Published: January 30th 2011January 30th 2011
For the most part, modern man relates to nature at a distance, through conduits; be they television, the movies, literature, or myth. All these substitutes for direct experience seek to anthropomorphise the creatures they describe in an attempt to make them more palatable and less alien to the soft skinned, tender hearted city dwellers who seek safe escapism between pages and after adverts. This humanisation of nature has given modern man a vastly different view of nature from the one perhaps held by their grandparents, but definitely by theirs. Unfortunately, the "Mother Nature" of common consciousness is actually a vicious and unforgiving matriarch, and to try and mask this cruelty by investing her charges with human characteristics is like describing a volcanic eruption as the natural release of a mountains anger in response to the scarification of her tender slopes by farmers. It is plainly ridiculous, yet we do it all the time. It is as though a thing, or an animal, has no real value unless we can invest it with a purpose and a reason which it clearly neither warrants nor desires. Why is it that we are so deeply troubled by instinctive behaviour and random occurrence that we
seek to temper this fear with reason? Is not the calculated slaying of billions of cattle each year not more incomprehensible and terrifying than a tiger's singular pursuit of its prey? We are separated from the animals by a huge evolutionary chasm, it would be better for all if we were to cease trying to bridge it with meaning.
At six in the morning on our fifth day in Sulawesi, after a two hour trek through the sodden jungle of the Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve, myself, Anny, and the father and son team of Andrew and David were stood, along with our guide Anis, staring at the convoluted lattice-work roots of a strangler fig that had completely enveloped the trunk of a large dipterocarp. We are neither tree huggers, tree climbers, loggers nor Satanists; the reason for this morning gathering was that the tree we were viewing was in fact home to a small family of tarsiers, an unusual type of primate. They are unusual because, unlike other primates, they are both nocturnal and entirely carnivorous. Standing at only four inches tall, they are also the smallest. They have massive eyes which seem to fill up their entire
head, long thin legs which they can use to leap distances ten times the length of their body, a slim tail and long, thin frog-like fingers. They are also, though I am loathe to admit it, almost certainly the cutest, cuddliest, most adorable creatures I've ever seen.
These fluffy little balls of fun are the most endearing creatures it is possible to imagine. To not invest these delightful little animals with human traits is almost entirely impossible. As soon as we spotted our first tarsier, hopping from liana vine to little branch, on its way to bed after a tough night out hunting insects, we were all utterly captivated and, the sixty year old David included, were very quickly all cooing out endearments as if to a new born baby. "My God aren't they cute", "they are just adorable", "look at that one, I think it just smiled”,” look, they're having a cuddle", and "that one looks just like my brother", were just some of the inanities I heard being uttered by five otherwise entirely rational adults. Even after witnessing a tarsier's quick leap to dispatch the grasshopper that our guide had placed on a branch as a present,
we were still unable to view it in any other way than a furry, hungry little baby, well not exactly human, and probably not animal. Perhaps naturalised semi-intelligent, adorably cute alien?
It has perhaps been to the tarsiers benefit that they have the good fortune of being one of the world’s most adorable creatures, as they are still just about surviving in four or five strongholds in Indonesia, the Philippines, Borneo and Malaysia. The tarsier’s good looks have enabled a small but successful tourism industry to have been built around the viewing of them, most notably on the island of Bohol in the Philippines, but also here in Sulawesi. In truth, the reason that they survive at all is not so much the patronage they receive from the tourist dollar, but sadly because we humans can neither eat them nor sell them.
The Sulawesi black crested macaque, which is also found in the Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve, has not been so fortunate. This monkey, endemic to Sulawesi, is now only found in the far north eastern tip of the island, with the largest troupe, and possibly the last remaining viable breading population in the world, living within
the park. Their numbers have been reduced to such critical levels due to habitat encroachment and persistent hunting for the bush meat trade. The black crested macaque is, as its name suggests, a monkey with jet black fur and a prominent mohawk on its head. They have a pink bottom and an adult male can stand two feet high. They are, like most monkeys, incredibly social creatures, and to watch them interact with each other is to realise that, with them too just like the tarsiers before, it is almost impossible to view their behaviour without projecting onto it that which we know about ourselves.
Our time in the park was short, but incredibly successful. As well as the two species of primates, we were also able to see many butterflies, a tarantula, and some beautiful birds, including another species endemic to Sulawesi, the yellow billed malkoha. The tarantula, though of a similar size to the tarsiers and almost as hairy, was one of the few creatures I saw in the park that I actually failed to anthropomorphise; it was, and remains, a thoroughly alien looking animal. The scenery inside the park was just as spectacular as the wildlife
it protects. As with much of Sulawesi, indeed Indonesia as a whole, the park has a couple of perfectly conical volcanoes within its boundaries, and it was presumably one or both of these that were responsible for the jet black sand that forms the long beach near the park's entrance. The contrast of foaming white waves breaking upon the jet black sand under a stormy monsoon sky was a sight as beautifully strange as any that I've seen, and worthy of the entrance fee alone.
We travelled to the park from our first destination in Sulawesi, Bunaken Island near Manado. We travelled to Bunaken for the same reason as everybody else: to view the spectacular underwater world to be found in the crystal clear waters which surround it. Bunaken and its sister islands are lucky enough to be situated in exceptionally deep, fast moving and nutrient rich waters that attract a large amount of fish, especially the big ones, to its spectacular coral reefs. The reef that surrounds Bunaken starts about twenty yards from shore and continues, at depths of between one and five yards for a spectacular twenty more, before taking a ninety degree turn and dropping down
into the deep blue depths. The varied, rare and often endemic life to be found on these reef walls is the realm of divers; we concerned ourselves with that which could be reached on a single breath only. Thankfully, the diversity, beauty, and sheer volume of coral that this afforded us meant that in no way were to be in no way jealous. In fact, after sharing a dive boat for three days, it seemed, after talking to the divers, that we on the surface saw far more than those below. After snorkelling Bunaken, all those sites that I previously thought pretty decent now pale in comparison. This, clearly, is how a healthy reef should look.
In perfectly clear water and under a mesmerically blue tropical sky, we were able to see hundreds of different coral in sizes, shapes and colours that until now I thought were only accessible to divers, and then only rarely. The amount and variety of the soft coral, sponges and sea fans here is just staggering; for the first time snorkelling I have truly understood why people describe a reef as a coral garden, it truly looked as if it were planted. Unsurprisingly, a
reef this healthy supports a fish population of equally epic proportions. I am still very poor at my fish identification so I shall not bore you with names, suffice it to say that I have never swam with such a large number of schooling fish, especially on the reef's edge. As well as a massive variety of fish we also saw several turtles, many squid, some nudibranches, a moray eel and a mantis shrimp. For some reason, with the exception of the anemone clown fish, or "Nemo", which Disney did a great job of anthropomorphising, none of the animals I saw under the waves seemed in any way human like in their behaviour, and certainly not their looks. Like the tarantula I mentioned earlier, the world underwater is just so removed from our own and the creatures found within it so incredibly strange, that to colour them in any way human would take a greater imagination than I posses.
Out of the water, Bunaken is not quite so spectacular. It has a long beach on its western coast, but this was recently washed away and what remains is unfortunately subject to a severe litter problem. As the small island
is only a few miles away from Manado, all the rubbish that the city throws away and washes their hands of, ends up on Bunaken's beaches. Other than the smattering of dive resorts, Bunaken is possessed of three small traditional villages and have a total population of around 1800 people, three quarters of which are Christian, the rest Muslim. Most of Bunaken is covered in coconut plantations and the entire eastern and northern coasts are covered by a dense mangrove forest, and it is these forests that help protect the magnificent reefs by reducing siltation on the coastal fringes. The views from the island however are excellent. From our resort (Panorama, which I can highly recommend as it was perhaps the best value guest house we have yet stayed at, served incredible food and had excellent staff), we could see the coast and volcanoes of Manado, as well as the perfect cone of the volcanic island of Manado Tua, or old Manado, just a few kilometres away. It made for a spectacular backdrop for the glorious sunsets.
For our final destination in north Sulawesi, we travelled from the national park to a town called Tomohon which conveniently and spectacularly
sits at the base of two volcanoes, one active, and the other dormant. On the day we arrived at Volcano Resort we could not see either as the day was thick with clouds and damp with a constant drizzle, but upon awakening the following day and stepping onto the veranda of our hut, we had clear skies and a perfect view of Gunung Lokon and the plume of smoke that was rising from its crater. We set off on the climb after breakfast. After negotiating a few local roads we began the climb proper, ascending for the most part on a narrow highway of black rock which climbed steeply and directly to the crater. Our guide June explained that this rocky path was in fact the cooled lava flow from the last big eruption in 1991. The volcano has erupted four times since then, but not on such a massive scale, even so, Gunung Lokon is still one of Sulawesi's most active volcanoes.
After two hours of moderately hard climbing in the glorious morning sunshine, we found ourselves nearing the crater. The rotten egg smell of sulphurous gas was very strong at this point and it made the last
kilometre pretty hard going. The landscape near the top was bleakly dramatic, the whole area a wilderness of black stone and rubble with the naked limbs of dead trees bearing testament to the volcano's destructive power. The actual summit of Gunung Lokon is actually a further hour’s walk above the crater, but it is impossible to reach as the fumes are too strong. It was for this same reason that we were allowed only ten minutes to view the crater before we had to descend. The crater itself was perhaps 100 yards across, and maybe 50 deep. At the very base was a bright green sulphurous lake and it was from here, and the rock that surrounded it, that the great plumes of smoke and steam were being belched. The sound was similar to that of a thousand kettles boiling in unison and the view, into the lake and up to the smoke shrouded peak, was suitably apocalyptic.
So we have seen black macaques and tarsiers, tarantulas and turtles, box fish and squid, but due to my mostly unsuccessful attempts at not anthropomorphising these incredible animals, I have completely failed to mention the human inhabitants of northern Sulawesi. Although
it has most definitely been the animals which we have been concentrating on, without the easy hospitality and gracious nature of all the many guides, cooks, managers, drivers and just random acquaintances that we have met, none of the above would have been remotely possible and certainly not as enjoyable and informative as it has been. The weather has also contributed to our enjoyment, something we were not expecting it to do at all. It is the monsoon at the moment in Sulawesi yet, except for one day when we were travelling, we have had mostly clear skies. The rain, when inevitably it did come, always appeared from nowhere in a cataclysmic deluge, and then disappeared as fast as it had arrived, leaving perfectly clear skies in its wake. It has been a strange trip weather wise, as apart from Nepal we have had the very best weather in those countries which we visited during their monsoon (India and Indonesia), and the very worst when we expecting it to be dry (Thailand and the Philippines). Next we head for the Togean Islands, we hope that this trend continues.
There are more photos below