Standort: / Meldung: "Here Be Dragons: A Johnny's Journeys Special"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

4. 8. 2015 - 19:02

Here Be Dragons: A Johnny's Journeys Special

I encountered flesh-eating dragons in the islands of Komodo, fossils of little people dubbed 'hobbits' in Flores, an aboriginal royal family in the jungles of West Timor, and the Taoist God of War in Taiwan. All of this, just in the first six months of 2015.

I won't lie; 2015, so far, has been pretty freaking amazing.

I started the year at a big music festival in Tasmania. Shortly thereafter, I flew to New Zealand where I connected with some long-lost relatives, some of whom I traveled with to the film set/fictional village of Hobbiton, as seen in the Peter Jackson-directed 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' movies.

This was, I could not possibly have known, the beginning of a six-month odyssey where dragons and Hobbits would regularly appear on my path, blurring the lines between popular mythology and, well, reality.

During my visit to Hobbiton, I decided to go for a couple of pints at the local pub & tavern, the Green Dragon.

Johnny Bliss, 2015

* - It is, however, a controversial topic, with some researchers arguing the fossils represent a new species, and others arguing against that hypothesis.

It was there that I happened to overhear an older couple discussing a cave on Indonesia's Flores island, where archaeologists had reputedly* discovered the fossils of a unique sub-species of little people, who'd lived 18,000 years ago, and were dubbed by certain experts, Hobbits.

As interesting as it was to hear people talking about such a thing at all, let alone in a place like Hobbiton, what was even more interesting about this was that in less than three weeks, I was planning to be on that island. My flights were booked and everything. What an exciting hell of a coincidence!

* - this was in the company of my good friend and FM4 colleague, Roman, who also joined me previously to Borneo and Bangladesh.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I had returned to Australia via Melbourne, boarded a train to the west coast city of Perth, flown from Perth to Bali, and island-hopped* all the way to Flores (a few islands east of Bali).

This was during monsoon season, and the entire journey was very wet. We remember in particular one bus ride where the winding mountain roads had turned into impromptu waterfalls, and the flood-waters were knee-deep.

Actually, because of the overall road conditions, it was uncertain until the very end whether it would even be possible to get to the Flores 'Hobbit' cave (called Liang Bua). The day we arrived in the nearby town of Ruteng, high in the mountains, the skies were filled with moist clouds and recent rains had left most of the roads pretty muddy.

But no problem, claimed the proprietor of the guesthouse where we stayed that night, the roads are still passable. This is nothing. You can go.

Two locals on motorbikes were more than keen to take us with them to Liang Bua. It had begun to rain again. However, having gotten this far, I was not in the mood to let a little rain stop me.

Driver from Ruteng

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Driver from Ruteng, and a member of the "RuTeng Clan". Ru-Teng! Ru-Teng!

And so, we hopped on the back of the motorbikes of these two fellows, and took a long ride through the rain. The roads got bumpier and bumpier as we left the urbanized area and entered into a mountainous region characterized by a surplus of rice fields and farmland.

At a certain point, we saw this amazing ruined old sign announcing the cave, on our approach up the mountain.

Sign leading up

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Crossing this threshold, I felt very 'Indiana Jones' indeed, a positive feeling that would not leave me until many hours later.

In front of the cave, we met our guide, a local fellow who told us his name was Cornelius. Oddly enough, his accent in English sounded nearly Italian as he guided us through this amazing and spooky cave, and told us stranger-than-fiction stories about ancient hobbits hunting Komodo dragons, giant rats, and pygmy elephants.

The cave was giant, with massive stalactites hanging down everywhere like ancient chandeliers. In every corner of the cave, you could see openings between and under the rocks, black spaces leading to who-knows-where.

It would be very easy to imagine a Gollum-like creature living there.

After taking us through the cave, Cornelius showed us around a small museum that had been built around the corner; in this museum, there was a display case with replicas built to scale of the original Hobbit bones. I took a picture to compare myself. Apparently, I am too big to be a Hobbit?!

Me vs. Hobbit

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Me vs. Hobbit

As humbling as it was to visit this cave and be told these amazing stories by a local expert, even that paled in comparison to one of our next journeys, where we actually came face-to-face with living history...

Here Be Dragons: Komodo National Park

Fossils have been found of Komodo dragons and their ancestors going back nearly four million years into the past.

Some archaeologists have been quoted as saying that their size and shape has remained relatively constant throughout that time. This is to say that if you see a Komodo dragon today, it very likely looks a lot like it always did.

From the fishing town of Labuan Bajo on the west coast of Flores, Roman and I rented a boat to take us (over two days) to two of the five islands where Komodo dragons are known to live: Rinca, and Komodo itself.

Day 1: We got to the island of Rinca in the late morning, or very early afternoon, where we met our first guide, Dino. After showing us the pointed stick he would use to fend off dragons in case of emergency, he led us on an extended hike through the forest around the ranger station.

It was here that we caught a glimpse of quite a few of our first dragons; contrary to our expectations, they seemed quite bored and tired, however, and mostly were sleeping. This was because apparently we had missed their most active (read: hungry) period, in the very early morning.

After getting our fill of sleeping dragons, we continued on our way, returned to our boat, and carried on to Komodo island, where we would eventually spend the night. That evening, we stopped in to visit Komodo village.

Day 2: We woke up very early, and disembarked at the port near the ranger station of Komodo not long after the sun first peered at us from over the horizon. Komodo island is significantly more well-touristed than Rinca, so my first impression was oh god, look at all these people! - including an entire cruise ship that had come out of nowhere, and was in the process of debarking as we arrived.

Hurriedly, we went to the ranger station and found ourselves a guide - before the hundreds of arriving tourists could. Today's guide ended up being an older gentleman named Rochmann; a local of Komodo, who had lived there all of his life, his English was not as good as Dino's. However, with some patience and hand-gestures, we managed to make do.

Rochmann led us up the mountain to a monument for a Swiss tourist who had vanished during a hike some years before - the predominant theory is that he got consumed whole by dragons, who are not only carnivorous, but indeed, man-eaters. We got our first taste of that side of dragon-nature on the way back down, where we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by a good dozen or so still-hungry, still-active and very curious dragons.

An old veteran, Rochmann did not seem very worried as he pushed dragon after dragon away with his dragon-fighting stick. There was no denying though, that we were both very happy to have him with us, especially after we heard a dragon hiss, at another dragon, for the first time.

Rochmann! Komodo

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Our noble protector, Rochmann!

By the time we left and began our long chug back to Flores that evening, we definitely had the feeling we'd gotten our fill of Dragons!

Am Ende

Before we took our leave of Flores, there was one more place we visited that I would like to relate here, just because it was so weird: Ende.

The little ghost fishing town made it onto our itinerary for two reasons. One was the ridiculous name; how could we pass so close to a place called Ende and not go, right? Also, for us to go to Timor (our next destination), we would need to fly, and the easiest way to do so was via Ende.

Ende had a really large harbour with no ships in it. Most of the town's shops and cafés were boarded up and closed. Ende beach was long and could have been nice, if only it were not covered with filth and garbage.

The lack of motivation, the lack of anything going on there, was stunning.

I could think of no place I'd seen in Indonesia or elsewhere in Asia more befitting of a name like Ende.

Ende Dragon

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Even Ende has its dragons.

Also, there was this, hanging from the wall of a Chinese restaurant we frequented that one night we were there. Something clearly went wrong with the taxidermy. Or perhaps they just really didn't care.

Onwards to Timor!

There is a lot I could say about (West) Timor. We sadly did not make it to East Timor, owing to time constraints and the fact that one would need to have had a visa to go there. However, the west was already quite interesting enough for any number of reasons.

Firstly, there was the capital Kupang, which had a really gritty, street personality distinct from what we'd seen previously.

Then there was Rote island, a sleepy resort isle whose main tourist draw was its fantastic breaks for surfers. (Also, the island has the additional draw of being very nearly the southernmost point in all of Asia.)

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, there were local tribal cultures that had absolutely nothing to do with mainstream Indonesia. A lot of the native people living in rural communities at the heart of the island neither speak English, nor Bahasi Indonesian. Our visit to some of the hill tribes of West Timor promised to be a very interesting one indeed...

We had an amazing guide, who not only was a guide, but also happened to be the son of a king, from the largest and most populous of three kingdoms in this region of West Timor (the name of the kingdom is Amanuban).

* - or anything else we heard that day, really

His name was Pae Nope, and he told us that among the people he'd guided before us were the likes of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. He spoke eight different dialects, he told us. Although we were unable to verify this*, he was able to communicate fluently with just about every person we met and we saw no reason to disbelieve his stories.

He drove us to the village of None, where local people still lived in thatched roof huts, and many still dressed in traditional clothing, as they always had.

Here, we really got the sense of how bad of an idea it would have been to go without a guide. It would have been alike to walking uninvited into somebody's living room. Pae Nope provided a bridge for us, introducing us to the old, half-blind chief and the midwife, and to the young warrior prince who would be chief after his father passed away.

Fierce young chief None Timor

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Fierce young chief is fierce

The old fellow told us chilling stories (via Pae Nope) of how he still remembered seeing warriors return from battle, carrying the heads of their enemies. This practice only died out fifty or so years ago, he told us.

Old chief Timor

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Before the day was through, we chewed betel nuts together, staining our mouths red. The young warrior chief and Pae Nope together led us through the village, while children ran behind us laughing and chatting.

Before we left, we were given the opportunity to purchase locally-crafted tools and articles of clothing that had been produced by members of the community. I chose a scarf that had been decorated with images of Komodo dragons. Why Komodo dragons? I asked. Well, although they no longer lived in Timor today, stories lived on from times past, from when they'd lived in the forest alongside the local people.

Timor, None, Komodo Dragon Scarf

Johnny Bliss, 2015

woman, center, wearing the Komodo dragon scarf

As we started our long trip back to Kupang, and prepared to take leave of Indonesia, I could be forgiven for thinking that nothing that awaited me in my trips ahead could possibly compare with the amazing experiences I'd already had. I would, however, be wrong.

The Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival

Fireworks Festival Mural

Whoever Painted That, 2015

A mural depicting something that actually happens

A couple weeks later, I arrived in Taiwan's chaotic capital Taipei, where I was picked up by a friend (Ron) who has been living there, and whisked immediately away to the other side of the island. Upon our arrival in the fishing town of Tainan, we checked into our hotel and immediately went to a nearby shop to purchase motorcycle helmets and protective clothing.

Tainan Fireworks-1

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Ron, me, and this German guy we met en route named Alexander

All of this was for a reason: the day I'd arrived in Taiwan was also the occasion of the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival - an annual event where thousands upon thousands of bottle rockets are side-loaded into hundreds of beehive-like structures, set on fire, and blasted explosively into the crowd. All of this was conducted as a prayer to the Taoist God of War.

"You will get burnt," Ron warned me. "You must wear protection."

In the late 1800s, a cholera epidemic raged in the area. People lit these fireworks as a way to clear the air and rid themselves of illness and calamity, and bring good fortune to the community. According to local tradition, getting hit with a firework is considered good luck.

It is also quite dangerous. Without protection, it would be easy enough to be blinded, severely burnt, or even killed. The acoustics are so loud, that even hours later there is still ringing in your ears. I recorded some of the fireworks demonstrations, with my microphone, but they were so loud that it couldn't handle them, and literally kept turning itself off!

I will also always remember the parades themselves - many people came out during these events carrying statues and religious items, and some were even dressed colourfully as dragons.

Second video courtesy of Alexander Jacobsen

Back to Europe

A few weeks later, I was back in Europe, and all of these experiences seemed to belong to another person, and to another life.

Occasionally, I would think of these things, and wonder to myself, Did that really happen? What about that? Could those things have been real?

I tried to tell people, but all too often the things I was talking about seemed so far away, and I felt people didn't understand.

This June, however, I found myself at the Distortion electronic music festival in Copenhagen, and wandered (read: snuck) backstage with a few friends. At some point in this very long and drunken evening, we were joined in our little group by one of the DJs who had just come off-stage.

This DJ also happened to be an actor. This actor also happened to have played Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings / Hobbit series.

"Elijah!" I may or may not have drunkenly shouted. "You will never believe the story I have to tell you. It all started this January in Hobbiton..."

Frodo Elijah Distortion

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Just a couple of Hobbits hanging out backstage...

I will probably never know what he thought of all of this- he listened politely, and made all of the right sociable sounds- but upon concluding my story with the fireworks and dragons on the streets of Tainan, I had the feeling that something which had started nearly half a year before, had gone full circle and concluded itself here, on the other side of the world.

Now, who knows what the next six months will bring?