22nd June 2013
Getting up at two in the morning to go somewhere remote in Indonesia is Dan Quinn‘s idea of fun, so it seemed like a good idea for Our Kid and I to join him for a night on the island of Tarakan in North Kalimantan.
Needing to check in for our Lion Air flight at 3:30 am we naturally ordered a Blue Bird taxi. There was no sign of it at the scheduled time, so we rang the BB HQ. It was waiting just up the road outside the original Jakartass Towers – now a building site! When it did come, I had to continually cajole the driver to speed along with the cars which passed us rather than crawl behind the many trucks which invade Jakarta at night.
Having checked in, at a surprisingly crowded terminal, there was time for a coffee; the cafe could only offer fancy cappuccinno, which I’ve long thought was a breed of monkey. Thoughtfully, I’d packed a few sachets of kopi-gula so all we needed were a couple of cups of hot water and our caffeine intake was completed.
We sat in waiting area A4, as per our boarding passes. If we’d waited in area A7 which was shown as our designated area on the terminal’s illuminated screens, we might have missed the bus which carried us to the back of, if not beyond, the airport to where our plane was parked.
On arrival, in daylight, we paid the standard Rp.50,000 ‘taxi’ fare which dropped us outside the Hotel Samkho in the town centre about 2km away. It was a typical Indonesia hotel in that the stair carpets were frayed and the furniture was a mixture of the practical, ugly and plain weird.
Mahoganny crab chairs – surprisingly comfortable!
We set out to find some breakfast, and I asked a group of policemen for suggestions. One of the four left the shelter of their parasol – it was already extremely hot – and kindly pointed out a warung on the other side of the crossroads.
When we were ready to leave, Dan politely asked the lass in charge for the bill: “Tolong, minta bon.” It took her a while to come back and when she did she presented him with a pad of blank bills. We all laughed, and none more so than the group of uniformed workers enjoying an extended break at the next table. Our Kid, who many thought was our translator/guide, told us that all we need to do is ask how much we have to pay.
Our next destination was but a stroll away from the town centre. The Mangrove Forest was to prove an absolute delight. You know that you are getting near because the outside wall has a series of concrete friezes.
The forest is spread over nine hectares and is noted for ikan tempankul, a fish that walks out of the water which we called mudskippers, for proboscis and macaque monkeys as well as many bird species, none of which we saw but could hear above the occasional irritating noise from the street outside.
The shaded boardwalks and benches cooled us down, and we relaxed, apart from one moment of paranoia. Coming towards us out of the gloom of the shade at the end of our boardwalk was a group of … we knew not what. It wasn’t until they got quite close that we realised that they were policemen, with one police woman. ( Dan's pic)
We greeted each other, all smiles, and they lined up to shake our hands and we agreed that having a bit of nature in town was very agreeable.
Dan and I thought that our very pleasant day was getting rather surreal. We were certainly experiencing another plane of existence beyond our usual reality.
This may have been partly due to it being the summer solstice and the night of the annual “supermoon“. Yet, with garbage bins outside houses for both organic and non-organic waste, motorists generally obeying traffic regulations, very little parking on sidewalks and generally ‘civilised’ behaviour, we were exploring a town unlike most others we’ve found in Indonesia on our respective travels.
Sunday was somewhat different. There were many ‘Hello misters’, and kids excitedly pointing and shouting “Bule“. There were cars parked where we should have been walking, bare-footed kids selling the latest Radar Tarakan, the local newspaper, other kids held their hands out asking for money. What was worse was that when we revisited the Mangrove Forest picnicking families were scattering their litter rather than using the many large yellow rubbish bins on each walkway.
But there were at least two places which were to offer mental blinks. We didn’t expect resort hotels to front the beach, Pantai Amal, because there was little evidence that Tarakan is a tourist destination. The tide was out a long way along its vast length, and is not suitable for swimmers or surfers. However, at low tide, areas are ‘fenced’ off by shell fish collectors who, I was told by the old man seen digging away in the picture below, expect to collect 50kgs per visit.
A large marquee roof had been erected a couple of hundred metres down: on it was emblazoned POLICE. I asked our driver – we’d hired a minibus for the morning – why there should be such presence and he told me that many tourists come on a Sunday. Presumably to canoodle and partake of illicit drug dealing I figured. But no. As we sat in a warung drinking kelapa muda; (young coconuts), several trucks passed by carrying large families. Each truck was emblazoned POLICE or BRIMOB. Yep, the tourists were the police themselves.
Later, after visiting the Japanese and Australian war memorials – Terakan was the site of a major battle in WWII – it was eventually time to head for the airport. Having checked in we had time for last drinks and a meal. To our agreeable surprise we found two places run by mums with children in tow: both had comfortable sofas, much as we expect they had at home.
Thankfully, we had seen no evidence of the inter-communal strife which erupted in 2010, so we left much as we’d arrived: smiling.
Dan has posted an album of his photos here and mine are here.
Lion Air, Sriwijaya and Susu Air (Milk Water – eh?)
Things to do
Reread the above + Explore the waterways on the mainland .
Don’t bother with the Lonely Planet Guide with its inaccurate map and outdated info on restaurants etc. We ‘liked’ the Elizabeth Cafe – good selection of ice cream treats and fruit juices.