Saturday, February 14, 2015

We Ride There: Our Baluran Trip

“Keep straight ahead, Sir. We’re in the middle of the forest, out of nowhere, it’s impossible to miss the signage for the entrance gate.”


It's been a while since I post something on this blog. Let's first catch up with what we've post before this: our trip to Baluran, May 2014.
The sun almost left the sky and leave the trace of bright red everywhere when our rental bus crawled at the snail’s pace along the sole road that went smack dab in the middle of the dense forest of Baluran, East Java. We went past the famed, Hollywood-esque signage that says “Baluran” almost a half hour ago, but all we found afterwards was nothing but thick canopy of trees that lined the sides of the Surabaya-Banyuwangi transroad. Even worse, our driver confessed that even though this is not his first time—or his hundredth—going this route, he never even once noticed the main entry to The Baluran National Park. According to the GPS, the gate on the left side of the road should be within eyesight. Among the seven guy inside the bus, only two or three of us ever to see the gate—worse even, only as a picture online. The sky is not getting any brighter, and getting lost is not an option...
But then we saw a police station at the right side of the road. At last, civilization! It doesn’t take long for us to eventually spot the white fences and the main gate of The Baluran National Park complex. Although it’s almost dark when we arrived, we’re still able to catch up and register ourselves to the forest rangers on the main park station.
At the northeast coast of Java Island, The Baluran National Park is a conservation area with a very unique nature condition. Relatively dry climated, approximately 40% of Baluran Park’s 25.000 hectare area is a vast savannah. Included in the rest is an interesting ecosystem combination of tropical forest, beach forest, mangrove and white-sanded beach—all at once. The savannah is the main attraction of the park, some people even compare it with the African savannahs during its dry seasons.
It was early 2014 when suddenly Andira Pramanta got an idea to have this so-called-expedition to Baluran. Irfan “Ippe” Wahyudi of Cyclonesia fame tagged along immediately, and I follow suit. All the way from Singapore, we have Rasyid “Acit” Salbini of PEONFX and Sabri Sukri joined us. All five of us intended to explore the road—or the lack thereof—from the National Park main gate to the Bama Beach that’s located at the far end of the National Park. Along this 16 kilometers trip, we’ll be going through the Bekol savannah, located about 12 kilometers from the main gate. Based on some Internet research, we decided to bring our cyclocross bikes, all equipped with racks and panniers to carry our supplies. This decision was based on the information that the road that we’ll be riding through mostly gravel roads, and the fact that most modern mountain bikes are lacking on rack mounts. The feature that our bikes—one prototype PIAS Scarab, three production version Scarabs (all built by yours truly), and one Transition Rapture CX, are plentiful of.

From left to right: Sabri, Acit, Andira, me, and Ippe.

It’s when we report ourselves to the main park station that we found out because of its status as conservation forest and a natural habitat of many wild animals, we are not allowed to camp inside the National Park. There is this camping ground just outside the park, but according to the forest rangers, it’s in really terrible state. We were suggested to find empty homestays nearby—plentiful around the park, thankfully. Considering we were too tired after spending hours cramped inside the bus filled with bikes all the way from Surabaya—240 kilometers to be exact—we decided to rent a house for the first night, and spend the rest of the nights on the cottage located at the Bekol Station. Besides, we have to prepare our bikes for tomorrow.

In Situbondo, becaks--or pedicabs--rides long and low.
The sky was still pitch black when our skinny knobby tires went through the streets of Wonorejo, a small village just east of the National Park. We obtained an information from Hendri Reskiyono, the chief of Baluran National Park forest ranger, that we can went through Wonorejo to the Pandean Beach. From said beach we can stroll along the shore to the Bama Beach, from which we can continue our journey to the Bekol Savannah. Basically, reversing our planned route. We managed to catch the sunrise, accompanied by many local fishermen ships docked along the shores. Apparently, this could be the first glimpse of sun rays ever to be seen from the Island of Java.



Next, we point our wheels towards the black-sanded beach to reach for the Bama Beach. A couple times we must dismount to cross some small downstreams, that we took advantage of to take some pictures. Instagram moments, hahaha. But after a couple times of dismounting and carrying bickes armed to the teeth with supplies—and for Andira and I, bag of tents—we’re started to get exhausted quickly. Our skinny tires (35mm the most) doesn’t help much either. There’s no use of GPS over here, because the no one ever attempted to map the trails. It doesn’t take long for us to quickly take left turn to the left, leaving the beach behind and went into the mangrove forest.


Funny thing is, this place was the furthest from everywhere, yet Sabri's got good cellular signal.


The trail was surrounded by thick vegetation but it was clear and wide, and most importantly, bicycles can easily get there. We gained much confidence when we found motorcycle tire tracks on the wet trails, the result of the heavy rain the night before. If motorcycles can went through this trail, then so will bicycles, I thought to myself. And even though we have a couple singletrack virgins among our group, everyone survived this first stretch of trail. With tires not much wider than an inch and a half—and in Ippe and Andira’s case, slick tires—and loaded racks weighed up to thirty kilograms, we crawled steadily, meter by meter.

And they said that Schwalbe Marathons are only good for urban use...

It was only around a kilometer from the trail entrance that was shown on my GPS-equipped smartphone, when the wet soiled trail turned into small puddles. As the guy leading up front, I was still confident enough because even though the motorcycle tire tracks are missing, I found something even more astonishing: tire tracks from city bikes! I can only imagine that local people are using this trail to go to the rice fields found along the shores of Pandean Beach. We can still enjoy this leg of the trail, and I am sure someone will dust off his hardtail MTB and hit the local trails as soon as we reached home.


The smile on my face was shortlived when I found out that the wet soil turns grey, and we were surrounded by mangrove trees. The forest is no more, we’re entering the marsh lands. The tire tracks are nowhere to be found. Then we hit the point where we’re running out of soil surface to ride on—the trail turned into swamp after last night’s torrential downpour. Without any GPS aid, we decided to take a detour to the Pandean Beach—a right decision, considering we were greeted with no more than five meters of coastline when we reach the trailhead: the tide was rising!  After riding no more than five kilometers of round trip from and to the fishermen’s docking shore, we decided to head back to the National Park’s main gate. Wet, muddy, tired, but still full of camaraderie, we stopped to get some breakfast. That morning’s rawon dishes were probably the most delicious we’ve ever had—either because it is, or because we’re so darn tired and hungry.

Bummer.
Ride back to civilization.
Mmm. Rawon.

We took our time to dry our shoes and socks, then we decided to have a look at the deserted camping ground. It was open, without any fences or anything around it. It was a terrible mess—there were public showers, but they were missing their roofs, doors, and sanitaries. We found an irigation dam called Bajulmati just a couple kilometers near the camping ground. We decided to stop there, taking a break and brew ourselves some coffee.


Dam, son.
 


Not Illuminati shit.

The sun is getting high over our heads when we point our wheels back to the National Park. Entering through the main station, we soon meet a combination of broken asphalt surface and small rocks along the tropical forest area. It’s a slight descent, making the pace seems fast, but the road vibration forced us to concentrate more. Interestingly, it seems like this tropical forest didn’t allow us to wipe the smile off our faces. Our five senses were treated with many natural spectacles, from the sound of wild turtledoves, the sights of Javanese lutungs hanging and swinging off the trees, and a sudden appearance of wild deers jumping off and disappeared among the bushes.




We’re getting close to the 12 kilometers mark when the vegetations surrounding us were getting less and less dense. Until finally the trees disappears, replaced with vast fields of grass as far as eyes can see. We’ve reached the Bekol Savannah.


Where did your mustache bars take you today?
The bull skull display in front of the Bekol Station.

In Asia, people sometimes misused the word “safari” to call anything wildlife related. In case of Baluran, it’s politically correct. The Bekol Savannah is completely flat, vast, dry, and you’ll find no boundary between the main road and the fields of grass—exactly what you’ll expect from a safari trip in Africa. Paled and exhausted from the bumpy roads, we were greeted with the sight of packs of deers eating grass in the middle of the savannah, accompanied with a couple of Javanese bulls standing a little bit further.



We continued our journey to the Bama Beach, treading along the gravel road crossing the savannah. And then the gravel road went rocky. Not just littered with small rocks, but baby head sized rocks. The sun was scorching hot, the climate was incredibly dry even after the rain last night, and we were terribly exhausted from hitting the rocky trails with our rigid cyclocross bikes. Nobody dared to utter even the cheesiest jokes at this stage. We were very close to our intended destination—just four kilometers to the Bama Beach—but we were way too tired. Eventually we reached the beach, but we didn’t spend much time there and decided to roll back to Bekol Station.

Go to the beach, they said. It will be fun, they said.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon when I felt like wanting to give it up. I should’ve brought my mountain bike, that’s what I kept telling myself all the way back. But by reversing the course, the road was getting better and better further from the beach, and then I realized the things I missed during the ride to the beach a couple hours prior. The view’s getting better as the sun rolled westward. And then we found this tree, standing alone by the side of the road in the middle of the grassy fields, inviting us to stop by and take a much needed break. Then we realized, we were supposed to enjoy the journey, not the destination. This is not the kind of vibe that we, as urban dwellers, could experience on a daily basis. So once again, we stopped for a cup of coffee.


Oh, by the way there’s nothing fancy about our coffee. Just convenience store instant coffee, brewed with mineral water boiled with alcohol-fueled compact stove. But with this kind of natural vibe surrounding us, with warm camaraderie hanging in the air, it really is incomparable to any fancy exotic cup of coffee you’ll found on fancy coffee shops everywhere. Sometimes our chat was interrupted by the sight of bulls eating grass in the distance, or a flock of peacocks landing on the trees or taking off the grass. The sound of wild birds, accompanied with shouts from lutungs and monkeys, made us thinking—nothing gets better than this.




And I never thought that I could be so wrong. We spend the next morning chasing the sunrise over the savannahs, warm mugs of coffee in our hands. The sounds of nocturnal animals, the sight of far horizon, such an experience of a lifetime. This place is not so far from civilizations—we can still faintly hear adzan from nearby mosques—but the natural vibe is so strong, embracing our five senses.



Day two, and we saw more visitors because of the national holiday. After safely storing our bags in the cottage at Bekol station we decided to ride to the main gate, searching for lunch. We can now ride lighter and faster than before, but then we realized that it’s the heavy load that stabilized our bikes along the bumpy gravel roads. Not to mention now we have to climb our way to the main gate. We spent an hour going through the gravel road, sacrificing two tubes and one spoke on Ippe’s rear wheel.

But of course, if you have five adult cyclists who basically refused to grow up, you'll expect shenanigans. Plenty of them.

Our version of Nimbus 2000.
2008 called. They want the elephant trunk skid back.


We found out about the watchtower behind our cottage at Bekol Station, so we decided to climb there at the next dawn, the last day of our visit. As the sun rises, we were amazed by the breathtaking view of the clear sky, giving us a clear distant view of the Bali Island. The sight of Mount Baluran on our west is also unforgettable.



Mount Baluran is shown on the right.

We left Baluran at noon, chasing the flight back to Singapore and Jakarta, respectively. Even during our flight back, we already conceived another plan to return to Baluran someday. This time we might start from Banyuwangi, which is only 40 kilometers away from the National Park. And maybe we’ll brought our mountain bikes, to make the ride easier to our wrists—while sacrificing load-carrying ability, something that can be easily offset by putting our bags in the cottages. We still have one grudge to be finished—the disappeared singletrack from the Pandean Beach to Bama Beach.
And sure, no matter how packed our backpack will be, we will not leave the alcohol stove, stainless mugs, and sachets of instant coffee behind.

Ride. Coffee. Repeat.

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