Dan’s Reflections on a Decade of Bagging Gunungs


In June of this year it will have been ten years since the Gunung Bagging project was first conceived of.  In that time the site has developed from a rather empty-looking blog into something encyclopaedic for much of the Indonesian archipelago, with a vast library of images and write-ups for mountains that at the time we visited them had no English language reports online.

Being the primary contributor and editor for Gunung Bagging has meant a fascinating number of years of spending my spare time visiting mountaintops across Indonesia and in the nearby countries of Malaysia and East Timor. My head will likely remain full of transcendental and sometimes bizarre memories connected to these important places until my final days. But at present I feel as if in its present form, the project has nearly gone as far as it realistically can do without funding or a more flexible work situation. Unless a new format can be found, I will probably be cutting down the number of trips that I make and may even be hanging up my boots more long-term.

I tried quitting before, just last August, after a summer of hiking that – whilst reasonably successful – was not especially enjoyable at the time. The considerable expense, the solo nature of the trips and the sometimes exhausting bureaucracy and financial negotiations had all got to me, outweighing the pleasure of the actual mountains and the actual hikes. The mountains themselves are never the problem. Bukit Raya was great – but was it worth over Rp7 million and a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy?

When I returned to Jakarta afterwards I cancelled all my future hiking plans, determined to end the peak bagging addiction, at least in Indonesia. But just several weeks later, in the absence of anything else to work on in my free time, I started re-booking tickets for weekend jaunts to various gunungs and decided to plough ahead with the recent extension of the coverage of the website to include peaks in the Malaysian peninsula. The latter was partly done to increase the number of weekend trips to new mountains that were now possible, and partly because the idea had been raised by a friend and I had found no real objections to treating Malaysian (and East Timorese) peaks in just the same way as Indonesian peaks of a similar prominence. This made particular sense given that the Ribu concept has been adopted in various parts of the world so now refers to peaks with 1000 metres of topographic prominence anywhere – not just in Indonesia as was the original concept, and perhaps not even just those on Planet Earth. After all, there are Ribus on the moon too.

Unfortunately, exploring the Malaysian peninsula peaks has not been especially straightforward for a single foreign hiker, as small hiking groups are rare and guide costs totally disproportionate to the actual work undertaken. As in many parts of Asia, foreigners are customarily charged more and permits are hard to get hold of in advance or online, meaning the cost and bureaucracy is perhaps even worse than in Indonesia. This is particularly bad if you are alone or with just one or two friends. One of the few positives has been the low airfares from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur making Malaysia a far cheaper destination to travel to than most parts of Indonesia where domestic flight prices have rocketed in the last six months or so making it hard to justify weekend trips even to East Java.

I’ve always believed that Gunung Bagging is a really worthwhile project, and if I had only been hiking for my own amusement I would have achieved far less, despite my obsessive-compulsive nature. But attached to the belief in the project is a deep sadness that despite all the effort and value it has given countless thousands of readers, the project remains almost entirely unfunded and in my view underappreciated.

Just as experimental or obscure fringe music (and other cultural arts) end up influencing the profitable mainstream often without credit or recompense, projects like Gunung Bagging that have documented the famous along with the almost-unknown will have benefited Indonesian tourism in a far more penetrating way than the many travel blogs that repeat the same story about the same ten or twenty mountains. But the benefits are perhaps only clear to those in positions of authority in retrospect or with hindsight, if at all. And without promotional efforts, who is going to be searching for information on a particular mountain if they have never heard of it in the first place?

In almost a decade, I have never once been asked to participate in an adequately-funded project related to the aims of the site, give a proper talk or presentation, or contribute my accumulated knowledge and experience in order to assist with a goal out there in the real world. The people with the authority to make decisions in such matters are difficult to contact and apparently unaware of the site.

I’ve been asked for free advice by documentary makers and film production crews on numerous occasions, none of whom ‘had a budget’ to pay me for my time. As an English teacher who doesn’t really want to be an English teacher, it has been rather disappointing. Researching the mountains and updating the site has largely been a solitary pursuit, always an ‘art project’ in my mind, and whilst the write-ups, photographic archives and GPS tracks might be made use of by many, the experience of creating these has in many cases been a lonely and expensive one, both in terms of time and money.

I have publicized my many trips but other than very occasional companions the offers to join have been ignored and no community around Gunung Bagging has developed over the years. Of course most foreigners only stay in Indonesia for 2 or 3 years and quite reasonably want to visit the famous mountains and volcanoes rather than the obscure peaks I am interested in documenting. But it has been disappointing for me.

As much as I have enjoyed meeting hundreds of mountain guides, I have met only a relatively small number who have not been primarily focused on money during their interactions with a foreigner and an even smaller number who understood and respected the purpose of the Gunung Bagging project and that part of the aim was actually to assist them in the longer-term.

Just a few weeks ago in Aceh, just two hours into a ten-day hike to Gunung Leuser that had been planned for months, I put my backpack on and turned back towards the village and then went home to Jakarta early. You can read the full story in the comments section of the Gunung Leuser page, but in brief it was a combination of discrimination, cost, bureaucracy, potential danger posed by wildlife encounters, and interminable delays on the trail, that led me to think “I’m not enjoying this anymore for a number of reasons, so why am I using up limited holiday time and all my spare money pursuing it?”

A broader way of looking at things, if one zooms out a little, would be to ask oneself if one would prefer for one’s life to be summed up by a single life-long project in one particular field, or a series of different projects that are linked by threads that perhaps only you yourself can see. Put more simply, would it be better to continue as ‘Dan from Gunung Bagging’ to document more peaks in Indonesia and Malaysia, effectively doing more of the same, or to stop, have a period of serene nothingness and then focus on an entirely new project and – when such things are needed – turn on a Jon Hassell album and recall my memories of these tropical mountain places for the rest of my life?

Would visiting Gunung Tahan, Yong Yap and Yong Belar, Gunung Sabampolulu and Gunung Dukono be a lot better than conjuring up in my mind what they might be like as I look at the map? Leaving a little intoxicating mystery is a good thing, especially when you have enough experiential components to construct such visions. And even if it weren’t, is being able to say I’ve been there – that I’ve bagged 83 Ribus instead of 82 – worth Rp4 million each time when I could be thinking about having a family and the responsibilities that come with that?

I have just returned from a very pleasant trip to Bromo where as a non-Indonesian citizen I was charged Rp320,000 to enter the national park, as opposed to the local price of Rp32,000. Considering that I live in Indonesia, work in Indonesia, pay taxes in Indonesia, and write about the mountains of Indonesia (for free), it seems a little unfair to be charged ten times the local rate simply because of my nationality.  How can one feel ‘at home’ in such a situation, especially when I’m trying to help? Many Indonesian visitors pay little or zero income tax and have probably not worked on a project for free for the last ten years promoting the mountains of this region. And if the entry ticket price is used to clear up the litter, it is quite clear that domestic visitors are the ones most guilty of littering in the first place! I could just about understand paying double, but ten, twenty, thirty times endorsed by the government is unarguably excessive. It is very difficult to justify paying these inflated fees every week or two when there are so many other important elements in life, including saving for the future.

When you see the authorities spending money on things like a huge wall with ‘Bukit Teletubbies’ written on it (which were it constructed by anyone other than the authorities would rightly be regarded as crass vandalism and destructive of the environment that is supposed to be protected) you have to think twice about encouraging them by spending money there at all. Also in the case of Bromo, there are intrusive Westernized signs all over the place. King Kong Hill? Why not call the place its proper original name and let guides tell people what the place is called rather than have a huge ‘selfie sign’ on the edge of this wonderful caldera? It’s very sad and in total contravention of key conservation rules and aims.

If foreigners are ‘guests’ in Indonesia, then charging them ten or twenty or thirty times the local price simply to enter an area (forgetting the money they spend on transport, accommodation and guides) seems a distinctly unfriendly way of treating them, especially given that in most Western countries such as the United Kingdom it is normal to hike without a guide and park entry is entirely free for every single visitor, regardless of whatever their nationality is. If you have guests at your home, do you charge them ten or twenty or thirty times the price for a cup of coffee?

You might think, as many foreigners in Indonesia do, that with a KITAS or KITAP (resident card) you are entitled to the local rate. This is now incorrect, although in some locations foreigners who live and work here have been paying the local rate in previous years. The actual law (Peraturan Pemerintah Nomor 12 Tahun 2014) from 2014 makes no reference to residency but only to nationality. You are either an Indonesian citizen or a foreigner and if you are a foreigner then you are charged ten, twenty or even thirty times the local price (depending on the tier of national park or tourism object).

This discriminatory pricing may be seen as acceptable by many in Asia who are accustomed to it, but a large majority of Westerners are likely to be opposed to it out of principle alone. Equality matters. If you get the same service then you should pay the same price (unless you are disabled, elderly, or a child). Discriminatory pricing such as one encounters all the time in Southeast Asia is illegal in the countries of the European Union. And for that, Europeans ought to be proud.

I fully believe that the world’s landscapes are for all of humankind, not just for the tribes who happen to administrate those regions. In the case of mountain tourism in Southeast Asia, it reinforces a nationalistic ‘us and them’ mentality, built on the erroneous assumption that all foreigners are unreasonably rich and deserve their wallets emptying at every possible opportunity, whilst all locals are poor through no fault of their own and need sympathy and continual hand-outs from those lucky foreigners. This is not an accurate description of reality, especially for those of us who are English teachers and the many thousands of financially well-off local people, but it does encourage these foreigners to think twice about giving tips to local people and makes it more difficult to form proper friendships with local people when we are categorized and treated as mere stereotypes.

This discriminatory charging is becoming more widespread across the world (see New Zealand), perhaps as an easy (or lazy) way for tourism authorities to ‘solve’ the problem of over-tourism in certain areas, and is set to continue unless people come together and reject it in favour of treating our fellow humans in a decent, fair manner. This may not happen for a very long time, as authorities like to use nationalism and ‘us versus them’ as a political tool for manipulating people.

If anyone with the authority to suggest changes to the rules is reading, to make hiking tourism more attractive to foreign visitors, a less discriminatory and more creative and visionary approach is advised.

There are other vital changes that need to be made. I have not seen any Indonesian tourism campaign focused specifically on hiking. Why not? The infrastructure in far-flung provinces is improving every year, with new airports being opened and old ones renovated. But if you want tourists to visit these places then you need to make them aware of activities they can do there.

The Gunung Bagging project covers almost every province, and the list of Ribus is a fantastic starting point for a nationwide (or region-wide) tourism campaign, should relevant officials have sufficient vision to collaborate with forestry departments to simplify the permit-issuing procedure which is totally inefficient and almost-traumatic at present. I’ve tried to get in touch with relevant people several times but emails go unanswered and probably never actually reach the intended recipient.

Scotland’s economy is boosted by £1.26 billion (Pounds Sterling) by hiking tourism, particularly because of the lists of peaks such as the world-famous Munros (282 mountains) and long distance footpaths such as the West Highland Way. Indonesia could do the same with the Ribus (232 mountains) and a few inspired long-distance treks (across Java / Flores / Kalimantan etc.) and lead the way in Southeast Asia. If the authorities want my assistance with this then they are welcome to get in touch. But I am a realist and know that most likely I will be long gone before anyone (a) takes an interest in this and (b) asks me for assistance.

Whether or not I am involved in such developments, the authorities could also focus on initiatives in particular provinces and use the Gunung Bagging groundwork as a starting point. For example, if you want to encourage tourists to visit North Kalimantan, you could choose three Ribus from our site and create trails to the peaks. If these trails were maintained, publicized in campaigns, and combined with non-discriminatory pricing, reliable guides, and affordable eco-lodging in the local areas then low-impact tourism could be a real success in the region and everyone would be a winner! The potential for success is enormous.

We have thought about trying to monetize Gunung Bagging through various means, but our readership is probably not large enough to make a premium subscription model a success at the present time. Occasional donations have covered some of the hosting costs, but the many hours that I spend on administration (such as the recent formatting edit of over 300 individual pages that took me around 20 hours but means the site is more mobile friendly for the 60% of visitors who access the site on their smartphones) is given voluntarily, for free.

If there is no interest from national government authorities, then the site could potentially be developed to cover other parts of Southeast Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines. But if no benefactor emerges to support the continued development of the research of mountains in remote areas, then the cost of such a development would be a huge burden and almost impossible to achieve alongside a regular day-job from Monday to Friday.

If there was just enough funding to cover the cost of a few more trips (or if I decide to spend my money on more trips anyway and then write-up the new reports) then my focus will be on the following peaks: Doro Maria (Eastern Sumbawa), Olet Takan (Western Sumbawa), Gunung Seminung (Lampung), Gunung Daun (Bengkulu), Gunung Ambesu/o (Toraja Selatan, Sulawesi Selatan), Dola Koyakoya (Alor, NTT), Sabampolulu (Southeast Sulawesi), Gunung Anjasmoro (East Java), Kanyi (Sarawak), Liang (Malaysia), Kajang (Pulau Tioman, Malaysia), Gunung Magdalena and Bombalai Hill (Sabah), plus Dukono, Ibu, Watowato and Sabatai in North Maluku and a large number of peaks in Nusa Tenggara Timur that take days to reach from Jakarta and are therefore impossible to combine with a regular Monday to Friday job. Another trip to East Timor is sorely needed to develop the coverage of that region, but the costs are the highest in this region.

So is this a ‘retirement’ note? I am not sure. I have yet to decide whether I will be curtailing my UK hill bagging activities too, or what my next project might be, assuming that nobody gets in touch to suggest a new phase of the Gunung Bagging project. I may try to sell some prints of photographs I have taken, or begin a digital art project, focusing on mountain landscapes in tropical areas. Whatever I do, landscape will probably have a central role in it. As always, people are encouraged to contribute trip reports to the site and submit write-ups for any currently undocumented mountains.

Best regards,

Dan

Danpquinn@gmail.com / 081284062778

Jakarta, April 2019.