Rent a jeep for £6 a day, drive away from the crowds and discover a land rippled by rice terraces en route to the best wildlife-watching in South-East Asia
There is a point along the west Bali road where the sticky tar swoops down and the tangled jungle opens suddenly onto a sunlit patch of river. Whenever I reach it, I always take my eyes off the potholes for just a moment because I know that if I look right, Balinese women in bright sarongs will be beating their washing on the rocks. I like to steal a quick glimpse before slipping down a gear and easing my jeep up the valley’s other side, through familiar stacked shelves of lurid-green paddies.
I’ve been travelling to Bali’s isolated south-west so regularly over the past decade that I now feel I could do the drive blindfolded. But that would be such a waste. Along with the rich culture and dramatic scenery that is part of the fabric of ‘the island of the gods’, the wild west also has the last real Balinese wilderness – and some of the most dramatic wildlife spotting in South-East Asia.
So, once again, I rattle my jeep out of the backpacker ghettos, turning my back on the beaten-track triangle of Kuta nightlife, Nusa Dua beaches and Ubud craft stalls that lures the majority of tourists. Instead, I turn my wheels westward on what is surely one of the world’s most exciting (and certainly cheapest) little road-trips. You can rent a Suzuki Jimny (known here, rather flatteringly, as a ‘jeep’) for less than it costs to cross London on the Tube; you can fill the tank for the price of a cinema ticket. Stop at a roadside eatery for a plate of nasi goreng and a fresh fruit-juice, then break the journey again for a beer and a traditional massage, and there’ll still be change from a tenner.
Negotiating Kuta’s notorious traffic can be a challenge, but it’s never boring. A swarm of motorbikes buzzed around me constantly – a fascinating collection of mobile bakso stands (soup-kitchens fitted over the pillion seat) and fully laden ‘cargo scooters’ carrying everything from TVs to birdcages, chickens, gas bottles and families of five (plus dog).
I kept moving westwards and, after an hour, the traffic started to thin before the great sweeping vista of paddy fields that marks what I’ve come to think of as the western frontier. This is the island’s largest and most spectacular expanse of terraces, yet few tourists ever even come this far. The paddies ripple across the natural contours of the hillside like the fingerprints of the gods, and climb towards the sacred inland peaks.
The road descended to the coast again, and offered me views of a seemingly endless beach, arched with coconut palms. While the paddies are the domain of hulking water buffalo, the shaded palm forests and lush meadows are pastures for agile Balinese cattle. Descended from wild banteng cattle, they have the faces of doe-eyed gazelle and comical white rumps that look like they’ve sat on freshly painted toilet seats.
Through the gaps in the palms I saw waves crashing onto a black-sand beach. These are the area’s main tourist draw: surfers come to ride the left-hand point-break at Medewi. Some stay for weeks – living on £20 a day (massage included) – without realising that the mist-shrouded hills above the village are a true jungle wilderness waiting to be explored.
The road from here swoops and winds, taking me on a rollercoaster ride through a series of traditional Balinese villages and Javanese kampongs. This cultural hinterland, with its mix of Hindu and Muslim people, remains the most traditional part of the island. Buffalo still plough the paddies (and haul racing chariots at the weekends); fishermen continue to decorate their boats with the fearsome carved heads that quell the spirits of the brash southern sea.
‘Hati-hati, ada upacara’ says a hand-painted sign, and I slowed obediently, easing through a crowd of sarong-clad figures outside a village temple. It’s unusual to drive all the way out here without being held up at least briefly by some sort of ceremony.
Culture and landscapes aside, however, the absolute best reason to drive out west is to explore little-known West Bali National Park. Few tourists are aware that this phenomenal 190 sq km wilderness region of rainforest, savannah and reef exists; even most Balinese couldn’t point it out on a map – despite the fact that it covers most of the western side of their island. Taman Nasional Bali Barat, to use the local name, was founded in 1941 in a tardy attempt to protect the local tiger population: in a sad twist of fate, the last Balinese tiger was probably shot five years before the park opened.
The only access to the park for vehicles lies at the western tip of the island on the remote Prapat Agung Peninsula, a stone’s throw across the strait from Java. It’s not technical off -road driving though, while a serious 4WD is not strictly necessary, the deeply rutted dirt track makes a vehicle with ground clearance advisable.
Made Wirawan – one of only a handful of tour operators who even appears to be aware of the park – runs 4WD adventure trips to the Prapat Agung section in expedition-prepared Land Rovers. “While most of the park is classic rainforest, this far-western part is almost completely waterless,” he explained as we rumbled down the dusty trail. “It makes for particularly good wildlife-spotting because the animals always stick close to water.”
Made eased the vehicle to a halt at a shrine at the park boundary. Like any good Balinese Hindu, he always stopped to make offerings to the spirits of the jungle. Deeper in the forest there are several large temples, and no pilgrim would ever come into this sacred wilderness without paying homage to the guardian spirits.
“I’m asking permission to enter the forest,” Made explained as he prepared an ornate offering of rice and flowers. “Also I’m asking them to grant us some sightings of exciting animals.”
Made’s request didn’t go unheeded. Before we’d even driven away, his offering had been stolen by a fat and wily old macaque that swung down out of the canopy. We drove slowly onward and in less than an hour we’d seen three types of deer (barking, sambar, mouse), wild pigs, a giant monitor lizard and two of the park’s three resident primate species; West Bali National Park is the only place in the world in which you can see the Balinese black monkey.
The park is also known to birdwatchers as the last bastion of the beautiful Bali starling, an avian dream with glossy white plumage, shocking-blue eyeliner and the dubious distinction of being listed as one of the world’s rarest birds. Hidden in the jungle is a bizarre fortress – complete with machine-gun watch-towers and a small army of Kalashnikov-toting guards – devoted to guarding an enclosure containing 120 of these birds, valued at US$1,000 each.
After a day spent with Made Wirawan, I chartered a small boat to take me from the north coast to remote Brumbun Bay, where the world’s only flock of wild Bali starlings flutter. Little gaggles of sparkling-white starlings flitted through our camp (there are an estimated 80 here) and sambar came down to cool their ankles by the shallow reef. The tracks of civet and kucing hutan (jungle cat) dotted the sand. The rains had come late so the vegetation was still thick and water lay everywhere on the normally dry peninsula, yet it seemed that I couldn’t walk for more than five minutes without seeing wildlife.
I figured that up in the mist-shrouded peaks of the park’s central section, sightings might not be so good, so I called up an old friend who may just be the best jungle guide in Bali. Made Budha Yasa is head guide at Puri Dajuma lodge, and he occasionally leads trips, ranging from half-day hikes to full-blown jungle-camping expeditions. By the time I drove up to meet him, Made had already handpicked a team of similarly enthusiastic assistants and arranged for our permits from the park headquarters. Also, I’d taken advantage of the fact that the Balinese are natural craftsmen and commissioned some bespoke jungle-hammocks (with fitted mosquito nets and rain covers) that I was keen to test.
We hit the road before daybreak. Shortly after dawn we were already climbing above the last of the terraced paddy fields and into semi-wild plantations, where we boosted our energy with bananas, hairy rambutans and scaly snake-fruits. At the edge of the jungle, Made stopped beside a majestic old banyan tree and tied on his ceremonial headdress and sarong. He placed a little woven basket of offerings at the base of the mighty trunk and lowered his voice in respect. His mumbled prayers seemed almost to dissolve into the swirling wisps of incense. This was a ceremony that would be repeated at every campsite and resting place on our three-day trek. We could not begin clearing an area for our jungle hammocks before Made had assembled two tiny altars.
“That shrine will protect us from the ghosts and demons that haunt jungle clearings,” he explained, pointing to an offering nestled among the roots of an old tree. “And this one will show the gods that we bring no harm to the forest.”
Presumably both were necessary to display that in trimming a few saplings, cutting back the long grass for our camp and collecting a little dead wood for our rice and grilled chicken, we were acting with due respect.
Unfortunately it is not a respect that is shown by all in the region. Several times that afternoon we came across deer-snares and giant ‘harp traps’, designed to catch fruit bats – which are said to taste sweetest during mango season. The Balinese blame the poaching on new arrivals from Java, and overcrowding is certainly driving people to venture deeper into the park.
Even despite the poaching activity I was astonished to find that this forest boasted the best wildlife spotting I’d ever enjoyed in the thick jungle of South-East Asia. Even in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra I’d never been in forest where wildlife was so constantly visible. Curious macaques followed us for much of the day and only abandoned us when a troop of rowdy black monkeys began screeching. We frequently saw deer; although they were skittish, we had surprisingly clear sightings.
As I lay in my hammock that night – gratefully cocooned above the leech-infested ground – I thought of a phrase that Made had taught me earlier, which seemed to illustrate perfectly the respect with which the Balinese treat their island: Jatma desa angertanin gumin Ida Batara.
He’d translated slowly: “The people do not own the land – the gods have just leant it to us for safe keeping.”
The Balinese are justly proud of their island, which is often described as the most beautiful in the world. They believe that when they die, heaven will be just like Bali.
Given Bali’s growing population, it’s going to take action rather than sentiments to protect the park. While West Bali brings in so little tourist revenue, protection of the reserve is not a conservation priority. Only tiny Menjangan Island – off the north coast, but still technically part of the park – attracts significant visitors, who come to enjoy one of Asia’s greatest diving experiences. There are those who say that tourism is the only real hope for wildlife in this region. As more visitors arrive to experience this unexpectedly wild side of Bali, the poachers will be forced to look for another way to survive and perhaps (as has been the case in similarly afflicted parts of Africa) they can eventually find work as experienced jungle guides.
“We have a long walk ahead of us,” Made smiled the next morning as he handed me a steaming cup of black Balinese coffee. “But no hurry. Alon-alon – slowly-slowly. It’s the Balinese way.”
His voice was interrupted by a strange chugging filtering down through the canopy. As it came closer, the sound reminded me of something from my past. Then it dawned on me: it was like a commuter train pulling into King’s Cross Station. But my life in London was half a world away, and as two flapping shadows passed over the trees I realised the noise was the wingbeats of a pair of hornbills.
All over Indonesia hornbills are considered birds of good omen. I looked over at Made to discover the smile of delight on my face reflected right back in his.
Mark Eveleigh is a freelance photojournalist, currently based in South-East Asia. He is also director of The WideAngle photographers’ network: www.markeveleigh.com