Many things are doomed to failure, such as starting a hog roast franchise in Chechnya or basing your foreign policy around the concept of dropping bombs on people. One such folly must surely be Fantasy Island in Tenggarong, eastern Kalimantan, on the Mahakam River. The region’s coal mining operations had blessed the local authorities with that affliction we all desire, of having more money than sense, so they decided to blow it on turning the town’s river island of Pulau Kumala into a tourist attraction. Common sense would dictate that the first thing any tourist attraction needs would probably be tourists. If any official imagined that foreign tourists might play a part in this he really needs to be taken out and shot, with as little ceremony as possible. In over three weeks in the area I encountered the grand total of one group of three foreign tourists, which gives you a fair idea of the enormity of the task facing the office of international tourist development.
However, a nice shiny new suspension bridge had been built nearby, providing a link to the nearby city of Samarinda, but its sudden collapse in 2011 killed thirty-six people, with many of the bodies never recovered from the broad, churning, silt clogged waters. Not only did it cut off the route for the already overly ambitious estimates for visitor numbers, it turned up the wattage on the spotlight illuminating the corruption amongst the political elite, for few doubted it had a role to play in the collapse. Any construction process in Indonesia is an almost guaranteed source of income for the politicians commissioning them and cutting corners is one of the favourite ways of freeing up funds for more prefered projects, such luxury shopping trips and top of the range 4x4s, which they can use to get over the appalling roads, which have disintegrated due to earlier cost cutting measures in order to pay for shopping trips etc etc. Most of the country’s bridges built over a hundred years ago by the Dutch colonial powers are still standing, despite not being designed to cope with modern trucks or overladen 4x4s filled with fat politicians and their wives’ shopping. The Regent of the province, Syaukani, had recently been imprisoned after major corruption charges and it was he that initiated the Kumala Island Resort.
Beforehand, the island had been an untouched wildlife sanctuary but that obviously didn’t provide a suitable revenue stream for ambitious politicians, unlike a luxury resort and theme park. Unfortunately, what they meant by this was a bunch of attractions based on local cultural themes, which would have provided a perfectly serviceable secondary entertainment, if only they had remembered to put some rides in. Rollercoaster: no. Log flume: no. Big, death defying whirly thing: no. Instead, a sky tower provided some nice views but hardly high-octane entertainment and some bumper cars, which might have kept the teenagers busy for ten minutes before they went back to their phone screens and selfie sticks. A cable car provided access to the island and more nice views but locals were no doubt wondering why it was linked to the opposite side of the river to the town.
So it comes as no surprise today that the attractions sit idle, waist-high grass befriends the rusting goal posts of the football pitch and pedal boats lay half-submerged in the muddy excuse for a boating lake. Some noble sense of optimism would appear to be the only thing which keeps a handful of staff employed to limit the encroachment of nature. Still, a man waits dutifully at the peeling paint of the ticket office, where one look at the guest book was ample evidence to demonstrate that were never enough weirdos like me interested in having a look to even pay his own wages, let alone anyone elses. He did not see fit to question my sanity or mention that there wasn’t actually anything to do anymore, even though he could hardly have guessed that was its very beauty for me.
I gratefully accepted a bicycle to tour the little island but its completely ineffective brakes and gears were an apt metaphor for the dejected resort on show.
The most absurd memorial to the whole temple of imprudence sat on the down river tip of the island: twenty nine glorious tonnes of slightly tarnished bronze, the work of twenty-seven skilled artisans, representing the mythical Lembuswana creature, legendary guardian of the Mahakam River. Its fallibility in little doubt as it surveyed a crumbling fiasco and a watery graveyard.
The eyes of great dragon statues gazed out over withered grass and wide, silent walkways, gardeners having respectfully cleared the ground around them, as if they might offer some supernatural hope that the Lembuswama had failed to deliver. Even on opening day, despite their impressive countenance, what they primarily guarded was the glaring absence of things to do. Potential visitors wold have exhausted the options circumnavigating the route around the island before bellies were rumbling for lunch. The cobwebbed luxury resort complex did have visitors however, on the day I was there: a photo shoot team safe in the knowledge that they would be uninterrupted by noisy crowds. Needless to say they had no need of an ugly, sweaty old English bloke who must have wandered in by accident.
Surely soon, someone in the local government finance department will question why they are paying for the limited but utterly pointless upkeep of this beached whale of a project and the trees and vines will be able to fully reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs.