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A walk in a wild garden

Life on land

"We have always loved pathways, the trodden lanes of foot – they are beautiful in Africa as are the animal made tracks in wild Australia, and they are beautiful here".

Peter and Andrea Hylands

October 10, 2023

The droplets of water on the leaves around us evaporating in the bright light, all just perfect for the insects, amphibians and reptiles hidden around us, each ready to explode into life. 

That previous evening and as the sun lowered in the sky, there were more and more remarkable and often large insects, on the window of our little house, Andrea discovers a leaf insect, 4 or 5 inches in length, bright green, its front wings and legs elaborate leaf shapes with the patterns and the veins of a leaf. A beautiful animal.

The dancing and spectacular butterflies of the daylight now replaced by soft winged moths, silently flapping in the soft warm air, equal in their grandeur, two of the world’s largest moths live in the region, the Moon Moth Argema maenas and the Atlas Moth Attacus atlas.

The frogs join us now, as our light attracts a spectacular array of insects. And it is amidst all the noise of nature that we fall asleep, dreaming of the adventures that lie ahead.

The sun is hot early, the red and cloudless morning sky, above the intense green of the palm trees, suggests that the morning might be dry. We have decided to walk through the beauty of the surrounding villages, remnant rainforest and paddy fields on the slopes of Mount Batukaru.

We want to talk to the people that we meet on our walk in this beautiful place. Vama, a local guide has agreed to walk with us.

Slightly later than planned we head off from Sarinbuana Eco-Lodge where we are staying for a few days.First up a narrow lane that reminds me of the scale of the country lanes of Kent, lush green and narrow with its gardens and their overhanging fruit.

The whole area, like some kind of giant salad, every kind of tropical fruit in abundance when season allows. Here there are the supersized jackfruit and durian, avocados, the fiercely prickly salak (both sweet and sour), lemongrass, ginger, bananas, pineapples, chillies, candlenuts, papayas, palm sugar, rambutans, coffee trees and much more.

Our first meeting is with Ibuk Mariana sitting on her porch making offerings for a soon to be held ceremony. On again cutting through a hedgerow and up a narrow green pathway. Here occasionally we come across cattle tethered to their little shade houses in long hours of loneliness. They watch us intently as we pass.

Some descents are now very steep and very slippery – we clutch on to the cameras as we slither down each pathway. What surrounds us is verdant. I have always loved pathways, the trodden lanes of foot – they are beautiful in Africa as are the animal made tracks in wild Australia and they are beautiful here.

No cars on these narrow pathways, but this is Bali so occasionally we discover a parked motorbike, its owner hidden in the thick vegetation of their garden. We hear a swish, swishing noise and it is here we come across Bapak Mariana cutting back some of the plants in his coffee plantation.

We continue our walk through these dense gardens for an hour or so, descending steeply and then climbing up again in the steamy heat. It is cooler in the shady groves, then we descend into a forest, a plantation now but once a paddy field, a river below us, the signs of the flooding from a few days ago, vegetation suspended higher up in trees that seems possible adding to the tangle of the river bank.

We find a place to cross our now tame river. Shoes off, the cool stream massages our feet, we sit in the riverbed enjoying the cool. It is very humid down here and the camera lens fogs over.

We have been walking for several hours now, the small settlements that we come across as we occasionally emerge from the vegetation blend into the environment, the small houses and their accompanying temples and out buildings, all green with moss. These buildings gentle and soft in the landscape. There is an occasional flat area in these compounds for drying the rice. Chickens scurry around with one eye on the drying grains of rice.

We leave the dense gardens as we break out into the light of the paddy field terraces stepping out below us. This is a water world, an ancient one, of complex engineering and irrigation, an integrated system of long held wisdom and beauty, that has sustained one thousand years of cultural development.

For walkers, the paddies are in effect a maze, take this track along the edge of the paddy field – dead end, then back again taking care not to lose balance on these narrow tops.

Then there is the climbing down from one level to another and then another and on it goes. Around us the rice fields at different stages, harvested here, a new planting there, then an occasional nursery patch of young seeds ready for transplanting. This all looks like very hard work.

In some ways our slippery downhill footsteps are a metaphor for what is happening in Bali. The traditional varieties of Bali rice with their longer stems, lower yields and preferred taste have competed with and largely lost their struggle with the higher yielding rice varieties introduced in the 1960s. Along with the new rice came the use of pesticides and fertilisers, moderated now by some, but still having a significant impact on the ecology of Bali. The Silent Spring come late.

The Bali story, like in many other places is a worrying one – a fantastically beautiful place of nature and culture, under increasing strain from more and more demand - demand for more rice, more houses, more wood, more tourism, more money, more land which all equals more habitat destruction. The problem is, that in the end, that more will turn out to be a great deal less.

Selling off rice land for other uses is tempting but it means an increasing strain on the whole system, and yet more complications with irrigation, higher costs for those left in the system and so on. A thousand years of work in jeopardy.

Our footsteps also fall on the same ground where species once walked that no longer exist, either extinct locally or gone forever. From small to large, there are fewer living things, fewer insects since the 1960s and long gone, the Bali Tiger, the smallest of all eight subspecies of tiger, the last living known female shot in 1937 at Sumbar Kima, Western Bali. Dutch colonialism and its ill-judged hunters, the species death knell.

On Mount Batukaru we come across a sign that tells us about some of the animals that are missing from this forest, in this case birds – here are some of them; Rhinoceros Hornbill, Scarlet Headed Flowerpecker, Black-winged Starling, Hill Myna, Black-naped Oriel, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Golden Fronted Leaf Bird, Red Breasted Parakeet, Black Banded Barbet, Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot and the Pink-necked Pigeon. All gone because of habitat destruction or the illegal and flourishing trade in wildlife.

The number of young men we see on motorbikes with rifles strung to their backs suggest at least some things have not changed, lessons not learnt. We ask what these men are up to, shooting lizards and birds is the reply.

Today signs proclaim severe penalties for damaging the forest and its animals.

It is still possible to create biodiversity hot spots as our eco-lodge has done. In Bali there are many people who understand precisely what is happening and are passionate about preserving what is left of culture and nature. 

Let’s hope we can all walk in their footsteps.

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