Balu­ran Na­tional Park, East Java: Lazy Cats and Sa­van­nah Lands


Lean­ing over the sturdy rail­ing at the wa­ter­hole, I made sure to look up to check no lazy cats were loung­ing in the nearby trees. This was macan tu­tul coun­try – home of the Ja­van leop­ard in Balu­ran Na­tional Park, East Java. I asked the ranger, Pak Teguh if he had per­son­ally come across any wild cats. “Yes, I have,” he said. “As part of my ranger du­ties, I must study the leop­ard pop­u­la­tion.” His next com­ment as­tounded me. “I sit in a tree all day and night. That one right there,” he said, point­ing at a tall, sturdy tree. “This is a pop­u­lar wa­ter­hole, so the chance of see­ing wildlife here is very high. I have to be tree-bound. I have to eat and sleep up there. My feet are not al­lowed to touch the ground the en­tire time”, he con­tin­ued. “The leop­ards cruise through this area, and if they could sniff me out, a preda­tor in their mind, they would ei­ther take flight or at­tack me. So, I must be­come part of the tree, cam­ou­flaged in the branches the whole time. I eat rice only. Rice does not have a strong odour. I even have to pee into a plas­tic bag and keep that stored in my back­pack. If I uri­nated on the for­est floor, this would mark my spot and would be a dead give­away. I am armed - just in case.” It turns out that, in his four years of work­ing in the na­tional park, Pak Teguh has done tree duty sev­eral times. “We study alone.

It is our job to col­lect data,” he added,

“I am happy to ded­i­cate my­self to this work, and I am learn­ing all the time.” The Balu­ran Na­tional Park has a unique land­scape. Grass­land, acacia scrub and low­land for­est stretches across most of its area – some 25,000 hectares. The grass­land is re­ferred to as sa­van­nah. Dom­i­nat­ing this land­scape, the mighty Mount Balu­ran, a dor­mant vol­cano, rises to 1,247 me­tres. The best place to get an over­view of the park is from the watch­tower at Bekol, where you can look out over the end­less land­scape and see as far as Bali. The park is fringed by stun­ning co­ral reefs. It takes one hour to travel the 15 kilo­me­tres to the beach. The road is very rough road but when you ar­rive at Bama Beach, a beau­ti­ful white stretch of sand, it is worth it. It is a bay and very safe for swim­ming and an ex­cel­lent snorkelling spot. I stayed in a home­s­tay just out­side the park en­trance and my host ad­vised me to have lunch at Bekol, a cen­tral spot in the park, and not to rely on the Bama beach­side warungs (cafes). It turned out to be good ad­vice. When I got to the beach, which is a high­light of the park, ev­ery­thing was closed. The chalets at Bama Beach are ter­ri­bly run down, so it’s much bet­ter to stay in Wonorejo, just out­side the park and choose a nice fam­ily-run home­s­tay. Wonorejo is a sweet lit­tle vil­lage with an ex­cel­lent se­lec­tion of home­s­tays, some of which have swim­ming pools. There are two op­tions to ex­plore the park – travel by car or take the free­wheel­ing easy rider op­tion and rent an ojek (mo­tor­bike and driver). This can eas­ily be ar­ranged in Wono­jero be­fore­hand. Why not get ad­ven­tur­ous?

It’s a sa­fari park af­ter all. Balu­ran was given na­tional park sta­tus in 1984, but so far it hasn’t pro­vided the sort of fa­cil­i­ties to at­tract the thou­sands of tourists like some other parks. Let's hope it stays this way. Balu­ran is a hid­den find. For ten months of the year vis­i­tor num­bers are low, and pretty much have the park to your­self. High sea­son is July and Au­gust, and it can be jam-packed with school chil­dren, do­mes­tic tourists and troops of forestry vol­un­teers. If you can avoid this time, it is best. Pak Teguh told me this is also a pop­u­lar time for film crews to come and shoot movie scenes. Korean and Bol­ly­wood stars have come to the park in the dry sea­son, and film-mak­ers like to use the stark sa­van­nah plains as a nat­u­ral back­drop. I vis­ited in low sea­son and only saw nine other cars and eight mo­tor­bikes dur­ing the ten hours I spent in the park. Be­cause a ranger es­corted me, I had per­mis­sion to stay un­til dark. Usu­ally, the park gate shuts at 4pm, but Pak Teguh made me an of­fer I could not refuse. “Why not stay past sun­set and go on a night sa­fari?”, he said. “We have a much bet­ter chance of spot­ting wildlife as the an­i­mals will be out hunt­ing. I will go ahead on my mo­tor­bike and make sure all is safe. You fol­low in the car.” He as­sured me, “Don’t worry - you’re in good hands.” Well, who could re­sist that? With­out fur­ther ado, I agreed and phoned my home­s­tay and had a din­ner pack de­liv­ered to me in the park. At around 5pm I went in search of a good sun­set spot and even­tu­ally set­tled on a wide-open blan­ket of sa­van­nah grass­land which rolled out to meet the far­away dom­i­nant gi­ant on the sky­line – Mount Balu­ran. I spot­ted a large herd of Ja­van Rusa deer graz­ing and en­coun­tered one lone wa­ter buf­falo slurp­ing greed­ily at a nearby wa­ter­hole. As dusk set­tled around me, a most spec­tac­u­lar sun­set lit up the plains. Vivid hues of pur­ple danced off the moun­tain­side and burnt or­ange splashes swept across the vast open skies. Just as the out­line of the lone moun­tain formed a per­fect sil­hou­ette against the dark­en­ing sky, a flock of wild pea­cocks ap­peared and made a bee-line for a large tree. They chose the top branches of the high­est tree to make their nest for the night. Pea­cocks can fly as high as 100 me­tres, and three of them changed their mind af­ter set­tling and took flight. They looked spec­tac­u­lar set­ting off against the vivid sun­set back­drop. Watch­ing this dra­matic and el­e­gant scene is a last­ing im­pres­sion still with me to­day. On dis­cus­sion with my en­thu­si­as­tic ranger friend, I found out that the mat­ing sea­son is from Septem­ber to De­cem­ber. This is when the male pea­cocks pa­rade their ver­dant green and pur­ple long tail plumes and sound their loud wail­ing cries in the hope of at­tract­ing fe­males. In In­done­sia, wild pea­cocks are only found in two na­tional parks, lo­cated at ei­ther end of Java. He also told me about El­iz­a­beth, a 50-year-old tur­tle who swims to Aus­tralia and re­turns to the shores of Balu­ran to lay her eggs once a year. She has be­come quite fa­mous. Her jour­ney of hun­dreds of miles across the sea is tracked with the help of a mi­crochip un­der her skin. As I set­tled in to watch the last re­main­ing sun­set colours dance across the sky, I re­flected on my day. This in­cluded many sight­ings of jun­gle fowl and watch­ing the play­ful­ness of the nu­mer­ous groups of long tail Ma­caque mon­keys mov­ing en masse through the grass­lands. In to­tal, I saw nine dif­fer­ent species of wildlife and birds, in­clud­ing a fam­ily of lu­tungs, a horn­bill and a crested ser­pent ea­gle. My night sa­fari only turned up one snake, and a visit to an empty tree hol­low where I was told a leop­ard of­ten sleeps. Alas, I did not see the il­lu­sive macan tu­tul on this oc­ca­sion. How­ever, I did see leop­ard paw prints around the tree and wa­ter­hole. I was very happy with that. It was af­ter 9pm when I got back to the home­s­tay, to­tally elated about my event­ful day spent in a lovely wilder­ness park tucked away in the far east cor­ner of Java.

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