Confident that everyone was itching to ask our guide the same question, I played trailblazer. Sure, it was interesting to learn about the average litter size, or the arboreal habits of the younger Komodo dragons, but I wanted more, I wanted drama, I wanted death. ‘About 16’ offered the guide, smashing asunder the flood gates to a hunt for morbid secrets, and all because Komodo Dragons are the very embodiment of ferocity and predation – the wide, Jurassic maw, the trenchant claws, the bleak stare, the creature’s glorious epithet itself. ‘If you get bitten by a dragon, how long until you die of infection? Is it a slow death?’ We might as well have licked our lips, rubbed our thighs, the guide though seemed used to indulging the collective want for predator porn. ‘You would die in around two weeks’ he leveled with us, and then sidetracked into breeding habits before fielding another interruption ‘Who would win in a fight to the death, a crocodile or a Komodo Dragon?’
We boated out to the diminutive island of Komodo to see these beasts, among the posse of voyeurs were Dave and Karen, a Canadian couple who flagged me down in the street the day before with ‘Steve! It’s been ages! You remember us – from Santiago!’ My third chance encounter with those I’d met before on another continent. It would be occasion to remark ‘small world’ if I didn’t know better.
We were soon shuffling, cameras poised, drafting two stick-wielding guides – our protection. Evolution had tried a bit harder with the Dragon’s weaponry than our guides had with theirs, they might as well have ditched the sticks and handed around toothpicks and lucky charms. A dragon, at least two metres long, stirred from a doze and slunk into a fluid-like easy crawl from one shadow to the next, sluggishly sweeping it’s monstrous tail through the dust. The renown of Komodo Dragons, the world’s most exalted and prodigious lizard, is no doubt embellished by their niche range, they are endemic to just five tiny Indonesian islands and number just over 5000. Other facts embolden their reptilian celebrity status though; especially impressive is that a 50 kg adult Komodo Dragon can devour a 40 kg prey in one sitting, bones, blubber, mobile phone and all. Even compared to my effort three weeks later at an all-you-can-massacre buffet in Jakarta (which almost culminated in a lifetime ban and a Monty Python-esque gastric explosion), that’s a good effort.
Engine killed, we drifted listlessly towards a dim stand of trees, the backdrop to a spaghetti of mangrove roots. A shrill screech lifted from the murk. A thumbs-up from the captain. More screeches. With narrow eyes I could make out an array of dark specks in the upper reaches of the trees, like hanging fruit. One of them twisted off a branch, plummeted, swooped in front of a shard of low cloud and escaped into a navy sky, bespeckled with scores of glinting, early stars. It’s for a sight of these gargantuan fruit bats that I had made the boat trip. More and more left perches every minute to begin their nightly foray, they wheeled above us, their shrieks mingled in a chilling chorus, foisting shivers. A few took sallies to the far side of our boat, flapping close enough that I could glimpse their pointed snouts, hear the beat of their metre-wide wings.
The bats thinned out, scattered to the seascape, some venturing up to thirty miles away to feed. We swung around and chugged back to Komodo village towards a line of bright white shining motes – the lights on out-riggers that the fishermen use to attract their quarry. A village soon segued into view, the houses levitating like the murky mangroves, their stilts consumed by gloom. We sputtered closer – until the shapes of broken boats dissolved out of the mud flats and I could smell the fish laid out on wooden slats that dashed the harbour. I surveyed a muddle of beshawled women, shambling goats and ragtag children, the latter gawked at us, moon-eyed, as our boat slid neatly into the wharf.
As I debarked one young sailor put a hand on my shoulder and pointed skyward, my eyes followed. The sky was charcoal, but I could just spot a few travelling, ragged silhouettes. Soon they would melt completely into the night, their haunting shrieks the only hint that they ply these skies.
Sumbawa, via bus window, looked a poorer place. Sinewy horses lumbered along crumbling asphalt streets, drawing carts loaded with wares. Another ferry took us to Lombok, we arrived late at night at a run-down hotel where our room’s paint job was modelled on a patient with mild jaundice and severe eczema, and where mosquitoes danced and stale fag smoke cloyed. The owner was wearing a t-shirt which depicted the face of Osama Bin Laden in the foreground to an image of the burning twin towers and the emblazoned words ‘World trade centre 2001’.
Our northern route across the island began next to a stand of giant Kopok trees,and soon the looming cone of Mount Rinjani lurched into view along with its micro-climate of gauzy cloud. We breezed through fishing villages peopled by women in multi-hued wrap-around skirts and their tribes of smirking, shabby-clad kids, far from the sand-splayed holiday-ers who chilled on the southern side of the island.
Travels with Bali
The type of moss-consumed stone temples I would usually expect to find at the end of a week long trek through remote jungle and have to exit via commando roll as a boulder drops, Indiana Jones style, are everywhere in Bali. Over 10,000 religious shrines and temples scatter the tiny island. We cycled into the town of Ubud by night – gaunt, leather-skinned men propped up shop fronts and eyed us ride in. We found a café and watched white thirty something men float by in full Bali uniform – sarongs, wispy beards, giddy in their new found spirituality, swinging Durians – a fruit which look like what I assume a land mine might look like, smell like the aftermath of a hippo detonating a landmine, and that tastes like an extra rare piece of the exploded hippo, smothered in cold custard.
We took half a day off to visit the monkey forest set amongst more of those mossy sun-mottled temples. The simian residents were king – they terrorised the tourists at every opportunity, stealing anything that might be food. One of the Balinese macaques nicked a bottle of sun cream and was busy rending the plastic with its incisors whilst a glum soon-to-be sunburned Swedish girl looked on feebly. Two jumped on the head of a quickly frantic Japanese girl whose friends could only watch her leap around in clumsy panic as the monkeys clawed at her scalp. Eventually an American lady, who clearly had some experience in de-monkeying people, raced over, snarled at them and they spidered away to strip someone else of their cosmetics. There was a first aid area, probably because this happens a lot. A couple of exhibitionists in the troop gave a show of monkey-sex, some of the more puerile sightseers reached for their cameras, their girlfriends groaned.
Bike time – and we had an audacious plan to avoid Bali’s number one turn-off : the traffic. Moseying through Ubud, a slew of motorbikes traced our outline, so we picked out some of the skinniest roads on the map to journey instead. Before we left I got at least three quarters of the way through a piece of chicken before realising that it smelled overpoweringly rancid, such is my voraciousness, so I downed some antibiotics and steeled myself for a gastrointestinal Armageddon that never came. My guts have dealt with grub from six continents, they are not easily insulted.
For anyone who believes in the old adage ‘A dogs is man’s best friend’ I invite you to ride with me through Bali. Better – I would like to tie a rope to your ankle, the other end to my rear rack, and pedal hard, dragging you behind me through Balinese back roads, like shark bait. Friends don’t forge a mangy, snarling, snapping gauntlet of joylessness. It’s not just a daytime blight either, wherever we slept in Bali dogs harangued us most of the night, the roosters joined in at 2 am. When they gave chase though, I delved into my pocket of stones: generic rules apply – 5 points for a body shot, 10 for the head, 20 for a snout. It’s easy to forgot, in the heat of battle, that dogs have backgrounds, so deduct points if your wayward ammunition strikes parked cars, people, or religious shrines. Sometimes I stood back, sniper-style,drawing the heat as Claire edged through the barking mutts and made army-like hand gestures to me, yelling out my targets ‘Fido, 2 O’clock, fire at will!’ There is little in life so satiating as the oh-so-sweet timbre of a stone clonking off a snout, the sharp yelp and fading patter of paws of a rushed retreat. And so my stones got bulkier, my aim smarter, my lob ever stronger.
A black car trailed me, pulled alongside. The driver belched out his offer.
‘No thank you’
‘WHY NOT? TAXI?’
‘Because I’m riding my bicycle’
‘BUT I GIVE YOU CHEAP PRICE’
‘But I don’t need one’
‘How much you think?’
‘I don’t care’
He thrust forward and parked, blocking my path so I was forced into a stop and he could serenade me with new offers.
‘No!’ I bellowed, exasperated.
‘Please go away’
He asked quietly this time, eyes darting ‘Marijuana?’
He looked amazed by my apparent need for nothing, my contentness in my humble fare and chimeless, unsmokable possessions. Next he wanted to know how much I paid for my bike, I hear this all the time, I resent the question and never answer truthfully. This time, I offered it in exchange for three of his mangoes and the wind chime, he raised an eyebrow, I pedalled off. Afterwards I made a decision not to take umbrage or even engage these rankling hawkers, IPOD in and pumped, I just smile a dumb smile and watch, unruffled, as the hectic mime plays out.
I don’t want to recall how it came to this. It was probably my fault.
I’m singing a tuneless, lyric-jumbled rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Eighties rock band Survivor. Claire told me it would make her feel better. ‘Rising up, back on the street…’ My wheels spin, but I don’t know how my legs are still wheeling. ‘Did my time, took my chances…’. I’m drunk on exhaustion. Brain dead. I could laugh about it all – the farce, the failure, the shit and the fan – but I passed the inappropriate hilarity stage three hours ago. Now, I want to cry. ‘Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet’… I’m finished, and if there’s another hill I’ll give up, hitch a ride, drop to my knees in front of an approaching eight wheeler, anything not to ride it. I can’t even find mirth in my desperate crooning of cheesy rock ballads or their incongruous lyrics. I am a pitiful, pedalling, splintering, karaoke-whining failure. And today began with so much promise.
We woke in a very rare Indonesian wild camping spot, aside a shrine, amid pine trees, and under yellowing clouds, combed by a thin breeze. The type of morning that makes you want to make a show of your contentment by giving a theatrical arm stretch. No dogs, no cockerels, no vocal orgy – Indonesia is rarely this cruisey, this forgiving.
We got to riding, soon though the road skinnied down to a thready trail, peppered with head-sized rock, becoming as steep and pointless as a snow-less black run, and working up a lather of despair. Looking at a new roll of it, I wondered whether someone had just painted a portrait of a road onto a cliff face. After hours of toil, bike-dragging mostly, we couldn’t face a turn around, but I had no trust left in this road. 35% boulder-strewn grades were behind me, pot holes that might have connected with the earth’s mantle. In three hours we moved a measly 10 km. Adding to our woe was the weather – the air ripped with thunder, the land eclipsed, pushed beyond my ken by a clotting fog, rain beat down unendingly as small boys scampered below makeshift banana-leaf umbrellas. As we’ve been pushing north so has the wet season, rain clouds are forever overhead, we’re like the clichéd depictions of unlucky cartoon characters.
Claire’s face was set in an anguished grimace and she expelled great, antenatal huffs. My legs quivered in short stride. We dragged our bikes down the mountain.We had battled up to 1700 metres above sea level, but the battle down was proving even more formidable and our remaining brakes squealed like tortured piglets. My back brake was shot, worn to the metal, and I had to push down the steep bits, which was almost everything. Once I looked back to find Claire had collapsed, somehow the bicycle was 90 degrees to our direction of travel, and on top of her. Inadvertently she had become a whimpering kickstand. I ran back to help but she refused, Claire is determined, she wanted her wins to be hers, her kickstand impressions too. This was no longer bicycle touring, it had degenerated into an as yet undefined sport which combined the brutish power of Sumo with the grace of care-home palates and the pointless cruelty of bear-bating.
The road flexed around another escarpment to reveal a small clan of musicians sitting outside some wattle and daub huts, one blowing into a wooden flute, his warbling melody dancing over the rhythm of the Gamolan, a kind of bamboo xylophone, bonked by two companions. I stopped to wait for Claire, this was exactly her bag. They invited us to sit, offered us Arak, played their music. Claire brought out her long metal flute she stows in a rear pannier. There was caution in the air, they didn’t see this working out, but when Claire played by ear the same wooden flutist’s melody, she pretty much nailed it straight off, leaving everyone slightly agog and nodding incredulously. They jammed for a time before we said goodbye, silver lining scored on a washed out day. ‘Sorry about our broken road’ they said.
More hills, more pain, more mental deflation. At last though we hit the town and although hotels are not our staple, that night we needed one. I had very exacting standards, in that it had to call itself a hotel. Nothing else. A brothel would have done if it has a bed to rent by the hour, though staring at my mournful reflection in the mirrored ceiling would probably only add to my torment, especially if that reflection was belting out ‘Rising up to the challenge of our rival…’.
Rested, able finally to chortle away our misfortune and my navigational optimism, we pressed on to Jatiluwih, the heritage listed rice paddies. Lush terraces lined the hills, a giant amphitheatre of brilliant green. It was the perfect opposite to the day before – jubilant freewheels, sublime scenery, sunshine spilling onto the cones of nearby volcanoes, mist idling in valleys. We spent the hours flashing one another horseshoe-grins.
Later we chanced on a Hindu ceremony playing out at a temple. We sat serenely to marvel at the rows of women dressed in magenta silks, the Gamolan orchestra, hammering out their collective tune. The way the Russian tourists arrived reminded me of how the SAS might storm an embassy. They bowled in, snatching glances, devoid of the smidgen of trepidation that you might expect from anyone visiting a sacred place, mid-ceremony. The girl was in hot pants and took some convincing to don the obligatory sarong. They charged onto stage, ordering their guide to take photos. The ringleader grabbed the women’s instruments, the others hooted with laughter before a final act of indignity – he half wrestled two of the women by wrapping his arms around their shoulders, once again ordering photos. There was laughter from the Hindu women but it was awkward and forced, we cringed harder than anyone.
So much has gone down of late that my blog is running a little behind my wheels – I’m in Sumatra and tales from this island, Jakarta and Singapore will come with the next issue which will arrive earlier than usual.
Thank yous for this leg – Dave and Karen