An hour from Jakarta, Bogor offers outdoor activities and botanical gardens

An hour from Jakarta, Bogor offers botanical gardens and activities like white-water rafting, writes Lucy Grewcock

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 July, 2013, 9:12am

CREAM ORCHIDS HANG overhead, and dangling pots burst with pink and purple petals. Outside, enormous lily pads float like dinner plates on reflective ponds, shoulder-high buttress roots stabilise towering tualang trees, and a ceiling of green harbours tropical birds and flying foxes.

It's hard to imagine that Indonesia's smog-choked capital Jakarta is so close to this 80-hectare paradise. The only significant stretch of green space within 60 kilometres of Jakarta's central business district, these gardens form the centrepiece of Bogor city, and have provided a green lung for urbanites since the 18th century.

Sneak off the main streets to discover a warren of stone settlements lining the rivers which flow through the city

Today, the city may not be the provincial sanctuary it once was. But its easy outdoor getaways, and the botanical gardens at its heart, make it a superb base for a city break. The gardens attract tourists and locals alike, who come to laze on the lawns, step inside the orchid house or study the site's more than 1,500 species of plants. You might even be lucky enough to see the world's largest single flower - the Rafflesia - which blooms only once a year for a mere three days.

The gardens were established by Dutch colonists in the 1740s and are now one of Asia's most respected centres for horticultural research. The Dutch Governor General Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff built himself a bolt-hole in the grounds, a building which is now the Indonesian president's summer palace.

Bogor city began life as a series of agricultural settlements in the fertile foothills of some active volcanoes. The fresh air and agricultural richness of the region impressed the Dutch colonists who, looking for a cool, rural retreat, named it Buitenzorg, meaning "free of care", in 1746.

Almost three centuries and a name change later, Bogor has been swallowed by Jakarta's unstoppable urban sprawl and adopted a nasty smoking habit.

Stepping off the bus, I am met by a honking of horns. Mopeds sputter by, riding in convoy through three lanes of traffic, horse-and-carts clip-clop past and bright-green minibus taxis (known as angkots) buzz through the traffic.

Away from the main roads, Bogor is walkable and easy to navigate. The gardens dominate the centre and, from the train station to the gong factory and the bus terminal to the zoological museum, no two attractions are more than a few kilometres apart.

For a snapshot of everyday life, sneak off the main streets to discover a warren of stone settlements lining the rivers which flow through the city.

Steep steps trace through the narrow streets, carrying a healthy flow of flip-flopped feet, and the delicious fragrance of garlic-infused oil mingled with the damp smell of river water wafts around every corner.

Wherever you wander, your progress will be slowed by restaurants and food stalls, or warungs. I follow the scents of fried meat, powerful pickles and sticky sweet sauce and stop at a warung for a steaming bowl of soup.

There are freshly steamed breads, crispy coated snacks and stir-fried bean sprouts topped with delicious dumplings; slippery noodles piled with peanut sauce; enjoy shiny green vegetables topped with flame-red sambal (hot sauce). Finish with a scoop of durian ice cream or a tongue-tingling bowl of asinan Bogor - the city's signature dish of fruit in a salty sauce, a confusion of spicy, sweet and sour sensations.

Another of Bogor's draws is its accessibility to the agricultural region and outdoor playground that rises around it and supplies its restaurants. In the suburbs you'll find golf courses, riverside walks and relaxing rice-paddy views surrounding the country clubs, hotels and homes of Indonesia's elite.

There are plenty of full and half-day trips to tempt tourists further out into the highlands, from challenging mountain treks and white-water rafting, to tranquil forest walks and trips to the tea plantations.

I opt for the latter and bounce out of the city in an angkot, climbing higher into the hills on the Puncak Pass until emerging near the gates of Gunung Mas (Gold Mountain) tea plantation, a working estate where leaves are plucked, processed and packaged, and dispatched across the globe.

Breathing in the smog-free air, I take in the scene: sweeping slopes form an ocean of green which pours across the hillsides and rolls towards the horizon.

Guided tea walks through the estate are on offer, as is horse riding, mountain biking or hang-gliding. You can stay here for a full weekend to get your fix of fresh air.

Ignoring all this, I instead decide to self-guide, and stroll confidently past the low-rise workers' houses and functioning tea factory to the start of a marked trail.

Twenty minutes later, I'm hopelessly lost and surrounded by tea on all sides, as if inside a giant maze. Tea pickers' hats bob up and down above the bushes as they toss freshly plucked leaves into huge baskets.

Several hours later I emerge back by the factory, having taken too many wrong turns. While waiting for an angkot to take me back to Bogor, I toast my day with a cup of freshly brewed tea in the estate's cafe.