Dear fellow adventurers: The wandering Weazel has been uncharacteristically quiet since last spring, but fear not, I’m back, and have had many recent adventures as you will soon see. The problem was that I found it difficult to overcome my loathing of technology. That will never change, but it is time to get back on the horse so to speak, and resume posting.
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In this inagural post of 2019 I have decided to return to my roots and publish Hamadryad, the very first story I ever wrote.
In 1988 I wandered around much of southeast Asia. I don’t remember exactly how or why I wound up in Java, but I remember the events of the wonderful day described below as though they only happened yesterday. When I returned to Hong Kong I pecked out the following story on an old typewriter. By some miracle a tattered copy survived.
I am sorry to say that I have no photos from that epic journey, so I have had no choice but to swipe images off the web. I have tried to credit the photographers and/or copywrite holders as best I can, but in some cases I have been unable to do so. If your work has not been credited properly please accept my apologies.
Pangandaran is a quaint little fishing village on the south coast of Java. It occupies a narrow sandy isthmus connecting the mainland to a wild rocky peninsula set aside as a National Park.
One could not imagine a more romantic picture of the tropics. Hundreds of brightly painted dugout canoes with outriggers and lateen sails litter the beach. Those that have done their duty are often retired as flower boxes and to serve as makeshift park benches for the weary fishermen. Graceful smiling people in conical hats and colorful batik sarongs spend the morning pulling in enormous seine nets filled with fish. Women carry great baskets of fruit upon their heads like walking cornucopias. Drying nets filigree the coconut palms and almond trees which fringe the beach. If the sea is rough on one side, it is always calm on the other.
Counter cultural tourists, mostly European, have discovered Pangandaran, but the village has thus far escaped the mercenary chaos of Bali. Bali is paradise defiled, but here the idyll is not yet broken. Rich hippies come to lie on the beach, snorkel the reefs, devour seafood, and enjoy the boundless hospitality of the incurably friendly Javanese people. For a misanthropic person such as myself the attraction is jungle.
Java is a densely populated Island about the size of Florida which has hosted an advanced agricultural civilization for more than 2000 years. As a result, for all of its tropical ambience, real jungle is a scarce commodity.
Bali, Java, and Sumatra share a common fauna similar to that of the Malay Peninsula and much of the rest of southeast Asia. Many of my favorite southern Chinese plants and the attendant butterflies grace the mountaintops here in Java. East of Bali lies the Wallace Line, that grand canyon of floral and faunal assemblages.
In an uncharacteristic act of environmental awareness the Indonesian government set aside all of the rocky peninsula south of Pangandaran as a nature reserve. In doing so they saved one of the last pieces of jungle in Java.
The peninsula is about two miles long by one mile wide, too small to support large carnivores, but big enough for Banteng (the wild ancestor of Asian cattle) and Sambar deer. Banteng have been extirpated elsewhere in the region, so the National Park was set aside for their protection.
The most obvious denizens are the pestiferous monkeys. Macaques have turned the park boundary into a ghetto. Passersby are routinely accosted and frisked for peanuts. You had better have some, your peanuts or your life. Pangandaran awaits the Klan.
I learned the hard way when I set my pack down while attempting to photograph the macaques’ more dignified and presbyterian brethren, a group of black langurs or leaf monkeys (previously known as Presbytis, but now Trachypithecus). A jet black female held her golden haired young in the morning sun.
It was the perfect photo op so I followed her deeper into the jungle. While my attention was diverted, the simian hoodlums ravaged my pack, unzipped my camera bag, opened my film canisters, and scattered the film across the forest floor.
When I attempted to regain my possessions the alpha male macaque attacked with bared yellow fangs.
Without thinking I counter attacked. The screaming fiend held his ground till the last moment. I feared for my testicles, but human bluff and bravado won the day. My next act was to contravene park regulations by cutting a stout walking stick. Just in case.
I must admit to being prejudiced in regard to certain sorts of monkeys. I find langurs to be beautiful, graceful, and their antics highly entertaining. Gibbons, which are apes not monkeys, are paragons of virtue. Neither interact with people unless trained to do so, but the macaques are a different story. They seek out human interaction, and much prefer the village periphery to the deep jungle. They fight viciously among themselves to establish their place in the hierarchy. At any given moment blood is almost certain to be shed as the pecking order is reinforced. It is impossible to observe them attacking fruit vendors and other innocent passersby and not see a grotesque parody of young male inner city gang bangers. Victims of such assaults are often injured.
This same scenario occurs throughout southeast Asia. Macaques are tolerated in Hindu and Buddhist cultures for religious reasons, but the people of Pangandaran are Moslems, and Moslems aren’t inclined toward tolerance, especially toward animals that make a mockery of Allah. If a statue of a human is an affront to the almighty, how bad is a monkey? Nevertheless, they put up with it because tourists like the monkeys and business is business. If they lived in my backyard I would shoot them. Ditto with the dogs which are a plague throughout much of Asia. The Moslems consider them to be unclean and so do I!
That part of the park nearest to Pangandaran is a Miocene limestone reef riddled with caves and dripping with jungle. Many of the enormous canopy hardwoods have the buttressed roots so typical of the rainforest. Some of the strangler figs are magnificent specimens with multiple trunks forty feet across. I searched among the caves and tangled roots in hope of pythons, but had to settle for skinks.
Further down the coast the limestone gave way to cliffs of clastic volcanic debris. Rocky tide pools held promise of sea snakes, which were said to be common, but overturned rocks revealed only eels, urchins, and brittlestars.
In the sand of a sheltered cove overhung with Pandanus I found the tracks of musang (civit cats) and an enormous biawak lizard (Varanus salvador). The footprints were nearly as large as my hand, and the beast itself was probably seven feet long.
Monstrous monitor lizards often frequent the beaches of southeast Asia. On the tourist islands north of Jakarta they are a regular tourist attraction and are called Komodo dragons for added effect. They prowl the bungalow grounds like so many pet dinosaurs. While vacationing there I sought to impress a beautiful Swedish woman by chasing dragons down the beach. I must have looked like a ludicrous St. George in shorts with a bit of Don Quixote thrown in, but blessed be the Saints, her heart melted. It worked!
In the scrub behind the beach I chanced upon a streak of green slithering across the trail. It was a vine snake (Ahaetulla mycterizans), an exquisite emerald wraith of a serpent about three feet long. The head is most extraordinary, long and pointed, disproportionately large, with big jewel like eyes set atop the head, and perfect binocular vision. It is one of the few snakes that can look you straight in the eye with both eyes. In a defensive posture the tongue sticks straight out and the forepart of the body is inflated to reveal azure and white checkered skin between the scales. The ruse works, though only mildly venomous the natives consider it deadly.
The beast showed a curious intelligence, its attention was always focused on my eyes. It regarded my camera, which to the snake looked like a giant eye, as its special enemy and repeatedly struck at the lens. All other objects, including the hand that held it, were ignored. The Dyaks in Borneo had warned me of a deadly serpent that tries to eat men’s eyes, and this pretty little creature was no doubt the culprit. It was particularly terrified of the open beach, and looked about in consternation for a friendly bush. Reptilian agoraphobia. Having tormented it to distraction, I took pity on the beautiful little dryad and released it into a tangle of vines where it disappeared before my very eyes into thin air.
Far above me a troop of black langurs put on a dazzling display of acrobatics, a benefit performance just for me. Monkeys play follow the leader, and it’s obvious that they do it for fun. Why else would they climb a tall tree, go to the end of the nethermost branch and fling themselves headlong into space, fur streaming in the wind, to plummet into foliage thirty feet away? All of this was done in an orderly choreographed fashion. One mistake means one less monkey. Females carrying their golden young are a bit more careful. What a show to see those daredevils in mid flight silhouetted against the sky!
Loitering by the mouth of a cave, I was rewarded with the auspicious sight of a Rhinoceros Hornbill, everywhere considered to be a sign of good luck. Furtive Red Jungle Fowl clucked and scratched across the forest floor. These are the primordial chickens from which come Popeyes, Colonel Sanders, and other modern breeds.
Perhaps it was the work of the hornbill, for, to mix a metaphor, it was a halcyon day. The morning had dawned cool and clear, with just enough breeze to rustle the trees and disguise my movements from the animals. The damned monkeys are so noisy that the other animals pay no attention to a snapping twig. So it was that a great sambar stag grazed along the trail oblivious to my presence.
Along the way I inadvertently cornered a troop of macaques along a stream bank. The old male attacked in earnest, shrieking, screaming, and snapping at my heels. My trusty stick soon put the ruffian to flight, but it was an unnerving experience.
The trail led south along the east coast of the peninsula to the brink of a towering cliff above the sea. Waves crashed with great violence against the rocks below.
The park service had erected a tiny hut teetering on the edge from which to watch the cliffs and sea caves which are the seemingly unassailable nesting grounds of swiftlets. The nests of these tiny birds provide the necessary ingredient for bird’s nest soup.
The soup itself is a glutinous gruel of bird shit, mucous, lice, feathers, and miscellaneous debris. Rich Chinamen relish the stuff, claiming it increases vigor and potency, attributes which they themselves often lack. Gathering the nests is the most perilous occupation known to man, but the profits are enormous by local standards. All it takes is guts. It seems a bit silly to post an occasional guard with neither gun nor rope in an effort to stop men desperate enough to come by outrigger canoe in the night, swim the raging surf with bundles of bamboo poles with which to build flimsy scaffolds, then climb the cliffs like spiders with candles held between their teeth in search of nests.
Trails crisscross the park, so I headed inland to visit a waterfall on the other side of the peninsula. The trail passes through volcanic hills and moist tropical forest. Along the way two bronzeback snakes (Dendrelaphis sp.) were seen. These cute little sprites resemble ribbon snakes in every way, and are equally hard to catch.
Skinks of several species abounded, and the forest floor was alive with their scurries. Looking up, if my eyes were quick enough, I could see what appeared to be jet propelled butterflies zooming from tree to tree. These were actually tiny flying dragons of the well named genus Draco volans. (Which means flying dragon in Latin!) Here is one ready for takeoff!
A bit of stealth revealed a rare daytime glimpse of a mouse deer, a dainty ungulate about the size of a cat. Perfect python food.
At the base of a tangle of lianas I was delighted to find a Rafflesia, the world’s biggest and ugliest flower. Rafflesia is a parasite which lives inside the tissues of various species of tropical grape vines. It is completely lacking in green parts, and both looks and smells like a lump of dung. I first thought it was a gigantic rotten puffball mushroom.
Finding this flower was the culmination of a tropical botanist’s dream, so I was hardly prepared for what happened next.
The trail follows a small stream which trickles through the jungle to the top of a volcanic bluff about one hundred feet tall overlooking the sea. This is the waterfall which intrepid tourists often visit with the aid of a local guide. It is a rare phenomenon for a waterfall to plunge directly into the sea.
I sat on a basalt ledge by the brink to appreciate the magnificent scene. The cliff was clothed with an interesting vertical scrub featuring many vines and epiphytes. Cycads, rattan, and Pandanus were prominent.
I gazed into the far distance along the beautiful coastline of Java, lost in a reverie. Below, waves generated in the austral sea crashed against the jagged black rocks with a terrific roar. I was pondering how long even the strongest swimmer would last against such violence, when I happened to glance down by my left knee.
To my complete and utter astonishment less than three feet away I beheld a King Cobra perhaps twelve feet long. Its head was raised to the level of my navel, but its hood was not spread. I could almost have touched it. The Hamadryad had crawled along the cliff unseen, investigated my wiggling toes, and was now regarding me with interest but not alarm.
Allow me to interject some information pertaining to the mighty King Cobra Ophiophagus hannah, also known as the Hamadryad.
In Greek mythology the name Hamadryad is also used to describe forest dwelling nymphs (Dryads) which inhabit specific trees and die when the tree is cut. I have no idea how it came to be applied to the world’s most formidable snake.
The Hamadryad is truly the king of serpents, and is by far the largest venomous snake on earth. The specific epithet Ophiophagus refers to its specialized diet of eating other snakes.
The King ranges widely throughout southeast Asia, and everywhere it lives it is greatly feared. When fully grown it can rear up to the height of a man. The venom is highly toxic, the venom glands large, and the bite so strong that it is reputed to be able to pierce the leathery hide and kill an elephant.
The King grows large enough to gobble down a python, the largest ever captured was over 19 feet in length, but how big is that?
I once spent two weeks in a hospital in Krabi Thailand dying from dengue fever. One day while I was recovering Ann went for a walk along the nearby coast and saw a huge snake. Could it have been this one, a monster that was caught in a restaurant in the middle of town?
Hamadryads are not closely related to other cobras, and are considered by some to be a primitive form, a holdover from the age of giants. Primitive or not, their behaviors are highly complex. Many observers have noted that they appear to be more intelligent than other snakes, and unlike other snakes the females prepare and defend a nest. Some snakes can hiss, and others rattle their tails, but only the Hamadryad can growl. Talking snakes are rather scarce, so I suppose it must have been a Hamadryad that offered an apple to Eve.
One can only speak of nobility in the brow of a serpent at the risk of censure from dispassionate scientists, particularly those who stay safely at home. In captivity the Hamadryad languishes, the chin rests, the eyes are dull. With lifted head, alert, the glittering eyes followed my slightest movement. The scales of its massive head gleamed like polished bronze in the sun. There was an eternal moment while I gazed into its eyes, transfixed like the bird of folklore.
I awoke to the realization that the snake was trapped on the edge of the cliff, as was I, and would probably have crawled across my lap if I had remained motionless. My camera was just out of reach. There was no choice but to stand up if I intended to get out of the situation alive. In so doing the spell was broken and the moment lost. As I stood it briefly flared its hood. By the time my camera was ready the cobra had turned and was crawling rapidly into a thicket. Long live the King!
What a day, but the fun wasn’t over yet! I returned to Pangandaran to take an evening swim and soak my aching feet. Lovely European women in various states of undress were lying on the beach like so many seals soaking up the setting sun. I had it in mind to harpoon a few, but they were too wary and alert for predators.
It was the night of the full moon. As the sun set, the moon rose, both being visible at the same time. In the gathering dusk hundreds of flying foxes with four foot wingspans left their roosts in the park to fly across the full moon on their way to devastate the fruit trees of some poor peasant.
What an unearthly spectacle, made all the more strange by the Moslem call to prayer drifting through the trees from the distant mosque. To an infidel it sounded like the ravings of a lunatic howling at the moon, or perhaps a Walpurgis night prayer calling all the winged demons to fill the night air.
Despite my lack of luck with the fur seals, I was determined to celebrate a bacchanal in honor of the Hamadryad. I wandered down to the fish market to review the situation and settled on a great slab of shark sizzled over charcoal. While the fish cooked I indulged in a massage. A sweet little old Javanese lady spread a sarong on the sand, covered me in coconut oil, and pummeled me into submission.
The local boys were tuning guitars down at the neighborhood bar, so I took over my slab of shark, which was large enough to share, and bought a round of beers. This got things started. How can it be that Indonesian fishermen, who can hardly speak a word of English, can all sing “O, Suzie Q, baby I love you”? The principal troublemaker was a good musician and a very clever fellow. Each time he taught me a new bar trick I bought more beer. When I told of the Hamadryad they bought me beer, for none of them, not even the jungle guides, had ever seen such a beast.
During a lull in the riot a classical Javanese gamelan orchestra appeared and set up outside the bar in the moonlight. They had gongs, xylophones, drums, and dancing girls in traditional costume. Real street musicians.
About the time the fruit bat’s bellies were full of bananas and the moon began to sink, I poured one more arak and had one last drink in honor of the king of serpents.
It is said that somewhere in the east of Java on the slopes of the Bromo volcano there lives a famous Pawang, a great warrior, hunter, and sorcerer who can summon rain from the sky, stop the charging of a bull elephant, and speak to the animals of the forest. His displeasure means death by incantation. Only he can catch the King Cobra. If I someday return to Java I hope to apprentice myself to such a man. Perhaps then I will be worthy enough to again confront the Hamadryad.
AKA: Bruce J. Morgan
All rights reserved
Footnote: When I visited Pangandaran in 1988 it was an unspoiled paradise, but nothing ever remains the same. Due to subsequent tourism the village exploded with unsustainable growth and quickly became a veritable city. Then, “On 17 July 2006, an undersea earthquake measuring 7.7 on the moment magnitude scale triggered a tsunami which engulfed the resort area and caused destruction as far inland as half a kilometre. Over three hundred people from the town were killed.” Sic transit paradisum.