I started my 40,075 kilometre journey around the equator in the small Indonesian town of Bontang. It sits on the east coast of Kalimantan and is home to one of the largest liquid natural gas refineries in the world. It is also the first place the equator hits land as it travels east through the Indonesian part of Borneo.
My research revealed that it was the most easterly point in Indonesia where the equator was marked by a monument. That research gave no hint as to whether the monument was modest or grand. This was 1993, a full five years before the invention of Google. The world’s first web browser, Mozilla, was still in its infancy. My guidebook said it existed and I figured that, whatever form it took, it would provide a concrete beginning for my journey.
There was just one hitch, though. When I got to Bontang nobody seemed to know where the equator was.
Of course, no one admitted that. When I arrived at the bus station, after a four-hour bus ride from Samarinda, I had no shortage of minivan drivers and motorcycle taxi riders offering to take me to the equator. My question ‘Dimana khatilistiwa?’ – ‘Where is the equator?’ – was met with a bum-rush not seen since a huge gas reserve was discovered at Badak Field back in 1972.
I chose the looked least predatory-looking motorcycle taxi rider, a happy, laidback chap called Bagus, and jumped on the back of his Honda. Bagus was the Indonesian word for ‘good’, he said, and a popular name in Yogyakarta, where he originally hailed from.
Motorcycle taxis were one of the most thrilling discoveries of my early days travelling. They perform pretty much the same service as a taxi, just on the back of a motorbike. They are quick and cheap and a little dangerous too. The Indonesians call them ojek, and for a handful of rupiah they’ll take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.
Bagus insisted I wear a helmet, which tells you what kind of town Bontang was – a clean, modern, company town. Everywhere else in Indonesia wearing a helmet was totally arbitrary. Most of the time, motorcycle taxi riders didn’t have a spare helmet to offer so the decision was made for you. There were huge fines if you were caught not wearing a helmet in Bontang, Bagus warned darkly.
Just after we turned out of the bus station, Bagus pulled over and asked a street sweeper for directions to the equator. The guy shrugged his shoulders and Bagus drove on, scanning the side of the road for other people to ask.
‘The khatilistiwa’ I shouted at the side of his helmet. ‘You know where it is, yeah?’
‘Ya, ya,’ Bagus shouted back, a little too enthusiastically. He obviously had no idea.
The golden rule of providing public transport in Indonesia, you see, is to secure the business first and then worry about knowing where to go later. Bagus also asked me to pay up front so he could buy the petrol he needed to take me around. Again, standard operating procedure for taxi drivers and minivan owners in the back blocks of Indonesia.
As we rode along the wide neat streets of Bontang, Bagus gave me a shouted, potted history of his life. Like a lot of Javanese, he’d moved to Kalimantan with his young family in search of a better life. It was part of a government sponsored scheme, he said, to ease overpopulation in Java. He was given a small parcel of land, just outside of Bontang on the road to Samarinda, and in return would grow crops and run livestock. The plan was to grow enough to feed him and his young family and earn a little cash on the side.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The land had once been rainforest, and like much of the cleared rainforest in Kalimantan, it wasn’t very good. The lush rainforest had drawn sustenance the nutrients had come from leave litter and decomposing plants. With that gone, the land was a good as useless. It was dry and dusty, he said, without power or running water.
Bagus had hoped to get a job at the Badak refinery but he wasn’t qualified.
‘Even labourers need a certificate,’ he shouted. In the end he used the last of his saving to buy a second hand, 90cc Honda and each day rode into Bontang looking for fares.
‘I have won the lottery with you,’ he shouted gleefully, before checking himself. He meant that it had been a slow week, he explained.
After asking half a dozen other people where the equator was, including a homeless guy trying to sleep in a well-maintained hedge outside a government building, Bagus gave up and gave me a tour of the city instead. It took in the gas fires over the refineries, the oily ferry port and the site of a recent explosion that had levelled three city blocks and left nothing except charred rubble and scorched palm tree stumps. I was shown the neat rows of pre-fab huts that housed the refinery workers and the shops that served as the main street.
An hour later we were back at the bus station and I still hadn’t sighted the equator. When I pointed this out to Bagus, he gave me a doleful shrug.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the equator was proving so elusive. It is, after all, a construct, an imaginary line around the middle of the earth. It divides the planet into hemispheres and marks Latitude Zero, again, another mathematical construct. There’s no dotted line around the planet’s girth like there is on a map. And while the earth bulges around the equator – something to do with the centrifugal force exerted by the rotation of the planet on its axis – it is relatively minuscule and not perceptible to the naked eye.
Why didn’t you just pull out your phone and use Google Maps, I hear you ask. Well, like I said, this 1993 and first iPhone was still a decade away. Everyone might have a phone with GPS in their pocket these days, but back then, Nokia was king. Predictive text and the game of Snake was the cutting edge of mobile phone technology.
Instead, I had to play hard ball with Bagus. I told him that if he didn’t get me to the equator monument before the last bus went back to Samarinda I wouldn’t pay him the rest of his money. (You didn’t think I’d spent all of his fare on petrol, did you?)
No khatilistiwa, no rupiah.
One of the other motorcycle taxi guys piped up and said he knew where the monument was and hurriedly gave Bagus directions. They shared one of those complicated handshakes favoured by rappers and basketball players which I interpreted as Bagus saying ‘I owe you one!’. He motioned for me to clamber back on the bike and we set off.
Within minutes we had reached a monument. It sat in the middle of a roundabout at the far end of a particularly smooth and well-maintained stretch of road leading out of Bontang. It was imposing and intimidating, a little bit of Soviet-style Brutalism in the back blocks of Kalimantan. At its centre was a blockish representation of a Dyak tribesman, a refinery worker and a Javanese official, raising linked hands in a gesture of determined friendship. The intent, I think, was to portray what a happy, unified bunch of fellows these Indonesians were. I just thought ‘Christ! These guys really hate each other!’
Regardless of my feelings on the aesthetic failings of the statue or the fact that it must have cost countless thousands of rupiah to build, it wasn’t the equator monument. I conveyed this distressing news to Bagus, but he wasn’t listening. He just pointed.
‘It’s monument!’, he said, but without conviction. He knew it wasn’t the equator monument, but hoped I would pay up on a technicality.
A gardener tending the ornamental shrubbery around the monument overhead our discussion and wandered over to intervene. He introduced himself as Slamet, another Javanese emigre. He was fluent in English and equally well-versed in the sights and attractions of Bontang, it seemed.
‘The khatalistiwa monument is near the gas fields,’ he explained. ‘On Badak property.’
The monument, it turned out, was not beside a public highway after all. Bagus’s shoulders slumped.
We slalomed our way over a series of speed bumps and past the neat little pink company houses to the gates of the PT Badak refinery. A security guard wearing reflector aviator sunglasses – standard issue, I think, when a young Javanese man is sent to work in the provinces. He refused to let us in.
I was crestfallen. Don’t get me wrong. I’d expected my grand journey around the equator to come across its fair share of problems and difficulties. There were borders to come that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cross, rivers I wasn’t sure could be navigated. But I didn’t expect it to stumble at the first hurdle. I tried bribing the guard but he seemed strangely unmoved by my offer of just over 30 pence.
It wasn’t a situation Bagus was unhappy with. As an Indonesian he had long made his peace with bureaucracy trampling on his dreams. To him, the guard was an angel in brown, a mirror-eyed saviour who had just given him a legitimate excuse to call time on our equatorial quest and still be paid in full.
A toot of a car horn, disrupted my funk. One of the refinery managers had turned up at the gate in his shiny new 4WD, and was gesturing for us to get out of the way. When he noticed I was a foreigner, he motioned for me to come to his car. He introduced himself as Suharto – named after the general, not related, he assured me – and shook my hand vigorously. Another Javanese, he could speak English too. He’d spotted a foreigner, and no matter how scruffy I was, he was keen to practise.
I explained my plight and he stroked his chin thoughtfully.
‘Have you tried the other entrance?’ he asked.
I looked at Bagus and he shrugged his shoulders.
‘It’s about ten kilometres away,’ Suharto explained. ‘It’s the one everybody uses. If I wasn’t about to start a shift I would take you myself.’
Suharto explained how to get there to Bagus, and after a great amount of pointing and nodding, Bagus finally figured out where we needed to go.
From that moment on things went incredibly smoothly. At the ten kilometre mark, we turned up a small dirt road that led to a boom gate and a security post. There was a small demountable shed where a couple of guys in uniform lazily sat smoking. They confirmed it was indeed was an entrance to PT Badak gas fields and the entrance to the equator as well. I showed them my passport and signed the visitor’s book. Judging by its well-thumbed pages, hundreds of people had come to see the equator. I wondered if they had had the same problems finding it.
The monument itself was still five kilometres down a dusty service road. The road was cut through secondary forest, and beside it was a pipeline taking precious liquid gas from equatorial wells to refineries in Bontang. I wondered if travelling from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere changed it in any way and decided that it probably didn’t. After all, I must have crossed the equator a dozen times already that day and, apart from being a little grumpy and sunburnt, I didn’t feel any different.
Not that that had stopped me from stowing a 750 ml bottle of aquavit in my bag to cart around the equator. Distilled from grain and potatoes, the Norwegians believe that it tastes better if it has crossed the equator. More importantly, they hold that more times a bottle of aquavit crosses the equator the better, and more valuable, it gets. Every bottle of aquavit has crossed the equator at least twice, usually taking up valuable space on a Norwegian cargo ship heading to America or Japan, with the journey marked and dated on the back of the label. I patted the bag containing my very own bottle of aquavit, convinced that with number of times I was going to cross the equator I was going to end up a very rich man.
I first spotted the equator at 4.33pm on July 29, 1993. After taking four hours under an intense tropical sun to find it I was determined to be precise.
If I was surprised to find that it was an obelisk with a gyroscopic globe on top, I shouldn’t have been. I would soon discover that there seems to be an international protocol stating that all equator monuments should be designed as such. This one did have an attractively unkempt picnic pavilion nearby and an arched wooden bridge over a stream that was falling slowly and silently into disrepair, though.
There was a spiral staircase inside the monument that led to a rather austere metal verandah. Monkeys gambolled nearby, and after a few misplaced steps I noted that the monkeys used the Bontang equator monument as a lavatory. I unloaded my sack of equatorial paraphernalia – a flag given to me by Australian Geographic that had also been to the top of Mount Everest and the aforementioned 750ml bottle of aquavit. I arranged them for the first of many such photos.
I took a swig of aquavit from a small hip flask I’d brought along on the journey too. The aquavit in the flask was from another bottle, bought especially for a celebratory sip at each monument conquered. The bottle of aquavit would accompany me around the equator unopened, waiting to be bought by some obscenely rich Norwegian business tycoon with nothing better to spend his millions on. Well, that was the plan anyway.
I stood in front of the equator and took my time to savour the moment. Bagus tugged at my shirt and said that he had to get back in time to pick his daughter up from school, but gave me a moment to be contemplative. He realised, I think, that it’s not every day that you start chasing one of your greatest dreams.
To the east, just over the rise, was the equatorial edge of Kalimantan. To the west, the rest of Kalimantan. Beyond that was Africa, South America and finally the other eastern islands of Indonesia. The sun was sinking there, in the direction I would be travelling. It struck me that I would be chasing the sun, but never quite catching it. I suspected that it would be the same with the equator itself. What it really was, its essence, its being, would somehow avoid me. I looked hard, trying desperately to comprehend a difference at least, but all I saw was a solid wall of jungle. A solid wall of jungle that wasn’t any different to the wall of jungle just to the right or the left or even a couple of kilometres away.
I took some solace in the fact that I had at least found the bloody thing. It had taken most of the day, but here it was.
Now I just had to make sure I didn’t lose it.