Nightmares and Daydreams of Indonesia

On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek

Nightmares and Daydreams of Indonesia

Of all the many memories of foreign lands that are among the very deepest in the conscious and sub-conscious thoughts of the Footloose Forester, more of them are about Indonesia than elsewhere. Sleeping in the rain, slogging for hours in swamps, living without electricity and running water, foraging for meals from wild trees in the forest, for snails on the rocks on the nearby reefs, for seaweeds under the rocks and game fish in tidal pools and in the deeper channels – and knowing all the time that you are as happy as you have ever been.

With the daily sunset colored russet by the fumes coming from the volcano Anak Krakatau (son of Krakatau), life on Peucang Island in Indonesia was somehow otherworldly. Pulau Peucang is only 30 miles or so from the island where Krakatau was located. As remembered in history, Krakatau’s eruption in 1883 was heard in Australia and killed some 36,000 people as tidal waves washed ashore.

Peucang was home, for about five months, to the Footloose Forester as he conducted his field research on the soils and vegetation of a moist tropical forest. Some would say it was a rain forest, since it rained hard about 26 days each month during the wettest months. The rain was so hard that it sometimes hurt your eyeballs if you looked up.

Travel to the research sites on the mainland of Java was by one-man boat. It was always a question of whether or not the Footloose Forester would reach his destination, each day, with all his equipment and clothing. Some days the water was rough, other days not so rough. But the trip was always uncertain, even if paddling only ½ kilometers across the bay was the simple task at hand.

In these modern times of technical fixes, it is possible to see all that was at stake, by viewing satellite photographs of the virtual landscapes in the Google Earth program found in many computers. Flying along the contours of the land in the flight simulator option in Google Earth is such a trip in virtual reality; and the land has not changed much. The pleasure can be yours by starting your virtual flight with updated satellite photos at the site of the Ujung Kulon research station on Pulau Peucang at S 6° 44′ 44.34″ and E 105° 15′ 45.93″; and then flying south toward the mainland.

 

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Krakatau in eruption

One gets used to the idea of getting wet four or five times a day; as you board the small boat that you paddle to the other side of the bay from your headquarters on Peucang Island; then getting wet again as you disembark on the other side of the bay, where the one-horned Javan Rhino is king and was once the domain of the Javan tiger. Next comes getting soaking wet as the sky opens up and the forest gets so dark that you can’t read the numbers on your instruments; and finally getting wet all over again climbing into the boat and finally docking on the other side, at the end of the workday. When you are thirsty, you look for the best downspout pouring from an Arenga Palm. Rain water poured down from many trees, but the Arenga palms usually had the best downspouts.

Getting to Peucang Island from mainland Java was always an adventure, as well. Five hours in an open boat directly from Labuan, Barat when the waters are calm enough to head directly across open water. Or eight hours or more, by hugging the coastline, when the weather is so bad that open water is too dangerous. When the high waters and fierce winds last more than a few weeks and supplies run low, the trip for supplies is by foot, through jungle paths. And the return trip with supplies is limited by what a person can carry on his back.

The Footloose Forester made the mistake of reading about the wildlife of the Ujung Kulon Nature Reserve, of which Peucang Island is a part, by candle light. On his second day on the island, Footloose Forester and a Swiss researcher came across a huge reticulated python that had recently consumed a wart hog or a rusa deer. The locals who lived on the island all agreed that it was the largest snake they had ever seen. We agreed that it was about seven meters (23 feet) long. As the Footloose Forester read about pythons, it became clear that the one we had seen was actually described in the book as the major predator known to live on Peucang Island. In the book, written some years earlier, this python was only about 5 ½ meters long, so it had grown to over seven meters in the interim. But it was enough to make the hair on the back of your head stand up as you read how an adult python could crush the skull of a human like an egg. Only later did you learn that the Russel’s viper was far deadlier than even a king cobra.

One memory that will not go away is the sight of migrating sea snakes. An occasional sea snake was nothing to fear, if you kept them in sight. But hundreds of thousands of them swimming near the boat on the way to Labuan, mile after mile, is the stuff of nightmares--and daydreams, when you can try to explain things for yourself. But hundreds of thousands of sea snakes? Now, really, who can believe that? Well, his estimate goes something like this: he could see out from alongside the boat for about 100 feet. The trip over water where the snakes were migrating was almost 20 miles. Multiply 100 feet X two sides X 20 miles X the number of snakes he could count on either side of the boat (about 75-80 per count in a roughly square block from stem to stern) and you come up with a rough number. Three million, three hundred seventy nine thousand two hundred snakes (3,379,200), give or take a few thousand. Unbelievable? Yes, even the Footloose Forester didn’t believe it, but then again he didn’t believe his eyes as he watched our little boat plow through mile after mile of snakes, all heading in the same direction.

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