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Published: August 21st 2017
We started our day with another train ride, this one was around five hours, and took us, yet again, through local villages, passing agricultural landscapes backed by mountains. The train was not quite of the standard we had had before - on one wander from end to end, to get my bearings, I had to hop over one particularly rickety looking connecting plate, which looked as though it may collapse at any point, and then passed by a set of doors which hadn't fully closed and were shaking as though they may fall out of the side of the train at any point. However, the journey passed without incident and we were soon on our minibus bound for the Seliloman nature reserve.
En route to our destination, we passed through some local villages, again being greeted by waving and cheering as we passed. Then we heard music playing loudly, and our minibus slowed down, and then came to a stop at the edge of the road. This was an unscheduled break in the journey, but our guide's attention had been caught by a group of locals enjoying the late afternoon sun. Youngsters bathed and splashed around in the river running next to the road. A sound system had been set up, with thumping music providing the background to a pair of commentators on microphones. On a small, dammed section of the river, a long pole had been secured from one bank to the other. The muddy water below was full of shrieking boys, their bodies absolutely covered in grey clay. On the pole, two boys balanced, facing one another, holding bags on ropes, stuffed with something, and completely drenched with water. These bags were being used as weapons - the aim, it became clear, was to knock your opponent into the mud beneath the pole. There was pure, unadulterated joy in every face in the scene.
As we approached, the commentators shouted welcomes to us and invited us to come and join in. We declined, the colour of the boys in the water plenty of reason not to take part! The locals soon noticed us watching them; three girls shyly asked to take a photo of us and all of sudden, we were mobbed! Boys ran out of the mud, girls splashed from the river and they congregated, a crowd of around thirty children all bunched around us, laughing and smiling, more and more joining every second as the crowd got larger. We stood and smiled with them, watching the others who had rejoined the battle on the pole. Soon, though, we had to leave as we had to reach our destination before sunset.
Set on the slopes of sacred Penanggungan volcano, we had been told to expect basic facilities in arrival. However, on pulling into the Seliloman Environmental Education Centre, we were pleasantly surprised. Set in a gorgeous jungle setting, surrounded by verdant rice terraces, we were shown to our cabins, all named after an animal (we got Duck, which the Staffordshire girl in me loved!), all of which had incredible views over the forests and out onto the volcanos surrounding the centre. Inside our room (once stayed in by David Bellamy, when he visited the centre in 1993 - claim to fame or what!?) we found a large, comfortable double bed with a large bell mosquito net suspended above it, adding to the exotic atmosphere in the room. This was complemented by the outdoor bathroom, set in harmony with the forest and giving a real sense of space and freedom.
We set the room up and then headed on a gentle walk recommended by our guide, which would take up uphill to a local Hindu temple where the water was considered to be sacred. Our guide wouldn't join us on this walk, but would meet us at dinner.
I'm not surprised he wouldn't join us. It was not a gentle walk. The hill was a steep, steep climb with a gradient of around 60 degrees and seemed to be unending. Motorbikes roared past us, locals staring incredulously at the idiotic crowd of foreigners trudging to the entrance. In the heat and humidity of the late afternoon in the jungle, it was a tough and sweaty walk, but we were rewarded once at the top by locals enjoying the natural springs, an ancient temple building housing three terraces of fountains, from which cascaded pure water which was collected in huge bottles and carried away by the visitors. Others bathed in the water on the lower levels, the surface covered in fragrant petals, while incense burned around the edges of each bath. Again, we were quite the attraction, people asking for photos and selfies and children giggling shyly before approaching behind their parents' legs.
The bluish tinge of twilight painting the leaves alerted us to the fact that sunset was on its way and so we headed back down the hill, stopping to take photos of gigantic spiders dangling from impossibly huge webs by the side of the road. We passed three young boys, huge rifles in their hands, obviously off to hunt in the surrounding area. For what, I had no interest in finding out! Eventually we arrived back at the centre, where we sat and listened to the sounds of the jungle change from daytime to nighttime, as geckos and frogs called out, bats flitted past us and crickets lamented the setting of the sun. We enjoyed some well-earned beers and played games before our dinner was served.
It was the best meal we had experienced in the trip - not an easy claim on what has, at times, felt like a food tour. Spicy fried tofu, deep red chillies adding splashes of colour to the thick sauce covering them, stir fried pak choi, chilli infused beef curry, huge chunks of grilled chicken, pink slices of guava and lashings of the ubiquitous rice and prawn crackers served with a delicious spicy chilli soy sauce. All of it had been fetched from the gardens of the centre that day and it was all organic. Delicious!
After dinner, more games and beer took us into the night, before retiring to the tranquility of the jungle. This tranquility was only broken by a piercing scream that cut through the air like a knife. It was two of the British girls on the trip, who had found a frog sitting happily in the middle of their mosquito net, swinging on it as though it were in a hammock. Fortunately, we had no such visitors and we drifted off to sleep with the sounds of the jungle lullaby accompanying us into the land of nod.
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