Making the right connections is what it takes to allow nature to provide for animals and people at Sarinbuana Eco Lodge. Mallika Naguran spent two nights in central Bali to learn how permaculture and ecotourism can go hand in hand in the heart of the forest.
Singapore, 4 December 2017. I first heard of Sarinbuana Eco Lodge in Bali some years ago when it clinched a WildAsia Responsible Tourism Award. A week ago, finding myself in Bali on an ecotourism research trip for Gaia Discovery, I could not resist the temptation of visiting this unique lodge—never mind the rumblings of restless Mount Agung and whatever impact it might have on tourists.
The location of Sarinbuana Eco Lodge couldn’t have been better. Centrally sited in Bali, it is miles away from Mount Agung, which sits hot in the east within the Karangasem region. The lodge is a good two-hour winding but scenic drive from Kuta or Denpasar, somewhere around 700 metres up on Mount Batukaru (a volcano too but thankfully extinct), which goes on to a height of 2,200 metres. Part of the dense forested area has been demarcated as a nature reserve, home to thousands of wild species and ideal for promoting biodiversity.
Droning bees and dragonflies drop in unannounced as you settle into one of the six nature-oriented bungalows, altogether capable of taking up to 22 guests. Mine, the Orchid Bungalow, opened up to a view of greenery—unlike manicured parks or gardens at some destinations, this was of well grown farmlands resembling a natural forest (or tumpang sari in Indonesian) that provide shelter as well as food for animals and humans
Waking up to a food forest at Sarinbuana Eco Lodge and the sound of whistling thrushes is unlike any other ecoresorts I have stayed at; I startled a Javan munia that flew into the airy washroom, which made a hasty escape through the open windows.
The idea of growing their own food came naturally to the founders—Linda and Norm van’t Hoff—who decided nearly two decades ago to give up the city life and head for the Bali forest.
“We planted fruit trees for our own food and then mahogany and bamboo for building materials,” said Linda, who explained that what was originally a home for them and their two sons had over the years expanded into a lodge to host guests.
Up to 50% of the food such as fruit, herbs, spices and vegetables served in the restaurant comes from their organically-managed permaculture gardens as well as their vegetable, herb and salad beds. The rest comes from Bedugul in Bali where cooler climates are better for growing carrots, potatoes and the like.
At the lodge, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals are served; however to keep the environmental footprint to the minimum, red meat is not an option. As far as possible, locally sourced ingredients make it to the kitchen staffed by residents of local villages - who love to cook.
Chocolate mousse—a must try though a tad sweet—is made from cacao plucked from the food forest, while the coconut ice-cream (by far the best I’ve ever had) is handmade. Both are vegan. With sustainability in mind, palm oil is a no-no in the kitchen… “we love orangutans and want their homes to stay intact” the owners say on their website.
In fact sustainability is a key element that runs through Sarinbuana Eco Lodge in almost every aspect of hospitality operations, from energy, water usage to waste management. The efficient use of electrical appliances plus passive solar design keeps energy bills low. The lodge is yet to use solar panels in a big way, but is investigating converting the vast biomass from the forest into biogas.
Waste organic matter is composted with a dash of seaweed concentrate that serves to “rebuild the soil constantly” said Linda. Waste water is treated through a process that uses specially-designed septic tanks and gardens to treat the waste, and harvests nutrients to produce fruit (mainly bananas) and flowers. Overall, the waste water garden elements work well together with their edible landscaping in promoting permaculture.
Even drinking water at Sarinbuana comes from local mountain springs, sanitised by ultra-violet rays. This is served in guest rooms in glass jugs instead of the usual plastic drinking water bottles.
“Permaculture teaches us to look at the connections between everything from above—the land, the water system, the building, food, the compost and the people,” said Linda.
Finding such connections motivated Norm van’t Hoff to apply basic yet natural and organic principles in rebuilding Aceh’s waste management system in homes following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
After assisting many aid agencies with solutions, and doing projects himself in which he designed and installed several thousand, plant-based waste water treatment systems in Aceh, Norm was driven by the need to provide solutions to an ailing planet. “I asked myself, am I making an impact?” he said.
“I realised I could (make an impact) with design and architecture, the use of solar passive design, the use of less timber…” Today he continues to train, consult and propose new solutions to conserve the environment including the marine life in Raja Ampat.
Back in Bali, Linda explained that connecting to the Balinese living in that area has been integral in helping them plant the right food trees as well as maintaining the ecolodge.
When they first moved there, they had to buy papayas to eat. “Having planted a seed, I had the pleasure of watching the papayas grow,” Linda said, pointing to a tall tree laden with round fruit. Planting is just one aspect of living in harmony with nature at Sarinbuana, where fruit in the forest attracts birds, butterflies, squirrels, civets, macaques and more.
“Permaculture is about looking for the connections,” Linda added, citing the danger of spraying pesticide over rice fields that poisons snakes as well as bugs, leading to rat infestation.
Animals in the Wild
Trekking and bird watching are but two of the numerous adventure- or culture-related activities offered at the lodge. Meeting my guide Wayan at 5:45 in the morning (I must love birds more than sleep!) we set out into the Batukaru Nature Reserve to spot the feathered forest dwellers.
Bali, located on the westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands, has around 280 species of birds in its entire land mass of 5,632 square kilometres (according to Fat Birder). One, the Bali Starling, has become almost extinct due to relentless hunting – and Sarinbuana Eco Lodge made efforts to conserve the bird.
"Constant lobbying against bird catching, creating ecotourism work as an alternative, and planting trees and shrubs to provide more food and habitats, has seen birds make an impressive comeback. When we built our first house here, most of the birds were gone, but now, after 20 years, two independent experts had logged nearly 50 species in 48 hours without leaving our property," said Norm.
In just a couple of hours I marked out 30 out of 77 bird species on the checklist provided by the lodge—birds that could be spotted in that area. These included as the Collared Kingfisher, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Ashy Tailorbird, Common Iora and Lineated Barbet. First-time highlights for me were the Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Common Flameback Woodpecker, Black Drongo and the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.
My birding guide is patient until the end of our birdwatch as I continue to gawk at birds flying freely and without a care in the world against the distant backdrop of a smoking Mount Agung. A farmer by trade, he freelances as a bird guide, being trained by Norm and Linda and other bird experts. He uses binoculars and guide book donated by guests, and tells me that he returns to his organic farming once he is done.
Children visiting the lodge can participate in the feeding activities of the two short-tailed Sumatran macaques and a long-tailed Balinese macaque kept near the Monkey Bungalow and vegetable garden, as well as rabbits. The monkeys were rescued, according to Linda, from their former owners that held them in deprived conditions since young.
“There is no rehab for either of our species of monkeys unfortunately, as they are common in Indonesia. They are unable to be released from their cages into the wild as they would be killed by other groups of monkeys. Without the skills to survive in the wild it would be irresponsible for us to do this,” explained Linda.
“In an ideal world, animals wouldn't be in cages,” said Linda, who admits getting negative feedback from guests. This is tackled with an explanation on the website as well as in each room information book. “Our monkeys are safe, well-fed and healthy—sadly, there are no options available for them to be freed into the wild.”
Some years ago, Linda and Norm released a newly captive young, female Balinese macaque back into the forest, trusting that it still had the wild spirit in it to survive.
They inform Gaia Discovery that they have also released a number of birds, several reticulated pythons, two very rare pangolins and a barking deer, all of which were initially destined for trade in the wild animal market.
Mount Agung did spew enough ash into the sky to delay my return to Singapore via Surabaya by four days. But it did nothing to stop me from appreciating the beauty and might of nature, living with minimal environmental impact at Sarinbuana Eco Lodge, on the slopes of the verdant Mount Batukaru.
Animal & bird photos courtesy of Sarinbuana Eco Lodge. The rest, by Mallika Naguran.