A Cup of the Javanese Black Tea

by Will Wiriawan

The National Park, home to some of the world’s protected-and-rare animal and one of Java’s hidden gem, sits at the hills of the Halimun Mountain. The tea estate, owned by Procter & Gamble’s locally-owned public listed company, lies serenely at the hills, overlooking the handsome habitat of the Javanese Eagle, long-tail Puma, and the Javanese Monkey, and a village that her 28-family residences host occasional hikers & seasoned trekkers.

As the U.S. of A celebrates her Independence day, a production team of four with myself included, embarked on a special journey on July 4 2011. It began as a simple photo assignment, one without any specifics, but it turned out to be something more than just a trip.

We were entrusted two SUVs, precious enough to make us treat them like gems. The mission: show the power and the elegance of the vehicles.

So we decided to take it up on a little road trip to the mountain.

Mt. Halimun is one of the least active of the Ring of Fire mountains in Java. It was a scientific centre for many years, but is now a little-known destination for nature lovers, perhaps it has something to do with access.

The four of us decided to ride in twos. Me & Arief, my writer-in-crime took the white, 4500 lt., V6 beast, and my producer with our assistant, Vierko & Jupri were in the 6000 lt., V8 ‘black beast’, the top-end model of this latest US-made luxury SUVs. We had the gas tank full and our hopes high, we started the car and took the highway.

And the story begins.

Our cars performed admirably. It runs like a beast and corners like a babe, and everything was right about it, quiet like a baby’s sleep, the audio made us believe we were in a concert, it all started well, until we reach the end of the tarmac off to the beaten path.

Traffic then took charge, and we soon ran out of patience. We managed to squeeze in a quadruple file of a single two-way street, hours later we maneuvered to began our ascend to the highland and our GPS, cellular phones and radio communication went dead. It took us more than 16 hours to reach our destination, and despite reaching it safely, our hopes were down.

After we parked our cars and unload our gears, we settled at the local home stay. Photographs, thank-you cards, notes were plastered on the walls with warming words, our host opened his doors for these hungry lost men and quickly brought our big-city ego down to the earth. We had our dinner — the best tasting instant noodle I ever tasted in a long, long time — and we entered the night with an mood-lifting echoes of the day. I bravely took the long-needed bath, and the freezing water kept me up to watch everyone sleep to the night.

The next morning, the birds called and our host came in with refreshment, a pot of hot water with tea & coffee, unforgotten was his smile and a heavily accented ‘Selamat Pagi’ (good morning) — in a friendly Sundanese tongue. The steaming caffeine broke the snores and soon everyone was awaken. What followed after that, was something uncalled for, a surprising element that I always knew was coming.

As we climbed to the nearby hill next to the compound, the sun breaks from the horizon. The night owl flew back from their hunt, and the roosters cue as the sun arises. As our host-turned-guide beckons with his steady steps, I followed hastily with a beaten breath and sweat “quickly, the sun is rising fast” he said as I carry myself to the hill. My two colleagues and our assistant were behind us.

Soon darkness fell and the fogs began to fade away, the sky turned from black to magenta, from orange to blue, and with a big smile he pointed outward and said, “look, that’s the highest peak of the Halimun Mountain, and down there, is the Nirmala Tea Plantation”. As I struggle with the knee-length bushes, I lifted my head and looked in amazement, a lush valley of greens against the purple sky, something that can be seen only in movies and magical place high in the mountains. Everything came to a halt, everything stopped.

Then my colleagues came, “Will! Camera!! … hey! photo!” took me a good few seconds before I realised someone was talking to me, and I began to snap some pictures as he mumbled something that I could hardly hear. Present as I was to the majestic landscape, I barely noticed that the grasses became the sharp & sturdy tea offshoots, scratches were all over my feet, and the pants were all wet from the misty leaves.

“That’s where the tigers and the leopards are” he says as he points to the southwest end of the landscape, a tall shade of a distant mountain, “and back there is where the villagers would spot the Javanese great eagle” as we turned to our backs and see the equally handsome mountain, down the valley, layers of rice fields were scattered among patches of compound of the neighbouring village.

On the other side of the hill, there’s a research outpost that used to be run by some Japanese scientist, it now became a museum, and an office for the park’s administration officers headed by my guide’s younger brother. Inside, a high-resolution satellite photo of the entire area decorates the wall among photographs of the rarely seen exotics captured by trap cameras that used to be placed in dozens of spots in the jungle, a big cat with fat limbs, a sharp-eyed bird with giant wings, and the beer-bellied monkeys that has long hands and long tails hanging on tall, old trees. What a great spectacle.

As we climbed to our cars and bid our host farewell, we descend from the mountain to continue our journey back home, the wet tracks from the rain the night before pushes the limits of our luxury four-by-four, and though our devices and the GPS showed no map but a blinking signal, we were confident that everything will be fine.

Most of our photos from the assignment ended up being cut from the story, but the four us came back an experience richer, each having a story to our family and friends, my story is between these photographs and the words you are reading, and perhaps, if nature grants me some more miles to explore, I will continue to tell that story for years to come.