A Travellerspoint blog

October 2008


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In July I spent a few happy days in the Kinabatangan valley in eastern Sabah. About 20,000 hectares of the valley is a wildlife sanctuary.

Everyone knows that much of Borneo is rainforest. But most of it has previously been logged. There is very little primary forest left in Borneo, and much of the rest of the land is used for agriculture.


Until recently cocoa – although first planted commercially only in the 1950s - was the dominant product. As cocoa prices fell through the floor (Bornean cocoa being markedly inferior to Ghanaian), most farmers switched to the African oil palm, although cocoa remains the fourth largest crop in Sabah. Rubber and copra are the other two important agricultural products.

About a third of arable land in Sabah is planted with oil palms, so the oil palm is everywhere. It took several hours to get from Sandakan to Bilit, our base in the Kinabatangan, and we passed endless Cordoban Mezquitas of squat palms touching crown to crown.

Between the branches grows a very large fruit, red-black like a blackberry but 10,000 times larger; it weighs up to 50 kg. It is picked with a sharp instrument on the end of a pole. It is a specialist job: get it wrong and the fruit kills you as it plummets towards the Earth’s centre of mass.

Oil is extracted from the pulp and from the kernel. A hectare can yield 10 tonnes of fruit. The pulp (pericarp) oil is the most popular edible oil in the world. It is used mainly to make margarine and processed foods. The kernel oil is used to make soap and detergent. Some palm oil is nowadays used to make biodiesel. Malaysia is the biggest exporter of palm oil, but Indonesia is planning to double its production in the next few years, blithely saying goodbye to its forests and to the animal species that live in them.

The Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve is classed as secondary forest because it has been subject to logging, but not for a long time, and the forest seems (to a man from Lambeth) healthy with a wide variety of species. Two thirds of the animal and plant species of the world live in rainforests.


The reserve is a mixed dipterocarp forest, an evergreen lowland forest. Dipterocarp is the predominant tree type in tropical rainforest, and most of the timber produced in Borneo is dipterocarp, including the hardwood. As its name implies, its fruit has wings. Most species have two, but some have more.

Dipterocarps are tall trees. Some grow to 60 metres or more. Typically they have a reddish bark, and buttresses supporting the lower trunk. Their root systems are wide but very shallow, and the buttresses provide some added stability.

Once we got to Bilit we took a little boat across the river and arrived at the lodge, a constellation of twenty-odd bamboo stilt huts together with two larger stilt buildings. There is a rolling guest list. Most stay for two nights, some for one night. A Japanese lady was staying for a week. I stayed for three nights, I think. I wanted to see proboscis monkeys and Bornean pygmy elephants and was lucky enough to see both.

The routine was the same every day. Up at dawn for a two-hour cruise in small motorised canoes, accompanied by a sharp-eyed guide a morning walk to a nearby oxbow lake; an afternoon off, an evening cruise along the river and a night-time walk. It did not become monotonous because you see different things each time.



Here is a stick insect at the oxbow lake.


Lines of sight along the river are much greater than in the forest, so it is easy to see birds. The oriental darter, a big bird with a long neck, large wings and a sharp beak, dives for up to a minute. It often surfaces slowly, puts its head up like a periscope, and then sinks again. Then it looks a lot like a water snake.


Malaysia has fifteen species of kingfisher; Europe has one. Posted at regular intervals along the bank is the stork-billed kingfisher. Malaysia’s largest, it grows over a foot tall. It is territorial and will attack any other bird. They eat anything that moves, including crabs, lizards, frogs and spiders.


The Brahminy kite, which grows to 45 cm, is found from India to the Solomon Islands. It lives along the rivers, and especially along the coasts.

The crested serpent eagle, which grows to 48 cm, lives in almost every environment in Sabah from the coasts to the mountains. They eat reptiles, large birds, rodents and large invertebrates. They are common along the river.


Also very common along the banks are dollar birds. Here and there secure nests with small entrances are constructed on vertical shaft sticking out of the river itself; these are black and red broadbills, with a bold azure bill.

Storm’s stork is a very rare bird. Birdwatchers travel to the Kinabatangan to see it. There are only 500 or so left. It’s a handsome black and white stork with a red bill.


Great egrets line the banks, probably the most numerous bird. They fly with their necks folded back.

On our first river cruise we saw a large male orang utan with cheek pouches, sitting in the fork of a tree, picking and eating figs very slowly. There are twenty species of fig in Kinabatangan, five hundred in Borneo. Ficus rasemosa is especially important, since all the arboreal animals eat the fruit and/or the leaves. Even the pigs get to benefit, since the long-tail macaques are messy eaters.


Occasionally we would see proboscis monkeys, Nasalis larvatus. Endemic to Borneo, they live along river banks, in mangroves and in peatswamp forests. Being arboreal, they are losing places to live; there may be only 8,000 of them left. But they are easy to see because they like to collect in trees by the riverbank.


They must be one of the weirdest-looking mammals. They are orange-red over most of the body but the limbs, tail and collar are silvery-white, and they seem to be wearing white nappies. Young proboscis monkeys have dark blue faces. A local name for them is orang Belanda: Dutchmen.

They also have incongruous tellytubby bellies. They live on unripe fruit, seeds, and leaves. Some of this diet is poisonous. They have two stomachs: the first contains special flora to digest the toxins, and the second acts as a normal gut. A side-effect of this digestive set-up is that they cannot digest ripe fruit. It also produces gas in volume, hence the beer gut.


Despite their build they are extremely agile, and they leap great distances from tree to tree. They are also good swimmers, sometimes swimming in the open sea. They walk upright when wading, with the females carrying infants on their hips. Other than humans, only proboscis monkeys, gibbons and pangolins are known to walk bipedally for any length of time.


And then there is the nose. There are various theories about its function, but if the proboscis were purely functional there would be little or no difference between the sexes. As it is, the males have the big schnozzles, the females little retroussé numbers. Older males even have to lift the nose out of the way to eat, so it is certainly a hindrance. It must be sexual selection: the girls like big noses, so they get them, and they have sons with big noses and daughters with the genes for big noses. The nose also turns red when the possessor is excited or angry.

There are two groups of proboscis monkeys in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. One is a harem, with a dominant male, several females and their offspring. The other is a group of sexually mature bachelor males who sometimes try to sneak into the other group for hit-and-run quickies. When a bachelor male successfully challenges the dominant male and takes over mating rights, he will kill all the existing offspring. From the perspective of the selfish gene it is adaptive behaviour.


Since the one who can beat up the rest takes all, the males grow to be much larger than the females, weighing up to 24 kg. Females weigh half that. The males are priapic. It is difficult not to notice, since their skinny carrot-shaped monkeyhoods are bubble-gum pink.


We saw some squabbling in one group and it was horrible. Along with a lot of loud screaming we saw a monkey fall twenty feet or so through the trees.

The other primates of Borneo include apes (the Bornean gibbon and Homo sapiens); other monkeys (the langurs and macaques); and prosimians (the western tarsier and slow loris).

The leaf monkeys, or langurs, look somewhat like macaques, but their tails are longer, and so is their fur. They eat leaves alone. There are four species in Sabah. They live in harems of five to eight. The commonest two species are silver and maroon.

You don’t get to see gibbons – they are very shy – but you can hear them. Around six in the morning they whoop loudly. They are badly affected by logging, since they are entirely arboreal.

You don’t get to see tarsiers or lorises either, since they are nocturnal. Both have huge eyes. The western tarsier lives in small groups. It is tiny and jumps from tree to tree like a frog. It eats insects. They say it has the ears of a bat, the eye of an owl and the tail of a rat. Lorises are unbelievably slow, like sloths, although they hunt insects as well as eating fruit. They just wait for prey to approach before grabbing it. They have short tails and are the size of cats.


Another animal in deep trouble in Borneo is the Sumatran rhinoceros, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. The rhinos stand 120 to 135 cm high and weigh up to 730 kg. There are thought to be between 250 and 400 in the wild, in Borneo, Sumatra, peninsular Malaysia and perhaps Burma. We didn’t see any. There may be only thirty of the Bornean sub-species left in the wild. There are several in captivity at Sepilok and at Cincinnati Zoo. At Sepilok the male and female are kept apart except when the female is in oestrus. They have never bred successfully in captivity; the females get pregnant all right, but they always miscarry.


As its Linnaean name implies, it has two horns. The horn of the Sumatran rhino fetches huge prices among those who believe that this lump of keratin – the same substance as hair or fingernail - will stiffen their marshmallows. The Asian product can sell for as much as $60,000 a kilo. African rhino horn is much less sought after.

Hornbills, on the other hand, don’t have horns, but solid casques instead. There are 57 varieties, and eight in Borneo. They tend to be black or brown, with long tails, and they are big birds. In the Kinabatangan we saw plenty of oriental pied hornbills (Anthrococeros coronatus), which grow to 75 cm.


Their eyes appear to be glued on, like the eyes of soft toys. We saw some sitting near an eagle, and they were larger than their neighbour.


Hornbills nest in tree holes. When the female is about to lay, the male walls her in, leaving only a slit. She stays there with her chicks until they are ready to fly. The male feeds them through the slit.


Our various excellent guides – Kai, Luis, and the lovely Nelly - spotted about five crocodiles. I only saw one, because they lie almost entirely submerged, and the remainder disappears as the boat approaches. They are estuarine crocs, also known as saltwater crocs, and in Australia they are known as vicious bastards and fast. But here, like the eagles, they mainly subsist on small animals, only occasionally attacking humans. Borneo is in fact right in the middle of their notional range, although sightings are now very rare in Thailand and Indochina. In New Guinea and Australia their populations have recovered to precolonial health, and they are also common in Orissa, in northeast India. Naturally, there are monitors too, usually resting on branches.


On one river cruise we saw a mangrove snake coiled in a branch overhanging the water. These are poisonous, but very lazy, or so it appeared.


Kai is an orang sungai – from a river tribe. Partly because his teeth are filed, his face has an air of gleeful piratical wickedness, at odds with his character. As in, say, Papua, the river people speak a lot of different dialects and cannot understand each other. But they are all counted as Dusun, and all nominally Muslim.


The commonest monkey in the sanctuary is the long-tailed macaque, Macaca fascicularis. It eats shoots and leaves (sic). It also eats small animals, and in the mangroves it eats crabs. It does so by inserting its tail into a crab hole, waiting for the crab to grab, slowly withdrawing the tail, and then dashing the crab against a rock. It lives in large groups and is highly sociable. It used to be a favourite subject of animal experiments. I have seen them all over the place in Asia and have grown to dislike the thieving hooligans.




Each evening after supper we would go for a walk with torches. It was very creepy. But for the torches, darkness is absolute. My LED torch is fine for reading but inadequate for walking, especially with steamed-up glasses. It is still very hot and humid at night, and walking is very sweaty work. On the first couple of walks we saw plenty of elephant dung but no elephants (more on the elephants another time). All we saw was a couple of large scorpions. It was very muddy – you had to be careful not to leave shoes behind.

Each time we walk we wear leech socks. These are not recognisably socks, but canvas Christmas stockings instead. The leeches are smaller than I expected, about an inch long, more like inchworms than slugs. They sit on trunks and leaves and stretch out when they sense traffic passing. They look like the letter-forming aliens from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

On one night walk we found a kingfisher sleeping on a branch. It was not disturbed by the torches or by the noise. It may be a stork-billed kingfisher, but I am guessing it is a black-capped kingfisher, because of its smaller stature and shorter tail.


After each night walk we head straight to bed, no hanging around the bar swapping war stories. We are up for a dawn boat ride at six each morning. Inside the hut, a million ants and mosquitoes and the odd gecko. From my hut at night I could hear jungle noises, which often seemed to be nearby. There are Chihuahua barks and growls outside. It’s not a Chihuahua. A frog? A monkey? No idea. And in the morning, you wake to the melodious song of tailor birds.


This is a millipede commonly found in the area, a kind of pill millipede.


If disturbed it rolls up into a ball for a few minutes. Threatened millipedes curl up; threatened centipedes run away, because they are much faster. (They only have one pair of legs per body segment, while millipedes have two.) Centipedes can run, proportionately to body length, faster than cheetahs.


A leaf beetle.


Posted by Wardsan 16:50 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Touchdown in Bali

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I'm briefly in Bali. Tonight I fly to Jayapura in Papua, as the Indonesian half of New Guinea is now called. In a few days I'll be trekking in the Baliem valley. I'm not excited, because I have a cold and don't feel like walking. There probably won't be much internet access in Papua, so the frequency of posts will remain low.

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Petrol is 6,000 Rp a litre on the Indonesian forecourt. That’s about 30p. This is absurdly cheap from a European perspective, but it is not a huge discount on the retail price in the US.

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I ate at a Hong Kong style restaurant a couple of days ago. It looks out from the Times Square mall, where I have been searching for wet weather gear for Papua, towards Hang Tuah. Two hundred yards away is a prison, complete with barbed wire and watchtowers. A nice central spot for the prisoners, like Strangeways. I have walked past it and to its walls are affixed posters warning about the penalty for drug offences: death.

On the drinks list: yin-ying. The waitress said it was a mixture of coffee and tea. Homo economicus, who prefers a mix of things, probably drinks yin-ying with Coke. I had tea.

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A very cross man next to me in a cafe, phoning an internet helpline: “People are laughing at me, lah.” In KL and Singapore every other sentence ends in lah. In Indonesia not at all. To be polite when giving or receiving something (like change), a Malaysian will pass or receive with the right hand, and grasp the right wrist with the left hand. An Indonesian won't.

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In Yogya I went to see a performance of wayang kulit, the shadow-puppet theatre. It was the section of the Ramayana in which Kumbakarna heroically goes to his death fighting on behalf of his evil brother.

I knew the story, but recognised almost none of it. The dalang (puppeteer - not to be confused with palang) voices and sings in Javanese, which is distinct from Indonesian, so I could not understand a word. After an hour it became a bit tedious, especially the comic interlude with the clowns.

It was possible, however, to admire the immense skill displayed by the dalang. As well as voicing, he manipulates the puppets, directs the gamelan orchestra, and performs percussion with his feet. They must also possess extraordinary stamina: a traditional performance lasts all night, without breaks.


The orchestra consists of the men who play the instruments and the women who sing. All are traditionally dressed, the men in brown sarongs, sky-blue batik shirts and batik Javanese hats, the women in peacock blue shirts with shocking pink sashes.


All wayangs have very long arms, and the hands are folded back, like Javanese dancers’. The kulit (leather) puppets are in profile, and the faces have very long noses. The good guys, like Rama, are thin, and their faces humbly point down. Some of the bad guys are muscular and hairy. The style also influences Javanese and Balinese art, and it is very distinctive. I love it, and cannot think why I did not buy some puppets.

The puppets are painted on both sides. Men sit on the side of the dalang, and they see the painted puppet and the orchestra.


Traditionally, women sit on the other side, and see only the silhouettes of the puppets. Like a ladyboy in Thailand, I got to experience both sides. It is perhaps better on the women’s side.


Posted by Wardsan 00:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


Another volcano

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Following my eighth trip to Denpasar airport I am in Makassar, at the south end of Sulawesi. The locals seem very friendly, as in "you want a friend for tonight?". (Yes, if she has gorgonzola.)

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Mount Rinjani is Lombok’s highest peak, at 3,726 m. It is, of course, a volcano, and it is situated in a national park. We stayed at a hotel with splendid views.


On our first full day near Rinjani we went on a lengthy but easy walk through a local village and then to see a couple of waterfalls. Most of us swam in the first one, which was cold but invigorating.


Katni, our guide, was a Sasak like 90% of the population of Lombok.


The houses in the village were, as everywhere here, bungalows made of bamboo and elephant grass thatch. A couple of black-toothed old women sat on a verandah chewing betel leaf, lime and nut, their mouths red as if they had been drinking blood. The odd dog and child wandered around. But the village seemed surprisingly empty.


Katni showed us inside a hut. On a second level was a house for the spirits, which is where the offerings go. There were no windows and there was a strong smell of smoke, which keeps the mosquitoes away.

There are very few dogs in Java; Muslims do not like them. Bali is full of dogs. Lombok, although notionally Muslim, has plenty too. The Sasak people, who make up the large majority of the population of Lombok, cleave to a version of Islam that bears little resemblance to the version practised in Arabia Felix. Except for the imams, they do not fast during Ramadan. They may drink alcohol – they make both rice wine and palm wine - and eat pork. And they keep dogs to protect the village and its crops from monkeys. (In the Gilis, on the other hand, just off Lombok, there are no dogs, and millions of cats.) And each house as a little spirit house within it, where offerings are placed. They also grow tobacco, and dry it, and then roll it in corn leaves to make very strong cigars.

When they marry, Sasaks file their front two upper teeth down to about half their natural length.

It is not a poor village. The village has had piped water for thirty years.

We soon discover why the village was empty. At one end of the village there is niche in the outer wall of a hut. In this niche is a television, and in front of the television are nearly all the village children. We try to get them to dance, but they are too shy. Carey bravely goes up to demonstrate, provoking widespread but not universal hilarity.



We walk around the paths near the village. A great variety of crops grows in the area with little or no intervention: cashew, cacao, coconut, kapok, coffee, cotton and various fruits. They also grow a little wet rice, which does need a lot of work, but all in all it takes little effort to produce a healthy, diversified and plentiful diet here. Cashews grow at the bottom end of a fruit. The fruit tastes much like apple but is very tannic.


On our second full day in the area we climbed 2,000 m to the crater rim, which is at 2,641 m. We were accompanied by porters carrying water, tents and cooking equipment. We walked through forest most of the way, and saw a few black leaf monkeys as well as the ubiquitous long-tailed macaques. It probably took about six hours of walking; there were a handful of rest stops along the way and it was not especially hard work. Long-tailed macaques congregated at the higher rest stops.



We also stopped for a delicious lunch cooked by the porters, which I ate sitting on a tarpaulin in the sun. During the climb we experienced the usual progression into temperate weather, the trees becoming more and more stunted and eventually disappearing, and the bryophytes taking over at altitude. We also saw edelweiss.

We were supposed to camp on the crater rim, but it was extremely windy, so instead we camped at the last rest stop half an hour’s walk below. It was a beautiful spot, from which we could see the Gili islands to the north west. The sun set directly behind the cone Gunung Agung in Bali, maybe forty miles to the west across the Lombok Strait.



I had bought a top at the Matahari store in Yogyakarta that happened to be identical to the Primark top of Steve, the tour leader. So here we are gurning for the camera.


There was a forest fire about a mile away, so Steve and Pam, the trainee tour leader, got up every couple of hours to check on its progress. The wind was very strong and the tents in poor shape, so the draughts got in. No-one slept much.



We climbed up volcanic sand to the crater rim in the late afternoon and again in the morning. It was cool but not cold at the rim.


The floor of the crater is largely occupied by a lake, but there is also a small and perfectly formed (at least if you're a barnacle) volcano in the crater, Gunung Baru, “new mountain”, which is 200 years old.


This is Sakur, one of the guides.


The journey down was fairly hard, but nothing like Kinabalu, and I was hardly stiff at all the next day. Perhaps walking with a stick made the difference.

We passed the night in a nice hotel at the port.


It was Pam’s last night on the tour and we went to a bar where an amazingly good band played Rolling Stones covers. (Indeed, the quality of the live music in Indonesia has been remarkably high.) And then a quick crossing by outrigger perahu to Gili Air. In the afternoon I walked around half the island, had lunch, and then visisted a book exchange. There were as many Dutch books as English ones. The quality of the books read by the Dutch and Scandinavians is far higher than those read by English-speakers. In a café on the beach I drank mango juice and read.

The following day, five of us went on a snorkel trip in an outrigger perahu. There was a lot of faffing around and not enough snorkelling. The first snorkel spot was poor, the coral completely dead, but I did see Vlaminck’s unicornfish, schooling snapper, goatfish, lizardfish and Moorish idols.

A second swim was better, although the coral was not particularly healthy. The third, opposite the main street of Gili Air, was the best, with healthier hard and soft corals and plenty of sea squirts. I also saw a nice black boxfish with orange spots, several masked pufferfish, orange-spot surgeonfish, humpback unicornfish and lots of Moorish idols. We saw a hawksbill turtle grazing on sea salad. Charlotte dived and touched it, at which it swam off. On the third swim a gorgeous trevally with an electric blue back and grey-green body shot past. Just before I got out of the water, I met a turtle in the shallows. It came up to breathe three times, and then swam off languidly. Indeed, turtles have only two gears: neutral and languid.

The highlight, though, was playing with a cuttlefish on the second swim. Sepiids, like octopus, possess the ability to change their colour, which ability is used for camouflage and for communication. They do so by means of pigmented chromatophores and reflecting iridophores. They can also control the polarisation of the light reflecting from their bodies. They have three hearts. And, like octopuses (don’t say octopi; octopus is not a Latin word), they are fairly intelligent – staggeringly so for a mollusc. I watched the cuttlefish, and the cuttlefish watched me, for several minutes, as it wandered around the local corals. Every twenty seconds or so the cuttlefish would change its colour. It started off cream, but changed to chocolate and cream, yellow with bright blue spots, and dark red with cream spots. Slowly I extended an arm and touched it; at which it cuttled off, literally jet-propelled. Since it did not squirt any ink, though, I assume I didn’t worry it too much.

In between snorkels I visited the Gili Meno Bird Park, which is not up to much. It mainly houses birds of the parrot family in rather small cages.

On the third day on Gili Air I dived with Blue Marlin. The first dive was a deep dive – 31 metres – and lasted only 38 minutes. We dived through an amazing landscape of canyons, with good visibility. There were fish but we turned it into a muck dive. The second dive was just off the island, Hans Reef, a sandy stretch with bommies, culminating in a huge bommie called the Brainiac, perhaps 15 feet high and twenty wide. This was a rich environment, especially the clouds of red and blue anthia at the top.

Posted by Wardsan 16:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Strands afar remote

Pulau Lembata

all seasons in one day 31 °C
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The volcanic chain that is eastern Nusa Tenggara begins to run out east of Flores. (In fact it turns north and disappears for a while before turning up again in Maluku and then northern Sulawesi.) There are three islands known as the Solor Archipelago, and then a pair of which the larger is Alor. At this point we are north of Timor and only 400 miles or so from Australia.

The largest island in the former archipelago is Lembata. I came here, if there was a goal, to visit Lamalera, a whaling village in the south. But really I was here just to visit a rather remote area.

First I had to get from Maumere to Larantuka. I waited for a minibus for over an hour. I managed to squeeze on the third that came past, although it was full by normal standards. I sat between a fat man and a nursing mother, and could get only half my back and one cheek on to the seat – a bad journey.

Every bemo and minibus on Flores has some writing at the top of the windscreen. Examples: Beckham; Allah Besar; Golgota; McJagger.

In Larantuka I bumped into Matthew, from Donegal, with whom I had dived in Labuanbajo. He was trying to get to Alor but had been stranded in Larantuka, so he came to Lembata instead. I had been looking for Oreos to take to Lembata; Matthew suggested that they had disappeared from the shelves because they are made in China.

The trip took four hours across a millpond of a sea. The ferry was wooden but in good condition, and four TVs on the upper deck played overamplified Indonesian karaoke. We passed the islands of Adonara and Solor on the way. Adonara possesses a mile-high volcano. It is the same shape as mounts Ile Api on Lembata, Rinjani, Batur and Semeru: conical. Adonara looks like a joint Normal distribution.


In Lewoleba, the capital of Lembata, we found a very cheap homestay for 40,000 Rp, about $4. Unfortunately, there was no fan. It had been getting hotter as I headed east, and Lembata is very hot indeed. We went looking for beer, and found only warm beer. It still tasted pretty good; perhaps I’ve been travelling too long. Chargrilled chicken with rice for dinner at a local warung, where we took our beers, was simple but delicious.

After dinner, we decided that it was too hot to cope without a fan, and checked into another hotel as well, where we commandeered two fans for the room.


The following day I started wandering around Lewoleba at 8 am and it was already fiercely hot. I discovered that there is really nothing at all in Lewoleba, except for a lot of traffic. The shops are the same as you see in the provinces all over Malaysia and Indonesia: mobile phone shops, above all; little grocery/chemist kiosks; motorbike repair shops hardware; bag shops.

There used to be a central market but it burned down. Now there is a dismal central square where it used to be. In most parts of the town you can see Ile Api, the island’s volcano.


The Lonely Planet says that Lembata receives only 200 tourists a year, although I think this an underestimate. Nevertheless people are not used to foreigners. Everyone wants to greet you: ‘hello Mister’; ‘hello Missus’ from the confused; selamat pagi (good morning). One or two of the shopkeepers, though, speak acceptable English, which is a surprise.

The Lonely Planet, early 2007 edition, is also out of date. Not only do you have to double the prices all over Indonesia, but most of the facts about Lembata are wrong.

There is a Muslim kampong by the sea. From there you can see the island of Adonara.



Kids followed us as we wandered around. We found a family gathering seaweed. Dad came back in a sampan and he and Mum carried seaweed to the shore. Grandpa turned up in another sampan with more seaweed. The seaweed is farmed: I swam into such a farm when snorkelling in Maumere. It looks rubbery and unappetising, nothing like Japanese seaweed; I wonder whether it is for agar-agar, but Matthew says they also boil the stuff down and eat it.


At 11.30 I boarded a gaily-painted truck (lemon, lime and pink) bound for Lamalera. It wandered around town for an hour and a half picking up goods and passengers, and departed fully stuffed. Most of the floor was taken up by dusty cement bags (cement is semen in Indonesian, incidentally). There were a lot of leaky petrol cans; my bags got petrol all over them. The accelerant did not, of course, stop the passengers from smoking and flicking their ash willy-nilly. Passengers got on and off but on average there were 21 of us in the rear; the overflow went on to the roof.


The road was, as expected, awful. It was as windy as those in Flores, but unsealed. It is about 20 km in a straight line from Lewoleba to Larantuka, but it took four hours. We passed the aftermath of a lot of slash and burn. Much of the island is covered in dense creepers and dry brush. Like Flores, it looks like a forest fire waiting to happen. But the only evidence I have seen of a forest fire was in Lombok. The biggest forest fire recorded was in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, in 1983. It covered 3,000 square kilometres of forest.

Above 500 m or so, it turns greener. A high fraction of the trees are, I think, kapok and cashew.

Every now and then we round a corner and nearly crash into an oncoming vehicle. Cries of “Yesus Maria” go up. The passengers do not speak to each other in Indonesian. They are Lamaholot, like the people in Larantuka. Like most others in Flores, the women wear wraparound ikat cloth and t-shirts. There is a lot of ethnic diversity in these rugged islands. In Maumere they are Sikka, in Bajawa Ngada, in Ende they are Ende, and in Ruteng Manggarai. In Alor there are twenty languages, from seven language groups (and headhunting officially ended only in the 1950s). In Lamalera I ask the name of the language and am told ‘Ba’ir’ (I think).

We arrive in Lamalera at five, not long before dusk. I am taken to Mister Ben’s. If there is a Mister Ben I never meet him. The lower part squats around a cove, the higher part overlooking it. I sit on a balcony looking at the view, drinking coffee and listening to waves, cockerels and pigs. On the beach children play foot-volleyball, very skilfully. All the houses at beach level are boathouses.

The village is a whaling village. They hunt in rowing boats that have not changed over centuries. Their main aim is sperm whales, of which they catch up to 25 a year. The global population of sperm whales is around a million, and they are subsistence whalers, so they have a waiver from the IWC. They also hunt orca, pilot whales and mantas.


When the find a target, one of the men stands in the bow with a harpoon about eight yards long. He plunges it into the target and hangs on. I have seen photographs; it is a bloody business.

A couple of weeks before I arrive in Lamalera they caught five whales. I am not expecting there to be much, if any, whaling while I am there. It does not happen very often.


I stay in the house above the village for 60,000 Rp ($6) a night, all meals included. My room has a mosquito net but no fan, and it is extraordinarily hot. For dinner on the balcony I am given rice, some greens and instant noodles. The rice- pounded this afternoon – is delicious, good enough to eat with sambal alone. The noodles are lovely, full of MSG. The following night I am given exactly the same thing, and the utility derived from the meal is much diminished. The balcony smells of nam pla, Thai fish sauce; lumps of dried whale meat hang from a string.

I have bought a packet of kretek cigarettes to distribute. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the cove and the lights of the village, I try one. A pleasantly contemplative mood arrives. I can see the point.


The following morning, before seven, I wander around the village. Lumps of whale are everywhere.



I pass a pile of vertebrae and ribs. On the beach I find several skulls, all are too small to be sperm whale skulls; too small too, I think, to be killer whale; perhaps they are pilot whales. [Since returning to the UK I have seen a killer whale skull in the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge; it was remarkably small.]


I have an idea of getting on a boat that is going out at seven, but two charmless Australian journalists have already booked their places and do not want anyone else on board. They go out for a couple of hours to take pictures.


So I wander around and chat to some people on the beach.



Then while walking through the village I am invited up on to the verandah by two women who were on the bus they day before. They are Anna and Maria, and they live in Larantuka. They have travelled back to Lembata to see their father, Bapak Yosep; it is his eighty-eighth birthday. His remaining tooth pokes upwards when he opens his mouth. He is very pale. (Incidentally, the Indonesian for old is tua, which means pale; young is muda, which also means dark. I had assumed this was because clothes fade, but perhaps skin does too.) He is very quiet; not surprising, actually, because Anna talks all the time as she did on the bus. Also on the verandah is Yosep’s friend, also called Yosep, who is 77. He wears glasses as thick as milk bottles.

Maria disappears instantly into the kitchen and I talk to Anna and Yosep. The younger Yosep used to work on the nearby island of Adonara, grinding maize. Anna lived in Malaysia for twelve years, working as a babysitter, returning last year. “Malaysia is better than Indonesia”, she says firmly. I ask why. “The economic situation is better.” Unarguable. As is often the case, it is easier to follow conversations in Indonesian when the subject is abstract or technical, because then all the terms are English loan words.

Tea is served, inside. Actually, it is Energen, a chocolate drink with corn and oats. I express enthusiasm but don’t like it much, and I’m not much of an actor. It’s cool indoors. The walls are whitewashed and about six feet, tall, so they do not reach the roof. There is no ceiling. As we sit the others quickly and silently pray, while I dive in immediately. Oops. Various photos of Christ and the Virgin adorn the walls. In an adjoining bedroom I can see a shrine.


I go for a swim in the bay. Visibility is not good, but I do see a number of reef fish, including a pair of Vlaminck’s unicornfish. And in the shallows are a number of very large whalebones.


Since there are no boats I decide to walk along the coast to Tapobali. I ask someone how far it is, and am told 2 km. This turns out to be a typical Indonesian answer; if you don’t know, you answer anyway. I buy 1.5 litres of water and a small bottle of a sports drink. It’s nowhere near enough. I’m walking in the middle of the day. Two kilometres down the road I ask again. Again the answer is two kilometres. It turns out to be about five in all.

It is hot and dry. The land is naturally scrub, but cashew trees dominate the landscape by the path.


Every single person along the way greets me: ‘Hello mister’ or ‘Selamat siang’. They don’t see many westerners out here. I walk for a while with a schoolteacher and a few of his pupils. School finishes at 11.10 am. He says he teaches English, but is either unwilling or unable to converse in English. One thing that reflects well on Indonesian primary education, though, is the quality of the Indonesian spoken. Everyone, even small children, speaks Indonesian well. This is a surprise: only 10% of the population of Indonesia speaks Bahasa Indonesia as a mother tongue. It is like Italy at the time of unification.

It is polite to ask permission to take photographs of people, but here there is no need. I am carrying my camera in my rucksack, but even so most people I pass, and all the children, are desperate to have their portret taken. It’s the same on Flores. I try to oblige.



After two hot hours of walking I reach Tapobali, hoping to find a shop to buy water. There is a kios, but it looks as though it has not been opened in a long time. There is a lovely view over the sea. Over the horizon is Timor. It feels like the end of the earth. I am likely to visit places that are geographically more remote – Papua, Maluku – but none will be harder to get to than here.

All the children in the village run to say hello. They have wonderful names: Hendrikus, Veronika, Dominika, Anjelina, Sabina, Bernadette, Monika, Yosefina. My favourite is Immakulata. And after that I slog back for another couple of hours.


You can see the variety of faces in Indonesia. The classic Malay face, as described by Wallace, has a recessed brow, relatively round eyes, a small, wide nose and a wide mouth. They have straight, jet hair. People’s mouths often seem too big for their faces. Their lips, even though not especially full, tend to sit forward of a line drawn between nose and chin. This sounds terrible, but actually I find Indonesian women better-looking, on average, than Thais or Vietnamese. When Malays smile it is a big smile. (The proportion of Thai and Vietnamese women who are good-looking is about the same as the proportion of English or German. This is highly subjective, of course.)

The ‘true’ Papuan, as Wallace put it (his ethnography being Victorian), has frizzy black hair, darker skin, and more pronounced lips, nose and brow. But the point is that everything is a continuum: skin colours vary from caffe latte to espresso; hair from straight to frizzy, with everything in between. So these girls have wavy hair and fairly pale skin.


As you go east you the frequency of curly hair (or papua in Malay) increases, but that’s about all. And skin colour is only loosely correlated to hair curl, if at all. There is no line separating distinct races.

At this point I had hoped to return to Lewoleba to climb Ile Api, but there is only one truck a day, at 4am. So I catch the truck the following morning. I had been hoping to climb the mountain with some people from Médecins du Monde, a French NGO which was founded in 1979 by 16 refuseniks from Médecins Sans Frontières, including Bernard Kouchner. They are here to conduct a pilot public health programme for malaria. It is funded by a Spanish corporate donor. There are three foreign staff and I think 60-odd Indonesians, including guards and drivers. They work in English as often as not. The statistics show a high incidence of malaria on the island, although the statistics are probably wrong. There are certainly plenty of mosquitoes.

I had met Cesar, Pauline and Laura while diving in Labuanbajo, and had then snorkelled with the MdM people in Labuanbajo, and had met up with Cesar on my first night in Lewoleba. Cesar, a doctor from Lima, is the programme coordinator; Laura is a nurse from Indonesia; Pauline is from Brittany and does the finance and HR. Paul, from Belgium, is the lab technician. Cesar has worked or studied in Peru, France, Spain and England. He is a top bloke, which is fortunate because he never stops talking.

In the event I return to Lewoleba too late, and the MdM people have already set off to climb the mountain in order to avoid the heat of the day. In order to climb the mountain you first have to get a guide. You must pass through a village with a lot of antique objects of spiritual value, and someone must pray to the spirits. It turns out that it is not possible to climb, as there is a funeral on. So, fortunately for me, they return to Lewoleba and Cesar makes ceviche. (He originally wanted to be a chef and studied medicine as a second-best.) We sit and drink beer during the afternoon and then dine out for £1 in the evening. Indeed, I didn’t do much for the local economy. In four nights on the island I managed to spend about $50.


  • **

That was a long post, because I am typing flat out. I will try not to be so prolix in future. For my sake, not yours.

Posted by Wardsan 15:31 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Christianity in Flores

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As I mentioned before, Flores is 85% Christian. I had expected that this Christianity would be a thin veneer on a strongly animist base, but actually it goes deep. Portuguese missionaries first arrived in Solor, just to the east, in 1561, and in the eastern part of Flores it has a long history. In the seventeenth century the VOC evicted the Portuguese from most parts of Flores and took over the trade. They exported sappan, cinnamon and slaves, which is why much of the population lived in the hills. The trade in slaves lasted informally into the twentieth century, although Holland abolished slavery around the time that Alfred Russel Wallace was visiting in the 1860s. The Portuguese retained enclaves in Larantuka, Sikka and Paga, and it was their religion that won out (the VOC were never interested in proselytising).

In Moni I went to Chenty’s restaurant in the evening. Next to the verandah forty chairs were lined up in rows. There were two bare electric lights. I assumed it was a cinema, but then a large group arrived, including a couple of women dressed as nuns. Children sat at the front, then women, then men. At this point Bjoern, Kai and Simon, the Swiss guys I was dining with (with whom I had also dived in Labuanbajo), gently pointed out that the chairs were lined up in front of a shrine devoted to the Virgin. There was no priest. A woman led the prayers, very quietly. They all recited unhesitatingly, often with their eyes shut, in a monotone. Most of the responses consisted of the same prayer: ‘Santa Maria, buna Allah…’ (Holy Mary, Mother of God) etc. In between they sang a few hymns; the women sang in harmony. The prayer was probably repeated over 200 times in all, so perhaps the Virgin is hard of hearing too.

In SE Asia I always say that I am a Christian. It is easier than explaining disbelief, unthinkable in most parts here. And as a description of cultural background it is true.

In Waiara, a little east of Maumere, I stayed at Sea World Club. The resort is owned by a charity run by a German priest, Pater Heinrich, who lives at the resort and conducts masses nearby on Sundays. It is a collection of bamboo bungalows by the sea, some with hot water, with a bar and restaurant. The restaurant serves superb grilled fish. I got a bungalow to myself for $25 a night.


Embedded in the paving stones were the blue stones from the beach near Ende.


In each bedroom there is a diglot New Testament in English and Indonesian: an international Gideon Bible. I read the Gospel according to Matthew and some of Acts. My grasp of the New Testament is largely limited to old scripture lessons, and readings from weddings and funerals, so Acts in particular was informative.


It was the New King James version, which seems to have taken the King James Bible and updated phrases rather randomly. Like all other versions, it’s a bit prosaic in comparison. Thus

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.

Does the prayer really contain a plea for debt forgiveness? Isn’t it better to think of it as a reference to torts rather than contract? Why mess with “for ever and ever”? And why not ‘today’ if you’re concerned about linguistic desuetude?

Other updates:

Let the little children come to Me.

Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise.

As for the terms in Indonesian, they sound Dutch and Arabic.

    God is Allah;
    Jesus is Yesus Kristus;
    a Christian is orang Kristen;
    the Holy Spirit is Roh Kudus;
    the Devil is Iblis, another name for Shaitan in Arabic;
    Apostles are Rasul ('messengers' in Arabic);
    Matthew’s Gospel is Injil Matius;
    the Bible is Alkitab, which is 'the book' in Arabic;
    the Lord is Tuhan;
    Heaven is Sorga;
    the Sermon on the Mount is Khotbah di Bukit, again from Arabic - the khutbah is delivered by the khatib;
    priest is Imam;
    Joseph and Mary are Yusuf dan Maria;
    verse is Surat, which also means letter;
    James, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are Yakobus, Matius, Markus, Lukas and Yohanes;
    Hebrews, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians and Thessalonians are Ibrani, Filipi, Korintus, Efesus, Tesalonika.
    Acts of the Apostles is Kisah para Rasul
    Revelation is Wahyu (also derived from Arabic, usually used to describe what was received by Mohammed).

I snorkelled at Sea World a few times. Maumere used to be a very famous dive site, but an earthquake and consequent tsunami in 1992 killed the coral (as well as destroying Maumere). It is growing back, but very slowly. Overall, the hard coral is in very poor shape, and there are few sponges or feather stars. On the other hand there are vast numbers of sea urchins and plenty of starfish and octocorals.

On the first go, I saw a two-metre long mottled brown sea cucumber that I at first took to be the tentacle of a giant octopus. (Before the Portuguese came there were Buginese in Flores. They obtained sea cucumbers from the bay where I was snorkelling. They also exported rubber, sandalwood, cinnamon, shark fin, coconut, cotton and slaves.)

I also saw large schools of grey trumpetfish; lots of razorfish; a school of very nervous juvenile squid; a lionfish, swimming in the open sea eight metres down; some rock cod, snapper and jellyfish; two boxfish; and a pipefish, six inches long, cream with cursive purple lines. It was very relaxed; I even touched it.

On my second snorkel I saw a lobster; a green chromis with a huge sea louse on its side, a third of the length of its poor landlord; lots of pufferfish and some razorfish; a couple of flutemouths and lots of juvenile butterflyfish.

The third time I went swimming I found a blue-spotted fantail ray, trumpetfish, and razorfish. On the sandy shallows I found what appeared to be a jellyfish walking along the bottom. This is not what jellyfish do. In fact it was a crab, which had found a jellyfish and was carrying it on its back. Some crabs do this permanently, and devote a pair of claws to holding on to their dorsal defence at all times. [There are three families of crab that carry things for camouflage: Dromiidae, Homolidae and Dorippidae. A crab carrying a jelly is probably a Dorippid. Indeed, in one of the marine books I have seen there is a photo of a Dorippe frascone carrying an upside-down Cassiopeia andromeda, taken in the same location I saw this crab.]

I sat out on the verandah reading. The light attracted insects, which attracted geckos. The smaller, common geckos say ‘tut tut’. They are called cicak in Indonesian, which is presumably imitative. They are probably a thirtieth of the length of the Komodo dragon. I think they are the common house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus.

The larger geckos are the pale ones with red spots, called tokek. They are very loud; you can hear them from 70 yards away or more and they often wake you up at night. It sounds as if Donald Duck were saying ‘thank you’ very firmly, speaking through a kazoo.

The night before flying to Bali I returned to Sea World. As I sat giggling to Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père I heard unusual gecko sounds above. A pair of cicak kept approaching each other. One would bite the other on the neck. Sure enough, a few minutes later one climbed on top of the other and wriggled for a minute. As soon as it was over they separated. And then both licked their private parts. Because they could.



Posted by Wardsan 13:37 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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