Millisphere: a discrete region inhabited by 1000th of the world population


The island of Java is only slightly larger than New Zealand’s North Island and has a population of 145 million (2015). Java can be divided into twenty millispheres, the smallest in area is the city of Jakarta, ten million (2014).

Jakarta lies at the centre of a metropolitan sprawl of over 30 million. Viewed from the air a patchwork of orange tile and rusting corrugated roofs are punctuated with high-rise concrete towers and the odd remaining rice paddy and coconut palm.

I’ve flown into and out of the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang. Both times Jakarta was a shock. The first time we’d leisurely worked our way along Java before making a run for the airport from Bogor, on the periphery. On a motorway a truck had lost a load of concrete pipes and we experienced a legendary Jabodetabek traffic jam. Food and drink venders appeared through holes in fences and worked the captive market. We made our flight – just.

Flying in from New Zealand and dropping into an area about the size of Auckland, but with twenty times as many people, was shock again, but it is surprising how quickly you adapt to a new environment. Centrally holed up near Jalang Jalang, next to a slum built under a motorway flyover, pretty soon we were eating street food again.

The first thing Indonesians ask you is: “dari mana?” and we’d reply “dari Zeelandia Baru” (from NZ). After that it was “how many children do you have?” and then “what is your religion?” Indonesians have no concept of not having a religion.

I once told an Indonesian dowager that I was a “non-monotheist”. “What is that?” she asked. I explained that everyone has some sort of concept of a God, some people, like Hindus, have multiple Gods, therefore if you accepted everyone’s Gods, then there can’t be just one.

She thought about this for a while, drew herself up to her full height and said, “No! There is only one God and it is Allah!” Occasionally we ran into a fundamentalist Sunni preacher, rallying the gullible with a sound system, usually with lots of menacing reverb. You could pick up the vibe, and the odd word like “Satan” and “Amerika,” and it was usually time to cut a track.

On the 25th of January this year the former governor of Jakarta, “Ahok” Basuki was released from prison after serving two years for “blasphemy” for suggesting that the Koran didn’t say that Muslims couldn’t vote for non-Muslims. Ahok is a Christian and Chinese and the small, but influential, Chinese community is resented by many Indonesians. Ahok’s work stamping out corruption in the city bureaucracy had earned him enemies but his legacy is Jakarta’s “Smart City” initiative. Reports on smart-phones about crime, flooding, rubbish or potholes are now responded to in just over a day instead of the usual two weeks.

Last year a Buddhist woman who complained about the volume of the mosque loudspeaker was sentenced to eighteen months, also for blasphemy. Despite Indonesia’s secular, pluralist heritage, the coming Indonesian elections, in April this year, are being contested in the shadow of hard line Islam.

Social media smear campaigns have targeted the presidential incumbent, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), claiming he too is Chinese and a Christian. He’s not. He’s Javanese and a moderate Muslim but his campaign to stamp out corruption and modernise infrastructure also made him powerful enemies. In the hope of warding off Islamist political attacks Jokowi has chosen a Muslim Cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as a running mate. Jokowi has been pressured to release from prison the radical muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah (responsible for the Bali bombing) and supports Isis.

Running against Jokowi is his 2014 opponent, former army general Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of the late dictator, Suharto. Prabowo is accused of committing human rights abuses during his military career. Prabowo’s Gerindra Party is behind the Islamist social media attacks on Ahok and Jokowi. Prabowo is the Trump/Bolsonaro candidate.

Jakarta stands at a crossroads between becoming a smart city or a medieval caliphate. The path it takes will be determined in the April election, Gods willing.



map SinaloaThe Mexican state of Sinaloa (2.9 million) is too small to qualify as a millisphere but combined with the state of Sonora (also 2.9 million) we have a millisphere stretching from the US border in the north to Guadalajara in the south. I call this millisphere “Sinaloa” because both states are “controlled” by the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Sinaloa’s colonisation by Spain in the 16th century transformed the landscape. Concerned about Cortez and his conquistadors turning Mexico into their own domain King Charles sent his personal bodyguard, Nuno de Guzman, to establish control for the Spanish crown.

On horseback, de Guzman’s forces headed northwest into unclaimed territory, following Indian walking trails from village to village, slaughtering and enslaving and capturing corn supplies. Slaves were used to open the walking trails though the thorny scrub to accommodate a man on a horse and we have the route the highway follows today.

Proving to be truly psychotic in his attempt to outdo Cortez de Guzman was eventually sent back to Spain in chains, leaving behind an almost deserted millisphere. When gold and silver were discovered in the Sierras, Amerindian and African slaves and poor Spaniards were brought in, and their descendants populate the Sinaloa millisphere today.

Last week the former “head” of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo, was convicted in a New York Federal Court on firearms, drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Key witnesses to testify against El Chapo were Jesus Zambada and Vicente Zambada the brother and the son of “El Mayo” Zambada, who now heads the Sinaloa cartel – along with El Chapo’s sons.

El Chapo was born in Mexico’s “Triangulo Dorado” (Golden Triangle), in the mountains between Culiacan, Durango and Chihuahua, some time in the 1950s. Poverty in Mexico and the demand for cannabis in America meant El Chapo was growing marijuana from an early age.

By the 1960s the Sinaloa marijuana farmers had formed a growers’ collective and were developing stronger varieties of cannabis. The potent “sinsemilia” strain (Spanish for “without seed”) was developed in Sinaloa and much of the weed the hippies were smoking north of the border in the 1970s was being supplied by what became the Sinaloa Cartel.

El Chapo’s strength was “freight logistics”, and he had a network of tunnels dug across the US/Mexico border. The Columbians nicknamed him El Rapido for the speed he moved their cocaine into the American market and by the 1990s the Sinaloa cartel was fabulously wealthy – and El Chapo was in jail.

In 2001 he escaped from prison for the first time and he was on the loose somewhere in Sinaloa when my travel companion and I passed through. Mazatlan, where El Chapo was recaptured in 2014, was a laid back, heritage tourist town with a nice beach. Motorhome parks were filled with “snow birds” from as far north as Canada.

Los Mochis, where El Chapo was recaptured, again, in 2018, is where you catch the Chihuahua-Pacific that takes you through the scenic Copper Canyon (deeper and longer that the Grand Canyon).

At Los Mochis we slept in and missed the early “tourist” train. Trundeling northeast towards the Sierras, a bi-plane, trailing a plume of mist, came in low and sprayed our train, and a team of Mexicans picking tomatoes, probably for Los Angeles; vulchers settled on Saroya cacti in the sunset, and it was dark when we entered the canyon.

Since El Chapo’s recapture and extradition to New York, the volume of heroin crossing Mexico’s northern border into the USA has gone up by 40 percent and Fentanyl is up 100 percent. Since de-facto cannabis decriminalisation in many US states, Mexican marijuana exports have dropped by 40 percent.

Sitting in the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Centre, in New York, El Chapo now faces being transferred to the dreaded ADX, in Colorado, where 500 men are kept in permanent solitary confinement.

Fifteen tonnes of Columbian cocaine is worth 39 million in LA, 48 million in Chicago, and 78 million in New York, still the most lucrative market (Guzman trial evidence).

“The day I don’t exist [drugs] are not going to decrease in anyway at all,” Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, Rolling Stone interview, 2017.



The millisphere of Khuzestan appeared briefly in the news when, in September 2018, five Arab gunmen, disguised in Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard uniforms, opened fire on a Revolutionary Guard parade commemorating the day the Iran/Iraq war started.

The Shi’a Revolutionary Guard blamed Arab Sunni militants from Syria for the shooting in Ahvaz (pop 1.3 million) one of Iran’s most oil-rich cities. In 2015 the WHO (World Health Organisation) named Ahvaz “the most polluted city in the world”.

The Iran/Iraq war started in 1980 when, with US help, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Iran’s southwest province of Khuzestan (population 4.7 million) and occupied Iran’s oil fields. During the war, despite an American arms embargo, Israel covertly supplied Iran with arms in exchange for oil.

Iran (population 82 million) has the world’s fourth largest oil reserves. In quality terms, Iranian crude is second only to Saudi Arabian, and Khuzestan produces 85 percent of all Iran’s oil.

Khuzestan has the Iranian portion of the once extensive Mesopotamian Marshes, the original ecosystem of the Euphrates and Tigris river deltas, and it is the home to Iran’s Arab minority. Khuzestan, sometimes referred to as Arabistan, was virtually autonomous from 1880 to 1920 and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution the Marsh Arabs unsuccessfully sought autonomy for their province again. The occupation of Iran’s London embassy in 1980 was by Arab separatists from Khuzestan.

American relations with Iran deteriorated after November 1979, when fundamentalist Iranian students occupied the United States embassy in Tehran, detaining the diplomatic staff there for 444 days.

The American CIA had failed to recognise the discontent that would sweep away the Shah in 1979, nor the deep distrust in Iran of the US and the UK. Iranians remembered when the 1953 “Operation Ajax” coup, organised by the CIA and MI5, deposed the Mossadeq government, which had offended Western oil companies in 1951 by nationalising their oil industry.

The geopolitics of oil and its attendant wars have embroiled Khuzestan regularly during the twentieth century. In 1941 the UK occupied Ahvaz to cut oil supplies to Nazi Germany and in 1988 the US shelled two Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. When Saddam Hussein’s forces pulled out in 1988 they left Iran’s largest refinery in flames, palm groves annihilated, cities destroyed and historic sites demolished. When Saddam Hussein’s amy torched the oil fields in Kuwait, the soot fell on Khuzestan.

In the marshes a combination of water, soil and heat once sustained a rich, diverse ecosystem. Wild wheat and pulses were easily domesticated and agricultural civilization blossomed here. In the Mesopotamian imagination this was The Garden of Eden. Iran refers to the city of Ahvaz as the “birthplace of the nation”, dated at about 3000 BC.

Ahvaz sits on the Karun River, which is navigable to the Persian Gulf.The Karun River flow has been reduced to less than a half of what it was in 1970 and dams divert water to neighbouring provinces. The marshes have also been drained for agribusiness – mainly sugar cane – which is water hungry. The palms that once produced the best dates in the Middle east are dying from ‘saline penetration’ and polluted rivers. Khuzestan has turned from a “wetland into a wasteland”, and now has drought, dust storms, unemployment and air pollution. “Khuzestan has dried up,” said one farmer.

In 2006-7 the US, the EU and finally the UN applied sanctions, demanding that Iran halt its development of nuclear arms, but the Chinese, during the Ahmadinejad years (2005-14), continued doing business with Iran, providing inferior, rough and dirty, oil refining technology.

Iran refers to the US and Israel (who both have nuclear weapons) as “big Satan and little Satan”, and in May 2018 Donald Trump, at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu, imposed sanctions on Iran once again – before leaving office Barack Obama had lifted sanctions on Iran, seamingly assured that Iran had given up its nuclear ambitions.

Since Donald Trump’s Iran sanctions petrol prices have risen steeply at New Zealand service stations, Saudi Arabia’s economy is prospering again and Mohammed bin Salman can afford to pay for his American weaponry.


Kejawen is the name I’ve given to the millisphere in south central Java which spreads from Cilacap, in the south-west, to the holiest place in ancient Hindu Java, the Dieng plateau, in the north-east.

I’ve passed through the “rice basket of Java” twice. The first time from Yogyakarta to Bandung by train. It appeared densely populated and highly productive.

Kejawen is differentiated from the north coast of Java by a line of volcanoes running east west. In the Indonesian language Kejawen means “Javaism”, and along with Yogyakarta and Surakarta, Kejawen is the essence of the Javanese culture which is described as having Animist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic layers.

On the east fringe of Kejawen and at the heart of “Javaism” are, the world’s largest Buddhist complex (Borobudur), and the world’s largest Hindu complex (Prambanan), both built of carved stone. Buddhist/Hindu competition is part of Kejawen history, and is retained in rituals, fasting and meditation.

Islam has only been in Java since 1500. It came in on the north coast, not long before the Portuguese arrived. The arrival of Islam did lead to the collapse of the old dynasties, to be replaced with sultanates, but the music, dance and art remained the same and the old gods lived on in Kejawen culture.

On the second trip we went the other way. Starting at the beach at Pangandaran we chose to travel on the day when millions of Indonesians travel home to their family for the festival of Idul fitri, at the end of Ramadan.

After a couple of hours of rat-running in an SUV through bad back roads we were dropped at a station, somewhere north of Cilacap, which is the only deep water port on the Java’s south coast.

Cilacap is where the Dutch fleeing the Japanese invasion launched from. Australia gave them a better welcome than today’s boat people receive.

Cilacap has a geothermal power plant, cement works and a huge oil refinery. The beaches are polluted and tourists are steered to nearby Nusa Kambangan (the Alcatraz of Indonesia). Tourist resorts on pristine tropical beaches share the island with a maximum security prison, where capital punishment is carried out.

Kambangan is where the Bali bombers and other terrorists met their maker, and foreign drug traffickers from Australia, the Netherlands, Philippines and Brazil have been executed. There is an American currently on death row there.

Originally built by the Dutch, Kambangan was one of the harshest in Asia, and is now used to keep political prisoners as well as murderers and drug gangsters. Tommy Suharto, the son of a past president, was detained there for masterminding the murder of a judge who had sentenced him for corruption.

The ticket seller looked nervous as our minder set us up in an air-conditioned waiting room. Hundreds of Indonesians waited outside. When the train pulled in I couldn’t see how any more people could get in, but somehow we were shoehorned in.

Because there were no seats, we stood in the aisle with our baggage, and a lot of other people. Food sellers worked the aisle, which they regarded as their territory, and standing passengers had to get out of their way, regularly. A trio of buskers came through just like it was an ordinary day at work. They were memorable because they had a girl singer in western style – no hijab. Busking is tough and usually only for the boys. A boy with deformed legs, shuffled through at floor level picking up the rubbish, which he later threw out an open window into a paddy field.

Five hours later we disembarked at a crowded siding. At the nearest warung I celebrated being able to sit down with a kopi susu and an Indonesian clove cigarette as school kids practiced their English language skills on us.

A student from the warung joined us on the bus to Wonosobo up in the hills. She wore a uniform and a white hijab and as the bus climbed a forested ridge she asked earnest questions about Zeelandia Baru (New Zealand). Yes we have volcanoes in New Zealand too, I told her. In the distance pale blue silhouettes of volcanoes disappeared into a smoky tropical sunset.


A New Zealand friend recently returned from Semarang, Indonesia, after searching for the bridges her father had built in the Dutch East Indies after WWII.

She had visited the Tawang Semarang railway station where her father’s drawing office had been. This European architectural conception of the Orient expressed in twentieth century materials is still used to this day. When I had passed through Tawang to catch the train to Surabaya in 2012 a small orchestra filled the heritage station with middle-of-the-road Javanese music. The station might have been sinking but it was doing it in style.

The old Dutch port area of Semarang (metropolitan population 6 million), is slowly sinking into the Java Sea. Build on quaternary volcanic deposits which are still consolidating, subsidence is accelerating because of groundwater extraction.

It is estimated that half a million cubic litres of water were pumped up in 1900. By 1975 it was one million, in 1990, nine million and in 2000, thirty-eight million. The ground is now sinking at around 10 cm per year.

Within walking distance of the station stand many heritage buildings including Toko (Cafe) Oen, pretty much unaltered since the day the Dutch owners left. Periodically buildings were inundated by seawater and services broke, further polluting the canals. There were changes of canal drainage flows and buildings cracked and deteriorated. The only good news was that North Semarang was not subsiding as fast of North Jakarta – also because of groundwater extraction.

I too had come to Semarang followinging family history. During WWII, when the Japanese occupied Java, my grandmother had been interned at the women’s camp there.

As a child, you were protected from stories of what happened in Java during the war, but you could tell by the tone when adult conversation strayed into those times when visitors brought back memories of “the Indies”.

First the men were taken away by Japanese soldiers and the women and children were left on the plantations. Some Javanese were friends and loyal staff, others allied with the Japanese. My grandmother rounded up the girls, cutting their hair and dressing them to look like boys, and they, and the other children, started walking. Accounts vary as to where they thought they were going, but soon they were rounded up and taken to Semarang.

This small group was luckier than some. The Japanese concept of “comfort women” extended to the Dutch and sometimes women were taken without their consent. There was an infamous incident early in occupation where a household of women, and their daughters, spent two weeks as sex-workers in their own home, serving passing Japanese soldiers, before an officer put a stop to it.

In the camps the conditions were hard, shelter was primitive and food was short. The women in Semarang camp were interviewed one at a time and offered work as comfort women. Naturally they would get paid, they were told, and a few took up the offer, or came under the protection of an officer by becoming his concubine. Mostly it was the Javanese and Chinese women who had been prostitutes before the war who worked as the comfort women. After the war some of the Japanese who carried out sexual violations in Java were summarily executed by Dutch husbands.

Both my grandparents were shaped by their experience in the camps. By all accounts my grandfather barely survived. My grandmother took on a leadership role; organising, working hard and surviving.

In a tower block in Gouda in the Netherlands I once met a an elderly man who had been a boy in the Semarang women’s camp. “We were lucky,” he told me. “The Japanese didn’t distinguish between us Jews and the other prisoners. In Holland, the rest of my family didn’t survive the war.”

We had dropped into the coastal heat of Semarang from the cooler Dieng Plateau. An elderly ukulele player in a batik shirt and capo made from a pencil and rubber band laid down some Arabic sounding riffs, collected a small contribution from every passenger and hopped off the bus at an intersection. We passed dusty slums, built on steep slopes, where, during the rainy season, landslides sometimes took homes, possessions and lives.


The Surakarta metropolitan area (population 3.7 million) is on the Bengawan Solo river whose upper catchment climbs the volcanoes which mark the boundary of the millisphere I call Surakarta – a bit under seven million.

Surakarta is where Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo is from, and where he ran his furniture manufacturing business. Commonly known as Jokowi he was the mayor of Surakarta from 2005 to 2012 before moving on to be governor of Jakarta in 2012 and president of Indonesia in 2014, becoming Indonesia’s first president who did not come from an elite political or military background.

At the age of twelve Jokowi started work in his father’s workshop, experiencing three evictions during his childhood. As mayor he initiated an interactive relationship with the people of Surakarta, making regular, unannounced visits (Blusukan) to markets and slums. Surakarta (the city that does not sleep) included “informal” flood-prone settlements along the Solo river, which the city wanted to turn into parks.

We had stayed a few days in Surakarta in 2007. In the shade of the Sultan’s palace, in the middle of town, I’d escaped the heat and sketched an elderly gamelan orchestra playing on brass gongs, from big to small, and tapping with hammers on wooden xylophones, each with their own rhythmic part. A few middle-aged dancers practiced their moves. It was more restful than being hauled through the batik fabric markets.

In the hot crowded market a woman with a headscarf and a microphone was haranguing a crowd. I picked up the words “America” and “Satan.” New York’s twin towers were still  fresh in all our memories. Back at the backpackers I sat drawing tropical fish in an ornate aquarium with carved teak surrounds, while drinking Kopi Susu (local coffee with sweetened condensed milk, in a glass), and smoking Indonesian cigarettes. Ten large goldfish glowed under the fluorescent light, and a few, mostly Dutch, travellers came and went.

It was in Surakarta that we first started using warungs on our own. These informal, roadside restaurants with oil-cloth covered tables and rough benches, presided over by a cook, with a wok and an LPG burner, turned out mouth-watering classic dishes that were cheaper than at the “real restaurants”.

Surakarta has undertaken a “more participatory” resettlement approach than other Indonesian cities. Slum dwellers were issued with city resident cards before being forced to give up their central sites and move to locations without services, and some unauthorized squatter settlements were brought under city control. Under Jokowi, street vendors were relocated to new markets, and he renovated old ones, freeing up traffic. Jokowi brought some of these policies with him to Jakarta.

Corruption is legendary in Indonesia. It is estimated that the Indonesian government that left power in 2014 stole as much as US$ 12 billion. Jokowi came in with a promise to fix Indonesia’s failing infrastructure and to pay for it he initiated a tax amnesty in which Indonesians declared US$ 366 billion of previously undeclared assets.

In Surakarta, a decade ago, you got by with cash, now, with phones and apps the informal economy is being moved into the taxable economy.

In 2007 we took a tour up a volcano to where tea was grown, ostensibly to visit an ancient Hindu temple. The brilliantly variegated Javanese coleus, now know as Solenostemon scutellarioides, grew beside the road. The gardens lining the rain-fed rice paddies on the fertile volcanic slopes were a “permaculture” mix of coconut, cashew, cloves, tobacco and vegetables, tended by small kampongs (villages). Down below lay the Surakarta metropolitan area under a heat haze of burning plastic.

We found Indonesians remarkable secular, animist even, but in a country of 260 million, and climbing, there will always be extremists. In 2016 a suicide bomber, riding a motorcycle, blew himself up at the gates to the Surakarta police station, chanting ISIS slogans, and there are fundamentalist Indonesians who have as many children as possible, because “God wants a world of muslims.” It might be what God wants but it is not what, already crowded, Java needs.

On September the 11th 2018, thousands of anti-Jokowi protesters walked down the main streets of Surakarta under the #2019ChangePresident banner.

Jokowi faces many challenges. Population growth is number one. Corrupt families and religious fanatics are other challenges Indonesia faces in the 2019 election.

Bengawan Solo

My father’s parents’ marriage certificate has them married in “Madioen” (Madiun) East Java in 1918. There is a black and white photo of my twenty-one year old grandmother, in a long, black skirt, standing by a steam train in the American West, travelling to join her intended husband in the Dutch East Indies.

Grandmother Mieke was from the family Ankersmit, who owned the Deventer (Netherlands) cotton factory, and the estate that went with it. Grandfather “Freik” was the son of Abraham Frederikse, an Amsterdam doctor. Freik was not an academic and, being handy with his hands, was sent to the Deventer School for Tropical Agriculture.

A decade ago my travel companion and I passed through Madiun on a train. The Dutch-built railway followed the flats between the volcanoes. Closely spaced villages (kampongs) with orange tile roofs were ringed by fertile rice paddies following what contours there were. Here and there stood tobacco barns and brickworks making roof tiles. Coconut palms and tropical spices, fruits and vegetables filled the spaces between. By all accounts it was paradise in 1920 when Java had a population around 30 million and there were still wild tigers, elephants and rhinos in the teak-forested hills – now the population of Java is approaching 150 million.

The millisphere of Bengawan Solo (2014 population seven million) includes the Madiun River catchment which joins the Bengawan Solo at Ngawi before flowing through Bojonegoro and discharging into the Java Sea just north of Surabaya. The headwaters of the Bengawan Solo itself drains the neighbouring millisphere of Surakarta (Solo), to the west.

The Bengawan Solo is an important site for hominid remains and Ngawi is where Dutch archeologist Eugene Dubois, in 1896, found fossil remains of Pithecanthropus erectus (Java Man). Dated at one million years ago, Java Man is the first evidence of hominids outside Africa or Europe. Zig zag marks on a freshwater clam shell, found nearby, is thought to be the oldest man-made marks in the world.

In 1940, Surakarta musician, Gesang Martohartono composed the song “Bengawan Solo,” which was popular with the Japanese soldiers occupying Indonesia during World War II. The soldiers brought “Bengawan Solo” home to Japan after the war, where it became famous and a hit throughout Asia, then worldwide.

When the Japanese forces arrived in 1942, first Freik was taken away to the men’s camp in Bandung, then Mieke to the women’s camp in Semurang. Their  two sons had already gone to the Netherlands for their education and their daughter managed to catch one of the last passenger ships leaving for the United States, where she met her future husband.  It was not until after the end of the war that they heard from each other again. By then it was apparent that it was all over for the Dutch in Indonesia and the family dispersed to Holland, Switzerland, California and New Zealand.

In 1948, in the lead up to independence, when Dutch forces still held the major cities, Indonesian factions, positioning themselves to become the new government, clashed in the “Madiun affair”. Sukarno’s republican forces put down an Indonesian Communist Party municipal uprising in Madiun, imprisoning 36,000 and executing 1000 communists. This skirmish finally played itself out in 1965, in “the year of living dangerously”, when Suharto and the army finished off another million “communists”. American agents were involved in both affairs.

Indonesia’s development model under Suharto was one of corruption and joint ventures with foreign companies. Japanese plywood factories and the like went into business with various members of the Suharto oligarchy, who became fabulously wealthy. Tommy Suharto bought a sheep station in the South Island of New Zealand.

The Bengawan Solo, Java’s longest river, was once much longer, extending into Sumatra and Borneo during the last ice age, when sea levels were lower, and, in fact, it once flowed in the opposite direction, before the line of volcanoes coming out of the Java Trench tilted it the other way.

Today the Bengawan Solo Water Resource Management Authority has to cope with annual cycles of flood and drought in an environment subject to intense industrialisation, agricultural development, and population growth. Wet season flooding is compounded by the river’s sediment load from volcanic debris and erosion, including from illegal logging. Industrial pollution and untreated effluent from urban areas means the water is not drinkable like it was only a century ago. Potable water is in critically short supply in the dry season.

A joint venture between ExxonMobil and Indonesia’s Pertamina recently announced significant finds of oil and gas around Bojonegoro. This will enrich a few and further degrade the Bengawan Solo for the millions living along it.


I call this millisphere Malang after the largest city in the southern East Java. The millisphere of Malang (nearing ten million, mostly Javanese) includes Malang City (0.8 million) and Batu, Bitar, Kediri, Pacitan, Ponorogo, Trenggalek and Tulungagung cities and regencies.

About ten years ago I went there for no other reason than Malang was where, during World War II, the Japanese occupying forces had captured my grandparents and sent the women and children to a camp in Semarang and my grandfather to Bandung, where he nearly died.

Wanting to follow the route my ancestors took, by the Java Sea, we had crossed from Singapore to the Riau Islands in Indonesia and into another world. At Tanjung Pinang we bought tickets and at Kijang we caught a Pelni government ferry to Surabaya, via Jakarta. Over the next two days and one night we learned that most of the other passengers were Indonesian immigrants, who had been arrested in Malaysia and who were being sent home to Java.

In the Midday heat, at Surabaya wharf, we were drafted off from our fellow travellers, who were loaded onto army trucks, and we set off by taxi to the bus station with a new friend from the ferry. Jacob gave us our first lesson about catching buses in Indonesia; just get on and as soon as the bus is full it leaves; there will be a conductor and you pay, in cash, on the road; watch out for the buskers on the buses, they are crooks, but always pay them, but only a little amount, we were informed.

Soon the full bus to Malang was barrelling down the Surabaya southern motorway, for about an hour, before the highway disappeared into a sea of mud at Porong, where, a year earlier, a mud volcano, had started erupting. An Indonesian oil and gas drilling company, PT Lapindo Brantas, had been drilling nearby and, many believe, caused the break-out of pressurised mud. PT Lapindo is owned by Golkar Party chairman and Indonesian rich lister, Aburizal Bakrie, who still denies responsibility. 30,000 people were displaced by the mud. Some locals are cashing in on “mud tourism” as Indonesians come to see the world’s largest mud volcano and still no one has been compensated.

Our detoured bus wound through the congested main streets of little towns before Jacob told the driver to drop us at a crossroads. Dusk was falling rapidly, but, don’t worry, motorbike taxis would turn up and take us to Trawas, Jacob assued. He was right. Soon we were weaving down the centre line, with no crash helmets, passing trucks and vans. The air was warm and you could smell the tropics.

The people at the PPLH Seloliman environment centre/backpackers were astonished that we made it so fast from the midday ferry.The next day was Indonesian independence day and we were dressed as Indonesians and we shouted Merdeka (freedom) along with Indonesian Greenies from Surabaya.

Further up the volcano were, spring fed, ancient Hindu, stone bathing pools, divided between men. The pools contained a gaggle of Javanese transvestites, who made much ado about my white shin, but fortunately they were just leaving. Javanese volcanic soil and tropical climate produces spectacular growth and I observed that the local farmers were even better gardeners than the Greenies at the eco-centre.

The taxi to Malang, slowly passed marching lines of brightly uniformed school girls and we arrived in the centre of town as the parade reached the town hall. There were lots speeches and tan police uniforms and military marching bands and red and white flags flew everywhere.

The latest news from Malang is that 41 of the 45 members of the Malang City Council had been suspended by the government anti-corruption commission for taking bribes paid out by the former Malang mayor.

After a day of self-touring we lucked into Mollys, the Malang community art worker. We witnessed a live broadcast of Malang buskers at a radio station and a rock band at a trade show where we had to shake hands with smiling people in tan uniforms and it was Mollys who guided me to the stream under the main road where children swam, just like in my father’s youth. I paused to sketch the scene before being asked to leave – the women wanted to bath.

Under the bridge in Malang





Far-east Java

The island of Java (population 145 million, 2015) can be divided into approximately twenty millispheres. Starting at the far eastern end of Java, it takes the Indonesian regencies of Banyuwangi (1.6m), Situbondo (0.7m), Bondowoso (0.7m), Jember (2.4m), Probolinggo (1.1m) and Lumajang (1.0m) to make up the millisphere of Far-east Java (7.8m).

In 2012 my travel companion and I journeyed from Jakarta to Surabaya during the month of Ramadan. From Surabaya we went by train to Probolinggo and then took a taxi-van up the Tengger volcanic complex to see Mt Bromo, which had last erupted only the year before. Around the caldera rim, growing in the grey volcanic ash, strawberries, onions and cabbages thrived at high-altitude.

Tourist numbers had climbed back to their pre-Bali bombing highs. In 1996-97, before the Asian financial crisis, tourist visits to Bromo peaked at 130,000; during 2001-02, after the Bali bombing, numbers had dropped to 45,000.

These volcanoes, which includes Semeru, the highest mountain in Java, are home to about 100,000 Tengger people. This ethnic group share the same Hindu religion as the people of Bali and had been driven into the hills by the arrival of Muslim Madurans in East Java in the nineteenth century.

The Tengger people have coped with the arrival of the tourist hordes by writing their own development plan, enforced by community law. No land can be sold, or leased for more than a year, to outsiders and the Tenggerese handle all the transport, accommodation and catering. Every morning the mass descent into the caldera and across the sea of sand, in the dark, to observe the sunrise on the volcanoes may seem chaotic but the Tenggerese are in control and the environmental impacts have not been all bad. Tourism has resulted in higher incomes for the Tenggerese, who can now afford LPG and kerosene for cooking instead of cutting their forests for firewood.

Sandwiched between the island of Bali and Mount Bromo, Far-east Java tends to be a place tourists pass through and it is less crowded than the rest of Java. The highway wound through what appeared to be national parks. Coffee trees and workers huts shared the park with the flora and fauna, with no clear separation between conservation and the economy. Beside the road women turned tobacco leaves drying in the sun.

We had planned to meet up with friends in Bali, but we were running ahead of schedule, so we rested up in Kalibaru, a small town, a short trip away from the Bali ferry terminal at Banyuwangi.

Beside the busy highway we found an unprepossessing motel which backed onto rice paddies and coconut palms. By a spreading Banyan tree we discovered the motel swimming pool, fed by a freshwater spring. Apart from a few frogs we had the unchlorinated pool to ourselves.

After a couple of days almost everyone in town had waved to us, and, between swims in “our” pool, we’d managed to have a close look at Kalibaru’s market and eateries and at the coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves growing outside town.

On the day that we decided to make a dash for Bali and the rendezvous with our friends we discovered that it was also the end of the post-Ramadan holiday week and public transport was crowded with Indonesians returning to work.

When the train pulled into Kalibaru it became apparent that there wasn’t any space for two more travellers. A baggage car at the end of the train had a door open and there were people inside. Boarding from the tracks posed a problem. Pushing my travelling companion up lacked decorum but I doubted if any of the stunned Indonesians would ever see us again.

At the far end an agitated guitar player sat on a piece of cardboard; most buses and trains in Java had travelling buskers. Uniformed train conductors appeared occasionally to shout abuse at the glaring guitarist, who had cleary transgressed.

Still recovering from the ignominy of her entrance my travelling companion sat sulking on her baggage, but a little while later we were crossing the narrow strait to Bali and joining the tourist hordes.


Millisphere (noun): a discrete region inhabited by roughly one-thousandth of the world population. Around seven million but anywhere between 3.5 and 14 million will do. A lens to examine human geography.

Kyoto prefecture (2015 population 2.6 million) is too small to qualify as a millisphere. Kyoto is part of the Kansai region   (23 million) which includes the city of Osaka (8.8 million). Kyoto combined with neighbouring Shiga prefecture (1.4 million) gives a total population of 4 million.

The Shiga prefecture surrounds Lake Biwa (the largest freshwater body of water in Japan) and is within commuting distance from Kyoto. Shiga recently considered changing the name of their prefecture as one strategy to attract tourists away from Kyoto.

Kyoto has more visitors every year than either Mecca or Disneyland and is now suffering from “over-tourism”. Mecca has 15 million pilgrims annually (four million for the haj) and Disneyland Anaheim, LA has 18 million paying visitors every year.

Because of its history and its temples Kyoto was already a popular destination for the Japanese and visitor numbers hovered around 40 million per year from 1975-99, hit 50 million in 2008, and by 2015 there were 57 million tourists, around half of them foreigners, bringing US$9 billion to the city that year.

In 2003 there were only five million foreign visitors to Japan, which then launched the “Visit Japan” campaign. By 2017 there were 27 million foreign visitors, 85 percent of them from Asia. Three-quarters of Japan’s foreign tourists come from just China, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.

In 2005, on a stop-over on the way to Europe, I was one of those foreign tourists. Tourism locations around the world are popular for a good reason and Kyoto’s reason is it’s temple gardens. The reason I wanted to see them was quite prosaic; I was a landscape gardener and had seen photos of famous Japanese gardens.

I knew that these minimal, natural but somehow stylised compositions had their design rooted in the Japanese culture and the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Once while grappling with the aesthetics of rock placing, in New Zealand, I found myself climbing up a stream bed after a summer flash-flood. The way the rocks and sand had been rearranged read like a static representation of the forces of nature and seemed pleasing to my eye. I decided then that one day I wanted to make the landscaper’s pilgrimage and see the rock gardens of Kyoto.

At Osaka airport we were met by Masami, from nearby Mie, who had stayed with us in New Zealand when she had toured our country. Personifying the Japanese spirit of Omotenashi (hospitality) Masami shepherded us by rail to Kyoto and a hostel, stayed the night, took us around some prime sights, went back to work, and returned on the last day to put us back on the plane at Osaka.

It was winter and the off season in Kyoto. Snow had recently crushed bamboo, rushes and grasses and then melted away. Black crows called from the trees and white herons waded in the cold Kamo River. We headed for Rokuon-ji Temple to see the pavilion, papered with gold leaf, reflected in its landscaped pond.

At the top of my list was Rhoan-ji with its garden of rocks and raked sand thought to represent who knows what. Around the back (I didn’t realise that there was a back, or an approach) there was a water-basin. The inscription on the stone basin said “I learn only to be contented”. Masami translated it as “I learn so I will not want.” More to the point I thought.

“Learning should be for its own sake, not for profit or gain” … “Learn only satisfaction,” in other words be content with what you have.

At Daitoku-ji my preconception of the Japanese garden was shattered. One garden was dedicated to Sorin Ohtoma (1530-1589) a Christian feudal lord from Kyushu. Viewed from a corner of the garden, rocks are arranged to hint at the reclining form of a cross – a cross “burdened on the multitude of the world, symbolised by the numberless grains of sand.”

These days the multitudes are the flag following, selfie-stick wielding tourists, feverish to photograph everything, desperate to consume the next experience, and caring little for the consequences. One solution to “pollution by tourism” is to stay at home.