Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Cibodas, entry to West Java's last great forest

By David Jardine

CIBODAS, West Java (JP): Early European sailors in this region called them the Blue Mountains, those peaks that can sometimes be seen on a clear day in the distance from Central Jakarta. Rearing up to around 3,000 meters, they form a spectacular and enticing backdrop to this somewhat nerve-wracking capital.

Siamesed, in the first light of dawn the twin peaks of Gede and Pangrango are the perfect enticement to escape the collar- rubbing, clamshell atmosphere of Jakarta. They soar above the Bandung road and command sweeping views over the old Dutch town of Buitenzorg, now known more simply as Bogor, on the west side, and Sukabumi to the south.

Heading up to the Puncak pass from Bogor, Indonesia's rainiest town, the traveler receives further inducement to find the turning off the main road and head into the forested country that ranges above the tea estates: the stark-staring, eyeball-popping madness of the drivers about these parts.

An unlovely sprawl of hotels, restaurants, kedai (food stalls) and housing clings like a tatty filigree to the Bandung road, but do not despair.

Keep your eyes well peeled for the huge sign that says "Cibodas Villa and Golf Course". It is here that you should turn off the main road and head up toward Cibodas. This side road is pretty with numerous colorful nurseries lining it. You would hardly imagine however that just a couple of kilometers farther on a forest begins, in the depths of which may move the last few of the very seldom seen but occasionally heard Asian hunting dog.

The Taman Gede-Pangrango National Park contains the last great stand of sub-montane and montane forest on Java, a thick green jacket that sheers up from the left-hand side of the Cibodas golf course. This is one of the oldest tropical forest reserves on Earth and part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program. Here is an oasis to lure the birder, the botanist, the butterfly- conscious, the lover of the outdoors.

In the village of Rarahan, about half a kilometer from the entrance to Cibodas Botanical Gardens, sister park to the more famous Bogor Gardens, there is an unpretentious homestay, "Freddy's B and B". "Freddy's" has long been associated with Birdlife International and it is here if you are a bird-watcher that you can, if you wish, hire the guiding services of Adam, a local young man with a very impressive knowledge of ornithology.

On our last visit to Cibodas the birders log book at the homestay had a very welcome entry in it: "Dec. 29, Adam guided us to a nesting site of the Java Hawk Eagle". This strikingly handsome emblematic bird is a powerful draw in these parts for the serious nature-lover, and Adam and several other young Indonesians are keen that it shall survive.

The eagle inhabits the alluring forest above the gardens. It shares this habitat with the tantalizing hunting dog and leopard, as well as the more frequently encountered stink badger. These, and wild boar, are among the mammals that inhabit the forest floor. Of course you have to be extremely lucky to sight any of them, but you may be luckier with the animals of the forest canopy.

Gede-Pangrango National Park is home to a sublime little mover, the endangered Javanese gibbon, a silver-gray simian with a striking black face. Known to the Sundanese as Owa after the haunting, penetrating call that it makes, this fellow, sorely plagued in the past by the dismal household pet trade, is holding on in small numbers. Best seen in the lower reaches of the park, it shares the canopy with the Javanese leaf monkey and the ebony leaf monkey.

Once inside the park, which is entered through a gate beside the golf course -- surely one of the few in the world set on the side of twin mountain peaks -- the visitor, properly armed with one of the excellent English-language guidebooks (Rp 10,000 at the office), can head up the well marked trail in keen anticipation of much to see.

First of course there are the trees. A very real reminder of Taman Gede's importance as a biological treasure house, they include the imposing rasamala, a splendid species that grows Grenadier Guardsman-straight to the very top of the canopy.

All about you are things to look for. You may, as we did, come across a basking green canotes lizard or a chunky brown skink -- why one local boy thought it amusing to use a skink as a football outside the Garden's gate is beyond me -- enjoying a little of the sunlight on the path. There are orchids galore, as many as 200 species, and a whole spectrum of ferns to keep you interested.

For the bird-watcher the fun may start as soon as you enter the park. It did for us as a lustrous indigo flycatcher presented itself just above head height, moving in search of its insect prey. Many of the smaller species move in mixed flocks and we were fortunate to encounter a large flock that included scarlet ninivets among others. Quickness of the eye is necessary in these circumstances but if you remain quiet you can clearly identify seven or eight species in a matter of moments.

Are you aiming at the top and those sumptuous summits? If so, gear up. This is no fell-side hike. The complete ascent to the caldera of Mount Gede can take up to seven hours and can be frankly grueling. You may be content with simply reaching the unusual waterfalls, where three streams cascade over a cliff face, at Cibeureum, an hour's hike from the office, or with heading on for another hour or so to the hot springs.

At the waterfalls, birders will prime themselves for a real treat, the song of one little fellow, the white-browed shortwing. This sends some into raptures as Paul Jepson in the superb Periplus guide Birding Indonesia amply describes: "The gloriously lusty song commences slowly with high and low notes, and gets faster and faster."

This forest was once home to the Javanese rhinoceros but the horny-headed son of the soil is no longer to be found here. Long gone, the rhino might be joined by others but Gede-Pangrango is still a haven for the leopard -- numbers are estimated between 20 and 40 -- and the lovable short-clawed otter, resident on the fast-flowing streams but also seriously depleted in numbers.

There is much to delight in here, even as you worry over the possible extinction of the birds, mammals and trees to be found. To add to the pleasure of a trip to Cibodas, Freddy provides cheap accommodation in a friendly, unintrusive way, and a little way down the road there is a very pleasant Balinese restaurant, the "Valley View", where you can enjoy an untroubled evening meal.

Cibodas really is a diversion well worth it, and perhaps will remain that way for a long time to come.