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August 1, 2014

Baluran, the Savannah of East Java

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The story from Baluran is the first part of my National Parks of Indonesia series.


Banyuwangi’s sky was very bright when our ATR 72-500 aircraft landed at Blimbingsari airport. Blimbingsari was the entry point to begin of our six-day mission: exploring the National Parks of East Java and West Bali. 


The rotation of our plane's propellers slowed down as the small aircraft glided at the runway. Blimbingsari's 1,400 meter-long runway can only accommodate small aircraft, carrying less than a hundred passengers at a time.  Until this article is written in August 2014, there are only two commercial flights serving Banyuwangi destination; Wings Air of Lion Air Group and Garuda Explore by Garuda Indonesia. The latter has only started its flight to Banyuwangi on 1 May 2014.  

The combination of lush green paddy field around the airport and the clear blue sky made the beginning of our trip looked promising.  The tiny, bright yellow airport terminal building was noticeable from the distance. Banyuwangi is a district located at the easternmost part of Java – the most populated island in Indonesia. Its landscape is covered by tropical rain forests and savannah, while some parts of its Southern shore are laced with wide, soft sandy beach, the home to rare sea turtles. National Parks in East Java are among the very last haven to typical Javanese wildlife species, some of them are nearly extinct.  


This is how an ATR 72 series plane looks like. The day when we arrived at Blimbingsari was the day when Garuda Indonesia debuted its Explore flight to Banyuwangi
We started our trip to Baluran National Park, a 250 kilometer square park located at Situbondo district. Baluran is known for its wide savannah, the home to at least two types of deer, i.e. rusa Jawa (Javan deer/ Cervus timorensis russa) and barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak muntjak), banteng jawa (Javanese bull/ Bos javanicus), kerbau liar (wild water buffalo), kancil/pelanduk (mouse deer/ Tragulus javanicus pelandoc), merak (green peafowl/ Pavo muticus), ayam hutan (jungle fowl/ Gallus gallus), lutung Jawa/ lutung hitam (ebony leaf monkey/ Trachypithecus auratus auratus), and various wild birds such as hornbills and swallows. Further we would climb Mount Ijen to see the blue fire in its crater, continued our trip to Meru Betiri National Park – known for its thick tropical forest, beautiful beaches, and turtle conservation, and later, we would cross Bali Strait and headed to West Bali National Park – which is famous for its wild deer and beautiful coral reefs ecosystem. There are still two other national parks in East Java, the Alas Purwo Park and Bromo-Tengger-Semeru. We would explore them in some other trip.

A Chevy Trooper driven by a friendly man named Mas Pendi picked us up at the airport, ready to drive us to our first three destinations. We needed a tough 4x4 vehicle and an experienced driver to beat the challenging National Park routes. The trip between Baluran – Ijen – Meru Betiri consisted of bumpy dirt roads, rivers without bridges, narrow paths between the woods, and rides on the mountain slopes. 

The road in Baluran National Park
The narrow road and the lowland forest
It took only one hour drive from Blimbingsari to Baluran. As soon as we passed the National Park’s gate, we entered the National Park area. The first few kilometers of the road in the National Park was surrounded by lowland forest. Dry season in Baluran starts in April, so during our trip in May some vegetation have started to lose their greens. The green and golden yellow hues of drying bushes and grass lined up along the road as sounds of wild monkeys and birds were heard from afar. 

Some parts of the road were so narrow that I could reach the tips of the bushes from our car’s window. The 1,250-meter high Mount Baluran stood gracefully at our left side, chunks of cloud covered its dormant peak. We aimed for Bekol savannah - which is 12 kilometers away from the gate - where wild animals gather for grazing and resting, and and Bama beach where white sandy beach and an intact mangrove forest grows. The savannah itself makes 40 percent of the whole Baluran National Park’s landscape.  

Nearing Bekol savannah, we entered a wide opening covered in grass. Some widoro bukol (Ziziphus rotundifolia) and acacia trees grew between the grass, providing shades and resting places for the animals. Some monkeys and red jungle fowl were rushing to hide as our car was approaching. The wide savannah and the blue sky above made a serene, picture-perfect scene. 

Some said that the view at Baluran’s savannah looks like that of in East Africa. Some travel articles even dubbed Baluran the 'Africa van Java'. I personally would love to call it the lowland savannah of Java.

Have you ever seen monkey race?

The monkeys rushed to the side of the road as we passed by
“Look, can you see the herds of deer over there?” Mas Pendi pointed out some brown and grey dots at the savannah and I tried to follow his finger’s direction. As we drove closer, what looked like brown and grey moving dots turned to the shapes of deer, black monkeys and wild water buffaloes. 

Mas Pendi pulled the car over to the side of the road, and we walked down quietly into the savannah. It was a hot day, but view was so breathtaking that I kept on walking to approach those beautiful folks. A deer lifted its head, stared at us and howled. It seemed that it was in charge of observing the surrounding and to give the early warning. Soon the rest of the deer paused from grazing and raised their heads, looking at us. Their knees bent slightly, ready to flee, but as they saw that we stood there peacefully, they looked more relaxed. Not so far from them, two buffaloes were cooling themselves down in the mud at water catchment ponds.

We were mesmerized by the wildlife that we saw before our eyes. I have never seen wild deer in their habitat before, and it was beautiful to see them there, living in their habitat. In Bekol savannah, we, human beings were the guest, while they were the hosts, the owner of that space. For once, in homo sapiens-populated island of Java, I felt that I was the minority in the animal kingdom. 

In that wide savannah I sensed an imaginary border. We felt like we had to stand at a certain distance to respect those animals. We took the photographs in silence, and soon, knowing that we were harmless, the deer got back to grazing, right at where they were in peace. 

This is the view that made 'Born Free' sang in my head...

Some buffalos and a peafowl
On our way to Bama beach we spotted this mommy deer walking with her baby
After some minutes we walked back to the trooper and drove slowly to Bama beach. A mommy deer was walking with her baby deer, gracefully crossing our path. Along the way we could see more deer and flocks of monkeys. Wild peafowls were seen from afar, their lavish green feathers stood out between the withering savannah foliage. Along the way to Bama beach I passed by more varieties of shrubs and trees which made me wish that I was a botanist so I would have known their names. Even though I have read the Ecology of Java and Bali, I just recognized them as lowland vegetation and typical shrubs from hot and arid areas, indicated by their narrow leaves and slender branches. 

To my opinion, Bama beach was beutiful, but not that impressive. Some families threw a picnic under the shades of tall trees. Their kids were playing in the calm water. Three wooden boats were parked, ready to take visitors wishing to explore the bay. Bama beach is also known for its healthy coral ecosystem, making it a good snorkeling spot. The mangrove forest looked thick, but the day was too hot and we were too tired after early morning flight - that we were not appealed to explore the beach further. We just sat under the shades of the trees, took a rest and watched the sea. 

Bama beach
Vegetation along the road to Bama beach
On the way to Bama beach we also passed this lowland deciduous forest
Mas Pendi explained that usually there would be more deer coming to the savannah in late afternoon so we drove to the observation point. A 30-meter-high tower stood at an elevated part of the park, allowing us to have a 360˚ view of the landscape. 

The sun was golden, the clouds over Mount Baluran had gone, the breeze was cooler, and it was the meal time for the wilds. I loved the silence where I only heard the sounds of wind rubbing the tips of the grass and shrubs at the savannah, and voices of the animals. I loved to see how immense the sky was. We saw more deer, more monkeys, more buffalos, more peafowls before our eyes. They walked pass each other but they had their own territory to eat and rest. We once again stood in amazement, watching the nature works its way. We stayed until dusk and when the sky was getting dark, we drove back to Banyuwangi.

The view from the observation tower
Mount Baluran, the savannah, and widoro bukol trees
Happily walking back to our Chevy Trooper :) 
I was tired but feeling happy. As I laid my back on my seat and looked out to the darkening landscape outside, I heard Mas Pendi talking. 
“I have driven many guests here but I have never had anyone else seeing as many animals as you did today. We have been very lucky today.”
I smiled and soon fallen asleep. I was indeed, very lucky. 

*****

Notes:
How to get to Baluran:
- Fly from Surabaya (SUB) to Banyuwangi (BWX). The flight only takes 45 minutes. There are two airlines serving Banyuwangi route: Explore by Garuda Indonesia (you may check the route and the fare at www.garuda-indonesia.com) or Wings Air by Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id).

- You can also drive from Surabaya. It takes around 6-7 hours drive to reach Banyuwangi.


- From Banyuwangi it takes around 1 hour drive to Baluran National Park.

You may find more information on Baluran's flora and fauna from the Indonesia's Department of Forestry here.

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