Balikpapan was raining and gray. Until then I had only a vague awareness of it, mainly from ANZAC Day military banners and one conversation with a Balinese man taken their as slave labour, by Japanese forces. When the Japanese retreated he took refuge up a coconut palm and was eventually liberated by the Australians. I’d often wondered how he’d survived, given the propensity for Japanese snipers to take up camouflaged positions in trees. Whatever the exact reality, he lived to tell the tale.
I wondered how other Australians felt arriving here under different circumstances 44 years earlier. What must it have been like in 1945? Macarthur’s forces had carried on island hopping through the Philippines and Micronesia while Australian forces were left to clear pockets of Japanese resistance from their strongholds along the Indonesian archipelago. The landings in eastern Borneo fell to the 7th Division, many of whom were veterans of Kokoda, Tobruk, and Alamein.
Cruising along in air conditioned transport from the airport images of young Australian soldiers played in my mind. Hazy black and white images gathered from grainy post war documentaries formed imagined chapters playing on an inner screen, shadows reminiscent of the wayang enacting epic events from times past, merging myth and reality; the deeds of gods with the deeds of men. Of course in the wayang one could always walk behind the screen and ground the myth in the tangible realm of the present. Here the Dalang, his puppets and supporting musicians lent substance to the shadowy realm. I wondered, Balik: to turn; papan: a board, if only I could turn the board around and look behind into 1945. The shadows danced in my mind, the old projector flickered like the wayang flame.
Back in the present differences with other parts of Indonesia were immediately obvious. Few people on the streets, a predominance of new vehicles, clean roads and footpaths, substantial dwellings, earth moving equipment, building supplies and steel fabrications. The sea nearby was dotted with oil wells and Pertamina Oil Refinery dominated the skyline.
An afternoon city tour with my Indonesian traveling companions, Henky and Paul, revealed the Australian war memorial, set at the edge of the lapangan, also some large Japanese guns slowly being cut up for scrap to raise funds to refurbish a nearby Mosque. Little remained, of the world of 1945, modern Balikpapan is an oil based boom town. The most historic references were the photographs decorating bars in the Hotel Benakutai.
An objective of the Allied Operation Oboe had been to secure oil processing and port facilities. A Naval bombardment was followed by a beach landing and then three weeks of fighting through the surrounding rainforest against tough and well camouflaged Japanese resistance which gradually dissipated. Daily engagements with the Japanese continued over ensuing weeks until the war’s end. Operation Oboe cost the lives of almost 600 Australians with many more wounded.
My own musings meant little in this context. We were here to develop a Cultural Tourism product, “Walks on the Wildside’. Paul was a Jakarta based travel agent, Henky a photographer and I was representing the Australian company that would design and lead the tour. My companions had no inkling of my private thoughts; at this point they were more concerned about where we were going to have dinner.
Although important to Australians Balikpapan isn’t the capital of Kalimantan Timur, the capital is Samarinda on the Mahakam river 95 kilometres north. Great rivers like the Mahakam, Kayan, Rejang and Kapuas remain vital corridors of access to the interior. Important trading cities tend to be located nears the mouths of these rivers. Four Indonesian Provinces, two Malaysian states and Brunei Darussalam straddle one or more of Borneo’s great rivers.
Romantic journeys into the heart of Borneo infused my imagination. My mind carried rich images of Equatorial Rainforests, complex systems optimising the life force and climaxing in total profusion. Although aware of the impact of logging and mining my romantic notions persisted. Heading north out of Balikpapan, on one of Borneo’s few major sealed roads; my sense of romantic anticipation was promptly tempered by a blunt and rational awareness.
Close to Balikpapan settlers had established ladang gardens entirely replacing primary rainforest. Further along the road the full impact of logging without any reassignment of the land to agricultural uses was soon evident. Where 44 years earlier there had been rainforest providing abundant cover for the Japanese forces, a wasteland appeared. Massive stretches of forest had been clear felled, the litter of branches and chaotic secondary re-growth surrounding the road. This devastated land was deeply depressing but I reassured myself with romantic visions of the interior.
In the distance a high wooden platform appeared, an observation platform surrounded by a picnic area. In the context it was most bizarre, but this was Bukit Soeharto, the proud initiative of the country’s President. Here the chaos of clear felling had been replaced by a Managed Tropical Forest. In essence, such a forest was merely row after row of quick growing species such as acacia, shading intervening rows of about five different species of dipterocarp. The theory was that the quick growing trees would allow the dipterocarp to gain a start in life by mimicking the shaded conditions of a rainforest floor. For me tragedy became a strange ecological comedy when I realised that not only was the result one of minimal biodiversity but the Managed Tropical Forest was confined to rather narrow strips visible from the road. At best this was a managed tourist experience.
One positive feature of the Managed Tropical Forest was that it involved a clean-up of the debris left from earlier logging. Where no clean-up had taken place, which was in most areas I saw, what remained was a tinder box waiting for a fire storm. Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan. Ten years after my visit the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997/98, lasting for about 12 months, exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25 percent of the forests in the province. Such was the severity of the fires that even the NSW Rural Fire Service was involved and people developed respiratory disorders in cities as far away as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Sweeping away even the seemingly immovable Soeharto regime. The Asian economic crisis that followed was a tangible expression of overheated and unsustainable practices. Had I the benefit of real foresight, rather than my own private projections, then the journey would probably have ended here.
Fortunately Bukit Soeharto was soon a bad memory as the road went on through further areas of lading accommodating transmigrants from Java. No one spoke further of the devastation, there seemed a silent consensus that this was just another dramatic New Order ecological catastrophe in the making.
Soon we mounted a small rise above the village of Loajanan where the immensity of the Mahakam and its importance as a highway for the coal and timber trade was apparent. Neat timber houses, standing on wooden piles caught my eye, elegant and simple, then again as the road rounded a bend another vista of a broad sweep in the river and visions of vast floating carpets of tethered hardwood logs. This was a constant event on the river, the eye drawn to the new, to things of elegance and beauty, then yet another confrontation with the unsustainable.
My traveling companions seemed confident that the trees would grow back in 80 years. Once aboard our river boat in Tenggarong, the muddy colour of this great river was an indicator of the unseen exploitation now extending deep into the headwaters. On these lower reaches of the river no primary rainforest was visible although areas of secondary re-growth were common, with a few species of trees predominating. The only escape was to focus on what beauty remained, that was easy enough yet to my eye the signs of disruption were constantly present and painful to behold.
A sense of ecological despair was constantly challenged by the extraordinary adaptations people were making to life on the river. Senoni was an impressive floating village. Several rows of floating shops and warung, supported by massive rainforest logs, did a brisk trade in the darkening evening. In the short equatorial twilight Proboscis and Black Faced monkeys gathered in trees along the river banks. A brightly lite floating shop travelled swiftly upstream. Ferries and barges constantly passed in the night, sometimes raking us with the spotlights. The Mahakam was a major highway. Reassuringly in the dark intervals between passing craft fire flies still played along the river banks.