The Natural Wonders Of East Java

Published 02 September 2017   

Crossing a bridgeless river en route to Sukamade.

A would-be rock star was playing a guitar and singing a Javanese folk song, a man was vending canned drinks, a woman was waving a bunch of fresh grapes and a young boy was trying to convince me that I needed a pair of pink plastic sunglasses. My rumbling stomach, meanwhile, had just done a deal with a sweet talker who was selling ‘Tahu Isi’ – stuffed tofu, wrapped in cones of brown paper.

Written by: RACHEL LOVE

I was alone on a public bus travelling from Denpasar to Ketapang, the gateway to East Java. Having just arrived at Gilimanuk the bus was preparing to drive onto the ferry when it was suddenly boarded by a miscellany of hawkers and buskers. It was the beginning of a journey that would take me through the volcanoes, rice fields, rainforests, plantations, national parks and cultural heritage of Java’s most easterly region. My modes of transport would include buses, ferries, a vintage Land Rover, a bamboo raft, a traditional fishing boat and an Indonesian train.

A peaceful plantation resort.

Banyuwangi Regency, Bali’s spectacular next-door neighbour, is a mere 30-minute ferry ride from Gilimanuk. The next morning, I witnessed one of the most extraordinary feats of human endurance on the slopes of Kawah Ijen. Here, a mysterious crater lake, located at the core of a reserve that spans the slopes and summits of three volcanoes, is the site of a labour-intensive sulphur mining operation. Every day an elite class of hardened men known as the ‘sulphur slaves’ tirelessly hump baskets of yellow rocks, weighing up to 90 kilos, from the lake’s edge, up to the crater rim and then back down the side of the mountain. Following the well-trodden track to the top of the mountain, I stared down at the crater, which was covered in billowing clouds of smoke and volcanic gasses – the ‘Breath of Ijen’ – hissing from fissures in the rock.

A fishing boat challenging the surf at Grajagan Cape.

Then, abruptly, it all dispersed and for the next 20 minutes I had a wonderful view of the milky aquamarine lake, stretching out from the stark, grey slopes like a sheet of coloured glass. The one-kilometre-wide, 200-metre-deep lake is one of the most acidic lakes in the world.

Later that day, I was introduced to a little bit of living history when I met a group of six old ladies in their seventies. Hailing from the same village, they had laboured in the rice fields together for the best part of their working lives. Today, they still perform the hypnotic music known as ‘Gedhogan’, which originated after the rice harvest in the days when the crop was threshed and ground by hand. Wearing traditional dress, chewing on betel nut and using their original wooden tools as instruments, these energetic old ladies treated me to the rhythmic sounds of their youth.
The next slice of my adventure embraced a coastline sculpted by magnificent beaches and legendary surf breaks. In the company of friends, I took a remarkable land cruise through the Meru Betiri National Park. Located on the southeast coast, this 580-square-kilometre park is one of the most important and least accessible nature reserves in Java, with bridgeless rivers, impenetrable bamboo thickets, and rainforest hills rising steeply to over 1000 metres. Crawling up the mountain in our vintage Land Rover, we bounced and cavorted along a tortuously rough and rocky track. The uneven motion jolted our spines and left our jaws and limbs vibrating, so we relished our stops along the way to admire the dazzling panorama of Teluk Hijau, a lush green bay framed by densely wooded cliffs. Down in the valley, in a less hostile terrain, we rode on the roof of our vehicle, fording a river, before arriving at our destination – a simple homestay, complete with a turtle hatchery, a few hundred metres from the wild and beautiful Sukamade Beach.

Travelling 3rd class on an Indonesian train.

Four hours later, after a dinner of nasi campur, we walked to the beach to witness the rare and unforgettable sight of the sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. A full moon had risen, guiding us through an enchanted forest and illuminating the dark surface of a river, navigable only by bamboo raft. A torchlight signal from the beach guards then alerted us to a deep nesting pit containing a huge turtle. This elderly matron of the sea had arduously struggled up the beach to drop her clutch of 160 ping-pong-ball eggs, which she was now burying about sixty centimetres under the sand. Sukamade is the most important nesting site in Java; a conservation effort has been underway here for many years, and stability of the turtle population has been helped by a careful system of tagging and monitoring, as well as the use of special hatcheries. The eggs hatch after two months, and the young turtles are tended in special tanks for a further four weeks, by which time their chances of survival in the sea should have increased.

The ‘sulphur slaves’ at Ijen.

The following day we traversed the mangrove forests in a traditional fishing boat to reach another turtle breeding ground and hatchery at Ngagelan. At Grajagan Cape we rose with the sun to watch the fishermen challenging the surf at the treacherous and narrow gateway to the Indian Ocean, and at Muncar – the second largest fishing port in Indonesia – we observed the vibrant activities of the busy harbour amid the gaily painted and highly ornamented vessels.

Finally, we stayed at the peaceful plantation resort of Margo Utomo in Kalibaru, home to a herd of black and white Friesian cows. I jumped at the chance to milk a cow in a country where dairy produce is not a feature of the cuisine. My charge proved to be gentle and friendly, patiently indulging me with all the milk she could muster until my aching fingers had had enough!

I returned to Ketapang, relishing the experience of my first-ever Indonesian train ride, complete with hawkers and buskers, in the knowledge that I would be returning to Bangyuwangi very soon. There’s plenty more to see.

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