Our driver carefully navigates the gravel path, flanked by trees and shrubs, tall and low, that cuts through the dense forest. From the national park’s entrance off the main road that connects the East Javanese cities of Banyuwangi and Situbondo, it is a good 13 km of bumpy ride to reach the vast expanse of Bekol savanna. In this far eastern corner of Java – the world’s most populous island – the sheer absence of large crowds of humans feels both peculiar and refreshing.
James and I head to a small office, which looks more like a house, on the northern side of the savanna. A man appears, then I explain to him about the booking I made several weeks earlier. In this secluded wilderness, booking a room online clearly is not an option. Instead, I texted him as soon as I found his phone number. A short reply “Yes, it is available” is all I need.
After grabbing the key to our room, he leads us to a bigger, two-story building nearby. Baluran National Park – named after the extinct Mount Baluran that acts as the focal point of the park – covers an area of 250 sq km with only two options of accommodation for those who wish to experience one of Java’s last safe havens for wildlife. I opted for the one near the savanna over a beach-front room, some four kilometers away to the east. The interior of the first floor is rather drab with a few dusty decorations hanging on the wall. He goes upstairs and points to a room where we will spend the next two nights. As he opens the door, a foul odor escapes the stuffy, dim room. This smell, is it mouse urine? I ask myself. James’ face displays shock, regret, disgust and helplessness all mixed together. Maybe it’s not wise to tell him about what I suspect.
“We only have electricity from 5:30pm until 11pm,” the man nonchalantly tells us. “And the wire fence is there to keep the monkeys away,” he adds, explaining about the chain wire that covers three sides of the balcony.
The communal bathroom is downstairs, equipped with a squat toilet, a waist-high tub filled with water, and a plastic water dipper. Despite the thin black sediment on the bottom of the tub, the water itself is clean. I look up and see cobwebs hanging from all four corners of the bathroom. Behind the door, a nail is where you hang your towel and everything else.
“There was someone who came to Baluran and asked if we had a shower, a stove, and other things. But this is in the jungle!” he laughs.
An old motorbike that we hire from one of the national park’s staff members becomes our savior to keep ourselves busy and away from our room most of the time, and thanks to it, we begin to appreciate the true beauty of this slice of Africa in Java – Afrika van Java, as the Dutch called it during the colonial time. I haven’t been to Africa, and I have my reservation toward the way some people describe places across Indonesia: the Niagara Falls of Java, Chichen Itza of Indonesia, the Maldives of Indonesia, and the list goes on. However, some people who have been did point out some similarities between the landscape of Baluran and that of East Africa.
Dry palm trees bathed in afternoon sunlight looks surprisingly majestic, while water buffaloes, deer and peacocks roam underneath and return to their cribs. In this land, the peacocks’ plumage sports different shades of colors than those I’ve seen elsewhere. But they’re similar in one thing: their unmistakable penchant for flaunting their kaleidoscopic coverts to the hens.
We return to our room before dark, take a cold, refreshing bath, and later try to sleep with all the windows open.
The next morning, after a surprisingly good sleep, we are ready to explore the savanna and the beach with a fresher mind. Just before sunrise, we leave for the beach. Thankfully our motorbike’s lamp works and it’s bright enough to keep me aware of what lies in front of us. We secure a place to watch the sun slowly rise over the peaceful Bali Strait. A beautiful, bright yellow disk emerges from the horizon. Its soft light tints the sky with a deep orange hue. But we are not the only ones who enjoy the sunrise.
Long-tailed macaques leave the comfort of the trees to bask in the morning sun while scavenging for food on the beach. Some seem indifferent of the sound of clicking shutters around them. As more and more grey fellows flock into the beach, we decide to leave them in peace. The beach itself is rather bizarre to me, not because of any strange rock formation, nor other curiously-looking physical features. Instead, big letters of B, A, M and A are installed near the parking lot. Signboards around the beach all bear the name Bama. On Bama beach, it does feel odd and funny to be … Bama.
On the way back to Bekol, we spot several herds of deer foraging for grass under the trees. Closer to the savanna, as I’m taking photos of Mount Ijen to the southwest, a lone bull walks graciously amid the dry grassland. A peacock emerges from behind and keeps following the big beast. Then it suddenly makes a sharp left turn and dashes through the savanna. In spite of the thick coverts, a peacock apparently can run really fast.
Back at the base camp, we are told that we can get a bird’s eye view of the picturesque expanse from a watch tower, just a short walk from the office. From a height, Baluran National Park’s dramatic landscape is nothing short of magnificent. A sliver of blue line lurks on the horizon, none other than the Bali Strait itself. On the lower level of the tower, we catch a glimpse of wildlife interaction at its truest form. Around two muddy watering holes, two stags cry for attention from does who outnumber them. Meanwhile, a peacock does what it has to do: showing off its dazzling plumage to impress the hens.
To the far end of the office is an enclosure dedicated to breeding a species whose population has sharply declined in the last few decades. Banteng, a wild ox species, is driven to the extreme edges of the island by the explosion of human population. The male’s white rump and legs are a contrast to the black, muscular build of the rest of the body. Another species who finds refuge in the far east of Java is black lutung, long-tailed monkeys known for their agility. On the canopy of the national park, troops of lutungs are far from the reach of hungry leopards and dholes.
On our third and final day in the national park, we are breathing a sigh of relief after spending two nights in one the most basic accommodations we’ve stayed in recent years. For city dwellers like us, Baluran National Park can be quite challenging. But as my trips to Komodo National Park, Menjangan Island, and the Banda Islands have taught me, seeing wildlife in their natural habitat is a far more rewarding experience than watching them in caged enclosures – and more humane too, obviously. Thanks to places like Baluran, where humans are guests, we are constantly reminded of the importance to keep the balance of the ecology.