Sun, 06 Feb 2000

An unforgettable trip to Bidadari and Damar islands

By Michael Upton

JAKARTA (JP): Although Bidadari and Damar islands cannot beat the fine snorkeling and scuba available on some of the more distant islands in Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands), the bay itself can offer a good day out, particularly if you are interested in the area's history.

Our boat left early from Angke, North Jakarta. To get to the wharf, you have to pass through part of Pluit. The dusty road was busy with vendors, handcarts, becak, people selling mangoes, rambutan, bananas, vegetables -- and the congestion was aggravated by long handcarts stacked with blue plastic cans that seemed to be everywhere. The cans were full of water, for this area has no running water supply -- residents have to buy it.

It seems particularly cruel that these Jakartans also suffer the smells that drift up from the nearby branch of the Ciliwung River that twists through the area carrying large quantities of untreated effluent down to the sea. The presence of a two-meter- high brick wall running alongside this mephitic watercourse shows a keen determination on the part of the authorities to keep the problem hidden rather than solve it. The "problem" -- thousands of gallons an hour of it -- simply pours out through sluice gates into the waiting ocean.

And it was at the wharf right by these gates that our boat was waiting, within sight of enormous luxury houses. If it had not been for today's boat trip, we would never have seen this part of Jakarta and the conditions its inhabitants suffer -- a filthy watercourse and no running water. In the new era of reform, what will the authorities do to improve life for these people? And when?

Bidadari island

The island of Bidadari (meaning fairy or nymph) is one of the closest to Jakarta, lying near to Onrust only a few miles offshore. Though it is not far enough out for the water to be swimmable, you can have a pleasant day out there, or enjoy a walk around the island on your way to one of the other islands.

Most of the island has reverted to jungle, but during the last century Bidadari (or Pulau Sakit, the Sick island, as it was earlier known when it was a leper colony) formed an integral part of the Batavia's defenses. And there is an interesting relic of these times. Hidden among the trees stand the ruins of an old "Martello Tower". These military buildings were actually introduced by the French during the late 18th century, but this Dutch version dates from rather later, probably around 1850. Over 20 meter in diameter, the massive outside walls of this circular brick pile stand almost two stories high, and some of the interior rooms are still intact. You can identify the ammunition store and the water tank. Watch out for bats in some of the rooms.

The tower was relieved of active duty in 1876 and was used as a storage depot until it was abandoned completely in 1908. The official brochure notes that "all such building surfaces had been covered by ruins and planted by some big trees and coarse grasses". Now that Bidadari is trying to attract visitors, the area around the tower has been tidied up. There are beach shelters and cabins where you can stay if you want to spend a night there, and unlike Pluit, there is a fresh water supply.


Further out, about 17 kilometers from shore and right in the center of the semicircle described by Jakarta Bay, lies Damar Besar island. Known by the Dutch as Edam, the island takes its current name from the fact that a lighthouse stands on it: damar means torch and is also the name of the combustible resin that oozes from certain tropical trees. The lighthouse currently standing at one end of the island was built from a standard kit of iron parts shipped out from the Netherlands. This one was assembled in 1879 and there is an identical one at Anyer on Java's west coast of about the same age.

The lighthouse keeper will happily let visitors climb to the top of the tower (225 steps) in exchange for some lunch money. (Not that there is anywhere to buy lunch -- you have to take your own.) From the tiny iron walkway at the top of the lighthouse, you look down over a dense canopy of secondary forest, from which the calls of birds and cicadas drift up. The boat at the landing stage lies far below. Unfortunately, it was not a clear day and the blue-green sea receded into a gray haze past the skeletal fish traps and scores of fishing boats.

Most of the island is occupied by dense secondary forest, but this was not always the case. If you wander around the paths between the trees, you will come across two Japanese gun emplacements from World War II. One assumes the forest was cleared at that time for visibility. Now, the humid silence of the jungle shrouds these solemn reminders of past conflict.

There is also a group of graves, one holding the remains of Ratu Syarifa Fatima, the wife of Banten sultan who died on the island in 1751, having been ousted by the people of the historic port city west of Jakarta. At that time a splendid mansion stood on Damar, built by Dutch governor-general Camphuijs. It is said the foundations still remain but you will have to search for them. The English did a pretty good job of destroying the house in 1800.

Decades ago, there was a "resocialization center" on Damar. It seems the idea was to get criminals and other undesirable elements of society together and try to teach them better ways. To us today, it sounds more like a "send-them-offshore-and-let's- forget-about-them center". These ruins still remain: tall rooms stand ceilingless, cement rots slowly and the jungle steadily asserts its grip.

After a look around Damar, it is highly recommended to take the boat out a little way and dive in. The water on the day we went was crystal iridescent turquoise. Irresistible.