Taman Nasional Meru Betiri in Jember, East Java, is one of the last remaining stands of old growth rainforest near Bali. It has been suggested the way in is deliberately left rugged for a reason: to make tourists rare, leaving more endangered animals – like the gibbon and sea turtle – to enjoy peak season, alone on Pantai Sukamade.
Getting out of Bali’s urban areas on a weekday, the low road west to Negara may be passable. Weekend traffic, however, often necessitates passing Pupuan, then Pemuteran, and flanking the coast through West Bali National Park. Rest the night in Pemuteran’s Kubuku Eco-Lodge in the shade of the mountains of West Bali, check out the Reef Seen turtle conservation effort, or push straight on to Gilimanuk harbor.
Here’s your slow boat to Java.
Crossing over, you’re not changing islands, but empires. The held vowel sounds of Mosques are enveloping over radio, or through any small opening in a vehicle. Prices drop, any needs can be checked roadside, and the need for tiresome bargaining recedes with trees wrapped in checkered drag.
The derelict scenes of harbor cities, blocks of vacant storefronts and roadside vendors, are usually a visual cue telling all to move along, move along dengan cepat – with speed. However, while the road initially plays a car’s shocks like accordions, the harbor city of Bangyuwangi is a set of intersections and suburbs upbeat in their arrangement around roomy Mosques. Crack the window and listen for one quirky red light near the city’s central statue, which has an engraving that translates to “Independence or death!” wait for green while the PA crackles, singing: “Oh ho ho it’s magic, you know, and you never believe it’s not so…”
Roads broaden into real highways from here, and signs of Java’s business sector recur: factory gates and a few office buildings line the southern route to Jajag.
Take a moment to appreciate the main road, as you’ll be really glad to see it again in a few days. From Jajag, brave the southern webbing of village roads down to Pesanggaran (not ‘pisang goreng’), remembering the local adage: malu bertanya sesat jalan.
Hesitate to ask, lose your way.
Food and transportation options taper down like the roads to Serangan. Your cheapest way in, aside from the plausible and comparatively relaxing trek, is to hop in the rear of a yellow dump truck at a price in the tens of thousands. Though roughing it shoulder-to-shoulder with the rubber farming community may lighten the ego a little, Sukamade Beach is still about ten kilometers from where you’d all be dumped. So a Jeep, for about Rp. 600,000 with a driver for a day (think $60) will take you in and out, and across all rivers. If rain season, however, you might be asked to cross the final river on a bamboo raft and walk the final 2.5 kilometers to what is rightfully called Turtle Beach, or Pantai Sukamade.
However you do it, after a rattling and enthralling ride through three canopies, when you reach a rustic beachside compound that seems about five times further than it ought to be, you’ll have arrived, so try and come to a stop. Pitch a tent for free, or choose between cheap, basic, or even less-basic rooms – in the effect of dark, dense wilderness that can’t be faked. The sensation of being backed by tens of kilometers of jungle with black Javanese gibbons in the upper canopies, long tailed macaw below, deer, buffalo, jungle dogs, and flocks of noisy hornbills – often at arms’ length – cannot be reproduced, and so it must be earned.
From the compound, your hardwood hallway to the beach is half a kilometer long. On either side of the dirt road leading to the crashing surf are hanging vines, and occasional monkey tails. It’s not uncommon to spot armadillo (tringiling) here – a fidgeting nose approaching you, curiously.
Green, olive ridley, hawksbill, and even the one-ton leatherback sea turtles come from up to ten thousand kilometers away to lay eggs here. These animals, crying saltwater tears as they lay, are literally dinosaurs, flourishing from around 150 million years ago. Tourists from afar spend their nights tracking them down, following the specific advise of rangers like Pak Tri, a Sukamade Ranger for 20 years. Two equally bizarre creatures gather at the sandy crossover to their respective habitats, beholding each other like aliens in a night brightened by stars.
Rangers at the beach’s turtle conservation center move each nest, of around 150 to 200 eggs, to a hatchery in the compound. After a few months of growing strong, hatchlings are then released. Growing stronger prior to release increases their odds of surviving in the wild substantially, and is mostly funded by careful ecotourism. Without intervention, the direst estimate is only 1 in 400 would survive up to the 32 years it could take to become egg-layers, themselves.
Depending on the season, food in the only and quaint kantin here could be called lacking. Rice, fish, noodles, or vegetables it is – with beer, instant coffee, and coke – only cold during the hours the generator is noisily producing. For a short stay, bring your own fresh fruits and veggies; for a long stay, it may be possible to add some diversity by sourcing vegetables from Sukamade Village (Kampung Sukamade), and from farming communities, which include coffee, cocoa, and coconut plantations. However, it’s likely all visitors will trek themselves an appetite, making the food here passable at worst, or exquisitely rustic and fulfilling, at best. The ambiance is of flickering lights from an antique butane lantern, the tones of the real, deep forest, and maybe the rangers’ children drawing pictures at your dinner table.
Though their English is limited, Sukamade is far enough away to renew the novelty and thrill of meeting locals, no matter how long you’ve traveled. A group of about five families work the beach compound and live without electricity or phones for most the year. Sharing with them, or bringing them a small treat from beyond, like a Teddy Bear for the cook’s daughter, Ella, will round off the experience for all.
When your liaison with Sukamade ends, you’re likely to have a naïve certainty you’ll be back sometime soon. Save time for a brief stop in Sukamade Village on leaving to learn just how little poverty has to do with happiness.
Seven hundred inhabitants here barely subside on rubber farming, working in an old factory near the main gate. After tapping the trees for white sap at three in the morning, they’re off to their private plantations, or to clock in at the factory. Prominently standing are the village’s Protestant Church and nearby Mosque; the two main religions are incarnate in resident Evpi Muhammad’s comical full name (‘Evpi’ an attempt at spelling ‘Happy’ – locally believed a good, Christian name). At dusk, a few generators and subsequent dangdut music come to life, and villagers flock to the lamps with moths and other binatang Maghrib. Rows of houses are lined with potted plants and painted sky blue, possibly leading one to disassociate being poor with being down. While it’s easy to feel like a sore thumb trekking about the kampung with your camera, the locals would rather you not feel that way. Sit and grab a coffee at a corner store on a wooden bench; you’ll only ever pay the local price. Nobody here seems to see your wallet coming before they see you, and perhaps your smile. The challenge is to transcend money as an issue and a divide. This small kampung may cause you to rethink things, and you may wish to stay longer and explore its streets of potted plants and hints of the healthy ideals its inhabitants are struggling to live up to.
As the road out is just the road in, in reverse, start reading backwards from paragraph seven. Along the way, you’ll pass some hiking trails with signs indicating some cement caverns – cramped Japanese bunkers – and a Rafflesia flower (bunga Raflesia) nobody can find. Try your luck, and maybe the world’s largest flower that opens only once every four years will bloom for you, releasing its trademark scent of decay.
A more obvious stop along the way is Green Bay. The trail leading down to this forested swimming alcove is fifteen minutes one way, marked by a tall umbrella of Raffia grass, and a random cement pedestal. Finally, Pantai Rajawesi is a more obvious and roadside beach, occasionally littered with boats and bodies, or even a concert sound system and prosaic local youth stumbling in packs to the digital tablum, flute, and dangdut lyrics.
Passing a certain clump of stones and ruts, you’ll likely get a load of text messages, emails, and missed calls. Eventually, you’ll even get a radio station, a lunch or dinner menu, and reunite with the main road. Rest and recover in Surya Hotel in Jajag for under Rp.200,000 (think $20), including breakfast and a swim in an Olympic-sized pool. Especially if it’s Friday, the myriad surrounding Mosques, and there’s one poolside, bellow miasmas of prolonged vowel sounds – the chilling sound of Java that will get to you, if you let it, and lodge with your memories of that world you discovered for yourself in the depths of Meru Betiri National Park.
- To preview this destination, enjoy my documentary Becoming Myth: S.E.A. Turtles And Melanesia
- For a shorter, four minute teaser, see One Year Traveling Indonesia in Four Minutes