Bali’s Wild West
Written by and photography by Mark Eveleigh
Much of the vast rainforest wilderness of West Bali National Park remains practically unexplored. Mark Eveleigh dons his jungle boots and discovers a region that offers some of the best wildlife spotting in Southeast Asia and hands-on experience of local food.
A wisp of incense swirls among the roots of a sacred banyan tree. A piece of banana leaf has been carefully decorated with petals, rice, and a piece of chewing gum as an offering. With typical Balinese humility, our guide Made (pronounced ‘Ma-dey’) is praying to the spirits of the jungle. We wait patiently, hoping that his apology for our invasion of the sacred forest will be accepted. We are in West Bali National Park in the island’s remote and still fervently traditional ‘wild west’. If Bali really is the ‘island of the gods’ then this is certainly its Garden of Eden.
Despite the fact that this region of volcanic slopes, mangrove forests, and virgin jungle covers roughly 10% of the island’s area, few tourists are even aware of its existence. Over the years I have travelled in most of the great jungles of Asia, and after just a few days here I have already discovered to my surprise that West Bali offers the most spectacularly accessible wildlife viewing I have ever seen in a Southeast Asian jungle.
Even from the vantage point of a hired 4x4, we have seen all three of the park’s resident deer species (sambar, barking deer, and mouse deer) and two of the three primates (the ubiquitous macaque and the rare black monkey).
The park was founded in 1974 as a haven for the last of the island’s now extinct tigers, and remains the only place in the world where you can see the Balinese black monkey and the Bali white starling (of which only 20 remain in the wild).
We are now heading off on a camping expedition into an even remoter area that is known only to a few hunters and, very occasionally, to the park rangers. Beyond the last of the settlers’ plantations – with their rich crops of mango, banana, papaya, cacao, vanilla, wild chilli, snakefruit, and durian – we begin our climb along a narrow ridge. In places nets have been tied between the trees to catch bats.
There are apparently very few things that the Balinese people would not traditionally eat and, despite the area’s national park status, hunting and snaring are still common practice. Made is armed with a rifle, but we are carrying enough provisions to last for several days and have convinced him and the other guides not to shoot.
“Bat meat is tasty,” Made says wistfully as we study the empty nets. “Tastes like chicken.”
It seems that most things in the Bali jungle – from snakes to termites – taste like chicken. To quell our disappointment at not being able to sample bush meat, we have very appropriately brought chicken for our campfire barbecue.
The sun is already dropping low over the volcanoes of Java when we reach our campsite. The first priority once again is for Made to set up a tiny altar with which he can appease the spirits of the jungle. Within 20 minutes the guides have macheteed a clearing and we have strung our hammocks up. We bathe in a surprisingly chilly highland stream, and an hour later are sprawled drowsily around a glowing campfire listening to Made’s stories of jungle survival.
The spirits remain unoffended by our visit and I sleep soundly, waking from time to time to enjoy the night sounds of the forest.
Shortly before dawn I am woken by the harsh coughing alarm call of a barking deer, and as I swing my legs over the side of my hammock I hear what seems to be a rapidly approaching steam train. A pair of huge hornbills fly overhead, the air-pockets under their wings creating the unmistakable chugging sound.
Made is already building a fire for the strong sweet kopi without which it is impossible to start the day in Indonesia. He too is staring up at the twin shadows that are flapping across the canopy.
“They taste better than chicken,” he tells me. He points to a hole in the ground. To me it seems dangerously close to the plastic rain shelter under which the guides have slept. But he tells me that it is the burrow of a large horse-spider. A dozen bread rolls are already toasting on the end of spiked sticks but Made clearly has other ideas.
“Roasted horse-spider is delicious too,” he says, “it tastes like...it tastes like honey bee.”
“And what does honey bee taste like?” I ask in surprise.
“A bit like chicken.”
The Balinese Ben-Hur
Mekepung, the Balinese sport of buffalo chariot racing, is practised only in Bali’s ‘wild west.’ The area is known for the water buffalo that are still used to work the paddy fields and for the wooden carts that carry the produce to market. These carts have evolved into the lightweight little racing chariots that can reach speeds of close to 100kph over the dirt-track courses that run between the paddy fields.
Wet and Wild in West Bali
Surfers who are anxious to escape the crowded breaks of south Bali should head off on ‘surfari’ to Medewi Point, where the brash Indian Ocean waves crash against the southwestern coast. Puri Dajuma Cottages (www.dajuma.com) is just ten minutes from Medewi. The resort can arrange excursions to the buffalo races or jungle treks with their ace guide Made.
West Bali is famous among divers for the stunning reefs that can be found at Menjangan island, off the north coast. Mimpi Resort Menjangan (www.mimpi.com) boasts stunning villas, with wonderful thermal plunge pools, and is the perfect base for trips to Menjangan.