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Published: August 26th 2011
The day I got back into Makassar from Palu I booked a ferry to Maumere on Flores for the next night. Being a bit of a penny-pincher (through not having much money!) I figured c.$20 for the ferry versus c.$150 for the plane was worth any discomfort. Because I had a whole day to spare I had decided to go to a little national park outside Makassar called Bantimurung which is famous for its butterflies. It is also home to moor macaques, which was one of the endemic monkeys I was still hoping to find. I ended up going in the company of a young lady I had made the acquaintance of which sort of put the kibosh on active birding so literally the only species I saw there were glossy swiftlets. However, going completely against type for me, I actually did find a moor macaque! It was only one macaque but it sat for quite a while in a palm tree on the opposite side of the river then sauntered off into the trees. I even got some photos. A guide had attached himself to us when we arrived, and he turned out to be a surprisingly dab hand at
catching flying dragons (cicak turbang
in Indonesian, which translates as "flying lizard").
Normally I'm not keen on guides but this one proved his worth by taking us to a little nearby village called Parantinggia which was absolutely dripping with hundreds of fruit bats. They were everywhere in the trees and giant bamboo stands between the houses. I got a bunch of photos and there's at least two species (one being the Sulawesi fruit bat Acerodon celebensis
, distinguished by its blonde fur, and the other I think being the black flying fox Pteropus alecto
) but I still need to do some more research. Try googling Parantinggia and you come up with nothing!
After Parantinggia we went to the Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park where there are loads of huge weather-sculpted rocks all over the landscape and various ancient cave-paintings of things like babirusa (which of course are now found nowhere near Makassar!)
The ferry to Flores left at the ungodly hour of 2am (it was supposed to be 11pm but, well, its Indonesian time). It really wasn't as adventurous or death-defying as you might think taking economy class on an overnight Indonesian ferry. True there were people everywhere on the
pool at Bantimurung
if you look closely there are butterflies all over the mud
floor but apart for the disgusting toilets it was fine. Once I woke up (after about four hours sleep) I just went out on deck and watched for birds. Sea-watching. Honestly? It has to be one of the most boring bird-related activities ever! Apart for probably hundreds of flying fish the only signs of life I saw were four distant white specks that may have been identifiable if they had been about a hundred miles closer! No whales, no dolphins, turtles, archaeocetes, mermaids, nothing. Most of my sightings of moving objects were the pieces of rubbish going overboard every few minutes. Paper, plastic bags, bottles, polystyrene food containers, everything went in the ocean. It was pretty depressing actually. And when we reached the Maumere harbour at 8pm the next day, a veritable torrent of rubbish went over the edge.
Both getting on and getting off the ferry was pretty crazy. The people here are nuts. They seem to be able to wait patiently in queues for hours but as soon as the bus arrives or the boat boarding begins there's just a free-for-all. Getting on the ferry even the security guards were just shoved aside. I can sort of
understand the disorderly getting-on because they want to make sure they secure a place to sit or sleep, but even disembarking is just a wild scrum. Women, children, cripples -- they all just get pushed out of the way in the rush to the gang-plank. Its a wonder people don't end up in the ocean. I got smacked in the head with a wheeled suitcase some guy was carrying on his shoulder, so I "accidentally" gave him a good crack back. Luckily I'm big enough that's its not easy for them to push me round too much. Even on a plane, barely has it touched down than the passengers are jumping up from their seats and hauling luggage from the overhead compartments, before its even slowed to taxi-ing speed. Its like everyone is always in a huge rush to get on or off any kind of transport, which is curiously at odds with with the usual Indonesian take-your-time attitude.
Once off the ferry in Maumere it was still pretty full-on. It was night time so I couldn't see much of anything, and there were probably hundreds of people massing outside the harbour gates to snag passengers for their motorbikes
or taxis. Masked "polisi" were patrolling inside the gates and attacking any of the touts who jumped the fence, hurling batons at them to drive them out again. Once outside, there was just a surge of people yelling "hello mister, where you go?" and all grabbing and shoving at you en masse
. I'm lucky I didn't have anything in my pockets and that my bags were padlocked because there were so many of them you couldn't tell what was going on. With so many hands I'm also glad I'm not female! I ended up in a run-down hotel called Wini Rai because I knew nothing about Maumere, it not having been on my original schedule. I don't think I'll go back there either; on the face of it, its not a pleasant place at all.
Now I'm in Labuanbajo, once again at the Gardena Hotel where the price of a room has gone up by 50,000 rupiah since 2009, from 125,000 to 175,000. Quite remarkably the owner recognised me as soon as I walked up to reception and asked if I was back for more birdwatching! He also said a bitu (giant rat) had been killed on the road
right in Labuanbajo just recently! I'm always just a little too late or early for everything.
One of the big fails of the 2009 Indonesia trip was the distinct lack of giant rats found by me. Flores is a remarkable island that at one time had a whole range of bizarre animals including pigmy elephants, pigmy people ("Hobbits", which I wrote about in 2009), giant tortoises, and even giant storks. The only big creatures still surviving there nowadays are the Komodo dragon and the Flores giant rat, the latter of which is one of the largest rats in the world, roughly the size of a house cat. I was understandably quite eager to find one in 2009 but, at first, all my enquiries came up empty. Literally no-one I talked to on Flores had any idea what I was on about, and most people flatly refused to believe there was such a creature living on their island. Eventually I did find one villager who not only knew the giant rat but said they lived right by his village. He gave me all sorts of useful information on them, including their local name (bitu) -- after which everyone knew what
I was talking about -- but in the end I didn't see any with my own eyes. This time I am all set to remedy that situation.
There is almost literally no information in the scientific literature about the giant rat beyond the basic size and colour. At that time I knew of just one photograph, and that was an old black and white one in Walker's Mammals Of The World of two individuals in a wire cage. In 2010 I was shown a colour photo taken recently at Danau Ranamese by the town of Ruteng. I don't know of any other photos of live animals (internet searches do show a few more but none of them are actually Flores giant rats, they are mislabelled species from New Guinea and the Philippines).
There actually used to be another giant rat on Flores. The living species is Papagomys armandvillei
and the extinct species is Papagomys theodorverhoeveni
. At least its supposed to be extinct because its only known from subfossil cave deposits. Its bones look pretty much the same as those of the living species unless you're a rat specialist, but how the two differed from one another in outward
appearance is anybody's guess. Perhaps Verhoeven's giant rat does still survive, although how one would tell them apart in the forest is a bit of a puzzle. The Flores giant rat is known from the same subfossil deposits as Verhoeven's giant rat, and so are the endemic Hainald's rat (Rattus hainaldi
) and Flores long-nosed rat (Paulamys naso
), both of which still live in the montane forests of the island. In fact, the long-nosed rat was first described in 1981 from subfossil bones, declared long-extinct, but then found alive in 1991 -- and apparently its common on Gunung Ranaka by Ruteng. I suppose while I'm out at night in the forest looking for the Flores giant rat I also have a reasonable chance of seeing the Hainald's and long-nosed rats; the only problem, as always, is that I have no idea what they look like because I can't find any pictures of them.
Anyway, today I am just about to head off to the village of Tebedo to see if I can find some Wallace's hanging parrots and where apparently giant rats live too. Tomorrow I'll be heading for Ruteng to continue the search at a higher altitude.
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