Wednesday 29 March 2017

We're off to see the dragons: Komodo National Park

The evening before, I struggled to go to sleep for rain and wind battering the windows of our hotel room, and the first thing I did when I woke up was look out the window to the sea. There were layers of cotton wool clouds, some worrisome darkening in the corners by the mountains, but it was dry!

With our fingers firmly crossed, we took off to the harbour, and after only a little bit of waiting we set sail. The sea was slightly choppy, and the sky a tad overcast, not ideal for a day of snorkelling. But moping is not allowed on holidays, and we were excited to finally go and see the Komodo National Park. Much of the Park is sea, and our first day was dedicated to the wonderful world under the surface. First stop, Kanawa Island, where we snorkelled off the jetty, and just when we were putting on our fins, we saw the first wonder of the day floating just beneath us: two spiky lion fish. I literary dunked the camera under and snapped away. 

Lion fish at Kanawa Island

We did not see too much more, as the water was still choppy, and after lunch on the boat we proceeded for more snorkelling at Sebayur Kecil island. We saw many amazing fish, including the kid's favourite, the tomato fish, and many sea creatures. Roel and Jasmijn spotted one very rare being in the shape of a huge dark lump, somewhat like a finless dolphin. Guide Paul recons it can only have been a dugong, or sea cow, a very rare sighting indeed! It was gone too soon to snap a photo. 


Tomato clownfish

The sea was very choppy, and landing on our Pirate Beach Camp for the night was adventurous, but we were elated to arrive in our slice of heaven for the night. The promised camping was more like glamping, with running water and electricity (which they managed to get going just after we showered the kids in the dark). The rough beach was perfect for play, collecting huge shells, or just relaxing.

Our trusty yacht

The next morning gleamed bright and blue, perfect for seeing more under the sea, first stop Batu Bolong. If you’d jump in an aquarium, you would not see this many fish, in all colours of the rainbow. We spotted a huge barracuda, as well as countless others, small and big, bright and dark. The coral was unspoilt and radiant. 

Next stop was Manta Point, and just when we were face to face with one of these gentle giants: the camera battery was flat! Nevertheless, the creatures were awe inspiring, and even though Jasmijn had been claiming she’d never swim with huge (they can reach up to 4 meters wide), scary creatures like this, she jumped in and did it. 

Lunch was at Mawan Island, where we climbed the hill for the most amazing view of the surrounding islands, in the now perfect sunny weather. We saw a very pretty blue spotted stingray here, as well as many little blue fish. 

Afterwards, we set sail to see the dragons!


Boat bums

We had only been on the island a few minutes when the fist one, a smallish juvenile, casually strutted past. We saw many of the prehistoric looking giants around the ranger station, where they liked to lounge. 

Juvenile Komodo dragon at the ranger station

Our guides kept stressing that they don't feed the lizards, that they merely come for the great smells wafting from the ranger kitchen, but they seemed a bit too well-fed for us to believe that. Then again, with three small children in tow, I rather like my dragons with a full tummy. The guides were armed with sticks, to ward off wayward dragons, and the ones that we saw move, did so at a les than alarming pace, but still. Knowing a bite of these guys is lethal, unless you want to spend a month in hospital on IV antibiotics, is enough for that tinge of terror residing in a mothers stomach make you hold your breath, apart from using it occasionally to hiss 'stay behind the ranger' to your excitedly bouncing offspring. The bite of a Komodo dragon is not poisonous, but contains a nasty cocktail of bacteria that will slowly kill even a karbau, the large local buffalo. The patient dragon will follow a bitten buffalo around for days until eventually drops dead, and can be guzzled down. 

After admiring the lazy lizards at the ranger station we went for a walk around the island, which had amazing views, but not a dragon in sight. 
We're going on a lizard hunt 
Rinca Island views
When we were back on the boat it was time for the last stop of the day, sunset at Kalong Island, where (they say) a million flying foxes live. At sunset they wake up collectively, and start their nightly trek to Flores mainland to hunt their dinner. An amazing sight to behold!

Flying foxes at Kalong Island

Flying Foxes on their way to Flores

Then it was time for us too to head back to Flores, in the dark that quickly descended. Our adventure was almost over, and it was one we wil never forget!

Monday 27 March 2017

Fun in Flores

In search of adventure this spring holiday, what place better to fly to but Flores, Indonesia; the islands of fire mountains and dragons? 

We started with a quiet day of acclimatising, and exploring the environs of Labuan Bajo, in western Flores.  We did as the locals do, and rented motorcycles. Many a family was squeezed on one bike, mama and dad, a baby wedged between, and additional children in front and back, but we opted for two scooters instead. Touring with the wind in your hair and the sun in your back, between gorgeous hills and turquoise bays, rice fields and villages, is such a more intimate experience than looking out from the window of a car, and much more exciting and enjoyable. We visited remote beaches, muddy caves, crossed rivers and many, many bumps and holes in the road. Scootering might look easy, but I have the scrapes and scratches to prove that finding your balance is not that easy. Without children's helmets, it can be a tad unnerving, and honesty forces me to admit that the reason I toppled over was because I went too slow...

Girls on bike 

On the road

Labuan Bajo peninsula

The next morning we sat on our ship in the harbour waiting for the crew to sort out the promised yet absent children’s life jackets, so we could start the next chapter of our adventure; a three day tour of the Komodo National Park. The air got darker and darker, and when the sky broke, the rain did not take long to soak us to our underwear in our smallish boat, regardless of its roof and plastic blinds. The wind pushed the tranquil sea into ominous waves, and as the storm swell, the captain spoke the redeeming words: we could not sail today. 

An hour later, still moist, we sat in a bleak hotel lobby hotel playing cards, when we received the message that the forecast was bad: tomorrow there would not be a tour either. Tijm rejoiced in the idea of two days of games, I less so, so when Roel suggested we head out to the mountains today instead of later in the week, I jumped at it. After arguing with the hotel about payment (or not) of the room that we had occupied for just an hour, we checked out again, and took off to downtown Labuan Bajo to find ourselves a car. A friendly driver took us up in the mountains of West Manggarai, the crater lake of Sano Nggoang being our evening's destination. We had figured this would be about 2 hours away, but we had not taken into account the status of the road, and the wet weather – quite obviously it was raining in the mountains too. To say they were potholes in the road would be a broad understatement, in many places heavy rains had pummelled away large chunks of the road, and we had to cross many a waterslide, mud pool or pile of rocks. Thankfully, our trusty driver navigated them calmly and securely, safely yet slowly. After a few hours, we realised that at this pace, it would take us at least three to four hours to make it to the crater. But the scenery was amazing, the cloudy forest full of lush ferns and trees, and the views that occasionally shone through the mist was so gorgeous that time crawled by as fast as our car. The experience beat the hotel lobby by far.

Flores overland roads

Pit stop at main road

Amazing views

By the time we reached the lake, it was late afternoon and even though we had read there were some homestays here, we had no clue whether they would have room for us. Mobile network ceases to exist in central Flores quickly outside of the touristy town of Labuan Bajo, and there are no landlines either, so there had been no way to call ahead. We had figured, no tourists, apart from us, would be crazy enough to trek to in the mountains in weather like this. When we had asked our friendly driver if he could help sort out accommodation, his English being worse than my Bahasa Indonesia (which covers menus and food fine, but not too much else), his smiling nods about a 'villa' by the lake were not much of a comfort. 

Sano Nggoang Crater Lake
When we got to the lake, it shimmered gorgeously in the foggy twilight, and we drove around it to reach Nunang, the village on the other side. The driver looked worryingly at a rocky road down to the lake, uttering the single word 'wow.' As he had been unfazed by the hugest potholes so far, this was slightly worrying. But after some encouragement by friendly villagers, he turned the car down, with only a tiny frown, and drove all the way down to a large, newly constructed two-story house at the end of the road, on the shore of the lake. There safely arrived, he pointed and smiled: 'villa.'

Flores bamboo house

The villa by the lake

Most of the houses in the villages we had passed were made of bamboo matting, or concrete bricks at best, so the term seemed justified. A man opened the gate for us, and beckoned us in with a wide smile. His name was Petrus, as he introduced himself with a firm handshake. In good English, he explained he had built this villa together with his brother in law, to receive guests by the lake. Then, he looked apologetically. The house was fully booked, with guests arriving from Jakarta that evening, to stay for a week, on business. It seemed this was a most rare occurrence, and ultimate bad luck I our timing. His English was not sufficient to relate what their business was in this remote area, but after some questioning, he did manage to explain that they had made the reservation by sending a message to his friend in town, who had delivered it on his motorcycle. As we were hours from any town with hotels, over a badly potholed road, and it was fast getting dark, I was now getting slightly nervous. The kids were tired and hungry, and our stores consisted of water and peanuts. But I need not worry, Petrus said, we could stay at his house. 

Petrus and Sisilia
It turned out Petrus had two nice bedrooms with double beds in his own house, for guests; one for us, one for the kids. Stuffy from a long day in the car, we decided to take advantage of the dry spell, and headed to the Crater Lake for a dip. The lake is over 500 meter deep, and fresh, with a slight sulphuric tinge - no fish can live here. When we hit the water, the sky cleared, and the last rays of the setting sun cautiously bathed the mountains surrounding the lake. 

Swimming in the Crater Lake at dusk

After we'd dried and dressed, Sisilia, Petrus' wife, turned one of the hens roaming the garden into tasty fried chicken served with rice and vegetables. Dinner was served with stories from Petrus, who liked every opportunity to further improve his English. The beds were comfortable, and a generator provided light at night. The guests from Jakarta turned out to be here to install a more sustainable source of energy than Petrus’ noisy generator: the village was to be a test site for a geothermal energy station. The next morning a meeting would be held with the town to decide on the best location. 

Kids bedroom

Dinner, left in yellow our driver

After a good night sleep, broken only by roosters and rain battering the metal roof, and a breakfast of nasi goreng and homemade sambal, we decided to warm up in the village hot springs by the lake. Bamboo poles guided the hot water in little showers, and when the cold rain started again, we had to fight, as there were four of them, and five of us. 
On our way to the hot springs

Warming up

We had hoped to further explore the area after breakfast, but the on-going downpour left us little choice but to move on. Luckily, by the time we had reached Wenang village, the rain had stopped, and a watery sun peaked through the clouds. Friendly Fiona from the village agreed to guide us through fields of rice, coffee, vegetables, cacao and candle nut trees to see Cunca Rami, a waterfall where we could swim, according to the guide books, in lovely shallow pools below the cascade. 

Fiona stopped in her tracks when we reached the river. Normally, it was ankle deep, but now it was frothy deep, and she shrugged we should turn back. Unfazed, and wanting to make most of the dry weather, we decided to cross, the girls on Roel and Fiona’s backs. 

Cunca Rami

When we got near the waterfall, it was just like a storm had started again, the spray of the falling water blowing far and wide, making us wet again. Even Fiona was impressed by the bulk of the waterfall, doubled by the rains, but swimming was out of the question because its roaring size made foaming whirlpools in the shallow pools. Back in the village, Fiona treated us to local coffee, while she taught kids a game with unshelled candlenuts.

When we arrived back in the mobile network sphere of Labuan Bajo, we were happy to learn that the weather had cleared enough to resume our next highlight: the Komodo Adventure Boast trip.  

Wednesday 8 March 2017

On elections and civilisation

The Dutch national elections are coming up next week, and it seems they are about one subject only: immigration. Like many western countries the population is torn into two battling factions, the ones that think that immigrants are the source of all evil, and the ones that feel that we can best fix our problems by working together. That there are more interesting, one could say urgent, matters that could be debated, like climate change, education, equal division of wealth, and global safety, is mostly ignored.

And when even a mainstream party, and our current prime minister, starts yelling ‘if you can’t behave normally, you should just piss off,’ you know the gloves are off.

(Well, he said it in Dutch, so in fact he said ‘pleur op,’ which is wishing someone pleurisy, a nasty lung disease, whilst suggesting they scram)

I’d like to discuss an example of something that in the Netherlands we call ‘inburgeren’, which uses the word ‘burger’, or civilian, and basically refers to becoming an ‘in-civilian’. Someone on the inside. I am not sure if I can also link it to another word: civilisation.

Right now, there is inburgering going on in my garden.

As you probably know chicken, like humans, have a strict pecking order. The top hen rules the roost, unless there is a male in the troop to trump her. The top chicken, hen or rooster, gets to eat first, and takes top spot on the sleeping perch. Some roosters take good care of their girls, protect them from danger, and give them choice morsels of food, but any flock of hens needs to wait and see what kind of cock they’ll get.

When we introduce new hens to our run, there is a week of bickering, the odd feather is shed, but things usually settle down quickly when a new pecking order is established. Once, a period where pythons and disease ruled the coop left poor Lucy all alone in the run. When we introduced our three young chicks Fien, Ronaldo and Daisy, I worried big Lucy would be nasty to the small newcomers, but the opposite occurred: the kids 
together bullied Lucy into submission. Later, when we had to say goodbye to roosters Ronaldo and Daisy, little Fien turned into a good-natured fat hen, that dominates the roost placidly. Pullets Roos and Cherry were accepted without much hassle. 

But when we introduced chicks Milo and Kika earlier this year, low ranking Lucy went mental. Feathers flew, and the babies hid under the hen house for weeks. Three months later, Lucy still does allow them to sleep on even the lowest perch.

This week, we introduced yet two newer babies, Nini and Scruffy. I put three bowls of food in the run, to make sure everyone would eat. I hid a small one under the hen house, to ensure the small babies could eat safely, away from Lucy’s pesky pecks. But Lucy was unstoppable. She wriggled her front under the too low ridge, scrambling her feet uncomfortably in the mud, and hitting her head on the ceiling, just to grab the babies’ food. All the while, two large bowls of identical food sat in the plain open just behind her. To Lucy, it was more important to sabotage the new babies, and teach them their place, than to make sure she had a good breakfast herself.

There is another creature settling into our garden: Mitzi the cat. After nervously hiding under cabinets for weeks, she is now tentatively roaming the garden. So far, she has killed a squirrel, and plenty of chichaks. Last week we found a single frog head on the living room floor, and today, she dragged a sizable lizard into the dining room, which she toyed around like a ball. We love our Mitzi, but can imagine some creatures don’t.

You are probably thinking whether there is a point to what I am telling you. After all, this is all perfectly natural (normal) behaviour for animals. Is there a moral to the story? I guess the question I want to ask you is: Aren’t we humans supposed to be better than chickens and cats? More civilised. Or at least more civil? 

While you ponder on that question, I’m going to piss off.
Oh no, I did that already, years ago. I guess being normal never was my thing.