Thursday, May 29, 2014

Out of Africa

From Surabaya I took a six hour train trip to Banyuwangi. Having taken my time in West Java, lazed away in Karimunjawa, contemplated buying lots of beautiful wooden furniture in Jepara, and had a few days of exploring Surabaya, I'd run out of time to do much more in East Java before I had to head home. I couldn't face another cold night camping at altitude, so had decided to forgo Bromo and Semeru for now and spend my last week in Africa!

Again I forced myself to stay awake as the whole purpose of a daytime train trip is to see the scenery but the rocking of the train makes this difficult and I did doze off from time to time. The rail line follows the coast until Probolinggo and then heads inland, skirting the mountains of the Yang Plateau and Mt Raung before arriving at the end of the line near the ferry terminal to Bali. Knowing I was staying in Banyuwangi I jumped off the train one station before at Karangasem, which is much closer to the actual town of Banyuwangi and simply a downhill walk. The inevitable ojek mafia wanted 50,000 Rp for the pleasure of delivering me to my hotel, instead I wandered along, chatted to some ladies planting rice seedlings and used the wonderful facilities of my iPhone and Google maps to find my way to a hotel. The other great advantage of walking is you get somewhat oriented to your surroundings,  and you get to note the sate warung and the baked fish restaurant for later patronage.

At the hotel were an Austrian couple and a Polish chap, newly arrived from Bromo, and off to Ijen in the morning. I think they were a little bemused at my slow wanderings through Java, as they were on much more destination driven timelines, and anyway, almost everywhere they had been or were going, I'd been to already in past trips. I'm really liking this slow travel, taking my time, going where I fancy and staying until I'm ready to move on. Of course I'd love to extend my visa and stay longer, but I've got to return to work at the end of the month. Next time, however, there won't be any return planned. Looking forward to that!

The next morning I slept in and then went wandering around town. I tried to find a motorbike to rent, without success, so just walked instead. The town is a lovely quiet place, with quite decent sidewalks, very friendly welcoming people, and a nice little Chinese temple. I'm in no hurry to leave Banyuwangi as I have a few money concerns that cause me to stay a little longer.

First, I am using a new Visa debit account from Citibank to withdraw cash from ATMs. This card doesn't charge ATM fees - these fees can account for up to $50 in every $1000 - so I'd transferred some money into this account from my usual bank account. Only it was a weekend, and computers take holidays on weekends and don't credit your new account until Monday. Or rather, they then take another 24 hours processing your transfer and don't credit your account until Tuesday. One day I could put up with, two was ridiculous, so I swallowed the fee and withdrew money on Monday from my home account.

The second reason for my dilly dallying, was that I was going to visit a national park, and since the start of May the entry prices for foreigners have sky rocketed from $2-5 per entry, to daily entry fees ranging from $15 per day on weekdays to $60 on weekends and holidays at some of the more popular parks like Bromo. This new fee system has altered my plans a little, because I can pay considerably less by avoiding weekends, and means I had to really seriously consider whether climbing Semeru (which is in Bromo NP) was worth the expense.

So, armed with the necessary cash, a couple of packets of noodles, some biscuits, snacks and water, I took a couple of bemos out to the bus station (15,000Rp), had a yummy breakfast then boarded a crowded little Situbondo bound bus (8000Rp) and was deposited at the entrance to Baluran National Park. At around about the same time a couple of French chaps also arrived, baulked at the entry price tag and were never seen again. I wasn't surprised, French backpackers seem to be genetically predisposed to refusing to pay more than 5 cents for anything, and even then they'll complain. I may exaggerate and generalise, not all French are like this, but it happens often enough with that nationality to notice.

from a Bangkok cafe (thanks Warren) but you see my point?

I marched on, got to the office proper and engaged in an around about conversation with the ranger about how many days I might stay in the park and where I might stay, and how much accommodation cost. What we didn't discuss was whether food was available at my destinations. I was under the impression there were canteens at the accommodations, but had brought noodles and snacks just in case. Lucky I did. Anyway, having completely failed to directly state how long I'd be in the park, the ranger said it was fine just to pay for one day entrance fee, so I coughed up my 150,000Rp, hoisted my backpack and started walking the 12 km through the forest to Bekol. Yes I could have got a lift, but I wanted to walk, this was a wildlife rich National Park I was entering, what better way to see it?

The road was shaded the entire way, so although it was hot and humid, I wasn't pestered by the sun. There were numerous dry creek crossings, with spots to rest whilst watching the monkeys in the trees. Mostly I was alone with the trees, birds and butterflies, but the park must be directly over the flight path from Bali, because my reverie was frequently interrupted by the sounds of the modern world flying by. A few cars and motorbikes passed me, usually with a smile and a wave, although the two foreigners I passed on the back of ojeks had the meanest frowns of all. No doubt their bums were hurting from the bumpy road! I was also passed by a group of cyclists, and one more westerner on a motorbike who stopped to enquire if I had enough water. It was only 12 km, which took me about 3 hours to walk as it was flat all the way.

Just before Bekol the trees opened up into savannah land, dotted with acacia trees. OMG! I'm in Africa!!

Baluran is unique in Java for its savannahs, which support a few species of deer, banteng, water buffalo, peafowl, a wild dog called a dohle, and leopards. And lots of long tailed macaques. Sadly, no giraffes, zebras, lions, elephants or cheetahs. Not quite Africa after all... It's rich in birdlife, and along the coastline it also has mangroves and coral reefs. Bekol is smack in the middle of one of the savannahs and has a large watch tower on top of a hill so you can look out over the grasslands and see the buffalo roaming. It also makes a great vantage point for sunrise and sunset, as the nearby mountains of Ijen, Raung and Baluran can be seen clearly. I booked in for a night, to discover there's no canteen, and the canteen down at the beach is also closed because they've taken a holiday. Oh dear, time to start food rationing....

When I return to my room after sunset I discover the cyclists from this morning also staying the night. They are 3 fellows from Jakarta, the other 2 from Singapore, all off road cycling enthusiasts. One writes for a cycling magazine, and cycles in Jakarta, what a brave chap he is! They had planned to stay at the beach but the accommodation was booked out, so they'd ridden back to Bekol. They told me the canteen at Bama was due to reopen the next day, so it looked like I wouldn't starve after all. Even better, they'd paid someone to head out to the village near the gate and purchase some food, so I joined the boys for a little rice and sate for dinner, and staved the hunger pangs.

The next morning we all rose early for the sunrise and to go animal spotting. I succeeded in neither. One of the chaps saw a huge python! I got some passable shots of the nearby peaks unencumbered by clouds. The sunrise itself was uninspiring. I then cooked up some noodles, had a cup of tea, purchased another bottle of water, said goodbye to my new cyclist friends and headed off on the walking track to Bama.

Trekking isn't really that common in Indonesia. Especially when there's a perfectly good road to the beach that you can drive down, and the road goes through the savannah so you can watch for wildlife as well. But I was having none of it, I planned to walk the walking track in, and the road back. Best of both worlds. So off I went, instructed by the ranger to turn right at the intersection. Not that I needed this bit of information, there was a ruddy great sign telling you.

Well that was the last of the signage, as the trail headed off through overgrown shrubbery, the only footprints I was following belonged to some really large water buffalo. I took a couple of wrong turns, but backtracked to the main trail and after a while noted that there were stones placed on both sides of the path to guide you. Not that the stones were particularly visible most of the time, the overgrown jungle kind of intervened. I felt pretty intrepid, but also a little foolhardy, I mean what if I actually did get lost here in the jungle? I knew it was only a couple of kilometres to the coast, but that doesn't stop a lost person going around and around in circles does it? I had food, water, shelter, I'd be fine..... why was I thinking these thoughts instead of enjoying the scenery? Well because it felt more like bush bashing than a gentle stroll along a trail.

I saw evidence of buffalo - footprints, places they'd trampled, manure - and even smelt them at times, but I never saw any. Not that I really wanted to come face to face with a large beasty out there in the bush. I frightened some peafowl and deer, saw a few more packs of macacques and crossed a small muddy river a couple of times. There's some really huge palms here, that lose all their palm leaves when they flower, and then die. They make really stark silhouettes in the sky.

At last I reached the beach, which was crowded with local tourists, secured myself a room and went for a swim. The canteen, thankfully, was open for business, and all my fears were allayed. It meant I could stay longer if I wanted.

I went for a bit of a wander along the beach, past stands of mangroves and away from the crowds at Bama. The water is really shallow for some distance out to sea, and it's muddy rather than clear water, and tepid at that. It makes for a refreshing paddle or dip, but it's not really a place to linger for long. A pity. The beach is also over run by bands of macacques so you have to keep a close eye on your possessions or the cheeky monkeys will start exploring them. My cycling friends back at Bekol had left one of their tents on the back of one of the bikes overnight, and I caught the macacques trying to rip it apart on my return to the lodge after sunrise. Cute, but destructive...

In the evening I wandered up along the road back to Bekol, seeing some large herds of deer, a flock of wild peafowl, and even sighting a dhole - the wild dog. At least I think it was a dhole. I didn't walk the whole way as that's planned for the following day, on my return out of the park. The buffalo come out of their mudholes onto the savannah in the evening, so it's the best time to spot them.

The next morning I got up for sunrise and took some lovely long exposure shots before a momentary lapse saw my tripod upended and my camera in the ocean. Guess who has just fucked up her camera?

I immediately tried to drain the water and rinse off the salt water with a little fresh water but I'm pretty sure it's buggered. The memory card is fine, so I won't lose any shots, in fact the two photos here are from the fateful shoot. I've still got the iPhone to take photos, and at least it's the end of my holidays not the start, so I'm not lugging around a heavy piece of equipment for nothing.

After a few hours Bama beach becomes unbearable. The rooms are stifling hot as you can't get air through them by opening doors and windows due to the marauding monkeys. There's no electricity except for a few hours in the evening, so no fans either. The beach is either full of Indonesian tourists being noisy and asking me to be included in their photographs, or alternatively the monkeys hassle you. Finding a quiet spot to just read a book and munch on some snacks in the cool shade means being stalked by increasingly aggressive male monkeys. In the end I packed up and sat near the guard post in the shade for a couple of hours, read my book and waited for the heat of the day to wane.

I headed off back to Bekol along the road. The herds of deer were still there as were the macacques. I also saw a band of black faced monkeys, much larger than the macaques and much more camera shy. On the savannah I spied a group of buffalo wallowing in the mud so I crept over as close as I dared. Then I continued on to Bekol, dropped off the backpack and returned to the savannah for sunset and to see the buffalo emerge from their mudbath and meander over to a nearby waterhole. I also saw a beautiful peacock, and a Jabiru.

Up early the next morning I cooked up some noodles for breakfast then hit the road early, before the sun really got some punch. The road was less shaded than it had been 2 days ago, but it wasn't that hot at 7am. It was still 12 km to walk, and by 9:45 I was back at the entrance gate, dousing my head in cold water and contemplating the next leg of my trip.

I'd really recommend Baluran, but I'd suggest staying at Bekol rather than Bama. Not only is it cheaper, it's much quieter, you have a few other options for birdwatching and wildlife watching than what I did, the monkeys are not as aggressive, and you can always go down the beach if you want. To go snorkelling, you need to go out on a boat as it's just mangroves and shallow water at Bama itself. Of course, you need to be more self sufficient at Bekol - and there's a rat that will try to eat your food if you leave it out...

So, after Baluran??

Bogan's paradise of course!

(there are a few more pictures here)

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