Big sky country: photos from Baluran
Several years ago, while asleep in a bungalow not far from a beach in Lombok, Indonesia, I was rudely awakened by the shrill sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Bama and I eventually killed the thing, but I couldn’t forget what it said to me that night: “Uaaaaaang.” For the mosquito had been speaking a language I half-understood. Uang, it turns out, is the Indonesian word for money.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. Two weeks have elapsed since the end of Ramadan, and we are back in Indonesia, in the wilds of Baluran National Park. Bama and I are transfixed by the sight of deer and peacocks congregating in the shade just below our perch. We observe them in silence from a nondescript observation post, its concrete parapet and makeshift barriers of woven palm leaf enough to disguise us from the skittish animals. Earlier on, Bama had spoken about the Javanese habit of mispronouncing double L’s as W’s, and it suddenly dawns on me what the peacocks are saying: “Awwwohhh! Awwwohhh!”
Here in Indonesia, mosquitoes beg for money and peacocks call on God. I know it is a gross misinterpretation, a vain attempt to extract meaning out of nothing at all, but it is poetic nonetheless. The mosquitoes attempt to extort money in order to survive, while the peacocks invoke the name of a higher power in their search for a mate.
Depending on your point of view, Baluran lies either at the beginning or the end of Java. It sprawls across a forgotten corner in the far eastern fringes of the island. The sun rises here half an hour before it does in Jakarta, and on the horizon the hills of Bali are visible across a narrow strait.
The Dutch called this place Afrika van Java – no doubt the colonials were struck by its dry, grassy landscape quite unlike the rest of the island. We are too. The scenery is awe-inspiring; we marvel at the endless skies over the savannah of Bekol, and the strange trees that soar many metres into the air, their solitary trunks culminating in a parched crown.
After sunset, the evening breeze sweeps up from the ocean and rides in across the savannah, reaching into the upper floor of our bare-bones guesthouse. Enterprising mice have gnawed little holes in the walls and floorboards, and the verandah is caged not to keep us in, but to keep foraging monkeys out. The dark mass of Mt. Baluran, an extinct volcano, broods in the distance. Instead of motorbikes and the thumping beat of raunchy dangdut music, we hear chirping crickets, geckos and the low, rumbling growls of the resident deer.
By day, peacocks roam through the grass, and troupes of opportunistic long-tailed macaques watch us, wide-eyed but also fearful, from the side of the stony road. Beyond the rangers’ office we find a breeding enclosure for the endangered Javanese banteng, a wild ox driven to the extreme edges of the island by the pressures of an exploding human population. Male bantengs are almost entirely black except for their rump and white legs (as though wearing socks); the females are less striking, being the tan of an ordinary cow, but with telltale patches of white in those same places.
We spend most of our time shuttling between the savannah and a beach that coincidentally bears Bama’s name. I had erroneously believed that the beach was our main reason for coming, but Bama is not that kind of person. He’d read up on the wildlife and seen pictures of the savannah, with its backdrop of a proud, shattered volcano long before we even planned the trip. Baluran may be a vision of Africa in Java, but as a rare pocket of wilderness on the world’s most populous island, it is remarkable simply because it still exists. ◊