Posted in Photography, travel

Leopard Spotting at Yala National Park

Leaving Ella

In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.

I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.

I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.

From Ella to Katharagama

I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.

The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.

After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.

I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.

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I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.

Yala Safari

At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.

The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy  kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.

Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.

At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.

We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…

It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.

 

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A pissed off elephant using her prodigious butt as a weapon.

Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.

Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.

Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.

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Posted in Photography

Winter Comes to Huainan

It seldom snows in Huainan. I can recall one light snowfall last year, and previously, when I lived in nearby Hefei, I remember a few other slightly snowy days. Yet last night, as I slept, winter arrived and brought with it several inches of thick, white snow which covered everything on campus. I awoke at 6am for work and looked outside to see a very different world – cleaner, crisper, the snow covering all imperfections. I’m not a morning person, yet I quickly ventured out into the  dawn and snapped some photos of this rare spectacle, walking around almost knee-deep in powdery snow for a cold but pleasurable half-hour.

I went off to work and taught all day as the snow continued to fall. During my breaks I’d go stand out in the snow as it fell all around, and students would stare at me like I was insane. Yet this is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the campus, the city, or any part of China. The snow covered everything and made it seem fresh, clean, and new.

By 3pm, when it finally stopped, we’d had almost a foot of snow dumped on the city, and everything was hidden beneath it. Students trudged about and fell wherever the snow vanished and was replaced by ice, and trees buckled and snapped under the weight of this alien powder. The little pocked of bamboo were entirely flattened by the weight of snow on their leaves.

I snapped a few shots in black and white over the day – mostly in the morning – to document this bizarre twist in the weather. I’ve never used black and white before.

Posted in Photography

Supermoon

Last night I was able to watch the supermoon from the roof of a tall building in the middle of Huainan. The location was not ideal, as the city gives off both light pollution and air pollution, but the sky was unusually clear, and the moon was right overhead between 8pm-10pm. This will likely be the closest the moon comes to earth within my lifetime, and I was glad to shoot a couple of pretty clear shots. I’d ordered a tripod on the 11/11 Chinese shopping holiday, but it hadn’t arrived by yesterday, so I ended up just trying to keep a steady hand as I zoomed in on this rock, which was about 221,500 miles away…

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Posted in Photography, travel

Komodo National Park

After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.

It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.

When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.

After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.

Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.

As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.

Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.

Posted in Photography, travel

A Boat Ride to Komodo

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. On the sea, time means very little. There is just day and night. There are those pleasurable hours when the sky is red and the world warms, and then the brutal midday hours when your skin burns when you sit out on the deck. Later, as the sun disappears and the world goes purple, and then innumerable stars beset the sky – where are these stars on land?! – the world seems peaceful, quiet.

*

I had always wanted to see Komodo and its famous “dragons,” and so it had been part of my tentative plan for this summer’s travels, although I knew it wasn’t easy to get there. However, when I found myself on Gili Trawangan, off Lombok, with a week to spare, I decided to ask around and found that there were boats that set off every Wednesday and Saturday for the mysterious island several hundred miles to the east.

So it was that on a sunny Wednesday morning, I walked to the pier and took a public ferry over to Bangsal, on Lombok island, and then jumped on a little wooden gulet headed for Labuanbajo, via Komodo island. It was not a ferry, as I had expected, but rather a tour boat, taking twenty-seven young Europeans to some of the more beautiful spots along that part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Our boat, the gulet, was an entirely wooden vessel, captained by an affable little pot-bellied man called Erren, who joked around a lot with his passengers. His bizarre Indonesian pronunciation made my name sound like the Welsh version, Dafydd, and a man named Blake was simply called “Black.”

“But you’re not black,” Erren would say. “You’re a white man!”

On board there wasn’t much room for the twenty-seven passengers. Most of us slept upstairs on the deck, in a large, low-ceilinged room with rubber mats on the floor. A few people had paid for cabins, which were the same thing except private, and smaller. There was a small area at the bow which got sun, but everywhere else was covered, and for the next four days the sun-lounging area would be crammed full and spots were hotly contested.

We set sail late in the late morning and spent the day moving slowly east along the northern shore of Lombok, whose imposing figure captivated the passengers for hours. Towering Mount Rinjani was visible throughout the whole day and the thick jungle was commented upon by several people as reminiscent of Jurassic Park. I sat on the bow of the ship, soaking in the sun and enjoying the gentle bob of the boat in the waves for some six hours. Flying fish occasionally took flight from the water and zipped along the surface like bizarre alien beings. Normally they made it 5-15 meters, but sometimes they flew as far as 50 meters before plunging back into the deep. Fat blue jellyfish bobbed on the surface, menacingly, and dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping playfully out of the water every few seconds.

In the evening we dropped anchor and watched the sunset. The sky turned bright red and then it faded to purple and then black, and soon an inconceivable blanket of stars covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I thought how sad it is that, all around the world, we are losing this essential part of who we are as human… We have vanquished nature and cast our light into the sky so bright that, for most humans, the stars are barely visible. Yet out at sea, where man is still not master, the skies remain and it possible to feel fully human.

I went to bed at nine-thirty but, at sea, time means very little. It gets dark, you sit around, and then when you’re tired you sleep. The engines fired up about eleven-thirty and we started moving eastwards again. From the top deck, the bob of the ship was more pronounced, and I was paranoid about being seasick out here… yet throughout the day I had enjoyed the rocking of the boat, and no seasickness befell me.

*

I awoke to watch one of the few sunrises of my lifetime, and certainly one of a very small number for which I’ve specifically woken. It came up into a clear sky from behind the mountains of Sumbawa, burning bright orange at first, and then, very quickly becoming the regular old yellow sun in the sky, burning down upon the world.

Soon the rest of the group was awake and eating pancakes for breakfast, and then we were dropping anchor at Moyo Island, where we snorkelled in the most pristine reef I’d ever seen. The sea life there was beyond my comprehension. In the Perhentians and off Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno I had seen outrageously beautiful fish, and yet here it was better still. The reef was completely untouched and undamaged by man or his evil pollution. The array of colour was staggering in both the coral and the fish, and I was utterly captivated as I swam around in my element. Whether on it or in it, I have fallen even further in love with the sea.

At Moyo we climbed a tall waterfall with no ropes nor any form of safety equipment, which seemed obscenely dangerous, but miraculously nobody died. The wet rocks were oddly course and provided sufficient grip to get up and down, and at the top there was a huge deep pool into which we all dived in the midst of the jungle morning. Erren amused everyone by producing soap and showering under the waterfall. I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered, and it had certainly been more than three weeks since I last washed my hair…

We got back on the boat and set sail once again, this time just a short hop to Sebotok Island, where we did more snorkelling. Again, the life underwater was stunning. I saw two turtles (taking my total for this trip to almost forty) and perhaps a fleeting glimpse of a shark. In general, though, the fish were small here, but brightly coloured and incredibly intricate. Unlike in more popular dive locations, they were unaccustomed to people and had no fear as I swooped down to shoot them with my GoPro.

Then we were back on the boat and off on a longer trip – this time an eighteen hour journey to the Komodo National Park – our main destination. The trip went well until nightfall, when people moved upstairs to bed, tired from the day’s swimming. Shortly after darkness fell, the waves rose in size, and soon the few of us left on the main deck were being hit with continual sprays of salty water which, in the wind, felt cold and unpleasant, whereas in the daytime it had been refreshing. The waves continued to grow and hit us from the starboard side as we forged on into the night. The stars came out and the dark landmass of sparsely populated Sumbawa was all that could be seen. As I watched the lean, muscled old man behind the wheel, I wondered how he could guide the ship. The waves were invisible until the very last second. We were rocked violently and it became hard to stand up, so I sat and held on tightly to my seat. One of the passengers, a ship-builder by trade, was worried because the ship was clearly in bad shape and slung far too low on the water to handle anything bigger than what was coming at us. The crew seemed on edge, too, and they eyed the distant shoreline as though they wondered whether it was possible to make it if we capsized.

I managed to sleep through most of the night, but like everyone else it was a fitful sleep, being awoken regularly as the ship rose and fell on the water, tossing us all around on the communal sleeping deck. Bags crashed about and in the morning we found everything on board a terrible mess, with life jackets having broken loose and nothing where it had been left the previous evening.

*

Again, I awoke to a rising sun, this time rising over the sea as the Komodo Islands appeared on the horizon. We’d lost time during the rough seas and were behind schedule. But what does time really mean out here? It is only the rise and fall of the sun that matters, and after a rough night, it felt good to watch it burn up and over the horizon, illuminating the shape of our destination.

I sat and watched Komodo move painfully towards us as people woke and came out for breakfast, wondering what today would bring. Soon we stopped in an unbelievably beautiful bay, surrounded by Komodo’s bare islands – very different in appearance from those of Lombok and Sumbawa with their thick jungles. Here, there was only grass and the occasional shrub, on top of land that looked like it had been poured loosely from the skies with wet dirt. It was impossible to imagine how the same chain of volcanoes – the Ring of Fire – had created such different landscapes, but I suppose it is just a matter of age.

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This was Gili Lawadarat, and after jumping from the bow of the boat to the shore, we hiked an unforgiving dirt trail up a steep hill to a viewpoint, from which the seas and the mysterious lands of Komodo unfolded. The climb was brutal, but the reward was more than ample. The azure skies and crystal waters weren’t picturesque; they were beyond the description of mere words. Vast yachts and tall sail boats cruised in and out of the islands, treating wealthy tourists to privileged views of this amazing part of the world.

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There was more snorkelling here but I didn’t partake, as I had sunbathed most of the morning and, coupled with the climb, I felt I had now gotten too much sun. I knew there would be plenty more snorkelling later in the day…

Indeed, after an hour and a half of sailing we came to a non-descript area of coastline called Manta Point which, as the name suggests, is famous for the huge, alien creatures called manta rays. The captain steered the boat carefully and a man in a snorkel mask tied himself to the front to search the clear waters from below the surface as we slowly circled around the area. Turtles and fish came by but we were only interested in one animal…

After a failed attempt to follow a small group of mantas, we found unimaginable success. A large group was spotted and we were all eager to dive into the deep waters and follow them, but the captain held us back and told us to wait for a better position. On his word, we all dived in and swam frantically towards where we thought we’d see the giant rays. Soon we had a sighting – three impossibly big black shapes moving ethereally through the ocean. And then they were gone.

A few others and I followed the rays but, going against the current without fins, it was impossible to catch up. We bobbed there as everyone else headed back to the ship, and laughed about how amazing the sighting had been – these creatures are just out of this world. They look as though they are flying through space; not swimming in water. They don’t look like anything else on the planet. We didn’t realize, though, that our experience was just beginning. Soon another group of three swam past us very, very close. As we swam after them, shooting videos and pictures without our underwater cameras, another group came up behind us. A great black ray brushed my leg and scared the hell out of me, before I turned and realized his giant gaping mouth was not intended for eating anything like me. He just wanted me to get out of his way.

Manta rays came again and again, swimming along the edge of a steep reef and out into the deep. I swam and bobbed and watched them come and go for what seemed like hours, loving every second of it. It was an experience so wonderful it would have justified the trip alone – and yet from the beginning, with the exception of the choppy night on the sea, it had been one delight after another.

Soon we were back on board, laughing and talking about how incredible the day had been – from stunning views of paradise to close encounters with otherworldly creatures. The ship continued its way south to Pink Beach where we were to go snorkelling once again, this time for two and a half hours. As I dove into the sea, I noticed how much colder it was here than anywhere else, and the current was strong, too. I held out hope for a shark sighting, as they prefer these waters to the water coral reefs we’d previously encountered.

The waters were once again teeming with life and the corals were vivid and thriving, but the first animal I noticed chilled me more than the water – it was a giant moray eel, trying to hide among coral but remaining almost entirely visible. It was easily ten feet long, with a body wider than my own in places, and a giant, mean-looking head. I’ve been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of morays recently, with great success, but this one was hard to even look at. It had vicious eyes and a massive set of jaws at the end of its powerful body. Whenever I moved in close for a photo it would posture aggressively. I am a firm believer in the adage that no animal is truly dangerous when shown adequate respect, and moray eels are no different. I heeded his warning and watched from a distance, although his menacing grimace turned my blood to ice. In the end it was difficult to turn and swim away because I could so vividly imagine the beast chasing me down, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

Elsewhere, I saw very large versions of animals I’d see elsewhere, and they seemed far more aggressive. I saw a huge, bizarre squid/cuttlefish creature which, when I move near, postured as though it would attack me. I also found several blue-ringed stingrays which proved more aggressive than the incredibly shy ones I’d seen elsewhere. From the sun burning my back to the icy cold waters aching my bones and the hordes of jellyfish stinging my skin, I decided after an hour to escape to the comfort of the beach and its odd pink sand.

Back on the boat, I spotted two eagles attacking a smaller bird, and yet more dolphins leaping from the water, as the sun fell once again – this time over the dark, bare mountains of Komodo. Our boat chugged slowly to its resting place for the night as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no more waves disrupting their sleep. We would be anchored in a large lagoon with lots of other tour boats, with little canoes of touts selling beer and bracelets coming up to the boat. One by one, the other tour boats turn on disco lights and reggae music, and our captain, Erren, started showing off his dancing skills.

*

This is part one of a two part story. The second, which tells of the Komodo Dragons, will be posted next week.

Posted in Photography

The Starry Skies of Southeast Asia

Earlier this year I posted a photo I took in Southern Africa of the night sky. To some of you, seeing the stars at night – and I mean thousands of stars – is probably something you take for granted. And yet, for most people on this planet, they are disappearing. If you live in or near a city, chances are that your night sky looks pretty dull. Perhaps, on a clear night, you may see a handful of stars.

Yet this is not what we are, as a species, accustomed to. Since long before we knew what a star was, we have wandered the world, looking up and navigating by the stars, speculating upon their role in our world, making up stories about them… They are a part of us, and we are losing them to light pollution and smog.

In Eastern China, where I live, the stars are a rarity. Granted, this year, with government efforts to reduce pollution, we can see more than in the previous five years, but nonetheless it makes for pitiful viewing. As I wandered the plains of Africa last winter, I marvelled over the incredible number of visible stars, and lamented the fact that I know so little about them. In the Philippines, many years ago, I remember floating out at sea in the middle of the night, drinking rum and being circled by curious thresher sharks, staring up into the innumerable stars as a bright blue lightning storm exploded on the horizon. The whole Milky Way seemed visible. Years later, I stared up at the stars from a mountaintop in California with the coyotes and cougars and bears… The stars seem paradoxically part of this natural world, and yet they are so alien that they captivate me whenever I’m lucky enough to see them.

On my trek through Southeast Asia this year I paid attention to the skies and even used an app on my iPhone to learn some of the constellations and star names, and was surprised to find that from most rural locations, at least several planets were visible. Bobbing on the sea at night in a small boat, I experienced the incredible sensation of being surrounded by stars from horizon to horizon. Then, on Gili Trawangan, I finally managed to shoot a decent photo of the Milky Way – something I’ve wanted to do for years. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in on this photo like I can on my computer (unfortunately, the mobile version of this site doesn’t allow for that) and see more stars than you could ever count.

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The Milky Way as seen from Indonesia.
Posted in Photography, travel

Snorkelling in the Perhentians

The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all too perfect.

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The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.

The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.

As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.

On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”

“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.

I said, of course, that I did.

“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.

I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.

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Blacktip Reef Shark

Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.

As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…

On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.

I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.

 

I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.

On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.