It’s not much more than a thick hook of land tucked under Java’s jaw, located a couple of hundred kilometers south of Jakarta. But it’s within striking distance of the infamous Krakatoa island volcano, and it was a compelling destination and a journey representative of most of the trips I made in Indonesia.
First, you had to get a pass to enter the Ujung Kulon park, since it’s technically a national reserve. Then you had to hire a guide at whatever price you negotiated. Then the guide takes you to the corner store so you can stock up on food for both you and reminds you that you are required to buy him a couple packs of kretek clove cigarettes, too. Wait, what’s the deal, here? Then you set off to hike.
This being Javanese tropical jungle, it’s humid and tropical, rife with the smells of vegetation and moisture. Hornbills circle overhead, there are crackling sounds in the underbrush. The trail is poorly marked, if at all, and part of you wonder if your chain smoking guide knows where he is or where you are going. As you pass over the difficult parts, he turns to tell you the same thing each time: Awas! Hati hati! Lichin sekali! (Beware, Careful! Very slippery!). This from a guy making the hike in a pair of imitation Chuck Martin sneakers.
Finally, you strike the coast: the gorgeous, Indian Ocean blowing a spectacular, cool breeze redolent of the sea. A hundred meters off shore, huge waves are dropping like hammer blows on the coral reef, where a hunk of enormous, rusted anchor remains embedded like the fang of an enormous prehistoric feline long since rotted away. Farther down the coast, pieces of a washed up freighter are pilloried by the surf. The dune bears a low, three sided dwelling made of bamboo and palm thatch. “Poor people who live like this,” you think, before remembering they are probably poachers here to nab turtle eggs or fish from a protected area. Always, Java’s uncompromising population pressure, its immense and boundless fertility.
That night, you pitch your tent on a grassy plain dotted with the enormous, dried patties of buffalo cow flop. The moon sails overhead, emerging from the jungle like an empress. You sleep soundly until well past midnight.
Then, a sound rouses you from slumber. You slide the zipper down, peer out from the tent flap, and find hundreds and hundreds of buffalo grazing peacefully on all sides around you. You’re surprised to see them, although the cow pies ought to have tipped you off. Perhaps they’re as surprised as you are, having found a nylon dome suddenly and mysteriously sprouted among the quiet green expanse of their grazing area. After all, the interloper is you.
This is Java.
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