The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, August 13, 2006


East Java:

Smart operators know the tour market is full of niches, like eco-tourism and adventure hikes. Then there are the mechanical history buffs. Duncan Graham reports from Sidoarjo where the sugar season has just started:

Many Indonesians would find it hard to believe that thousands of otherwise normal men would want to spend their time rebuilding, admiring and playing with dirty old machinery. For love, not money.

They gather in groups across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and like nothing better than a chat about piston slap, cylinder capacity and the viscosities of bearing lubricants.

They fossick through rubbish dumps in grease-stained overalls. They put up their oily hands at deceased estate auctions and poke into tumbledown hay sheds. They’re sustained by the hope that one day they’ll find something decrepit and unique which might be restored to working condition given time, money and skill.

These nostalgia fanatics are usually older men living on good retirement pensions and prepared to travel far in their quest for the flawless flywheel. Their idea of romance is revolutions – not the street-brawling variety, but the speed of a spinning wheel.

Now imagine finding a factory where these marvellous machines still function, doing the job they were designed to perform a century ago. It would be a mechanic’s paradise, a sweet treat to step back in time and feel the vibrations of the industrial revolution which powered European conquest of the globe. Just seeing the old names stamped with pride on the cast iron casings would make magic moments.

Such roaring, whirring and clanking places wrapped in steam exist still in East Java - as functioning commercial sugar factories.

There are 26 in the province and the government owns the majority. Although originally built and run by the Dutch, the factories were seized by the State during the 1950s.

In that decade relationships between the Netherlands and Indonesia tumbled to a low point. President Sukarno ordered the former colonialists out and took over their plantations, businesses and factories.

Although the machinery was already well worn when the Indonesian government moved in, few sugar factories have been upgraded.

Watoetoelis is only an hour’s drive outside Surabaya and on the edge of East Java’s cane country. Visitors can always pick the sugar towns, not necessarily by seeing fields of green cane which are often hidden behind houses, but by the thin railway lines wriggling unevenly alongside the road.

These were built for wagons pulled by little locomotives to cart the heavy cane to the factory. However in many operations the produce is now shifted by truck, making the narrow roads even more crowded.

Watoetoelis started business in 1838 as NV Cooy & Coster Van Voor Hout, and their factory was rebuilt early last century. Its equipment is all driven by steam, generated by burning cane waste (known as bagasse) after the juice has been extracted through crushing and rolling.

Cane crushers in Australia also burn bagasse but use the heat to power turbines which make electricity to drive the equipment. In Europe most local sugar comes from sugar beet.

“It’s extraordinary that the machinery still works so well,” said the factory’s finance manager Drs DD Poerwantono. “Of course we have breakdowns and it’s impossible to get spare parts. So we have to design our own.

“The Europeans who made this equipment built it to last. It’s sturdy and strong and needs maintenance. But unlike much modern gear it keeps going.”

In most businesses the capital spent on equipment is written off as depreciation in a few years as the machines get worn or become inefficient and need replacing. As the jargon goes, they have built-in obsolescence. As the money invested at Watoetoelis was in Dutch guilders in the 19th century, the present owners are enjoying a real bonus.

Inside the vaulting, dark factory the steam powered pistons push and pull huge wheels, some up to five metres diameter. Mounting such heavy equipment requires pinpoint precision and rock-hard foundations. If a belt isn’t aligned exactly right wear on a bearing can make it overheat, burn or shatter. Imagine a 20 tonne wheel flying loose at speed in a factory where 350 men labour in primitive conditions.

When these monsters were installed there was no way of using computers, lasers or other modern measuring devices to ensure balance – just the skill of dedicated craftsmen long gone.

To see these marvels in action – not as museum pieces but actually working to produce a needed product – would enchant and astonish mechanical history buffs who usually have to make do with pictures and models. Even people who think it indecent to peer under a car bonnet can’t help but wonder at the industrial ingenuity of yesteryear.

Some of the sugar factories want to open their gates to organised groups of tourists, but realise organisation and upgrading is required. In most cases new walkways between the spinning wheels and worm drives would have to be installed.

In Watoetoelis, for example, protective rails are often missing, steel ladders are rusted and stairwells slippery. To get from one area to another visitors have to wade through great piles of loose bagasse.

The factory has already commissioned videos to explain the sugar-making process and staff are keen to show visitors around. But that’s not their primary job, so multilingual guides with public relations skills would be required before scheduled tours can start.

The countryside around the sugar factories is a delight. Because Western visitors are still rare, the residents remain genuinely friendly and the prices of their products are seldom inflated. In the villages colourful local produce, like krupuk (crackers) are dried in the sun.

Other home industries such as furniture making can be seen; most manufacturers are proud to display their wares and pass the time of day, for the pace here is unhurried.

Watching cane cutters labor in the sun slashing the tall plants, making bundles and loading trucks helps Westerners appreciate the advantages of a mechanised society. (The first harvester was invented in Australia).

Each man is expected to chop a tonne a day and for this he receives Rp 30,000 (US$ 3.40). At the corner of the cane fields are little cemeteries where past generations of sugar growers rest in peace.

Watoetoelis is only 36 km from Surabaya which has plenty of good quality hotels in the three to five star range, with rates much lower than Jakarta. Modern cars with driver can be hired for Rp 250,000 (US$ 25) / day plus fuel and driver’s meals.

The factories usually run between May and November. Because they are government owned permission to enter has to be obtained from head office. Contact the East Java Government Tourism Service for assistance on Jl Wisata Menanggal in Surabaya – phone (031) 853 1814. E-mail


Health-conscious foreigners blanch when they see Javanese heaping spoonfuls of sugar into their tea and coffee, but locals joke that they have to support their farmers.

In fact they are more likely to be helping overseas growers including Australians, for Indonesia has been importing sugar since the 1960s.

The price is set on the world market and has a history of wild fluctuations making growing sugar a risky business.

Sugarcane growing started in Indonesia more than 300 years ago. It reached its peak about 80 years ago when about 180 factories were said to be operating.

However by the time of the Revolution only 30 factories were still functioning. The industry was nationalised in 1957 but there have been recent moves to encourage private investment.

The machinery in the old mills may be fascinating, but the process of turning cane into sugar is not so romantic. After shredding the cane juice and water are mixed with lime to stabilise the acid level. Evaporators and centrifuges are employed to make the sugar with molasses as a by-product.

Raw sugar is brown and has to be bleached to make it acceptable in the kitchen. It’s also widely used in the commercial food industry, particularly for soft drinks.

Sugarcane can also be used to make the petrol substitute ethanol. If world oil prices continue to rise cane growing may become a more profitable venture.

Only 30 per cent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beet which is grown in Europe. Sugarcane is a tropical crop which needs at least 600 mm of rain a year.

(First published in the Sunday Post 13 August 2006)


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