The first animal we went to look for, three years later, was the Komodo dragon lizard. This was an animal, like most of the animals we were going to see, about which I knew very little. What little I did know was hard to like.
They are man-eaters. That is not so bad in itself. Lions and tigers are man-eaters, and though we may be intensely wary of them and treat them with respectful fear we nevertheless have an instinctive admiration for them. We don’t actually like to be eaten by them, but we don’t resent the very idea. The reason, probably, is that we are mammals and so are they. There’s a kind of unreconstructed species prejudice at work: a lion is one of us but a lizard is not. And neither, for that matter is a fish, which is why we have such an unholy terror of sharks.
The Komodo lizards are also big. Very big. There’s one on Komodo at the moment which is over twelve feet long and stands about a yard high, which you can’t help but feel is entirely the wrong size for a lizard to be, particularly if it’s a man-eater and you’re about to go and share an island with it.
Though they are man-eaters they don’t get to eat man very often, and more generally their diet consists of goats, pigs and deer and such like, but they will only kill these animals if they can’t find something that’s dead already, because they are, at heart, scavengers. They like their meat bad and smelly. We don’t like our meat like that and tend to be leery of things that do. I was definitely leery of these lizards.
Mark had spent part of the intervening three years planning and researching the expeditions we were to make, writing letters, telephoning, but most often telexing to naturalists working in the field in remote parts of the world, organising schedules, letters of introduction and maps. He also arranged all the visas, flights and boats and accommodation, and then had to arrange them all over again when it turned out that I hadn’t quite finished the novels yet.
At last they were done. I left my house in the hands of the builders, who claimed they only had three more weeks’ work to do, and set off to fulfil my one last commitment – an author tour of Australia. I’m always very sympathetic when I hear people complaining that all they ever get on television or radio chat shows is authors honking on about their latest book. It does, on the other hand, get us out of the house and spare our families the trial of hearing us honking on about our latest book.
Finally that, too, was over and we could start looking for giant lizards.
We met up in a hotel room in Melbourne and examined our array of expeditionary equipment. ‘We’ were Mark, myself and Gaynor Shutte, a radio producer who was going to be recording our exploits for the BBC. Our equipment was a vast array of cameras, tape recorders, tents, sleeping bags, medical supplies, mosquito coils, unidentifiable things made of canvas and nylon with metal eyelets and plastic hooks, cagoules, boots, penknives, torches and a cricket bat.
None of us would admit to having brought the cricket bat. We couldn’t understand what it was doing there. We phoned room service to bring us up some beers and also to take the cricket bat away but they didn’t want it. The guy from room service said that _if we were really going to look for man-eating lizards maybe the cricket bat would be a handy thing to have.
‘If you find you’ve got a dragon charging towards you at thirty miles an hour snapping its teeth you can always drive it defensively through the covers,’ he said, deposited the beers and left:
We hid the cricket bat under the bed, opened the beers, and let Mark explain something of what we were in for.
‘For centuries,’ he said, ‘the Chinese told stories of great scaly man-eating monsters with fiery breath, but they were thought to be nothing more than myths and fanciful imaginings. Old sailors would tell of them, and would write ‘Here be dragons’ on their maps when they saw a land they didn’t at all like the look of.
‘And then, at the beginning of this century, a pioneering Dutch aviator was attempting to island hop his way along the Indonesian archipelago to Australia when he had engine trouble and had to crash land his plane on the tiny island of Komodo. He survived the crash but his plane didn’t.
‘He went to search for water. As he was searching he found a strange wide track on the sandy shore, followed the track, and suddenly found himself confronted with something that he, also, didn’t at all like the look of. It appeared to be a great scaly man-eating monster, fully ten feet long. What he was looking at was the thing we are going to look for – the Komodo dragon lizard.’
‘Did he survive? I asked, going straight for the point.
‘Yes, he did, though his reputation didn’t. He stayed alive for three months, and then was rescued. But when he went home, everyone thought he was mad and nobody believed a word of it.’
‘So were the Komodo dragons the origin of the Chinese dragon myths?
‘Well, nobody really knows, of course. At least, I don’t. But it certainly seems like a possibility. It’s a large creature with scales, it’s a man-eater, and though it doesn’t actually breathe fire, it does have the worst breath of any creature known to man. But there’s something else you should know about the island as well.’
‘Have another beer first.’
There are,’ said mark, ‘more poisonous snakes per square metre of ground on Komodo than on any equivalent area on earth.’
There is in Melbourne a man who probably knows more about poisonous snakes than anyone else on earth. His name is Dr Struan Sutherland, and he has devoted his entire life to a study of venom.
‘And I’m bored with talking about it,’ he said when we went along to see him the next morning, laden with tape recorders and note books. ‘Can’t stand all these poisonous creatures, all these snakes and insects and fish and things. Wretched things, biting everybody. And then people expect me to tell them what to do about it. I’ll tell them what to do. Don’t get bitten in the first place. That’s the answer. I’ve had enough of telling people all the time. Hydroponics, now, that’s interesting. Talk to you all you like about hydroponics. Fascinating stuff, growing plants artificially in water, very interesting technique. We’ll need to know all about it if we’re going to go to Mars and places. Where did you say you were going?”
‘Well, don’t get bitten, that’s all I can say. And don’t come running to me if you do because you won’t get here in time and anyway I’ve got enough on my plate. Look at this office. Full of poisonous animals all over the place. See this tank? It’s full of fire ants. Venomous little creatures, what are we going to do about them? Anyway, I got some little cakes in in case you were hungry. Would you like some little cakes? I can’t remember where I put them. There’s some tea but it’s not very good. Sit down for heaven’s sake.
‘So, you’re going to Komodo. Well, I don’t know why you want to do that, but I suppose you have your reasons. There are fifteen different types of snake on Komodo, and half of them are poisonous. The only potentially deadly ones are the Russell’s viper, the bamboo viper and the Indian cobra.
The Indian cobra is the fifteenth deadliest snake in the world, and all the other fourteen are here in Australia. That’s why it’s so hard for me to find time to get on with my hydroponics, with all these snakes all over the place.
‘And spiders. The most poisonous spider is the Sydney funnel web. We get about five hundred people a year bitten by spiders. A lot of them used to die, so we had to develop an antidote to stop people bothering me with it all the time. Took us years. Then we developed this snake bite detector kit. Not that you need a kit to tell you when you’ve been bitten by a snake, you usually know, but the kit is something that will detect what type you’ve been bitten by so you can treat it properly.
‘Would you like to see a kit? I’ve got a couple here in the venom fridge. Let’s have a look. Ah look, the cakes are in here too. Quick, have one while they’re still fresh. Fairy cakes, I baked ’em myself.’
He handed round the snake venom detection kits and his home-baked fairy cakes and retreated back to his desk, where he beamed at us cheerfully from behind his curly beard and bow tie. We admired the kits, which were small, efficient boxes neatly packed with tiny bottles, a pipette, a syringe and a complicated set of instructions that I wouldn’t want to read for the first time in a panic, and then we asked him how many of the snakes he had been bitten by himself.
‘None of ’em,’ he said. ‘Another area of expertise I’ve developed is that of getting other people to handle the dangerous animals. Won’t do it myself. Don’t want to get bitten, do I? You know what it says in my book jackets? “Hobbies: gardening -with gloves; fishing – with boots; travelling – with care.” That’s the answer. What else? Well, in addition to the boots wear thick, baggy trousers, and preferably have half a dozen people tramping along in front of you making as much noise as possible. The snakes pick up the vibrations and get out of your way, unless it’s a death adder, otherwise known as the deaf adder, which just lies there. People can walk right past it and over it and nothing happens. I’ve heard of twelve people in a line walking over a death adder and the twelfth person accidentally trod on it and got bitten. Normally you’re quite safe if you’re twelfth in line. You’re not eating your cakes. Come on, get them down you, there’s plenty more in the venom fridge.’
We asked, apprehensively, if any of the folk remedies or potions we’d heard about were any good.
`Well, nine times out of ten they’ll work fine for the simple reason that nine snake bites out of ten the victim doesn’t get ill anyway. It’s the last ten per cent that’s the problem, and there’s a lot of myths we’ve had to disentangle about snakes in order to get at the truth. You need accurate information. People’s immediate response to snake bites is often to overreact and give the poor snake a ritual beating, which doesn’t really help in the identification. If you don’t know which exact snake it was you can’t treat the bite properly.’ .
‘Well, in that case,’ I asked, ‘could we perhaps take a snake bite detector kit with us to Komodo?
‘Course you can, course you can. Take as many as you like. Won’t do you a blind bit of good because they’re only for Australian snakes.’
‘So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then? I asked.
He blinked at me as if I were stupid.
‘Well what do you think you do? he said. ‘You die of course. That’s what deadly means.’
‘But what about cutting open the wound and sucking out the poison? I asked.
‘Rather you than me,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t want a mouthful of poison. Shouldn’t do you much harm, though. Snake toxins have a high molecular weight, so they won’t penetrate the blood vessels in the mouth the way that alcohol or some drugs do, and then the poison gets destroyed by the acids in your stomach. But it’s not necessarily going to do much good, either. You’re not likely to be able to get much of the poison out, but you’re probably going to make the wound a lot worse trying. And in a place like Komodo it means you’d quickly have a seriously infected wound to contend with as well as a leg full of poison. Septicaemia, gangrene, you name it. It’ll kill you.’
`What about a tourniquet??
‘Fine if you don’t mind having your leg off afterwards. You’d have to because if you cut off the blood supply to it completely it’ll just die. And if you can find anyone in that part of Indonesia who you’d trust to take your leg off then you’re a braver man than me. No, I’ll tell you: the only thing you can do is apply a pressure bandage direct to the wound and wrap the whole leg up tightly, but not too tightly. Slow the blood flow but don’t cut it off or you’ll lose the leg. Keep the leg, or whatever bit of you it is you’ve been bitten in, lower than your heart and your head. Keep very, very still, breathe slowly and get to a doctor immediately. If you’re on Komodo that means a couple of days, by which time you’ll be well dead.
`The only answer, and I mean this quite seriously, is don’t get bitten. There’s no reason why you should. Any of the snakes there will get out of your way well before you even see them. You don’t really need to worry about the snakes if you’re careful. No, the things you really need to worry about are the marine creatures.’
`Scorpion fish, stonefish, sea snakes. Much more poisonous than anything on land. Get stung by a stone fish and the pain alone can kill you. People drown themselves just to stop the pain.’n.’
`Where are all these things??
‘Oh, just in the sea. Tons of them. I wouldn’t go near it if I were you. Full of poisonous animals. Hate them.’
`Is there anything you do like??
‘Yes,’ he said. `Hydroponics.’
We flew to Bali.
David Attenborough has said that Bali is the most beautiful place in the world, but he must have been there longer than we were, and seen different bits, because most of what we saw in the couple of days we were there sorting out our travel arrangements was awful. It was just the tourist area, i.e. that part of Bali which has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.
The narrow, muddy streets of Kuta were lined with gift shops and hamburger bars and populated ‘with crowds of drunken, shouting tourists, kamikaze motorcyclists, counterfeit watch sellers and small dogs. The kamikaze motorcyclists tried to pick off the tourists and the small dogs, while the tiny minibus which we spent most of the evening in, shuttling our bags from one full hotel to another, hurtled through the motorcyclists and counterfeit watch sellers at video game speeds. Somewhere not too far from here, towards the middle of the island, there may have been heaven on earth, but hell had certainly set up business on its porch.
The tourists with their cans of lager and their `Fuck off T-shirts were particularly familiar to anyone who has seen the English at play in Spain or Greece, but I suddenly realised as I watched this that for once I didn’t need to hide myself away in embarrassment.
They weren’t English. They were Australian.
But they were otherwise so nearly identical that it started me thinking about convergent evolution, which I had better explain before I go on to say why they made me think of it.
In different pacts of the world strikingly similar but completely unrelated forms of life will emerge in response to similar conditions and habitats. For instance, the aye-aye, the lemur Mark and I originally tracked down in Madagascar, has one particularly remarkable feature. Its third finger is much longer than its other fingers and is skeletally thin, almost like a twig. It uses this finger for poking around under the bark of the trees it lives in to dig out the grubs which it feeds on. There is one other creature in the world which does this, and that is the long-fingered possum, which is found in New Guinea. It has a long and skeletally thin fourth finger, which it uses for precisely the same purpose. There is no family relationship between these two animals at all, and the only common factor between them is this: an absence of woodpeckers.
There are no woodpeckers in Madagascar, and no woodpeckers in Papua New Guinea. This means that there is a food source – the grubs under the bark – going free, and in these two cases it is a mammal which has developed a mechanism for getting at it. And the mechanism they both use is the same -different finger, same idea. But it is purely the selection process of evolution which has created this similarity, because the animals themselves are not related.
Exactly the same behaviour pattern had emerged entirely independently on the other side of the world. As in the gift shop habitats of Spain or Greece, or indeed Hawaii, the local people cheerfully offer themselves up for insult and abuse in return for money which they then spend on further despoiling their habitat to attract more money-bearing predators.
‘Right,’ said Mark, when we found some dinner that night in a tourist restaurant with plastic flowers and muzak and paper umbrellas in the drinks, ‘here’s the picture. We have to get a goat.’
‘No. In Labuan Bajo. Labuan Bajo is on the island of Flores and is the nearest port to Komodo. It’s a crossing of about twenty-two miles across some of the most treacherous seas in the East. This is where the South China Sea meets the Indian Ocean, and it’s riddled with cross currents, riptides and whirlpools. It’s very dangerous and could take anything up to twenty hours.’
`With a goat?’
‘A dead goat.’
I toyed with my food.
‘It’s best,’ continued Mark, ‘if the goat has been dead for about three days, so it’s got a good smell going. That’s more likely to attract the dragons.’
‘You’re proposing twenty hours on a boat…’
‘A small boat,’ added Mark.
‘On violently heaving seas…’
‘With a three-day-old dead goat.’
‘I hardly know what to say.’
‘There’s one other thing that I should probably say, which is that I’ve no idea if any of this is true. There are wildly conflicting stories, and some are probably just out of date, or even completely made up. I hope we’ll have a better idea of the situation when we get to Labuan Bajo tomorrow. We’re. flying tomorrow, via Bima, and we should be at Denpasar airport early. It was a nightmare getting these tickets and the connecting flight and we mustn’t miss the plane.’
We did. Fresh eruptions of hell awaited us at Denpasar airport, which was a turmoil of crowds and shouting with a sense of incipient violence simmering just beneath the surface. The airline check-in man said that our flight from Bima to Labuan Bajo had not been confirmed by the travel agent and as a result we had no seats. He shrugged and gave us back our tickets.
We had been told that serenity was the best frame of mind with which to tackle Indonesia and we decided to try it. We tried serenely to point out that it actually said ‘Confirmed’ on our tickets, but he explained that ‘Confirmed’ didn’t actually mean confirmed, as such, it was merely something that they wrote on tickets when people asked them to because it saved a lot of bother and made them go away.
He went away.
We stood waggling our tickets serenely at thin air. Behind the check-in desk was a window and from behind this a thin airline official with a thin moustache, a thin tie and a white shirt with thin epaulets sat smoking cigarettes and staring at us impassively through narrow wreaths of smoke. We waved our tickets at him, but he just shook his head very, very slightly.
We marched serenely over to the ticket office, where they said it was nothing to do with them, we should talk to the travel agent. A number of decreasingly serene phone calls to the travel agent in Bali simply told us that the tickets were definitely confirmed and that’s all there was to it. The ticket office told us that they definitely weren’t, and that’s all there was to it.
‘What about another flight?’ we asked. Maybe, they said. Maybe in a week or two.
‘A week or two?’ we exclaimed.
‘Moment,’ said one of the men, took our tickets and went away with them. About ten minutes later he returned and gave them to a second man who said, ‘Moment,’ and went away with them in turn. He returned fifteen minutes later, looked at us and said, ‘Yes? What do you want to know?’ We explained the situation all over again, whereupon he nodded, said, ‘Moment,’ and disappeared again. When, after a longish while had passed, we asked where he was we were told that he had gone to visit his mother in Jakarta because he hadn’t seen her in three years.
Had he taken our tickets with him, we enquired.
No, they were here somewhere, we were told Did we want them?
Yes, we did, we explained We were trying to get to Labuan Bajo.
This news seemed to cause considerable consternation, and within minutes everyone in the office had gone to lunch.
It became clear that the plane was going to leave without us. We had the option of doing the first part of the flight, as far as Bima, and then being stranded there, but decided instead to stay in Bali and go and deal with the travel agent. No more Mr Serene Guys.
A minibus took us back to the travel agency where we stormed slowly up the stairs with all our baggage and angrily refused to sit and have coffee and listen to a machine which played ‘Greensleeves’ whenever the phone rang. There was a sense of muted horror in the air as if one of us had died, but no one actually paid any attention to us for nearly an hour, so in the end we started to get angry again and were immediately shown into the office of the director of the agency who sat us down and told us that the Indonesians were a proud race and that furthermore it was all the fault of the airline.
He then soothed at us a great deal, told us that he was a very powerful man in Bali, and explained that it did not help the situation that we got angry about it.
This was a point of view with which I had some natural sympathy, being something of a smiler and nodder myself, who generally registers anger and frustration by frowning a lot and going to sleep.
On the other hand I couldn’t help noticing that all the time we had merely smiled and nodded and laughed pleasantly when we had been laughed pleasantly at, nothing had happened and people had merely said ‘moment, moment’ a lot and gone to Jakarta or peered at us impassively through narrow wreaths of smoke. As soon as we had geared ourselves up to get angry and stamp our feet a bit we had been instantly whisked to the office of the director of the travel agency who was busy telling us that there was no point in us getting angry, and that he would arrange an extra flight specially for us to Labuan Bajo.
He tried to demonstrate the uselessness of stamping our feet to us with maps. ‘In these areas,’ he said, pointing to a large wall map of half of Asia, ‘it works. East of this line here it doesn’t work.’
He explained that if you are travelling in Indonesia you should allow four or five days for anything urgent to happen. As far as our missing plane seats were concerned, he said that this sort of thing happened all the time. Often some government official or other important person would decide that he needed a seat, and, of course, someone else would then lose theirs. We asked if this was what had happened to us. He said, no, it wasn’t the reason, but it was the sort of reason we should bear in mind when thinking about these problems.
At this point we agreed to have the coffee.
He organised hotel rooms for us for the night, and a minibus tour of the island for the afternoon.
There is a good living to be made in Bali, we discovered, from pointing ,at animals. First find your animal, and then point at it.
If you set yourself up properly you can even make a living from pointing at the person who is pointing at the animal. We found a very good example of this enterprise on the beach near the famous temple of Tanah Lot, and apparently it was a long established and thriving business. Up on the beach there was a very low, wide cave, inside which, in a small cranny in the wall, a couple of yellow snakes had made their home.
Outside on the beach was a man who sat on a box and collected the money, and pointed at the man in the cave. Once you had paid your money you crept into the cave, and the man in the cave pointed at the snakes.
Apart from this highlight the guided tour was profoundly depressing. When we told our guide that we didn’t want to go to all the tourist places he took us instead to the places where they take tourists who say that they don’t want to go to tourist places. These places are, of course, full of tourists. Which is not to say that we weren’t tourists every bit as much as the others, but it does highlight the irony that everything you go to see is changed by the very action of going to see it, which is the sort of problem which physicists have been wrestling with for most of this century. I’m not going to bang on about Bali being turned into a Bali Theme Park, in which Bali itself is gradually destroyed to make way for a tatty artificial version of what used to be there, because it is too familiar a process to come as news to anybody. I just want to let out a squeak of frustrated rage. I’m afraid I couldn’t wait to leave the most beautiful place on earth.
The following day we finally succeeded in leaving Denpasar airport for Bima. Everyone knew us from the ructions of the day before and this time the narrow man who had peered at us through wreaths of smoke was wreathed in smiles and terribly helpful.
This, though, was only softening us up.
At Bima we were told that there was no flight at all to Labuan Bajo till the following morning. Perhaps we would like to come back then? At that point we started to get into a bit of a frenzy, and then suddenly we were unexpectedly seized and pushed through the crowds and shoved on to a dilapidated little plane that was sitting fully loaded on the Tarmac, waiting to take off for Labuan Bajo.
On the way to the plane we couldn’t help noticing that we passed our pile of intrepid baggage sitting on a small unregarded baggage cart out in the middle of the Tarmac. Once we were on the plane we sat and debated nervously with each other about whether we thought they might be thinking of loading it.
Eventually my nerve broke and I got off the plane and started running back across the Tarmac. I was quickly intercepted by airline staff who demanded to know what I thought I was doing. I said `baggage’ a lot and pointed. They insisted that everything was OK, there was no problem and everything was under control. I persuaded them at last to come with me to the baggage cart standing in the middle of the Tarmac. With hardly a change of beat they moved smoothly from assuring me that all our luggage was on board the plane to helping me actually get it on board.
That done we could finally relax about the baggage and start seriously to worry about the state of the plane, which was terrifying.
The door to the pilot’s cockpit remained open for the duration of the flight and might actually have been missing entirely. Mark told me that Air Merpati bought their planes second-hand from Air Uganda, but I think he was joking.
I have a cheerfully reckless view of this kind of air travel. It rarely bothers me at all. I don’t think this is bravery, because I am frequently scared stiff in cars, particularly if I’m driving. But once you’re in an aeroplane everything is completely out of your hands, so you may as well just sit back and grin manically about the grinding and rattling noises the old wreck of a plane makes as the turbulence throws it round the sky. There’s nothing you can do.
Mark was watching the instruments in the cockpit with curious intensity, and after a while said that half of them simply weren’t working. I laughed, a little hectically, I admit, and said that it was probably just as well. If the instruments were working they would probably distract and worry the pilots and I’d rather they just got on with what they were doing. Mark thought that this was not at all an amusing observation, and he was clearly right, but nevertheless I laughed again, really rather a lot, and carried on laughing wildly for most of the rest of the flight. Mark turned and asked a passenger behind us if these planes ever crashed. Oh yes, he was told, but not to worry – there hadn’t been a serious crash now in months.
Landing at Labuan Bajo was interesting, because the pilots couldn’t get the flaps down. We were quite interested to know, for instance, as the trees at the end of the runway loomed closer and closer, and the two pilots were tugging with all their combined weight on the ceiling-mounted lever, whether we were all going to live or not. At the last moment the lever suddenly gave way and we banged down on to the runway in a subdued and reflective frame of mind.
We climbed off the plane and after lengthy negotiations persuaded the airline staff to take our baggage off as well, since we thought we’d probably like to have it with us.
Two people met us at the airport `terminal’, or hut. Their names were Kiri, and Moose, and, like most Indonesians we met, they were small, willowy, slim and healthy-looking, and we had no idea who they were.
Kiri was a charming man with a squarish face, a shock of wavy black hair and a thick black moustache that sat on his lip like a bar of chocolate. He had a voice that was very deep, but also very thin, with no substance behind it at all so that he spoke in a sort of supercool croak. Most of the remarks he made consisted of a slow, lazy, streetwise smile and a couple of strangled rattles from the back of his throat. He always seemed to have something other on his mind. If he smiled at you, the smile never finished at you but somewhere in the middle distance or just to himself. Moose was much more straightforward, though it quickly turned out that Moose was not `Moose’ but `Mus’ and was short for Hieronymus. I felt a little stupid for having heard it as ‘Moose’. It was unlikely that an Indonesian islander would be named after a large Canadian deer. Almost as unlikely, I suppose, as him being called Hieronymus with a silent ‘Hierony’.
The person we had been expecting was a Mr Condo (pronounced Chondo), who was to be our guide. I was puzzled as to why he alone among all the Indonesians we had met so far was called ‘Mr’. It lent him an air of mystery and glamour which he wasn’t there to dispel because he had, apparently, gone diving. He would, Kiri and Moose explained to us, be along shortly, and they had come to tell us that.
We thanked them, loaded all of our baggage into the back of the pick-up truck and sat on top of it as we bumped away from the arrivals but towards the town of Labuan Bajo. We had been told by someone on the plane that there were only three trucks on the whole of the island of Flores, and we passed six of them on the way in. Virtually everything .we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true, sometimes almost immediately. The only exception to this was when we were told that something would happen immediately, in which case it turned out not to be true over an extended period of time.
Because of our experiences of the day before we made a point of stopping at the Merpati Airlines but on the way and reconfirming our seats on the return flight. The office was manned by a man with flip-flops and a field radio, with which he made all the flight arrangements. He didn’t have a pen so he simply had to remember them as best he could. He said he wished we had bought single tickets rather than returns, so that we could have bought our return tickets from them. No one, he said, ever bought tickets from them and they could do with the money.y.
We asked him how many people were on the flight back. He looked at a list and said eight. I noticed, looking over his shoulder, that there was only one person on the list other than the three of us, and I asked him how he had arrived at the figure of eight. That was simple, he explained. There were always eight people on the flight.
As it turned out, a few days later, he was exactly right. There may be some elusive principle lying hidden in this fact which British Airways and TWA and Lufthansa, etc. could profit from enormously, if only they could work out what it was.
The road into town was dusty. The air was far hotter and more humid than in Bali, and thick with heady smells from the trees and shrubs. I asked Mark if he recognised the smells of any of the trees, and he said that he didn’t, he was a zoologist. He thought he could detect the smell of sulphur crested cockatoos in amongst it all, but that was all he would commit himself to.
Soon these minor, evanescent odours were replaced by the magisterial pong of Labuan Bajo’s drains. The truck, as we clattered into town, was surrounded by scampering, smiling children, who were delighted to see us, and keen to show off anew thing they had found to play with, which was a chicken with only one leg. The long main street was lined with several more of Flores’s three trucks, noisy with the sounds of the children, and the scratchy gargling of the tape recorded muezzin blaring from the minaret which was perched precariously on top of the corrugated iron mosque. The gutters seemed inexplicably to be full of cheerfully bright green slime.
A guest house or small hotel in Indonesia is called a losmen, and we went to wait in the main one in the town for Mr Condo to turn up. We didn’t check in because we were meant to be setting off for Komodo directly that afternoon, and anyway the losmen was practically empty so there didn’t seem to be any urgency. We whiled away the time in the covered courtyard which served as a dining room drinking a few beers and chatting to the odd extra guests who arrived from time to time. By the time we finally twigged, as the afternoon wore on with no Mr Condo, that we were not going to be getting to Komodo that day after all, the losmen had filled up nicely and there was a sudden panic about getting ourselves somewhere to sleep.
A small boy came out and said they still had a bedroom if we would like it, and took us up some rickety steps. The corridor we walked along to get to the bedroom turned out itself to be the bedroom. We were misled by the fact that it didn’t have any beds in it, but we agreed that it would be fine and returned to the courtyard, to be greeted at last by Mr Condo, a small charismatic man, who said that everything was organised and we would be leaving in a boat at seven in the morning.
What about the goat? we asked anxiously.
He shrugged. What goat? he asked.
Won’t we need a goat?
There were plenty of goats on Komodo, he assured us. Unless we wanted one for the voyage?
We said that we didn’t feel that we particularly did, and he said that he only mentioned it as it seemed to be the only thing we weren’t intending to take with us. We took this to be a satirical reference to the pile of intrepid baggage with which we were surrounded and laughed politely, so he wished us good night and told us to get some good sleep.
Sleeping in Labuan Bajo, however, is something of an endurance test.
Being woken at dawn by the cockerels is not in itself a problem. The problem arises when the cockerels get confused as to when dawn actually is. They suddenly explode into life squawking and screaming at about one o’clock in the morning. At about one-thirty they eventually realise their mistake and shut up, just as the major dog-fights of the evening are getting under way. These usually start with a few minor bouts between the more enthusiastic youngsters, and then the full chorus of heavyweights weighs in with a fine impression of what it might be like to fall into the pit of hell with the London Symphony Orchestra.
It is then quite an education to learn that two cats fighting can make easily as much noise as forty dogs. It is a pity to have to learn this at two-fifteen in the morning, but then the cats have a lot to complain about in Labuan Bajo. They all have their tails docked at birth, which is supposed to bring good luck, though presumably not to the cats.
Once the cats have concluded their reflections on this, the cockerels suddenly get the idea that it’s dawn again and let rip. It isn’t, of course. Dawn is still two hours away, and you still have the delivery van horn-blowing competition to get through to the accompaniment of the major divorce proceedings that have suddenly erupted in the room next door.
At last things calm down and your eyelids begin to slide thankfully together in the blessed predawn hush, and then, about five minutes later, the cockerels finally get it right.
An hour or two later, bleary and rattled, we stood on the waterfront surrounded by our piles of expeditionary baggage and gazed as intrepidly as we could across twenty miles of the roughest, most turbulent seas in the East – the wild and dangerous meeting point of two immense opposing bodies of water, a roiling turmoil of vortices and riptides.
It was like a millpond.
Ripples from distant fishing boats spread out across the wide sea towards the shore. The early sun shone across it like a sheet.
Lesser frigatebirds and white-bellied sea eagles wheeled serenely above us, according to Mark. They looked like black specks to me.
We were there but Mr Condo was not. After about an hour, however, Kiri turned up to fulfil his regular role of explaining that Mr Condo was not coming, but that he, Kiri, was coming instead, and so was his guitar. And the captain wasn’t the actual captain, but was the captain’s father. And we were going in a different boat. The good news was that it was definitely Komodo we would be going to and the trip should only take about four hours.
The boat was quite a smart twenty-three-foot fishing vessel called the Raodah, and the entire complement, once we were all loaded and under way, consisted of the three of us, Kiri, the captain’s father, two small boys aged about twelve who ran the boat, and four chickens.
The day was calm and delightful. The two boys scampered about the boat like cats, rapidly unfurling and raising the sails whenever there was a whisper of wind, then lowering them again, starting the engine and falling asleep whenever the wind died. For once there was nothing we had to do and nothing we could do, so we lounged around on the deck watching the sea go by, watching the crested terns and sea eagles that flew over us, and watching the flying fish that swarmed occasionally round the boat.
The four chickens sat in the prow of the boat and watched us.
One of the more disturbing aspects of travel in remote areas is the necessity of taking your food with you in non-perishable form. For Westerners who are used to getting their chickens wrapped in polythene from the supermarket it is an uncomfortable experience to share a long ride on a small boat with four live chickens who are eyeing you with a deep and dreadful suspicion which you are in no position to allay.
Despite the fact that an Indonesian island chicken has probably had a much more natural and pleasant life than one raised on a. battery farm in England, people who wouldn’t think twice about buying something oven-ready become much more upset about a chicken that they’ve been on a boat with, so there is probably buried in the Western psyche a deep taboo about eating anything you’ve been introduced to socially.
As it happened we would not be eating all four of them ourselves. Whichever god it is in the complicated Hindu pantheon who has the lowly task of determining the fate of chickens was obviously in a rumbustious mood that day and was planning a little havoc of his own.
And then at last the island of Komodo was ahead of us, creeping slowly towards us from the horizon. The colour of the sea around the boat was changing from the heavy, inky black it had been for the last few hours to a much lighter, translucent blue, but the island itself seemed, perhaps to our impressionable senses, to be a dark and sombre mass looming over the water.
As it approached, its gloomy form gradually resolved into great serrated heaps of rocks and, behind them, heavy undulating hills. Closer still we could begin to make out the details of the vegetation. There were palm trees, but in meagre numbers. They were stuck sporadically across the brows of the hills, as if the island had spines, or as if someone had chucked little darts into the hills. It reminded me of the illustration from Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver has been tethered to the ground by the Lilliputians, and has dozens of tiny Lilliputian spears sticking into him.
The images that the island presented to the imagination were very hard to avoid. The rocky outcrops took on the shape of massive triangular teeth, and the dark and moody grey brown hills undulated like the heavy folds of a lizard’s skin. I knew that if I were a mariner in unknown waters, the first thing I would write on my charts at this moment would be `Here be dragons’.
But the harder I looked at the island as it crept past our starboard bow, and the harder I tried to filter out the promptings of a suggestible imagination, the more the images nevertheless insisted themselves upon me. The ridge of a hill that stretched in a thick folding shape down into the water, heavily wrinkled round its folds, had the contours of a lizard’s leg – not in the actual shape, of course, but in the natural interplay of its contours, and in the heavy thickness of its textures.
This was the first time that I had such an impression, but several times during the subsequent trips that we made during this year the same feeling crept up on me: each new type of terrain we encountered in different parts of the world would seem to have a particular palette of colours, textures, shapes and contours which made it characteristically itself; and the forms of life that you would find in that terrain would often seem to be drawn from that same distinctive palette. There are obvious mechanisms we know about to account for .some of this, of course: for many creatures camouflage is a survival mechanism, and evolution will select in its favour. But the scale on which these intuited, perhaps half-imagined, correspondences seem to occur is much larger and more general than that.
We are currently beginning to arrive at a lot of new ideas about the way that shapes emerge in nature, and it is not impossible to imagine that as we discover more about fractal geometry, the `strange attractors’ which lie at the heart of newly emerging theories of chaos, and the way in which the mathematics of growth and erosion interact, we may discover that these apparent echoes of shape and texture are not entirely fanciful or coincidental. Maybe.
I suggested something along these lines to Mark and he said I was being absurd. Since he was looking at exactly the same landscape as I was, I have to allow that it might all simply have been my imagination, half-baked as it was in the Indonesian sun.
We moored at a long, rickety, wooden jetty that stuck out from the middle of a wide pale beach. At the landward end the jetty was surmounted by an archway, nailed to the top of which was a wooden board which welcomed us to Komodo, and therefore served slightly to diminish our sense of intrepidness.
The moment we passed under the archway there was suddenly a strong smell. You had to go through it to get the smell. Until you’d been through the archway you hadn’t arrived and you didn’t get the strong, thick, musty, smell of Komodo.
The next blow to our sense of intrepidness was the rather neatly laid out path. This led from the end of the jetty parallel to the shore towards the next and major blow to our sense of intrepidness, which was a visitors’ village.
This was a group of fairly ramshackle wooden buildings: an administration centre from which the island (which is a wildlife reserve) is run, a cafeteria terrace, and a small museum. Behind these, ranged around the inside of a steep semi-circular slope were about half a dozen visitors’ huts – on stilts.
It was about lunchtime, and there were nearly a dozen people sitting in the cafeteria eating noodles and drinking 7-Up; Americans, Dutch, you name it. Where had they come from? How had they got here? What was going on?
Outside the administration but was a wooden sign with regulations all over it, such as `Report to National Park office’, ‘Travel outside visitors’ centre only with guards’, ‘Wear pants and shoes’, and `Watch for snakes’.
Lying on the ground underneath this was a small stuffed dragon. I say small, because it was only about four feet long. It had been modelled in completely spreadeagled posture, lying flat on the ground with its forelimbs stretched out in front and its back limbs lying alongside its long tapering tail. I was a little startled to see it for a moment, but then went up to have a look at it.
It opened its eyes and had a look at me.
I rocketed backwards with a yell of astonishment, which provoked barks of derisive laughter from the terrace.
‘It’s just a dragon,’ called out an American girl.
I went over.
`Have you all been here long? I asked.
`Oh, hours,’ she said. `We came over on the ferry from Labuan Bajo. Done the dragons. Bored with them. The food’s terrible.”
‘What ferry? I asked.
‘Comes over most days.’
`Oh. Oh, I see. From Labuan Bajo?
‘You have to go and sign the visitors’ book in the office,’ she said, pointing at it.
Rather ruffled, I went and joined Mark and Gaynor.
`This isn’t at all what I expected,’ said Mark, standing there in the middle of our pile of intrepid baggage, holding the four chickens. `Did we need to bring these? he asked Kiri.
Kid said that it was always a good idea to bring chickens for the kitchen. Otherwise we’d just have to eat fish and noodles.
`I think I prefer fish,’ said Gaynor,
Kid explained that she was wrong and that she preferred chicken to fish. Westerners, he explained, preferred chicken. It was well known. Fish was only cheap food for peasants. We would be eating chicken which was sexy and which we preferred.
He took the chickens, which were tethered together with a long piece of string, put them down by our baggage and ushered us up the steps to the park office, where one of the park guards gave us forms and a pencil. just as we were starting to fill them in, giving details of our passport numbers, date, country and town of birth and so on, there was a sudden commotion outside.
At first we paid it no mind, wrestling as we were to remember our mothers’ maiden names, and trying to work out who to elect as next of kin, but the racket outside increased, and we suddenly realised that it was the sound of distressed chickens. Our chickens.
We rushed outside. The stuffed dragon was attacking our chickens. It had one of them in its mouth and was shaking it, but as soon as it saw us and others closing in, it scurried rapidly round the corner of the building and off across the clearing behind in a cloud of dust, dragging the other distraught chickens tumbling along in the dust behind it, still tethered together with the string and screeching.
After the dragon had put about thirty yards between it and us it paused, and with a vicious jerk of its head bit through the string, releasing the other three chickens which scrambled off towards the trees, shrieking and screaming and running in ever decreasing circles as park guards careered after them trying to round them up. The dragon, relieved of its excess chickens, galloped off into thick undergrowth.
With a lot of `after you’, `no, after you’, we ran carefully towards where it had disappeared and arrived breathless and a little nervous. We peered in.
The undergrowth covered a large bank, and the dragon had crawled up the bank and stopped. The thick vegetation prevented us getting closer than a yard from the thing, but we weren’t trying terribly hard
It lay there quite still. Protruding from between its jaws was the back end of the chicken, its scrawny legs quietly working the air. The dragon lizard watched us unconcernedly with the one eye that was turned towards us, a round, dark brown eye.
There is something profoundly disturbing about watching an eye that is watching you, particularly when the eye that is watching you is almost the same size as your eye, and the thing it is watching you out of is a lizard. The lizard’s blink was also disturbing. It wasn’t the normal rapid reflex movement that you expect from a lizard, but a slow considered blink which made you feel that it was thinking about what it was doing.
The back end of the chicken struggled feebly for a moment, and the dragon chomped its jaw a little to let the chicken’s struggles push it further down its throat. This happened a couple more times, until there was only one scrawny chicken foot still sticking ridiculously out of the creature’s mouth. Otherwise it did not move. It simply watched us. In the end it was us that slunk away, trembling with an inexplicable cold horror.
Why? we wondered as we sat in the terrace cafeteria and tried to calm ourselves with 7-Up. The three of us were sitting ashen faced as if we had just witnessed a foul and malignant murder.
At least if we had been watching a murder the murderer wouldn’t have been looking us impassively in the eye as he did it. Maybe it was the feeling of cold unflinching arrogance that so disturbed us. But whatever malign emotions we tried to pin on to the lizard, we knew that they weren’t the lizard’s emotions at all, only ours. The lizard was simply going about its lizardly business in a simple, straightforward lizardly way. It didn’t know anything about the horror, the guilt, the shame, the ugliness that we, uniquely guilty and ashamed animals, were trying to foist on it. So we got it all straight back at us, as if reflected in the mirror of its single unwavering and disinterested eye.
Subdued with the thought that we had somehow been horrified by our own reflection, we sat quietly and waited for lunch.
In view of all the events of the day so far, lunch suddenly seemed to be a very complicated thing to contemplate.
Lunch, as it turned out, was not a chicken. It wasn’t a chicken because the dragon had eaten it. How the kitchen was able to determine that the chicken the dragon had eaten was the precise one that they were otherwise going to do for lunch was not clear to us, but apparently that was the reason we were having plain noodles, and we were grateful for it.
We talked about how easy it was to make the mistake of anthropomorphising animals, and projecting our own feelings and perceptions on to them, where they were inappropriate and didn’t fit. We simply had no idea what it was like being an extremely large lizard, and neither for that matter did the lizard, because it was not self-conscious about being an extremely large lizard, it just got on with the business of being one. To react with revulsion to its behaviour was to make the mistake of applying criteria that are only appropriate to the business of being human. We each make our own accommodation with the world and learn to survive in it in different ways. What works as successful behaviour for us does not work for lizards, and vice versa.
`For instance,’ said Mark, `we don’t eat our own babies if they happen to be within reach when we’re feeling a little peckish.’
‘What?’ said Gaynor, putting down her knife and fork.
‘A baby dragon is just food as far as an adult is concerned,’ Mark continued. ‘It moves about and has a bit of meat on it. It’s food. If they ate them all, of course, the species would die out, so that wouldn’t work very well. Most animals survive because the adults have acquired an instinct not to eat their babies. The dragons survive because the baby dragons have acquired an instinct to climb trees. The adults are too big to do it, so the babies just sit up in trees till they’re big enough to look after themselves. Some babies get caught, though, which works fine. It sees them through times when food is scarce and helps to keep the population within sustainable levels. Sometimes they just eat them anyway.’
‘How many of these things are there left? I asked, quietly.
`About five thousand.’
`And how many did there used to be?
‘About five thousand. As far as anyone can tell that’s roughly how many there have always been.’.’
‘So they’re not particularly endangered?
`Well, they are, because only three hundred and fifty of them are breeding females. We don’t know if that’s a typical number or not, but it seems pretty low. Furthermore, if an animal has a low population and lives in a very restricted area, like just a few small islands in the case of the dragons, it’s particularly vulnerable to changes in its habitat, and wherever human beings arrive, habitats start changing pretty quickly.’
‘So we shouldn’t be here.’
‘It’s arguable,’ said Mark. ‘If no one was here taking an interest the chances are very strong that something could go wrong. just one forest fire, or a disease in the deer population could wipe out the dragons. And there’s also the worry that the growing human population on the islands would start to feel that they could very well live without them. They are very dangerous animals. There’s not merely the danger of being eaten by one. If you just get bitten you are in very serious trouble. You see, when a dragon attacks a horse or a buffalo, it doesn’t necessarily expect to kill it there and then. If it gets involved in a fight it might get injured, and there’s no benefit in that, so sometimes the dragon will just bite it and walk away. But the bacteria that live in a dragon’s saliva are so virulent that the wounds will not heal and the animal will usually die in a few days of septicaemia, whereupon the dragon can eat it at leisure. Or another dragon can eat it if it happens to find it first – they’re not really fussed. It’s good for the species that there is a regular supply of badly injured and dying animals about the place.
There was a well-known case of a Frenchman who was bitten by a dragon and eventually died in Paris two years later. The wound festered and would just never heal. Unfortunately there were no dragons in Paris to take advantage of it so the strategy broke down on that occasion, but generally it works well. The point is that these things are buggers to have living on your doorstep, and though the villagers on Komodo and Rinca have been pretty tolerant, there has been a history of attacks and deaths and it’s possible that as the human population grows there will be a greater conflict of interest and rather less patience with the idea of not being able to go off for a wander without running the risk of having your leg bitten off and your entrails ripped out by a passing dragon.
‘So, as we’ve discovered, Komodo is now a protected national park. We’ve got to the point where it takes active and deliberate intervention to save rare species, and that’s usually sustained by public interest. And public interest is sustained by public access. If it’s carefully controlled and disruption is kept to a minimum then it works well and is fine. I think. I won’t pretend that I don’t feel uneasy about it.’
‘I feel very uneasy about the whole place,’ said Gaynor with a shudder. `There’s a kind of creeping malignancy about it.’
Just your imagination,’ said Mark ‘For a naturalist it’s paradise.’
There was suddenly a slithering noise on the roof of the terrace, and a large snake fell past us to the ground. Instantly a couple of park guards rushed out and chased the thing off into the bush.
‘That wasn’t my imagination,’ said Gaynor.
‘I know,’ said Mark, enthusiastically. ‘This is wonderful.’
In the afternoon, accompanied by Kiri and a guard, we went off to explore. We found no dragons, but as we thrashed recklessly through the undergrowth, we encountered instead a bird, and it was one that I felt very much at home with.
I have a well-deserved reputation for being something of a gadget freak, and am rarely happier than when spending an entire day programming my computer to perform automatically a task that it would otherwise take me a good ten seconds to do by hand. Ten seconds, I tell myself, is ten seconds. Time is valuable and ten seconds’ worth of it is well worth the investment of a day’s happy activity working out a way of saving it.
The bird we came across was called a megapode, and it has a very similar outlook on life.
It looks a little like a lean, sprightly chicken, though it has the advantage over chickens that it can fly, if a little heavily, and is therefore better able to escape from dragons, which can only fly in fairy stories, and in some of the nightmares with which I was plagued while trying to sleep on Komodo.
The important thing is that the megapode has worked out a wonderful labour-saving device for itself. The labour it wishes to save is the time-consuming activity of sitting on its nest all day incubating its eggs, when it could be out and about doing things.
I have to say at this point that we didn’t actually come across the bird itself, though we thought we glimpsed one scuttling through the undergrowth. We did, however, come across its labour-saving device, which is something that it’s hard to miss. It was a conical mound of thickly packed earth and rotting vegetation, about six feet high and six feet wide at its base. In fact it was considerably higher than it appeared because the mound would have been built on a hollow in the ground which would itself have been about three feet deep.
I’ve just spent a cheerful hour of my time writing a program on my computer that will tell me instantly what the volume of the mound was. It’s a very neat and sexy program with all sorts of pop-up menus and things, and the advantage of doing it the way I have is that on any future occasion on which I need to know the volume of a megapode nest, given its basic dimensions, my computer will give me the answer in less than a second, which is a wonderful saving of time. The downside, I suppose, is that I cannot conceive of any future occasion that I am likely to need to know the volume of a megapode nest, but no matter: the volume of this mound is a little over nine cubic yards.
What the mound is is an automatic incubator. The heat generated by the chemical reactions of the rotting vegetation keeps the eggs that are buried deep inside it warm – and not merely warm. By judicious additions or subtractions of material from the mound the megapode is able to keep it at the precise temperature which the eggs require in order to incubate properly.
So all the megapode has to do to incubate its eggs is to dig three cubic yards of earth out of the ground, fill it with three cubic yards of rotting vegetation, collect a further six cubic yards of vegetation, build it into a mound, and then continually monitor the heat it is producing and run about adding bits or taking bits away.
And thus it saves itself all the bother of sitting on its eggs from time to time.
This cheered me up immensely, and the good mood it put me into lasted all the way back to the visitors’ village and up to the precise point when we walked in through the door of the but which we had been assigned as sleeping quarters.
It was quite large and constructed, as I have said, on stilts -for obvious reasons. However, the wood of which it was built was half rotten, there were damp and stinking mattresses in the small bedrooms, ominously large spiders’ webs in all the corners, dead rats on the floor and the stench of an overflowing lavatory. We tried gamely to sleep there that night, but in the end were driven out by the sheer noise of the rats fighting the snakes in the roof cavity, and eventually took our sleeping bags down to the boat and slept on its deck.
We awoke early, cold and damp with the dew, but feeling safe. We rolled up our bags and made our way back along the rickety jetty and under the arch. Once again, as soon as we had passed through the arch the smell of the place assailed us and we were in that malign other world, Komodo.
This morning, we had been told, we would definitely see dragons: Big dragons. We didn’t know precisely what it was we were in for, but clearly it was not what we had originally expected. It didn’t look as if we would be pegging a dead goat out on the ground and then hiding up a tree all day.
The day was to consist almost entirely of things we had not been expecting, starting with the arrival of a group of about two dozen American tourists on a specially chartered boat. They were mostly of early retirement age, festooned with cameras, polyester leisure suits, gold-rimmed glasses and Mid-Western accents, and I didn’t think that they would be sitting up a tree all day either.
We were severely put out by their arrival and felt that the last vestige of any sense of intrepidness we were still trying to hold on to was finally slipping away.
We found a guard and asked what was going on. He said we could go on ahead now if we wanted to avoid the large party, so we set off with him immediately. We had a walk of about three or four miles through the forest along a path that was obviously well prepared and well trodden. The air was hot and dusty, and we walked with a sense of queasy uncertainty about how the day was going to go. After a while we became aware of the faint sound of a bell moving along ahead of us, and quickened our footsteps to find out what it was. We rounded a corner, and were confronted with some stomach-turning reality.
Up till now there had been something dreamlike about the whole experience. It was as if the action of walking through the archway and ingesting the musty odour of the island spirited you into an illusory world, in which words like ‘dragon’ and `snake’ and `goat’ acquired fantastical meanings that had no analogue in the real one, and no consequence in it either. Now I had the feeling that the dream was slithering down the slope into nightmare, and that it was the sort of nightmare from which you would wake to discover that you had indeed wet the bed, that someone was indeed shaking you and shouting, and that the acrid smell of smoke was indeed your house incinerating itself.
Ahead of us on the path was a young goat. It had a bell and a rope around its neck and was being led unwillingly along the pathway by another guard. We followed it numbly. Occasionally it would trot along hesitantly for a few paces, and then an appalling dread would seem suddenly to seize it and it would push its forelegs into the ground, put its head down and struggle desperately against the tugging of the rope, bleating and crying. The guard would pull roughly on the rope, and swipe at the goat’s hindquarters with a bunch of leafy twigs he was carrying in his other hand, and the goat would at last tumble forward and trot along a few more paces, light-headed with fear. There was nothing for the goat to see to make it so afraid, and nothing, so far as we could tell, to hear; but who knows what the goat could smell in that place towards which we all were moving.
Our deeply sinking spirits were next clouted sideways from a totally unexpected direction. We came across a circle of concrete set in the middle of a clearing. The circle was about twenty feet across, and had two parallel black stripes painted on it, with another black stripe at right angles to them, connecting their centres. It took us a few moments to work out what the symbol was and what it meant. Then we got it. It was just an `H’. The circle was a helicopter pad. Whatever it was that was going to happen to this goat was something that people came by helicopter to see. We trotted on, numb and light-headed, suddenly finding meaningless things to laugh wildly and hysterically at, as if we were walking wilfully towards something that would destroy us as well.
Leading from the helipad was a yet more formal pathway. It was a couple of yards wide with a stout wooden fence along either side about two feet high. We followed this along for a couple of hundred yards until we came at last to a wide gully, about ten feet deep, and here there were a number of things to see.
To our left was a kind of bandstand.
Several rows of bench seats were banked up behind each other, with a sloping wooden roof to protect them from the sun and other inclemencies in the weather. Tied to the front rail of the bandstand were both ends of a long piece of blue nylon rope which ran out and down into the gully, where it was slung over a pulley wheel which hung from the branches of a small bent tree. A small iron hook hung from the rope.
Stationed around the tree, basking in the dull light of a hot but overcast day, and in the stench of rotten death, were six large, muddy grey dragon lizards.
The largest of them was probably about ten feet long.
It was at first quite difficult to gauge their size. We were not that close as yet, the light was too blear and grey to model them clearly to the eye, and the eye was simply not accustomed to equating something with the shape of a lizard with something of that size.
I stared at them awhile, aghast, until I realised that Mark was tapping me on the arm. I turned to look. On the other side of the short fence, a large dragon was approaching us.
It had emerged from the undergrowth, attracted, no doubt by the knowledge that the arrival of human beings meant that it was feeding time. We learnt later that the group of dragons that hang out in the gully rarely go very far from it and now do very little at all other than lie and wait to be fed.
The dragon lizard padded towards us, slapping its feet down aggressively, first its front left and back right, then vice versa, carrying its great weight easily and springily, with the swinging, purposeful gait of a bully. Its long, narrow, pale, forked tongue flickered in and out, testing the air for the smell of dead things.
It reached the far side of the fence, and then began to range back and forth tetchily, waiting for action, swinging and scraping its heavy tail across the dusty earth. Its rough, scaly skin hung a little loosely over its body, like chain mail, gathering to a series of cowl-like folds just behind its long death’s head of a face. Its legs are thick and muscular, and end in claws such as you’d expect to find at the bottom of a brass table leg.
The thing is just a monitor lizard, and yet it is massive to a degree that is unreal. As it rears its head up over the fence and around as it turns, you wonder how it’s done, what trickery is involved.
At that moment the party of tourists began to straggle towards us along the path, cheery and unimpressed, wanting to know what was up, what was happening. Look, there’s one of those dragons. Ooh it’s a big one. Nasty looking feller!
And now the worst of it was about to happen.
At a discreet distance behind the bandstand the goat was being slaughtered. Two park guards held the struggling, bleating creature down on the ground with its neck across a log and hacked its head off with a machete, holding the bunch of leafy twigs against it to staunch the eruption of blood. The goat took several minutes to die.
Once it was dead, they cut off one of its back legs for the dragon behind the fence, then took the rest of the body, and fastened it on to the hook on the blue nylon rope. It rocked and swayed in the breeze as they winched it down to the dragons lying in the gully.
The dragons took only a lethargic interest in it for a while. They were very well fed and sleepy dragons. At last one reared itself up, approached the hanging carcass and ripped gently at its soft underbelly. A great muddle of intestines slipped out of the goat and flopped over the dragon’s head. They lay there for a while, steaming gently. The dragon seemed, for the moment, not to take any further interest.
Another dragon then heaved itself into motion and approached. It sniffed and licked at the air, and then started to eat the intestines of the goat from off the head of the first dragon, until the first dragon rounded on it, and started to claim part of its meal for itself. At first nip a thick green liquid flooded out of the glistening grey coils, and as the meal proceeded, the head of each dragon in turn became wet with the green liquid.
‘Boy, this makes it big, Pauline,’ said a man standing near me, watching through his binoculars. ‘It makes it bigger than it is. You know, with these it’s the size I really thought we’d be seeing.’ He handed the binoculars to his wife.
‘Oh, that really does magnify it!’ she said.
‘It really is a superb pair of binoculars, Pauline. And they’re not heavy either.’
Others of the group clustered round.
‘May I take a look? Whose are they?
‘My gosh, Howard would adore these!’
‘Al? Al, take a look at these binoculars – and see how heavy they are!’
Just as I was making the charitable assumption that the binoculars were just a diversion from having actually to watch the hellish floor show in the pit, the woman who now had possession of them suddenly exclaimed delightedly, ‘Gulp, gulp gulp! All gone! What a digestive system! Now he’s smelling us!’
‘He probably wants fresher meat,’ growled her husband. ‘Live, on the hoof?’
It was in fact at least an hour or so before all of the goat had gone, by which time the party had drifted, chatting, back to the village. As they did so a lone Englishwoman in the party confided to us that she didn’t actually care much about the dragons. ‘I like the landscape,’ she said, airily. ‘The dragons are just thrown in.
And of course, with all the strings and the goats and the tourists, well, it’s just comedy really. If you were walking by yourself and you came across one, that might be different, but it’s kind of like a puppet show.’
When the last of them had left, a park guard told us that if we wished to we could climb down into the gully and see the dragons close to, and with swimming heads we did so. Two guards came with us, armed with long sticks, which branched into a ‘Y’ at the end. They used these to push the dragons’ necks away if they came too close or began to look aggressive.
We clambered and slithered down the slope, almost too scared to know or care what we were doing, and within a few minutes I found myself standing just two feet from the largest of the dragons. It regarded me without much interest, having plenty already to feed on. A length of dripping intestine was hanging from its open jaws, and its face was glistening with blood and saliva. The inside of its mouth was a pale, hard pink, and its fetid breath, together with the hot foul air of the gully combined into a stench so overpowering that our eyes were stinging and streaming and we were half faint with nausea.
All that remained by now of the goat which we had followed as it struggled bleating down the pathway ahead of us was one bloody and dismembered leg hanging by its ankle from the hook on the blue nylon rope. One dragon alone was still interested in it, and was gnawing moodily at the thigh muscles. Then it got a proper grip on the whole leg, and tried with vicious twists of its head to pull it off the hook, but the leg was held fast at the ankle bone. Then, astoundingly, the dragon began instead very slowly to swallow the leg whole. It pulled and tugged, and manoeuvred itself, so that more and more of the leg was pushed down its throat, until all that protruded was the hoof and the hook. After a while the dragon gave up struggling with it and simply squatted there, frozen in this posture for at least ten minutes until at last a guard did it the favour of hacking the hook away with his machete. The very last piece of the goat slithered away into the lizard’s maw where, bones, hooves, horns and all would now slowly be dissolved by the corrosive power of the enzymes that live in a Komodo dragon’s digestive system.
We made our excuses and left.
The first of our three remaining chickens made its appearance at lunch, but our mood wasn’t right for it. We pushed the scrawny bits of it listlessly round our plates and could find little to say.
In the afternoon we took the boat to Komodo village where we met a woman who was the only known survivor of a dragon attack. A giant lizard had gone for her while she was out working in the fields, and by the time her screams had brought her neighbours and their dogs to rescue her and beat the creature away, her leg was in tatters. Intensive surgery in Bali saved her from having it amputated and, miraculously, she fought off the infection and lived, though her leg was still a mangled ruin. On the neighbouring island of Rinca, we were told, a four-year-old boy had been snatched by a dragon as he lay playing on the steps of his home. The living build their houses on stilts, but on these islands not even the dead are safe, and they are buried with sharp rocks piled high on their graves.
For all my rational Western intellect and education, I was for the moment overwhelmed by a primitive sense of living in a world ordered by a malign and perverted god, and it coloured my view of everything that afternoon – even the coconuts. The villagers sold us some and split them open for us. They are almost perfectly designed. You first make a hole and drink the milk, then you split open the nut with a machete and slice off a segment of the shell, which forms a perfect implement for scooping out the coconut flesh inside. What makes you wonder about the nature of this god character is that he creates something that is so perfectly designed to be of benefit to human beings and then hangs it twenty feet above their heads on a tree with no branches.
Here’s a good trick, let’s see how they cope with this. Oh, look! They’ve managed to find a way of climbing the tree. I didn’t think they’d be able to do that. All right, let’s see them get the thing open. Hmm, so they’ve found out how to temper steel now, have they? OK, no more Mr Nice Guy. Next time they go up that tree I’ll have a dragon waiting for them at the bottom.
I can only think that the business with the apple must have upset him more than I realised.
I went and sat on the beach by a mangrove tree and gazed out at the quiet ripples of the sea. Some fish were jumping up the beach and into the tree, which struck me as an odd thing for a fish to do, but I tried not to be judgmental about it. I was feeling pretty raw about my own species, and not much inclined to raise a quizzical eyebrow at others. The fish could play about in trees as much as they liked if it gave them pleasure, so long as they didn’t try and justify themselves or tell each other it was a malign god who made them want to play in trees.
I was feeling pretty raw about my own species because we presume to draw a distinction between what we call good and what we call evil. We find our images of what we call evil in things outside ourselves, in creatures that know nothing of such matters, so that we can feel revolted by them, and, by contrast, good about ourselves. And if they won’t be revolting enough of their own accord, we stoke them up with a goat. They don’t want the goat, they don’t need it. If they wanted one they’d find it themselves. The only truly revolting thing that happens to the goat is in fact done by us.
So why didn’t we say something? Like: `Don’t kill the goat’?
Well, there are a number of possible reasons:
– If the goat hadn’t been killed for us it would have been killed for someone else -for the party of American tourists, for instance.
– We didn’t really realise what was going to happen till it was too late to stop it.
-The goat didn’t lead a particularly nice life, anyway. Particularly not today.
-Another dragon would probably have got it later.
– If it hadn’t been the goat the dragons would have got something else, like a deer or something.
-We were reporting the incident for this book and for the BBC. It was important that we went through the whole experience so that people would know about it in detail. That’s well worth a goat.
– We felt too polite to say, `Please don’t kill the goat on our account.’
– We were a bunch of lily-livered rationalising turds.
The great thing about being the only species that makes a distinction between right and wrong is that we can make up the rules for ourselves as we go along.
The fish were still hopping harmlessly up and down the tree. They were about three inches long, brown and black, with little bobble eyes set very close together on the top of their heads. They hopped along using their fins as crutches.
‘Mudskippers,’ said Mark, who happened along at that moment. He squatted down to look at them.
`What are they doing in the tree? I asked.
`You could say they were experimenting,’ said Mark. ‘If they find they can make a better living on the land than in the water, then in the course of time and evolution they may come to stay on the land. They absorb a certain amount of oxygen through their skin at the moment, but they have to rush back to the sea from time to time for a mouthful of water which they process through their gills. But that can change. It’s happened before.’
‘What do you mean?
‘Well, it’s probable that life on this planet started in the oceans, and that marine creatures migrated on to the land in search of new habitats. There’s one fish that existed about 350 million years ago which was very like a mudskipper. It came up on to the land using its fins as crutches. It’s possible that it was the ancestor of all land-living vertebrates.’
`Really? What was it called?d?
‘I don’t think it had a name at the time.’
‘So this fish is what we were like 350 million years ago?’
‘So in 350 million years time one of its descendants could be sitting on the beach here with a camera round its neck watching other fish hopping out of the sea?’
‘No idea. That’s for science fiction novelists to think about. Zoologists can only say what we think has happened so far.’
I suddenly felt, well, terribly old as I watched a mudskipper hopping along with what now seemed to me like a wonderful sense of hopeless, boundless, naive optimism. It had such a terribly, terribly, terribly long way to go. I hoped that if its descendant was sitting here on this beach in 350 million years time with a camera round its neck, it would feel that the journey had been worth it. I hoped that it might have a clearer understanding of itself in relation to the world it lived in. I hoped that it wouldn’t be reduced to turning other creatures into horror circus shows in order to try and ensure them their survival. I hoped that if someone tried to feed the remote descendant of a goat to the remote descendant of a dragon for the sake of little more than a shudder of entertainment, that it would feel it was wrong.
I hoped it wouldn’t be too chicken to say so.