Our campsite is simple: two tents, conic camp fire, a four hour hike from the road to Pemuteran, and four hours to the road to Negara – in the inland expanses of West Bali National Park. Tengah hutan means literally the middle of the forest – or rain forest, in this case.
At around three in the morning, three men trek up the nearby stream, their headlamps orbs of light, chattering and laughing as they pinch up udang air tawar freshwater shrimp. We all lay awake and spooked as a ribcage of shadows slant across the forest floor and over our tents. At around five in the morning, the merry shrimp-pickers make their way back downstream. Headlamps illuminating our tents, Haqi stands to greet them. Feeling welcome at our fire, they come to say hello and then politely excuse themselves.
Our nimble guide, Pak Baehaqi is also a ranger. As we enjoy a breakfast of corn on the cob, coffee, and noodles the next morning, the experienced Bugis / Madurese ranger explains the conflicts that surround this last remaining stand of Balinese rain forest.
Residents of the communities skirting the protected areas have always hunted here and can’t understand why this privilege is now restricted to gathering shrimp and honey. When accosted, they reference the park’s compromising agreements allowing resorts to be built in or around the very boundaries they’ve been instructed to avoid.
“If they’re taking honey, what’s to stop them from taking birds?” adds Pak Haqi, in Bahasa Indonesia. “We can only try.”
That may sound like a cynical thing for a ranger to say, but our eight-hour hike and night around the fire gives Haqi a chance to explain. Like almost everything in this country, there’s a simple problem that wouldn’t exist – if it weren’t in some way too complicated.
More than once, the ranger’s been faced with physical violence when accosting local poachers. Now that the tigers are gone, we have only these kinds of people to fear. Not that it has ever gotten serious, Haqi reassures us – not as heated as it gets outside of the haven of Bali. Police have shot poachers in the past, however. And consequentially their posts were burned to the ground.
Hiking over the last hill, slowly rising 300 feet, Haqi points out a trail leading to a seismograph, sitting there spitting out occasional Richter-scale values. The final panoramas east to Bedugul and Batukaru are awe-inspiring expanses of virgin rainforest stretching for tens of kilometres.
There are fewer and fewer places on Bali island where you can plant your feet and imagine you never left Eden.
The three of us emerge from the forest out of a storm drain on the side of what used to be the road to a large radio tower. We walk around small trees and flower gardens that have sprouted out of cracks in the pavement. We note that it’s a shame the rest of the country couldn’t enjoy roads like this one, which the forest had reclaimed.
As for the radio tower at the end of the road, it was outdated soon after completion. Smaller towers providing only umbrellas of service localized in village centres proved cheaper and more efficient.
“They should have left it going – to provide two or three hikers with signal while in the park,” I suggested, in Bahasa Indonesia. “Though they couldn’t profit from that.”
More than once, Pak Haqi has come across poachers, men with bags of birds and animals bound for pasar burung animal markets of Bali. As an unarmed ranger – without a cellphone signal – Pak Haqi’s only option is to track the smugglers for tens of kilometres until he can phone for some kind of back up.
The only solution that can be posited is a paradox: get more tourists to visit places where solitude is the appeal – places like the rain forest of West Bali National Park. After all, what else would Pak Haqi have done if it weren’t for hikers like us – than hunt, poach, or smuggle?
And though we saw only caterpillars, fruit bats, hornbills, fireflies, and butterflies on our journey through the rainforest, Pak Haqi’s stories of the forest in the dry season necessitate we make a second hike. In the dry season, jungle pigs, python, anaconda, deer, wild cats, leaf monkeys, wild cats, civets, lizards, exotic birds, and macaques brave the slopes of the valley to drink from the rivers.
We’ll be there!