Alas Purwo Making it Rough to Save It By Bill Dalton

Alas Purwo: Making it Rough to Save It By Bill Dalton

One day’s hard drive from Bali, at the end of a long dark corridor through a mahogany forest, lies a mammoth and richly endowed national park essentially unbeknownst to tourists. Alas Purwo, on Blambangan Peninsula at the southeastern tip of East Java province, is renown for its lowland tropical rainforests, huge banteng cattle, scenic proximity to the ocean, pilgrimage spiritual sites and world-class surfing.

Although this national treasure boasts one of the best lefthanders in the world at G-land, I discovered that the vast reaches of the park in the island’s easternmost regency are emphatically not just for surfers. Along with Banyuwangi’s Ijen Plateau, this unique reserve is an estimable tourist destination in its own right. The seacoast at Plengkung (G-land) on Grajagan Bay is in fact surrounded by a 55,000 ha national park, the third largest on Java.?

Alas Purwo means “first forest” after a Javanese legend that tells of the earth first emerging from the ocean here. Before the 14th century, the majority of the population in this region came from the Osing tribe, followers of Hinduism. After the fall of the Blambangan kingdom, many of them converted to Islam, while others maintained Hindu beliefs. The Dutch declared 26,000-ha of the park a wildlife reserve in 1926.

Driving off the ferry onto Javanese soil is like entering another country – the sudden appearance of jilbab, the absence of dogs, the strange smells and a palpable sense of adventure. The nearest Javanese city to Bali, Banyuwangi is neat and clean and vastly underrated. But we couldn’t linger. We needed to make headway and get as close as possible to Alas Purwo before dark to find a place to bed down for the night.

Traveling through Banyuwangi quickly, heading south and out of town towards Muncar, after an endless series of turns, detours and zigzags through the countryside, we at last reached the open highway. In Muncar, on the strait across from Bali, we followed the signs to Alas Purwo. Later that afternoon, a little beyond the forest village of Pasaranyar, we passed the Balinese temple Pura Luhur in the half darkness of the deep woods.

It was nighttime when we lurched to a stop in front of the gate and small office at the park entrance of Rowobendo. To our chagrin, we were told that there were no accommodations available in the park. We had thought that such an important tourist destination would at least have a few homestays or pasanggrahan? (government rest house) for Indonesian and foreign visitors. The park’s officers kindly allowed us to sleep in the press and student’s dorm.

After breakfast we requested a guide, but since one had to be called, we asked if it would be possible just to hire a park employee. For two days in between his work shifts, Pak Nanang showed us around and pointed out the direction to the main sights.

Valhalla for Wild Hoofed Ungulates

The isolation and difficulty of access give the impression that Alas Purwo holds that special place between a tourist destination and a wildlife sanctuary. With an area of 43,000 ha, the environment of mangroves, savannah, lowland monsoon forests and coral-fringed shoreline is home to such unusual (and vulnerable) fauna as the wild ox (Bos javanicus), pythons, Hawksbill turtle and Green turtle, wild ajak dogs (Cuon alpinus javanicus) and even leopards (Panthera pardus melas). Hundreds of macaques and long-silver leafed monkeys can be spotted on the reserve’s roads and bridges. Birds (250 recorded species) such as kingfishers, migrating seabirds, Green Peafowl, Red Jungle fowl are plentiful. Peacocks (merak) prance about. Wild pigs (babi hutan) root in the black soil and muncak (barking deer) are not uncommon.

Our first stop in the cool of the early morning was Sandengan, just 1.5 km from Rowobendo, to see groups of bulls gather in the far distance in search of plants. This magnificent wide deep pasture is a setting equal to the most spectacular Cecile de Mille Technicolor production. With binoculars loaned to us by one of the rangers, we could see from afar a half dozen black male banteng and about 15 brown banteng females. There are at present 126 Javanese bulls living in this 80-hectare savannah area, the largest collection of wild banteng on Java. This number includes infants, an indication that the population is healthily reproducing. We could also see groups of big-antlered Timor Deer grazing. The immense gradually ascending amphitheater-like meadow is also a superb bird viewing area. Pak Nanang pointed out
a peacock in the huge tree above us.

Banteng herds also live in the park’s bamboo forests where they feel safe and protected among the bamboo stands. Banteng tracks and dung and bite marks on the bamboo are indications that this tall grass is a part of their diet. The biggest threats to the bulls are humans. Poachers set traps outside the park during the dry season to snare bulls wandering in search of water. Wild bulls are slaughtered and the meat sold.

In the past several years, to preserve the park’s environment and resources, park authorities have taken strong measures against poachers and loggers. Even villagers who had cut down bamboo were put in jail. At the same time, steps were taken to create alternative sources of income. Sumbersari villagers, on the west side of the park, have begun a mangrove eco-tourism project. The 700 farmers of Kalipait, who previously illegally felled trees, now fish for abalones and clams for a living. Villagers from all the surrounding communities are now only allowed to gather twigs and wild forest products.

The official park policy is to keep the roads in a terrible state to discourage locals from entering the park and exploiting its valuable resources. Until the regional autonomy law went into effect in 2000, the use of motor vehicles was banned. Today there’s not even supposed to be a road between Pancur and Plengkung, an area meant to be left in its natural state. This policy apparently applies also to the park’s decrepit infrastructure. Many buildings are in disrepair.

The park administration regularly hosts training and scientific exchange programs involving young scientists from all over the Asia Pacific region who are studying forest ecology, integrated forest management, how to increase stability of forest growth, reduce forest degradation and improve protection of forest areas.

The turtle-breeding beach at Ngegelan, 8 km west of Rowobendo, is at the end of a dirt road through a majestic forest. Four species of sea turtles can be observed laying eggs on this beach during nesting season. In the turtle hatchery, we peered through the screen. Soon an attendant appeared, unlocked the door and let us in see bins full of baby turtles (tukik). My eight-year-old son Dian and 80-year-old father-in-law Pak Kakung were allowed to hold one, which delighted them both in equal measure.


Located 24 km South of the park’s front entrance at Pastaranyar, we spent the night. After parking for a mere Rp15,000, Dian and I went on the 20-minute hike to Goa Istana throught a winding Hobbit-like path through bamboo groves.
At the top of a long stairway to the cave’s entrance, I met Nano, a young men who was part of a group who followed the ancient kajawen (Javanese mysticism) belief system. They had undertaken a pilgrimage under their spiritual leader, Romo (“Father”). The seven? members practiced semadi in the cave where their sleeping bags were spread out on a floor of fine dust and bat droppings.

Like the sadhus of India, Java also has a thousand-year-old tradition of wandering ascetics. You often see half naked dreadlocked men foraging the island’s highways, some derelict, others on a mission. Nano’s group had walked 29 days from Solo. Later I met their bhikku (teacher) in their camp at Pancur. Their big tent had a field kitchen, water purifier, sleeping mats.

On the way back to Rowobendo, we stopped at Trianggulasi Beach that opened up to a magnificent empty vista of grey sand and mountains beyond. All the lodgings at the nearby pasanggrahan were without electricity or water, their roofs broken. I felt curiously at ease with the minimal upkeep of these dilapidated buildings. As was the case with the park’s entire infrastructure, all the benign neglect will buy time for Alas Purwo. Perhaps one of Java’s greatest natural assets will stay the way it is for a long time to come.


You need a full day to see the minimum of attractions. This is difficult if you’re not equipped or willing to camp. Outside the park, the nearest hotels are in Muncar, an hour to the north by car, but you have to get up very early to get the most out of a day trip to the park. Yet another possibility is to overnight in a G-Land surf camp in Plengkung where tariffs run at least Rp300,000 in the high season.

Inside the park, visitors may not officially or unofficially stay overnight except in the Pancur campgrounds. Parking Rp15,000. Single tent campsite is Rp25,000 (bargain) or sleep in your vehicle. Bring extra food, snacks, water, medicine and mosquito repellent. A small restaurant sells wild honey, water and basic mie kuah, mie ayam, mie goreng with egg, but no vegetables. Restrooms with bak mandi for elephant-style baths.

To get to Alas Purwo, fill up your gas tank. No gas stations in the park. Head South out of Banyuwangi via Kabat, Rogojampi, Srono, Muncar, Tegaldino. Many twists, turns and detours, so always pay close attention to the signs and ask directions continually to make sure you’re heading the right way. Difficult for non-Indonesian speakers.

The access road to the park is rough and potholed. The park’s administrative center is at Pasaranyar, 28 km north of Plengkung. From here it’s a 12-km-long pockmarked drive by car to Rowobendo, the park entrance (Rp150,000 foreigners, Rp5000 domestic). Faster on a motorcycle. Rangers speak limited English. Book your guide for trekking here, usually Rp50,000 but negotiable. A guide is not mandatory as there are signposted maps and park staff guard each post.

Roads within the park are actually in better condition than the access road. The road running from Rowobendo to superb Trianggulasi Beach is only a 15-minute drive. Road conditions between Trianggulasi and Plengkung are poor, at times necessitating the rental of a 4WD provided by park authorities (often broken down). The narrow road to Ngegelan Turtle Beach is in good shape (dry season only). Sign the guestbook and give a donation.

Pick up literature and printed maps (if available) and see Indonesian language exhibits of the park’s flora and fauna at the Visitor Center in Rowobendo ( Forestry Hqs.? Office in Banyuwangi is at Jl. Achmad Yani 108, tel. 0333-428-675; open 7:30 am-4 pm.

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