The Tengger Farmers: East Java

The Tengger villagers are skilled horticulturalists who work the acute slopes by hand. Their labor produces a multicolored grid of freshly turned rich black volcanic soil, the green of blooming plants alongside the brown of withering leaves.

Sunflowers speckle the landscape with yellow, matching the saffron sarongs wrapped around roadside shrines.

The ingenious, tough Tengger are the last remnants in Java of the once mighty Buddhist-Hindu Majapahit kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia more than 700 years ago.

The main crops are potatoes, cabbages and squash. To see men and women tilling, planting and harvesting on land tilting at around 70 degrees is to redefine the term “arable land”.

It is also highly hazardous with landslips gouging deep wounds in the hillsides.

Because the slopes are so steep, visitors can quiver above the landscape and see the farming below as though from a plane: Aerial photography without going aloft.

At Wonokitri the hustling starts, but it’s not heavy-duty. Visitors are encouraged to leave their cars and hire a jeep at Rp 250,000 for the rest of the journey. This isn’t necessary as the roads are asphalted and in reasonable repair.

However, if you suffer from vertigo, are unsure of your driving skills and don’t fancy having your paintwork shaved by trucks overladen with potatoes and people — with a sheer unprotected drop on one side — then hiring may be worth considering.

Always assuming you trust the local drivers. In late May a truck slipped over the edge killing 12 and injuring many more.

Park entrance fees are Rp 4,500 per person if you’re an Indonesian citizen, and five times that if your skin is white and you can’t wrap your tongue around “eksploitasi dan diskriminasi“.

If you can and don’t fit the stereotype of a cashed-up colonial they may make you a de facto local.

The board in the tollgate office lists visitors’ home countries. Although there are columns for Americans, Australians and a community of European nations, all are included under the rubric Belanda (officially meaning Dutch, but colloquially any non-Indonesian.)

Only around 10 to 20 try this route every day. So the farmers and stallholders haven’t become blas‚ and are prepared to stop and chat about their lives. No hassles from fake watch floggers, but you’ll be urged to bid for wooly caps that you’d never dare wear elsewhere.

You’ll also have bunches of “edelweiss” (looking suspiciously like cauliflower gone to seed) thrust under your nostrils.

This is an experience you probably won’t get in the European Alps where the genuine wild plant is a protected species.

Don’t let the beauty, atmosphere and flora go to your head. It’s unwise to do a Julie Andrews in the tropics and dance down the hillsides singing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music.

Apart from showing your age and lack of taste, one von Trapp trip could be terminal — lose your footing and lose your life.

Nor is this a good place for trainee TV weather forecasters. Before you can say “bright, sunny periods expected” you’ll be wrapped in a thick and chilly mist.

When the light shafts through like a religious painting from the Renaissance, be nimble with your Nikon.

While you’re fingering the focus ring and eyeing the aperture, the clouds have closed in and you can’t see the white of your knuckles.

Or the grand canyon sweeping into the distance from the precipice where you’re positioned. Take strong nerves, stronger shoes and warm clothes; like the stock exchange index, the temperature leaps and falls in moments.

Overall, these are minor matters. As with the wind, they’re not worth getting under your skin.

The upsides — literally and metaphorically — give value with every astonishing and soul-lifting view.

Duncan Graham

(Duncan Graham is an award winning journalist and more of his excellent writings can be seen at his website – Indonesia Now)