Hiking with Monkeys in the West Bali National Park

The forest was incredibly humid, even for Bali.  We were tramping through thick, squishy mud, surrounded by thick bushes and tough trees, following our guide on a vaguely discernible path through the jungle. We had agreed to hire him to take us on a hike through the West Bali National Park, and were no longer entirely sure that coming here had been the best idea.

Our guide was telling us in slightly accented English about some of the plants around us and how there were two kinds of monkeys that we had a chance to see in this part of the forest.  The man was friendly but somewhat aloof, as though he were happy to share his love of the forest with outsiders, but at the same time didn’t have any desire to actively bond with us at all.  The bushes and vines around us kept the path tight and mostly single-file, and our guide would occasionally break branches that had overgrown over the earthen walkway, keeping the path maintained. From his comments, our guide seemed to care about this place deeply, and to have a quiet respect for both this land and for the need to keep it accessible to people.

The forest canopy, where birds were singing and monkeys occasionally rustled past.

“Accessible,” though, is a relative thing.  The paths were far more wild, deeply muddy, and often completely indiscernible from the forest around them, making a seasoned guide not only legally required, but utterly crucial to finding our way around.  We were surprised at how true this was, since this place is Bali’s only national park (there are around 50 in Indonesia overall), and, being American, I had just assumed at least some modicum of signage or trail markings or the more polished and broad-path type of trail maintenance common to our parks.  I guess I should have known better after a few weeks in Indonesia that this was unlikely to be the comfortable and easily navigable walk I had imagined.

The heat and humidity was intense and uncomfortable, and the reaching branches brushing past us made me anxious and itchy, even as we were curious about what the forest deeper in would be like.  Toby and I had on “sandfly” jackets, embedded with chemicals to drive off the mosquitoes we feared could make us sick.  Earlier on our trip, we had met an Australian who now lived in Bali and ran our B&B in Padang Bai, who had told us how he got dengue fever within a week of first moving to the island.  It sounded extraordinarily unpleasant, with symptoms of seemingly 50 different diseases; we didn’t want to take any chances of getting it ourselves, so we had on our usual heavy doses of both sunscreen and insect repellent, and the chemicals and full-cover clothes seemed to make the humidity feel all the worse.  (But hey, we hardly got bit at all during our several weeks in Indonesia, never got sick, and hardly ever got burnt, so maybe it was worth it.)

As we got deeper into the forest, the jungle shifted into lowland forest, with a dense canopy above, sparser underbrush than before, and wide, dry riverbeds that would flood at times with water from the rain-forest up the mountain in the heart of the park.  We were surprised at how familiar many of the plants looked, even if they weren’t any kinds of species we would see at home.  Deciduous trees and bushes, mostly with small, non-waxy leaves that looked like they could appear in a forest in the northeastern US, were all around us, and felt familiar in a disappointing way: we had expected more surprising plant-life, something more akin to a tropical rain-forest, something more exotic to our eyes.

An encounter with a strangler fig and a curtain of vines

It wasn’t all like that, though.  Our guide led us to some amazing fig trees, and pointed out incredibly tough vines hanging down from the forest canopy.  For those who don’t know, the fig trees of south-east Asia tend to have trunks that look like many thick ropes all wound and grown together, resulting in fantastical shapes and enormous trunks.  This is because they often start as epiphytes, with seeds landing on other trees (or buildings, as in the famous ruined temple of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat) and sending out aerial roots that reach out until they find the earth, at which point they become woody and turn into new tree trunks lifting the plant out of the soil on steady legs.  The thing is, they don’t stop doing this once they have found the ground, but rather keep on sending out these roots-turned-trunks over and over again, hundreds of times even, as they grown taller and wider and need more support.  Eventually, they form arches and small rooms between them, and grow together in winding patterns.  The trees that result hold on to the shapes of those dangling, tangled roots, growing along their fragile, wispy bones into something solid and huge.  They consume anything they grab onto, and so the more voracious species are commonly called “strangler figs”…

As for the vines, our guide found us several different kinds that were all strong enough to bear human weight – ones that twist into wonderfully gnarled patterns, and ones that made vast swings, and ones that looked like ropes you could climb up to reach the canopy.  He invited us to test them out, and encouraged us to climb or swing on the ones close to the ground.

Throughout the hike, our guide would stop us occasionally with his hand raised, whispering that he was listening for various monkey or bird calls.  He seemed really knowledgeable about how to recognize the various species and what they were like, which was an invaluable resource for us.  He would imitate the calls he heard to see if they would respond, and point out what species he noticed in the distance, or in a few cases with strange sounding birds, just on the other side of the bushes.  This was really cool to witness, and quietly exciting each time, as it meant we were getting closer to finding wild creatures that we could see up close.  He would then choose our next path based on where he heard the monkeys calling from and lead us quietly in their direction.

And eventually, he found them!  We got to spend maybe 10 minutes hanging out quietly with a troop of Balinese gray macaques (the only type of monkey we saw up close on the trip) and watch them interacting with each other.   This experience made this otherwise pretty uncomfortable hike worth it for us, particularly because all the other monkeys we met in Indonesia were much more accustomed to people and it really showed in their aggressive and curious behavior.  These ones were a really cool contrast, as they were just enough used to people to not really care about us as predators, but not so much that they had yet learned to manipulate people for food or trinkets, unlike the ones in Ubud…  More on that later, though.  For now, here’s some photos of monkeys!

Then we came around a corner, and saw this guy just chilling on the side of the path!
We soon saw the rest of the troop, playing and eating in the trees around him. As you can see, it was super obvious which were the males and which were the females…
A mother monkey, apparently still nursing, searching for food among the leaves.
Can you spot the baby hanging out with a babysitter (apparently an older adolescent or small adult female) farther into the trees?
On our way beyond the monkey troop, we soon came across another little temple dedicated to the little gray primates… in a river bed that sometimes floods.  We couldn’t see why this was a good place for a temple, but it seemed to be something symbolic from what little our guide told us about it.  He mentioned that these monkey temples were destinations for communal ritual hikes that would sometimes take place in the middle of the night for locals who wanted to give respect to the spirits of the monkeys and their role in Hindu myths.

We were pretty excited to see the monkeys up close and just watch them do their monkey things!  How cool is that?  Definitely not something we could experience in every day life back home, that’s for sure.  And the vines and fig trees were cool to see, as well.

Otherwise, we were really eager to get out of that hothouse of dense, wet, overheated air, and to escape to somewhere we could detox from the heat.  (Thankfully, Sila and Putu brought us to a nearby resort for the afternoon, which had a lovely pool and restaurant.  What a relief to go swimming after our time in the jungle!  I think the House of Hobbit now has its own pool, so future visitors can just use that one instead…)  This was probably one of the only experiences on our trip where we came away from it somewhat disappointed, because it was so very uncomfortable relative to how little new and exciting stuff we got to see.  This part of the forest overall wasn’t very surprising to us, either, given how most of it looked relatively familiar compared to the flora at home, which made our discomfort seem less worthwhile.

This was particularly so given the high (for Indonesia) cost for the guide and for access to the park.  It was the equivalent of about $70 for the two of us, and we were told that most of that money goes to the government, but not for conservation or for paying the guides who are so crucial for getting people in and out again, particularly given how hard it would often have been to find the right path on our own.  In Indonesian terms, that is a super expensive experience (a good meal in most tourist-targeted restaurants is about $4, for your reference), so it was pretty shockingly high.  We begrudgingly paid (beforehand, of course) and went anyway, because we were eager to see a tropical forest and thought the money would go to conservation or the local guides…

Oh well, at least we pushed our limits somewhat, and we got to see monkeys!  Yay, monkeys!  And at least some of the money goes to keeping this area protected and managed for future use, which is super important for the local communities and ecosystems (in particular, it is home for many rare species of birds), so we’re content that we were able to support it for the longevity of this important local environment.

This was probably the most disappointing part of our two month adventure through the region, but that’s still a very relative thing – yes, it was miserably hot and humid, and less exotic than expected, but really it was still a good experience overall!  Because getting a chance to go hiking and being surrounded by all those tropical plants, and particularly getting to hang out with a troop of wild monkeys  – they were all worthwhile experiences.  Looking back, we are happy we did it, and we would recommend it to others, with the few caveats mentioned above…

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