Author: Rene Tambayong
Baluran is unique as the only place on Java with an authentic savanna, which normally belongs in an East Indonesian landscape. It is also the only place in Indonesia where visitors can enjoy close encounters with savanna dwelling animals in an African-like setting.
The Park is globally known amongst scientists as the best place in Indonesia for observing savanna wildlife, in particular the endangered Banteng (Bos javanicus) and the Timor deer also called Rusa deer (Cervus timorensis).
Barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak), Wild boars, the endangered Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus), also called Dholes, Panther (Panthera pardus), Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus), Green and Red Junglefowl (Gallus varius and Gallus gallus) are also present. About 147 bird species nest in Baluran, however some are now very rare.
The panorama in Baluran undergoes a dramatic change from season to season. In the rainy season, fast-streaming floods can sometimes block the entrance into the park. In this season everything is green, except for the blue and white ipomea flowers and other colorful forest blooms like the wild lamtana and the red and yellow “sungsang” flower.
These are found along the 12-km access road from Batangan (entrance) and the Bekol compound. The deer have a healthy reddish yellow coat and are fat. Five or six months later the entire scenery has changed into a yellowish or drab color, except in the evergreen forest, coastal habitat and mangrove forest. This drab and dry environment, however, goes well with the African look for which Baluran is famous.
THE BATANGAN – BEKOL ACCESS ROAD
This twelve kilometers long and partly paved road connects the main entrance gate at Batangan with the Bekol camp and the Bama beach three kilometers beyond Bekol. This access road offers the opportunity to observe two different types of forest. Immediately after passing the ranger-post at Batangan, is a monsoon forest. Monsoon forests on Java are now very rare, as most have been converted into villages, orchards or other uses. The monsoon forest consists of thorny brush and tall trees.
An easily identifiable tree in a monsoon forest is the Dadap-tree. It is a medium tall tree with thorns on its yellowish trunk and branches like pustules on a human skin. There is a patch of Dadap trees on the left side of the road, a little distance after the evergreen forest around Curah Oling (curah = ravine). In June and other times during the year these trees are in fruit. Look out for both the red and black Javan Lutung or Silver-leaf monkeys (Trachypithecus auratus) and Hornbills eating the fruits in the very early dawn and in the afternoon.
Another characteristic plant in the monsoon forest is the liana. The branches contain water, sometimes used by villagers when they are out of water in the forest. The second ecosystem along the access-road is the evergreen forest. There is a warning sign along the road where this forest starts. The forest is characterized by a semi-dark condition with the presence of palmettos. It is easier to enter this forest as the tree-canopy high above shadow the ground and restrict an abundant growth of grasses and shrubs underneath. This condition makes it a popular throughway for wildlife.
Near Curah Oling is one favorite passage for Banteng, Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), Barking deer and Asiatic wild dog. If you walk quietly, you might see wildlife along this stretch of the road, especially during dawn and near dusk. In contrast with many other access-roads in National Parks, the one in Baluran can be quite entertaining, assuming you make use of that road very early in the morning or during dusk conditions.
THE BEKOL SAVANNA
The Bekol Savanna covers about 300 ha and is the major tourist attraction. This savanna is the only authentic and largest one on Java. Bekol is the name of the main ranger post inside the Park. The compound is built around a 84 meter high hill. Because of the savanna with the Baluran Mountain in the background, the place is nicknamed mini Africa. The herds of Timor deer and the entire ambience of the area accentuate this impression. Wildlife here can quite easily be observed from a safari car.
The best period for wildlife observation is the “dry” monsoon from June to October with March, April, May and November, December and January as the transition months where wildlife viewing on the savanna is still feasible. Only the month of February is unsuitable for wildlife viewing safaris.
The 4 WD safari cars are a guarantee against bogging down in the clayey soil of the savanna. The Bekol savanna is still very much alive with herds of savanna dwelling herbivores and Lamuran grass (Dicanthurn caricosum). This grass is the reason why the savanna is still able to support about 500 Timor deer and about 150 Banteng. Lamuran grass in the dry season has enough moisture, carbohydrates and fibers to sustain the big herbivores. Other palatable grasses just dry up.
The Acacia (Acacia nilotica) forest that has encroached upon the savanna and destroyed a part of it, can now be considered a separate ecosystem. Its leaves and pods form a supplement diet for the herbivores, especially during the dry monsoon.
There is an observation tower on top of the Bekol hill with a great panorama. Strong binoculars are however needed to observe wildlife from here. The tree canopy on the hill obstructs a clear vision of wildlife nearby the hill. It is more interesting and efficient to observe wildlife from below on the ground. The best way to get close to wildlife on the savanna is by a 4 WD safari car with a platform on top. It is definitely the best method to obtain photos and films. If you walk you chase away the animals from you and other visitors who try to observe them.
The savanna is also the hunting habitat of the Asiatic wild dog (Canis alpinus). It has a reddish coat and plumed tail. These wild dogs live in family groups of ten to forty animals. They hunt communally for Deer and Banteng. Their peculiar shrill hunting barks can sometimes be heard on the savanna. It is not easy to see them in numbers when you are on foot, but on top of a safari car it will sometimes be possible to see them chasing a Deer or Banteng. The savanna does not only attract mammals, but also a big number of birds.
A notable tree is the Gebang palm (Corypha utan) standing in clumps or alone in the area near the beach. These palms must reach the age of fifty plus before they grow a flower spike. The spikes are festooned with creamy colored flowers and grow up to 5 meters in height. It is probably the tallest flower spike in the world. The fruits are popular amongst Silver leaf monkeys and humans and the fruits that fall to the ground are eaten by wild boars and Barking deer. Thereby they assist in the dispersion and survival of this unique palm tree.
THE BAMA BEACH
Bama Beach at the end of the dirt road is tucked away between mangroves and coastal habitat. Although the beach itself is narrow, it is worthwhile to watch the colorful sunrise in front of it and to watch fishing boats sailing beyond the fringing reef. When the splendid sunrise arrives in mostly pink and yellow, the jungle around comes alive with birdsong. Crackling of branches in the trees above is a sign that Silver leaf monkeys (Trachypithecus auratus) are awake. They are very shy and will hurry towards the safety of the forest as soon as they become aware that humans are nearby.
The sounds of the Long tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) can be heard before they arrive at the beach. The macaques are the ones to watch out for as they come in numbers from every direction. They will grab anything that takes their fancy and is light enough to carry away. These Long tailed macaques can also be seen foraging the coastline for crabs, worms and mollusks, especially during receding tides in which hundreds of meters on the foreshore are laid bare.
Behind the Bama Beach is one of the few open waterholes along the forty kilometers long coastline where wildlife comes to drink at night. There is a small creek at Manting, two kilometers south of Bama. According to local belief, drinking the water of that creek will keep you young and healthy. Hornbills and other birds come here during the months when the ficus trees are in fruit. There are many tracks of Wild boars (Sus scrofa) in the coastal forest at Bama and Manting. Sometimes it is possible to see a group of wild boars trotting along on their way to or from the waterholes. The larger waterhole behind the Bama compound has a watchtower.
The semi dark coastal habitat is the place to see several species of birds, not so easily seen on the savanna. It is also the only place where one sometimes can get a glimpse of a mouse deer (Tragulus javanicus) hiding away in the vegetation. Water monitor lizards (Varanus salvator) often slither in the mud of the waterhole, walking on the beach or swim in the sea. During very dry periods the Timor deer sometimes venture some hundreds of meters out from the shoreline during dusk to find salt. In Baluran, the moist salty rocks that lay dry during low tide, replace the saltlicks in other landlocked wildlife reserves.
During weekends or holidays it is better to avoid Bama beach. The beach will then be swamped with the weekend crowds. They are rather noisy and produce a lot of garbage that is not always cleaned up by the rangers. A much nicer and quieter situation is found at the Kalitopo beach about thirty minutes walk from Bama to the north. Swimming is not recommended at Kalitopo, as there have been a couple of fatal accidents here in the past. On weekends, the northern end is the quietest part. From the Kalitopo beach is a jungle track to the Bekol camp. Just follow the track which is marked with white painted stones.
THE BILIK LAGOON AND BEACHES
Bilik (or Tanjung Lumut) is a nice and quiet beach area with a lagoon. The beach is located on the northern side of the Baluran Park. The lagoon is perfect for swimming, however sometimes there can be jellyfish present.
The deepest water is found in the middle of the lagoon. There are a couple of other beaches around the corner of the mangrove to the west. About 150 m offshore is a fringing coral reef where snorkeling is good, however the waters on the other side of the reef is deep. Family type of snorkeling in the light blue waters along the coastline is recommended in both the rainy and dry season. The natural beauty with the Baluran mountain as a background and with no other people around is unforgettable.
During the low tides it is possible to walk almost to the reef offshore. Watch out for the prickly sea urchins or use flippers. There is another very nice snorkeling reef west of Bilik and closer to the shore. At this reef the underwater scenery is stunning. It is a favorite spot for the international guests at Rosa’s Ecolodge. This reef is rather unknown and no people come here. Our guests like snorkeling with us because of the following reasons:
- The trip to the beach is only 5 minutes by car through open terrain with orchards.
- The sea voyage to the coral reefs by traditional fishing proa is around 10 minutes with an astounding sea-view and the Baluran mountain as a background.
- The coral reef is offshore where the water is very clear because it is outside the pollution-zone of the coastline. Even in the rainy season it is still possible to enjoy snorkeling and swimming.
- The corals are spectacular including the rare blue coral and many colourful fishes, among others the clown fish, but also the blue sea star. Unlike in some places in Bali, Baluran beaches offer a totally natural panorama with the Baluran mountain and savanna at the horizon.
- And last but not least, you can enjoy the setting sun on the return trip.
- People who have been there, say the Baluran corals are better than those in the Maldives and Venezuela.
- Like many of our guests have said “It is like swimming in an aquarium”.
- Other comments were: “This is paradise and in the world nowadays is very rare and should therefore be protected”. And that is exactly what we are doing now!
THE BALURAN CALDERA
Until year 2004 no tourists has ever entered the caldera of Mt Baluran. Only rangers, gatherers of nuts from Kemiri trees (Aleuritas mollucana), and bird poachers have done so. The main reason is that the place has never been mentioned in any travel guide. However, the 600 meters long caldera is very attractive.
There is a creek in the gorge, the Kacip creek that disappears into the ground near the entrance. When you have walked beyond this spot you will feel like you have entered a cathedral. On both sides the crater walls reach high up into the sky. The temperature is cool and conditions are semi dark. The gorge is interesting all the way in along the creek. There is no sound other than the birds, gurgling water around your feet and maybe from some Silver leaf monkeys high up in the trees. The forest in the crater bottom is particularly interesting because of its many tall and buttressed evergreen trees. If you camp in the caldera, you have a chance to hear panthers growl when they come to drink in the creek.
With some luck it is sometimes possible to see them. The restricted entrance to the crater seems to discourage the Banteng and Timor deer from entering. However, Asiatic wild dog, Wild boars and Barking deer are occasionally seen. Peafowl, Junglefowl and Silver-leaf monkeys are numerous and more easily seen in this habitat.
An approximately twenty centimeter long crayfish live in the creek. The creek lies 150 meter above sea level and the water comes straight from the innards of the mountain. Considering that the creek disappears into the ground to reappear in the mangroves near the coast, one can wonder how this crayfish came here.
Campers are not allowed to catch these crayfish. They are an important asset of the ecosystem and protected by law.
BIRDING IN BALURAN
Baluran’s varied ecosystems offer more than satisfying bird watching for both amateurs and serious enthusiasts. Ben King, the renowned ornithologist and writer of the book “Birds of South East Asia” has visited Baluran several times and has also stayed at Rosa’s Ecolodge.
The savanna alone has about 50 species of birds that make this particular ecosystem their habitat. The Savanna nightjar (Caprimulgus affinis) is easily seen during night safari and sometimes Barn owls (Tyto alba) also show up. Drongos (Dicrurus) , Swallows, Long-tailed shrikes (Lanius schach), Scarlet minarets (Pericrocotus), Small blue kingfisher (Alcedo coerulescens) and Spotted doves (Streptopelia chinensis) are also common on the savanna, Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) and Junglefowl are best seen during the dry season.
Other birds on the savanna include Crows, Starlings, Coucals (Centropus) and Tailor birds (Orthotomus). Even a Lesser adjutand (Centropus bengalensis), habitually a coastal bird, has been seen walking majestically amongst deer in the shrub.
The coastal area from Bama to Manting is a very good place to see Kingfishers, Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris), White-bellied woodpecker (dryocopus javensis) and other woodpeckers, Great-billed herons (Ardea sumatrana), Egrets, Banded Pitta (Pitta guajana), Grey-cheeked tit babbler (Macronous flavicollis), Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus), Leaf birds, Slender billed crow (Corvus enca), Sooty-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus aurigaster) and Yellow-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier), Crested serpent eagles, White-bellied fish-eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster), Spotted wood owl (Strix seloputo), Fruit pigeons, Pink breasted pigeon and others.
There is good birding at Curah Oling and its vicinity in the evergreen forest along the access road from the main gate. The Red Junglefowl and its green cousin are frequently seen here, also Green imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea), Emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica), Black-naped monarch (Hypothymis azurea) and Racket tailed treeple (Crypsirina temia).
As is the case with most activities in Baluran, the best period to do bird watching is the dry monsoon, May till October. This does not mean that there are no birds in the rainy season and the transition months. The dry conditions of the east monsoon are more comfortable. The soil is then hard and easier to walk on. There are also fewer mosquitoes around. Most importantly however, is that the trees have shed part of their leaves, which makes it easier to spot and identify birds.
Guests at Rosa’s Ecolodge, who went on a bird watching safari, have all expressed their satisfaction. Everyone could add several new bird species to their personal lists. An added bonus is that you can cover three ecosystems in one day. The use of off-road safari cars also gives the visitor the chance to see other wildlife, such as big mammals and primates.
DIVING AND SNORKELING IN BALURAN
Baluran is famous because of its savanna and herds of Banteng and Timor Deer. Very few people know that the sea surrounding Baluran contains several nice locations for diving and snorkeling, suitable for both families and more advanced divers.
Guests at Rosa’s Ecolodge often snorkel at a coral reef only a ten minutes boat ride away from the local boat landing. Tourists have been impressed by the stunning underwater views. There is also an old W.W. II wreck near the coastline at about ninety minutes boat ride, where shallow diving is possible and attractive.
The pride of Baluran’s coral reef ecosystem is however an offshore reef with a navigational light on top of it. The water around this reef is forty to fifty meters deep. At ten to twenty meters depth the underwater world starts to become beautiful. Big commercial fishes are frequent here. This reef can be reached by a 2,5 hour boat trip.
This Baluran combination of reefs is on a par with Menjangan Island (a well-known diving location in Bali) but with no other tourists around. Rosa’s Ecolodge is so far the only operator that has promoted diving and snorkeling safaris around Baluran National Park. The underwater world here is still mostly unknown to tourists.
Diving and snorkeling are both possible in the Rainy Season, as are all other beach and sea bound activities. In fact, the Rainy Season is the “Fishy” season of the year, when scores of colourful fishing boats are active almost all day and night.
SOME IMPORTANT COMMENDS
Baluran National Park is absolutely safe for international tourists. The population in the surrounding areas is very social and welcoming. Tourism in Baluran is still underdeveloped, considering its outstanding potentials.
Baluran has only attracted around 250 foreign tourists of the low budget type every year. There are several reasons for this. There has hardly been any good information available on the tourism market about East Java and in particular about Baluran. This is amazing considering that this part of Java has so much more to offer than its central and western parts.
There has also appeared some misleading and incorrect information about the Acacia tree in a few guidebooks. An African tree called Acacia Nilotica, once planted as fire barriers, is encroaching upon the savanna. However, the Park authorities are clearing the savanna from this unwanted tree, on Bekol savanna alone about 300 ha has been cleared. The African look is therefore still present. The vast savanna area in the northern part of Baluran is still authentic. In the years 2002 – 2004, many international tourist groups went on short Safaris in Baluran with Rosa’s Ecolodge. All of them expressed their satisfaction.
The low standard of accommodation inside the park and the service of the park authorities have not promoted tourism either. Some tour operators have not understood the need to use local expertise and just brought their guests in without giving them much chance to see what Baluran really has to offer.
The professional way of wildlife observation is from a blind or using a 4 WD vehicle, equipped for the purpose. In this way the negative impact on wildlife is minimal. Such a vehicle can be hired from a professional tour operator near the Park, i.e. Rosa’s Ecolodge. Local expertise knows the park intimately and its good spots for the time you stay in the Lodge.
Avoid walking around on foot in the savanna. Animals are more afraid of people than cars. By foot you actually disrupt the daily and natural behavior of the animals to a higher degree. You can in that way also make it more difficult for other visitors to see animals.
The best season is during the six months dry monsoon. This is from May to October. With March to April and November to December as transition periods. Only February is unsuitable for wildlife observation.
Most visitors visit the southern part of the Park, mainly because of the existence of the access road and the camp in Bekol. The northern parts are in many ways also interesting. At present only Rosa’s Ecolodge arranges packaged tours for small groups into this area. The northern parts offer unspoiled savanna, the mountain with its caldera, deserted beaches, and coral reefs.
BALURAN SIDE TIPS
The vicinity of Baluran National Park has several other interesting places to visit. These include an alternative route over mountains and through plantation forest to the Kayumas coffee plantation and further up to the Mt Ijen crater.
There is also the nearby Asembagus sugar factory with surrounding cane fields, the Pasewaran rubber plantation and the Wonorejo kapok (silk-cotton tree) plantation. The silky fibers around its fruit are used for mattresses and other products. In Banongan are the last parts of the famous East Java marshes, next to a traditional factory producing sugar from coconuts. For more information contact Rosa’s Ecolodge in Sumberwaru.