa," Sudono said.

The train in Bukittinggi is used to carry charcoal, while in Ambarawa the train is for tourists looking for a unique adventure. The passengers on this day were teachers and employees from the Stella Maris high school in Surabaya.

After passing some traditional houses, the train entered the region of Jambu, where the passengers could enjoy beautiful village scenery. Farmers were working in their green fields with Mt. Merbabu in the distance as a backdrop. Off in the distance was the shimmering water of Lake Rawa Pening.

At the Jambu train station, which is about four kilometers away from Ambarawa, the train stopped. From that point, it starts its climb and begins to provide the passengers with the true adventure of the Ambarawa mountain tour.

"We stop here for a while to give the train crew time to move the locomotive to the rear of the train in order to prevent the train from derailing," Sudono said.

In a few minutes, the train was ready to move again. The locomotive pushed the cars up the mountain and the funicular system began to be operated. Now the passengers began to feel the jolts and bumps.

The funicular system is what makes the German-made locomotive special, because this is what prevents the train from derailing.

"Without the funicular system, the locomotive would not be able to climb the steep rail and would just derail," Sudono said.

As it climbed, the train produced hissing noises and thick smoke poured out of its chimney. The train crew added more wood to the train stove.

Some of the passengers took a mini-tour to see how the locomotive worked, while others were mesmerized by the view along the railway, where numerous kinds of trees grew and village children ran back and forth.

"I'm very happy," Dion, an elementary school student taking part in the tour, exclaimed in excitement as the train passed through a tunnel.

After climbing for some 45 minutes, the train arrived at its destination, the Bedono train station, which is located 711 meters above sea level.

The passengers took a rest for a while to enjoy the scenery and eat some nasi pecel (rice served with various vegetables and peanut sauce).

At the same time, the train also had time to take a short rest. Climbing for 232 meters had surely exhausted the old machine. The train crew filled it with 2,850 liters of water for the journey back to Ambarawa.

The locomotive was put back in its original position at the front of the cars for the return journey. The funicular system was again in operation as the train moved down the hill. To reduce the pushing power of the two cars behind the locomotive, the manual brakes on both of the cars were operated.

The tour ended when the train arrived at the Ambarawa train station.

Sudono said the Ambarawa-Bedono route was formerly part of the Semarang-Yogyakarta route that opened in 1901. But the route was closed in 1975 because it was not profitable. The mountain railway tour itself, he said, started in 1976.

"We used to have many foreign visitors before the Bali bombings and the SARS scare. Now our visitors are mostly domestic tourists, especially children," he said.