Monyet biasa?

Monyet biasa (‘Ordinary monkeys’), a.k.a. Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan.

Common perhaps, but anything but ordinary.

Mungkin sering terlihat, tapi masih monyet luar biasa.

Anzac Day in Balikpapan

This morning we attended the Anzac Day dawn service at Pasir Ridge here in Balikpapan. And it was every bit as interesting as we had expected it to be. The event did however involve some measure of culture shock, as we listened to the unaccustomed tones of Australian voices in Balikpapan, and (a recording of) a Scottish pipe band playing ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ and ‘Along the road to Gundagai’… repeatedly.

The Anzac Day dawn service is a well-established annual event here, one of only four locations in Indonesia where the day is officially commemorated. Balikpapan is also home to a well-maintained Australian War Memorial (the Tugu Australia) which sits in the middle of a roundabout down on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman.

Balikpapan was the site, on 1 July 1945, of the last major land operation of the Second World War, and the Australian Army’s largest ever amphibious landing. 21,000 Australian troops, supported by artillery and Dutch, British and American air and naval forces, overwhelmed the Japanese occupying force of just 3,900 soldiers. By that time, the Japanese had occupied the island of Borneo for three years.

However many historians, and even many military leaders at the time, have said that the operation served no worthwhile strategic purpose. The oil refineries, port facilities and most of the military fortifications had already been destroyed by months of artillery and aerial bombardment (comprising some 23,000 shells). The Japanese forces in Indonesia were already close to collapse, and (as it happened) the end of the war was only six weeks away.

Nonetheless, 229 Australians died in the ‘Battle of Balikpapan’, and 634 were wounded. Pasir Ridge, where today’s service was held, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting.

Around 1800 Japanese soldiers were also killed in the battle (nearly half of their total number), and just 63 were taken prisoner. Near the site of the Australian memorials on Pasir Ridge is an unmarked and unremarkable mound of earth, where a number of Japanese casualties were buried in a mass grave.

Despite the early hour, we were keen to attend the commemoration. In part this was because my father was here on that day, almost 73 years ago. He was on board the landing ship HMAS Kanimbla – though happily he was was not sent ashore, and his ship returned to Moratai the next day.

The (hopefully not apocryphal) story goes that General Blamey addressed the soldiers of the 2/9th Battalion aboard the Kanimbla, en route to Balikpapan, trying to gee them up in preparation for the imminent massive battle. “I know that the 2/9th will want to be in the thick of it!” he proclaimed. At which point one of the ‘Diggers’ interjected loudly: “Pig’s arse! Aren’t you coming with us?!”

All up, around 100 people attended the dawn service at Pasir Ridge, which is on land now held by the oil company Chevron Indonesia. There were, amongst others: representatives of provincial and city governments, Chevron, senior staff (including military personnel) from the Australian Embassy, officers and rank-and-file from the Indonesian military (TNI), veterans and war widows, as well as a number of Australian expats resident in Indonesia.

It was a nicely inter-cultural, Indonesian-Australian event, with all speeches and prayers delivered in both Bahasa Indonesia and (Australian) English language.

Adjacent flagpoles flew the Indonesian flag (the ‘Merah putih’) and the Australian flag – at half mast. In front of the flagpoles, an Indonesian honour guard stood at attention throughout the service.

About a dozen large wreaths, each marked with the words “Lest we forget” were laid, by both Indonesian and Australians, on a memorial formed from parts of a wrecked Australian tank.

As is traditional, the service concluded with (a recording of) The Last Post, a minute of silence, and Reveille. The Australian flag was raised from the half mast position up to the level of the adjacent Indonesian flag.

And then (of course!) there was an extended block of time set aside for group photographs, with almost every possible permutation of people assembled and photographed in front of the tank memorial. 

Yes, including us! (Seen here with Fleur Davies, Matthew Campbell and Richard Swaby from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta).


Then the ceremony was over, and we all decamped, boarding the two provided buses to take us down the hill to the Novotel Hotel for a buffet breakfast and warm conversation. But no beer and two-up…

Thanks to the Organising Committee for our invitation to attend, and for planning and hosting such a memorable and professionally-run event. Lest we forget.

For more on the Battle of Balikpapan:


Fishing at Pantai Ngandong

I’ve previously written about the beauty and tourist attractions of Pantai Ngandong, located on the south coast of Central Java, in the Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta (the ‘Special Region of Yogyakarta).

But besides tourism there is also an active fishing industry in Ngandong, with around 15 small vessels venturing out daily. At the eastern end of the beach is a safe channel out past Pulau Watulawang to the ocean, deep enough to avoid the large surf coming in from the Indian Ocean.

The wooden can usually only comfortably accommodate two fishermen, along with their nets, lines and room for the catch. Nowadays they are propelled by outboard motor – mostly Suzukis or Yamahas. Unless the tide is too low, they head out at first light each morning, starting about 5:30 a.m.

We didn’t get the opportunity to go out with them, as they said the sea was too rough and could not ensure our safety at the times we wanted to go. But we could watch the boats from the shore, as the little craft set their nets only a kilometre or so out to sea.

The fishermen returned about six hours after setting out and, after unloading the catch and eating lunch, most of them went out again in the afternoons.

The wooden boats are heavy, and the sandy beach is quite steep. They hit the beach at speed when they return, so as to get as far as possible up the slope.

A team of helpers arrive to assist in carrying the boats up beyond the high tide line. (These helpers are later rewarded with the gift of some small fish from the catch).

The catch is transferred from the boat to plastic trays to be carried up the fishermen’s cooperative, located just above the beach. The boats that we examined had managed to catch up to 20 fish of various sizes and varieties.

The most valuable are worth as much as Rp100,000 (AU$10) per kilo. These are the sidat (eels). I think the large ones may be Common Pike Eels – Muraenesox bagio.

In the co-op, the fish are sorted and weighed. Both the co-op staff and the fishermen watch the scales with great interest.

The ikan patin (varieties of catfish), and ikan kakap sell for around Rp.50,000 per kilo.

The name of the fisherman, the varieties of fish caught, and the total weights, are carefully recorded into an exercise book. The fishermen are paid later, according to the prices achieved at the market.

The fish are then packed into ice-filled containers and dispatched to market at the regional centre of Wonosari. First ‘The iceman cometh’… and then ‘the fish goeth’.

Tourism at Pantai Ngandong

The little seaside village at Pantai Ngandong sits snugly in the limestone karst landscape of Central Java. It’s actually located within the ‘Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta’ (the Special Region of Yogyakarta), but it’s over two hours’ drive southeast from the city itself.

Like the many other beach settlements along this stretch of coast, the economy is now largely based on domestic tourism, drawing visitors from Central Java and further afield to enjoy the marvellous scenery, swimming and fishing, seafood, white sandy beaches and the caves of the hinterland.

The coastal scenery, with the limestone cliffs being (relatively) rapidly eroded, is really quite spectacular. And the water is clean and blue.

Even for an Australian visitor, no stranger to scenic shorelines, the golden sand beach is lovely and inviting.

With some very sculptural formations in the limestone.

And, offshore on the reef, there is a rather nice right-hand surf break – but with no-one out there to ride it.

At low tide, the rock platform adjoining Pulau Watulawang encourages beach-combing. The little rock pools are home to an array of pretty, weird and/or dangerous-looking sea-life.

Visiting tourists can recline on mats under brightly coloured beach umbrellas – once they’ve paid to rent the space.

The beachside road is lined with warungs, snorkelling hire outlets and gift shops. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of seafood to be had – such as these lightly battered and deep fried prawns (udang goreng). They were delicious – as were the crispy fried seaweed (rumput laut) snacks in the bag at the right of the picture below.

For more snacks, there are kaki lima vendors up and down the road. Fruit salad in front (with pineapple, papaya, melon, dragonfruit and banana), and cilok (balls of tapioca and egg, served with peanut sauce) behind.

There is of course no shortage of suitable locations for selfies and group photos! Can you spot the bule?

And no shortage of places to leave your name as a record of your visit – including some novel locations.

Plenty of picturesque (if somewhat dangerous) spots for rock or beach fishing.

An abundance of swimming holes to cool off in. Very modest (some might say impractical) swimming attire – even worn when snorkelling.

Anti-drug murals in Jogjakarta

To the foreign observer, the Indonesian attitude to drug use may appear to be, well… inconsistent.

On the one hand, according to the World Health Organisation, there are 95 million ‘active’ tobacco smokers in Indonesia. Indonesian cigarettes are the cheapest in the world, mostly due to low levels of government taxation and regulation. Tobacco advertising and sponsorship can be seen just about everywhere you look. Attitudes to smoking are generally very relaxed (though this is changing, slowly), and there are very few public places where smoking is not permitted. It’s a huge and politically powerful industry, and the wealthiest individuals in the country are tobacco moguls (according the ‘Forbes Rich List’ 2018.)

In 2014, the National Commission on Tobacco Control stated that, nation-wide, 660 people die daily due to tobacco use.

At the other extreme there are, according to the national narcotics agency (BNN), less than 1 million people who are addicted to illegal drugs (‘narkoba’). A total of 4 million people are said to have tried illicit drugs at least once during their lives – with cannabis and amphetamine use being most common.

The BNN has estimated that, across the country, 33 people die daily due to use of narkoba. By a statistical coincidence, this is exactly 5% of the death toll from smoking.

But it is the use of illegal drugs that has been declared to be a ‘national emergency’. Capital punishment is in place for traffickers, and laudable (if occasionally hysterical) public health campaigns are in place to discourage illicit drug use.

Here in Jogjakarta, there is a concrete wall running a couple of hundred metres along the length of Gang Gatotkaca. It marks the boundary of a large technical high school (SMK Negeri 2 Depok – Sleman). Students from each of the school’s subject divisions have painted anti-narkoba murals along the wall.

These murals are very creative – variously graphic, cartoonish, funny, clever, simplistic – and in some cases quite moving. Interestingly, like much of the ever-present tobacco advertising billboards, many of the messages are spelt out in English.

I photographed them when we were last here, back in November 2016. But they are still there, their messages just a little faded.

Napza [Narkotika, Psikotropika dan Zat Adiktif lainnya] No Thanks. Stembayo sembada tanpa narkoba
“Drugs? No thanks. STEMBAYO [the former name of the school] is good/capable without drugs”

Build future without drugs

Narkoba? Ngoleleleng po?
“Narcotics? See it?” [Javanese language]

Kreatif tak perlu zat adiktif
“Creativity does not need addictive substances”

Say no to drugs

Peringatan: Narkoba membunuhmu
“Warning: Drugs kill you” [paraphrases the warning now printed on cigarette packets and advertisments]

Dunia indah tanpa narkoba
“Beautiful world without drugs”

Everyone gets lonely when using drugs

Bentengi dirimu dari narkoba
“Fortify yourself from drugs” [Note the inclusion of ‘rokok’ (cigarettes) in the display]

Life is short. There is no time to drugs. Say no to drugs.

Jauhi narkoba
“Stay away from drugs”

Jauhi narkoba. Hidupmu berharga.
“Stay away from drugs. Your life is precious.”

STEMBAYO tanpa narkoba.
“Our school without drugs”

Stay cool without drugs.


Setan. STEMBAYO enak tanpa narkoba.
“Devil. Our school is nice without drugs.”

Drugs can kill you.

Life is more beautiful without drugs.


Gula aren

Indonesia has a sweet tooth. Syrupy snacks and cakes are hugely popular, and it can be challenging to order a cup of tea or coffee without it being liberally dosed with sugar. I’ve been asked, somewhat incredulously: “Apakah Anda benar mau minum kopi tanpa rasa?” (“Do you really want to drink coffee without flavour?) Even ‘plain’ bread is likely to be sweetened.

Cane sugar

Across the country there are 1.3 million families engaged in sugar cane cultivation, and 63 operational sugar mills (most of which are over 100 years old). But local production accounts for less than half of the mountain of sugar consumed. The rest is imported.

The ‘average’ Indonesian consumes around 25kg of refined sugar per year. So imagine a big white mountain containing 5.7 million tonnes of sugar – that’s how much Indonesians are forecast to consume this year.

But despite Indonesia’s reputation as a nation of sugar-lovers, it might (or might not!) be surprising to find that the Australian per capita consumption is 50% higher than Indonesia’s – and that the US average is even higher again. In fact, Indonesian consumption is actually close to the worldwide average – if still higher than the World Health Organisation’s ‘recommended’ maximum consumption of 18kg.

Palm sugar

However, in Indonesia, cane sugar is only part of the story. Sugarcane plantations have only existed since the Dutch colonial time. Prior to then, and continuing to the present day, Indonesians produced a variety of palm sugars, usually collectively referred to as ‘gula merah’ (red sugar).

Palm sugar can be made from the sap of Nipa palms (Nypa frutican), Toddy (or Lontar) palms (Borassus flabellifer) or, most commonly, from the Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Coconut palm sugar is known locally as gula kelapa or gula jawa. It is sometimes sold as a blend of the genuine palm sugar and (cheaper) cane sugar.

The best quality palm sugar is derived from the sap of the Aren palm (Arenga pinnata). This sugar (gula aren) is regarded as more fragrant and richer than gula kelapa – and it is both less common and more expensive.

We were fortunate to witness the whole process of making gula aren while staying in Kedang Ipil, a village a few hours’ by road west of Samarinda, in Kutai Kartnegara, East Kalimantan. We were taken there by our wonderful and indefatigable guide Innal Rahman.

Pak Hairo has ten mature Aren palms. He ‘owns’ them – but not the land that they grow on – with his exclusive right to tap them indicated by the bamboo ladders that he built to climb up each one. For the people of Kedang Ipil, it’s a valuable plant; the young fruit can also be eaten, and the fibrous material of the trunk is widely employed as a roofing material.

The palms are scattered around the forest which surrounds the village, as – unlike the much-maligned African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) – the Aren palm is not well suited to plantation cultivation, preferring to grow in mixed forests. They grow to over 20 metres tall, and begin to produce flower stems, from which the sweet sap is obtained, after 10-15 years.

Pak Hairo collects the sap twice daily (at around 6:00am and 4:00pm) from those Aren palms that are currently in production, using a 2 metre length of bamboo to capture the sap. Before each use of the bamboo, he goes through an elaborate process of cleaning the inside of the bamboo with hot smoke. This ensures that the surface is clean and free of bacteria, so that the sweet sap won’t begin to ferment before it can be rendered down to make blocks of gula aren.

Once in the forest, he climbs up a precariously balanced ladder to the fruiting branch, carrying an empty length of bamboo, and the special sharp knife he uses to make incisions to release the sap.

He removes the full (and now very heavy) bamboo from his previous visit, and then a new incision is made – with great care. The cut must be made at just the right and angle and depth; if not, less sap will be released, and the productive time of the flower stem – which can up to six months – will be reduced.

Once the new bamboo is in place, he can return home to commence converting the sap into gula aren.

The harvested sap is emptied into a large wok-shaped cooker, placed over a small fire. The fire can’t be allowed to get too hot, or else the gula aren will become black, burnt and unpalatable.

The cooking process takes about two hours, during which time the brew must be stirred very regularly so as cook evenly.

The process is complete when the mixture becomes very viscous, dark red and bubbling thickly.

He pours the still-liquid gula aren into moulds cut into a length of timber, and leaves it to cool and solidify.

We enjoyed tasting the left-over bits that remained in the cooking pot. They were truly delicious!

Sometimes the gula aren is moulded into cylindrical shapes, or into little dome-shapes inside coconut shells. But Pak Hairo makes blocks, with the contents of two lengths of bamboo (i.e. one day’s harvest from an Aren palm) producing four blocks of the sugar. He can sell one block for Rp25,000 (a little under AUS$2.50). Not a big return for a long day’s work…

On the Mahakam, coal is king

The Mahakam River runs right across the province of Kalimantan Timur, from the Muller Mountains of Central Borneo to the east coast, downstream of Samarinda. At 980km, it’s the second longest river in Indonesia (after the Kapuas in Kalimantan Barat).

The Sultanate of Kutai Kartanegara ruled over most of the Mahakam River basin from its establishment in 1300 AD. Then came waves of disruption in the form of the Dutch, independence, and trans-migration. There is still a Sultan at the palace in Tenggarong – but nowadays on the Mahakam, coal is king.

There ís a lot of traffic on the Mahakam which is still, despite construction of lots of roads, a major highway into ‘The Interior’. And a lot of that traffic consists of coal barges. During one recent four-day trip up the river, we must have seen a hundred of them.

Huge floating steel trays, each one hauled behind a large tugboat. Full barges, low in the water, heading downstream, and empty ones returning back upstream to be refilled.

The mining companies truck the coal to the river, where it gets crushed, stockpiled, and then loaded onto the barges.

These barges are big. Upriver (upstream of the Mahakam Lakes) they can ‘only’ manage a load of 5000 tonnes, but the downstream barges may carry 7-8,000 tonnes of coal.

The content of each barge gets loaded onto ocean-going freighters – near the river mouth, at offshore transfer stations, or at the port down here in Balikpapan. Some even gets towed across the Java Sea to Surabaya for local (Indonesian) use, but most is exported – primarily to China, India, Japan and Korea.

There are dozens of active (and many inactive…) coal mines in the Mahakam basin, often many kilometres distant from the river. The economic benefits of the industry to the local economy are substantial, but the environmental cost is huge. Apart from pumping carbon into the atmosphere when the coal is eventually burnt, the mines themselves scar the landscape, and leaching and leakage contributes the very high levels of heavy metals (cadmium, copper, lead etc) contamination of the once-pristine river. And in its fish, and in those who eat them.

But in 2017, Mahakam coal and oil (the latter industry based around Balikpapan) remain the mainstays of the East Kalimantan economy (although palm oil is of course also big…). Even a moderate drop in the price of ore (as has happened in recent years) leads to the closure of many marginal extraction operations, bankruptcy for small operators, and the inability (or unwillingness) of many companies to fulfil their obligations to remediate the environmental damage they have caused.

Barges can always be seen heading south down the coast at Balikpapan. From the shore, they could easily be mistaken for little black islands.

Tane’ Olen

Two of the large and rather imposing trees in the Tane’ Olen forest upriver of Setulang, North Kalimantan, Indonesia. One (and possibly both) of them is a Yellow Meranti (Shorea faguetiana). They grow TALL – the biggest recorded one is 93m, found in nearby Sabah province of Malaysia).

Some people like to refer to the Tane’ Olen as the ‘Forbidden Forest’ – the name coming from a decision by the local Dayak Kenyah community of Setulang to prohibit extractive activities such as logging.

If it’s not ‘forbidden’, these trees were certainly difficult to get to: from Balikpapan it required two flights, one hour of driving, one hour in a ‘perahu’ canoe, and one hour on foot ascending a track up a steamy slippery ridge. Worth every bit.

Karen is standing beside Ran and Dongo from Setulang, who ensured that we got there (and got back) safely, and managed to patiently and knowledgeably field every one of our many questions…