Another postcard from Tim.

October 1996.

There are hundreds of cities in Indonesia, and I’ve been to almost none. But I have been to Surabaya, the Melbourne of Java. Compared to Jakarta, it is more industrial, more serious, more settled and more out of the way. No city would be worthy of comparison to Melbourne if it wasn’t hosting events of enormous global significance, such as Queensland/NSW rugby league matches. Just as Melbourne has snatched the Grand Prix from Adelaide, Surabaya too has its towering victories, stolen events of earthshaking significance. When I arrived, the Surabaya airport was displaying a large, prominent banner proclaiming the current show-stopper. Yes, folks, Surabaya was hosting, at that very time, the "Technical Workshop on Conservation Priorities and Actions of Edible Birdnest". I tell you, the town was buzzing. I was lucky to get a hotel room. I have photos to prove this, you know.


I did see one Surabayan innovation that should take off in Jakarta. I saw a pedestrian carrying a stop-sign on a stick. If the Japanese had to endure Indonesian-style traffic, they would be making handheld traffic lights, but the stop sign is a fairly cool idea. Watching Indonesian pedestrians reminds me of the Anzac spirit: bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

So what was I doing in Surabaya? Mainly a weekend off. One of my friends working at Nabisco had a trade launch there. Globalisation has its downside – product launches are the same everywhere. The same expensive presentations, silly competitions and contrived merrymaking from the hosts, and the same polite indifference from the audience, with its mind locked on the free feed and door-prizes. The guests had cheerfully ignored the no-children rule. I had a look at the melee, and made my usual decisive analysis of the situation -- I grabbed a plate of Oreos and headed up to my room, to watch Kerry O’Brien on the soon-to-be-mourned Australia TV. [No, Australia TV lives still, 1998. If only Collingwood would come good, so I can fully appreciate it].

Tris and Rieva get rugged up for the trip to the top of Mt Bromo. This was when I was laughing at them for overreacting.


The highlight of my Surabaya visit was a spectacular night trip to the peak of Mount Bromo, to watch dawn. We left the hotel at midnight, for the long drive. At night, East Java roads look much like roads in country Victoria. As we started climbing, I felt I could have been headed for Mount Buller. The Mount Bromo trip is a big attraction, and traffic started building up heavily, noticed, in true Indonesian style, by everyone in our vehicle except the driver. After a couple of hours, we arrived at Bromo village. Here, we had to leave our hired car and arrange transport to the summit. Just like Mount Buller, this is a lucrative monopoly. Before we found our sherpa/driver, it was time to go shopping for cold weather clothes. I, hardy mountain boy from the alpine slopes of Mansfield, sneered at these poor tropical inhabitants who were freezing in the cool air. Bromo village must be around 2000 metres high, and the temperature had dropped to around 12°. For Indonesians, these are near-Arctic conditions, and there was a brisk trade in gloves, scarves, jumpers, survival kits, space blankets, St Bernards etc. I, naturally, ignored this, and poked around. The locals of Bromo look Peruvian. Smaller and more wiry than the Javanese, with very colorful clothing, in knitted yellows, reds and greens. I saw a lot of ponchos. My friends completed their arctic purchases and posed, laughing at their gloves. I made a poor attempt to hide my patronising amusement, and we went in search of a vehicle for the final climb. Many folk seemed to make the final ascent by pony, but we decided this was needlessly rustic. A sturdy steed of steel was located, and after the usual bargaining, we bumped off. It was still pitch black, and getting chillier under the clear sky. The journey up seemed to consist of a great deal of travelling on a plain, followed by a very, very steep ascent at the end. Since it was dark, I had no idea what was going on (but a few hours later, on the way down, I saw and was rendered without speech). We climbed about another 700 metres, and the summit was, at 2700 metres, the highest point on the earth’s surface I have ever stood. And it was very, very, very cold. Very, very, very cold. And the pre-dawn wind didn’t help matters. It is just as well I was no longer in the mood to laugh at my friends, because I couldn’t, due to the onset of hypothermia. I did quite well holding the bottle of scotch they very kindly lent me. In fact, they were shaking even more than me, but this was due to a severe case of deep amusement manifesting in ceaseless laughter.

The sun’s rise was spectacular. I hope it is like that every day, because some of those pony riders are still on their way up.

By the time we located our clapped out, chipped, bruised and uninsurable vehicle, no mean feat since it looked like all the others, the light of the new day was upon us. These letters to my friends are not a writing workshop exercise, so I won’t bother describing the view, but let me say that Mt Bromo and its neighbours are volcanoes, at various stages of menace. The mountain sides are without life, stark, crisp, like they have been cut fresh from stone, and towering. I had never before understood how Tolkein could have been inspired to make mountains the home of suspicion, terror and unearthly evil.

About ten minutes later, I had another great leap of understanding, as I was plunged into my own world of S,T&UE. What night hides, dawn reveals. In this case, it was the terror of an incredibly steep descent, a road whose extremely suspicious integrity was forced from my mind by its lack of width, and the evil of the driver’s speedometer, indicating that he was a creature from another dimension, and was in fact driving a Volvo on a salt plain somewhere in Utah.

And then we came to the Sea of Sand, the huge plain that accounted for all the flat travelling I noticed on the way up. The Sea of Sand is the core of the old volcano, and where we had climbed earlier was the mountainous wall of hard rock surrounding it. The driver stopped, we disembarked. From where we now stood, in the sand, all that could be seen was a huge panoramic wall of mountains. The plain was a huge desert (how large must this volcano have been in its prime?). The only relief is a large Hindu temple of age, looking like an alien structure with its ominous, irregular towers and non-indigenous materials. Across the plain galloped the Peruvian-looking locals on ponies. In the far distance, there were caravans of tourists moving slowly across the horizon on horseback, seen through the early morning mist as silhouettes. My eye was whirling at the harsh desert, (in the middle of tropical Java), the Afghani mountain-cliffs, the Mongolian hordes on ponies. On one cliff wall, a long stream of pilgrims on foot or pony were disappearing into specks as they climbed towards an active fissure spewing steam and gases bad for the environment. This was the setting for a million epics.

The Sea of Sand

I think you should consider this trip if you are ever at the Birdnest conference.

Postscript: March 1998: President Suharto's grandson has decided Indonesia needs a monopoly purchaser of bird nests (which is a monopsony) and that he is the man for the job. Bird nests are big export business, although apparently not worth the attention of the first family's first generation.