Zoothera Global Birding

Zoothera Global Birding



To finish off my story we spent a travelling day as we flew from Flores to Bali and then got caught in a major traffic jam that resulted in a 5 hour drive to our luxurious lodge set amidst superb forest at Bali Barat National Park. Along the way we had a whole bunch of Savanna Nightjars flying around us when we stopped at a small shop to buy some water, and quite a few White-headed Munias roosting in a tree bordering the car park here as well.

One last push the following morning as we had a 4.30am breakfast and then drove for one hour to a small quay where we boarded a small boat for a forty minute crossing to the site where we would search for a couple of very special birds. With lofty mountains, volcanoes, forested islands and a lovely clear blue sea it certainly was a beautiful crossing and as luck would have it we spotted our first major target bird from the boat, with a Black-winged Myna riding the back of a Timor Deer on an open hillside. We found a couple of others later as we zigzagged our way across the volcanic and rocky hillside – with a pair teed up nicely in the scope. There was also Black and Ashy Drongos, plenty of Java Sparrows, a Changeable Hawk-eagle on a nest, and 3 Black-thighed Falconets.

Black-thighed Falconet – see the black…. thighs?

The highlight for me was a pair of Beach Thick-knees we scoped on a distant sand spit – I’ve wanted that baby for a long
 ....  read more

Poison feared as seven Sumatran elephants found dead

Poison feared as seven Sumatran elephants found dead



A dead Sumatran elephant discovered in 2012: poison was also suspected in this case. Photograph: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA

Seven Sumatran elephants have been found dead in western Indonesia and it is thought they were poisoned, a wildlife official said on Monday.

Dozens of the critically endangered animals have died after being poisoned in recent years on Sumatra as the creatures come into conflict with humans due to the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations that destroy their habitat.

The latest to die were an adult female, five male teenagers, and a male calf believed to be from the same herd, said local wildlife agency spokesman Muhammad Zanir.

The remains were found on 16 February just outside Tesso Nilo national park and it is thought they died five months earlier, he said.

“There is an indication that they were poisoned,” he said. “Some people may consider the elephants a threat to their palm oil plantations and poison them.”

While Sumatran elephants are regularly found dead, it is rare to discover so many at the same time.

Swaths of rainforest have been destroyed in recent years to make way for plantations and villagers increasingly target Sumatran elephants, which they regard as pests.

While most concessions for palm oil companies are granted outside Tesso Nilo, in Riau province in eastern Sumatra, many villagers still illegally set up plantations inside the park, said WWF spokeswoman Syamsidar, who goes by one name.

Poachers also sometimes target the animals – the smallest of the Asian elephants – for their ivory tusks, which are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

The WWF says there are only between 2,400 and 2,800 Sumatran elephants remaining in the wild and warns they face extinction in less than 30 years unless the destruction of their habitat is halted.

Rampant expansion of plantations and the mining industry has destroyed nearly 70% of the elephant’s forest habitat over 25 years, according to the WWF.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the elephants as “critically endangered”, one step below “extinct in the wild”.

Java, Solo Ascent of Volcanic Mt Semeru

Java, Solo Ascent of Volcanic Mt Semeru


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Bromo and Semeru

I awoke in my tent at dawn and peered outside. Grand volcanic Mt Semeru towered over me, its perfectly symmetrical, conic slopes clearly visible in the crisp clear air. I had arrived at my solo camp the previous afternoon, hiking in from tiny Ranu Pani village, the entryway to remote Mt Semeru in central Java, Indonesia.


Distant view of Mt Bromo area

Ranu Pani village itself is extremely remote and of no interest to anyone except to hikers hoping to summit the mountain. I’d reached the village via a nerve-wracking supply truck ride up a muddy track on a narrow, razor-sharp ridge line during a heavy rain storm. (Details of that ordeal here)

Mt Semeru is Java’s highest peak at 3676 M / 12,130 ft. Semeru is also Hindu Indonesians’ (read ‘Balinese’) most sacred mountain. More importantly to hikers, Mt Semeru is Java’s most active volcano, randomly spewing out deadly toxic fumes. Unfortunate hikers do occasionally die from getting caught in Semeru’s fumes while up on the crater rim.

But Semeru’s potential dangers didn’t put me off summiting the volcano solo. As soon as I’d read ‘Java’s highest peak’ I was hooked. And my climb was about to begin.

There at camp I ate a hearty breakfast while enjoying a beautiful sunrise against the majestic volcano. Then I gathered my things and set out. I left my tent standing with most of my possessions inside. From my camp at the base of the mountain, summiting Semeru was ‘simply’ a half day hike up to the crater rim and back.

It was just a short walk across a flat open meadow to a scrubby forest covering the lower flanks of the mountain. From there, the trail ascended up through the rather barren forest, and then it was another short hike up to the bottom of Semeru’s gray ashen slopes, the volcanic cone itself.

I was greeted there by more than a dozen wooden placards commemorating all the hikers who had died trying to summit Semeru! Gulp. That was a rather dramatic and chilling start to a mountain climb.

I noticed from reading the placards that most of the victims had been young teenage Indonesian guys. I guessed that they hadn’t really known what they were doing climbing a tall, remote mountain. I supposed they hadn’t come properly prepared with rain gear, cold weather clothes, extra food & water and a medical kit.

Perhaps some of them hadn’t been careful while ascending to watch the way back down and thus had become lost. They could have been caught in foul weather or in a waft of Semeru’s toxic fumes. Mountain climbing – any mountain climbing – is serious business, not to be entered recklessly. And teenagers tend to be reckless.

I have to admit that those grim signs made me pause for a moment. But I was an experienced hiker. I’d been hiking since I was 10 years old, over two decades at that point. And I’d been hiking/mountain climbing solo for 5 years, including a two-week trek of the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepal Himalayas. I’d even climbed another ashen-cone volcano – Japan’s magnificent Mt Fuji.

More over, I was prepared. I had two liters of water, electrolytes, a meal and snacks, warm clothes, a Gortex rain suit and sunscreen. I knew how to keep myself safe and prevent myself from getting lost.

I gazed up the steep, seemingly endless gray ash slope of Mt Semeru. From here on I’d be completely exposed to the elements, be it scorching equatorial sun, wind, clouds, rain or storm. And a possible belching fume from the volcano. Luckily it was a clear, blue-sky day. Most likely my only weather danger would be sunburn. And I had my sunscreen to take care of that detail.

I stepped out from the shady forest onto the exposed loose dry ash and began my ascent.

The trail was simply a narrow worn path of hikers’ footsteps imprinted in gray ash. It was firmer than I’d expected, considering the entire cone was nothing but loose ash. Thankfully the going was pretty steady, with not nearly as much back-slipping as I’d experienced on Mt. Fuji.

The trail was not very well marked. A few piles of rocks (cairns) had been placed here & there, but not consistently. Occasionally a stone was painted white or red. That was about it. Mainly I just had to make out the firm path in looser ash.

I ascended only a short distance before I noticed that the entire mountainside consisted of a series of vertical ridges and troughs, running from way up the mountainside somewhere to the base of the cone. By the time the troughs reached the forest at the bottom they were exceedingly steep, deep and wide, like canyons.

I realized it would be quite easy on the way back down to accidentally descend into the wrong ravine, making it  very easy to get lost. So I made a point as I ascended to repeatedly look back the way I’d come, to recognize the faint trail as well as how my entry point looked from different heights

I continued climbing up the steep gravely ash slope, periodically looking back to re-check the trail and descent. Happily nothing unusual happened. The weather remained clear and sunny. And I simply continued slogging up the volcano until I eventually reached the crater rim nearly 3 hours later.


Looking down inside the crater

I’d left my tent at 6 am and reached the summit at 9 am. It was cold up there, and windy. Despite being situated just 8 South of the equator, and it being a clear sunny day, Mt Semeru’s rim was cold at 3676 M / 12,130 ft. I pulled on all my warm clothes and my gortex jacket.


Lash on the summit of Mt Semeru

The views were simply gorgeous! I was surrounded by a sea of heavily forested mountains. Not far off  was the massive cone of Mt Bromo, Java’s most popular volcano and one of the island’s most famous tourist destinations.

I sat down in the ash and ate my canned meal while absorbing the stunning views and enjoying my successful solo summit. I also kept a watchful eye on the inner crater, a deep dark gray ash pit. I didn’t want any toxic clouds to puff up and catch me off guard. Luckily, Mt. Semeru was quiet that day.

At 10 am things changed rapidly. Suddenly heavy clouds rolled in and engulfed the mountain in a thick white blanket. The gorgeous views disappeared.

I knew I had to get down as quickly as possible. The clouds could bring rain, which would be cold and possibly make the trail slippery & dangerous. Even worse, I suddenly realized by looking down the way I’d come, I might not even be able to see the trail anymore!

With that realization I jumped up, grabbed my things, snapped a few quick photos, and made a hasty retreat. Fortunately, I could still make out the trail as I went along. And I only had to descend a short way before I emerged below the clouds. Luckily they were only hugging the very summit of Semeru that day. Below them a clear blue sky was shining in every direction and all the way down the mountainside.

The descent was very steep. Ash began sliding around everywhere, which make walking very tiring. It dawned on me that it would be easy to slide down, like skiing, if I had something to ride on. But what?

I remembered that I had an old grain sack that I’d picked up somewhere to act as a rain cover for my pack if necessary. I pulled that out, placed it on ash slope, sat down, and pushed. And there I was, gliding down Mt Semeru! That was great fun and made the descent much faster.

As I slid down the volcano, I kept my eye on the faint path and my entry point way down below. Even so, at the very end I went down the wrong ravine! At some point down inside that steep ravine, I realized I was in the wrong place. I was amazed. Id’ been so very careful. Imagine if I hadn’t been paying attention. How very easy it was to get lost there!

So I climbed back up & out of the ravine. I reassessed my position. Luckily, had just gone down one ravine over from the correct one.

Soon enough I located the correct exit point by scrutinizing the area even more carefully. Then I climbed down to the forest edge and found the ‘tombstone’ signs. Whew, I’d made it!

I never saw another soul the entire day. It was just me and Mt Semeru.


Mt Semeru billowing fumes – views from Lash’s camp

I returned to my camp, relaxed and ate, then packed up and headed out. With a couple more days of hiking I would reach nearby Mt Bromo and explore another fuming volcano, albeit one full of other hikers and tourists.

Lombok, The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?

Lombok, The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?


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First published 29th July, 2012

Gili means “little island” in Sasak (the native language of Lombok) and while there are “gilis” all around the circumference of Lombok, when people talk of “the Gilis”, they’re not trying to showoff their Sasak prowess, but rather they’re referring to three little islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.

The Gilis feature regularly in “The next hot thing”-style travel articles you’ll see in your Sunday newspaper and have (somewhat deservedly) a reputation for heavy partying. Not all that surprisingly, it’s a little bit more complicated than that and it’s a mistake to consider the three Gilis as being one and the same — each has its own distinct vibe.

Relaxing away from the hordes on the northern tip of Gili T.
Relaxing away from the hordes on the northern tip of Gili T.

So which Gili is for you?

Gili Trawangan
This is the largest and most heavily developed of the three islands. Affectionately referred to as Gili T, Gili Trawangan has the largest number of guesthouses, hotels and resorts (more than 100) and enough bars and beach shacks to keep even the most dedicated party-goer well satisfied.

Gili Trawangan has the greatest supply of cheap(ish) rooms (which are mostly in the village near the main boat landing) of the three Gilis. This combined with the oversupply of bars and party atmosphere make it the most popular among budget travellers and those out for a good time — your typical “sun, sand and sex” crowd.

Enjoy the sunset with a heap of new friends.
Enjoy the sunset with a heap of new friends.

Bear in mind that when we say cheap, in most cases you’re still going to be looking at at least 200,000 rupiah a night — 300,000 in high season — for a cheap room in the village. Elsewhere, really very mediocre bungalows are going for 600,000 and up — at least double what you’d pay elsewhere in Indonesia.

The party scene has two main flavours — the immediate area around the boat landing has plenty of beach bars and pubs (often charging Bali prices) and then the northern tip of the island has more secluded beach shacks and bars, which may appeal to those looking for a more laidback scene.

Despite protestations otherwise, drugs remain commonplace on the Gilis, especially on Gili T. Mushrooms are often signposted and the dealers proffering (mostly pot and cocaine) along the walk down to the pier area can get downright tiresome. Bear in mind that pot and coke are absolutely illegal in Indonesia, and while there is a common meme that the Gili T authorities turn a blind eye, we’d advise not risking it.

Take me to that other place...
Take me to that other place…

Aside from boozing, the main activities here are riding around the island and doing a snorkelling trip. There is a turtle hatchery on the island and you’ll have a good chance of seeing turtles offshore. If you’re in the market for postcard white sand beaches, you’re in the right place.

Recommended places to stay on Gili Trawangan
Budget bed: Alexyane Paradise
Flashpacker fancy: Danima Resort
Leisurely luxury: Desa Dunia Beda Beach Resort

Browse more places to stay on Gili Trawangan through Agoda.com

Gili Meno
This is the Gili the Gilis forgot. Gili Meno smallest of the three, with a brackish seawater lake towards its western coast, this is arguably the quietest and most peaceful of the three islands.

Lombok views.
Lombok views.

The selection of accommodation is far more limited (as is the bar supply) but there is still an adequate selection for most, regardless of budget.

Of the three, this is arguably the most family-friendly. It lacks the crowd, drugs and racket of Gili T and remains more laidback than Gili Air. The beaches, especially on the coast facing Lombok, are very safe for swimming and there’s plenty of sand for empire-building.

Snorkelling trip off Gili Meno.
Snorkelling trip off Gili Meno.

Meno has some good snorkelling off the south and west coast and the beaches, while not as glorious as Gili T’s, are certainly not shabby.

Recommended places to stay on Gili Meno
Budget bed: Amber House
Flashpacker fancy: Sunset Gecko

Browse more places to stay on Gili Meno through Agoda.com

Gili Air
This is the most popular after Gili T and is the only one of the three islands that has an indigenous population. You’ll notice almost immediately how much greener it is than the other two — that’s thanks to it having its own water supply.

Glorious Gili Air with Lombok in the distance.
Glorious Gili Air with Lombok in the distance.

While it has a solid full range of accommodation, Gili Air has successfully pushed itself as the more “sophisticated” of the three islands. You can still party here as you can on Gili T, but the scene is a tad more upmarket and the crowd perhaps a little bit more grown up (physically if not mentally).

Gili Air’s best beach (in our humble opinion) runs along the west coast. This is also the least developed beach so bear in mind that most of the accommodation on Air is not actually on the best beach on the island.

Just another Gili Air sunset.
Just another Gili Air sunset.

Recommended places to stay on Gili Air
Budget bed: 7 Seas Backpackers
Flashpacker fancy: Island View Bungalow
Leisurely luxury: Kai’s Beach House

Browse more places to stay on Gili Air through Agoda.com

So which Gili is for you?
Young, single and looking to party, with some snorkelling thrown in? Look no further than Gili Trawangan. A little older, still enjoy a good night out and possess a slightly fatter wallet? Gili Air. Travelling with kids in tow, or just looking for a real getaway from all the distractions presented on the other two islands? Gili Meno should be on the money.

Which island today?
Which island today?

Bear in mind the islands are within a short distance of one another, so there is no good reason to restrict yourself to one — try all three!

05042014, Jember, Monkey business

Jember, Monkey business


Monkey business: A Javan langur (Trachypithecus auratus) peers out of a cardboard box after it arrived at the Jember Police office, East Java, on Thursday. Also known as the Javan lutung, the primate was among various rare animals confiscated by the local Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and environmental group ProFauna, from a trader who allegedly sells exotic animals online. (Antara/Seno)

Monkey business: A Javan langur (Trachypithecus auratus) peers out of a cardboard box after it arrived at the Jember Police office, East Java, on Thursday. Also known as the Javan lutung, the primate was among various rare animals confiscated by the local Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and environmental group ProFauna, from a trader who allegedly sells exotic animals online. (Antara/Seno)

A Papuan Feast: The bakar batu

A Papuan Feast: The bakar batu



West Papua, Indonesia’s eastern most territory, is a land full of contrasts. Tropical forests and paradise beaches, from where the Allied Pacific offensives where launched during World War II, or sky high mountains rising 15,000 feet above sea level, snow capped peaks and isolated valleys where an agricultural people developed complex irrigations systems thousands of years before Mesopotamia. With over 250 languages, dozens of tribes, a complex political context, a troubled history and a very uncertain future, West Papua is a difficult place to understand. Here, I want to introduce you to a more simple side of this beautiful place, its cuisine. Lets have a feast, let’s have a bakar batu.

The bakar batu is an ancient way of cooking large amounts of food, and each tribe has its own style. But the principle remains the same. You first need to dig a hole, its size depending on the number of guests you are expecting.


Long grass is carefully set into the hole in order to insulate the future content of the hole from the earth. In fact, the hole is going to become a kind of giant steamer with an in-built source of heat.


Meanwhile, youngsters light a large fire on which large stones are piled up. These stones are going to heat up for a couple of hours, and become extremely hot. Children are pushed away to avoid accidents, as the stones sometimes explode, sending pieces flying in all directions.


Once the stones are red hot, they are set on a nest of grass.


They are then covered with another layer of grass, then a layer of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, ferns, taro and more of nature’s edible gifts. This layering of stones and vegetables is repeated, with the addition of chicken or pork. If you are vegetarian, no worries, the meat can be separated from the rest by a layer of banana leaves which will prevent the juices from flowing all over your veggies!

A juicy mix of water, oil, spices, salt, chillies etc. is sprinkled over the whole thing, which is then closed up tightly. All you have to do now is wait while the stones bring up the heat, slowly steaming all that deliciousness to a perfect consistency and taste. Just sit, relax, smoke some cigarettes, tell some stories and discuss the latest events of the village.

Once the giant parcel opened, the food is shared amongst all the guests. You can now stuff yourself with corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, chicken, pork and taro, with a delicious sauce of the Pandanus fruit, an amazingly oily and nutritious food with potent curative powers, according to the Papuans. Enjoy!


Wehea Forest, Finding a Needle of Primary Jungle in Borneo’s Haystack of Deforestation

Wehea Forest, Finding a Needle of Primary Jungle in Borneo’s Haystack of Deforestation


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In the mists and mountains of north-eastern Borneo indigenous Dayaks are struggling to save one of the fast dwindling tracts of primordial rain forest still left on the world’s third largest island, aided by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and banking on the potential for ecological tourism.

Borneo has become a byword for environmental devastation, especially Kalimantan, the Indonesian three quarters of the island which in the 1980s and 90s earned the dubious distinction of hosting arguably the most intensive logging the world has ever seen in an environmental rape that was nearly three times the rate of Amazonian deforestation as assessed by wood per acre.

Jungle destruction

Vast tracts of jungle were slashed and burned to make way for agricultural land and palm oil plantations. But it would be wrong to assume the island now resembles a vast desert – it does not, much is green from regrowing secondary forest and palms – or that all primary jungle has vanished. It has not, although by some estimates over two thirds have already succumbed to timber concessions, illegal logging abetted by corrupt officials, and mining.

One such pristine area is Wehea in north-eastern Kalimantan, spared devastation by its mountainous terrain and inaccessibility. Rising from 1,000 feet to over 4,000, hence totally unsuitable for palm oil plantations, it is run by the Wehea Dayaks, with the NGO Integrated Conservation (ICON) advising on sustainable management to preserve both flora and fauna.

Getting there is not easy or cheap. Just the three-hour 4X4 trip from the nearest road-head near Muara Wahau costs $400 return, unless you’re lucky enough to get a hitch. To get to Muara Wahau from Samarinda, the provincial capital, can take three days by bus.

I plump for a four-day $1,000 ‘Wehea Rain Forest Adventure,’ flying into Berau for the four-hour drive south to Muara Wahau.

As usual on the Looney Front, things don’t go quite according to plan. At Berau airport., two gents rush up belatedly, identifying themselves as Eric, the guide, and Julianje, the driver. They push me into a dust-stained car to go to a crummy cafe.

We’re still there an hour and a half later. Eric, who distorts his few English phrases so expertly that he sounds like Fronk, Martin Short’s wedding planner in Father of the Bride, is mumbling on about a ‘four-will wife.’

A phone call to the tour organiser in Samarinda, clarifies. A four-wheel drive will be along in a half an hour. Another hour and some odd-sounding phone calls later, they pile me into the same low-slung car and we’re off. We’ll meet the 4X4 along the way.

Dust swirls from open coal mining and fire scars still smoulder where locals have burned down the jungle for farming. The chainsaws of the would-be farmers whine away loud and clear.

At last we enter primary jungle. The road becomes atrocious – pot-holed, cratered, gulch-gouged. Just what our low-slung chariot needs! Julianje, who has just been overtaken by a snail, says it’ll take another eight hours.

He speaks English better than Eric. Both, it transpires, are Filipino scuba instructors from Derawan Island, Berau’s main tourist draw. So what are two diving instructors, skilled as they may be in the watery deep, doing taking me into deepest primary jungle? To scuba up trees?

Four hours later, I get a response. It’s nearly dark and we jounce to a halt. Across the way, a large trunk plonked behind and another in front, is a 4X4, with a very flat tyre. A dapper man rushes over.

‘Hi, I’m Rahim, your jungle guide,’ quoths he in perfect English.

And Eric? ‘Ah, I asked him to take you along since I couldn’t get to Berau. This is our third puncture. We’ve no more spares, so the driver’s hitched to Berau with the two others for repairs.’ He hands over a Dutch couple he’s brought this far to Eric.

And our onward drive? ‘Oh don’t worry, we’ll hitch.’ Without breaking a sweat, the ever-smiling can-do Rahim flags down a 4X4. In no time we’re in the air-conditioned van winging over roads both smooth and rough – very rough. It’s 8.30 pm when we reach Muara Wahau.

Next morning Rahim’s bustling about with more glad tidings. The driver’s still in Berau, tyres un-fixed. But two national park 4X4s are just round the corner. ‘Just one problem,’ he adds. ‘They’re both broken.’

But can-do Rahim manages to pull a 4X4 out of his hat. It belongs to a lady driver, Efi, and he recruits her for the three-hour 45-mile drive. Let’s just say her car’s seen better days: the air conditioning died in the last century, the steering column cover is missing, yards of wire hang out of it, and other entrails protrude from various cavities.

Development and deforestation behind us, enveloped by the lushness of primary jungle, we’re romping along a dirt track when we start waltzing gently to port. Within minutes it’s graduated to a raucous grinding and we’re rock ‘n’ rolling.

Efi slams on the brakes. Our rear left wheel is sprayed outwards. Only one lug nut is left, empty holes the only evidence where the other five were. Our lives have been hanging by the nut equivalent of a hair.

Efi jacks us up, screws in two spares she has for just such occasions, takes another from the right rear wheel, then bums others from a passing truck driver, who works for a logging concession granted within the primary forest outside the reserve.

Large trucks loaded down with massive trunks pass in billowing clouds of orange dust as part of a sustainable logging initiative – strictly controlled by Dayak guard stations, size and number limited, endangered Ulin iron wood out of bounds.

We’re grinding up a muddy incline when Efi stalls. Trees 150 feet tall and vast canopies of green fill the valleys and mountainsides. Humongous lianas conjure up ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ visions. The engine’s so hot it won’t start. We wait half an hour for it to cool.

A few hundred yards on, Efi does a reprise. At last we reach the entrance to the 147-square-mile park, about half the land area of New York City, home to orangutans, gibbons, macaques, cloud leopards and much else threatened by deforestation..

The lodge, by a jungle stream and little waterfall, is a basic two-storey hut of creaky rickety planks and bare rooms, with a sit-down toilet and cold shower.

Brent Loken, ICON’s Canadian executive director, would prefer no tree felling at all in the forest surrounding the park. But he says the logging here is an advance on indiscriminate felling, especially as palm oil plantations completely deplete the soil after 16 to 20 years, requiring huge amounts of pesticide. As for mining, that’s even more devastating.

He notes that orangutans are more adaptable than previously thought and less adversely affected by this logging. He has also found that they walk much more on the ground than previously thought. If there’s a path, they’ll choose it rather than climb through the trees.

Stephanie, a primatology professor from Wisconsin who’s been coming here for the past five summers with her students, saw a big male orangutan with large cheek pads on the ground only yesterday. He climbed up a tree, threw down branches and made the so-called kiss-tweet noises that sound like a slobbery smacker followed by a whistle, to show his displeasure at the intrusion.

Time then for Yours Truly’s walk in the woods. After an hour and a half of upping and downing forested hills, the grand total of sightings by our three musketeers – Rahim, Umar, a local Dayak guide, and Yours Truly – is exactly zilch.

Zilch, that is, except for the leeches which Rahim burns off my socks and shoes with his lighter. On the plus side I haven’t yet fallen, while Rahim is even now sprawled on his arse in the mud with a bemused grin on his face.

Next morning we’re again puffing up a steep muddy hill on the other side of the waterfall, on the ridge where Stephanie saw her orangutan. Brent saw him too. So our chances look good, right?

A few hours roaming around humongous fallen tree trunks, sliding on slickened leaves and sitting expectantly on damp branches listening to the loud electronic whistles of the insects – and not even can-do Rahim can bring on Stephanie’s orangutan.

Our grand total: two giant ants fighting or mating – that’s the same thing, ain’t it? – on a tree trunk, many bird sounds, and two leeches on my socks. Make that three. Blood traces on my calf show a third sucked right through my jeans.

Some hikes are strenuous, up steep mountainsides through almost impenetrable vegetation to waterfalls and look-outs. They can take hours – and buckets of sweat – just to cover a few miles. I’m not into that, so in the afternoon we walk by the riverside. This time even the leeches ignore me.

One last chance, a night walk – actually a nip across the grass to the other shack where a ranger has spotted a greater slow loris, a civet-like animal with blue eyes. ‘This is the one animal you will see,’ quoths Stephanie, ‘you can’t miss it. They throw out rice to attract them.’

We trip daintily across the grass to ground zero, our torchlight-girt foreheads bobbing expectantly. The bird has already flown, or whatever slow loris do as they scamper back up trees.

Rahim, Brent, Umar and Stephanie console me on my spiffing two days of animal spotting. It’s not easy to spot animals in the jungle since they hide very well at the sound of intrusion, quoth they; one has to be extremely lucky; this is not like an African safari where animals appear on call, they add.

Others report greater luck here. Anyway, just being in primary jungle makes it worth it.

Suddenly my luck turns. At the moment when my wildlife watch seems at its most jejune, an unprecedented jungle display takes place on the shack’s porch. One of Stephanie’s students, an ample guy, takes up a tiny mandolin, just like the one Marilyn Monroe strummed away at in Some Like It Hot – strumming away just like her. Now how many of you Borneo wildlife buffs have ever seen one of those in the wild?

Mentawai, Jungle Trekking in Sumatra

Mentawai, Jungle Trekking in Sumatra


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was sold on Siberut the moment our guide Marwan showed me the photos from the last tour he led there. Marwan was a tiny man with a wispy moustache and dress sense that was more Blacktown than Bukittinggi. But his photo album was stacked with snapshots of near naked natives hunting monkeys in the jungle.

They were the Mentawai, a primitive people who lived pretty much like we all did a couple of thousand years ago. They were at one with the land and didn’t have a problem with near nudity. And according to Marwan, if we played our cards right, they’d let me and three of my mates join in. To prove his point, he pointed to a picture of a gaggle of fluorescent Swedes in tiny, poorly fitted loin clothes.

Yep, we were off to the jungle to find our manhood, Mentawai style. While I was a little concerned about Marwin’s qualifications for such a sacred duty – the guy’s business card rather disturbingly featured a pair of ‘hang ten’ surfie feet, after all – I had no fears about entrusting my inner male to the Mentawai.

You see, the Mentawai man is a bloke’s bloke. He lives in the jungle, wears a bark loincloth and hunts monkeys with bows and arrows. He has tatts all over his arms, legs and over most of his body. And he can have as many wives as he damn well likes. He also likes a smoke. “Aka Rokok?” (Roughly translated: “Got a ciggie mate?”) is a traditional Mentawai greeting. Hanging out with them in the jungles was a bit like having Colin Farrel officiating at your Bar Mitzvah.

The first test of our manhood came early and involved us actually finding the Mentawai. They don’t live in villages as such. They live in clan houses or umas. The umas are the centre of all social and ceremonial life and are basically big, open sided longhouses. The Mentawai, however, have a penchant for building them in the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the island.

It took us eight hours of tripping over submerged logs, falling down ravines and begging to be put out of our misery to even reach our first uma. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it was actually Uma Thurman that lay at the end of my trek, not a thatched hut built over a pigsty. We arrived wet and homesick. And we stank.

That didn’t stop every young buck with an hour or two of the clan house coming to arm-wrestle us. The Mentawai are avid arm-wrestlers and I’m proud to say that even after the kind of day that made me curse the moment I was born, I was able to win 3/2 in a torrid best of five against a muscley guy with tatts and a ponytail. To be honest, though, I put my victory down to his poor diet and my poor hygiene.

Next on the agenda was a night of traditional Mentawai dancing. For a carton of Orange Rooster cigarettes our host, Danyuk, agreed to reveal to us secrets of the Mentawai that had been passed down from generation to generation through song and dance. The special feathery headdress was dusted off and a chook was sacrificed especially. There was a catch though. We had to wear a loincloth for the occasion.

We were each handed a long strip of bark and ushered into a small room to change. I spent ten minutes just looking at it, trying to figure which end was which and generally despairing at ever fitting it correctly. It was then that I first suspected that the only reason the Mentawai allowed us to use their island as a male bonding stamping ground was to have a laugh at our expense.

I was rather pleased with my first attempt. I simply looped the strip of bark between my legs and then round my waist. But when I tried to relieve a rather persistent itch caused by the rough fiber of the bark the whole thing collapsed leaving me standing stark naked. Thankfully, Danyuk came in and fitted the thing properly. It may have looked like little more than an environmentally friendly g-string, but at least it felt secure.

Out in the main room, half of Siberut had gathered to see us. Every one of them – man, woman and child – sat sucking on roll-your-owns as big as cigars and laughed out loud when they caught sight of us. Danyuk and two of his mates performed three dances – the chicken dance, the monkey dance and the pig dance – that seemed to consist of nothing more than two blokes chasing another bloke around a room and pretending to smash his head into the floor. I thought it was a good show, but the crowd’s minds were elsewhere. They wanted us to sing them something from our culture.

Sadly, all we could remember were beer commercials. I reworked a few couplets of the VB (Victorian Bitter) ad – adding a line or two about how you can get it falling down ravines – and my mate Sean led us in a few stanzas of “I feel good”. Danyuk and his family went away that night believing that the height of Australian culture consists of self-consciously holding your hand over your crotch and singing “I feel like a Tooheys or two”.

I don’t know whether our performance had anything to do with it, but the next day Marwan took us to a longhouse a few hours’ deeper into the jungle.

Mentawai man

This uma belonged to Magwa, the guy I had beaten arm wrestling. It was the largest we had stayed in and was set in a prettier spot closer to the river. The inside of the thatched roof was decorated with the skulls of all the pigs, monkeys and small birds his family had ever killed and eaten. Obviously Magwa was a man of importance in these parts. His wife was also the first woman I had seen on Siberut whose breasts didn’t sag.

Magwa was also a man with a rather keen sense of humor. It was his idea that we should try and get in touch with our primitive selves by putting on our loin clothes and hunting monkeys. We spent the afternoon shooting ourselves in the foot and being stung by stinging nettles in places that stinging nettles should never have access to. Magwa thought it was great. He enjoyed an afternoon’s worth of entertainment watching four silly Australian men trying to live out their Tarzan fantasies and got a carton of Orange Roosters to boot.

And if a monkey had come along I’m sure Magwa would have made it look easy, taking one last drag on his ciggie before disappearing to a vantage point hidden from both sight and scent. In his jungle hide he’d silently pull an arrow from his quiver and deftly put in place,waiting until he got a clear shot of the king monkey, the biggest of them all, still scratching his balls after a quick shag. With a click of his tongue he would catch the monkey’s attention, and for a moment they’d look each other in the eye, unmoved. And then…the kill.

But that didn’t happen. The monkeys proved a lot smarter than us and ran off chattering into the jungle on hearing our heavy foot (and occasional body) fall. I never had to ask that dark moral question of whether to let loose my quiver and the monkeys were left without facing the dilemma of whether to hang around that split second longer after we fired off a shot to make us feel like we got close. I’d like to think the monkeys were the losers though. If they had decided to stay they would have been treated to the spectacle of three unfit Australian men with a flimsy piece of bark wrapped around their wedding tackle trying to figure out how a bow and arrow works.

After ten days of this self-inflicted torture I am sad to report that I still hadn’t contacted my primitive self. But I was aware of every other muscle in my body. And what’s more, I had also come away with a unique insight into Mentawaian culture. Cigarettes will be the death of them. If they don’t die laughing at silly tourists in loin clothes first.

Peter Moore is an itinerant hobo who is lucky enough to be able to support his insatiable travel habit through writing. He has survived a shipwreck in the Maldives, a gas heater explosion in Istanbul, student riots in Addis Ababa and rates his first encounter with an Asian-style toilet as one of his life’s defining moments. At last count he had visited 93 countries and written five books. To find out more visit his web site at www.petermoore.net.

Photos are courtesy of Brian Nevins, by way of Saraina Koat Mentawai, the only surf charter company registered in the Mentawai Islands. SKM is dedicated to supporting the local Mentawai economy by employing Mentawai residents and guides, locals who are dedicated to protecting the well being and natural environment of the Mentawai Islands.

Tomohon, The Most Macabre Meat Market

Tomohon, The Most Macabre Meat Market


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The Most Macabre Meat Market: Tomohon, Sulawesi

Posted on 30 October 2013. Tags: bizarre foods, indonesia, sulawesi, tomohon

Brad tries the chef’s special at the Tomohon market, the most macabre meat market in Sulawesi

Note: This article contains foods of Indonesia that are not common in the Western World. If you are offended by other cultures, are strictly vegetarian, or simply want to remain blissfully unaware of where meat comes from, this article is not for you.

In Search of Bizarre Foods

Tomohon Traditional Meat Market, Sulawesi-
My mission to debunk perhaps the most notorious travel myth, live monkey brains, has brought me through 8 Indonesian islands to one of the most remote places on earth. I had been through dirty back-alley markets serving some of the strangest animals and dishes I’ve ever seen to find the epicenter of bizarre foods. I was excited but what I was about to see was shocking beyond belief.

It is here in Tomohon, Sulawesi where the local Minhasan people are said to eat anything with four legs but the tables and chairs. This might be the only place on earth with fewer food taboos than China, and likely the only place in Indonesia where monkey is still a chef’s special. What I found was raw was and grizzly.

Ancient Traditions Survive

Tomohon is perched in the hills outside of Manado, Sulawesi, in a region with the highest density of Christians in Indonesia. Weird traditional beliefs are still thriving in parts of Sulawesi because Christian faith has been the least oppressive of the imperialistic religions, so the culture is a mix of Christianity with ancient beliefs and customs. In many Muslim areas, historical beliefs have been mostly eradicated.

Rats, Rats Everywhere

Rats are welcome, in fact encouraged at this market. This is “bush meat” at its most refined, almost everything here was found running around the forest yesterday, and indigenous people travel here from all over the region to show off whatever odd animals they’ve found in the forest. On this mysterious island, hot dog takes on an entirely new connotation.

This food is completely organic, free-range, antibiotic free, locally-sourced and farm-to-table. That’s good, right?


Vendors come from far and wide to showcase their live animals

The Traditional Market

At first glance, this appears to be no different than a typical traditional market. The parking lot is clogged with shared vans and walking vendors selling everything from ice cream and candy to plastic toys and fresh flowers. The front of the market has colorful displays of colorful fruit and pungent spices. But this facade masks a secret.


Flamboyant displays of fresh chilis illuminate the streets of Sulawesi


There is a tremendous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables here


The fresh smoked fish will make your mouth water

Everything on Four Legs

As we turn deeper into the thriving central market, the stark difference smacks us in the face. The pungent smells of death fill our noses, burning hair, decaying meat, blood and human sweat. Hordes of flies enjoy an unimaginable feast. The raucous excitement builds the closer we get to the action.

If you get squeamish at all, you can read one of my more pleasant articles here

Animals still convulsing in pools of their own warm blood, burning alive in the fires of flame-throwers singing all of their hair off. Saturday is the day the snake vendors come from the villages with their fresh catch, and there is exhilaration in the air. Vendors are welcoming and love to stir the emotions.


These decapitated pig heads are proudly displayed in their own juices


They do have the freshest chickens possible


A bat vendor proudly shows off his prize catch


These are not your garden variety rats. They taste just like Kentucky Fried Rabbit.


These charred bats are frozen in the middle of their final terrifying scream


Vampire bats: the tongues are the best part if you can stomach the site of them

The Pet Section

The dog area was the most difficult part to see.

Mangy dogs packed so tightly in the cage, yelping and struggling to find a spot big enough to sit down. The puppy dogs cowering with long, pleading faces that tug at your heart strings. Their expressions briefly glow when the cage flies open from a new order, but the optimism is short-lived. They know this is the end for them, patiently taking their last breaths. This must’ve been what Nazi gas chambers were like. As they yelp hysterically, they are bludgeoned on the back of the head with a heavy wooden club to crush their skulls. The cages go silent. Many die with the first blow, but some are still twitching minutes later after repeated beatings.


Pre-roasted dogs showing off their good side


Saturdays are extra special because the snake vendors come to town

The Dangers of Bush Meat

Bush meat has long been villainized in western culture as the scapegoat for mankind’s most notorious diseases. The biggest issue is the questionable sourcing animals. Eating here requires a certain degree of trust in the vendors. These vendors don’t know the first thing about the science of food safety. They just know that if they don’t do what they did last week something will go horribly wrong.

Although there is risk in eating bush meat, a line of locals is a positive sign that they are selling reasonably safe food. Their lifelong reputation as a food vendor is tested every day. The entire family business could come crashing down with one small slip-up. Here, food violations are not enforced by the government, but with reputation and the rumor mill.


You don’t easily forget these expressions


The best parts of these dogs have been picked-through, leaving only entrails and the less tasty bits

Fine Dining in Tomohon

If you want to eat the more exotic dishes in Tomohon, you must pick your animals at the market and bring them to the restaurants. Walk around and ask the vendors what makes their rats or vampire bats better — there is a fine art to preparing and selling superior rats. With the hair burned off they are easier to transport and cook– just toss them in the back seat and drive off. It is a funny sight to see families carrying bags of dead animals into a nice restaurant.


This mega bat is letting it all hang out for inspection


Rat on a stick: examine closely to get a good one

Dogs are reserved for special occasions since they are more costly than other animals, so it is less broadly consumed than other animals. My driver loves to eat dogs, explaining that they taste like monkey, but also has several as pets. He sees no contradiction as nobody would dare eat a pet dog. He feels better that these dogs come from Muslim areas where dogs are not kept as pets.

They prefer very spicy meals here, likely to cover up the taste of noxious organs and any unfresh meat.

I did not finish the hot dog platter, so they asked me if I wanted to take it home. I joked that, back in the US, they are called doggie bags because the leftovers are fed to the dogs. Here, it is very different.

Question: These are far from the strangest thing I’ve eaten.  Should these make my list of the 10 Weirdest Foods I’ve Eaten?


Paniki: an exotic food dish made with bat, coconut, curry and spices. So good!


Hot dog Indonesian style. Don’t forget a doggie bag for your leftovers.


Bat wings will surprise you. They have a soft, velvety feel like a fine pasta.


Bat penis is pretty foul. It is a thick, chewy skin with a rotten taste and a sticky mouth feel.


What would you do if you found a rat head in your dinner?

Rat Hunting

For the adventurous, you can get up close and personal with your caveman side by rat hunting with locals in the forest.  Local guides will show you all of the ins and outs of foraging for your dinner.

Now, if you are feeling squeamish and swearing to a life of vegetarianism after reading that, I completely understand.  You should have read the warning.