Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Go Wild in the Country

Last weekend, it was time for your intrepid hero to make another foray into Indonesia's bucolic boondocks with my obsessive-compulsive mountain climbing chum, Mr. Dan, and a few other curious takers fooled into parting with their hard earned cash by the slick graphics of Mr. Dan's Gunung Bagging website.

Mr. Dan, in the flesh, has been known to exude the authority of a seasoned and knowledgeable hiker. On one occasion however, whilst leading a small group of keen and crisply booted, fresh-faced walkers on an early start through the Highlands of Bandung, Mr. Dan had felt a little worse for wear after a taxing night scaling Gunung Bintang and had ended up projectile chundering onto the road in front of his hiking disciples just before the off. This may have taken some of the lustre off the good Mr. Dan’s professional standing in the fiercely competitive world of amateur hiking, however it will take more than a mound of early-morning ale spew to put me off, and I soon found myself taking in the fresh air and outboard motor petrol fumes with Mr. Dan and the gang as our speedboat skimmed its way from Carita Beach on Java's west coast to the island of Panaintan, which sits next to the Ujung Kulon national park on Java southwestern tip.

I do like to indulge in the occasional return to nature in order to remind myself of my own mortality. Such near terminally exhausting trips are always memorable and interesting, although 'fun' perhaps wouldn't be the right adjective to use. Alas though, I can't accompany that irrepressible bounder of adventure Mr. Dan quite as often as I’d like to, as sitting on my fat arse watching DVDs and eating chocolate makes a lot of pressing demands on my time you understand.

Panaitan is the largest island in the Sunda Strait and is uninhabited by humans, save for a skeleton staff of caretakers. There's plenty of native fauna to be seen here however, including populations of deer, monkeys, pythons, monitor lizards, eagles, crabs, colourful fish, buffalo and even, apparently, crocodiles. I was slightly uneasy about the latter species to tell the truth. Animals are fascinating of course but I'm not an, "animal lover" as such, and rather regard those who lay claim to this title as perhaps compensating for a lack of more human bonhomie in their lives.

The prospect of being chewed up by a bloody great crocodile should always inform one’s views of the natural world, lest one end up as dead as Australian naturalist and mental case Steve Irwin. Before last weekend's trip, I had, moreover, just watched a Werner Herzog documentary called, "Grizzly Man" in which another chuckle-brained individual, one Timothy Treadwell, attempts to befriend and live with a population of bears in the wilderness of Alaska, with predictable dietary consequences for the local ursine population.

Personally, I doubted that a light spraying in Autan mosquito repellent would do much to deter a hungry croc from chowing down on my lily white legs, and I thus walked ashore at Panaitan with some trepidation. Thankfully though, while monkeys and deer could be spotted surrounding our campsite, crocodile-wise, things seemed peaceful and nature remained unbloodied in tooth and claw.

After cooking up a spot of lunch it was time for the main event. We reboarded our boat and headed up the coast for 15 minutes for an assault on Gunung Raksa, Panaitan's main peak. Only 329m tall it may be, but our ascent of Raksa proved to be pretty much the most masochistic thing I've ever attempted. Next to this, the hike up the 4,000 m high Gunung Kinabalu in Malaysia that half killed me last year was a walk in the park.

Dense jungle, steep, wet, muddy slopes and ludicrously inappropriate footwear conspired to have me looking as if I'd just crawled out of a particularly noxious swamp within a matter of minutes. Moreover, spring-loaded brambles liberally peppered with thorns gleefully grabbed at my hands and arms as I tried unsuccessfully for the 20th time not to fall over like a silent comedian on a banana skin.

We eventually reached the summit, atop which sits the oldest statue in Java. Unfortunately however, it’s a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha, which means that, in light of recent developments in Sumatra, "offended" Muslims will no doubt soon be campaigning for its removal, despite the fact that it stands in one of the most isolated spots in the whole country. Looking at the statue, I had a vision of fundamentalist types cursing as their virgin white robes turned to muddy brown and their beards got caught on brambles, while they attempted to scale Raksa in order to blow up the statue, and this immediately cheered me up.

After a brief rain shower, which only served to make the muddy slopes even more slippery, it was time for the harrowing descent. I soon found myself bringing up the rear of our party of eight as I tried to negotiate the terrain carefully without breaking my neck. Alas though, this proved less than salutary place to be, as the seven infidels in front of me had worn the "path" down to the consistency of the slippery mud chute.

After about 10 minutes of near fatal skids and tumbles, I gave up walking and opted to simply slide down the slopes on my behind, as if it were some kind of tropical luge run. This proved to be a just about workable technique, although I accelerated frighteningly out of control on a couple of occasions before slamming to a halt against tree trunks. Moreover, on the final 200m walk along the flat to our waiting boat, I tripped over a root and fell flat on my face. You really should leave Jakarta more often at the weekend folks, you don't know what you're missing.