Finding perfection on Indonesian island Paradise: Beautiful beaches, tropical breezes, a variety of wildlife and few residents or tourists make Ujung Kulon an ideal vacation spot.

February 23, 1997|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,SUN STAFF

We found Paradise.

Better than Paradise, actually, because Bali and Tahiti, which have been said to be Paradise, are overrun with tourists. Ujung Kulon, Indonesia's marvelous national park and a U.N. World Heritage site, is not. As nearly as I could tell, there were about nine of us enjoying fine white beaches, tropical breezes, peace and quiet, good food and good rest.

The park is at the western tip (Ujung Kulon is the western peninsula) of Java, the principal island in the Indonesian archipelago. Ujung Kulon is the last home on Earth of the Javan one-horned rhinoceros. True, we didn't see one -- only about 60 are estimated to exist. And true, there are usually more tourists than happened to be at the main resort center on Peucang Island this August week in the high tourist season. Still, it's a fair bet that most weeks there are more rhinos (even if you don't see them) than tourists.

Is that a reasonable working definition of Paradise?

Size of Virginia

It's astonishing that one could be so alone anyplace in Java. It is a small island, about the size of Virginia, but the fertile volcanic soil makes it one of the most densely populated spots on the face of the Earth, with 110 million people.

Yet the island's western tip and offshore islets belong to birds and turtles, to giant monitor lizards and long-tailed macaques, to deer and wild pigs, panthers and river crocodiles. Beyond the pristine beaches are rain forests. To seaward, bright tropical fish dance in the coral reefs. Thirty-five miles across the sea is Krakatau, site of the legendary volcano. Ujung Kulon is one of the world's remotest places, in close proximity to one of the most peopled.

What's the catch? Well, unless you're a backpacker (three-day hike into the park from the coastal village of Tamanjava), getting there is considerably less than half the fun.

The boat ride to the park from the fishing village Labuan is seven hours on hard wooden seats. When the wind is adverse, the flat-bottomed scow bucks straight across the waves, catching air and slapping down hard. But, hey, for the strong of stomach it's no problem.

The problem is getting to the boat: When, because of tide or current, it can't dock, passengers must carry their baggage across a dirty beach and wade knee-deep into the warm, murky surf in order to board the boat. Local children watch and flirt with the tourists' cameras, wanting and not wanting to be photographed. At last we reached a dory that transferred us to the diesel launch.

Curious neighbors

Ah, but once you reach Peucang, all is forgiven. The tourist complex consists of three lodges, a restaurant and an office, laid out on three sides of a quadrangle, enclosed by the forest wall. Trees dominate the quadrangle; within it deer graze, peacocks preen and monkeys play. (Close your window, or they will visit your room.)

The accommodations are plain but comfortable. The price ranges from about $35 a night to $100. The cheap rooms lack air conditioning; mid-range gets you air-conditioning, but the shower head may fall off the pipe. Maybe the deluxe room gets you both air conditioning and a fully functioning shower.

Meals are more than adequate: some vegetables, some noodles, a rice mound, a chicken or fish course, a soup, something sweet for dessert. It was all tasty and could be more or less spicy, according to individual taste.

Between meals, one can dip in the clear waters, don a snorkel mask and watch the fish play in the coral reef or simply stroll the deserted beaches. Here is a nest of broken sea-turtle eggs, and panther tracks leading away.

Hiking trails combine history and nature, and are strenuous enough, or gentle enough, for both teen-agers and octogenarians.

The rain forest is easy hiking. I had supposed a rain forest to be thick jungle. Nuh-uh. A hundred feet above our heads is where it's thick, the forest canopy of tall trees with tiny leaves. Then there's a middle story of trees with broad leaves to catch vagrant shafts of light and trickles of moisture dropping from above.

Down where we walk, there's filtered light and scant underbrush. The darting birds are much easier to see than in a dense Appalachian forest. Deer and buffalo keep their distance, but are always in clear country, easy to photograph with a long lens.

Dutch wanted monopoly

We are not the first Westerners to share Ujung Kulon with the one-horn rhino. The Dutch built in Indonesia a colonial empire based on monopoly of the spice trade. The Spice Islands, or Moluccas, lie to the east of modern Indonesia, between Sulawesi and New Guinea, but of course the Dutch needed to control all the region's straits and seas to secure their empire.

A well-worn path marked by rotting railroad ties and stone mile markers traces an ancient Dutch road to a rusting lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula, where the colonizers planned a major seaport. They gave up because of the environment's "noxious vapors."

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