The rare Bali starling is the end point of a flying visit to some of the island’s conservation areas. By Diana Plater.

The Bali starling and Indonesian wildlife

The endangered Bali starling.
The endangered Bali starling.

We’re driving slowly along a rough, cobbled road as cheeky monkeys attempt to climb in the windows of our car.

Every time I roll mine down to take a photo, my friend, Nyoman, yells at me: “Quick, quick, close it.”

He nevertheless attempts to roll his down so that he can light a cigarette but laughs hysterically when another wild-looking monkey runs and jumps at the car.

We’re in the Taman Nasional Bali Barat (the West Bali National Park), an area of 19,000 hectares of mostly coastal savannah, which was designated in 1917 but fully established as a national park in 1941, with its north peninsula, Prapat Agung, jutting out like a sore toe facing the coast of Java. 

The last confirmed sighting of the Bali tiger was here in 1937 but there are still muntjac (deer), wild pig, squirrels, black panther, buffalo, iguanas, pythons, green snakes, macaque and leaf monkeys, and most important of all, the endangered Bali starling. 

It is this white-crested bird with a startling blue mask, known locally as Jalak Bali and listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, that I am on a quest to find this steamy, wet season day. Only found wild in this area, the starling was poached almost to the point of extinction for the caged bird trade, but I’ve read there is a sanctuary in the park.

We’ve been told everywhere that it’s impossible to enter the national park without a guide, and that I should have booked a 7am trek. Neither I nor my companions – Nyoman, Ollie and driver Gede – are early risers, and I knew they wouldn’t be interested. 

Usually I visit the east coast when we’re in Bali. My father-in-law was a farmer who would trek barefoot from his village at Tianyar in Karangasem up past Gunung Agung to Kintamani to sell his corn and other vegetables. I’ve followed a similar return trek, leaving the hot springs at Lake Batur and climbing Mount Batur at dawn when it was still covered in mist. It was down, down, down, with the sea in the distance. 

I’ve also driven up the interior of the island, visiting Bedugul, to Singaraja and Lovina, and to the black sand beaches of Tabanan in the west, north of Tanah Lot. But having never been farther north-west, I was keen to see the national park. 

We’ve travelled about four hours along a road filled with trucks, coming from Java by ferry to the Bali port town of Gilimanuk. We’ve stopped only to take photos of ancient rice paddies on the edge of Tabanan and to buy tropical fruit from a cart. Munching on pisang goreng, bought by Gede in Kerobokan before we left, we drive through Negara, known for its bull racing. It’s dusk by the time we get to Pemuteran, the closest village to the national park, and find a bungalow. 

It’s a big contrast to the places I’d just stayed – the Centra Taum in Seminyak, right in the middle of all the action and night life, including bar-crawling on Australia Day with a bunch of expats, ending at sunset at the Mozaic Beachclub, until the smell of burning plastic on the beach forced us inside. And the Centara Grand Villas in Nusa Dua, where the manager recommended Menjangan Island (part of the national park) as his best snorkelling experience in waters hosting five species of marine turtle, dolphins and dugong. 

I have a quick swim in the bay and notice a small shack advertising information about the village’s Biorock Project. It says that since 2000 more than 60 Biorock coral nursery structures have been installed in the sea, using low-voltage electrical currents on artificial underwater structures to encourage growth of coral and other reef life in the area. Conservation is obviously a priority here.

After dinner and several Bintangs we decide on an early night, but the piercing sounds of shouting, chanting, and loud music draw us out of bed.

 “Quick, let’s have a look,” I say, grabbing my camera as Ollie and I run down the road turning left up a side alley.

A ceremony is being held by a community from Karangasem that relocated here in 1963 after the eruption of Gunung Agung. In a chilling scene, women appear to be in trances, pressing ceremonial kris daggers into their chests, then lining up for a priest to sprinkle holy water on them and return them to normality. Children are screaming with excitement and urging them on as a gamelan orchestra beats out the frenzied music. Trances are said to be used by traditional balians or healers to effect cures, but they are also celebrating their lost ancestors and showing gratitude to God.

I wonder if it’s okay to take photos and video. Then I see many of the young people are using their iPhones and iPads so I join in.

Meanwhile, I’ve read about a turtle hatchery run by an Australian, Chris Brown, at a nearby dive resort.

“Fish first, then birds,” I’ve been telling Gede, but in the morning I change it to: “Turtles first, then fish, then birds.” 

Proyek Penyu (the Reef Seen Turtle Hatchery Project) was started to counteract the impact of capturing turtles for food, ceremonies and the tourist trade. Local fishermen sell eggs to the project so that baby turtles can be hatched and raised there. We say hi to Buddy, an 11-year-old hawksbill turtle, who was raised by two young village girls in a tank at their home before being donated to the project to replace Boomer, the hatchery’s former mascot. He’s been released several times but keeps coming back.

I find Brown on the beach and he joins us for a coffee, explaining his 20 years of conservation work in collaboration with local villagers and fishermen.

“We do reports every month [for the government] of how many eggs we have, how many turtles we release,” Brown says.

In the early days, large fishing boats from outside the area would use potassium cyanide to stun colourful reef fish for the illegal aquarium trade, as well as dynamite fishing for other species, forcing the locals to fish closer and closer to the reefs, using traditional large rock anchors.

Brown persuaded them of the need for protection of the reef and eventually the fishing boats were ousted. He has since built artificial dive sites, with the support of AusAID, including an Underwater Temple Garden and a Garden of the Gods, with more than 40 stone statues of Balinese gods, turtles and fish.

We leave to drive to the jetty to Menjangan Island, where you can hire a guide who will take you on a boat to go snorkelling or bird-watching through the mangroves. But my friends are not that keen on that idea. The guide asks me: “Don’t your friends like nature?” Yes, but they don’t like guides, I think (although the money is said to go to the national park).

We’ve since learnt it actually is possible to drive into the bird sanctuary on our own so we decide on that option.

Finally we find the unsigned turn-off, and after about an hour of driving past mangroves and spotting deer and lizards – as well as the monkeys – we pull up at a temple in the forest. A sign, “Save the Birds, Save the Trees, Save the Earths”, lets us know we’ve reached the sanctuary. A kindly ranger comes out of his shack and takes me by the hand, while another gives me a pair of binoculars. 

The ranger points up to a tree where coming out of her little wooden nesting box is a Bali starling and her chick. He tells me there are now about 25 in the park and the numbers are growing.

After signing the visitors’ book and donating some rupiah, I leave the national park, excited but satisfied.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2015 as "Hold on little birdie".

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Diana Plater is a freelance journalist who specialises in the arts.

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