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
Dr. Stephen Becker, 21 Westfield Grove, St. Johns, Wakefield, Yorks,
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Left: Street market vendor offering fruits ofthe
palm Salacca zallaca, Bogor, Indonesia
Right: Huge trees of Araucaria benthami Cibodas high altitude garden,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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