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, October 19, 2008


The march of the eco-tourists draws closer © Duncan Graham 2008

Are they flashpackers or backpackers plus? They’re the same creature, but the second term is the polite one you use when you meet these knowledge-hungry 60 somethings out to exercise their minds and bodies around the world.

Having done the Australasian wilderness they’ll soon be heading for the mountains of East Java if Janet Cochrane and her Indonesian colleagues have their way.

British academic Dr Cochrane has done the hard yards in the tourism industry. Before teaching at Leeds University she used to lead and organize tours, including outbound events.

She’s also been a frequent visitor to Indonesia, so her surprise at the lack of development in hiking, eco-tourism and cultural tourism carries some clout.

“Trekking tours are extremely popular in other parts of the world,” she said. “It’s amazing that nothing has yet been successfully developed in Indonesia, other than hikes of a day or more up and down mountains which can be extremely challenging.” (See sidebar)

This dearth is now being tackled in central East Java where a group of young Indonesians backed by a conservation center and some of Dr Cochrane’s students, are developing a one-week trekking tour with the pedestrian title ‘A Walk Around Arjuna’.

Arjuna, 3,339 meters, squats between Surabaya and Malang. It last erupted in 1952. Its neighbor is Mount Welirang, just 183 meters lower and a well-known sulfur mine for those brave or driven enough to enter the smoking crater. There’s a 1,000-meter deep valley between the two peaks.

“We want to create an experience where visitors can get involved in local culture and traditional arts,” said Agus Wiyono, executive director of the Kaliandra Sejati Foundation that runs an education and training center. “We’d like them to understand and maybe experience the cycles of rural life, including the harvesting of rice.

“To do this successfully we need to be supported by the local communities, so we are taking things slowly and smoothly. We are calling this our pride campaign and want it to encourage conservation of the environment. We don’t want them to feel threatened.”

Or exploited. The days when tourism was considered benign and a plus for the locals have long gone. The Bali experience, where farmers’ land has been lost to hotels and the post-construction jobs they anticipated have been given to outsiders, is a classic example of the downside of tourism.

Dr Cochrane said the negative impacts include arousing the desire for material goods, particularly the shiny buzzy things that tourists carry. However mobile phone coverage in the Arjuna area is like the landscape - full of holes. So the pleasure of arousing envy by browsing e-mails from Exeter while standing on the crumbling cusp of a smoking caldera will be limited.

Then there’s the danger of infection by the glazed-eye monotone ‘have a good day’ virus that infects city supermarket checkout chicks. If this sickness gets into the Arjuna villagers it would be a tragedy because the locals are genuinely friendly, even though their interrogation of visitors’ age, faith and fertility can get a bit wearing.

Agus and his Kaliandra colleagues, Sapto Siswoyo and Agus Sugianto have been organizing village meetings to help people understand what might happen when the trekking program gets underway in a big way. So far there have been nine sessions involving farmers and householders.

Agus Wiyono said the locals are enthusiastic because they have the chance of adding to the income they currently raise from farming and forestry. They’ll get the opportunity to build and maintain tracks, erect signs, act as tour guides and provide handicrafts, food and accommodation.

The other issue concerning the organizers is whether they should try to limit visitors. If the trekking tours get too popular cashed-up developers from outside might muscle in to build flash resorts and destroy the things that attract genuine eco-tourists.

Although the trekkers are likely to be hardy Europeans and Australians enjoying an active retirement on handsome pensions, they’ll still want their little comforts. They may be prepared to forgo hot showers and sit-down toilets, but they will insist on cleanliness, and their desire for contact with nature will vanish if the little black things on the bedroom floor turn out to be rat droppings.

So the Kaliandra crew are busy explaining about foreigners’ needs and funny customs, like wanting to take part in some of the most boringly repetitious jobs in agriculture – threshing rice by hand and pushing buffaloes to plough paddy.

As a tourist lure Arjuna and its neighboring mountains have so many add-on attractions that even the most wilderness-worn will find something new. It’s not just the views that make high-definition TV look like black-and-white transmissions. The area is rich in culture and history, mystery and magic. For in these lush and fecund mountains the major religions haven’t had the missionising successes they’ve enjoyed in the coastal cities.

Many ancient traditions and ceremonies have survived, particularly those involving planting and harvesting of crops. The locals will share these with outsiders provided they’re not trying to shut down these practices.

Then there’s the chance to spot a rare Javan hawk-eagle, or the grizzled langur. Both are heading down the one-way track made by hundreds of other Indonesian birds and beasts as forests are felled.

“There’s a huge variety of things to see, from ancient temples and pristine montane forests to nightclubs, from hot-springs and waterfalls, to tea plantations and rice fields,” said Dr Cochrane. The area is also cool – Kaliandra is 850 meters up Arjuna. It’s not quite outside mosquito range but they’re not the saber-toothed brutes found on the steaming floodplains far below.

Although it will be another year before the long tour is ready for its first corrugated-sole footfall, shorter one-day tramps around Kaliandra are almost open for business. Check for details and prices.

Kicking-off the trekking trend

Kaliandra isn’t the first to highlight nature tourism based on tramping. In West Java an NGO called the Forum for Information on Nature Tourism has published detailed maps and high-quality booklets promoting trekking around Mount Gede and Mount Pangrango.

This is a big project covering 140 kilometers of walks that takes up to two weeks to complete, though it can be handled piecemeal.

The mountains lie inside a block marked at its corners by Bogor, Cianjur and Sukabumi. UNESCO calls this the Cibodas Biosphere Reserve, ‘an example of an ecosystem in the humid tropics undergoing strong human pressure.’

City-based Indonesians and expats fed up with negotiating Jakarta’s concrete canyons started circumambulating the mountains late last century. They formed a walking club loosely based around the University of Indonesia’s Geography Department and eventually found the time and funds to publish.

Bogor-based Alex Korns, who led the project, has pointed out that unlike the US and many European countries, hikers are ‘free to walk almost anywhere he or she fancies, along paths that wind between farmers’ tiny garden plots.’

It’s the same situation in East Java where the folk who live in the hills seem unworried about pink-skinned men and women in khaki shorts wandering past their smallholdings. The TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs that disfigure much of outback Australia are largely absent in Indonesia where ironically it’s the entrances to the national parks that are policed.

Check for more information.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 )ctober 08)

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The curious yarn of a Kiwi in Java © Duncan Graham 2008

Hanging on the wall of a cramped kampong house in Singosari, East Java is a set of grainy soft-focus photos of the family’s ancestors. Sunshine, termites, damp and age haven’t treated them well, and the pictures started with a disadvantage.

In the early days of photography the rules were rigid; you had to dress formal and look severe. Today it’s difficult to sense the soul behind the monochrome stare, humanity in the flat featureless features.

And so it is here with the portraits of a gaunt, long faced foreigner in a bow tie flanked by Javanese teenagers, or with his housekeeper, equally stern. They seem to say; ‘We don’t trust this newfangled technology’.

The man wearing the ‘butterfly’, as they say in Singosari, was Charles Mainwaring Pilliet, a New Zealander who fled a disciplinarian father in his homeland to become an adventurer in South East Asia. He eventually died in 1959 in East Java aged 90, nursed by Mutmainah one of his adopted nieces.

Now 68 she recalled the day of his passing vividly: “As we took the body out of the house a powerful wind sprang up,” she said. “Windows banged open or slammed shut. The trees shook and bent their branches. We knew he was a paranormal.

“He was fanatical about the number seven. We had seven windows in the house and seven trees in the garden. He gave me seven bracelets.”

Who was this strange septenary Kiwi who apparently supported the Indonesian revolution and loathed the Dutch? What was he doing squatting in an Indonesian village and dying poor after being cheated of his wealth by the Madurese wife of a Scottish banker who got Pilliet to sign over his estate to her husband?

At the end of his life the old Kiwi was reduced to boiling buffalo bones to extract fat for sale as a rheumatism cure and getting the kids to hawk this door-to-door.

Now his great, great nephew Michael Pringle is trying to put together the missing threads in the tapestry of his colourful relative’s life. Pringle came to Indonesia 11 years ago to research the story and will return in January to see if he can sew a more complete narrative.

Unfortunately the old man’s books seem to have vanished. Mutmainah said he kept thousands in cupboards and wardrobes, but only the furniture remains.

Pilliet was born in 1869 in NZ’s South Island into a family with legal, journalistic and political connections, and ancestors from France. His mother died when he was three. It seems he didn’t get on with his stepmother and was raised by his grandfather.

Pilliet worked as a merchant seaman, then a miner before leaving for what was then the Dutch East Indies.

“His experiences on the west coast of Sumatra were extraordinary,” said Michael Pringle who is writing a biography of Charles’ father Walter. “Charles hunted tigers and elephants up remote rivers and undertook extremely dangerous exploratory forays into regions which had never previously seen a white man.

“ He suffered numerous bouts of malarial sickness and was probably lucky to have survived. In 1899 he was exploring the northern coast of the Celebes (now Sulawesi) sleeping in the open to avoid leprosy and other diseases that were rife in the villages.”

In Sulawesi Pilliet apparently fathered a daughter with a local woman, though the child later died. He set up house in Kupang, owned a lugger and traded in pearls in Western Australia and Singapore, amassing considerable wealth. He became the British consul in Dili where he worked as a spy monitoring German activities in the area.

He seems to have been fascinated by Eastern religions and philosophies. He read widely and in 1923 moved to Lawang, about 15 kilometers north of Malang where he built a house and had coffee plantations.

“He had a Javanese housekeeper who moved her two young nieces in with her for company,” said Pringle. “Charles became very fond of these children and almost adopted them as his own, picking them up from school and treating them with great affection. He was well regarded by the people of Lawang and taught the local children English in his house.”

Stories vary about his time during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. One version has him being transported to the Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, though Mutmainah is adamant that didn’t happen.

She said he was arrested by the Japanese and released later when they discovered he wasn’t Dutch. This seems unlikely because New Zealand, along with Australia, was fighting with the Allies and Pilliet would have been considered an enemy alien.

However Mutmainah said that after the war he did stay for a year or more in Singapore where he had a Jewish friend. This may have been during the four-year war for Indonesian independence.

When Pilliet returned to Java he was a poor man though he got some support from his family in NZ.

Why didn’t he go back to his homeland? Mutmainah said this was because of his antagonism towards his father, but Walter had died in 1885 aged 45 from typhoid when young Charles was still a teenager. If this was the reason the hostility must have run deep.

What attracted Pilliet to East Java? Mutmainah said he spoke Indonesian, but not Javanese. He doesn’t seem to have gone native and continued to read newspapers from Singapore, drink whisky, make his own wine and dress as a European.

Pringle is particularly keen to trace his great, great uncle’s books. These were probably in English because the old man refused to use the Dutch language. They may well have been sold to libraries and were probably about philosophy.

If you have any clues or anecdotes, please contact Michael Pringle at
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 11 October)