[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
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, Made, our guide, is praying to the spirits of the jungle. We wait patiently, hoping that his apology for our fleeting 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. The jungles of this park offer a perfect opportunity for adventurous travellers to see a wilder side of the Island of the Gods, and this vast rainforest wilderness boasts some of the best wildlife spotting in South East Asia.
Despite the fact that this region of volcanic slopes, mangrove forests and virgin jungle covers roughly 10 percent of 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 South East Asian jungle.
Even from the vantage point of a hired 4×4, we have seen all three of the park’s resident deer species (sambar, barking deer and mousedeer) and two of the three species of 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 24 are left in this park).
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 is still common practise. 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 machete-ed 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 un-offended 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.”