Friday, March 28, 2014

Durant, the devil and dragons

I wrote this post on May 21, 2011, from the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia.  I had just left Sumatra, 1,000 miles to the west, to meet my friend Durant in Java.  His was the first familiar face I’d seen in months, and his arrival marks a turning point in the Around the World series.  You may notice a difference in tone in this and later Around the World posts.

Traveling on my own I meet tons of new and exciting people, and get adopted by some as well.  But it's also nice to have a familiar face.  Even in Iraq I was among fellow Marines.  On this trip, on the other hand, I had gone four and a half months without seeing anyone I knew.  So it was with eager anticipation that I awaited the arrival of Durant.  For those who don’t know him, Durant is a fellow Marine and Oklahoman, and one of my best friends.  About a week ago I left Sumatra, gladly, and made the journey by ferry and bus to Jakarta to meet him at the airport.

My first time in Jakarta was frightening and uncomfortable.  But on returning six weeks later everything had changed, even though I stayed at the same address.  Where there had been chaos there was now order, crossing the streets was not difficult or scary, communication was easy and transportation a breeze.  Really, it was I who had changed.  Given the experience and knowledge and language I had picked up elsewhere in Indonesia, often in isolated places, Jakarta is now a place of comfort.  The manager of a hostel I stayed at remembered me and couldn't help smiling when she discovered I had learned a little Indonesian.  Needless to say, my new reaction to Jakarta was a welcome surprise.

Everything changed after meeting Durant at the airport.  All of a sudden I have a permanent travel partner.  Durant was new to Indonesia and eager to get started.  I started my Indonesia adventure in Kalimantan.  But where would be Durant's first adventure?  What would be his first impression of this never ending chain of islands?  How about dragon hunting?

After a brief stop in Bali, by Durant's second day we were on Flores, volcanic home of hobbits and dragons, in the driest region of Indonesia.  Why didn't they film Lord of the Rings here?  After six straight weeks of swampy, wet, claustrophobic, mosquito- and leech-ridden tropical rainforests, and one month before that of northern Australia's wet season, the parched dry forests, palm savannas and grasslands of Flores were a most welcome change.  We were here for a couple reasons, the most dramatic of which was to find dragons in their native lands—the islands of nearby Komodo National Park.

Durant was lucky—his first trip happened to be to the most scenic place I've yet seen in Indonesia.  Yes, more scenic even than the coast of western Halmahera.  Volcanic islands in every direction were separated by glassy dark blue seas and lined by coral reefs.  Each island faded from brown grassland at its base to dark green dry forest in ravines and on high summits.

Komodo National Park protects a chain of volcanic islands and their surrounding seas and coral reefs

The grasslands, savannas and dry forests of the park were a welcome change after months of soggy rainforest

In Labuan Bajo, a town on the west coast of Flores, Durant and I stumbled upon three fellow travelers—John and Jess from London and Yunis from the Netherlands—looking for people to split the expensive boat trip to the park.  Not ones to turn down an invitation, we set sail the next day with a local captain named Jay and his two assistants.  Jay had a good knowledge of the local currents, a decent collection of American and European music, and an excessive fondness for Angur, the local rice-wine.

Durant and I teamed up with some other travelers to hire a boat and crew to explore the park.  From left to right: Jess, me, Yunis and Durant, with John in front (photo courtesy of Durant Leung).

We hired a boat captain from the docks at Labuan Bajo, on the western tip of Flores

Our party assembled, we spent one day on Rinca Island and the second on Komodo itself.  We hiked, snorkeled, watched birds, took photos and told jokes…and we found dragons!

Komodo National Park is home to the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis)

Adult dragons eat feral water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) that roam the park's grasslands

Better yet, we found a dragon's nest.

Remember those megapodes I rambled on about in an earlier post?  They’re a family of birds, for the most part found east of Wallace's Line, that use their large feet to gather up huge mounds of dirt and debris in which to lay their eggs.  There’s one species here in the park, the Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt)—the same species that can be found running around the city parks of Darwin.  When it comes to nesting, female dragons often lay their eggs in an already-constructed megapode nest rather than digging their own.  Since megapode just means 'Bigfoot,' Durant and I can, with all seriousness, claim to have found a nest of both Bigfoot and a dragon on the same island.

Komodo dragons nest in giant mounds made by megapodes—small birds with big feet

The scenery on land was just as amazing as that on the water.  I tend to favor semi-arid landscapes, and here I felt in my element.  Wide open palm savannas, rolling hills, rugged volcanic cliffs and peaks, water and more islands in the distance—the photos just took themselves.

Lontar palms (Borassus flabellifer) dominate savannas in Komodo National Park

From the heights of Komodo, rugged volcanic mountains and coral reefs cover the horizon

Like Sulawesi and Ternate and Halmahera, this is part of the region of Indonesia known as Wallacea, after Alfred Russel Wallace, and is characterized by an odd mix of Asian and Australian species.  The bird life of the park attested to this—there were a few Asian families, some species unique to Wallacea, and plenty of Australian families, and even some familiar Australian species I hadn't seen in almost 2 months—like the scrubfowls and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

Besides the dragons, we had an encounter with another famous animal.  More precisely, we found its poop.  People use the digestive tract of the palm civet to make famously expensive coffee.  Coffee made out of beans found in palm civet feces, after having passed through the gut, supposedly tastes better than the ordinary variety...  I'm too poor to find out.

Palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) poop is used to make expensive coffee

I'm a land person, but the park is famous for its coral reefs and marine areas make up about two thirds of the area of the park.  So we went on a few snorkeling excursions.  Indonesia is unmatched when it comes to coral reef diversity, and I don't have an underwater camera.  You'll just have to imagine.  There was one target species for us on one of the dives—at a certain time of day, in a certain channel, and with a captain who knows the currents, travelers can swim with manta rays, also known as devil rays (Manta birostris).  I remember a page from a book I read when I was a kid, with a picture of someone swimming with a giant manta ray.  It's only a vague memory, and the ray itself is like a ghost in my mind.  Here in Komodo I finally glimpsed one alive.  It swam beneath me in a deep clear channel.  But the experience was brief—not enough to change the ghost impression I have.  It's still a ghost to me, with a dark giant devil ray outline.

Our Komodo/Rinca trip didn't involve much hardship and probably didn't qualify as a real adventure.  But it was certainly worth the trip to Indonesia, and we made some friends.  I'm sure I enjoyed it no less than Durant.  I can only imagine what it's like to have something like that be your first impression of Indonesia.  Difficult to surpass, that's for sure.

Tomorrow, we're off to a hobbit cave.  We plan to visit the cave on Flores where Homo floresiensis, an extinct species of short humans, was discovered in 2003.   First I showed you hobbit bones, then Durant and I went to the hobbits' island, and now, hopefully, we will visit the very cave where they were first found.

Dragons, Bigfoot, devils, hobbits… if only there were orcs around, and maybe a couple elves.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Frustrations with foreigners

This is my second and final post from Sumatra, written May 15, 2011.  It records one of my few negative experiences in Indonesia.

"My readers may now partially understand why a travelling naturalist of limited means, like myself, does so much less than is expected or than he would himself wish to do." –Alfred Russel Wallace, writing of Indonesia

In Indonesia prices are rarely written down.  This applies to food from street vendors, most means of transportation, accommodation and anything you buy at a market.  That does not, however, mean there are not standard prices.  There are, they are just unwritten.  Locals know how much everything should cost and pay accordingly.  If a tourist asks about a price they will inevitably be told an outrageously high number.  You can haggle it down but will still pay more than a local.  But if you know the standard price and hand it to them without saying a word, acting like you know what you're doing, you can get away with paying the normal rate.  Better yet, you may even get change back!

So, having been in Indonesia for six weeks now, things have been getting cheaper and cheaper for me.  One reason is that I know how much things should cost.  Another is that as my Indonesian improves people attempt to cheat me less.  They're less likely to take the 'you're a rich foreigner so I'll rip you off' approach, and more likely to take the 'you're a rich foreigner who's taken the time to learn our language, so I'll give you free food' approach.  Yet a third reason things are cheaper is that I'm now better at haggling, a skill I seldom use in the US.

Haggling is expected in many transactions here.  Although at its core haggling is a battle between conflicting interests, it's almost always friendly and not taken to heart.  There's a trick to friendly haggling.  I've learned that both sides are expected to compromise, unless one of them is naive.  Neither the buyer's nor the seller's initial offer is to be accepted.  It’s offensive if you (the buyer) refuse to raise your initial offer, even if it is generous.  And why shouldn't it be offensive?  It means you expect the other party to compromise, but refuse to yourself.  If, however, your first offer is too low to be considered fair, but then you raise it, no offense is taken.  You've compromised, and the seller will not feel cheated after compromising as well.  I think there's a life lesson here, which could apply in any conflict, including personal relationships.  Generosity isn't found in the details of your offer, but in your willingness to show the same behavior you expect of the other party.

At this point I know my way around fairly well, I know the unwritten standard costs, and I know the principles of fair haggling—which makes it all the more infuriating when I encounter someone determined to rip me off.  It almost never happens, and when it does it's usually someone who's never traded with a foreigner and is new to the game.  But here in southern Sumatra, it happens often!  My first day in Sumatra someone warned me people here are criminals to foreigners, and later another person warned me as well.  I shrugged it off and didn't take it seriously, but in the past week I've probably had more people try to cheat me than during the rest of my time in Indonesia—restaurant owners, motorcycle drivers, park rangers, people claiming to be guides.  Some are aggressive about it.  One female motorcycle driver demanded three times the normal rate, and tried to give me the keys to her motorcycle in a melodramatic show of how much I was ripping her off.  I had already given her 1.5 times the normal rate, and asked her why I should pay more.  She said it was because she was a woman!  I told her women were the same as men (and as far as driving a vehicle is concerned I'm sure it's true) and she responded with, "not in Indonesia."  I gave her some more, about double the normal price, and she finally left me alone.

Corruption is rampant in mild forms pretty much everywhere in Indonesia, including the National Park system.  Services that should be provided for free or for a standardized rate paid to the park itself, are instead negotiable and the fees paid directly to rangers for their personal profit.  I can deal with that.  As long as the entrance fees and accommodation go to support the park, I'm willing to pay extra to the park rangers, especially since I sometimes ask them do rough things.

I've just returned from Way Kambas National Park, which tops my personal list for corruption.  The park office told me I couldn't hire a guide ahead of time, and instead had to go to a lodge inside the park and hire guides there.  I took a motorcycle into the park.  I was the only tourist and lived with a bunch of rangers headed by Dedi, the boss and best guide.  Dedi told me I couldn't hire a guide by the day, like I did everywhere else in Indonesia.  Neither could I go where I wanted.  Rather, there were set "activities" I could choose from, like a menu, each one lasting only 2-3 hours.  Each activity cost as much as hiring a guide for three days anywhere else in Indonesia.  Also, although I entered the park by myself, I couldn't walk along the road alone, but had to hire a guide.

Way Kambas National Park protects a swampy patch of lowland rainforest in southeast Sumatra

Well, that was all ridiculous and I let him know that.  I told him the fair prices, and said I wouldn't pay for any of those "activities," partly because I simply didn't have the cash on me, but also because I refused to.  So I was a prisoner on this guarded compound, free to walk around but not allowed to enter the forest without paying more money.  I don’t respond well to being told I can't do something.  I walked into the forest anyway, away from the eyes of the money-hungry rangers.  One day I walked a few kilometers along the entrance road.  It was a great morning—great birds, sambar deer and bearded pigs—but then someone discovered me.

Forbidden to leave the park’s central compound alone, I snuck off to enjoy a morning walk along an overgrown road

Word got back that I was walking alone and soon I was followed by three motorcycles and four people, all telling me it was dangerous.

"There could be elephants in the road," they said.

"But aren't the elephants nocturnal?" I asked, and they switched to another dangerous animal.

"There are sun bears."

"I would love to see a bear," I responded.

Dedi, the chief extortionist, told me that once an American came and went off into the forest by himself, got lost, and had to spend the night in the forest.  I told him I wasn't in the forest, but on the road.  This argument continued for about an hour, punctuated every once in a while by me pretending not to understand and walking away (none of them spoke English and all of this was in Indonesian).  Playing dumb only worked for so long, and eventually they surrounded me, trapping me with their motorcycles.

Back in Halmahera Opan had taught me a two-word phrase to use on corrupt government officials.  Now, trapped and harassed, I put it to good use, and also told Dedi I thought he was corrupt.  It actually worked!  Three of the rangers backed down and left, and Dedi agreed to walk with me for free for a couple kilometers, and then left me to walk on my own.  But the confrontation spoiled the morning anyway.

Butterflies collected at puddles along the overgrown road…

…and blue lycophytes grew along its edge

The large winged seeds of the Javan cucumber (Alsomitra macrocarpa) are famous for their gliding ability.  I discovered this one on my rebellious morning walk.

Later I met the park director.  He came up to me while I ate in the camp kitchen and asked me questions in halting English.  I answered all his questions in Indonesian, and so the conversation naturally slipped into that language.  He was impressed that I was in Indonesia alone and that I had learned a little bit of the language, and took a liking to me.  It was only later I learned he was the director.  After that all the rangers treated me nicely, even Dedi, because I was on the boss's good list.

The exorbitant activity prices limited my mobility.  There was one three hour activity I wanted to do—a boat ride and hike to a savanna—but it cost as much as my entire three day trip, with three full time guides, to Bukit Barisan Selatan!  So I couldn't afford it.  Grrr.

There was still a lot of wildlife to be seen around the camp

I did find lots more elephant dung and footprints, but no elephants...  But large mammal lovers won't be disappointed—there were great views of siamangs, surilis, long-tailed macaques, bearded pigs, sambar deer, and even Malayan tapir footprints.

I missed out again on seeing elephants in the wild, but their footprints were common...

...including baby ones

Western bearded pigs (Sus barbatus oi) were common, sometimes traveling in noisy herds

Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) do well in disturbed areas and frequented park clearings

A small isolated population of Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) survives in Way Kambas

The leeches here were the worst I've seen.  The speed of land leeches may surprise those who have never encountered them.  They stand on one end on the ground and wave their other end around in the air, like a small leafless tree waving in the wind.  If your foot touches them they grab on and crawl up your body.  The ground here was covered with little waving leeches—at times there was at least one for every square foot of trail.  There was no avoiding them.  Not stepping on the ones I saw just meant stepping on the ones I didn't see.  I got bitten countless times and pulled dozens of the little animals off my shoes, feet, legs, thighs and hands.  The floors of the park buildings were spotted with blood drops from past victims.  It was creepy—all those waving crawling bloodsuckers, and all that blood.

The leeches at Way Kambas were the densest I’ve ever seen.  I was bitten many times, and constantly reached down to wipe climbers off my boots and pants.

Way Kambas wasn't all bad.  I had some great experiences, and it was better than sitting on a couch somewhere.  One morning I did spring for one of the activities, although not with Dedi.  I hired a guide named Darmi, and a guard whose only job was to carry a submachine gun in case of an elephant attack.  I thought he was unnecessary and would rather not have paid for him.  Plus, if I get attacked by an elephant it's my own damned fault.  It's better for me to get gored/trampled to death than have the elephant get shot.  As an aside, I'll officially state this here—if I get killed by some rare organism, I would like all of what little property I own donated toward the conservation of that organism.  The guard didn't know much about tracking or wildlife—he thought deer tracks were pig tracks, baby elephant tracks tapir tracks, and a Brahminy Kite an eagle.  Seriously, a submachine gun?  In a National Park?  Corruption.

But it was worth it.  We hiked to a marsh bordered by scrubby savanna, where we watched grazing mammals and birds, including endangered white-winged ducks.

We hiked to a small flooded savanna which was a favorite of large grazing mammals

I'll be leaving Sumatra soon, and I couldn't be happier about it.  Overall my Sumatra experience is a big meh.  The nature, as always, was fascinating and justified the trip.  But the people I encountered left something to be desired and caused a lot of unnecessary difficulty.  And I imagine they were just as frustrated with me.  Of course, I’m comparing it with other places in Indonesia, which is a friendly and welcoming country.  On its own, Sumatra is still pretty freaking awesome.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sumatran grossout

This was my first note from Sumatra, written May 11, 2011.  I flew there from Ternate, 1,600 miles to the east, and the transition was drastic—the language, people, culture and biology were all different.  Of course, that’s what makes Indonesia one of the world’s most biologically and anthropologically diverse countries on Earth—every island is unique.

I also remember getting tired by this point in the trip.  I had been traveling for four months, and my adventures in the Spice Islands the week before—although rewarding—didn’t help my fatigue.  So far, my trip had been getting more and more difficult.  New Zealand was relatively easy, Australia was challenging, and Indonesia was just as hard but with a bunch of linguistic barriers.  The exhaustion comes out a bit in this note.  But I had reason to hope.  My friend Durant was scheduled to meet me in Java a week after this note was written.

I've spent the last few days in southern Sumatra, in mountainous Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.  Same old story, right?  Hire guides, walk around, see stuff, show gets old, I'm sure.  Lacking any sort of exciting unifying narrative, but still having plenty of great material to share, I'm struggling to find a way to make this inevitably monotonous note readable.  So here's my idea—a theme.  This note lacks a plot to give it structure, so I'll replace plot with a theme.  The theme is grossness.  The photos in this note will get progressively grosser, so beware.  I can only show photos of things that are dirty, creepy, bad-smelling, etc., and the photos are extra valuable if they contain some combination thereof.

Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park overlooks the Sunda Strait—a thin neck of the Indian Ocean separating Sumatra from Java

First let me say that I miss eastern Indonesia.  It's just so much more mysterious.  Maybe I should've stayed longer.  I've left its Austro-Papuan wildlife to return back to an island that is biologically Asian.  I've exchanged the marsupials, spider weevils, cockatoos and birds of paradise of Maluku for the elephants, primates, squirrels and pheasants of Asia.  Which is more promising?  Plus, Sumatra started off with a bad omen.  I took out my beard trimmer to do my monthly shearing, but the batteries died mid-shave.  Then I found out my charger had stopped working—the tropical humidity, perhaps.  So I was stuck half-shaven.  I tried using my knife to finish the job, but it wasn't sharp enough.  So I pulled out some matches and singed some of my hair away, but that was kind of hot.  By turning my trimmer on and getting 5 seconds of power before it died again, I was able to trim small patches at a time.  So between that and the matches I managed to trim it into a passable goatee.  That lasted me a few hours until I was able to buy a razor.

In some ways BBS National Park was a disappointment.  The park staff assigned a rookie 23 year old office worker to accompany me, just because he spoke a little English.  But he was useless in the field, and a bit lazy.  Luckily there were a couple of other guides I met in the field who were much better—they knew their way around, and though they spoke no English, my poor Indonesian was enough to get us where we needed.  Most Indonesian National Parks are somewhat inaccessible, but this one took it to an extreme—absolutely no going into the forest without a rifle, no going into the forest alone, no going into the forest after 1600.  The reason is that there are nocturnal tigers and elephants—one of which eats people and the other of which tramples them.  I would love to see an elephant in the wild, but every time we got close to some the guides made me turn around, because another one of the rules is never to try to see an elephant in the forest.  Visibility being so bad in tropical rainforests, if you're close enough to see an elephant you're close enough to be killed by one.  I understand, but I find it quite annoying when people are so paranoid about safety.  I didn't travel halfway around the world, struggle with a new language, and spend every day dirty and tired and mildly injured just to be coddled in Sumatra.  I don't know enough Indonesian to convey the complex idea that I'm ok with risking my life a little bit.  Alas, I saw plenty of fresh elephant footprints, elephant tracks, elephant dung, and even heard elephants trampling trees nearby, only to be told to turn around and go the other way.  Grrr.

Visitors to Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park are not allowed to approach elephants in the forest, but they were always nearby

This next photo is actually a step down in grossness, but the last photo fit in so well with that paragraph that I don't want to rearrange it.  Near our camp was a mudwallow created by a local rhinoceros.  The rhino was currently in a different part of the forest on its nomadic cycle and they're wary of humans, for good reason, so we didn't find any.  But here's its mud.  We also found some small shrubs that they had broken and twisted as a form of communication.

The park contains one of the last populations of Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis).  Seeing one is difficult, but their mudwallows reveal their presence.

One of the guides, a local named Adi, quickly and naturally picked up on the types of things I would like to see and brought me a grasshopper from the forest.  It's beautiful, but I realize some people, including Adi, would never call it that.  This grasshopper has the distinction of being the first one that's ever bitten me, at least that I felt.  You can imagine my surprise when I picked it up and felt a very painful pinch—I thought it was going to draw blood.  I think it may be one of the carnivorous grasshoppers I've heard about, but I don't know how to tell.

This colorful grasshopper had a painful bite

Adi also found me not one, but two, of my new favorite frogs, the Malayan Horned Frog.  Not especially gross, but a little on the crawly side.  Plus the fact that it looks like dead decomposing plant organs adds some grossness.

Malayan horned frogs (Megophrys nasuta) quickly became my new favorite

So what's grosser than a frog that looks like decomposing organs?  How about a frog that looks like a fungus eating a live one?  I didn't even see this guy at first because from a distance he just looks like a spot of lichen.  I only noticed him because I was trying to photograph an ant only inches away on the same leaf.

I almost missed this frog because it looked so much like the lichen living on the leaf’s surface

On arriving at our field camp, inhabited by three camp kittens, the first wild animal I saw was a small snake being mauled to death by one of the said kitten killing machines.  Poor little guy.  He was badly chewed up and bleeding a lot, probably no hope for him.

The camp’s kittens were killing machines, and one greeted me with a dying snake

Of course, not all the snakes were dying.  A large reticulated python lived above our kitchen.

A reticulated python (Python reticulatus) lived on top of the kitchen building

I convinced them to let me go on one night hike, which was rewarding, in terms of grossness.  First, we saw the largest cockroach I've ever seen in the wild—a female with an egg case.  I'm biased against roaches and the only roach photo I've shown is of one being eaten by a tarantula.  Maybe this one's maternal instincts help me to sympathize a bit more.  Anyway, I think it fits into the creepy category, so I'll throw it in.

How can you not admire this mother roach’s maternal instincts?

Every photo has to get grosser, so this slot is reserved for an even creepier insect, probably the creepiest I’ve seen in the wild.  It's a giant female firefly—and she looks like she has some millipede and slug thrown in for good measure.  Her rear end is bioluminescent and glowed bright green, which is what allowed me to find her and pick her up.

This giant firefly stretches the boundaries of insect anatomy

My first day in the park I was bitten by no fewer than six leeches—a new personal best for me.  Some I caught before they drew blood, but some I missed until it was too late.  I bled everywhere.  Many of the bites were in places you'd expect—ankles and legs—but some were in weirder locations.  For example, I found one sucking on my Adam's apple.  Is there anything more manly than getting bitten by a leech on your Adam's apple?  But yeah, I bled all over my sheets and blanket that night, in addition to my pants and socks.

The land leeches were vicious in southern Sumatra

So what tops turds, mud, frogs that look like plant corpses, snakes, big creepy insects and human blood?  The king of all flowers—Rafflesia arnoldii.  There are many species of Rafflesia, some quite small, but this one is the largest flower on Earth.  It’s pollinated by insects that feed on corpses—so of course it has the appearance, size and terrible smell of a rotting mammal body.

Rafflesia arnoldii is a parasite of Tetrastigma vines.  Its flowers bloom for only a few days, and I was lucky this one bloomed the morning I left.

For mammal lovers, we found siamangs, endemic Sumatran surilis, and a Malayan giant squirrel, which I didn't even know existed.  I also got to hear plenty of agile gibbons.  But of course, those animals are all hard to photograph...

All the photos can't be gross.  I'll finish with some pleasant ones.

Although I missed out on seeing wild elephants, I got to experience a captive one.  Sumatran park rangers rescue and train illegally captured elephants and use them to patrol the park.  I met one of the patrol elephants, Yonggi, and his mahout Heru gave me a free ride on his way to the river where we all bathed.

An elephant patrol ranger, Heru, gave me a ride on Yonggi before bathing him in the creek

Oh, and my new watch just broke.  I broke my good watch in Sulawesi by swimming in the sea with it.  I bought a new one just 8 days ago in Ternate, and it's already broken...first the goatee, now this.  But it's ok.  Maybe a kind donor would like to buy me one of the Wal-Mart 7-dollar watches to send out with Durant on the 18th.  Those are pretty durable.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lekking around Halmahera

I wrote this note shortly after the last Ternate one, on May 7, 2011.  It is the last of my posts from the Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia.

Two notes in such a short span of time is a bit much, but I'm starting another trip, and it wouldn't do to postpone writing about one adventure until after I've finished the next one.

I mentioned Opan was a park ranger, right?  He works at the new Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park, established in 2004.  Although he lives in Ternate, he spends five nights a week on Halmahera, working in the park.  So one day we took a ferry across the strait separating the two islands.  It's difficult to exaggerate the scenic value of this area.  The large island of Halmahera lies to the east, and there is a string of volcanic islands, with Ternate near the northern end, paralleling its western coast.  There are times when you can look in any direction and be surrounded by volcanoes and other mountain peaks, all jutting out of perfectly blue water and covered in mist.  On our return journey to Ternate a few days later, as we sailed along the coast of Tidore, the tallest of the islands, Opan asked me to pull out a 1,000 Rupiah note.  I duly did and to my surprise the image on the note was nearly the same image in our view at the time, although from a slightly different angle.  The caption on the note confirmed it.  Go ahead and Google a 1,000 Rupiah note and check for yourself.

We sailed past Tidore, Ternate's southern neighbor, on our way to Halmahera

In Opan's National Park office I was met by the Park Director with strict formality.  Opan had explained to him that I wanted to go into the park and needed a guide.  The park being so new, no locals had the necessary skills to take me in.  In addition, parts of the park were inhabited by the native Tugutil people, still living a traditional hunter-gatherer and subsistence farming lifestyle, and many speaking no Indonesian.  They made great porters and knew the forest better than anyone, but were ill equipped to take a foreigner around.  So we waited for the Director to pass down his decree about which park staff would accompany me.  Eventually he informed us that Opan would go, because he and I knew each other and were basically family by this point (plus we knew we worked well together, based on our rescue effort).  In addition he appointed a man named Ari, on the Ecosystem Management staff, because he spoke good English.  Although Opan and I communicated fairly well, his English was poor as was my Indonesian, so it was nice to have an interpreter.  So the three of us left that same evening, after buying some supplies, for an expedition into the Tayawi River valley.

A three-hour drive south along the coast, with sago and coconut plantations on our left side, and the aforementioned chain of volcanic islands on our right, brought us to the park border where the road ended abruptly near a cluster of Tugutil huts on the bank of the Tayawi.  On the way we passed a Tugutil hunting party setting out for the night to hunt for introduced deer or pig.  There were four of them, two men and two women, and their hunting gear consisted of a long spear, a harpoon secured to a rope, and a machete.  They understood a little Indonesian, and stopped to meet me and show me their weapons.

We had two nights, one whole day, and one morning in which to explore the park, and we were searching for one quarry in particular—the ever elusive Bidadari (Angelbird), or Wallace's Standardwing.  It is one of only two birds of paradise to occur west of Papua, is endemic to Halmahera and two nearby islands, and is the unofficial mascot of Maluku.  In fact its image is painted on the gates of the Sultan's compound in Ternate.  The Bidadari has a long and colorful history, to match its bizarre and colorful appearance.  It was discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace (hence the name), but after its initial discovery it disappeared as far as the world was concerned, and was only "rediscovered" toward the end of the 20th century.  The only way to see the Bidadari is to discover a local lek site, where dozens of males gather every morning at the crack of down to dance and display in the upper canopy.  With luck, and a guide who knows their way to such a legendary site, hardy travelers can get a glimpse of the famous animal.

Opan and Ari guided me as we searched for the Bidadari (photo courtesy of Opan)

It was already dark when we arrived at the Tayawi.  There are no established trails in the park, and our route involved several fordings of the swift and unpredictable river.  Ari, ever the cautious one, and having once been swept away by the current and rescued by a Tugutil boy, strongly advised against any river crossings at night, although Opan said he would follow me anywhere.  After a short debate, I agreed to wait till the morning to start, but said we should leave at 0500, on the grounds that by the time we reached the first crossing point, the sun would have risen.  Plus, we had only two chances to find the Bidadari, and couldn't afford to sacrifice one unless we had to.  We stayed the night in the Tugutil village and set out the next morning.  As luck would have it, we were forced by vegetation to cross the river earlier than we expected, while it was still dark.  The first crossing went smoothly, but the second was a near disaster.

We forded the Tayawi River several times, once almost disastrously

Opan and Ari, like many Indonesians nimble of foot and strong of toe, made it across with some effort.  I trailed behind and at the swiftest point, in crotch deep water, was unable to move and started to be swept slowly but surely, step by uncertain step, downstream.  I'm almost sure that if I were swept away I would have survived, but would probably have lost my pack.  But it's alright.  I slowly regained my footing, fought my way back upstream, and finished the crossing.  Needless to say, we waited for sunrise to attempt the next crossing.

Although Ari looks like the unsure one in this photo, I was the worst and was once nearly swept downstream (photo courtesy of Opan)

Seven crossings later, and after plenty of bushwhacking through fern thickets, we arrived at a hut near our lek site around 0730.  We dropped our packs and rushed across a creek and up a nearby slope in an effort to get a glimpse of the Bidadari before they dispersed for the day.

Dense fern thickets colonize areas that have been scoured by the Tayawi River

A creek separated our hut from the hillside where the Bidadari (Semioptera wallacei) lekked

I was not disappointed.  One male came into view in the treetops and I watched his display.  I won't bother to describe it, because it's online and this note is too long as it is, but it left a strong impression on me.  I was at a bird of paradise lek in a remote island forest, in the territory of native hunters, watching a legendary display put on by possibly the most beautiful, yet bizarre, animal I had ever seen.  The next morning there were about two dozen of them at the lek.  It was an experience of a lifetime.  But then again, I seem to be having many of those lately.

Returning from the lek site to our hut that first morning, we had the funniest moment of the trip.  Ari was setting up to cook breakfast when he found two scorpions on the hut floor.  I pushed one down through the cracks and onto the forest floor below, and photographed the other.  After photographing it Ari went to sweep it out the door, but sent it flying right into Opan's chest outside!  Opan let out a panicked and annoyed scream, and then yelled at Ari.  But it turned out the scorpion was already dead because Ari had accidentally squished it.

We cleared some scorpions from our hut before settling in

Ari accidentally squished one and sent it flying out the door onto Opan’s chest

Of course, the trip was full of other discoveries and moments as well.

Spider weevils (Eupholini?) are endemic to Papua and the Spice Islands

I think people often wonder what would happen if two particularly vicious animals had a fight to the death.  In reality these things rarely happen.  But the great thing about ants is that such fights-to-the-death happen all the time.  We've met a couple deadly ants so far.  What, for example, would happen if the individual killing prowess of a trap-jaw ant was matched up against an army of weaver ants.  Well, this...

A beheaded weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) clings to a trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus sp.)

I found this trap-jaw ant, fresh from a fight, with a disembodied weaver ant head still clamped to her leg.  The weaver ant obviously came off worse in the initial fight, but if the trap-jaw ant doesn't get that head off, she may be doomed to a slow death as well.

At the end of our hike out, as we arrived back at the Tugutil village, Ari congratulated me, although I didn't know why.  Then he explained.  The lek we visited was just discovered by an Indonesian ornithologist in 2009, and I was the first foreigner to see it, or even to go to that region of the park.  He said the entire park only gets about 100 visitors a year, only 3 or 4 of whom are foreigners.  Although I didn't discover anything new, that was a legitimate explorer moment, right?  Isn't that one definition of exploring, to be the first non-local to lay eyes on something?

On our hike out we stopped at the home of a Tugutil hunter (photo courtesy of Opan)

After our adventure it was time for Opan and I to head back to Ternate, to spend one final night with the family in the place I had come to think of as home.  So off we sailed.  Back at home, after bathing, Opan and the family and Ipi took me sightseeing in Ternate.  First we went to Danau Toliri, a volcanic lake on the lower slopes of Mount Gamalama.  Although isolated and surrounded by farmland, Toliri was inhabited by a few crocodiles, and we watched a large one swim lazily on the surface.

Opan and his family drove me around Ternate as a final farewell before I left for Sumatra

Then we visited lava fields from an old eruption, the Sultan's house, the largest fort on the island—the Dutch Fort Orenz, and a house that in Opan's expert opinion is the one Wallace owned when he lived in Indonesia—now owned by the Sultan's family, of course.  Opan is proud to live in Ternate, knows its history, and more than once claimed that he could trace his ancestry to the original Portuguese and Arab traders who settled the Ternate coast, and that the Ternate dialect is partly Portuguese-based.  The subject came up again as we toured the island, as of course I had to be taught both the Indonesian and Ternate names for everything.  The next day I left Ternate for the last time, with many goodbyes and parting gifts, on my way to Sumatra.