Before I had come to Indonesia I had never heard of Lapindo. It is a place that is famous for all of the wrong reasons. Like the Exxon Valdez or the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is a testament to the folly of humans and a gentle reminder by Mother Nature that the problems we create can have devastating consequences.
Lapindo is the largest man made mudflow in the world. Depending on whom you talk to it was the result of some oil drilling that went wrong or an earthquake. The place is named after the oil drilling company, so you decide which one is more likely.
For the last five years Lapindo has been pumping out boiling hot mud from the ground. More than a hundred thousand people were forced to abandon their homes, without enough compensation to buy new ones. The mudflow now covers a large area. I’ll leave the environmentalists to figure out how many football pitches that equals, but it’s a lot.
It is an odd place to visit, and what first hits you is just how vast it is. Here and there in the distance sulphurous smoke wafts up from the depths of the earth. Huge mudflats interrupted by lakes stretch out almost as far as the eye can see.
The tour guides who spend all day awaiting visitors all claim to be former residents of the villages. They will point out the tops of their local mosque, now submerged below the mud. The corrugated iron roof of an abandoned house where they used to live poke out of the water.
Meanwhile the only sign of the company that is at the centre of this mess is the long abandoned drilling equipment that lies rusted behind the man made a dike that encircles the site. Yet just on the other side of these dikes life continues just like it always has, an existence that should remind people how much we take for granted about our environment.