A living museum
Published/Last edited or updated: 18th February, 2018
A half day tour of the area surrounding Kalibaru can be a surprisingly interesting and beautiful way to lose some time and learn a thing or two while you are at it.
The expanse of land between the volcanoes and the southern coast of Java is rich and fertile and during Indonesia’s colonial period vast swathes of land were turned into mostly European-owned plantations. During Sukarno’s rule in the late 1950’s, Dutch “assets” including many of these vast plantations were nationalised and handed over to Indonesians. Today many have changed hands a few times, sometimes once again passing into foreign ownership, but what hasn’t changed is the soil’s amazing fertility—stick something, almost anything, in the soil here and it will grow.
Kalibaru and neighbouring to the east Glenmore receive considerable rainfall, sufficient to allow for three rice harvests per year and vast plantations feed off of this, running large rubber, cacao and coffee (arabica and robusta) harvests along with spice gardens and other cash crops. While visiting such a plantation may not sound like the most fascinating undertaking since sliced bread, we found a half day tour of the surrounding area to be a particularly enjoyable way to spend half a day.
Our first stop was at a strip of metal workshops (it is more interesting than it sounds!) where kitchenware—everything from woks to ovens to ashtrays are beaten into shape by a series of families who migrated to Kalibaru from Madura (a medium-sized island just to the east of Surabaya). We were told all the workers—from the women tending the street side shops through to the guys beating the hell out of sheet metal came from Madura.
Aside from what is sold out front, these products are sold across the archipelago from Medan to Denpasar. In the workshop—essentially a ground floor work shed with a dirt floor—we visited we saw large woks and rice cookers being constructed entirely by hand. The racket, was, well, considerable. The work is done in a variety of types of metal including zinc and aluminium, and priced accordingly. While the shops out front sell both traditionally made and factory made with the latter being cheaper, the traditionally made is sought out.
From here we pushed on to the oddly named Glenmore Plantation. The story goes that in the 18th century a bunch of Scots fought again the English and lost so fled to Holland. The Dutch however decided to push them on to Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) and they landed a little to the east of Kalibaru. Evidence is scant to support this hypothesis, but we like the story, so there you go.
Glenmore isn't the only Scottish sounding plantation in the area—others include Glen Nevis and Glen Falloch—though we have to say we didn’t see much in the way of Scottish mercenaries wandering the streets of Kalibaru. As mentioned above the plantations were nationalised by Sukarno, so while a few Europeans still call Kalibaru home, they‘re not active in the plantation scene anymore.
Glenmore is a plantation of over 2,000 hectares and employs over 450 people tending crops of everything from cacao and coffee to rubber and durian. A portion of a visit here will involve walking through various crops and an interesting spice garden and having cultivation and harvesting techniques explained to you, which will be interesting if you’ve never done a visit like this before, but if you have, then you’ll have heard much of it before. The highlight though is a visit to the main rubber processing factory which is absolutely fascinating.
Much of the equipment dates back to the early 20th century—the steam engine (yes steam engine) dates back to 1929 and some of the the other equipment predates even that—our guide thought 1916. In many countries, this kind of gear would be in a museum, but here it is still compressing, flattening and washing rubber. They just don’t make this stuff like they used to!
The factory doesn’t just process rubber, rather cloves and coffee are also processed, ground, dried, washed and sorted (not necessarily in that order) and the best time to visit the factory is between June and September when the whole joint is pretty much running at full tilt. Unfortunately when we visited (in the middle of wet season in early 2018) the goings on were very slow, but staff were happy to still switch on the machines—if only to prove they worked!
The rubber processed here is destined for Japan, where it is used for tyre production, while the second tier rubber goes to Surabaya where it is used for flip flops and (apparently) mattress production. Once you see the second tier rubber you’ll understand why local flip flops, well, don’t last all that long.
After Glenmore we scootered over to Lonsum plantation (a portmanteaw of London and Sumatra) which, while primarily a cacao plantation also has a nifty sideline in palm sugar which is well worth visiting. Individual “cooking stations” each hold three boiling vats for the sugar. The base is the sap leeched from palm flowers towering above—with a keen eye you’ll see the plastic jerry cans attached to the upper reaches of the trees—these collect the sap through the day and are changed daily.
At the time we visited much of the palm sugar was heading to Indofood (an Indonesian food conglomerate) for their range of sauces. The sap is boiled off over a stretch of hours before being poured into moulds—the sugar is sold for around 20,000 rupiah a kilo we were told.
Last stop on the tour was the traditional market in Kalibaru, which, while it won’t be anything new to those who have been through a market or two, is still worth the look around. From here you’re walking distance back to your hotel or the train station (assuming you’re staying in Kalibaru).
Local guide Heru T: (0812) 3457 6776; (0853) 3897 4150; firstname.lastname@example.org was a solid guide for our visit to the metal workshops, Glenmore and Lonsum.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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