Air Asia’s new afternoon flight from Denpasar to Darwin is a dream.
Darwin Airport is small and efficient; one is quickly communing with nature, the Australian city way. I stayed at the pleasant Sky City Casino hotel on Fanny Bay next to the Botanic Gardens (I am working on a small East Indonesian garden as part of the coming (August) Festival of Darwin).
In the morning indigenous Australians (black fellas as they call themselves) come out of the long grasses that line the shore, which are home to over 3,000 inhabitants nightly — which is fairly unique for a major city anywhere. In fact the northern territory calls itself the indigenous state. There are over 200 aboriginal tribes in the territory — many in the Kakadu National Park a few-hours drive south-west of Darwin.
The excellent Darwin Museum features a downstairs gallery devoted to the artefacts of the Tiwi people of Tiwi Island just off the coast (a ferry goes there daily).
The Botanical Garden (est. 1860) is one of the tropical world’s best. Its latest feature is a garden devoted to African savannah plants and trees, including every known example of the Boabab tree species.
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From Darwin I took Virgin Australia to Brisbane and drove 2 hours south through the pretty Sunshine Coast hinterland, to Byron Bay, to see old friends.
Byron Shire as well as neighbouring Mullumbimby Shire are handling the expansion off tourism and well-heeled drop-outs very well. The hippy cafes have been replaced with smart raw food eateries; old hippies have become hanging-yoga matrons, the shires have added smart new road systems and beachside camping grounds to deal with the influx of holiday maker. There’s barely a whiff of patchouli oil around. The countryside is dotted with trendy cafes.
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From Ballina (25 minutes south of Byron) I flew Virgin to Sydney, to attend the rehearsal of East Javanese artist Jumaadi Jumaadi’s Desa Durian wayang kulit show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Indonesian rocker and actor Sawung Jabo is part of Jumaadi’s musical ensemble, as is Pak Aris, a wirasuara from the Indonesian Consulate in Sydney.
It’s great to see modern Indonesian artists getting recognition in Australia the same way Chinese modern artists have.
The Brisbane trienale has always shown many Indonesian artist, but Sydney has been less interested. Jumaadi is changing that.
Indonesians often say to me that Australia doesn’t have culture. You wouldn’t think that in Sydney. This month alone there is the Bienale at Cockatoo Island on Sydney Harbour (fabulous) and VIVID, the annual light show when, over ten days, the opera house and other city buildings are washed by light artists. Australia also has a great culture of preserving nature, sadly lacking in other parts of Asia today.
I spent much of my time in Sydney admiring the harbour and the beaches — still warm enough to swim at the end of May!
I flew back to Indonesia from Sydney on Garuda which has a new service in economy and new seats (1 – 2 – 1) in business class on its Airbus 380 service. In economy, they now have menu cards (!!).With lunch Miso soup is served from a trolley with lunch. The video program is also considerably enhanced. And they are treating their frequent fliers a whole lot better — in economy they pre-blocking empty seats next to them when load allows. That is a sure way to increase brand loyalty.
• • •From Sydney I returned to Jakarta and had one night at my old favourite hotel, the Gran Mahakam in Block M district.
It is admirable the way the hotel has, over the decades, stuck to the original European exterior architecture and the poolscape (designed by Jakarta-based architect Randy). Any changes to the interiors have been stylish and appropriate. The flowers everywhere have always been sumptuous, as is their breakfast buffet.
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From Jakarta I went to Kota Gede, in Yogyakarta, to stay at the charming Dutch- colonial-Javanese nDalem Natan, once a Central Javanese aristocrat family home, since purchased and restored (after the devastating earthquake of 2006) by Jakarta media czar and activist Nasir Tamara. It is now a heritage hotel.
The rooms are adequate but the public areas are gorgeous — loads of antique furniture and atmosphere. There are warungs with good Central Javanese food all up and down the street outside.
The best thing about nDalem Natan is that the 16th century Islam-Majapahit style royal tomb, makam Panembahan Senopati, my favourite tomb in all Java, is just around the corner.
At the royal tomb all the courtyards are tranquil and all the kuncen (guardians) benign: one can even order a sorban (Javanese traditional shirt) at the ticket kiosk and they whip it up in a day.
I had a bath at the sendang spring within the complex and then went for a quick spin around town on a bike.
Kota Gede has changed enormously since I first visited in 1978 — no longer are dolman horse-drawn surreys parked outside the Art Deco market place; and old buildings are few and far between — but it still excludes an old world charm and Javanese refinement.