The island of Madura sits off the north coast of eastern Java. It’s dry and empty and even the locals will tell you that not much happens there. Well, not until the harvest is done and the bull racing season begins.
Known locally as Kerapan Sapi, the bull races were introduced by King Katandar in the 13th Century as a way to determine the island’s fastest and strongest bulls.
It’s a tradition that continues today. Between August and October every year, villages across the island hold races to choose the bulls that will represent them at Kerapan Besar, the Madurese equivalent of the Grand National.
I called by Madura on my big trip around the equator that became my book, Going Around In Circles. The races I went to were at Ambunten, a tiny village not far from the port of Sumenep. They were held in a dusty field beside the main road, with tobacco fields on one side and the turquoise sea on the other.
A gamelan orchestra provided a discordant soundtrack, a pale of smoke hung over the field from a line of hawkers grilling sate over makeshifts barbecues and young children dashed between the legs of the nervous looking cattle. It was quite the occasion.
The bulls raced in pairs, with a ‘jockey’ – usually a small child – riding what appeared to be a ladder wedged between them. His sole task, it seemed, was to just hold on. The bulls were decorated with tinsel and flowers. Some were even wearing eyeliner.
In the months prior to the races, the best bulls lead quite the pampered life. They are fed a high energy diet of herbs, raw eggs, honey and beer. They live in dry, clean shelters. And their owners often sing them to sleep.
It’s performance-based star treatment, though. Once a bull starts losing it doesn’t take long for him to end up on the dining room table.
After a series of chaotic heats, it soon came down to the big one – the race that would determine which bulls would represent Ambunten at Kerapan Besar. A flag was dropped. The crowd whooped and hollered and a few brave souls chased after them.
One team veered off course and galloped towards the crowd, sending people scattering. The winning team didn’t stop in time and went crashing through the tobacco plantation. They returned, covered in tobacco leaves to a hero’s welcome.
It was mad, it was crazy, it was chaotic – and probably the most exciting nine seconds of my life.