Monday, February 11, 2013

An Adventure in Ujong Kulon

In the calm waters of the river in Ujong Kulon area (1998)
(excerpt fr. Romi's story-archive)
Indonesia is an enormous country with more than 14,000 islands and covering an area the size of the Philippines multiplied by four. It was a shame not being able to visit its interesting territories but at least I got lucky to quick-step in some places near the central city of Jakarta particularly the island of Java.

There may not be that many high mountains in the island of Java, but the big chunk of land offers great opportunity for jungle trekking, and hiking small mountains. Enjoyment is not necessarily based on altitude and difficulty anyway, it is simply experiencing a place for what it is.

Still very fresh in my mind is the memory of my Indiana Jones escapade: it was then a long weekend - a holiday season. In the spirit of carpe diem, I indeed, seized the day. I have to go and maximize my Indo time exploring places wherever my feet lead me. My dilapidated and overused Lonely Planet guidebook doesn’t offer much information on this particular objective – Ujong Kulon. Fortunately, I have with me a second travel guidebook, a local one which sort of pointed me to the right direction. And soon I was on my way, eager to see what the place has to offer.

I boarded a bus in Jakarta. After four hours of travel, I was soon stretching my tight and tired muscles from the long ride at the mysterious jump-off town in the western tip of Java island. Java island is the ‘central’ island of Indonesia – it is where Jakarta city is situated. It should be the most abused and explored big island – given the population and proximity to the biggest city, but to my surprise, some parts are still pristine and seemingly unexplored. Just like Ujong Kulon, my target island. I read this place from a local guidebook and got intrigued by its “untouched” status – somewhere to see great wildlife.

Thereafter, I got a ride to the remote town, and started my jungle trek. At the tip of some town, I waited for a boat ride that will take me to one of the paradise island in the tourist’s map -advertised to have a semi-Jurassic feel because of its undeveloped status. I was not expecting anything as such, given that tourist companies or local government tour offices are known to sugarcoat a place’s description to lure unsuspecting tourists. For all I know, there could be a Jollibee right smack in the middle of that unknown island.

Backtracking a bit, my arrival-in-town scene somewhat amused me. The neighborhood was almost empty because of the ongoing local festivities (more like a religious holiday, but I can’t recall exactly what). The ‘tourism office’ was a ghost house. The scene was probably similar to visiting an evacuated war-torn town in Somalia. I walked around town looking for the ‘officer’ to ask for help on how to get into those Giligan’s islands. I found him, but he didn’t seem too eager to help lost travelers during that season. Funny that his first question to me was; “Do you have a mosquito net for sleeping?” Huh? I was expecting a question on tent, or sleeping bag, or even survival gizmos – but a mosquito net? I said no, and pursue my question of interest on how to visit the islands. He left for a little while, came back from one of the old houses carrying with him what was to be my survival gear – a mosquito net! He gave me instructions and quickly asked somebody to lead me to the port, then sent me off saying “good luck!” Was not the proper send off should be something like “Enjoy your trip”?

As I was waiting in the boat for our departure, I learned from the crew that they would not make any trip unless the minimum number of maybe 10 passengers, boarded in. Well, there was absolutely NO other tourist except me! My friends, there are times that you simply don’t give a damn anymore as to how much you’d need to pay just so you can move on and live your adventurous life. Soon the boat roared to life as El Capitan counted his Rupiahs. I settled myself in my seat, anticipating more problems to come. Who knows - maybe I’d encounter a real T-rex in the said Jurassic island.

True to its advertisement, the little island seemed to be unexplored, and uninhabited. I eyed the islands around me as we crossed channels looking for the elusive port, and the islands look desolate and the noise coming from strange birds and creatures dominated the atmosphere.

The boat was not to stay for the night. From the limited Bahasa language that I know, I grasped from one of the crew that there is no way they are staying for the night. It intrigued me, and almost scared me. What do they have here – giant anacondas?! The locals’ weird behavior gave me the creeps! Upon arrival, I was greeted by one of the three rangers – the only people living in the island. As I walked the little trail that led to the haunted-looking house (and the only one in the island), a giant anaconda.. err.. gila monster-looking thing crossed my path. A HUGE lizard! It was probably at least 3ft long, and it was big and bulky. That thing can eat a whole cat in one go!

I wondered what would be next – chicken-sized green ‘compy’ dinosaurs ala Jurassic Park, perhaps?

I sat down near the house and the rangers-cum-tour guides offered me possible activities in the island. I could jungle hike, ride a canoe in the river, watch grazing wild animals during sunset, photo-hunt the mysterious white rhinoceros, or simply walk around the camp and enjoy moments of solitude.

After a brief talk, we finalized our plan - we were set to leave by a smaller boat the next morning, to take us to another island. I was to go paddling in the jungle river, and do a little hike and a jungle tour to look for wild animals!

But first, I have to check out what this island has to offer. “What?! No beer?!” The place was not for regular tourists. No TV, no electricity, not even a generator. It was like a movie production set for Tarzan where one could see a desolate house in the middle of a thick jungle.

I was amazed by how the rangers live off the island. Survivalists, that’s what they are. The only supplies that regularly came in were fuel and rice. For food, sometimes they hunt, oftentimes they fish. And there’s so much potential food around – monkeys, monitor lizards, even big games like deer – all of which frequented the backyard. And those monitor lizards that I saw were really big. Try to bring your dogs or cats, and either they come back with a trophy-hunt in their mouth, or you’d see them later without their heads and paws. Those big lizards can swallow a whole chihuahua!

Day time, and I already started slap-slapping my body parts to shoo and kill away the damn mosquitoes. The rangers said that the mosquitoes were not the ‘regular’ version, not the culex or the malaria-carrying one either, just tiny, nuisance mosquitoes. Nuisance?! That was really an understatement.

By mid-afternoon, things had started to be really annoying. It was not yet dark, but the thick canopy of forest, dead wind, and humid air made the mosquitoes launched their attacks. A million of them were flying around us. “Now I understand why the tourism officer gave me a mosquito tent, those damn insects can lift me off my mattress.” Not being able to withstand the aliens, I decided to kill time in the port. There was adequate and constant wind where insects won’t be able to bother me. I even fell asleep for a little while.

But alas, the sun had set, and I have to go back to reality. They should have named that island ‘mosquito coast’, or ‘mosquito island’, or simply “MOSQUITO” with all-caps letter. We started lighting candles, and burning anti-insect device – known to Pinoys as ‘katol’. I quickly chomped my dinner (- which is just some kind of rice suman I bought at the pier) and headed to my ‘mosquito-tent’ to end my dreadful night. It was not happening soon enough. The tent-net have very tiny mesh-gaps, designed to keep out ‘normal’ mosquitoes. But I was dealing with aliens; uglier, tinier, hungrier, and smarter. Some could actually force their way through the mesh. These creatures could be just half the size or so of a typical mosquito we see in Manila.

I even tried to be friendly and allow them to suck blood so they could be happy and fly away, but hungry as vampires - they suck on forever. It seemed I killed more than 3314 of them that night. Not that I was counting them, I was counting how many more minutes and seconds before day-break. Soon, the god of good news appeared in the horizon, and I could just so thank the whole universe for being alive and not blood-drained by those little creatures of paradise.

At last, time to go! I took to the sea and before long landed in another island - an uninhabited one. We pulled the little canoe towards the little river bank near the open sea. My guide and I said good bye to the boat crew, they promised to pick us up much later. Soon I was paddling my way in. Just a mere 10 meters of paddling, I heard a dive-splash behind me. “What the hell was that?!” The young ranger behind me just shrugged his shoulders and told me it was JUST a fresh-water crocodile, we disturbed its sleep, that was all. “What?! There are crocodiles here?!” I long to travel to a real paradise, but paradise island there meant living things were kept in their natural state, wild animals fight and kill for survival. And I don’t want to be their lunch!

After a hundred or so of humdrum paddling, I started to enjoy the place. Eerie, knowing that deep behind the trees, I know hundreds of eyes were peering at us, curious as little kids watching lost strangers. The guide shouted something which I didn’t understand, but his pointing finger was a universal sign to look in that direction. “Tidur” was the word I remember he said. I looked up and saw the weird crumpled thing, 10 meters directly above us. What was that, I didn’t know of a creature Tidur. Then it moved and started changing sleeping position, its tail dropped lazily, threatening to dislodge its whole body and fall down on us. It was a big python, a gadamn SNAKE!! Did I mention that I don’t like snakes? “Oh Shit!” In panic, I frantically paddled away fast and looked up one more time. Then with a safer distance, I realized what the guide was trying to tell me - a sleeping (tidur) snake. Why can’t he just say ‘snake’ and forget the word sleeping?!

We continued paddling and soon disembarked and walked a narrow trail towards the grazing ground, except that there was no grazing animal to see. It was possible that the animals knew it was holiday season, so they took time off ‘work’ and decided to roam somewhere else. “How lucky could I be?!” The Rhinos would not show itself up until midnight, so there was no point waiting for any animal show that day. I soon said my good-bye to that island then boarded the boat and rolled back to the island of mosquitoes. I have another night left in my schedule but decided to call in the rescue boat to bring me back to the village. It was quite an experience but not a very pleasant one. But then again adventures don’t always end up in a very bright fashion, some are just meant as ‘souvenirs’, to add color to one’s adventure life. It is an interesting story to share, at the very least. And, it is something worth learning from.

** Tips how to enjoy Ujong Kulon
- Don't go alone, bring friends.  Bring a proper mosquito net, and an effective insect repellant. Bring proper clothing (long sleeves, leggings). Bring enough good food.  A telescopic-lens attached to a good SLR camera may induce your interest to find wild animals.

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