When my friends were making summer plans, they thought of going back to Indonesia where they had been several times before. They asked me to join but somehow SE Asia was never as alluring to me as other parts of the world. They were keen to have me on board of the team however, and decided to throw Komodo in, knowing I could never say no to the biggest lizards in the world. Well they were right! We made plans to travel first to Sumatra for some tropical rainforest herping after which we would travel to the Lesser Sunda Islands of Flores, Rinca and Komodo. A trip like this, on both sides of the equator and on both sides of the Wallace Line, would give us a rich variety in landscapes and animals. So together with Jasper Boldingh, Jorg Schagen, Sander Schagen en Dieuwertje Smolenaars I braved the dry season in Indonesia and had an unforgettable trip!
All images © Laura & Bobby Bok (unless stated otherwise)
From Amsterdam I flew to Jakarta via Dubai. Already a long enough journey, but there was still one more flight and long busride awaiting me. Well that would also have to wait a bit longer... My friends already spent one week on the southern tip of Sumatra while I was in Georgia and we would meet in Jakarta. I was the first to arrive on the airport and I soon discovered that our flight from Jakarta to Medan was moved forward and we missed it already. Luckily the people from Lion Air were able to put us on the first outbound flight the next day. After a night spent in the freezing cold airport (I was dressed for the tropics) we were finally on our way to Medan and from there to Bukit Lawang.
Bukit Lawang means Door to the Hills in Bahasa and that is exactly what this town is. After hours of driving through relatively flat plains full of palm oil plantages, the steep hills of the Gunung Leuser National Park rise up like a seemingly impenetrable wall of green. Bukit Lawang is the easiest place to access to national park and several trails go into the forest from here. We chose to stay at the Bukit Lawang Hill Resort where owner Bobi Handoko is running a valuable snake rescue operation. Although we visited in the dry season, the climate is always hot and humid and on some days we had some minor rainshowers, always in the late afternoon. From the lodge we could easily venture into the forest which we did on a daily basis, sometimes taking the trail up in the hills, but mostly taking the trail along the river where we spent most of our time. The Bohorok River was the perfect place to cool down. Already on the first day we saw a group of Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) foraging at the river when two big Asian Water Monitors (Varanus salvator) came out of the bushes and started patrolling the river bank. On our first evening we also had quite the snake fest already and I can understand so many herpers are into SE Asia. Wagler's Pitviper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) and Painted Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus) were commonly seen in low vegetation while the shallow fishing ponds were full of Puff-faced Water Snakes (Homalopsis buccata) and I found our only Rice Paddy Snake (Hypsiscopus plumbea). Also a single small Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor) was found on the path.
On the second day we took things easy, swam at the river and in general enjoyed the jungle smells, sounds and sights. In the evening some of us went into the forest and Dieuwertje, Jasper, Ipul and I set out to find more cool frogs, additional vipers and as a massive highlight Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang) staring down at us. Taking it easy doesn't necessarily mean no herping. Sometimes we simply didn't have to walk far to find interesting snakes, sometimes they simply found us. Over a period of four days, we were able to see a Banded Flying Snake (Chrysopelea pelias), Wagler's Pitviper, an Asian Vine Snake (Ahaetulla prasina) and a 3,5m long Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus), all in and around the lodge.
On our third day we did a big tour inside the national park with our new friend Ipul. We had heard some horror stories about the massive tourist crowds who come to see the Orangutans here, so we asked Ipul to make sure we wouldn't see other people today. And that worked out fine! It also meant we had to hike for some time up and down the steep slopes but then we also got what we wanted. Completely submerged in the lush green jungle with calls of White-handed Gibbon (Hylobates lar), Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus) and Great Argus (Argusianus argus) while a mother Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) was breastfeeding her newborn baby and a Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) flew straight over our heads. This is the true Asian jungle vibe! Herpwise things were a bit slower but we did see several agama species such as the Sumatra Forest Dragon (Gonocephalus beyschlagi), an endemic for Northern Sumatra, and three species of gliding lizard: Sumatran Gliding Lizards (Draco sumatranus), Black-bearded Gliding Lizards (Draco melanopogon) and the bulky Orange-bearded Gliding Lizard (Draco abbreviatus). In the evening I felt like I didn't walk enough so did another small round in the forest but turned up only the usual suspects.
On our final evening Dieuwertje, Ipul and I went again into the forest and explored a shallow river in the hope of seeing some aquatic snakes. We found several interesting creatures such as a Brown Tree Toad (Rentapia hosii) sitting on a big palm leaf, a big Great Anglehead Lizard (Gonocephalus grandis) sleeping on an overhanging branch above the river, a White-banded Wolf Snake (Lycodon subcinctus) on the path and a Red-sided Keelback Water Snake (Xenochrophis trianguligerus) swimming in the stream. It was a great way of herping, walking knee deep through the cool water while shining in the dense vegetation lining the stream. Arriving back at the lodge there was a surprise Keeled Slug-eating Snake (Pareas carinatus) waiting for us.
Then it was time to move on to a spot a bit further north of Bukit Lawang but still in the Gunung Leuser NP. In the small place of Tangkahan we would only stay one night. After the relaxing atmosphere in Bukit Lawang, Tangkahan was a bit of a disappointment. People tried to talk us into a forest walk or night walk and in general the atmosphere was just not right. Also the whole afternoon and evening it rained making herping rather difficult and we didn't see that much. But what we did see, made this place still worth our while as Dieuwertje found a small Long-nosed Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta) sitting on the path. What an amazing creature!
After Tangkahan we took a minibus back to Medan where we arrived in the afternoon. Here we arranged a taxi via Grab (something like Uber) to take us to the coast. We wanted to search in the mangroves for some mangrove dwelling snakes and had high hopes. Sadly the place we chose was incredibly filthy with dead animals laying around and the mangrove forests themselves highly degraded. It was nice to see the sun set over the Strait of Malacca and to see the abundance of mangrove critters. Mudskippers and all sorts of crabs were all over the place, but snake-wise we only saw a ton of Schneider's Bockadams (Cerberus schneiderii) and nothing else. Back in Medan we had a lovely dinner at Pappa Rich and went to bed. The travel to the Lesser Sundas was rather smooth and via Jakarta we flew to Labuan Bajo on Flores for the next leg of our adventure.
We arrived in the morning on Flores so after dropping our luggage at the Cajoma Guest House we had the whole afternoon for some relaxation. In the evening I went on my own into the nearby mangroves which looked promising for several snake species, but again many Schneider's Bockadams were found and nothing else. I did ran into a pack of feral dogs which were easily deterred by uttering a single 'shoo'. Well trained mutts... A zillion mosquito bites later I was back at the hotel where I had a small meal and a drink with the others. While we were asking the hotel staff about Tokays (of which they didn't have the slightest clue) we heared a very loud 'to-kay' from a nearby building. A closer inspection reveiled indeed our first Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) after which several more followed.
The next morning we were collected by Ajis Azis and drove to the harbour. We hauled our luggage aboard our home for the next three nights and left the hustle and bustle of Flores behind us. Our boat with the merry name of Rainbow Star III did have some engine problems after half an hour already (very reassuring), but luckily it was quickly fixed and I had my first dip in the Flores Sea. The current was really strong and I had to work hard to get back to the boat. In a nearby bay we went snorkeling after we saw a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) surfacing for a gulp of air. We didn't encounter the chelonian in the water but saw plenty of other marine wildlife.
Our first stop was Rinca. During the dry season it is incredibly dry and dusty here. Very few waterholes remain and the vegetation heavily affected by big grazers such as Waterbuffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and Timor Rusa Deer (Cervus timorensis). A situation similar to Africa in the dry season. Without much trouble we saw our first Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) but expectedly this wasn't the most exciting event. A few massive lizards, sleeping in the shade, surrounded by tourists with selfie sticks and guides with wooden sticks, poaking the lizards to give the tourists better selfie opportunities. We decided to quickly venture further inland, the tourists only stick around the ranger houses so we quickly got rid of them. The Komodo Dragons are also less easy to see here but at least the experience is a whole lot better. At Pulau Kalong we saw the sun set in the Flores Sea and saw thousands of Sunda Flying Foxes (Acerodon mackloti) taking to the air to and fly to the moist forests on mainland Flores to forage. After dinner at the boat we went back ashore on Rinca at night. We found several snake species such as Common Wolf Snake (Lycodon capucinus), Lesser Sunda Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis inornatus) and a Flowerpot Snake (Indotyphlops braminus). The latter might actually represent a new record for Rinca. We found several White-lipped Island Pitvipers (Cryptelytrops insularis) but most of them were high up in the palms fronds, sheltering from the dry conditions. Sadly none of the much anticipated Russell's Vipers or Timor Pythons.
Our cozy cabins had some very comfortable beds, but still we got up early in the morning to hike far inland on Rinca. In the morning the Komodo Dragons were much more active and were slowly lumbering through the dry woods. Near one of the few remaining waterholes (or rather mud pools) we saw a small Water Buffalo calf with a bleeding ear on his left and a patiently lurking Komodo Dragon on his right. Apparently this calf had been bitten and was severely feeling the effects of the Komodo Dragon's slow-acting venom. We decided to stick around to see what would happen. Sometimes I wish reptiles would be more active creatures but after three hours of sitting in the shade (still hot) of a big palm something happened. The calf mustered all its strength and walked out of the scorching sun and towards the waterhole. The Komodo Dragon wasn't in a hurry and slowly lumbered behind its future meal. When the calf reached the mud it was even further immobilized and somehow this was the cue for the Komodo Dragon to attack, grabbing the calfs rear leg and drag it down. Suddenly the thing we were all secretly hoping to happen, finally felt a tad uneasy. The smell of blood, the tearing of the ears and the sight of a living being, being eaten alive... it was all very real and in the moment. After this unique sighting we scrambled back on the boat and set sail towards Manta Point. It wasn't for long until we saw a huge shadow swimming under the boat so we all jumped in the water. The sight of this massive Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Manta birostris) was certainly amazing but what followed afterwards soiled the experience a bit for me. When other people saw we were looking at a manta, there were around 20 other vessels and close to 50 other people in the water. One black manta and many white mantas... One boat almost hit me and the other tourists were all kicking and scrambling to get the best footage with their GoPro. If this is sustainable ecotourism, I don't think so... We also didn't stay too long and continued our journey towards Komodo. We did a small round already to explore for nighttime. Birds were plentiful and it was clear we were east of the Wallace Line. Birds such as Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) and Helmeted Friarbird (Philemon buceroides) are typical faunal elements of Australia. At night we ventured back in the forest after another delicious dinner on the boat. It took us a long time but after some hours of walking through the dry and dense shrubbery, it was Ajis who finally gave a delivering shout. I first thought he said 'Owl' so was a bit reluctant to see what he was looking at, as I rather focussed on seeing a certain blue reptile. Even bigger was my surprise when he pointed out the blue morph of the White-lipped Island Pitviper (Cryptelytrops insularis) 3 meters above our heads! What a fantastic little gem and it goes without saying we were incredibly happy with this sighting.
This morning I woke up to the pleasant shouting of "SNAKE, SNAKE!" Usually I am not much of a morning person but today I was awake instantly. Instinctively I grabbed my welding gloves from the bunk below mine and jumped in the water. At the pier there was a strikingly coloured Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina) which I could carefully scoop out of the water. If only I could wake up like this every day... For breakfast we quickly stuffed some food in our faces and walked up to the beach to photograph and release the snake. Afterwards we had another small stroll on Komodo, photographed some more Komodo Dragons, stocked up on souvenirs and had fun bargaining with the street vendors. When the whole team was complete again we hopped aboard the Rainbow Star III and sailed back to Rinca. Along the way we snorkeled at a beautiful remote coral reef. In the afternoon we visited the carcass of the Buffalo calf again of which was almost nothing left. The rangers told us the previous day 7 Komodo Dragons made short work of it and we were very lucky to have seen the actual killing. They only see that once a year, if even. At dusk we searched again the dry forests around the ranger station but the dry conditions made sure we saw nothing but geckoes belonging to several species.
In the morning we sailed towards a shallow bay where Ajis scooped without much effort one of our main targets out of the water, a Marine File Snake (Acrochordus granulatus). Without doubt one of the most bizarre looking snakes I have ever seen. Incredibly sluggish on land but surprisingly swift in the water. Its granular skin covered with patches of algae and seaweed give this animal an otherworldly appearance. Or lifeless appearance if you will. Near a small village on Rinca we went ashore to photograph the snake and hike to the small cave system of Goa Kalong. I had hoped to find some pythons in the cave but no such luck in the dry season. During another snorkeling session at some seagrass fields I was in luck. I saw a small snake, which kept investigating little holes and sometimes digging itself in the sediment. Completely vanishing like a Horned Viper (Cerastes spp.) would in the desert. Another Marine File Snake! I could observe the snake for some time but sadly lost it when the water became too murky. After this cool ending of our adventure here it was time to go back to Flores and say goodbye to Ajis and our boatcrew after some amazing days.
Back on Flores we had two nights in a small lodge north of Labuan Bajo. An incredibly filthy place with open sewers everywhere and people bathing in a stream full of human feces and decaying animals. We didn't even have to wallow in this cesspool to become ill, so the herping to Flores was limited to some Tokay Geckoes and Common Flying Dragons (Draco volans) around the lodge. Most of my time I was convined to the bungalow and also the flight back to the Netherlands was far from comfortable. But it is hard to complain after such an amazing trip. During our trip we saw a wide array of habitats and an equal plethora of wildlife. Despite the dry season we managed to see some iconic species which were high on our wishlist.
Indonesia was a very comfortable country to travel in. Public transport is easy to use, taxis widely available, food and accommodation cheap and plenty of wildlife around every corner. People are incredibly friendly and hospitable and eager to help. But like in so many countries around the globe, it also left us with a bitter aftertaste. It was sad to see the omnipresent palm oil plantations on Sumatra, the unlimited building going on on Flores and the downright exploitation of wildlife. There is a massive trash problem and on the most remote places there are huge accumulations of rubbish and some beaches were just filled to the brim with plastic bottles. Wildlife still manages to persist on some places, or even thrive, but it does make me question: how much longer will this last?
Copper-cheeked Frog (Chalcorana chalconota)
Paddy Field Frog (Fejervarya limnocharis)
Nicobar Cricket Frog (Hylarana nicobariensis)
Spotted Litter Frog (Leptobrachium hendricksoni)
Blyth's River Frog (Limnonectes blythii)
Kuhl's Creek Frog (Limnonectes kuhlii)
Long-nosed Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta)
Dark-sided Chorus Frog (Microhyla heymonsi)
Sumatran Puddle Frog (Occidozyga sumatrana)
Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax)
Rough-sided Frog (Pulchrana glandulosa)
Asian Black-spined Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus)
Giant River Toad (Phrynoides aspera)
Brown Tree Toad (Rentapia hosii)
Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Crested Green Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)
Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor)
Orange-bearded Gliding Lizard (Draco abbreviatus)
Black-bearded Gliding Lizard (Draco melanopogon)
Sumatran Gliding Lizard (Draco sumatranus)
Common Gliding Lizard (Draco volans)
Sumatra Forest Dragon (Gonocephalus beyschlagi)
Great Anglehead Lizard (Gonocephalus grandis)
D'armandville's Bow-fingered Gecko (Cyrtodactylus darmandvillei)
Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko)
Spotted House Gecko (Gekko monarchus)
Large Forest Gecko (Gekko smithii)
Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus)
Flat-tailed House Gecko (Hemidactylus platyurus)
Sumatran Slender Gecko (Hemiphyllodactylus margarethae)
Mourning Gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris)
Common Sun Skink (Eutropis multifasciata)
Lesser Sunda Dark-throated Skink (Sphenomorphus melanopogon)
Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)
Asian Water Monitor (Varanus salvator)
Flowerpot Snake (Indotyphlops braminus)
Marine File Snake (Acrochordus granulatus)
Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)
Asian Vine Snake (Ahaetulla prasina)
Schneider's Bockadam (Cerberus schneiderii)
Banded Flying Snake (Chrysopelea pelias)
Yellow-striped Rat Snake (Coelognathus flavolineatus)
Lesser Sunda Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis inornatus)
Painted Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus)
Puff-faced Water Snake (Homalopsis buccata)
Rice Paddy Snake (Hypsiscopus plumbea)
Common Wolf Snake (Lycodon capucinus)
White-banded Wolf Snake (Lycodon subcinctus)
Keeled Slug-eating Snake (Pareas carinatus)
Red-sided Keelback Water Snake (Xenochrophis trianguligerus)
Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor)
Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus)
White-lipped Island Pitviper (Cryptelytrops insularis)
Wagler's Pitviper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)
Many thanks to Ajis Azis, Bobi Handoko, Jelger Herder, James Hicks, Bryan Minne, Neil Rowntree, Sofyan and Ipul.