West Bali National Park
Need to know
The Indonesian name for West Bali National Park is Taman Nasional Bali Barat, and some guidebooks list it under this name. To get to the park from the main tourist areas in the south, take the road towards Tabanan, then head west towards Gilimanuk. Traffic can be very unpredictable in Bali, and the drive to Gilimanuk could take between three and five hours.
The park’s head office is in Gilimanuk and there’s a ranger station at Labuhan Lelang; you can hire a guide from either of these two points, and you have to have one to enter the park. As with many things in Bali, the fee can be negotiated but you can expect to pay around IDR650,000 a day for a guide, including entrance fee. An easier option is to ask your hotel to set it up.
Facilities in the park are minimal – a few shelters at ranger stations for shade, and very basic ablutions. It is geared more towards day visits than overnight stays and unless you’re well equipped for camping, it will be easier to stay in one of the hotels close to the park.
Night falls silently on the west coast of Bali. I know this because I slept there, on a beach – and in the early evening as I watched a volcano disappear into the darkening sky, there was barely a sound. Behind me an entire national park clambered back from the shore’s mangrove fringe and stretched towards distant mountains of rainforest – and yet as night fell, the world was almost silent.
This could be because calls from the forest were muted by tiny waves that rustled against sea shells and broken pieces of coral, or because my ears were tuned into the gentle crackling of our driftwood fire instead of the sounds from the night. But I doubt it. It was simply an evening of peace, and of beautiful calm.
The day wasn’t always that still, of course. Birds hadn’t seemed at all fazed by the intense humidity and heat of the afternoon, and as we lay in some shade at a ranger’s station the calls of turtle doves, cuckoos, barbets, oriole, woodpeckers and drongos filtered between trees. The constant swirl of birdsong was occasionally punctuated by rustling leaves as shy Balinese black monkeys – the only place in the world that you’ll see them in the wild – moved through the branches of white bark acacia, sandalwood and crocodilewood trees.
We’d arrived at West Bali National Park earlier in the day, and took a boat from the busy jetty at Labuhan Lalang to a ranger station on the Prapat Agung Peninsula, where we would camp a night. Labuhan Lalang is a popular departure point for tour operators that take visitors out to the coral reefs around Menjangan Island, considered the best place in Bali to go diving and snorkelling. But we didn’t go to the park looking for colourful fish and spectacular corals. What we wanted was to see the critically endangered Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi) which, due to its very small distribution, tiny population and poaching for the cage-bird trade, is one of the rarest birds in the world. According to BirdLife International, there were only 15 birds in the wild back in 1990; the number rose over a few years, then in 2001 dropped to just six.
There is a very closely guarded Bali starling breeding centre near the port town of Gilimanuk and a rehabilitation centre at the ranger station we camped at on Prapat Agung. Here, there is a large dome in which the starlings are able to get used to their natural habitat, and outside of that, for the released birds, are feeding tables that have been nailed into trees, and smooth metal sheets wrapped around the trunks of those that hold breeding boxes. While poachers are a big threat (birds can be sold for up to US$8000 each on the black market), the starlings’ natural predators are pythons, monitor lizards and civets, and the metal is a measure to keep them away from nests.
We were at the ranger station no more than 10 minutes when we heard a sharp chattering call pierce through the trees – and then suddenly it was there, perched on a run-down feeding table. The Bali starling is a striking white bird with a long, drooping crest; both males and females have black-tipped wings and tails, a blue streak of what looks like punk eye shadow and a yellow bill. It was quite a surreal moment, seeing for the first time such a rare bird that, as it was joined by another and then another, was oblivious to the fuss and security that surrounds it. West Bali National Park is the only place in the world where these starlings exist in the wild, and officials at the breeding station estimate that there are now 80 birds flying free in the park. [NOTE: on subsequent visits we've been given different figures, varying from xx to xx.]
Very few visitors – and even Balinese – know that the park exists; there are almost no visitor facilities, there is no boundary fence and there are few signs to signal your approach. But as you take the coastal road from the south of the island past the town of Negara, the landscape slowly ceases to be shaped by human hands, and the carefully cultivated rice paddies – often ploughed by buffalo – soon give way to densely jungled mountains.
Bali is an island formed by volcanic activity: it rests over a subduction zone where the Indo-Australian and Sunda plates collide, and here on the Ring of Fire volcanic peaks dominate the island’s landscape. While gentle earthquakes are common, it is the gods, rather than geological forces, that the Balinese people are concerned with. Made (pronounced Mah-day) Wirawan, the owner of Bali Jeep Adventure, explained the concepts to me when, the day before we camped on the beach, he’d taken us into the park for a few hours and had stopped at various shrines to make offerings to the spirits. Ninety percent of Balinese are Hindu, and customs and rituals to honour and appease the gods and ancestral spirits dictate the flow of life on the island.
“We make the offering to keep safe and ask permission to be in the area,” said Made as our Land Rover pulled up beside a concrete penunggu, or shrine. “I also ask the spirits to show us the animals because they can try to hide them.”
A few seconds after Made placed the palm-leaf offering basket, a fat macaque had appeared and taken his pick from the offering: a sweet wrapped in plastic. With no effort, the monkey opened it, dropped the wrapper, popped the sweet in his mouth then dipped his hand into the basket again, and took off clutching a handful of rice. The food placed for the spirits was gone.
West Bali National Park boasts an incredible density of animals and offers spectacular sightings, but it’s easy to see how the park’s population of sambar, barking deer and mouse deer, as well as wild pigs, monkeys, civets and pythons, could be hidden: during the rainy season (November to March), the vegetation is exceptionally thick and lush. Along the coast, there are mangroves, swamps, coastal savannah and montane forests, while the slopes of the mountains, which reach to 1500m, are dense with tropical rainforest.
The evening that we camped on the beach we faced north, onto Java, and looked out across the sea onto the volcano of Ijen. After the sun had set, the sea settled into a glassy stillness and slipped peacefully, along with the sky, into deeper and deeper shades of grey. During the night, the tide had slid out through the skinny adolescent root systems of solitary mangroves and we woke to a beach of exposed coral that cradled shallow bodies of still water.
Morning, however, doesn’t break gently on these shores: it erupts. And as the sun rises there is an explosion of bird calls and sunlight, reflections, silhouettes, and a racket of fishing boat engines. Within moments the peace of the night is gone, and the intensity of heat, colour and life on this beautiful island conquer the stillness. This is how day begins on the west coast of Bali. I know this because I watched it happen, the morning I woke up on the beach.