Published: September 18th 2011September 8th 2011
After last night's owl hunt, I returned to Ruteng about 8am, had some breakfast, then set off to the town of Lembor about two hours away (roughly halfway between Ruteng and Labuanbajo). Near Lembor is a place called Istana Ular, the "snake palace", a cave where apparently dozens or hundreds of pythons gather for some mysterious reason or other (they are there to eat bats of course, so not really so mysterious at all!). I found a bus just before 9am, sat in it for an hour or so till it decided to leave Ruteng, got into Lembor about 12.30, grabbed a motorbike guy and set off for the cave. This was about 45 minutes ride away, first along the highway (newly sealed so as smooth as an otter), then on a road that hadn't been re-sealed for quite a while, this then turning into a bad cobbled road, and this then becoming a very very bad road typical of rural Indonesia where it is made up solely of jumbles of rocks, making it not only very uncomfortable on the back of a bike but also meaning I had to walk most of the uphill (and steeper downhill!) stretches. The motorbike
just inside the entrance, before I found out how deep the guano was one step later....
ride was followed by a half-hour walk down a steep hill and then up a river for a bit, although fortunately this was shallow.
Now, before my trips I do a lot of prep-work and research. Trip reports on the internet are always the first source for where to find the birds, and additional sites of interest are gleaned from books on natural history.For general information such as hotels, how to get between towns, that sort of thing, I use Lonely Planet. The Indonesian edition is not entirely trustworthy -- the prices are usually wildly inaccurate and quite a bit of the information is just plain wrong-- but its still the most useful resource out there. I probably first heard of Istana Ular in Lonely Planet but it is obvious the authors never actually visited the cave or they would have made more of the experience. All I can say about it is "wow!" Actually I can say a lot more than that, so I will!
From internet sites promoting Istana Ular I had formed an impression of a large (dry!) cave system filled with stalagmites and stalactites with pythons coiled everywhere. Its not quite as enjoyable as
the local guide looking for snakes
in one of the shallower areas....and that's not just water.....
that. When we arrived at the cave entrance ("we" being myself, the motorbike driver, and some guy who had followed us all the way from Lembor), about ten people appeared from nowhere. One man whom I assumed to be the local headman offered a prayer to the snakes within the cave before we started, then two locals and I entered. Fortunately I had brought along one of my torches and my headlamp otherwise it would have been tricky because none of the locals had torches. The first thing you should know about the cave is that it is basically just a big tube worn through the rock by a stream. The second thing is that it is inhabited by hundreds of bats of several species, audible from outside they are so numerous. Just in from the entrance I paused to take a photo of my boots covered in a mixture of mud and bat guano (so I could say, look what I put up with to see these snakes!). The next step I took was a bit of a shock when I sank up to my knee. The entire floor area of the tube-cave was basically a river of semi-liquid
reticulated python and bat
a total fluke shot, but pretty cool
One of the local guys had taken my torch and gone ahead to scout for snakes, wading along the wall to avoid the deeper middle section. I hadn't come all this way to back out, so I edged my way after him. Under the water's oily surface was a disgusting slurry of muck that flowed through my boots. Being a tube, the walls of the cave of course sloped downwards into the water -- I didn't know how deep the middle part was but I didn't want to slip and find out so it was slow-going. Everything above water was coated in slippery bat dung. Hordes of scuttling cockroaches covered over the walls, clouds of midge-like insects surrounded my headlamp and got sucked into my throat with each inhalation of breath, and strange insects like a cross between lice and flies crawled over every bit of exposed skin. We went further and further in with no snakes to be seen. It was incredibly hot and humid in there from all the fermenting dung I assume. There was so much sweat pouring off my face it was like I was standing under a shower. When we came out later
I was literally drenched with sweat from head to toe -- well, head to knee anyway; knee to toe I was drenched in guano! Finally the guy in front spotted a snake up near the ceiling and we climbed a huge foetid pile of guano to see it better, crickets and cockroaches milling over our feet and scurrying up our legs. It was a reticulated python, and a beauty! It is notoriously hard to estimate the lengths of snakes but I'd say this one was about three metres. Not huge but not too bad either. I got a few photos but not many and only on my small camera because my hands were covered in guano from the walls and I don't think its good for cameras. With one snake found after forty minutes and no sign of any others I was ready to get out, so we waded back to the entrance.
As a tourist attraction I think Istana Ular leaves rather a lot to be desired. It is quite difficult to get to, and really only a die-hard nature nut would find it a good experience. I can't imagine most tourists going in there once they saw what was inside. Everybody on Flores has heard of Istana Ular and all can relate to you that there are many many snakes in there, from huge ones to little babies (also I heard the biggest one in there can fly, but I'm not sure how accurate that is), but I have yet to meet a Indonesian who has actually been there. I can't say I "enjoyed" the experience in the usual sense of the word, but it was certainly an education and at least now I know first-hand what a real full-on bat cave is like (answer: nasty!) and I won't be forgetting it in a hurry. Besides how many people have the bragging rights that they waded through knee-deep guano for forty minutes to see a reticulated python (a species which I have already seen in Sabah and Java as it happens)?
If I could only remember the name of that fatal disease you contract from visiting bat caves.....