Day 684: The Slow Fast Boat

15.11.10:

The bus drove through the night, arriving in the eastern port town of Sape at 8am, just in time for the ferry to Labuanbajo in Flores.  The helpful tout dude from Maluk yesterday ripped me off good an’ proper.  I paid 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah for a ferry ticket that was worth 40,000.  150,000 is about US$17: enough for three nights accommodation in a Indonesian flea pit hotel.  I may have to return to Maluk and kill him.

He also lied about the speed of the boat: this was NO ‘fast boat’, it was slower than a West African internet connection and didn’t get me to Labuanbajo until it was almost dark.  This a merry man did me not make.  I checked into the cheapest joint in town and headed out to find out the times of the ferries leaving Flores for Kupang in West Timor.  Easier said than done.  According to the Lonely Planet there was a boat leaving Larantuka on Wednesday which sounded good, but nobody could give me confirmation and Larantuka is one the far, far east of the long skinny island of Flores – two days drive from here.  It was doubtful I could make it in time without spending a ridiculous amount ($200!!) on a taxi.  Like in Splash.

Arse.

Unfortunately for me there was no confirmation, timetable, inkling nor educated guess on offer with regards to if, when and where the next ferry to Timor would be leaving FROM ANYWHERE ON THE ISLAND.  I would have to visit the port first thing in the morning and see if they could help me.

I settled in for the night in a great little bar called The Lounge which (if I had arrived earlier) would have been a great place to watch the sun set.

Day 685: A Bunch of Flores

16.10.10:

The next boat that would sensibly get me to the island of Timor is leaving the southern port town of Aimere on Friday morning.  It’ll take me all of Thursday to get there, but hey-ho LET’S GO.  I also found out that the Wednesday ferry from Larantuka may well be a myth.  I had found this all out by about 8am after a bunch of phone calls and frantic arm-waving.

My work here done, I went to the Lounge Bar for breakfast and ended up staying there all day, abusing the Wi-Fi, updating my website, researching the South Pacific and working on this damn promo video for series 2 of ‘Graham’s World’.  With over 100 hours of video to sift through, we could be here for some time…  I kind of wish that the first season was good enough to sell the second one, I think that the problem is that this year things have gone spectacularly wrong, but not in a particularly sensational way – ie. me getting chucked in a jail cell in Africa.  You’ll notice (if you’ve seen the show), my utterly successful jaunt around Europe (45 countries in three weeks) was reduced to a one-minute montage.

You see, since Michael Palin shat his pants on the dhow to India, it’s all been about the hardship hasn’t it?  You sick little puppies.

Anyway, if you live in the UK you could really help my cause by writing to the Head of Program Acquisition at the BBC (try [email protected] ) and asking her when “Graham’s World aka Lonely Planet’s The Odyssey” will be shown on British TV – the imdb link is http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1669770/.  Say you saw an episode on holiday in the Middle East, India, SE Asia or South America on Nat Geo Adventure.  And don’t the BBC own Lonely Planet anyway?  Yeah, say that too.

Okay, stop nodding and GO DO IT.

Go on.

C’mon, I’m not going to write anything more until you do it.

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I’m serious.

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Okay, thanks!

Now yesterday (all my troubles seemed so far away) on the way to Flores from the island of Sumbawa I passed two islands: Rinca and Komodo.  And you know what’s on Komodo don’t you?  DRAGONS!  Komodo Dragons, to be precise – the world’s largest monitor lizard (and the world’s largest venomous creature).  I booked myself on a trip to go and see ’em tomorrow.

Day 686: Here Be Dragons

17.11.10:

Onboard my boat to see the Komodo Dragons were a couple of mad Italians from Milan called Franco and Frederico.  The two-hour ride from Labuanbajo to the island of Rinca (better than Komodo itself for seeing the dragons) would had been uneventful had the engine not EXPLODED three-quarters of the way there.  The boat owners rushed to fix the blown gasket (ignoring the fact that we were drifting dangerously close to some rocks) as Frederico, Franco and I whistled and hollered at any passing ships that came within earshot.  After about half an hour, a small ferry gave us a tow into Rinca Island’s one and only port.

Rinca and Komodo are protected national parks, so there are no backpackers and beach parties here: with good reason – the dragons are not just fascinating species worthy of protection (as are all animals within our increasingly shrinking biomass, with the exception of mosquitoes, parasitic wasps and the worms that cause river blindness: we could do without them), they are also remarkably deadly and a drunken backpacker would make for a great snack – if he or she hung around long enough for the venom to take its toll.

If anyone missed the macabre scenes shot for the BBC’s Life series last year of the dragons killing a water buffalo, I humbly suggest you attempt to track them down via YouTube.  They’re at the end of the second episode, the one on reptiles.  You see, the dragon’s venom isn’t very fast acting: indeed it can take up to three weeks to kill its prey.  This is where it all starts getting a little morbid.  After inflicting the deadly bite, the dragons will follow the stricken animal around 24/7 as it gets sicker and sicker, until it finally shuffles off this mortal coil – much like great big lizardy vultures.

Incidentally – do you know the difference between an animal that is venomous and one that is poisonous?  The terms are not synonymous: ‘venomous’ means that the animal will bite or otherwise inject venom into its prey to kill them.  ‘Poisonous’ means that you will get ill if you eat whatever it is.  So a snake is venomous, but you can eat one it if you’re feeling peckish.  A blowfish, on the other hand, will never bite you or cause you any problems whatsoever… until you’re stupid enough to eat one.

A good rule of thumb is that predators = venomous and prey = poisonous.

And, just for the record, ‘flammable’ means the substance itself burns (paper is flammable) but ‘inflammable’ means that the substance doesn’t burn, the vapours do (patrol is inflammable – as are all liquids you can set fire to).

I just thought I’d throw that in there.  Don’t say these blogs ain’t informative.

Anyway, we had a guide with a STICK! (woo!) just in case any dragon decided he or she fancied dining on ginger Scousers (or mad Italians).  Seems a bit mad that one of the most fearsome animals in the world can be held at bay by a stick.  There was a large group of dragons hanging out under the kitchen hut of the reserve lodge.  After snapping some photos and getting some footage, we headed out into the jungley interior to try and find one of these illusive creatures doing what they do best: hang around waiting for their latest water buffalo to die (poor old Fred Flintstone).  We soon found evidence that Here Be Dragons: the females will dig loads of holes all over the place and only lay her eggs in one to confuse egg-eating predators.

After walking for about 45 minutes we stumbled upon a couple of buffalo chilling out in a muddy creek, and, sure enough – there was a dragon keeping sentry.

Look!

It didn’t move much, though.  I asked the guide if I could borrow his stick to poke it.  I hope he know I was joking…!  Magnificent animals, but I didn’t get too close: I didn’t want a septic leg – when they want to they can move lightning fast.  But not today and not in the tropical heat of the noonday sun.  If you come to see them in June you might be very lucky and see a couple of males fighting.  In a quirk of evolution, (and like Adult Friend Finder) the male-to-female ratio is 1 to 4 – so competition is fierce.

Dragon!

Hmm… my pics don’t really do justice to these fellas.  Since I use professional video kit (which sometimes even works!) I don’t bother with a professional SLR stills camera: too much kit to guard 24/7!  The video I got was much better.  I might sell it to the BBC.

Day 687: There Be Hobbits

18.11.10:

One of the things about living out of a backpack is that it’s so easy to forget things.  I’ve probably got about one hundred items with me, ranging from my glasses to my malaria pills to the charger for my electric razor, and first thing in the morning is the worst time for having your brain in gear.  When I think of all the things I’ve lost on this trip (my South America Lonely Planet, my little diaries, my hat) – it’s even more remarkable the things I haven’t lost.

Having said that, I do sometimes suffer from lapses in concentration that are, quite frankly, embarrassing.  One such lapse occurred today as the bus charged towards the port town of Aimere (pronounced Eye-Mere-Ay) – I left my infernal Yellow Bible in the little eatery we stopped at to get the usual BLURGH of steamed white rice and fish heads (sometime you can get chicken bones instead w00t! – just as inedible).  Maybe I was riling at the blandness (and coldness) of Indonesian cuisine.  Seriously – I was given better grub in jail – at least it was hot!

Here in Indonesia, it’s like Monty Python’s Spam sketch, only with rice.  Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner…

We’ve got rice, rice, rice, egg, beans and rice; that’s not got much rice in it…

It wouldn’t be so bad if they had the same selection of sauces they have in Chinese cuisine, but no – here any garnish will usually consist of a few green beans if you’re lucky or some cold curry powder slop if you’re not.  Weird when you consider these were the spice islands – the lands that made mad European adventurers froth at the mouth for hundreds of years.  Never underestimate the power of condiments.  Wars have been fought over condiments.

Anyway, we were too far away by the time I noticed I had lost my book for us to go back.  We had been cruising around the utterly incredible series of bends that constitute the main road of Flores (this place would make an ace episode for Top Gear) for a good couple of hours since the rest stop.

Luckily, the driver got in touch with a mate of his who was taking the afternoon minibus to Ruteng (halfway to Aimere).  If I was happy to wait in Ruteng, he could pick my book up and give it to me later.  But, by then, heaven knows how I’m going to get to Aimere: the last bus of the day would have already gone.

Was it worth hanging on for?  After my experience of trying to get through South America without a guidebook, the answer to that question was a resounding YES.  I don’t stand a chance of chance of getting to East Timor or West Papua without it.  So I hung around the town of Ruteng for a couple of hours.  Loads of schoolkids had an assignment which required them to bug Bules (pronounced boo-lays and meaning Johnny Foreigners in Indonesian) like myself to write in their exercise book that the kids speak good English.

Fighting the urge to demand payment for such duplicitous services (their English was as bad as my French) I happily signed about ten books during the afternoon, and each one I recommended for a gold star and a jellybaby.  Oh and don’t worry about halal: Flores is a Christian island.  Not that that stops the Muslim call to prayer being pumped out at some ridiculous hour of the morning.  Lucky I spent so much time in the Middle East my body has learnt to sleep right through it.

By 5pm I had my book back (hoorah!), but now a bigger problem arose like a grumpy levitation from the depths: how the hell was I going to get to Aimere?  But then, literally as my book was handed over, a people carrier sped past with a guy hanging out the window shouting ‘Aimere! Aimere!’.

A-ha!  A shared taxi?  How much?  $11?

That’d do.

It’s amazing what outrageous fortune these gods of the Bronze Age keep on bestowing upon me, especially considering I don’t believe in any of the buggers.

As I clambered onboard I mused about the fact that here I was, crossing the fabled island of the human hobbits: homo floresiensis, At just one meter tall and with brains the same size of that of a chimpanzee (tellingly our closest surviving relative), the hobbit’s remains have been dated to just 18,000 years ago – a mere blip on the evolutionary timescale of us homo sapiens.

It’s sad that Flores and Neanderthal man died out, the world could be a very different place if more people understood that homo sapiens are not quite as special or unique as they seem to think (the vast majority of people on this planet seriously believe that we, alone amongst living things, are going to magically survive their own death! Ha! Good luck with that!).

Sharing the planet with two other species of human might have given us the lesson in humility that we so desperately need (if we’re ever going to stop destroying this fine planet of ours).  But given the numerous purges, genocides, pogroms and ethnic violence perpetrated by humans against their own species, I guess our fellow hominids didn’t stand a chance.

There has been a bit of debate as to whether the ‘hobbit’ skeleton found in the Manggarai Region of Flores constituted a brand new species or whether it was just a normal human with a rare (but not unheard of) genetic deformity.  The discovery of several similar skeletons nearby has all but chucked the ‘deformity’ theory out of the window (oh, Young Earth Creationists – if only Evolution was as easy to disprove eh?), and the brain size alone signifies that these guys were most definitely not sapiens.

It’s interesting that the first homo erectus fossils were found in Java – a completely separate branch of the hominid family to the hobbits.

While I was musing such matters, would you believe what I saw…?

Bilbo's Mum!!!

Yes, I believe that to be a living hobbit.  I may be wrong, maybe she’s just a tiny old lady, or maybe the hobbits ‘died out’ due to interbreeding with us sapiens.  But I’m fairly sure people on this island (on average) are shorter than the folks on Bali…

The Little People

Nah, they’re just kids.  It’s cool that they all wave when the see a Bule like me drive past, reminds me of the good bits of West Africa.

Anyways, as night fell I was invited by the driver of my ‘travel’ (shared taxi) to play DJ.

Thank the maker!  If there is one thing that may just put you off Indonesia for life, it’s the crimes against music perpetrated by the bus and ‘bemo’ drivers here.  With sound systems set to ‘Krakatau’, they pump out the worst of the worst music you could possibly imagine: Indonesian music seemingly ripped from Japanese advertising jingles from the 70s, what I can only describe as ‘Oompah-pah Electronica’, desperately poor Indonesian hip-hop (think GLC taking themselves seriously), 80s mom rock that would make Elton John look heterosexual and the insipid drone of Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, Scorpions, and, worst of all, Akon.  How a guy who sounds like the goat-diddling lovespawn of Crazy Frog and Stephen Hawking has sold a single album blows my mind.

The biggest joke is that most of the buses here are covered in punk rock stickers – it’s pretty funny to see a bus plastered with pictures of Sid Vicious blasting out Celine Dion at ear-splitting volume.  Seriously.  Seriously.  Gay.

And who the hell sings that infernal cock-rock song about wanting to lie down in a bed of roses?  Christ when I get hold of him I’m going to pull a Mel Gibson on the nonce and bury him under a bed of roses.

As I selected Blitzkrieg Bop from my iPod, I explained that for the next two hours I would be giving these guys a crash course in the sort of music that ridiculously over-amped sound systems were invented for…

A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.

Day 688: Executive Class

19.11.10:

Last night I stayed in the grottiest pension I think I’ve ever seen.  Aimere is most definitely a one horse town as the only option was a pension down the street which (unlike the one I stayed in) had seen a lick of paint in the last few decades.  Not that that justified paying twice the price.

When I was visiting the dragons on Wednesday, I was enjoying a nice cold Coke after all that trekking in the sweltering heat of Komodo national park when I got chatting to an Italian guy called Simon who was (marvellously enough) travelling from Italy to Australia in a Fiat 500.  Just then his travel partner, Chesa, popped up and said I looked a little like that Graham guy off the telly.  Funny that, I said, because…

After introductions we realised that we would be taking the same ferry over to Timor and would probably be in Dili at the same time next week.  Emails were exchanged and now here in Aimere we met up again: they were actually staying in the same pension (not that there was really any choice).  Their car is hilarious: just enough room for two front seats and backpacks.

So they didn’t make it all the way overland, they (and their car) had to be flown from Nepal to Thailand.  Like the Oz bus, it seems that if you wanna overland it from John O’ Groats to Hobart in your Reliant Robin, you’re going to come unstuck when it comes to crossing China.  Wouldn’t be such a problem if Burma wasn’t such a basketcase, but as it is there is no option but to fly.  Of course, if you’re doing the trip by public transport it’s very possible indeed: well, at least until you get to Dili – something I’ll talk about more when I get there.

Funnily enough, Chesa and Simon, like me, couldn’t believe how good Iran was.  A note to the people of Iran: you rock!  A note to the government of Iran: you suck!

So we all clambered onboard the good ship to Kupang.  I pretended to be with Chesa and Simon so I could get on before the braying masses (nobody thought to ask how on Earth I would have fitted in the car).  I had paid $2 more for ‘executive class’ and I was bursting to see what this would mean.  In the end, it just meant more comfortable seats, but still no air conditioning and the ship was pretty unclean.

What was good though is that the executive class was pretty empty so I could (happily) lay across several seats instead of attempting to sleep sitting upright with my chin pressed against my chest.  Which is pretty dangerous, you know – it can cut off your air supply – that’s how come so many people died in the Moscow Theatre Siege.  True story.

As Chesa and Simon caught up with their blogs (they’re just getting around to blogging about Pakistan!  And you think my blogs are a bit late!!) I mooched around the ship: at the back of executive class was normal class, which I’m so glad I didn’t go for as everyone what perched on hard moulded plastic seats – the type you get in the doctor’s waiting room and the type that it’s pretty much impossible to sleep lying across without risking serious back injury (I know this from painful experience after attempting to sleep on the Grimaldi ferry from Tunisia to Italy last March).  Downstairs in the cargo hold was the hilariously named ‘zero class’, which featured entire families lying on cardboard rollmats between the cars and goods and bananas and rice and cockroaches.  I had flashbacks to last year’s nightmare trip on the Shissiwani from Dar Es Salaam to Comoros and ran back upstairs.

We left Aimere bang on schedule, but we wouldn’t be getting to Kupang in Indonesian West Timor until tomorrow.  I did some working out: if you include the few boating excursions I’ve been on during this expedition, this was my 100th boat trip: from tiny wooden canoes to massive cruise ships and pretty much everything in between.  Not bad for someone who gets woozy just thinking about the ocean.

That night I spent a good few hours sitting on the port wing of the bridge chatting to Simon about our various adventures around the world.

Ah, wanderlust: the overwhelming feeling that you should probably be somewhere else.

It that same wanderlust that led our ancestors out of Africa 50,000 years ago to as far a field as China, Australia, the Americas and Wales.  It was the desire to see over the edge of the known world that propelled the likes of Columbus, Magellan and Cook to seek out strange new lands and it was that same desire to transgress every boundary – natural or otherwise that fuelled Gagarin’s and Armstrong’s rockets into the stratosphere.

Well that and some rocket fuel, I guess.

Can’t help it, mate – gotta travel.  What are you waiting for?

Day 698: The Ende of All Things

29.11.10:

So the ferry pulled into Larantuka port nice and early, around 7am.  Now I just had the small matter of the entirety of Flores to get across.  Cast from your mind any concept of nice straight Roman roads – this is a volcanic jungle baby, and these roads are longer and windier than you would believe.  But, damn what AMAZING scenery.  Vast forests cladding soaring hillsides, valleys of greenest green far below, and when we scoot along the coast the silhouettes of ancient fishing boats rendered by the golden sunbeams glittering in the deep blue waters.

Even better, the stereo on my minibus wasn’t working, so I didn’t have to suffer that dreadful Indonesian musak!  I was also lucky to have a sensible driver – one that didn’t fang it around blind corners whilst overtaking a convoy of trucks.  On top of all that, I managed to bag a front seat so I could plug my laptop into the cigarette socket and write all these lovely diary entries you’ve just wasted a couple of hours reading.  Hee hee.  So it was a extremely pleasant ride to the northern coast town of Maumere and by early afternoon we had arrived.  Wishing to continue stabbing westward, I boarded another minibus down to the south coast, to Ende.

Ende, like all towns in Flores, is a one-horse affair.  It’s claim to fame is that it is Indonesia’s Elba – the (eventual) first president of Indonesia, Soekarno, was exiled here by the Dutch in the 1930s.  It has a handful of pensions and even fewer restaurants.  I ended up walking for an hour just to find some grub, and the place I found (a Chinese gaff – great seafood!) closed at 9pm: I had barely finished my meal.

Day 699: The Ruteng Clan

30.11.10:

After dragging myself out of bed at 6.30am, I wasn’t too chuffed when I was told that the minibus to the next waypoint, Ruteng, didn’t leave until 8am.  But no sooner had I settled down under a bamboo bivouac at the side of the road to drink coffee with the locals (the coffee in Flores and Timor has an amazing spicy taste to it) than the bus driver started tooting his horn. The bus was already full and therefore what was the point of hanging around?

I wish bus companies in the UK could be as damn sensible.  By 7.30am we were whizzing past Ende’s city limits and back into the jungle.  Timetables be damned!!

I could wax lyrical about the drive, but suffice to say that it was incredible and a whole lot of fun.  I just wished I was driving.  Damn, I miss driving.  It would me nice to be in control of my own destiny in the near future.  Another nice thing is the fact that everybody smiles and waves as we drive by.  When I was bitching about being stared at in India, I justified my position by explaining that when the look is accompanied by a smile and a wave (as in Africa), it generates a warm, positive feeling… when it’s a dead-eyed stare (as in India), it raises your anxiety levels considerably – you start thinking that there’s something wrong with you, maybe you’ve got something on your face, maybe the guy thinks you’re someone you’re not and is about to launch a violent and frenzied attack.  Who knows?

But, yeah, Flores – all smiles and waves.  I like that.

The minibus arrived in Ruteng in the afternoon and I was told that I would have to stay here for the night and get another bus early tomorrow morning.  No way, Jose… I’m going all the way with LBJ.  All the minibuses that buzz around the island tend to leave in the morning, but as I learned on the way to Aimere last week, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  Shared taxis (Toyota People Carriers) ply across the island and in the manner of African Bush Taxis, they go when they’re full.  Lucky for me there was one waiting as I got off the minibus.  I barely had time to grab some Nasi Goreng (egg fried rice) to go before we set off towards Labuanbajo.

It was dark when the rains came – and boy, did it rain.  The kid driving the Toyota might have had better luck seeing if he hadn’t covered the windscreen with stickers and dangly love hearts (Indonesians are nothing if not a little effeminate in their decorative tastes: a facet they share with Indians).  He might have also been better off listening to me when I was trying to explain that cool air fan didn’t make the windows mist up, that was the internal/external temperature difference and our sweat.  In fact, the cool air fan would make the visibility better, because we’d be sweating less.  But no, he trundled on regardless.  Imagine the last run of the Bluesmobile but on mountainous, jungly, unlit switch-backs with very bad Indonesian hip-hop (“The Ruteng Clan”) playing at full volume.

In his defence, at least he took it easy and we did get to Labuanbajo in one piece.  We arrived just before 9pm.  I slung my bags in the Bajo Beach hotel (hello again!) and then raced down to the camera shop, catching it just before it closed and stocking up on video tapes.  A miscalculation on my behalf led me to paying way over the going rate, but I was tired and hungry and we all make mistakes.  I trundled back to the Lounge Bar where I simultaneously inhaled a pizza (mmm… something that’s not rice… lovely!) and attempted to upload as many of these blogs as possible using their wi-fi before they chucked me out.

The boat for Sumbawa was due to leave at 8am.  This is great – I should be in Bali a day earlier than I expected.

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