Archive for the ‘Schooning with Dragons’ Category

Schooning with Dragons 2

October 27, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


Komodo is the kind of island







that inspires fantasy.



From a distance, the ridge that runs along it






has the appearance of the armoured spine of some gigantic Saurian creature.







As it happens the island did play a part in the genesis of the story of King Kong.







Merion C. Cooper, the man who is credited with inventing the idea of a ‘gigantic prehistoric ape’ is said to have been fascinated by the adventures of his friend Douglas Burden, whose travels resulted in the book Dragon Lizards of Komodo. And the mysteries of these islands are not all imaginary: it was in this region that the remains of the prehistoric  ‘hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) were found.





We on the Katharina were exceptionally lucky.










The night before our visit to Komodo





we witnessed a spectacular lunar eclipse.



















Our visit to Komodo began at the Rangers’ station of Loh Liang.






The rangers warned us that the dragons are elusive creatures and that we might not see any on our walk.







But in no time at all we came upon a large male.















A magnificent creature,















it seemed to be stalking a herd of deer.
















Dragons can sprint over short distances,
















but their usual gait is slow and stately.






photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie




This was not this hunter’s lucky day;







stalking isn’t easy when you’re the cynosure of many eyes.




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie











The trail gave us glimpses of a savannah-like landscape,







thirsty for rain at the end of the dry season.









But the conditions were just right for certain orchids.





















The waters of Komodo National Park are famous for their reefs.





photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie















I have done a fair amount of snorkeling in my time






DSC04758 but I have never seen coral reefs as fine as these; nor have I ever come across such abundant and varied marine life.










We were fortunate in having two experienced divers with us,






Jennifer Hayes, our guide,









and Joris Kolijn,






DSC04959 Sea Trek‘s manager. They are both intimately familiar with these waters and thanks to them we saw some amazing sights.













One unforgettable morning we swam with giant manta rays,





Wikimedia commons




with wingspans of three metres or more.








The mantas circled playfully around us,






Wikimedia commons


coming back again and again, as if to check us out, even making eye contact.











One day Joris and Jennifer took us to a channel






where marine life abounds because of a rich supply of nutrition, brought in by a powerful current.








The current swpet us along like birds in a gale, carrying us past reef-sharks, barracudas and




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie



schools of fish, with the brilliant colours and fantastical shapes



of a hallucination.
















Photo Summa Durie

Photo Summa Durie




these fish end up in fishermen’s nets.














at a market in Lombok,







I came upon







some of these species of fish laid out on display.








Even there,







long dead,








their colours







and shapes seemed unreal.









One afternoon, I found myself swimming some twenty feet above a green turtle.






Wikimedia Commons


It was a clear day and a bright funnel of sunlight was focused upon the turtle’s emerald-tinted shell.










It was gliding effortlessly along, like an eagle on an updraft. The slow, undulating motion of its limbs, as much as the penumbra of radiance that surrounded it, gave it the appearance of an angel.





Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly a school of fusilers appeared, encircling the turtle in a halo of flashing colours.











It was as though I had been granted a vision of something not of this world: it was perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; no human creation could come close to rivalling it; no picture could do it justice.







And when we weren’t swimming with rays or walking with dragons, there was wonderful food to sample.





UWRF-SeaTrek Bali - Komodos Oct 14 - Summa Durie (70 of 111)




Janet de Neefe, who runs two of the finest restaurants in Bali – Casa Luna and Indus









was on board, to explain Indonesian cooking techniques:






how spices and herbs are combined and ground;










how a Sumatran fish curry is made;















and how to serve prawn fritters.

















Janet is the author of  Bali: Food of My Island Home – one of the best, most user-friendly cookbooks ever written. I love it and use it all the time.






DSC04463It has inspired me to grow my own turmeric, ginger, galangal, chilies and lemon grass.









In Indonesian cookery







these spices are always used fresh, never dried, as is usually the case in India. This makes for an enormous difference in taste










and vastly enhances the medicinal and health-sustaining properties of these spices.












And to top it all, there were many wonderful conversations. Most of the Katharina‘s passengers were writers and every evening we talked of writing and reading.




But  the most wonderful thing about the Katharina









was her crew.






DSC04950Efficient yet fun-loving













they were the most cheerful group of seamen






I have ever come across.







Whether singing,





or playing the guitar














or rattling the rigging DSC04739










they threw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they did.





To them goes the credit for turning their vessel into a ship of dreams.











Schooning with Dragons 1

October 25, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


The Bugis (or Buginese) are one of the great seafaring peoples of the Indian Ocean. Like those other great mariners, the Greeks, they are also great story-tellers: their epic, Sureq Galigo or La Galigo, is longer than the Mahabharata. The Buginese were converted to Islam in the 17th century and except for a few sub-groups of Christians and Hindus they are predominantly Muslim today. One interesting aspect of Bugis culture is that it recognizes five gender categories including a ‘meta-gender’.






Bugis seafarers have long been associated with a distinctive kind of sailing vessel: a fore-and-aft rigged craft known as a Phinisi or Pinisi schooner (the words are said to be derived from the Dutch ‘pinas’ or pinnace). These vessels are still constructed by traditional methods in Sulawesi.








Phinisi schooners are an old interest of mine (a Bugis vessel makes a brief appearance in River of Smoke); I have also long wanted to visit the Komodo Islands. The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is surely one of the most fascinating creatures in existence – the planet’s largest  living species of lizard, it was not ‘discovered’ till the 1910s. So when an opportunity arose to sail around Indonesia’s Komodo National Park in a Phinisi schooner I could hardly believe my luck: needless to say, I jumped at the chance.



The journey began with a flight to the port of Labuan Bajo, at the western end of Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.



On the way there we sighted smouldering volcanoes, rising out of the sea.







Labuan Bajo’s airport is picturesque













and of impressive size,













for a quiet little town.















It’s harbour is spectacular,








especially at sunset.








After nightfall little warungs














appear along the waterfront,















offering a colourful assortment of fish,
















which go straight to the grill,















brushed with a little oil and a few spices.

















They are ready for the table

















in a few minutes.




















Our vessel, the Katharina,






was at anchor in the harbour: a sleek 40 metre Phinisi,







she is operated by a company called Sea Trek Sailing Adventures, which also owns another, slightly larger, Phinisi, the Ombak Putih.









From Labuan Bajo we sailed to an island called Rinca, one of the largest of the 29 islands of Komodo National Park.







Surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs, Rinca has some 1,300 Komodo dragons.






An elaborate gateway














leads to the ranger station of Loh Buaya.















There are a half-dozen or more dragons around the rangers’ quarters;






they are apparently drawn there by the smell of cooking








(the guards never feed them and visitors are forbidden to do so,







although this does not, unfortunately, always stop them from trying).






We were led into the island by a group of rangers –




they all carried forked sticks, like this one, to fend off the dragons.










With the dry season drawing to a close the landscape was reduced to its stark essentials.








Only a few of the rangers are of Bugis heritage but many are good story-tellers: it is easy to imagine that story-telling helps while away many a long hour, when the visitors are gone and there is not much to do.





They explain that the dragons eat nothing but (dead) meat: mainly buffalo and deer.









Apart from hooves and horns,








they will consume







every bit of their prey




DSC04564 – with the exception of the innards, which are usually filled with vegetable matter.










A Komodo dragon’s bite is lethal:





it was previously thought that their saliva contained a toxic community of bacteria but it has now been confirmed that the animals possess venom glands.








Once bitten, a deer or buffalo will die a slow, lingering death, sometimes over a period of weeks. Komodo dragons do not hesitate to attack spitting cobras, which are abundant on these islands (as in this video).

Attacks on human beings are rare but not unknown.








A ranger tells a rather gruesome tale of a tourist who strayed from his group and was never seen again









– all that was found of him was some undigested clothing and hair.






Komodo dragons are not good parents, says another ranger, with a laugh.














They are cannibalistic and love to feed on their children. The females have an advantage in this regard since they know exactly where their eggs are hidden.








In an interesting twist to the phrase ‘expectant mother’, this young female is keeping vigil beside her nest so she can make a meal of her hatchlings when they emerge .







Fortunately for the species, some of the young usually manage to make a getaway. The lucky few must spend the first three years of their lives on trees, where they subsist on lizards, birds’ eggs, insects – and of course other juveniles.




DSC04567Life isn’t easy for baby dragons.










Our rangers were a cheerful lot





but their stories gave rise to a disturbing question: in years to come, when climate change and sea-level rise have forced a generation of human beings to retreat to higher ground, will they come to think of their forebears as dragons whose unbounded appetites resulted in the devouring of their young?










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