Batukaru: beauty and the bugs
The rain fell in thick sheets, drumming against our bungalow’s tiled roof and ricocheting into the darkness. Outside a persistent swarm of insects flocked to the lamps hanging off the wall. “We have to go to bed early tonight,” Bama warned. He had turned out the lights on the upper floor and locked all the windows throughout the building, for we were under siege.
Bama and I were facing an invasion of laron, flying termites I had grown up seeing every spring in Hong Kong when the weather was wet and gloomy. We had encountered them on a previous trip to Bali, in Candidasa, when the opportunistic insects crawled in underneath the front door. This time they came through the gaps between the roof and the walls, shedding their wings before reaching the end of their short, brutish lives.
The next day the bungalow’s lower floor resembled a war zone, for we could not count the number of lifeless laron littering the ground. Luckily there was a broom of dried coconut leaf in the space beneath the stairs. Grabbing it by the handle, I swept a cloud of wings out into the morning sunshine, down the steps and into the grass where they could no longer be seen.
Travelling in the tropics engenders a certain kind of acceptance – it means sleeping soundly in damp bedsheets, and calmly opening the window to allow wasps to escape. It means quietly disposing of dead insects before breakfast and not breathing a word of it to the staff at your eco-lodge. As Bama and I discovered firsthand, staying in a forested area at the height of rainy season meant dealing with these challenges.
But you would never have known about it from our photos. For Batukaru is a wildly beautiful part of Bali, and Sarinbuana Eco Lodge is the kind of place where you could write a book or go on a digital detox. We had booked two nights in the Jungle Bungalow, which a previous guest cleverly nicknamed the “Jungalow”. Of Sarinbuana’s five villas, this is the one that appears most frequently on websites and in the glossy pages of magazines. Its many windows flood the rooms with natural light, and the timber frame is filled in by gebyok panels made from interwoven strips of bamboo.
My favourite place in the bungalow is the upper floor balcony, where the view extends over a thickly forested valley and all the way down to Uluwatu, the southwestern tip of Bali. We can make out the runway of Ngurah Rai Airport jutting out into the Indian Ocean, and the undulating terminal roof gleaming a brilliant white in the midday sun. By night the lights of Denpasar blink like stars on the horizon.
Around us the verdant hillsides are punctuated by prehistoric-looking giant tree ferns, and though we can’t see its inhabitants, the jungle is clearly teeming with life. The bungalow feels as though it is enveloped in the low drone of cicadas and other insects, not to mention the birdsong drifting through the trees. From the balcony, we hear the occasional mating call of the tokay gecko, and Bama catches the melodic sound of a lutung.
On our second day at Sarinbuana, we are taken on a morning hike into the Batukaru rainforest. The road winds past salak palms, jackfruit trees and robusta coffee shrubs, along with several lychee trees which have grown to an enormous size in the fertile volcanic soil.
Wayan, a former tour guide for English- and Japanese-speaking visitors, has returned to his home village to till the fields. He is our primary resource on the flora and fauna of this area. Entering the rainforest proper, we follow the overgrown stone tracks to Jatiluwih Temple and catch glimpses of the surreal. Wayan points out several bird’s-nest ferns sitting high up in the trees. We spot one suspended in mid-air, its roots holding fast to a clump of soil. There are strangler banyans, majestic candlenut trees and thickets of bamboo, where elusive (and critically endangered) Sunda pangolins sometimes breed in a burrow beneath the stems.
Just off the trail stand a cluster of giant pandanus trees with exposed roots, where Wayan retrieves its fruit, resembling a corn cob but patterned like honeycomb. He also shows us wild figs, manggis hutan – ‘forest mangosteen’ – and other fruit-bearing trees. We grimace at the tart flavour of fresh green rhubarb, which has a firm and juicy bite.
The animals of the Batukaru rainforest are more difficult to track down. Bama and I barely make out an emerald pigeon flying through the canopy or an eagle rustling the distant branches, though we do come across a languid Malabar tree-nymph. Native to India, its wings are a triumph of delicate patterns in black and white, and the eye-catching tree nymph is the biggest butterfly I’ve ever seen.
Still, there is one particular resident that we must be careful to avoid. “Watch out for leeches,” Wayan says. At his warning, I look down to find one wriggling between my sock and the inside of my shoe. Thankfully the leech is extricated before it reaches a bare patch of skin.
But Bama is not so lucky. Further down the trail, I spot a telltale black shape with traces of blood above his ankle. Wayan effortlessly plucks the leech off Bama’s leg and places it on his thumbnail to give us a closer look. I watch in revulsion as the vampiric worm stands upright, curling to and fro while Wayan talks at length about its supposed benefits. Both Bama and I are relieved when he flicks it back into the undergrowth.
Jatiluwih Temple, which helps control the subak irrigation system of the nearby rice terraces, occupies a quiet forest clearing. There is no one there, save an inquisitive monkey who waits patiently for food. He positions himself so close we can almost reach out and touch him. Wary of a potential bite, Bama gets up to move a short distance away. But I choose not to budge and neither does Wayan, who opens his backpack and shrugs. At this, the macaque stands on his hind legs and peers carefully into the void. “See?” Wayan says gently, “There’s no food for you.” Satisfied, he disappears into the trees.
Soon the three of us find ourselves back at the eco-lodge, in time to escape a torrential downpour. That night is the assault of the flying termites, and though I hated it then, I now see the humour in the hardship. And we really should have seen it coming. The day we arrived in Bali, a driver had asked us where we were staying in Batukaru. Upon hearing our answer, he talked excitedly of broken roads only accessible in a four-wheel drive. “Oh, Sarinbuana!” he exclaimed. “That is really an adventure.” ◊