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Bali’s secret sanctuary

The Menjangan_1

The rambling, stony trail beckons us deeper into the forest. Three identical wooden gateways stand straight ahead, pure Japanese in their simplicity, the green and gold patterns on their rough-hewn columns evoking the hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa shoguns. But this is Indonesia, and instead of a perfectly manicured landscape of framed views, Bama and I are about to discover a different kind of serenity.

The Menjangan lies four-and-a-half hours from the traffic jams and brazen commercialism of Bali’s crowded southern region. That is equivalent to a flight from Hong Kong, but for Bama and I, the drive is far more interesting than several hours spent at 30,000 feet.

In the back streets of Denpasar we come across a beautiful church, its decorative sculptures a beguiling blend of Biblical characters and Balinese motifs. Soon the sprawl of tiled roofs gives way to paddy fields and coconut palms – the Bali of the world’s imagination – with a backdrop of wooded peaks cloaked in low cloud.

West Bali is noticeably drier than other parts of the island, though the vegetation gleams iridescent shades of green at the peak of rainy season. We glimpse small-scale vineyards, whose rows of gnarled trunks mirror the craggy hillsides looming in the distance. Eventually we turn off the main road and slip into a wall of greenery, entering The Menjangan’s 382 hectares of national park.

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The Deck – for breakfast with a view

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A jungle retreat

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The Menjangan’s reception area

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Entrance to the Monsoon Lodge

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Night and day at the Bali Tower

Gelgel is there to greet us when we pull up to the reception area. He’s grinning from ear to ear, and as I crane my neck to take in the Bali Tower, I can see why he is excited to show us around.

Built entirely of timber, bamboo and alang-alang, the five-storey tower is the architectural centrepiece of the resort. We pause by one of the main columns, a single tree trunk some 28 metres high, and Gelgel tells us it is bengkirai hardwood from Kalimantan (Borneo). “It was carried here by 250 men,” he declares. “We didn’t want to damage the place by chopping more trees to build roads for trucks.”

We climb a spiral staircase to the uppermost level, where the view stretches a full 360 degrees. To our surprise there is not a single village in sight. The low profile of Menjangan Island lies to the northwest, and behind it we can barely make out the hazy silhouette of Mount Baluran, an extinct volcano on neighbouring Java. Across the calm waters of Terima Bay, the main body of West Bali National Park seems blissfully undisturbed. It is a rare glimpse of how Bali might have looked before humans arrived, felling much of the island’s rainforest and carving out the sinuous rice terraces of Jatiluwih and Tegalalang.

Below the tower, a timber deck extends from the escarpment and projects over a lush valley. The vista is so inviting I barely notice the dining chairs that have tipped over, but Gelgel has already sprung into action. “It’s the monkeys,” he says, putting them back in place. “Sometimes they come out and play.”

The macaques living at The Menjangan are not the mischievous bandits of Uluwatu; a no-feeding policy is in place to discourage aggressive behaviour and human dependence in the local wildlife. It’s fitting for a resort that takes its name from the resident deer, which are often seen wandering past the beach villas at low tide.

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Majestic mangroves off Sentigi Beach

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Local deer in the shallows

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A buck and his doe

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Silent sentinel

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Grazing among the aerial roots

The Menjangan’s constituent parts occupy a small fraction of the vast property. Between the tower, beach, and our room, we are ferried around on improvised safari cars – modified vans with seating on the upper deck. Curved metal bars lend these vehicles the name trenggiling, a reference to the scaly and elusive Sunda pangolin. Riding the trenggiling proves a simple way to spot the resident animals.

For an inveterate city-dweller, adjusting to the profusion of green is like learning to see again. I initially miss a pair of blue kingfishers dancing in the trees, but when my eyes become more attuned I catch sight of several red junglefowl, or ayam hutan (literally “forest chicken”), their flamboyant tails a surprising shade of teal.

In the Monsoon Lodge, a compound with a central swimming pool, our room is cocooned in the sounds of the forest. The birdsong is dominated by a gentle cooing that Bama identifies as a tekukur, or spotted dove. By night, an orange-flecked tokay gecko issues a musical, two-note mating call: “Eh-eh!” It sings. “Eh-eh! Eh-eh!”

Aside from the wildlife on land, a significant part of West Bali’s appeal lies in the surrounding ocean. Bama and I spend half a day snorkelling the coral reefs of Menjangan Island, and later that same afternoon, we paddle out in a double kayak for a meander through the nearby mangroves.

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A boat of devotees approaching Menjangan Island

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Bali’s wild west

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Morning at Bajul Bay

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Ready for kayaking

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Wayan takes a break

Wayan, our local kayaking guide, takes us into the sheltered waters of Bajul Bay. When we clear the maze of mangrove roots, Bama points to a balconied wooden structure high up amid the foliage, wondering if it is also part of the resort. “That’s the Residence,” Wayan nods. “It’s one of the best places for sunrise”.

We spend about an hour paddling leisurely, as Wayan explains mangrove biology, diving seasons, and even his future plans: “The next time you come back, maybe I’ll be a qualified dive instructor!”

On the opposite side of the bay, gaggles of local visitors frolic on the beach, while others ride paddleboats and inflatable rings in the shallows. Overhead the rainclouds show signs of breaking apart, and I know what Bama is thinking. Eager to catch the sunset from the Bali Tower, we push our paddles through the water and head back to shore.

It’s not long before my feet tread the final step onto the tower’s top level. To the west faint traces of dusky pink coat the edges of the persistent clouds. But the setting sun is nowhere to be seen, and night falls without the vivid magenta we had witnessed from the beach a day earlier. Still, the scene is beautiful in its isolation, and I marvel at the blanket of darkness, punctuated only by the twinkling lights of vessels out on the water. For serenity like this, a four-and-a-half hour drive seems a tiny price to pay.

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A foraging butterfly at Sentigi Beach

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View from the Bali Tower

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Above the canopy

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The main body of West Bali National Park, across Terima Bay

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Menjangan Island and the faint outline of Java’s Mount Baluran

60 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amazing! 🙂

    February 19, 2015
    • It was great to see how the resort blended into its surroundings. The Bali Tower was really impressive! 🙂

      February 19, 2015
  2. Looks amazing! I like the night and day version of the Bali tower, always nice to see what a difference it can make on how things / places look,

    February 19, 2015
    • Yes, the place was gorgeous! I wish I had a wide-angle lens and tripod for the night shots; most of them came out pretty blurry.

      February 19, 2015
  3. Very nicely done. Interesting reading and remarkable photos. A different approach to Bali.

    February 19, 2015
    • Thanks for the kind words – this post was surprisingly difficult to write. Nice to see you found me through Jeff’s blog!

      February 19, 2015
      • I do read Jeff’s blog, I like his style, and photos. However, I think I first found you through Alison and Don–no need to say why I follow them, eh. I know what you mean about being difficult to write…some things just fall out of you and others, well, it’s slow and painful bleeding.

        February 20, 2015
  4. Beautiful photos James. It sounds like a beautiful place. It’s a Bali I would have liked to experience. Next time eh?

    February 19, 2015
    • Thank you Alison. You and Don would find so many photo ops there – after all that practice around South America and Mexico, I’m sure you would come back with fabulous shots of the birds/wildlife. 🙂

      February 19, 2015
  5. Looks very interesting. I didn’t know Bali had a wild west 😛 But I would like to experience this for myself one day. Luckily for those deer, no salties in Bali!

    February 19, 2015
    • Ah yes, you won’t find gun-toting cowboys I’m afraid. 😉 I’m quite sure the deer there don’t have predators. It is a good thing Bali doesn’t have any wild salties/crocs – that would make me think twice about kayaking and snorkelling!

      February 19, 2015
      • Is there any part of Bali you haven’t travelled yet James? I know you’ve pretty comprehensively done Flores too. Ever been to Maluku or Papua?

        February 19, 2015
      • Actually I haven’t been to the area around Amed, or the south-facing coast between Canggu and Gilimanuk. Even on Bali it always seems like there is something else to discover. Maluku and Papua are both on the wish list, although it’s hard to find time to go that far. You’ll probably get there before I do, Lee!

        February 19, 2015
  6. That trip to The Menjangan is now one of the best trips to Bali I’ve ever had. I remember when we passed by the village of Pemuteran everything started to look very green, and when the car ran through the trail towards Bali Tower the air was filled with this sweet and tangy smell of the forest. Such a luxury for city dwellers like us! Really love your photos, James.

    February 19, 2015
    • Thank you, Bama. I completely agree – it was so different from all our previous stays in Bali. If only we could have stayed another night for a birdwatching tour! We’ll have to go back in dry season sometime.

      February 19, 2015
  7. Beautiful photos. Really well done. You make me want to go there! It looks very comfortable and relaxing!

    February 19, 2015
    • Thanks very much! It was a relaxing blend of being in nature and having some creature comforts – hot showers, crisp sheets and even air conditioning. The only advice would be to bring (and apply) plenty of mosquito repellent. I made the mistake of forgetting the first night when we had dinner by the mangroves… other than that there were no issues!

      February 19, 2015
      • That just happened to me in Belize. I went out the first night in pants and a long sleeve shirt with flip flops thinking I would be ok. Apparently the Mosquitos not only like biting feet they are also willing to travel up your pant leg. We emptied a bottle of big spray while there…having the creature comforts is so nice sometimes for sure!

        Was it a terribly expensive place?

        February 19, 2015
      • For me the mosquitoes didn’t need to work very hard. I was wearing shorts!

        As for the pricing, it depends on the accommodation you pick… they have beach villas and even a three-bedroom residence with a butler. The cheapest rate for a deluxe twin/double room is about 140 dollars a night.

        February 20, 2015
      • Not too shabby. Nice chatting with you. I look forward to future posts. Check out my travel blog if you are interested. I would love to have you check it out and would be honored if you would follow me.

        February 20, 2015
  8. Beautiful post. So good to see a side of Bali that most wouldn’t find. Glad you took us there.

    February 20, 2015
    • I think the distance from the airport and the usual resort areas of Bali keeps mass tourism at bay. Those who make it out there want to be immersed in nature – it’s the right kind of place for divers and birdwatchers.

      February 20, 2015
      • Perfection I’d say 🙂

        February 20, 2015
  9. Beautifully written, beguiling glimpse into your trip.

    February 20, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the kind words!

      February 20, 2015
  10. Wow, I definitely need to go here!

    February 20, 2015
    • It’s a must if you love being in nature!

      February 20, 2015
  11. Reblogged this on God With3n and commented:
    Sigh…..Bali. Beautiful Post!

    February 20, 2015
    • Thank you for the reblog. 🙂

      February 20, 2015
      • You are welcome 🙂

        February 20, 2015
  12. I am keeping notes on all your posts in this part of the world! Is there a better time of year than another to go to this area? Your writing and photos are causing my travel wish list to fatten up – thanks!

    February 20, 2015
    • You’re more than welcome! June to August is peak season, but it’s also the best time in terms of the weather. Snorkelling is a must at Menjangan Island, with calmer seas and visibility at 30 metres or more.

      February 20, 2015
  13. Amazing stuff man, those deer shots are something special.

    February 20, 2015
    • Thanks! I would have gone closer but the deer were quite shy of humans…

      February 20, 2015
  14. Definitely a place to go! you sold it to me!!

    February 20, 2015
    • It’s really unique – and so different from the rest of Bali!

      February 20, 2015
  15. I’ve never heard of deer among mangroves. Neat experience

    February 20, 2015
    • They were really natural in the water. Apparently they sometimes go swimming to another island just offshore.

      February 20, 2015
  16. What a serene place, James!!!

    All possible shades of green … what a treat to the eyes!

    With the fragrance of the jungle and the music of birds, I can’t even imagine how wonderful it would be to enjoy this ambiance 🙂

    The resort looks perfectly blended with nature and it’s so nice to hear that not many trees been cut down for it’s construction.

    My parents are planning a trip to Bali, this April and I’ll surely suggest this place.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful post 🙂

    Have a beautiful day 🙂

    February 20, 2015
    • Oh yes, I forgot to mention the scent of the forest – it was one of the first things that hit us when we arrived! The whole experience was like an antidote to the stresses of city life. 🙂

      It’s my pleasure, Sreejith. Thank you for reading and leaving me this lovely comment. I hope your parents do get to visit when they go to Bali. 🙂

      February 20, 2015
  17. As an Indonesian I am proud to present Bali like on your pictures. Thank you for coming. 😉

    February 20, 2015
    • Saya senang – bulan Maret saya datang kembali ke negaramu. Indonesia is my favourite country in Southeast Asia, if not the world! 😉

      February 20, 2015
  18. Utterly enchanting! Alas my next trip to Indo will be a quick jaunt to Jakarta to remind folks I exist and try to drum up more work… However if successful this looks like exactly the kind of retreat to grab my gal pal and go!!

    February 20, 2015
    • Yes, it is just the kind of place to switch off your phone and ignore those work emails! Bama was saying how nice it was to leave Jakarta for a few days – I’d love to return here for more snorkelling and birdwatching.

      February 20, 2015
      • So… once I get my next work in Indonesia, can use it for just that purpose!! 😉

        February 20, 2015
  19. Travel Guide For Us #

    I love it, a nice place to relax and enjoy nature at the same time. Surely, a must go place if ever I could drop by to Indonesia in the future. And I could say a nice blog post to. 🙂

    February 20, 2015
    • Thanks for that. 🙂 I only stayed two nights there – it was far too short!

      February 21, 2015
  20. Such a beautiful post. It is my dream to go there one day! I will use one of your tips 🙂 What do you think about Morocco? Follow my blog for tips and ideas 😉

    February 21, 2015
    • I would love to visit Morocco – it looks magical and is also home to one of my favourite cuisines. 🙂

      February 21, 2015
  21. wow.. so stunning

    February 21, 2015
    • Yes, it was such a beautiful getaway!

      February 21, 2015
  22. Wow, what an incredible place The Menjangan is…the view off the balcony for breakfast would make it hard for me to leave the balcony and explore the beauty around ~ wonderful photos and introduction to this gem of a place. I like the plan of first Bali and then The Menjangan 🙂 Cheers!

    March 1, 2015
    • Thank you, Randall! 🙂 It is amazing what you can find in a forgotten corner of Bali – two nights there was not enough for me and Bama. Ideally we would have stayed for four days at least!

      March 2, 2015
      • Bali seems like a gift that keeps on giving…and I think four days there would be heaven. Probably be tough to leave. Cheers!

        March 3, 2015
  23. Oh my!!! I would have had to be dragged off the top level of that tower! Thanks to you guys, my Indonesia wishlist is bursting at the seams. I better get there soon. Thank you for another fabulous post James.

    March 3, 2015
    • It’s my pleasure, Madhu! The tower was one of my favourite places in West Bali. You could easily spend hours there with a camera and a good book in hand! My next trip to Indonesia is just nine days away – looks like I can’t keep away for too long. 🙂

      March 3, 2015
  24. Reblogged this on Voices and Visions.

    April 6, 2015
  25. It’s a beautiful blog u have!

    April 13, 2015
    • Thanks for the comment! 🙂

      April 21, 2015

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