Here there be dragons.

Let me set the scene: a tranquil bay, a small village, the melodic call to prayer drifting through the still air. You stir, groggily open your eyes and see the soft pink light low on the horizon, hinting at the rising sun. Is this bliss? For me it was. 10 days into a trip taking me to some of Indonesia’s wildlife hot-spots, I was just rising from a night spent on the deck of a boat which was about to set sail for a place called Manta Point.

Sunrise at Komodo Island
Sunrise at Komodo Island

The waters of Indonesia are renowned for their bounty, reefs with shoals of colourful fish and, in deeper waters, pelagic swimmers such as Mata rays. These graceful creatures can grow to over 6.5 metres and come to Manta Point to feed in the currents. By 08:20 we find ourselves scouring the waters around the boat in search of shadows gliding just beneath the surface of the water, mask, snorkel and fins at the ready.

manta (photo by Craig)
manta (photo by Craig)

As we spot the first ray Craig, an underwater wildlife aficionado, jumps in without hesitation. We follow quickly behind and upon the water covering my ears I find myself in a world of silence and emptiness, just me and a Manta; then two; then three. I’m hypnotised by them, their slow, seamless movements calling me to follow.

Eventually it’s time to go, we climb back on board and those who didn’t go in tell us that up to five rays swam past the boat, clear for all to see. Any day that starts this way can only be a good day.

Our boat in Komodo NP
Our boat in Komodo NP

The underwater world, however, is really only an extra, the two main reasons for our trip to this far-flung part of the Globe are terrestrial: Orang-utans and Komodo dragons. It is to look for the latter that our boat now heads toward the island or Rinca.

The dragons on Rinca are slightly smaller than the ones on Komodo Island, which we saw the day before, but the general experience is better. We drop anchor by some mangroves and take the zodiac over to the peer. Walking the short distance to the ranger station we spot a deer, a monkey and, excitingly, a dragon. We can’t go towards it, however, not yet. They are truly dangerous creatures and we need to be accompanied by rangers. These we meet at the station, they’re young and friendly and carry forked sticks to fend off any dragon that decides to take too much interest in us. They lead us towards the trailhead just beyond the kitchens.

Wild Deer
Wild Deer

As could be expected the kitchen’s aromas attract the dragons and it is common to see two or three hanging out, lazily beneath the elevated cabin. Watching these prehistoric-looking creatures up close with their forked tongues, stumpy legs, malicious eyes and scaled bodies, it’s easy to see why they’re called dragons. After spending a while observing and photographing them we continue into the woods and up the hill. It’s not an arduous hike but it is hot, and stopping to listen to the rangers’ stories of living in close proximity to these overgrown poisonous lizards is a welcome respite. We end up not actually seeing more dragons along the trail (unlike on Komodo Island where we passed a dragon sunning itself) but the views from the top of the hill are worth the effort and we do spot a wild buffalo and some wild hogs.

Komodo on the trail
Komodo on the trail

Returning to the station we stop for a welcome cold drink and a rest before returning to the boat. As we get up to leave, one of the rangers shouts ‘he caught something’ and rushes towards a young dragon. We all follow in pursuit and arrive at the scene just in time to see the tail of a baby dragon disappearing down the throat of its older peer, swallowed whole: Komodo dragons are cannibalistic.

Cannibalistic Komodo
Cannibalistic Komodo

Orang-utans, on the other hand, are not cannibalistic. In fact, other than the odd insect, they’re mostly vegetarian and, playing to the stereotype, they do love bananas, as we discover when visiting these distant cousins in the jungles of Sumatra. This is how our trip started, in the forests of Sumatra, a very long way from Komodo. In truth our trip starts in Medan, the island’s biggest city, and like many of Indonesia’s urban centres it is all chaos and traffic, so arriving in the village of Bukit Lawang, on the banks of a small river, feels like a different world.

Banana-eater
Banana-eater

There used to be an Orang-utan rehabilitation centre here as encroaching Palm oil plantations push these great apes into smaller forest areas. Today, however, the rehabilitation centre has closed down, and, happily, a number of Orang-utans have adapted to a semi-wild lifestyle in nearby forests of Gunung Leuser National Park. The one remaining aspect of the rehabilitation centre is the daily feeding for those Orang-utans who want an easy meal.

Punk ape
Punk ape

We take the back-road to the feeding station – a 2hr hike through the forest. On the way we come across numerous Thomas Leaf monkeys and Long-tailed macaques. Then, a flash of orange perceived through the foliage and we see our first Orang-utan. It’s a female, and she’s not alone, she has a young-one with her. With their big eyes, punk hair-does and long arms, they are incredibly endearing and over the next two days we will come across a number of them, both at the feeding station and in the forest. We also see plenty of monkeys, bats, peacocks and even a gibbon (who are often heard but less frequently seen).

Thomas Leaf Monkey
Thomas Leaf Monkey
Bat Cave, Bikit Lawang
Bat Cave, Bikit Lawang

This may have only been my first visit to Indonesia but it certainly will not be my last. It has its downside, not least being the horrendous traffic, but with so much on offer, wildlife, jungles, volcanoes, beaches, temples, culture, history, I can’t not go back and explore more of this incredible archipelago.

Orang-utans

 

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