The silver minibus speeds through the main highway that connects Bali’s cultural heart at Ubud with the volcanic lakes of Bratan as well as Buyan and Tamblingan further north. Short moments after passing by a roadside traditional market where fresh local fruits and vegetables are on display, our driver, Gede, makes an abrupt turn to a small road.
We are then transported through small villages on Bali’s highlands towards the slopes of Mount Batukaru, an extinct volcano which at 2,276 m is the second tallest peak on the island. The farther we escape the country road, the more tranquil what lies beyond the car’s windows becomes. At this part of Bali, it appears, tourism only plays a minor role in the local economy, unlike in many parts of the island, chiefly in the south.
Gede keeps driving on a seemingly endless village road, until he suddenly makes a turn to an even narrower one-car-only road. He continues driving at a low, constant speed, making sure the car’s tires stay on two cemented paths, which at some parts look rather slippery, that go deep into the dense foliage of the verdant valley.
With every moment passes by as Gede carefully navigates the car through the winding road, the more the words of another driver a few days earlier resonate in my head. “Oh, Sarinbuana! That is really an adventure. It’s far from the main road and difficult to reach. You can only go there by a 4×4 vehicle.”
But our car is just a minivan, more appropriate for city streets than difficult roads.
Just past lunchtime I heave a sigh of relief as we finally arrive at an eco-lodge in the village of Sarinbuana, virtually surrounded by pristine forests with only a small number of villagers’ houses at sight. It is here where we will spend the next two nights and find out what this peaceful remote corner of the island has to offer.
Within a short walk distance from the eco-lodge is the entrance way to the village’s subak temple, an uphill moss-covered pathway leading to a small temple dedicated to the fertility gods and goddesses. A signboard stands at the mouth of the leafy path with photos of the wild animals spotted in the rainforest, home to some of Bali’s most endangered species.
Wayan, our guide, works on rice fields as a farmer when there is no tourist. He used to work at Kuta, but returning to his native Batukaru region, he says, brings peace to him. Not only tourists alike, he has also taken researchers to the woods which helped him understand better the rich diversity of flora and fauna within the forest proper. However the only sound we hear during the first half of the hike comes from our own footsteps and camera shutters.
Wayan introduced to James and I some of the forest’s unique treasures. Growing among other trees, giant pandanus trees dwarf us as we get off the trail and draw ourselves closer to them to truly appreciate their enormity, more fitting for the time when dinosaurs still dominated the planet. Another bizarre plant we find is spider fern, whose bud grows at the tip of a leaf for a maximum exposure to sunlight.
Every now and then Wayan stops and takes random wild fruits, from trees as well as the undergrowth. With his Swiss army knife he skillfully cuts a forest fig in half, then shows its inner parts to us. Also he cuts another round inedible fruit to reveal what’s inside the thick skin. His love of nature is palpable from his excitement in telling us as many things about the forest as he knows, albeit occasionally the amount of information is too much to absorb.
Just as we think we would not see any animals, a big butterfly flies right in front of us, its white wings speckled with black dots and lines. It is one of the biggest butterflies I have ever seen in my life, yet it flaps its wings so gently, indifferent to the human presence a few meters away. Later we learn it is the Malabar tree-nymph, native to India but found in abundance at the slopes of Mount Batukaru.
Not long afterwards the forest canopy comes into an impromptu riot.
Twigs and branches high up there shake, plausibly caused by a bird or two with considerable size. Is it a pigeon? Is it an eagle? We cannot tell for the forest’s dense leafy world of overlapping branches and leaves obstructs our view of the bird.
Then there are leeches, squiggling on the wet stone track waiting patiently for an unassuming human to cross its path. Me. Contrary to what I always imagined, leech bite in fact does not feel painful at all, only a slight tingling sensation on the patch of skin where the leech dangles.
As we arrive at the overgrown temple grounds, an inquisitive male macaque jumps off a tree, then strides across the bushes before coming up to the same pavilion where we are sitting to take a break from the hike. Wayan knows the monkey very well and he opens his small backpack to show the curious company that there is nothing he can steal from us.
As clouds gather in the sky, we get ready to walk back to our lodge. We go through the same route, but midway the downhill path Wayan asks us if we want to take a shortcut which apparently takes us through a dirt track where cocoa trees grow along the way. Wayan stops near one of the trees, takes a cocoa pod, and cuts it in half to reveal the white beans, each covered in sweet white soft pulp.
The eco-lodge itself is home to a plethora of fruit trees and medicinal shrubs. Just outside our two-storey bungalow an avocado tree grows on a hillside while closer to the restaurant a cornucopia of plants thrive in the fertile volcanic soil, including mangosteen, soursop, passionfruit, chili, cucumber, lettuce, pepper, vanilla, durian, pomelo, dill, galangal, and pretty much everything else the restaurant needs for its mostly vegan-friendly meals.
At the restaurant a small chalkboard describes the homemade vegan desserts available: non-dairy chocolate mousse, coconut-based ‘cheesecake’, and ice cream with salak crumble. “We make everything from what we can find in the gardens,” says Iluh, the cordial restaurant staff and cook.
Before coming to the eco lodge we had already planned to take its cooking class, but during our stay, and after some delicious vegan dishes I eat at the restaurant, we know the cooking class will be an interesting one. Made, a more serious-looking but no less friendly cook, is the one who teaches us to make Balinese nasi campur – rice with several dishes on the side. Before us is a beautifully-arranged platter of ingredients I’m mostly familiar with except a white bulbous vegetable called bongkot.
We start with making bumbu genep, a basic condiment for many Balinese dishes, using garlic, shallot, ginger, chili, turmeric, lengkuas (greater galangal), kencur (lesser galangal), and coriander seed.
“Balinese people usually make bumbu genep in large amount,” Made explains and adds, “we put it in a jar and use it whenever we cook.”
Perkedel jagung, or corn fritters, is the first dish we make, using bumbu genep to bind all the different ingredients together and give the fritter a punchy, rich flavor. Then we make chicken and chopped kaffir lime leaf in coconut milk, tofu cooked with chopped tomato and capsicum, and tempeh in kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and palm sugar.
Later we learn that the dinner we prepare is not only for us, but also for a Dutch couple who celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in this secluded, peaceful place. I can only hope that I won’t disappoint them, and most importantly, Made.
That night as we finish our desserts rain starts to pour. Bali’s highlands are known as a place where rain and clouds are something of a normality, as described by many drivers on our previous trips. But at this forest-surrounded accommodation I finally learn the consequences of living in such a pristine environment setting. As the rain stops, the dark forest and gardens are suddenly busy with different kinds of flying insects, all attracted to the lights at our bungalow, the restaurant, and everywhere else with light bulbs.
From the upper floor of our balcony – all windows and doors closed, most lights turned off – I watch in horror as swarms of flying termites and other critters fly frantically around the remaining lights downstairs, outside the bungalow. The biggest number of insects I have ever seen in my life, all painting invisible, dizzying flight patterns in the air.
The next morning the lower floor of our bungalow is covered with dead termites, much to James’ disgust. But such is the small price we have to pay to live in such a healthy environment, where we can breathe fresh air everyday, eat decent food made from the freshest of produce, wake up to the sound of lutung every morning and be lullabied by the sound of insects before going to bed every night. Such a small price for our well-being and sanity indeed.