Monster Sized Lizards and Clouds of Bats in Istana Ular Snake Cave

May 2013: This trip to Komodo/Flores Islands, East Timor and Northern Territories, Australia was the first trip I had done in months since the onset of scary debilitating migraines that I had never experiences before in my life. I wasn’t sure if I had some kind of cancer or neurological condition, but my life was made miserable by them, but I was determined to not let them ruin my youth and my passion for adventure travel. I booked this in defiance of my migraines and I’m glad I did because I proved to myself that I could rise above them and little by little and gained more ground until eventually they were just a mere after thought.

I traveled with my friend Dan, and we started in the island of Bali, Indonesia, which would be our base for onward travels in the region. After a few days spent exploring Bali, we flew to Flores Island, where we walked down to a local marina and shopped around for a local boat and crew to take us to Komodo and Rinca islands to see the famed Komodo Dragons in the wild.

 

 

About Komodo Island

Location of Komodo Island, Indonesia

 Komodo National Park consists of three different islands in the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia, two of which, Komodo and Rinca, are mainly visited to observe Komodo Dragons in the wild. The jumping point into the national park for most tourists is from the city of Lubuan Bajo on nearby Flores Island. The only way to visit Komodo National Park is via boat since there are no airport on the islands. There are thousands of Komodo Dragons that live on the islands and until the last century, they were believed by European explorers to be an isolated population of Dinasaur’s. The isolated coral fringed mountainous islands in some ways do have a King Kong Island feeling to them. Komodo Dragons roam all parts of the islands and are the veritable kings growing up to 10′ and weighing hundreds of pounds. They are meat eating and will not pass on any prey and this includes humans. Although rare, dragons have been known to attack and have even eaten humans. Rinca island has a few villages that coexist on the island on the most part peacefully with the dragons as long as boundaries are adhered to. Komodo Island has no villages and is only inhabited by a few park rangers.  It is the wildest of the islands and home to largest population of dragons at 1,700. Aside from the dragons, there islands are rich with terrestrial and marine biodiversity. I found them to be simply put, a natural paradise!

Boat Trip to the Islands

 The cheapest and most adventurous way to visit the park, is to just walk down to the boat docks and organize your own boat and crew and negotiate a price for the trip. We agreed on meals, paid a small deposit and agreed to pay the rest of the balance at the end of the trip. Our crew cooked meals for us, and we slept on the deck in the open of the boat beneath the roof to keep out of the rain. The next morning Dan and I and are boat crew set off for Komodo National Park. Our first stop was Rinca Island, where we visited a village and hiked out to a ridge to see our first Komodo Dragons. The dragon was about 4′ long and only a few feet away from in a resting state. Usually when the dragons are resting, they are digesting and full. You can get surprisingly close to the dragons without them displaying any signs of stress, but it is important to remember that they can react very quickly if they want to and bite. Once they get their gangs embedded into you, they will tear into your flex, ripping, pulling and injecting a mild venom. But the worst part of their bite is their saliva. They have multiple strains of virulent bacteria that can cause a deadly infection. Dragons will often bite their prey, release them and follow their cent waiting for them to succumb to infection before pouncing in groups devouring them.

Our boat

Me on our boat cruising on our boat

sunset from our boat

Dragon on Rinca Island

Rinca island was nice, we saw a few deer that are only found on Rinca and not Komodo and are preyed on by the dragons, but the highlight of the park was Komodo island. After Rinca Island we set sail to Komodo, and we anchored on a pier connected to the main beach of Komodo Island. At the first crack of light, I set off by myself on to the beach of Komodo overcome by too much excitement to ask if it was safe or not. We were the only boat on the pier and there was just beach and jungle in view. I wanted to find a dragon and I didn’t need to go far before I found one. A huge behemoth beast of 10″ was lumbering down the beach flickering his long tongue out searching for prey. He was on the move and his gaze locked in on me. I was on the beach far from the pier and I made sure to get between him and the water in case I needed to get into the ocean to escape him. I later found out dragons’ swim quite well. But the dragon was coming directly for me. He was not moving aside. I knew that I could easily become part of his morning menu. I backed up and walked towards the pier but didn’t run. I knew from watching Steve Irwin, that these creatures could run and were fast. Steve Irwin had to climb a tree to evade their chase. I walked backwards facing the dragon until I reached the pier, and I jumped on top to safety. The dragon continued to meander passed me in pursuit of prey.

Giant 10′ dragon on the beach

Giant 10′ dragon on the beach

Giant 10′ dragon on the beach

Photo my friend Dan took from the boat of me and the dragon on the beach

It turns out that I wasn’t allowed to explore the island on my own. When the boat crew awoke, they informed me that we are required to check in with the rangers at the pier and be escorted by them 100 percent of the time for our safety. The rangers eventually met us at our boat, all carrying a large wooden staff, which they use as weapons to deter any charging dragons. We walked to the headquarters of the park and checked in. There were about 6 lazy comatose looking dragons sleeping around the ranger station. These ones were lethargic because their they are full and digesting or are still heating up in the sun. Since they are more accustomed to humans, they don’t seem to mind our presence compared to other dragons that we would later see further into the park. The station was elevated on a platform that had a steep set of ladders like stairs, which I was told were relatively new. Our ranger informed us that a few months prior he had been attacked by one of the dragons that had managed to sneak into the cabin and attack his leg. Another ranger had to pry the dragon off of him and it was a violent, gory event that resulted in the ranger being evacuated to Bali for emergency surgery to save his leg and life. Now in order to keep the dragons out of the hut, a ladder was constructed, which dragons have difficulty climbing. The rangers gave Dan and I our own sticks to fend off any dragons and they reviewed the rules of the park with us: stay near and behind the rangers especially if charged by a dragon, never round a corner without first looking to see what is there, and do not enter toilets blindly. Komodo island has many miles of trails and is rich in biodiversity especially with snakes but sadly we did not see any snakes. We did a ranger led hike of 3-4 hours up to ridge to look for more dragons. The hike was wild, and I felt like we were exploring Jurassic Park and always on the verge of being attacked by dangerous velociraptors. We observed a few dragons along the trail, but they were quick to run off into the dry thicket and disappear. They were definitely shier than the dragons closer to the beach. Probably the most interesting things we saw, was a group of baby dragons living in a tree. Adult dragons are too big to climb trees, so babies who would otherwise fall prey to adults, seek refuge in the trees until they become large enough to fend for themselves. After exploring this side of the island with the rangers, we set off in our boat visit some of the white sand coral fringed beaches of the island.

 

Dry jungles of Komodo Island

Exploring Komodo Island

 
We traveled in our boat to a coral reef off of Komodo Island where we snorkeled with manta rays. Then we went to a pink sand beach, one of the few pink sand beaches in the world. We anchored our boat about 100 yards from the beach and Dan and I snorkeled to the beach exploring the rich coral reef along the way. We relaxed on the beach for a while, didn’t see any dragons and swam back to the boat for a tasty lunch of fresh fish and coconuts. Then we traveled around Komodo some more photographing the shoreline and returned to Lubuan Bajo in the evening.

Komodo Island, Indonesia

Komodo Island, Indonesia

Coral fringed pink sand beach on Komodo

Visit to the Istana Ular, Snake Cave of Flores Islands

 
After Komodo National Park, Dan and I spent a night in Lubuan Bajo, and in the morning I organized a taxi to get to Istana Ular, a cave known for its large population of bat eating snakes.  The taxi driver had no idea where the cave was, but I did my research and had directions prepared. It would be a long trip that would take most of the day and there was no certainty that we would find it. It was located in a remote area of the island, but it was all part of the adventure. Finding the village where we needed to organize the cave trek was not easy and it took us hours of driving down bad roads and asking locals for directions. When we finally arrived dozens of curious school children rushed us in excitement. It was a lot of fun to photograph the smiling and giggling kids, who loved our attention. We found the chief of the village and explained our purpose in visiting the cave. From there we organized the visit with the chief, paid a village and guide fee and we were introduced the vilage shaman who would accompany us to the cave to perform a ceremony needed to ensure our safe passage into the cave.
 

Dan with the school children 

School children  

Village girl

Checking in with the village chief

Water buffalo cooling off

 I discovered the cave when researching Flores Island but there wasn’t a whole lot of information about it online. I knew that a group of biologists documented a 20′ reticulated python living in the cave and that it was also believed that it travels outside of the cave too. The villagers revere the snakes in the caves and believe that as long as they respect the caves and perform a ritual sacrifice before entering the cave, the snakes inside the cave will not harm them. The snake wasn’t what worried me. I was excited to see the snake. it was the deadly tropical diseases known to inhabit the caves that are spread from the bat feces. The other thing was the lack of oxygen due to the large amount of bat excrement in the cave. its decomposition consumes the oxygen and replaces it with ammonia. The cave is meant to be miles long, but no one has ever safely explored all of it because of the lack of oxygen.  It didn’t take long for us to spot a cave when approaching the cave. But it was a huge python, it was a small tree viper coiled up head level in a tree watching us intently. The hike from the village was approx. an hour through the jungle down a steep muddy path. The entrance to the cave was small and there was a muddy stream coming out of the cave that drained into the river below. We could hear the echoes of bats and occasionally a few would fly out of the cave.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Venemous tree viper outside of the cave

The shaman presented an offering to the spirit of the large snake the villagers believed to inhabit the cave. The snake they believe is of mythical proportions and capable of eating humans. He prayed to the spirit of the snake and asked that Dan and I have permission to enter the cave safely. After the ritual was over, he let me know that he thinks we have permission to enter the cave.  I was already preparing my flashlights to enter.  It turns out the shaman was not going to join me, and Dan was having no part of the cave experience. I was going to go in alone and my guides would be a group of barefoot 8-year-old village boys without flashlights. Luckily, I had extra ones to provide them.  Upon entering the cave one of the boys in front of me yelled snake. By the time I got there it was gone. There were so many holed for them to hide. A friend of mine who had been to the cave before me had seen a python swimming passed in the cave, so I knew they were there, and they certainly feed on the bats. I tried to stay on the dry parnts but it didn’t take long before I waded up to my waist in the muddy water that wreaked of bat excrement. I wore my hiking boots to protect my feet. I followed my 8-year-old guides into the cave with a ceiling in many parts just slightly above my head.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Shaman pefroming ritual with an egg offering to the snake to obtain a blessing for my safe entrance into the cave

Entrance to the cave

The cave was a chamber of Horrors! I waded through mud and bat excrement up to me knees, held on to cockroach infested rocks for support, while trying to avoid putting my hand into a crack concealing a python. The cave is named after the many pythons that live in it, and it isn’t rare for them to attack. This includes the 25-foot giant known by the locals to live somewhere in the depths of the cave. Hopefully, I was protected by the village snake charmer who asked the snakes at the entrance of the cave to allow me to enter in peace. Of course, there were no guarantees in this place and even the snake charmer was aware of this. My main concern however was not the snakes, it was the deadly tropical diseases, some yet to be discovered lurking in the cave. Thousands of bats with little red eyes reflecting in my flashlight frightened by my intrusion scurried about me head. One bat landing on my face and I feared it would bite me, so I carefully grabbed it and once removed from my face, threw it down onto the ground. After 30 minutes of exploring, my 8-year-old boy guides and I reached a room with bat feces piled to the ceiling, and I found myself gasping for air because of high ammonia levels. I could barely breather and I was becoming dizzy. I knew it was time to get out. This was not the place to perish. I turned around and quickly exited the cave/ It was a disgusting place but one I’ll never forget because of its pure rawness.

 

Video of the inside of the cave showing the darkness, chaos and caucophony of bat noises and bats flying around my head

Me at the cave entrance

7 + 2 =

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