Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Other Side of Bali

Executive summary by darmansjah

Far from the madding crowds of Kuta, a back-to-nature retreat offer a wildly different perspective on paradise, by Nathan Myers

MENJANGAN – It’s a sound I barely recognize. My horse has stopped clomping, the wind waits between gusts; even the ocean seems to take a pause from lapping the shore. And there is: silence, I’d forgotten we had that on Bali.

 walking the planks The Menjangan's jetty extend into a mangrove-finged bay

Here on the island’s northwestern tip, a world away from the traffic and turmoil of Kuta, I’m seeing Bali in a completely new light. And I have the Menjangan, a 382 hectare playground of mostly undisturbed wilderness, to thank for it. My guide, Gede, and I have been on horseback for almost an hour now without seeing any signs of human habitation – no trash, no temples, no pirated DVD hawkers, nothing. There are, however, plenty of animals. We spot rusa and muntjac deer, a wild boar, macaques, and countless bird species. For someone who’s lived amid the hurly-burly of southern Bali for three years, I find all this nature a bit baffling at first. Yet it’s also completely, you know, natural.

 The mood at The Menjangan is casual, right down to the staff’s choice of hair accessories

Our homes reach the shoreline. This isn’t your typical postcard stretch of soft golden san; instead, it’s a crunching coral strand fringed by a reef shelf and stands of mangrove trees.  The tide is low, so we clip-clop out over the exposed reef and glance back at the land. It’s not even one that I’m familiar with. Mangrove recedes into forest, forest into wooded mountains. In every direction, the scene is  raw, untamed. Gede and I trade smiles. For now, this is our little secret.

 the shoreline at low tide

IF THIS PART OF BALI feels like another world, that’s because, in some respects, it is. Bali’s not a huge island, but it’s not tiny, either, and getting to The Menjangan from the airport in Tuban requires a four-hour haul. But if you’re not already familiar with the island beyond its southern tourist belt, it’s a journey to look forward to. Beyond the urban sprawl of Denpasar, the road heads into the hills, passing rural villages and rice terraces of ever increasing steepness. At Bedugul, a mountain town on the shores of a mist-wreathed crater lake, the route passes over Bali’s volcanic spine before descending in twist and turns to the relatively undeveloped north coast. You pass the turnoff to Singaraja (the island’s former Dutch colonial capital) and the black sand beaches of Lovina, after which a long, narrow stretch of coastal road deposits you in a slice of wilderness that you won’t recognize from tourist brochures.

 the peaks roofs of the beach villas reference the design of traditional javanese joglo houses

The Bali Barat National Park occupies a good chunk of the island’s western tip, across a narrow strait from eastern Java. Rather than a tropical jungle as you might find elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Bali’s soul nature reserve is a collection of sparser habitats, ranging from deciduous forest to coastal savanna. But it’s as wild as the island gets.

 bajul bay

The Menjangan occupies a concession within the park on something of a technicality. Established a decade ago as a low-key “jungle resort,” it has maintained a fairly sleepy existence until Lifestyle Retreats-a boutique-hotel management company that also operates the Bale in Nusa Dua-was enlisted to run the place last year.

on one several riding trails through the forest
For all the upgrades that have ensued, The Menjangan remains true to its environment. The entrance to its long driveway is little more than a gap in the trees. There are no manicured gardens, no ribbons of pavement. Even the reception area seems to sprout organically from the ground. Called the Bali Tower, it’s a five-story structure formed from enormous logs that just above the tree line. I’m told it took several month to transport the massive timber columns here from Kalimantan years ago, but it takes me less than a minute to reach the top. I climb a spiral staircase past romantic dinner nooks and idyllic yoga stations to reach the uppermost viewpoint, and from there I can survey it all: the vast forest canopy, the mountains, the sea. I feel lie I’m seeing Bali for the first time. Then a small white bird flutters onto the railing and scolds me with a chirp. Not wishing to intrude, I head back down stairs.

 inside one of the seven beach villas, which come with outdoor bahtooms and picture windows overlooking the sand.

“WHY IS THIS TAKING so long?” The voice of a tetchy guest rasps like sandpaper. “Are we almost there yet?”

We’re seated atop one of The Menjangan’s double-decker ‘safari cars’ which shuttle guests around the resort. From the reception area to the beach, it’s a 15-minute grind along a bumpy track. Building restrictions in the park do not allow for paved roads-but that’s all part of the adventure. And if you can forget the hurry that you’re not actually in, it’s an ideal opportunity to see a lot of the area’s wildlife, some close enough to touch.

The Menjanggan admittedly suffers from a bit complainer-ism: guests expecting a postcard vision of Bali often end up surprised to find a lack of fire dancers, gift shops, and putting greens. That’s their loss. From horseback riding (the resort maintains its own stables) and mountain biking to hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling off the jetty, there’s plenty to keep nature-minded visitors content here for days. Even the massage gazebos feel carved from the very surroundings, nested in the mangroves overlooking an empty bay. As my masseuse’s hands knead the last of the tension from my muscles, I drift off to the lapping tide. Yet, there’s still one step further into stillness for me to go.

The waters of Bali Barat National Park contain some of the island’s most popular dive sites, but I can sleep in until eight and still beat the crowds. The tiny island of Menjangan (the name refers to  a type of Balinese deer) is a mere 20-minute boat ride away and hosts some thrilling wall dives, as well as good snorkeling. We explore a near-vertical drop-off, drifting with the current, and end up at a coral garden populated by eels and seahorses. The coral fans are a meter wide and tinged orange, purple, and red-sure signs of a vital reef system. And it’s so peaceful down here, not even a passing white-tip shark gets my pulse racing. It’s otherworldly-and yet, I’m back at my villa in time for a room-service lunch.

The Menjangan’s older accommodations, thatch-roofed and wooden-floored, are set around a swimming pool in a complex called the Monsoon Lodge, which has been refurbished under the new management. But the best rooms in the house are less than a year old, a string of seven standalone villas perched on stilts above the beach. Connected by a raised boardwalk of recycled timber, they make a sexy addition to the property, with a pared-down design centered on the massive platform beds under peaked joglo0style roofs. Creamy terrazzo floors are cool under foot, and the outdoor bathrooms are pleasantly as natural. Amenities are such that you’d almost forget where you are, until notice that you have a walkie talkie instead of a telephone, and that the wide screen TV is off the grid as well, though it does come with a DVD player. Not that I need it: sunk into a beanbag on my front porch, gin and tonic in hand, I have all the entertainment I need watching a matinee sunset over the volcanoes of neighboring Java.

The Menjangan’s nearby Pantai restaurant, also new, hovers over the water on a wooden deck. Framed by mangroves, it serves a broad, hearty barbecue-style menu: steaks, sausages, seafood, and bacon-wrapped veal. Gathered around a rustic table for dinner is a group of birders, who are chatting excitedly about the day’s sightings. With more than 160 avian species around, including the critically endangered Bali starling, this place is a bird watchers’ nirvana. After dessert, they wrap napkins around their heads-toothache-style, to block out any peripheral lights-to better watch the stars come out. This look might not fly in southern Bali, but out here, it’s perfectly acceptable.

Just as I’m thinking this, the hotel’s Spanish Manager, Eloy Estevez, stops by my table. “How about tomorrow?” he asks. “Got time for some snorkeling? Or maybe kayaking through the mangroves?”

The peaks of Java are just a vague silhouette now, all but hidden on the black horizon.

“I know exactly what I’m doing tomorrow,” I say. Absolutely nothing.”

Estevez smiles, raising his palms to the sky as  if I’ve solved some sort of riddle. I wrap a napkin around my head and gaze up at the stars.

THE MENJANGAN, Jl. Raya Gilimanuk, Bali Barat National Park, 62-362/94700,; beach villas from US$350

No comments:

Post a Comment