As he carefully navigated the bends and twists of this mountain pass through thick fog that drastically reduced visibility, he kept murmuring wow and phew, being both perplexed and relieved every time he managed to conquer a sharp turn. My father was at the steering wheel with my equally jittery mother sitting next to him, eyes wide open at the motion-sickness-inducing road. I was in the back seat, and after a while I fell asleep, only slightly aware of the situation my father was dealing with.
Back in the days when we were still living in the westernmost part of Java, we had to go through this difficult pass to reach Bandung, the capital of West Java – the province which once included the small city where we used to live. Puncak, as the pass is called, was challenging. But with beautiful vistas of lush hills and mountains, occasionally peppered with picturesque tea plantations, it was a preferred option compared to the drive through Purwakarta which was relatively faster and more straightforward, but a lot hotter and less pleasant as people had to share the road with much slower large trucks. Along the road to Puncak were stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables picked from the plantations around this region, and they were much sought-after by those who wished to take things slowly and stop by to enjoy the fresh air before continuing their journeys. One of my fondest memories of this part of West Java indeed involves food: we often stopped by halfway up or down the mountain pass to have grilled corn, sometimes slathered in a spicy and savory sauce, which was a perfect snack on a cool day.
Puncak has not only been popular among long-distance travelers. Its proximity to Jakarta means it has been a favorite destination for short getaways for the people living in the Indonesian capital and its urban agglomeration. This explains the often-congested traffic to Puncak on weekends and public holidays. The ever-increasing population of the megacity directly to its north only brings even more pressure to this cooler mountainous region, which is exactly why I had never been excited about the idea of going to Puncak even though I’ve been living in Jakarta for more than a decade. Why get stuck in traffic when that is what we have to deal with every day?
That is until James, who has been calling Jakarta his home for six years now, proposed the idea of going to Puncak because he was curious about it.
The only times I went to Puncak since I moved to Jakarta were for work-related training outings, and they always happened on weekdays where the traffic was usually much lighter. And that was exactly what we did earlier this year. We left Jakarta on a Thursday morning and really took our time. We stopped by a restaurant for breakfast in an area right at the beginning of the drive up to Puncak. Then half an hour later, we took a brief stop at a modest roadside tea shop with a nice view of Mount Salak, played with a very friendly resident cat, had a warm and sweet bajigur (a traditional sweet drink made from palm sugar and coconut milk), and took a stroll along a leafy path that ended abruptly at an unkempt tea estate. Half an hour before midday, we continued our journey to the hotel and still had time for a brief stop near a better-looking tea plantation cascading down a hill like a green carpet.
From the moment we left Jakarta until our arrival at the hotel, the traffic was mostly pleasant – just like how we predicted – and so was our first impressions of the nearly three-decade-old accommodations. In general, I prefer staying at properties that feel intimate and warm, and blend well with their environment, as opposed to the big and imposing ones. Situated on the second floor of a low-rise long structure, our cozy room had a balcony facing a visually-pleasing verdant landscape. The red bottlebrush-like inflorescence of Callistemon citrinus framed the view, inviting nectar-eating squirrels to come and jump from one tree branch to another to take a sip of its supposedly sweet juice. Just a short walk from our room to the other corner of the property, we stumbled upon a viewpoint from which we were able to see different birds flying around. One had a dramatic cerulean plumage and a bright red beak, while the other sported a scissors-like tail. Too bad I didn’t have a telephoto lens to capture those beauties.
For lunch, we opted to walk a bit toward Istana Cipanas, one of the presidential palaces of Indonesia which lies around 2 kilometers south of the hotel, to dine in a Sundanese restaurant somewhere in the middle. As we arrived at the eatery, we went straight to a counter near the entrance to select what we felt like having and how we wanted them to be served (fried/grilled, with sweet and sour sauce, etc). Then after we were seated, a waiter brought to our table a generous amount of lalapan (raw vegetables to be eaten with sambal), the sambal itself, and rice in a container made from woven bamboo. Once our order came, it was time to dig in. While the dishes were good, for me the star was the sambal which was made from red bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic, salam leaves, and salt (and probably sugar as well) which together were lightly pounded then fried. We ordered a tad too much for lunch and I ended up feeling as if my stomach was about to explode. But this isn’t Jakarta, so we felt no need to rush and instead took our time before walking a little further to the palace.
Istana Cipanas might not be as stately as other palaces you’ve seen. In fact, the main building within the compound initially functioned as the residence of a Dutch landlord who was attracted to this area for its cool air and hot springs (this is located on the slopes of Mount Gede, an active volcano). Because of its appeal, the 18th-century mansion was at one point used as a retreat house for Dutch governors-general in Java. And after Indonesia gained its independence, it was turned into a minor presidential palace. This vast compound opens its doors to the public on special occasions. But unfortunately the day we went was just a regular Thursday, therefore we could only take photos from outside the gate. After a few minutes, we walked back to our hotel and spent the uneventful afternoon chilling in our room. (I spent more time on the balcony watching the squirrels before the day went dark.)
While the palace itself is quite popular among those who come to this part of the Puncak area, I personally think one of the highlights of this short trip was a visit to the Cibodas Botanical Garden some 5 kilometers uphill from our hotel. Established in the mid-19th century by Johannes Ellias Teijsmann, a Dutch botanist who was also in charge of the Bogor Botanical Garden, the former was earmarked for the acclimatization of non-native trees with high economic value. Cinchona, a genus of plants originating from the Andean forests of South America, was chosen as one of them for its medicinal properties in treating malaria.
Occupying an 85-hectare (210-acre) area more than 1,300 meters above sea level, the Cibodas Botanical Garden immediately felt vast as soon as we entered the gate and drove past countless tall trees to reach a parking lot deep within the compound. Taking a short walk to a clear pool at the end of a well-tended lawn, we took out our cameras and started taking photos of the beautiful vista with the peak of Mount Pangrango visible in the background. This must be one of the most photogenic corners of the botanical garden.
While many people prefer to drive their cars from one parking spot to another within the compound (for some reason, many Indonesians don’t like to walk), we opted to explore some of the most interesting parts of the botanical garden on foot. Having three spots in my mind – the ferns, pitcher plants, and Amorphophallus (one of the species in this genus happens to have the world’s largest inflorescence) collections – we took a leisurely stroll across moss-covered and tree-shaded pathways with James leading the way. At one point when he was already too far ahead of me, I saw a big squirrel jumping from one tree branch to another. Not only was it much bigger than the ones I saw at the hotel, it also had different colors. It was probably a Ratufa bicolor, also known as the giant black squirrel. I managed to snap a few shots of this furry creature before it disappeared into the thick green canopy.
Being close to the equator, I started sweating profusely despite being at such a relatively high altitude. Fortunately, there was a cool mountain breeze every now and then. We eventually arrived at the fern garden which has an impressive collection of tree ferns.
“Look at that!” James pointed out an orange-colored moth perched on a tip of a small tree. Its beautiful patterned wings were a nice ‘pop’ amid the greenery.
Just a short walk from the ferns was an enclosure filled with the carnivorous pitcher plants from the Nepenthes genus. Some were really big, while others only started growing their tiny insect-digesting pitchers. Having one at home myself since 2019, it was very exciting to see some of my plant’s cousins in this almost natural setting. A short walk uphill from here to a rather secluded corner of the botanical garden, we stumbled upon the institution’s Amorphophallus collection. As much as I wished to see Amorphophallus titanium (also known as the titan arum) – the biggest in the genus – in full bloom, it was not my lucky day although thankfully I could still see this plant in its leaf-cycle form.
As the day progressed, the sky gradually turned grey, suggesting it was time for us to wrap up this visit. But before we left, we were treated to a scene I rarely see when about half a dozen of lutungs/Javan langurs gathered on the branches of a tree near where I parked my car. It was so nice to see how wild animals still seemed to thrive in and around this botanical garden, while their counterparts have all but disappeared from the megacity not too far from here.
For me, every visit to such places always evokes both emotions: happiness at seeing animals roaming freely in their natural habitat, but also sadness in realizing that decades or centuries ago similar scenes might have been a common occurrence on sites that are now filled with concrete buildings. All the more reason why we need institutions like the Cibodas Botanical Garden. While today Jakarta has two botanical gardens in its backyard, imagine if another one actually exists right at the heart of the city. That would be quite an accomplishment.