Tracing the Footprints of Junghuhn the Explorer

Rongkop Girisubo, Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta
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Enjoying a steep cliff where the Island of Java meets the Indian Ocean while tracing the footprints of the legendary explorer, Franz W. Junghuhn

Updated on 24 October 2018

See 7 photos of Ngongap Beach


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For an adventurer, a beach doesn't necessarily have to feature soft sands or clear water to swim in; just the right ambiance to get us closer to the nature is more than enough. This is what might have been felt by Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn (a German-born renowned explorer) as he was mezmerized when stepping his feet on Ngongap Beach (sometimes also known as Ngungap), in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta, in 1856. After walking by foot for weeks, through then-wild deep forest of Java, Junghuhn finally arrived at the similarly then-wild southern coast of Java full of waves rolling directly from the Indian Ocean. The rugged coral beach was exactly where Junghuhn mapped his ideas on beautiful nature, rich tradition, and prosperity of Java, a land full of spiritualism. Junghuhn captured these ideas onto a painting entitled "Sudkuste bei Rongkop", a masterpiece of art that has unfortunately being forgotten by the Indonesians.

One and a half century later, we attempted to find the location of the very beach the explorer fell in love with. It's rather hard to find the exact location of the coral beach, what with the winding landscape of Gunungkidul that's full with rugged corals. The sense of adventure thickly filled the air as the asphalt road we went through suddenly led to rocky path, causing our driver to struggle real hard to go through the bumps under the car's wheels. Still, all these hardships were then rewarded when we arrived at an old pendopo (Javanese typical open-floor building for receiving guests) where Junghuhn stopped by 159 years ago, right on the edge of a steep coral cliff and with waves continuously calling from afar.

We were amazed as we witness the lines of coral cliffs that remain the same since 1856, exactly as how it's pictured in "Sudkuste bei Rongkop". Rugged, solid coral grooves waved beautifully on the right and left sides, standing against the giant waves from the Indian Ocean. At Ngongap Beach, the line of land seems to stop abruptly (approximately 100 meters above sea level) only to be replace instantly by the blue, deep ocean with its ferocious waves, reflecting the force of nature. Astounding!

Exactly as what Junghuhn had told in his books, the coral and sea coverage around Ngongap Beach remains a paradise for swallows-the birds with the golden saliva. The caves under the corals make a perfect home for swallows (Aedromus sp), protected from predators trying to steal their nests. At certain times, the locals would utilize the location to harvest swallow nests-worth millions rupiahs per kg, but with comparably high risks. The equipment used to reach the treasure caves are more or less the same as the ones used back then in Junghuhn's era-merely a rope ladder hung firmly onto a big tree near the pendopo. The life and death of the golden saliva hunters depends solely on this strand of rope and on the grace of the nature they're challenging.

Besides swallows, the coral cliffs are also the home for several other faunas, such as the beautiful white-tailed tropicbird (Phaeton lepturus) that draws the curiosity of wild fauna photographers from all around the nation. The ocean under is also rich of large fishes, such as Skipjack Tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) targetted by fishers from different regions in the Island of Java. Sometimes, other species of sea animals such as turtles, dolphins, or even sharks, are seen swimming up to the surface of the water, visible enpugh from the high cliffs. Amazing!

With such an outstandingly beautiful landscape and rich biodiversity, we could see for ourselves how the sandless beach has captured the heart of the legendary explorer Junghuhn. The lines of sharp corals and the ferocious splashing waves turn out to preserve an abundant treasure, well-protected from any greedy hands and well-kept for the future generations to enjoy. In the end, we could understand how Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn had felt when he decided to move for the rest of his life to Indonesia, a land formerly seen as wild and isolated, but full of beauties for him, a true explorer.