Prelude to SCL Field School

Whilst not part of the HKU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes field trip, I have been fortunate to spend the last 48 hours acclimatising to Indonesia; in Jakarta.  I knew little of this city before arriving; I certainly didn’t realise it was so large!  Over 9.6million residents if you take Wikipedia’s word for it and according to a personal guide who walked me through Kota Tua (the ‘Old Town’), many more would travel to the city each day for work or to sell their wares.

The city’s charm crept up on me slowly and after this brief stay I was left wishing my time there was longer, if nothing else, in order to have the time to ride the lift to the top of the National Monument to take in the view as large crowds meant a several hour queue on day one, and unfortunately the lift was closed for maintenance when I returned early on day 2.

National Monument

The city, that initially seemed intimidating, goes about its business with a cheerful smile; the blend of wealth and squalor, high-rise and shanty shacks merge into a chaotic acceptance of the others right to exist.  I am quick to add that I only experienced a slice of Jakarta covering an area around 5.5km2 whilst (again, thanks Wikipedia) the metropolitan area of Jakarta is over 6,300km2.  Though from what I could tell scanning the horizon from my 8th floor room or when travelling from/to the airport the densely populated city seems to recur in its juxtaposed culture, so there is no reason to think the sample I saw is not reflective of the wider city.


Spending half of my time as a pedestrian in a city seems that is constantly on the move, you become aware of the cultural acceptance of others.  Pedestrians cross the road by waving the vehicles down to a slow allowing a gap to open up.  Drivers toot horns to alert others of their presence and let merging traffic into their path (lane lines are rarely adhered to), and in this understanding the city keeps moving without incident.

Friendly locals helping me get around

Mopeds are everywhere, and by the end of the weekend they were my preferred choice of getting from A to B (the first 24 hours was by foot only).

Major sites that I visited were the National Monument and associated public park, across the road from Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in South East Asia, with facility for 120,000 worshipers.  Another feature of the visit to Jakarta was the guided tour of the historic Dutch developed Kota Tua, where the guide shared much of the city’s colonial and trading history.

Overall, Jakarta gave me an appreciation for a populations ability in an extremely large city to self regulate and find a way to respect and accommodate each other in close quarters.


SCL Field School Day One

Today began with a trip to the Balai Konservasi Sumber Day Alam (National Resource Conservation) department offices.  The BKSDA is responsible for the conservation and management of East Java’s twenty conservation areas comprising 17 Natural Reserves and 3 WIldlife Sanctuaries.  In total the land under conservation exceeds 30,000 hectares and is managed by 247 staff.  The first natural reserve, Mt Ijen, was established in 1920 and is famous for it’s blue flame – one of only two in the world (the other being in Iceland).  We will be visiting Mt Ijen in a few days so more on this landscape later.

The day also included a talk at our host University, Petra Kristen University in Surabaya outlining the process of designing new campus buildings, from site analysis through to completion of the buildings, which we able to inspect.  From a landscape perspective it was interesting to observe the use of coloured building materials which matched the surrounding gardens.  Attention to climatic conditions created public open spaces underneath the structure while cantilevering each floor negated the harsh tropical sunshine.

Of the other activities today (bird markets and traditional port vessels alongside the international container ships) the highlight

was the visit to Wonorejo Mangroves.  The mangroves are being rehabilitated after pollution has degraded the area.  I was inspired by the plan to conserve rather than just preserve, inviting visitors into the landscape rather than restricting any access.   Education and awareness of the issues in the mangroves will permeate into the wider community providing benefits throughout the community.  Through the use of natural traditional materials and structures visitors are able to have close contact with the flora and fauna.  The operation requires the planting of 100 new mangroves each week given the high failure rate in the harsh environment.  There also remains a large amount of litter carried to the site on the tide, both from the inland stream and the ocean, yet the environment is pleasant and a relaxing escape from the bustle of Surabaya.

SCL Field School Day Two

Today began with a trip the Lopindo Mud “Volcano”.  This is not a natural volcano but rather a man-made disaster that has resulted in a mud flow that, tragically, caused 13 human deaths, left 60,000 residents homeless with the resulting mud field annihilating 6,000 hectares of rural land.


The event occurred when a drill head, operated by a quasi-government owned mining company, drilling for gas malfunctioned rupturing a seam in the earth’s crust forcing gas and mud into a geyser that has continuously been erupting since 2006.  Denials of responsibility meant the surviving members of the 16 villages in the affected area were without compensation and while it was only accepted in the last couple of years that the error was man made as opposed to an inevitable natural occurrence.  While the tyranny of distance makes it easy for many to overlook the significance of this event, visiting the site forced me to wonder what would happen in Australia if a similar accident occurred where coal seam gas projects are proposed, many in built urban environments.  Scientific analysis of the mud field shows it to be a highly toxic mix constituting 85% silicon and aluminium.

Initially an earthen buffer was built to contain the spill, though as the mud continued to flow the barrier was overcome, two subsequent earth walls were also overcome.  The latest “solution” has been to channel the mud into the Brantes River which has contained the size of the mud field but the full extent of the success of this solution is yet to be fully realised as the toxic soil will undoubtedly be influencing the ecology of the river downstream, including the mangroves visited on day one.  Visiting the site is a solemn experience as you ponder the dead and displaced, it is a surreal landscape, a baron mud desert where there once would have been productive agricultural land, and the survivors forced to leave their land and take refuge within other communities and the upheaval the influx must have caused the accommodating villages.  A tiny percentage of original locals can earn a small income hosting visitors, renting mopeds for us to tour the landscape but the income from this activity can barely replace their former lives.

Next, we were taken to the outskirts of Surabaya to visit the head office and marketing department of Citraland, a new urban development.  The area is marketed as “Singapore in Surabaya” and has a distinctly global north feel, aspirational for middle class residents and attempting to create suburban communities.  The project marketers claim the development is environmentally friendly treating waste locally and re-using water on site.  A positive ratio of 65% open space including green corridors , parks and luxury golf courses to 35% built environment structures (residences, shopping centres, schools, community buildings) certainly appears to tick modern boxes and as a westerner I find it very hard to criticise these efforts, nit picking over actual success rates such as whether all of the landfill occurs within the boundary of Citraland or whether the residences are too large and impractical to maintain in tropical climates.

What I do find disturbing is the void of character that is rife in other parts of Surabaya.  I would much prefer to see a green suburb that somehow parlays the desakota communities into a grander version remembering that rural lands are being forced further afield by this type of development, thus it is less sustainable in the long run.

After visiting the new development, we were taken to Gundih an established inner-city community to see how sustainability issues are being treated.  The project has converted an area that was suffering neglect and attracting an element of what William Holly Whyte would refer to as “undesirable”.  At the core of the project was the principle of green infrastructure which has clearly given the local community a sense of pride and ownership of the sub-district, enabling them to produce their own agricultural produce sustaining the community and connecting the residents to traditional customs.  Locals performed dances, presented a talk and offered samples of some of the foods produced as well as demonstrating how the water management system had revitalised the community.

Essentially, a retro-fitted water filtration and cleansing system had been installed enabling the production of foods and medicines along the alley ways and in the small spaces adjacent to the canal.  Waste water and storm water was collected and recycled on site, improving health outcomes and providing economy and pride in the community.  The project showed me that when a public green infrastructure is well implemented the benefits reached far beyond environmental outcomes and most importantly showed social progress as well.

Hopefully the success of Gundih (one of 16 projects already implemented) can be replicated many more times through hundreds or thousands of similar traditional communities existing in Surabaya.

SCL Field School Day Three

Today was a transit day; travelling south-east to Banyuwangi (soft ‘g’ as in tangy).  The view from the plane gave a hint of the adventure that was ahead of us.  Mountains peaking above the clouds and the desakota (intermingled urban and agricultural environment) evident on the landscape below – apologies for the poor photo quality.

Upon arrival we were greeted by our local guide Anto, who warmly welcomed us, firstly taking us to lunch and then to the hotel that would become our base for the next couple of nights.  In the afternoon I had the opportunity for self-exploration where I got to see locals preparing their sailing trimarans for the Indonesian Independence Day celebrations.

An impromptu game of soccer with locals on the beach also provided some relief and exercise after the flight.  Dinner was organised by Anto and then an early night to get a few hours sleep before rising at midnight to begin our trek to Mt Ijen Volcano to witness the blue flame and catch the sunrise at the summit.

SCL Field School Day Four

At five past midnight we were bundled into four-wheel drives for the hour or so drive from the coast to “base camp” 1,880 metres above sea level.  Before I get into details of the hike; background of the sustainability and eco-tourism of Mt Ijen were provided by BKSDA on day one.  In summary; Mt Ijen is an active volcano and operating sulphur mine.  It is famous as one of only two volcanos in the world producing a blue flame, the other being in Iceland.  The blue flame is caused as gasses push past the sulphur laden rock formation.  To see the blue flame, you need to climb down into the crater – at night.  The growth in popularity of this attraction has seen visitor numbers, according to BKSDA, grow a staggering ten-fold in the last seven years.  While the BKSDA was keen to show improvements they had made to the path, the rest stops and barriers at the top it was obvious they had thought less about the impact of such large growth in visitor numbers and the sustainability of such a program.  Incredibly fit locals benefit from the eco-tourism attraction; charging for their services and equipment, and smoking as they led us on the hike; something that they would do on a nightly basis.

The path to the lip of the crater was well worn, smooth and wide enough to cater hikers walking side by side in twos, threes and fours.  As a group everyone took the walk at their own pace to manage the steep and constant incline gradient approximately one in 3.  One rest stop café is located about two thirds of the way up the climb.  Upon reaching the lip of the crater 2,260m ASL, the torches of other hikers illuminate the path into the crater.

The line of hikers heading to the bottom of the crater.

The path down is treacherous and uneven, with narrow sections requiring care as you pass other hikers climbing out of the crater.  By this stage we were all wearing gas masks provided by guides as the fumes of sulphur dioxide wafting in plumes up the crater were quite overwhelming.  Descent would be impossible without one.  Standing at the edge of a vast lake that has formed in the caldera, guides advise where to watch to catch glimpses of the famous blue flame.  It is disorienting at first in the darkness, looking like a gas dissipating as quickly as it forms, but then you realise it is the plumes of smoke that hide a constant view of the flame that is actually rolling down the edge of the rock wall you are standing next to.  The smoke made it hard for my camera to capture a clear shot of the flame, it is truly a remarkable spectacle best experienced in person, yet the uncomfortable and dangerous environment raises real questions as to whether this eco-tourism activity is truly viable.  Many other countries would ensure the activity is not undertaken at all due to the risks involved.

Most incredibly local sulphur miners, who are paid a paltry $6US per day, carry baskets of sulphur weighing up to 60kg on their shoulders out of the crater along the same path used by tourists.  They also carve the sulphur into trinkets for sale to tourists.

Day was breaking as we climbed out of the crater, and at this stage the true beauty of Mt Ijen reveals itself.

Panoramic Photo just after daybreak

The blue flame disappears in daylight, yet the view is stunning, watching the hue of the morning sky change and the blue lake in the crater is a sight that is hard to ignore.  The 360 degree view is stunning, other volcanos in the region reveal themselves above the clouds, the climb to the top is worth it for this experience alone.

Once you do manage to pull yourself away from the view the descent down the path is at least as gruelling as the ascent.  The hike highlighted the blurred line between eco-tourism and extreme adventure and as thrill seekers we often crave the most extreme story – as landscape managers however; protection of human life and the environment should be prioritised, in that order.

Arriving back at the hotel at 9am, we had an hour and a half for showers and breakfast before a bus and four-wheel drive trip to Meru Betiri National Park.  We learnt about locals’ efforts to clean their environment of plastic, the mixed (syntropic) farming plantations producing a variety of crops and then through a jungle pass to Sukamade Beach guest house, arriving just before dinner.  Later that night we sat on the beach in darkness waiting for the nightly ritual of sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs.  It may have been the light rain, but more likely we were not in the exact location to witness the spectacle of the green sea turtles lay their eggs, an experience I have had in Mexico many years ago.  We got back to the accommodation about midnight, making this the longest day of the trip so far.  I now laugh at myself for thinking the 14-hour tours in Surabaya were long!  To cap it off I now had 5 hours of sleep to look forward to before heading back to the beach to see the product of the rangers working to protect the survival of the turtle eggs.

SCL Field School Day Five

Today was an early start, 5am for breakfast and then another trip to Sukamade Beach to release sea turtles that had hatched.  The normal incubation period is about six weeks and during that time the eggs are protected from predators and human disturbance in a hut a short distance from the beach.  Each morning eggs are collected, recorded and buried in beach-sand pits within the hut.  The day we visited there were enough hatchlings for everyone to name and release two baby turtles.

Sea turtles rely on a complex memory system that enables the females to return to the same beach, should they make it to maturity, to lay their own eggs.  We stood on the beach approximately 25m from the shore such that the turtles would gain the instinctive memory required when released.  I was amazed at the strength of the newly hatched turtle as it pushed against my fingers, single-mindedly just wanting to race to the water.  As mentioned yesterday, I had seen turtles laying eggs before but taking part in releasing these creatures on their first day sea-life was special.  I truly hope “Harvey” and “Wilma” have long and fulfilling lives, their instinct was strong so I am confident they will survive, at least I didn’t see the sea-eagles above swoop down and cut it very short.  As an experience I was glad to see the organisation did all they could not to stress the mothers and babies as they pass through this ritual.  In the evening, torches and flash photography was prohibited and the rite of passage occurred as naturally as possible.

Next we saw how the locals practiced a mixed culture farming.  A variety of food producing trees (coconut, cocoa, fruits and vegetables) were planted among rubber trees creating a syntropic environment, providing employment for many members of the community.  We were taken to a factory that processed all of the area’s produce, at the time we visited they were processing rubber and coconut husks.  The husks, in fact all of the older trees, were used in the production process demonstrating the sustainability of this community.  The factory was established with government assistance which enables them to trade throughout Asia, particularly the rubber production, whilst sustaining lifestyle for themselves in this secluded corner of Java.

Following the inspiring example of sustainability in the 21st century, we returned to our hotel in Banyuwangi (a few hours by 4WD and bus) in time for dinner and a much needed sleep.

SCL Field School Day Six

Another transit day.  So far on this trip we have travelled by plane, motorbike, bus and four-wheel drive.  Today we added ferry to the list.  We left Banyuwangi, Java on an early morning vehicle-ferry (the bus came with us) bound for Gilimanuk on the north-west peninsula of Bali.

We loaded back onto the bus for the long trip to Ubud.  On the way we saw countless rice paddy fields and witnessed more desakota landscape as we passed through long linear urban environments supported by proximity to agricultural lands.  I was also fascinated by how many homes celebrated their religion with small temples in their front yards.

A private yard temple.

The trip was broken by a lunch time stop to visit Hindu temple Tanah Lot (Tanah = sea, Lot = Land, the land in the sea).  The temple is significant to the Hindu population of Bali as a place of pilgrimage, inaccessible at high tide it is said to be where the Hindi’s first arrived in Bali.  On the mainland the temple gate structure references the parting of the mountain to show the way.  The parted mountain gateway is replicated in many temples across Bali.

We arrived at our destination, Ubud, inland and north of Denpasar, late in the afternoon.  At this point our guides left us and we were advised to explore Ubud for the next couple of days on our own accord.