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Bogor - City of Rain

Martin Gibbons ex Benjamin Samuel Williams Extracts' from a wonderful old book published over 100 years ago, but still full of useful, interesting and relevant information. A hard act to follow.
Dr. Stephen Becker, 21 Westfield Grove, St. Johns, Wakefield, Yorks, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002

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Left: Street market vendor offering fruits ofthe palm Salacca zallaca, Bogor, Indonesia
Right: Huge trees of Araucaria benthami Cibodas high altitude garden, Indonesia

At the behest of Martin Gibbons I spent ten days in Thailand photographing the strange Trachycarpus Then, wearily, I made my way to Bangkok Airport. The bus was immensely comfortable compared with the vicissitudes I had endured tracking down the palm. I resolved never to listen to Martin's recommendations again. I slept all the way on the flight to Singapore in the new clothes that I bought to replace the ones ruined on my trek up Doi Chiang Dao. With the joys of in-flight pampering, my spirits began to rise, the suffering receded and I started to look forward to the next leg of the holiday.

As I stood in the queue at the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, I was well aware that my passport had expired. The immigration officer's lips moved silently as he counted the fingers of one hand, holding my documents in the other. I envisaged being deported from a country I had not technically entered. He looked at me and uttered the exquisitely beautiful euphemism, "You must help me, sir". I handed him a £20 note. He unfolded it. Holding it against the light, in full view, he sang incredulously, "Ooh, what is this?". I had miscalculated. There was a pause. I was doomed. A cold wave rippled down my neck. I visualised a long gaol sentence but was immensely relieved when he hid the bill. I uttered vile oaths under my breath when he quietly and matter-of-factly asked for "one more, sir". I obliged once more, but only with a £5 note, and was thankful to be admitted to Indonesia.


Jakarta was oppressively hot and humid. I bargained hard with a minibus driver, and got what I thought was an exceptionally good deal, and so took his Bemo (tiny Indonesian taxi - more like a three wheel motorbike with a cab on the back). Halfway to our destination, as we started to climb, the rain began to fall gently. By the time we got to Bogor it was torrential and the sky was lit continuously by soft blue lightning flashes. I was deposited at the Ramayana, a guest house opposite the botanic gardens. The night was sultry and my sleep was interrupted by the splashing of water cascading from the roof, the ululations from the Mosque at 4am, and a hateful person swishing a besom around the courtyard soon afterwards.

By 10am the next day the downpour had all but ceased. The sky was bright with amorphous white clouds and the city was like a Turkish bath. Fanning myself with a sheaf of photocopies of Genera Palmarum was counterproductive. Every movement generated heat that was impossible to dissipate.

On that first day, I joined a group for a tour. The first stop was to visit Pak Sukarna's Gong Factory. We watched open-mouthed as the gamelans were manufactured by 'techniques', which can only be described as Bronze Age. This was followed by a journey into the country.

We passed suburban rice paddies and eventually reached verdant jade terraced hillsides of rice, manihot, papaya and durian. Clumping Areca triandra and Areca catechu were commonplace. Carp and goldfish ponds surrounded thatched stilt houses. Every garden seemed to contain stupendous Alocasias and Licuala. The fields were delineated by taro and the landscape punctuated by stands of coconut, banana and sumptuous sealing wax palms. Great throngs of people wandered the lanes. Machetes seemed to be the commonest form of personal adornment. Guns 'n Roses posters were pasted everywhere.

Our aim was to visit a waterfall. At the top of the hill, the sun was blazing. We negotiated the steep path to the valley bottom. The water cascaded several hundred feet from a slit in the rainforest into a tiny lake creating a deliciously cool aerosol of water vapour. Eating fresh pineapple and rambutans I surveyed the scene. Mimosa, Jackfruit and Alsophila tree ferns emerged from the densely luxuriant crush of the hillside. Big Leaf fetishists would have had a field day. The Rattans bore bright red fruits as big as cricket balls and their barbed whips, emerging from the canopy, were silhouetted against the sky.

The next port of call was to the hot volcanic springs. The sulphurous water coloured the rocks yellow and enabled slimy blue-green colonies of algae to flourish in the rock pools before dribbling into the frothing coolness of the river, red with mud from the high hills. Some of the party swam. Others bathed in the spring water. I was disappointed that all bodies emerged the same disappointing European pinky-grey. I sat on the riverbank and chatted with Ray. He explained the difficulties he had in being a colour-blind artist.

At dusk we wended our weary way back to Bogor as it started to drizzle. The whole city was designed with rain in mind. The riverbank as it passed through the botanical garden was protected by a giant concrete escarpment. The road surface sheened and the water shot off it into gutters that could only be described as industrial. You could abseil down the kerbs, and the storm drains were four feet deep. If you fell into one (and I nearly did one dark night), you'd probably be flushed straight to Jakarta.

Kebun Raya

The following day, the clouds which had shrouded the city had dispersed to reveal the beautiful peak of Gunung Salak. Bogor is apparently named after an extinct palm and the city grew up around the gardens. Today students from all over the world come to its seventeen botanic institutes in order to study, and get wet. At noon, with the sun, nearly overhead, I bought a ticket to arguably the world's foremost tropical garden - the Kebun Raya.

It is now that I have to make a confession to the readers of Chamaerops. It was my intention to convey to them a complete inventory of all the specimens I encountered on my journey. However, a couple of factors militated against this.

Firstly, because of the intense heat, every milligram of excess baggage had to be discarded. The huge library of palm literature, weighing many kilograms that I started off with at Heathrow was posted back to England from Thailand. Novels, maps and guidebooks all had to go. Even photocopies of Genera Palmarum I judged to be superfluous, though I utilised their reverse sides for letter writing.

Secondly, there were just too many species for the human eye to take in on one day. Beyond the huge portico is a sumptuous paradise. More than 15,000 species of tropical plants are to be found and over 400 varieties of palms are planted. Bogor is an overwhelming botanical revelation. It was only possible to soak it up in its totality, and if lucky, to remember certain items of detail.

I was accompanied by two German girls, and Geoff, an Englishman on a sabbatical. After clearing her spectacles from condensation, Michi surveyed things and exclaimed "Wow". Petra defined most things as "Koool". Geoff gave a masterly dissertation on how national characteristics are manifested on the soccer field.

With the 'Tropical Rainforest' to our left we walked down the first avenue of massive Ficus. A tree is without doubt the worse thing to be in this country. Not only do they have to sort themselves out, but have to support a totally unreasonable number of lichens, mosses, orchids and epiphytic ferns.

We bypassed the Olivia Raffles memorial. She died in Batavia in 1814. It was to our credit that not one of us was tempted to take a photograph. The limited research I did before taking the holiday upon the origins of the garden are somewhat contradictory. I thought Sir Stamford Raffles was responsible for the initiation of the whole enterprise and that its subsequent development was under the auspices firstly of Teysmann and then others. However, I stand to be corrected.

All manner of wonderful things were to be found. I knew I ought to have taken a notebook along. Phoenix, Verschaffeltia, Livistona, Wallichia, Corypha, Socratea, Areca, Arenga and Pinanga. I was severely envious of a formidable clump of Licuala spinosa which made the specimen I have in my own front room look decidedly pathetic. Rattans lurked in the undergrowth waiting for the unwary. The Calamus and Salacca were dainty but dangerous. The Daemonorrhops reminded me of razor-wire but had the diameter of hawsers. What I'd read about their unruly and callous behaviour caused me to shudder every time I encountered one.

Seduced by specimens planted in the lawn, I left the path and immediately realised I'd made a big mistake. The 'lawn' turned out to be a quagmire, and upon closer inspection I ascertained that it comprised tiny ferns and not grass at all. Leather shoes quickly became saturated. I was now thinking that it would have been preferable to have packed chest waders. And then, I had to unfurl my umbrella, as the obligatory afternoon shower got under way. Initially it was light and refreshing but soon came down with a vengeance. The two girls donned full rain gear. Geoff, however, not only lacked suitable attire, but he also lacked pith, phlegm, grit and resolve. Sopping wet and shivering, he retired from the pitch.

Investigating an overgrown pergola I discovered the bust of Teysmann and caught up with the girls further on. Having an appallingly shallow learning curve, I once again deviated from the path, squelching and slithering over to a group containing Sabals, Arengas and a terribly attractive two-dimensional Wallichia disticha. I was sorely tempted to dig this up but imagined having to explain myself at the exit. So I had to content myself with a few pin-up photos.

We sauntered on. I liked the clumps of bamboo. They were reminiscent of corn stooks but a hundred times bigger. An avenue of elegant Roystonea took us to the lake overlooked by the classically proportioned Presidential Palace. To the left were tall Livistonas and towering Fishtail Palms. Every plant seemed to be in fruit.

Squeaks started to emanate from my shoes and from the sky as we passed under a tree containing hundreds of bats. Every now and again objects the size of Jack Russell terriers detached themselves from its branches, making circuits of the park emitting short bursts of Morse code.

Passing through the forest of Coconut and Oil Palms by the river the downpour became a deluge. We made a dash for the only available dry place, the veranda of the cafe. Only effete Europeans were to be found cowering there. We met up with Ray.
Learned Chamaerops readers will perhaps know that the city receives 4 metres of precipitation per year in an average 322 cloudbursts! From our vantage point we studied the various ways in which people, hardened to continual inclemency, protected themselves from the elements. Girls with sodden blouses held postcard-sized purses over their heads. One boy sheltered under an acoustic guitar. Another had placed a pink flannel on his head. A group of six students attempted to share one tiny umbrella. All of these measures were amazingly ineffectual. Only a wet suit, flippers and an aqualung would have been any value.

When the downpour had abated somewhat and realising there was much to be accomplished, we continued our stroll.

The surface of the lily pond was pitted by millions of concentric raindrop circles. Lotus flowers and a stand of Papyrus emerged from the grey water. A small flock of mynahs dashed back and forth across the sloping fern meadow overlooked by probably the best Traveller's Palm in the world and Mimosa in full blossom.

Looking towards the Presidential Palace, the idea began to surface that the ownership of the Kebun Raya was a major hiatus in my life. The question was, how, I, as a foreigner, could endear myself to the Indonesian people, in order to wrest the Presidency from Suharto in the 1993 election.


When I asked the boys from the Ramayana Hotel how I could get to the high altitude gardens at Cibodas, it was as if I had asked them to provide a solution to the square root of -1. Bogor was much more beautiful, they said, the palms were better and anyway Cibodas was cold and far away. There was nothing of interest to be found there.

I was not to be discouraged, and armed with a map inspired by a minimalist cartographer headed off. I walked around the perimeter of the botanics. On the other side of the railing a stag was having a futile antler fight with a fallen branch. The streets were choked with all manner of transport. Beyond the street market was the bus station.

The dilapidated vehicle was full of passengers and the aisle crammed with soft drink sellers as we headed for the hills. Oblivious to its general unwieldiness, the bus driver took to the road with undisguised ferocity. With the temperature outside reaching 30 degrees centigrade, the draught from the open windows was most welcome. The passengers on either side fell into a coma and lolled onto me. I attracted someone's attention as best I could without disturbing the two sleepers and handed him the 'map'. This was passed from one person to another where it provoked, animated discussion, hand waving or knitted brows. Eventually a carillon of "aahs" went up as everyone chorused, "Cibodas".

The bus crawled up the hairpin bends towards Cipanas. In the fields of the Gunung Gedeh Tea Estate, teams of women wearing their familiar hats and colourful costumes were bent over the bushes. Once over the Puncak Pass, the bus gathered dangerous momentum and was able to then overtake everything on the road. At the point indicated by my fellow passengers, I extricated myself from between the two hot, sweaty bodies and alighted at the track in Cimacan leading to Cibodas. A Bemo crammed with colour-coded school children took us up the steep lane, lined with thousands of potted plants, and deposited us all outside the entrance.

Cibodas was established in 1889. Behind the 80 hectare park is the forest reserve of some 1,200 hectares of jungle embracing the 3000 metre high mountain of Gunung Pangrango and the 2,950 metre crater of Gunung Gede. The scenery was so spectacular that my eyes began to short-circuit.

As I walked up to the gate I noticed in my peripheral vision a dark shape. I stopped. It stopped. I took a step. It took a step. Slightly paranoid, I turned round and was greeted by a gentleman who introduced himself as Adam Supriatna. He worked at the garden. I took up his offer to be 'my guide in impeccable English'. He was to inform me later that he had learned this from the BBC World Service and old Bachelor's records. To reinforce the latter, at the end of our perambulation, he sang 'Charmaine'.

Delightful and informative, he led me along the least energy-expending tour of the gardens, exhausting, despite our snail's pace. I was informed about the planting and the Indonesian names of all the trees and shrubs. I was also able to taste a number of fruits. One tiny 'apple' was so painfully astringent that I could only reasonably recommend it to enemies. Adam also enlightened me upon many aspects of Indonesian society. We had a pretty free-wheeling discussion on religions, sexual politics, history, family affairs, foreign policy, agriculture, work, ambitions, cultural differences and more.

At the very top of the hill is the Australian collection. It overlooks the whole of Cibodas. From a wooden pergola we viewed the terraced countryside with the mountains in the distance and joked with people from the surrounding villages who worked at the garden. From the magnificent Eucalyptus collection, the path descended to a line of what can only be described as stupendously mighty Araucaria benthamii (No, they're not listed in Plant Finder) to overlook a marvellous lawn surrounded by pines.

Situated in the middle of this lawn, the lake contained the noisiest frogs I've ever heard. As we skirted by, skinks and lizards flopped into the water. Noting my enthusiasm for such creatures it was at this point Adam told me about venomous scorpions, poisonous snakes and deadly spiders. The general flow of conversation was somewhat subverted by my new knowledge. I noted that he only wore flip-flops. Despite my stout walking boots I became a trifle uneasy and 'super-alert'.

On the lawn by the hostel, and under the auspices of a regal Roystonea, a Tai Chi class was in frenzied session. We wandered through a dell of stilt palms and passed what looked to be a new planting containing a few small Trachycarpus and moved onto the exquisitely beautiful National Collection of Tree Ferns. This was nothing short of breathtakingly breathtaking. Beyond it, an eerie glen contained numerous Nolina and gnarled reclining Magnolias covered in moss and dangling lichen.

Further on in the succulent area were magnificent Screw Pines, Yuccas, Agaves and cacti. What amazed me about the latter (and the ones in Bogor) was the fact that they were all growing quite well and obviously quite happily in mud!

On the way out we negotiated our way past small girls selling baskets of fruit and took a Bemo back to the Puncak. We took a track off the main road through the tea estate and I was informed of the intricacies involved in the picking and processing of the leaves. "This is the best, but it all goes abroad." We reached the secluded Lake Telanga Warna. The reflected jungle made this a picture postcard view par excellence.

Adam borrowed an umbrella despite it being quite bright. We walked down towards the plantation proper in order that I could take photographs. The weather changed abruptly. It rained cats and dogs. When the drops hit the hot tarmac they immediately vaporised into a thick warm mist, which we literally waded through. Instant sauna. The vehicles on the road emerged through the swirling clouds. Hot fog certainly didn't impede their speed. After a few pictures, Adam and I said our farewells and he put me on a Bemo for a terrifying white-knuckle ride back to Bogor. The little green Suzuki was driven in lunatic fashion. The driver was an expressionless Charles Bronson look-alike. He constantly tooted the horn while his assistant hung out of the nearside window shouting for likely customers. One minute you were flung back into the seat with the vehicle pulling G and the engine note screaming. The next moment it would swerve into the kerb, the driver would drop several gears and the exhaust pitch rise into a spluttering nasal whine as he power-braked causing you to whiplash into the seat in front. Usually on roller coasters there is a warning to the infirm, the faint-hearted and those of a nervous disposition. Perhaps that was what was written in tiny print on the dashboard. But I must say that it was the most exhilarating and exciting end to a tremendous day.

Approaching Bogor another electrical storm broke. Small boys with golf umbrellas surrounded passengers alighting from the buses offering shelter at a small price. I didn't need them. I did my Gene Kelly impression. I skipped and danced back to the Ramayana. I threw my sodden shoes into the nearest bin and packed my belongings.

Next morning I took the Jakarta Express to the airport. At Gambir, I chatted to numerous folks who were keen to practice their English, and had a last wander round the streets before taking the shuttle. As the bus wended its way through the gridlocked streets and then sped through the marsh area near the airport. I planned my election strategy. Approaching the terminal building, all fantasies of the hustings were displaced. My mind filled with fear and loathing. The possibility of encountering the same immigration official overwhelmed my thought processes.

Footnote: The serious reader is advised to consult Principes 27(1), 1983, pp 18-30 which gives a comprehensive view of the collection at Bogor.

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