Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rinca Adventures

We have walked back in time. This landscape is stark, dramatic, and a keeper of hidden life. Hills climb and roll, covered in knee high golden grasses that bow in the wind. Scrubby bushes push their way through the dry earth with leathery green leaves shimmering in the blistering heat. Stark white rocks with ribbons of red stand regally amidst the golden hills, looking like something should be crouched upon them. Long-tall palms reach high into the cornflower blue sky, shedding their skin of old brown jagged leaves as they climb up, up, up, towering at least a hundred and twenty feet high. They rattle when the wind caresses them.

Walking through the nearly dry riverbed in search of dragons we look through the heat, listening. It is never quiet here in daylight. Lizards rustle in the dry brown leaves and scurry from beneath our feet, voles dive into holes upon our approach and a brown long haired wild pig lopes awkwardly away once it senses our presence. Seven komodo dragons lounge in the sun lazily opening and closing their eyes waiting.

The largest of them are over three meters long and weigh as much as 9o kilograms. Their scales resemble armor and their camouflage is so perfected we almost walked into one nestled in some downed logs. These creatures are the largest dragons in the world. They sense their prey with their good eyesight and long yellow snakelike forked tongues. While in this riverbed they look docile and awkward, yet they are good hunters.

They are waiting in the riverbed for the huge water buffalo they attacked to die of its septic wounds inflicted by the bites from the dragons. Once they have bitten their prey, depending on how many bites the animal has and how big it is it will take a week to two weeks to die of its bacteria infested wounds and the dragons will wait to feast. The dragons can sprint on their muscled hind legs lifting their gigantic tails and look like an over pumped steroid filled body builder swaggering like they know they dominate. They can smell blood from 5 kilometers away. And they can swim, not that far but they can swim.

We sat in the riverbed in late afternoon, below 3 dragons lazing on the hill and 5 buffaloes sitting up to their necks in the last pools of water in the riverbed. We sat not 50 feet from one buffalo peacefully listening to him snort and chew. Missing his two lower two front teeth he was almost comical despite his long curved horns and gigantic bulk. Hundreds of small flies circled his head and he responded by dipping his horns gracefully and tossing water about his head. It was really special to be able to sit so close to two species of very powerful animals.

We climbed out of the riverbed back up into the dry hills reveling in the use of our legs again and the stunning views that stretched forever past the hundreds of skinny trunked big leaf headed long-tall palms and over the hammered gold hills to the undulating islands beyond.

Long-tailed macaque monkeys hung above us, eating the fruits of the female palms. The leaves rattled and our sweat dried with the wind. Our guide gambled and asked us if we wanted to walk further to try to find the wild horses if we were lucky. We had wanted to do the 9 k walk this morning but the price for the non-regulation hike was a ridiculous $35 dollars in comparison to $5 for the 5 k hike, so we declined as it just seemed like too much of a scam. We both got lucky. We went for the horses.

Walking quickly through waist high grass, we stumbled over small iron red rocks and past groves of low scrubby trees. We heard the pounding of hooves before we saw 15 black buffalo heading away from us, dust rising from their hooves. They settled under another grove of trees and we watched them while deer bounded through the grass. The sun was sinking and with its descent the dew began to make its appearance. The sharp pungent odors of the grasses and trees revealed themselves as the temperature dropped and the light faded. With the sun in our faces we looked toward the hills to see the elusive wild hoses. Two of them stood regally under a scraggly tree.

There was something magical about that moment, perhaps because we had found them, but likely because we were out in the hills of the park with no one else around, the sun igniting the grasses like fire and our senses fully involved. But we were running out of time.

Navigating through the high grasses strewn with rocks and boulders in deepening twilight in near silence we were reminded of another time in our lives. My thoughts were intermittently interrupted with our guide saying "hati, hati" (careful, careful) after he stumbled on a hidden rock or root. As darkness settled upon us, the big dipper hung above us in the northern sky and more stars began to twinkle. We weren't following an established trail and we likely would have been sleeping under the stars had we had to find our way back to the ranger station alone. After another half hour of slowly heading down hill we made it to the main trail. Thanking our guide and walking back to the boat landing under the star-studded sky we reveled in our tired legs and the longest day of the year, giving thanks that animals and places like this still exist.

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