Could the little village of Pacet in the hills outside Surabaya become the eco-tourism center of East Java? It certainly has the credentials: Dense forests, steep slopes, spectacular waterfalls and fertile valleys; history for the finding; culture for the curious. But first these assets have to be spruced up, made safe, properly packaged and sold to cautious locals and nervous visitors.
This is the self-imposed task set by environmentalist Suryo Prawiroatmodjo. A former Surabaya Zoo veterinary surgeon turned Greenie, Suryo lives in Pacet, a 90-minute drive from the East Java capital. He knows of the district's potential, being the founder of Seloliman, the internationally famous environmental education center on the slopes of nearby Mt. Penanggungan.
This is the sacred mountain of the 14th Century Majapahit Kingdom, and is literally littered with the remnants of pre-Islamic Java. Archeological surveys have found more than 100 sites, though not all are being preserved. (See sidebar.) "Before the first Bali bombing on Oct. 12, 2002, European, American and Australian backpackers often included Pacet on their itineraries," said Suryo.
"I've accompanied many foreigners on nature tours and I know what they want. They're seeking a clean and unspoiled environment and a positive experience, preferably unique. They want to interact with ordinary people and learn about their lives." In some villages Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice, is still recognized with ceremonies held to ensure a bountiful crop. Attending such rare and unusual events could be a major attraction to the travel-weary, fed up with the commonplace and predictable.
These unpublicized celebrations are the real thing, not cut-down versions stage-managed for tourists. The soil is so fertile in Pacet that rice farmers can get three harvests a year. This means that in many locations, the visitor can see rice being planted in one field, fertilized in another and harvested in a third. Other attractions are the nearby village of Trowulan, once the capital of the 13th Century Majapahit Kingdom, now a center of many archeological sites. There's a good museum and most locations are easily accessible by becak, or pedicab.
But where could groups of visitors stay? There are plenty of hotels in nearby Tretes, a well-known red light district. But these are for local trade and packed most weekends with escapees from the smog of Surabaya. Listening to paunchy businessmen croaking the tycoon's anthem I Did It My Way is not a recommended Saturday night experience for the sensitive.
A year ago, Suryo was negotiating with the beautifully located Grand Trawas Hotel to sell the district to ecotourists. Although the management was more interested in promoting clear air and birdsong than karaoke, the discussions led nowhere. Now he's talking to the Sativa Hotel, owned by the Wismilak tobacco company. This offers cottage accommodation in herb gardens with Majapahit-era statuary, and is more like an Ubud resort than an East Java hedonistic high-rise.
Pacet is well located for travelers exploring Java. It's also ideal for Europeans heading for Australia and working their way south through Indonesia, stopping in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bali - just add one more stop between the last two destinations. Unlike Bali, East Java doesn't have the infrastructure to cope with overseas visitors. Drive-yourself rental cars and organized tours are rare. Getting to Pacet by public transport means hiring a car and driver, or using buses, mini vans and ojek - motorcycle taxis.
These are fine for the adventurous. Others might think that swinging through potholed roads following the crumbling contours minus helmet could test the fine print in their travel insurance. And organized tour groups - to the local market, most likely - usually want all comforts provided. Some walking trails have been mapped and graded for ease, but many require safety rails in key locations and slippery slopes resurfaced.
One of Suryo's favorite views is into a valley where ancient trees, long dead, still stand supported by wild figs. Birds transported the fig seeds to the giants' upper branches. The figs grew vigorously, sending vines down to the forest floor, creating a scaffolding strong enough to support their decaying host. The thickly timbered valleys have been saved from the machete and chain saw because they're legally protected. More importantly, they're believed to be the home of forest spirits. Disturbance could arouse wrath. Tree-clad slopes seldom suffer landslides.
Don't laugh at the old myths - they're as effective as modern conservation practices backed by legislation. Suryo and his colleagues in the environment movement are now organizing meetings with local community leaders to get their support. A decade ago, the sight of blondes in khaki shorts and rugged rucksacks wandering through villages and chatting to the locals excited no alarm. However, the economic crisis, the loss of East Timor and terrorist attacks have ratcheted up suspicion.
Occasionally, authorities unfamiliar with past tourism think that groups of Westerners straying beyond their hotel pools may be up to no good. So the project has to be explained in detail. The other concern is raising expectations too high. When foreigners were a regular sight, the economy was boosted by sales of food and handicrafts. Those who remember the mini boom would expect its rapid return.
"It's going to take time to get visitors back," Suryo admitted. "Travel warnings aren't helping. There won't be any great rush. In the meantime, we're bringing classes from schools in Surabaya here so they can learn more about nature." "One idea being canvassed is for a supplementary charge to be included in any group tour cost to help maintain the environment, just as national parks impose entry fees," he said. "This income would have to be directed to a charitable organization to ensure that all locals benefit."
In the meantime, anyone who's familiar with Indonesia, likes walking and who doesn't mind roughing it a little should have no problems negotiating their way around Pacet. Wear strong boots and a hat. The locals are keen to help and local transport is available for hire. The extent of the work required was obvious when Suryo took a group around the lookouts and forests. Facilities are few and rubbish disposal is still a problem.
But Suryo is no stranger to such a tough task. As a member of the Green Indonesia Foundation, he was promoting conservation in the dark days of Suharto when earth-keepers were considered to be the kin of communists. Suryo convinced the government that ecological issues were important and got the required permits. International awards followed for his persistence and success. Then came money from the World Wildlife Fund to build centers in Bali, South Sulawesi and elsewhere.
Today, his opponents are disquiet and distrust. East Java is certainly all the wonderful things thus mentioned, but the novice overseas visitor's first and last question is, sadly: But is it safe? Suryo and his friends are determined that the answer will remain "Yes", and the greatest danger will be slipping off a moss-covered rock while negotiating a stream. If you're allergic to crowds and want the place to yourself, get in early.
How to get there
Seloliman, the environmental education center, has pleasant bungalow accommodation and conservation activities on many days. Visit www.pplh.or.id, which includes a good map and instructions on reaching the place by public transport through Mojokerto or Pandaan on the Surabaya-Malang road.
Cars with a driver can be hired in Surabaya or Malang for around Rp 250,000 (US$27) a day, plus fuel. Hirers also pay for the driver's food and accommodation. To avoid misunderstandings and make your stay more enjoyable, hire a local guide. Fees can be negotiated; Rp 100,000 (US$11) a day plus food for a knowledgeable person with some English (if required) is a good starting point.
There are guesthouses and hotels in the area that cater for backpackers through to executives. It's worth getting there early and looking around for something that suits. Avoid weekends and public holidays when the roads are often packed and accommodation limited. Weekday rooms are usually discounted.