Tower that's tempting to tourists in Madura

Duncan Graham, Contributor, Madura, East Java

Madura, off the north coast of East Java, doesn't enjoy a good press.

Many guidebooks highlight the island's aridity and the exodus of its inhabitants. The Madurese have a reputation for ferocity and religious fervor, so few tourists visit outside the dry-season bull races.

But there's a manmade attraction on Madura well worth a day trip.

The 54-meter-tall lighthouse of Sembilangan is a marvelous piece of Dutch engineering that's easily accessible and open to the public. It's one of five historical lighthouses listed by Indomarinav (the Indonesian Marine Safety Navigation Department) as worthy of preservation.

Three (including Sembilangan) were built in 1879. The lighthouse at Cikoneng, Tanjung Priok, was erected in 1885 and one in Kapoposang, Makassar, in 1957.

The three oldest were constructed from hundreds of thick, cast-iron plates made in Holland, shipped to Indonesia and bolted together. Although records are imperfect it seems they were all prefabricated by L I Enthoven and Co in Gravenage (The Hague).

Despite the Sembilangan lighthouse's long exposure to the weather -- particularly salt spray -- the only obvious rust is minute surface flaking. Cast iron doesn't suffer from corrosion like steel, which is iron mixed with carbon to make it stronger, lighter and malleable.

Although the light is now illuminated by electricity instead of burning carbide, the lens is the original. The lamp (two white flashes every 10 seconds, with a range of 19 nautical miles) still alerts mariners.

Although many ships now use global satellite navigation, it can be turned off by the U.S. military, which controls the system.

The American Lighthouse Foundation works to preserve the old buildings and sees these as part of its national heritage. In Holland there's a similar organization called the Netherlands Lighthouse Club.

In the U.S. and Europe there's a lively industry of tours, books, magazines and souvenirs all devoted to old lighthouses, which are seen as places of romance and tragedy. Long before carbide and electricity were invented, promontories and hazards were marked by fires burning atop rock cairns -- and some remain.

Britain's rich ghost-story tradition includes phantom keepers extinguishing the light during a storm to lure craft to their doom, and shipwrecked sailors seeking sanctuary only to find the keeper has gone mad with the solitude. Perhaps sinetron (Indonesian TV soap opera) scriptwriters should explore this genre for more loopy plots.

Indomarinav's website implies that the government would also like to promote many of Indonesia's 60 listed lighthouses as tourist attractions, but the infrastructure is lacking.

There are no signs to the Sembilangan light and no brochures or accurate information about its history. Lighthouse buffs are famished for facts -- and that's their essential food.

Although built on a small island among the mangroves, there's a narrow causeway whose custodian extracts Rp 3,000 (30 US cents) for every car squeezing through a narrow gateway.

The lighthouse staff will unlock the doors and let you climb the 16 levels to the top up iron ladders. Here you can shiver with fear on the narrow gallery while gazing across to East Java and feel the wind howling through the thin rails and across your white knuckles.

If vertigo isn't your problem you can also wonder at the precision with which the 12-sided tapering tower was erected before laser levels were invented. And how did the builders ensure they had all the right parts -- particularly when many carry the same number?

This is a landfall beacon and a light to guide ships approaching Surabaya into the cluttered channel between Madura and Java. Surabaya's port of Tanjung Perak is the second-busiest in the archipelago.

At the tower's 10-meter diameter base are some crumbling barracks once used for staff quarters and workshops when the carbide arc needed regular maintenance. Among the trees on the beach are food stalls. Try the local speciality, rujak manis Madura, a mix of fruit and vegetable with a brown, spicy sauce for Rp 2,000.

Although entry is free the staff expect a small fee for their services -- usually Rp 5,000. The place is a popular spot for local teenagers seeking privacy -- and with the courage to climb the ladders.

At least one couple went ""all the way"" without having to go all the way. ""I lost my virginity on level six"" says the inscription -- although the signature does not indicate gender.

Sembilangan is on the extreme western tip of Madura and near the town of Bangkalan. If you fancy an overnight stay the Hotel Ningrat has VIP rooms for Rp 195,000 with timber furnishings in a curious style mix of old Madurese and Javanese, plus a dash of Chinese.

There are regular car ferries between Surabaya and Kamal Harbor on Madura. The trip takes about 40 minutes and costs Rp 55,000 each way.

The lighthouse is just a 20-minute drive from the ferry through some lush countryside. Unlike on the Java mainland, the roads are not crowded here.

A bridge between Java and Madura is under construction and may be finished within two years -- if the funds keep flowing.

(For details of other lighthouses visit

Sumber: The Jakarta Post, Fri, 07/07/2006

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