It was another steamy afternoon in Jakarta. I could see the ominous black clouds moving in, but for now I sat on my Vespa baking in the sun at the longest traffic light in the world. I watched the seconds count down on the digital display above, waiting for the light to turn green. Before it hit zero, the heavens opened up and I was caught in a torrential downpour. And you know what? It felt delicious.
By the time I pulled into my garage, totally drenched, I had sketched out a plan to buck conventional wisdom and ride to Ujung Kulon National Park for a three-day trek in the middle of the rainy season. Why not?
Ujung Kulon is located in southwest Java. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes a peninsula and the nearby islands. In 1883 when the famous Krakatoa volcano erupted, the ensuing tsunami obliterated the coastal villages and the entire peninsula was then blanketed in ash. Everyone who survived evacuated the area and the land was left to be reclaimed by nature.
Today, almost 135 years later, Ujung Kulon is the largest intact lowland rainforest left in Java and a safe haven for several rare and endangered species including the Javan rhino, the Javan gibbon, crocodiles, and even leopards.
I packed my Vespa and set out for the south coast surf town of Cimaja, joining the throng of motorcycles attempting to seep through the cracks of Jakarta’s legendary traffic like water escaping from an impossibly clogged pipe. When I finally made it to the other side of Bogor, I took an alternative road and entered a different filled with small villages, rainforest-topped mountains and cascading rice terraces. This was the rural Java.
Predictably I arrived in Cimaja amidst an afternoon downpour, but in the morning I woke up to sunlight streaking through holes in the cloud cover and an ethereal prayer call that wafted across the rice paddy. I sipped coffee on my porch to the rumblings of distant thunder. By my second cup, the rain was coming down in buckets.
The weather made it impossible to take surf lessons, which was something I had in the back of my mind, so I donned my poncho and took a walk along a raging river where fishermen patiently constructed fish traps from river rock. By the end of the day I was sheltered in a tiny warung (restaurant) with a tattoo artist and two seven-year-old girls. We all got new tattoos. I know… who saw that one coming?
The Forest, Muddy Road
The next day I headed west over the cliffs and down along the coast through alternating rain and sun, stopping for a swim on a beautiful beach occupied by foraging cows. By late afternoon I was ready to tackle the last 21 km of dirt road to the national park. As if on cue, the sky turned portentous and the deluge began. I nimbly snaked my way around the puddles, some the size of swimming pools. When I couldn’t get around them, I went through them, hoping they weren’t bottomless pits. Locals in the paddies waved and villagers catcalled “Hey Mister!” as I inched by. I thought I was the only one crazy enough to be on the road, but then I was passed by two ojeks (motorcycle taxis) carrying bules (foreigners)! It was Martina and Marko, a young couple from the Czech Republic. We were about to become trekking companions.
Looking like wet dogs, we settled into our rooms for a cold bucket bath and a change of clothes. Over dinner we made plans with Budhi, our guide to be, for a three-day trek through the park overnighting in the ranger stations. Afterwards we walked across the laneway and bought supplies from a well-placed toko (store) that had monopolized the trekker trade. Then, oddly enough, I was directed to park my Vespa inside Budhi’s living room, interrupting one of his family’s favorite TV shows.
In the morning Budhi led us through a village and into the forest. We came to a latte-colored river with a makeshift bamboo bridge. I grabbed onto the single railing that ran down the left-hand side and crossed over as the bridge swayed deeply under my weight. I paused to look upriver into a mysterious void, then downriver where it met the ocean in swirling sandbars. Further out I could see the remains of ancient trees reaching out of the ocean like half-submerged shipwrecks.
Beyond the bridge we followed the trail to a primeval beach littered with giant logs and shaded by towering buttress-root trees. Monitor lizards posed on the beach like sentinels while the mangroves danced over the water on their roots. This was a scene of wild beauty – this was Java’s wild coast.
We cut back into the jungle and it started to rain. Soon we found ourselves slogging through shoe-sucking mud one step at a time. The mud claimed my sneaker, so I reached down to retrieve it from the quagmire, covering my arm and chest in mud. Marko laughed and slipped on a tree root, catching himself on a thorny rattan. Martina sunk up to her calves and fell backwards with a splash, sending mud the consistency of a milk shake in all directions. This launched an uncontrollable laugh-attack that even our guide enjoyed. We must have looked like a band of drunken sailors when we blundered into a family of wild boar who tracked us with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
A couple hours later we heard the sound of the surf and emerged from the jungle at the Karang Ranjang ranger station. Before us was an endless stretch of golden sand and a sparkling two-toned sky. It was a welcome sight. We ran into the water, shoes, clothes and all, and enjoyed the rest of the day body surfing and exploring the beach.
We all felt like Ninjas. We had overcome nature’s challenges and had a good time doing it. However, there was one additional fly in the ointment - the sleeping accommodations. The ranger station was hideous: cobwebs, spiders, rusting beds and mattresses that should have been burned a decade ago. There were no fans, no AC and no mosquito nets. Geckos were everywhere, some of the cute variety like those that surprise you when you open your kitchen cabinets, but others were significantly larger with alien-like blue spots. The three of us looked at each other with faces that resembled a “Wow” emoji, then we burst out laughing. This is it?
The next morning, I woke up fully clothed and covered in repellent. I opened my eyes to the sight of one of those crazy blue geckos stuck to the wall 20 cm from my nose. I passed by Marko and Martina’s room and could see they were resting uncomfortably under a window tangled with spider webs.
I ran down to the beach and for a swim. On the way back I pulled up a few buckets from the well, rinsed off, and then joined everyone for a breakfast of yesterday’s rice, overcooked eggs and fresh papaya - breakfast never tasted so good.
Once packed, we entered the jungle and followed a line of cliffs that ran behind the beach. The dense canopy overhead kept us cool and the brilliant red flowers in the understory were a feast to the eye. The jungle was alive with monkeys, birds and giant snails that slid along leaves leaving a slimy trail. After an hour, we scrambled over some rocks and down to a beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. We went for a swim and then continued our trek marveling at the half-buried shipwrecks large and small, including the rusting hulk of an Indonesian freighter that the sea had violently ripped in half lengthwise.
We never saw another soul until early afternoon when we came upon a lone fisherman huddled in a hut constructed of flotsam and jetsam. He made us coffee while I cooled off in an amber-colored river flowing out of the jungle. I was staring absent-mindedly at the ocean when Marko yelled, “Crocs!”
I turned and looked upstream to see bumps breaking the surface of the water like eyeballs. I popped up like a cork flying out of a champagne bottle and took a good look. It was a stick! Laughing at myself, I joined the others at the top of the dune. Looking down into the same river was a group of crocodiles lounging on the riverbank in the afternoon sun - mouths agape, just chillin’.
We continued hiking down the beach for a few more hours before being overcome by blackness and thrashing rain. After it cleared, we climbed up and over some cliffs, spooking a herd of banteng (wild cows) before reaching a rock-strewn river hemmed in by jungle-covered bluffs. We had reached the Cibunar ranger station, our next not-so-accommodating accommodations.
That evening after a simple dinner, I fell asleep outside on a bamboo platform while counting shooting stars. It was all very dreamy until the rain came and I was forced to sleep in the “dungeon”.
We broke camp early the next morning under a foreboding sky and the haunting calls of Javan gibbons. Climbing up a valley we encountered a group from WWF who had just spotted a Javan rhino. With a total population of only 60 animals, we marched forward in hopes of a rare encounter. However, the rhino eluded us, leaving only massive footprints. Suddenly, the wind kicked up, trees swayed, branches cracked and we were hit by a blinding sheet of rain. We huddled under a large ficus and watched the swollen river rage below. It was a show of power by Mother Nature. Thirty minutes later the rain abated, the clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the canopy illuminating twisted liana vines and trees with root systems large enough to stand under. Meanwhile, hornbills and other birds came out of hiding and started multiple conversations on both sides of the valley. The amount of wildlife that surrounded us was astounding.
Climbing up a valley we encountered a group from WWF who had just spotted a Javan rhino. With a total population of only 60 animals, we marched forward in hopes of a rare encounter. However, the rhino eluded us, leaving only massive footprints.
After cresting a slippery ridge, punctuated by a few epic falls, we came out of the jungle at Ciujungkulon jetty where a boat awaited to take us to Pulau Peucang, an island where deer, monitor lizards and wild boar mingle freely with meandering visitors. I put on my mask and snorkeled into a titanic school of blue-striped snapper. Further out on the reef I encountered a very social octopus the size of bocce ball. Then a boat pulled up with dozens of clambering Indonesians swaddled in bright orange life jackets. They jumped into the water like migrating wildebeests, scaring everything in sight, including my octopus friend. As entertaining as it was to watch the flailing arms and legs underwater, it was time to return to the boat for the final leg of the journey.
It was a 2.5-hour boat ride back to our starting point at the park headquarters in Tamanjaya. The trip took us past many kilometers of virgin jungles and idyllic beaches. The Ujung Kulon National Park is a far cry from the Java you probably know. It is certainly a wild and beautiful place.
As I backed my Vespa out of Budhi’s living room and waved goodbye to my companions, I was struck by the thought that we sometimes sell ourselves short by avoiding the elements. We cower at the prospect of too much rain (or too much sun) and miss out on opportunities to connect with nature, embrace life and live like a Ninja!
Just then, as if on cue, it started to rain…