Gentlemen,’ I said to our boys the night before we left for Indonesia, ‘are you sure you’re ready to see dragons?’
The face of our younger son, Asa, seven at the time, lit up. He still lived in his own world, apart from the rest of us, where real and make-believe weren’t so easy to distinguish.
But his older brother, Apollo, nine, was entering that age where everything I said was slightly suspect. ‘Come on, Dad,’ he said. ‘I know exactly what animals you’re talking about. Those aren’t dragons. They’re just big fat lizards.’
I frowned at him. I had sent about 150 emails, texts and WhatsApp messages and spent thousands of dollars to get him and his brother in front of those ‘big fat lizards.’
‘You’ll see,’ I said. ‘They dragons. And they real.’
For as long as I could remember, I’d been fascinated by Komodo dragons, huge killer reptiles confined to a few remote islands. I knew it would take some work to get to them, so the dragons became our excuse for a little family adventure, our raison d’travel.
Ask our kids what they want to be when they grow up and they’ll say, ‘Jungle explorer.’ So last winter my wife, Courtenay, and I thought: Let’s do that for a vacation. Let’s explore some jungles. Let’s pack as many different stunning, pristine natural environments into one two-week trip as possible and check in on the state of our world, starting with the dragons.
Of course, I got the dragon bit totally wrong and we’d soon learn that the other wildlife we’d encounter – the orangutans, the scops owls, the unjustly athletic gibbons and hypnotising manta rays – was infinitely more interesting.
But perhaps the greatest discovery we made was within our own complicated species. We found, pretty easily, without hiring a tour company, and just by thumbing through old-fashioned guidebooks augmented by Google searches, a network of one-man conservationist organisations who knew every nook and cranny of the terrain we wanted to explore. I’m sure they’re out there in each country, but I can say with certainty that Indonesia offers an inspiring coterie of hardworking marine guides, bird guides, forest experts and other self-educated naturalists. They were all enthusiastic about showing off their slice of the world – sometimes, perhaps a little too enthusiastic.
It’s easy to see how they could get carried away. With its 18,000 islands strung along the equator, many with their own unique plants and animals, separated by relatively short distances, Indonesia is a naturalist’s promised land. Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian explorer who came up with the theory of natural selection independent of Charles Darwin, voyaged around here, filling his notebooks as he travelled isle to isle. Wallace didn’t come from money like Darwin, so he had to finance his travels by shooting and skinning orangutans and collecting specimens for museum cases. He loved beetles and came back to England with more than 80,000.
What took Wallace nearly a month, took us – travelling from India, where we live, to Indonesia – about nine hours. We landed in Jakarta, the capital, where we connected with a passenger jet bound for Labuan Bajo, on the western tip of Flores island.
Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Komodo National Park and the underwater wonders of the Flores Sea. These days, it’s booming: a hive of new hotels, and the girders and scaffolding of future hotels being clanged together.
I like to believe that all the news of climate change, mass extinction and the advent of shameful problems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating spread of plastic junk the size of Western Europe, has jarred something in our collective conscience. Even as we’re ruining it, or maybe precisely because we’re aware that we are ruining it, we crave pristine nature, which this part of Indonesia offers in spades.
In places like this, it’s always good to remind yourself that you want to leave the lightest footprint possible. Don’t corner animals so you can get that perfect pic. Don’t take home a paperweight from the ocean floor. The orangutan-skinning days should be over. I know, this all sounds ridiculously simple. But as we learned, this code of conduct isn’t always followed, especially where there’s a lot of nature but few rules.
We began our trip at Labuan Bajo’s marina. As we waited for a dinghy to take us to our boat, I spied several other foreign tourists like us, standing stiff on the docks, dangerously pale and smeared in sunscreen. We were all about to embark on three-day snorkelling cruises. Our boat was long and wooden and leaned slightly to the left – perhaps some water in the bilge. We planted ourselves on the deck, the floor vibrating beneath our feet from the grinding engine. As we puttered out of the harbour, we could see straight to the bottom. The water was that clear.
Less than an hour later, the four of us splashed gracelessly in. A reef was just up ahead and we paddled behind Sylvester, our marine guide, who had meaty shoulders and thick curly hair, and had worked his way up the tourism totem pole from making beds and clipping grass at small hotels to conducting snorkelling expeditions. He turned around, his face beaming behind his mask. The coral he brought us to was flourishing – picture bright purple, orange, red and a rich velvety green.
A cool current runs through the Flores Sea, creating the ideal temperature for corals (around 75 degrees Fahrenheit), and the sea was full of fish: clown fish, angel fish, needle fish, leopard rays, a huge moray eel unravelling like a ribbon out of its cave and one school of a species that I had never heard of that had eyes ringed with flashing blue. And this was just the first of half a dozen reefs we visited.
The most spectacular was a manta ray feeding station in the middle of the sea. After spotting a lone black fin cutting through the waves, Sylvester signalled for us to jump in. We gazed down – at least 25 manta rays circled underwater, their huge mouths open, their white eyes alert and moving side to side as they hoovered up plankton. Their wings gracefully undulated as if they were floating through air.
In Wallace’s time, naturalists called manta rays ‘devil fish,’ but I’m sure that had they actually swam with them, and seen how beautifully they moved, they would have chosen a more befitting name.
Swimming in cool water makes you hungry and we slithered back on deck eager for lunch. From a small galley at the back of the boat, the cook produced tasty mie goreng (fried noodles), fresh fish, fried rice and crunchy shrimp crackers.
On our second day, it was time to meet the dragons. The spiny hills of Rinca and Komodo islands loomed before us, home to some of the last of the few thousand Komodo dragons (they take their name from the island). Sylvester introduced us to a young guide named Anton, a self-described dragon specialist. He proudly rattled off the animal’s resume: nine feet long, 200 pounds, poisonous venom, carnivorous, cannibalistic and, he added with a grin: ‘They can smell blood five miles away.’
Courtenay pulled me aside. ‘You’re sure it’s safe to be tromping around here?’ she asked. ‘The only thing he has is that stick.’ I looked at Anton’s protection for my family: a 6-foot-long forked stick. But we had no other options, so we marched off behind him.
We found our first batch of fat-bellied dragons within minutes. They were lounging behind the rangers’ station, next to the garbage cans. Supposedly they can run 15 mph. These didn’t move. They didn’t turn their heads, they didn’t swish their tails, they didn’t blink. They looked like they were made out of wax.
‘See, Daddy,’ Apollo said, with nine-year-old smugness. He didn’t have to utter another word. Komodo dragons were just big fat lizards.
Dozens of other tourists ringed around the group of listless creatures, posing for selfies. ‘Closer, closer,’ I heard one guide say.
The crowd’s behaviour was the first piece of evidence that the Komodo scene has gotten out of control. Each month, thousands of tourists flock in, and some guides will do anything for a tip. Then I learned that the Indonesian police had recently busted a Komodo trafficking ring – 40 dragons smuggled out and chopped into pieces for traditional medicine.
If something isn’t done soon, these animals don’t stand a chance. The Indonesian government has mused about closing Komodo but it won’t be easy, now that a local economy has sprung up around dragon-viewing.
‘Come,’ Anton said. ‘I show you something else.’ We followed him past some lanky palms, tramping into a dry riverbed. The leaves crackled and clouds of dust rose under our feet.
‘Good place for snakes,’ Anton whispered. Before I had time to register the implications of that, Anton was galloping around, wildly chasing something.
‘Is that a cobra?’ Asa asked. It was indeed, about four slimy feet long, and Anton was determined to bring it to us. He tried to hook it on his stick, but the snake hissed, fell off and twisted in a million directions. Anton kept jabbing at it, trying to twirl it onto his 6-foot-long fork like a piece of pasta.
‘Anton, Anton,’ I said. I didn’t want to come across as a pompous tourist, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘That’s not nice.’
As soon as we returned to Labuan Bajo, we moved to the next stage of our air-land-and-sea adventure. On the veranda of Golo Hilltop, a 10-room boutique hotel run thoughtfully by two Dutch women, we leaned over a map of Flores with Sam Rabenak, professional bird watcher. A few Google searches had united us.
‘You want to see owls, kingfishers, parrots and orioles?’ he asked our boys.
Sam had them at owls.
Within an hour’s drive of Labuan Bajo, our two-day bird watching began.
Sam slipped through the trees like an infantryman – thin, veiny, dressed in a khaki field shirt, gear strapped to chest, binoculars in one hand, cigarette in the other. He travelled with a little speaker connected to a cellphone that stored recordings of dozens of bird calls.
‘This patch of forest,’ Sam said, gazing up at thin trees with white bark, ‘is home to the white-rumped kingfisher.’
‘The white-rumped kingfisher?’ Apollo gasped, as if Sam had just mentioned a unicorn.
Apollo is the family bird nerd and he started jumping up and down, saying ‘white-rumped kingfisher, white-rumped kingfisher.’
Sam smiled and took out his phone. He pressed a button and an eerie call floated through the forest from the speaker on his hip. He cupped his hands behind his ears, a little trick to magnify the sound. ‘I think someone’s coming.’
Faintly, we heard an actual bird calling back. The next moment, a beautiful little creature about half the size of a pigeon, with glistening indigo feathers, fluttered down on a branch directly in front of us.
I looked over at Apollo, excited to see his reaction. ‘That’s cheating,’ he scowled.
‘Yeah, Daddy,’ Asa piped in. ‘Sam tricked that bird.’
‘Shh!’ I snapped, before this went any further.
I don’t know if Sam heard, but he turned around with a serious look. ‘Birds are an indicator of how the forest is doing,’’ he explained. ‘If you don’t see them, that means the forest is sick.’
We waited until dusk to find the owls. Sam clicked on his speaker. A deep hoot came out. But no response from the forest. So he tried again. Still nothing. After a few more tries, I swore I heard something – owls have super-soft feathers that make almost no noise as they swoop in for the kill.
‘That’s him!’ Sam said. ‘The Flores scops owl.’
Sam was drawing one of the rarest birds in the world – they live only on Flores, perhaps fewer than 300 left – right to us. The kids weren’t scowling now. Their eyes were illuminated by that special light that goes out sometime in your teens. When it comes to owls, they had no issues with using a little modern tech.
The next morning, we hit the road. In a country of 18,000 islands, that means jumping on a plane or a boat. We flew 250 miles west to Lombok, a lush island where Alfred Wallace noticed that animal species were strikingly different from those a little farther west. The 1,000-foot-deep Lombok Strait is a natural barrier between the Asian and Australian ecozones, a reflection of ancient sea levels. It’s now known as the Wallace Line.
As we drove from the airport to a beach resort I had found online, we passed entire towns turned to rubble. Countless people were living under plastic tarps.
‘What happened?’ I asked the driver. ‘Oh that? It’s from the earthquake.’ ‘What earthquake?’ He turned to look at me. ‘You didn’t hear about the earthquake?’ This, my friends, is the risk of getting too carried away with Google. I’d planned our visit to Lombok without checking in with a human. Only after arriving did we learn that: 1) A few months earlier Lombok had been devastated by an epic earthquake. 2) Hundreds had been killed. 3) Several countries had issued travel advisories, warning of dangerous aftershocks. ‘I guess you didn’t search that, did you?’ Courtenay said.
A couple of days later we arrived at our last stop: Borneo. I’d always wanted to plunge into Borneo. It’s the world’s third largest island and one of the last great rainforests left: a Texas-size space completely covered by trees, or at least in my mind’s eye, that was what Borneo was supposed to look like.
Herry Roustaman, founder of Orangutan Green Tours and another dedicated eco-preneur, picked us up at the airport in Pangkalan Bun, one of the flat, growing, frontier towns in Indonesia’s chunk of Borneo (smaller slices of the island belong to Malaysia and Brunei). Herry was short and stocky, with a squarish face. He was raised in the forest, helping out on his grandfather’s boat, which plied Borneo’s endless rivers, carrying wood and rice. Then he opened up his own boat for tourists.
As he drove us through Pangkalan Bun, we passed fruit stands and parked pickup trucks selling heaps of jackfruit. The whole town carried its heavy, musky scent. People crowded around, staring at the piles of this unusually large, scaly fruit that emerges, in awesome abundance, from the jungle at a certain time each year.
‘When this stuff ripens,’ Herry said, ‘people go crazy.’
The next morning, he brought us to his boat. It was 45 feet long and 8 feet wide, an orangutan face painted on the side. ‘Your traditional klotok,’ he explained, named after the sound the engine makes: klok-tok-tok. We spent the next three days on our klotok, cruising the rivers of Tanjung Puting National Park, watching the jungle glide past.
Gigantic gnarled trees bent over the rivers. Rare birds skimmed the water. We stopped at research stations and walked down long, slippery, moss-covered boardwalks looking for orangutans, proboscis monkeys and gibbons, which swing branch to branch in happy arcs, the gymnasts of the jungle. The orangutans were the hardest to spot.
Each day acres of Borneo’s rainforests are wiped out for industrial palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the new ‘it’ additive, used in everything from Ritz crackers to Dove soap. To clear the land, palm oil farmers simply burn down the jungle, sometimes trapping terrified orangutans in their arboreal nests.
‘You’re not going to save the orangutans unless you save the forest,’ Herry said one evening, as we sat on the deck, watching our sons fish over the side of the boat his crew. Some of the guys who work for him had been poachers and Herry felt he was making progress converting all kinds of people into conservationists. But time was running out. In three days, we had seen exactly one orangutan. On our last afternoon, we passed a line of crushed palm fronds along one side of the river.
‘That’s interesting,’ Herry said. ‘At this time of year, that is exactly what orangutans like to eat.’
He stood by himself on the tip of the bow, peering into the jungle. It almost looked like he was sniffing the wind. ‘Wait,’ he said. He held up his hand. The captain cut the engine. No more klok-tok-tok. Suddenly, I could hear millions of thrumming insects.
‘Stay quiet,’ Herry whispered.
We sprawled on our stomachs on the riverboat’s warm wooden deck, binoculars around our necks, bug spray slathered on our arms, eyes on the riverbank. A few feet away, the bushes rustled. My pulse quickened. The palm fronds parted. I saw a blur of orange fur.
‘Orang hutan!’ Herry whispered loudly, pronouncing it as two words, which means, in Indonesian, ‘man of the jungle.’ The animal was huge, sitting on the ground, eating the inner core of a palm tree he had just felled, one of the last of his kind enjoying a midday snack.
We didn’t even get that good of a look at him – he remained behind one bush or another and Herry was careful not to get too close. But this was real jungle exploring – exactly why we were lying on the deck of a riverboat in the middle of Borneo as the sunshine streamed through the trees. Here was an endangered wild animal, seemingly oblivious to us and the hammer hanging over his existence.
And here we were, practically all alone, out there as far as I had ever dreamed.
New York Times News Service