844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Kerinci Kitty Cat Hunt (Kerinci NP - Sumatra, Indonesia)

For a revised version of this post, go here.

I made the eight hour drive back to Kersik Tua, a village inside Kerinci National Park. As usual I missed a turn and drove a good forty-five minutes out of my way. I did get to see a rather stark example of the 'Oops!' and 'Oh shit!' principle (see below). That is what I call a bad day. To be honest I am surprised there is not a similar scene on every corner.

Along the way I stopped for a bite to eat at a small restaurant. They do not get a lot of my kind in the area. A female employee approached my table, sat down across from me, and began snapping photos on her camera phone while speaking to a friend standing nearby. When she finished she got up and walked away. She never spoke a word to me. Zoo animals of the world I emphasize.

I arrived at my previous lodging of two weeks ago and met with my jungle guide (the intrepid E.En) soon thereafter. It was then that I learned that he had planned a five day jaunt into the forest, not three. Five days in the jungle? Sure, why not?

There were two Hungarian birdwatchers staying at my guesthouse. Two Hungarian birders. Two birdmen from Hungary. No real relevance I just like the phrasing. I’ve noticed that for the most part birders are not the most exciting people on the planet. I’m all for birds. Protect them. Watch them. Hump them if you like but I guess I would have trouble spending five days in the bush waiting for a distant Tweety-tweeterson to start chirping in hopes of a fleeting glimpse. Eagles, owls, Birds of Paradise in New Guinea I can get excited about but I still don’t know if I have the patience to wait around hoping one will beguile me. I respect the patience and mental fortitude required for the enterprise but I'm just not there yet.

Oops/Oh Shit Principle incarnate
En enlisted reinforcements, a friend of his that has spent a solid twenty years hunting in the forest we were about to enter. Not only did my guide underscore the importance of having an expert on hand he also explained that he was attempting to give his friend an alternate source of income so he would stop killing shit in the national park. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to know that perhaps I would be helping to abate at least a few jungle massacres. Besides, the truth is we needed an extra man to help carry supplies. Although I can sense a genuine love of nature in my guide (En) I get the feeling that perhaps he has spent some time committing illicit acts in the forest as well. Just a sense. I could be wrong.

So the next morning we were off to see the wizard. Although I was excited about our foray into the jungle I was really hoping we could spot the elusive Sumatran Tiger. Chances are remote at best but a girl can hope. I have to admit that my expectations were a bit higher than normal as the guide and porter saw a tiger the previous week while surveying the route we were about to take. I was as giddy as a school boy. I was on a mission. It was kind of like being in the Army except with an actual purpose.

My guide delivered us to the home of our porter in the village that would serve as our starting point. The first hour and a half consisted of a walk through farmland, farmland that continues to encroach upon the jungle every year. It is beautiful in its own right but it is difficult not to see the destruction alongside the aesthetics. Slash and burn. It ain't a pretty sight.

Standing on the edge of this jungle expanse my mind could not ignore the similarity the verdant landscape has to many heads of broccoli all clumped together. It made me hunger for a salad.

As we crossed the barrier into the relative darkness the words ‘Here we go’ escaped my lips. Be careful what you wish for. The initial walk was none too onerous as it was fairly even and the trail was pretty well defined. After a couple of hours we came upon a now extinct sulfur vent (the smell was a dead give away). One advantage of such a natural feature is that it provides a bit of open area in an otherwise dense jungle. The volcanic activity prevents growth and causes small landslides.

It was clear that this area had hosted previous visitors, human and feline. Tiger tracks were everywhere, coming in and going out from every corner of the glen. And they were fresh. But that was not all. The predator had left evidence of a hapless victim, scattering a few bones from an unlucky deer. This was also an area for relaxation and play, made obvious by the strands of hair left on a log used for rubbing, by scratch marks on a branch, and by the scuffing of paws in the mud. Tony the Tiger had been there and all the evidence suggested his (or her) visit was recent. You could almost feel the lingering presence of the beast. It was palpable.

Although this was not our intended camp it was made so after a short discussion. En knew what I wanted and he was dead set on making my trip enjoyable so he thought it advisable to linger. As it turned out he had began creating a viewing point on a small hill overlooking the clearing on a previous trip so we had a place to maintain a vigil. I should also point out that it was not far from this point where my two cohorts spotted Stripey the week before. I was beginning to tingle.

It was still early in the afternoon so I let my already mud-soaked shoes and socks dry on a rock in the sun while I enjoyed the stillness of the jungle. It was a moment with nature and it was sublime. I stood there for long intervals and let myself become absorbed in the primordial energy that pervades the Sumatran wilderness.

It was not long before I started to fantasize about the perfect cinematic encounter: I stand there hoping against hope that the quasi-mythical true king of the jungle would deem me worthy of a visit. I am frozen, incapable of movement. There is a low drum beat in the background accompanied by an eerie hum. My heart rate quickens as I feel the presence of another. But where? I search but I cannot see. I listen but I cannot hear. And then I feel the hair on my neck stand on end and the magnetic compulsion that forces to me to do an about face with a fluency of motion I thought not possible only to discover the striped marauder glowering at me through a small patch of grass. Am I the predator or the prey? Then I snap out of it and realize I’m just some yahoo standing in the jungle watching my muddy socks dry. Get a grip.

So that was my afternoon. Perched within our makeshift hide I spent another two hours waiting for the stripped avenger to make his presence known, to no avail. After that it was dinner and bedtime. Tiger: 1, Richie: 0.

My guide En looks a bit demon-like cooking by the fire. But he's not. Actually, he is quite nice.

The next morning we moved on. Not far from the sulfur deposit we found more evidence of tiger activity along the trail. It had been on the hunt as there was the distinct evidence of a chase present in the grass along with impressions of the paw prints left by a fast moving feline. Tony had darted in and out of the bush in an attempt to capture whatever it had been stalking (a tapir from the looks of it). Although I was told the pursuit was very recent we found no evidence of a successful hunt. Tony: 0, Mr. Tapir: 1. In this area we found the tracks of three separate tigers, two of which appeared to belong to a mother and her cub. Heeeeere…kitty, kitty, kitty. Come here pretty kitty.

After an hour and a half walk we reached the campsite we were supposed to be at the night before. Another discussion ensued. I voiced my reservations about moving on in the presence of so much recent activity. The guides told me they’d seen little evidence of furballs farther along the route. Again, En suggested that although it would be a long hike on the following day it was possible to linger for another day in hopes of a sighting. We set up camp and the search continued.

Animals, like humans, would much prefer following a trail as opposed to crashing their way through the bush. So they often forge their own. Before lunch we followed the footprints of a rather large tapir for a good distance. It lead us to the edge of a vast expanse of swamp in the jungle. We tarried on the edge for a while and enjoyed the view. Why were we following a tapir and not a tiger? Well, you never know. It is all one big crap shoot anyhow. Besides, tapir are as elusive as tigers and I would not mind catching a glimpse of one of them either. Didn’t happen on that jaunt. Tapir: 1, Richie: 0.

After lunch we set out on our quest once again. Watch out Tony, here we come. We followed the trail back toward the sulfur deposit and discovered something we missed on the first pass, another tiger frolic/kill spot. This time the victim was a wild boar. We found bones and both halves of the skull.

Unfortunately, this murder was not recent and unlike the deer remains there was not any meat left on the bones. Fiddlesticks. The rest of the day was spent in the same area in hopes that we would be rewarded but it was not to be so. Tony and family: 2, Richie: 0.

It was on this day that the guide shared with me a rather simple but poetic thought about his jungle experience. As we walked along En pointed out small flower blossoms that were falling to the ground like snow. He said he had only seen it once before and on that previous occasion he had also come along a tiger victim. He suggested that perhaps the jungle was crying for the loss of life. Simple. Profound. I like it.

Not so poetic was the assault leeches had begun to perpetrate upon our ankles, an assault that was to continue for the remainder of the journey. Relentless anticoagulant secreting little bastards with an insatiable appetite for blood. I am not a fan. Even after you tear them off the area continues to bleed for quite some time, not unlike when you cut yourself shaving. En and I used bits of tissue paper to block the blood flow. Delicious.

In attempt to dry my sopping wet footwear I placed my shoes close to the fire and managed to melt a bit of the sole of each shoe. Stupid. Luckily, they were still functional. Disaster averted. Still stupid.

Day three was a bitch. No other way to put it. A long day along an arduous way. One of the most challenging aspects of trekking through the jungle is the mental constitution required to keep slogging along. It’s no picnic physically but you also have to maintain your concentration and focus on each step and each grasp. A third of everything you touch has thorns or needles. Another third is either slicker than a greased pig’s ass or deceptively unstable. Putting your faith in the wrong branch, root, rock, or other protrusion can send you for a nice ride. Throw in steep inclines, declines, and an assload of mud and you have the makings of a carnival ride. I turned sliding on my pooper into an art form. Profanity was my paintbrush. At more than one point frustration got the better of me and I threw, kicked, or punched offending protrusions. More profanity ensued. My mind oscillated from ‘The jungle rocks!’ to ‘Mommy, I want to get off now! Richie hate jungle’.

When En told me that this part of the trek would involve ‘a little bit down’, as he put it, I assumed it was a fairly innocuous jungle hillside. Nuh-uh. What he actually meant was that a small section of the trail would be a tad hellacious. He had voiced his concern about this section on more than one occasion but I brushed it off. Guides often err on the side of caution so I figured this was no different. I did not realize how scared he was that I would become angry with him when we started tumbling through the vegetation. As he put I, “I think you would be mad with me.”

Clearly he does not know me very well but I understood why he was worried. First off there was no trail. Those poor bastards hacked an entirely new path through dense jungle down what basically amounted to a cliff. I dare say that had there not been so much vegetation to act as a tenuous ladder you might well need repelling equipment to get down. Keep in mind that En cleared this path in anticipation of my return to embark upon this jungle trek that he was orchestrating. Imagine if I had decided not to return? They spent four days of their own time blazing a trail through the Sumatran jungle so that I could play Dr. Livingston. Had I understood the extent of their labors my decision to return would have been an easy one. Holy shit nuggets.

At one point En and I burst into a borderline fit of maniacal laughter. I was thinking, I paid to do this? and he was probably thinking, This asshole paid to do this? Pictures were out of the question as pulling out my camera would have been on par with chucking it into the jungle. There were a few points where a misstep could send a hapless wanderer down a precipitous drop, ass over tea kettle. Luckily, I managed to avoid this.

Part of the reason my guide and his faithful sidekick went in and surveyed the route before my arrival was to see if they could locate a hot springs that En had heard about nestled deep in the jungle. He knew the approximate location from the sulfur smoke escaping from vents which can be seen from atop Mt. Kerinci. The thought of soaking my aching bones in a natural hot springs after a few days trekking through the jungle was most appealing but as I did not want to build expectations I tried to downplay it in my mind.

After we surmounted the most treacherous portion of our decent a sound became audible in the distance. It was the sound of gas escaping the volcanic vents and as we drew closer it became louder. From afar the sound resembled the low rumbling of a crowd as heard from outside a sports stadium, perhaps in the moments leading up to a big score when anticipation is building. As the noise grew louder large plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the trees and permeating the forest.

The more you travel the more difficult it becomes to find those places that leave a deep impression upon you, the more difficult it is to recapture that child-like feeling of wonder that accompanies the discovery of a magical place. Well, this is such a place. In a word: magnificent. I emerged from the jungle amid the din of multiple vents pumping out sulfur smoke into the foliage, gurgling pools of boiling water, a small steaming stream leading down away from the area, and a troupe of monkeys seemingly surprised by our intrusion into their paradise. It was one of those occasions where you become so overwhelmed by natural beauty, so inundated with whatever life force pervades the universe that you feel as though you might burst from the sensation. I know, I know. Take another bong hit, Rich. But it was really something (Insert ‘you just had to be there’ cliché). Another enchanting aspect about the experience was the realization that very few, if any, tourists had made their way to this mystical place, at least lately. It made me feel as if the area belonged to me and me alone, at least for those few fleeting moments.

I went for a hike downstream in search of a wading pool that would not cook my goose. This turned out to be a bit daunting as the rocks were quite slick and the water in the area close to the vents a bit scorching. Carrying a camera in one hand did not exactly help. But about two hundred feet downstream I found a suitable bathing spot to soak my bones.

There I am alone in the jungle with nothing but the sound of running water and the melodious chirping of birds. Something about standing naked in the Sumatran jungle makes one feel a bit like Adam in the garden of paradise. Unfortunately, Eve was nowhere to be found.

After my bath it was back to camp to enjoy dinner, a cup of coffee, and a peaceful slumber. There is something so utterly satisfying about sipping copious amounts of Sumatran coffee in the Sumatran jungle. Juan Valdez can kiss my ass.

The next morning I began snapping photos like a member of the paparazzi on amphetamines. The potential shots were endless but I did manage to pull myself away after about a million pics. I could not resist another dip in a secluded jungle hot tub .

After my dip we were off once again. Day four was less grueling than day three, but only just. More incline/decline spiced up with a long healthy torrential downpour. Mud, crud, and my ass’s thud (upon the ground that is). And FYI, hypnotizing every muscle in your body by soaking in a hot springs before embarking upon a strenuous hike is just plain ignant. It was a struggle. Not only that our pace slowed to that of a snail. My guide appeared to be hacking at every potential twig that might brush my person. He seemed to take every inconvenience I encountered as a personal failure. I was too tired to protest and assumed he might also be attempting to maintain the way for future masochists.

My guide’s efforts at accommodating me bordered on obsequious. It actually made me uncomfortable but resistance was futile. When I was snapping photos near the sulfur vents I found a snack and some coffee waiting for me on the ground near the trail. This was so I did not have to walk back to camp. He was always offering to carry some of my things and even put a few items in his bag when I was not looking. If I’d requested to be carried through the jungle on a golden pallet I am quite sure he would have obliged without complaint. He was always worried if I had enough food, enough coffee, enough whatever. I suppose I could have done a better job of resisting but after awhile I just gave up. The truth is I deserve to be pampered on account of my tulip-like fragility.

A note on the porter. He spent most of this trip way ahead of us on the trail. He was either negotiating the jungle obstacles with pixie-esque agility or hacking his way through with brute force. Either way his enthusiasm never waned. A real trooper. Super trooper. Super duper trooper.

While it was raining En shared a local legend with me. He said many village elders warned against walking through the jungle when the sun is shining upon wet foliage. This is supposed to be the tiger’s favorite time to hunt as it uses the reflection off the wet leaves to help spy prey. He told me this when a glint of sunlight penetrated the forest for a brief moment. It was soon pissing down again so I guess we were safe.

So our last evening was spent camped near a small river a few hours from our final destination. A warm fire helped dry our spirits and our soaked clothing. My crew was very fond of the fire and spent the better part of each night huddled close to it. They did not have sleeping bags so this was a way of keeping warm. Troopers.

The last day of trekking was relatively light and we moved easily through the remaining leg of our journey. We also found more tiger tracks and I thought that maybe I would catch a glimpse after all. It was not to be. Something I saw near the edge of the jungle made my heart sink. Animal traps, set along trails blazed by local fauna. We came upon two snares placed with the hope of capturing a wandering pig or deer. The problem is these traps do not discriminate. They are equal opportunity and a tiger stands a solid chance of becoming ensnared. I wanted to destroy them, to rip them to bits but the guide did not seem receptive to the idea. I would have taken matters into my own hands but I did not want to create animus between me and my new friends. I saw a potential tiger killer. They saw a local farmer trying to eat. Although overcome with ambivalence I moved on. Had I destroyed the traps I know they would have been replaced promptly but I am not sure this is enough to excuse my restraint. After all, that may have prevented a tiger death for one more day and we all know there are precious few to spare.

So I failed to see my tiger but perhaps that is a good thing....... Stay away tiger. Stay far away from me, far away from us all. Even those of us who mean you no harm pose a threat. You need to hide anywhere and everywhere you can. Leave your mark. Let us know you are there from time to time but stay hidden. The longer the better. Your days are numbered, your home threatened. Your brethren in Java and Bali know all too well the danger posed, for they only exist in prisons designed to make it seem like home. They are trapped. You are not, at least not yet. Run away my friend. There is nothing for you here. And please forgive my intrusion into your realm. I know I should stay away but your beauty compels me to catch a glimpse. You are one of a kind and I would be honored to make your acquaintance but I know you must hide. I know you must flee and for that I respect you. So if perchance you were to meet me along your way please find it in your heart to excuse my offense and then run away as fast as you can. Run away and keep running. Run as if your life depends upon it.

After exiting the jungle we found ourselves making our way through a large tea plantation en route to the village where we would eat lunch and catch a bus back to Kersik Tua. It was a pleasant walk with a picturesque backdrop, a perfect way to end the trip. En’s pants were literally disintegrating off his body, held together by only plastic ribbon. His jungle attire consisted of rubber boots and tattered pants. And the porter’s choice of footwear? White keds with rubber spiked soles. Troopers.

After lunch in a small village along the road I was to discover that my adventure was not quite over. Next door to the restaurant was a house where a small band of locals were gathering to sneak a peek of a soon-to-be-married couple. You can guess what happened next. I was invited to stop by and snap a few photos. How could I refuse? So I found myself sitting on the porch of this couple’s house taking photos and undergoing the usual inquisition. What is your name? Where are you from? Why are you here? Are you married? So on and so forth. Of course the usual gift of a local maiden was offered to me. It happened to be the 17-year-old girl sitting next to me. I agreed that she was pretty but that she happened to be half my age. Pretty sure they did not see the problem. Keep in mind that I just spent the better part of five days in the jungle and I was none too clean. They did not seem to take notice of my derelict state. When they asked me to come to the wedding I implored my guide to intervene and explain that we had to move along. In truth I would have loved to attend the festivities but time and personal hygiene were factors working against me. Maybe next wedding. [Author's Note: Idiot. There was no other opportunity. Regrets emanate from the things you did not do......]

And then came the mini-bus extravaganza back to Kersik tua. More often than not public bus equals vomit producing sardine can. This was no exception. In the span of two hours every qualm I had about buying a motorcycle, every reservation I had about the drawbacks of solo travel, every concern I had about missing out on the cultural experience of public transport in Indonesia was completely obliterated. Although I did have a relatively spacious front seat vantage point I was engaged in a constant struggle against regurgitation of my lunch. Start. Stop. Swerve. Slow down. Speed up. I am sure fairly severe dehydration did nothing to help. And then there was the ‘Wow, you almost creamed that dude or squashed that woman on the side of the road’ factor. All the excitement of a rollercoaster without all the safeguards. And just to punctuate the precarious nature of the journey the driver was speaking on his cell phone while driving. Excellent. The trip would not be complete if we did not have to stop on a bridge so we could change a bad tire.

Along the way I spotted a guy standing on the side of the road holding a large snake and smiling like a lunatic, as if to say ‘Look what I found!’. Not entirely sure what that was about.

So I made it back to the homestay and set out the next morning. I’d meant to leave at 6 am but more rain conspired against me and pushed back my start time to 8 o’clock. I was not looking forward to the 7 hour ride back to Bukittinggi and just to ensure my displeasure a cold biting rain accompanied me most of the way. Muchas gracias.

I also experienced my first motorcycle mishap. As I rounded a corner the front tired slipped and I found myself lifting the bike off the pavement. It was a freak thing. Yes the roads were slick but I was traveling at a reasonable rate of speed and I was ever cognizant of the conditions. I just happened to hit a slick patch (aggravated by the presence of both water and motor oil I suspect) on an uphill corner. I had no time to react and recovery was impossible. The scariest aspect of an incident like that one is the fact that there was little I could have done to prevent it. It just sneaked up and bit me in the ass (Actually, the right foot to be more precise). In order to prevent my own descent to the asphalt I was forced to drag my foot a bit. Ouchie! I was wearing sandals. Bad call. Painful but I’ll live.

Strangely enough the bike appears to have suffered no ill effects, at least none I could discern anyway. Way to go Phantom! I say that but my dream machine has been sputtering of late. I think it is either the carburetor or flux capacitor. I thought I might not make it all the way to Bukittinggi but she pulled through. Hopefully, the problem is only temporary.

If you wish to hire E En (highly recommended) here is his contact info:

Cell Phone: +62 852 66 266 992

Email: endatno@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. Wow - this was indeed quite an adventure! Lovely photos and a great post - I'm glad I read it (even though now, in 2o11) :)


'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim