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 www.kaliandrasejati.org 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 www.puncaktrek.com for more information.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 )ctober 08)