Gorontalo, Indonesia. As conflict correspondent, who has witnessed enough traumas for a lifetime, I usually go in for strange, tranquil settings that offer casual adventure and sandy beaches.
The natural allure of the Togians, several dozen tiny islands off the northern coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, is undeniable. The quiet waters of the Gulf of Tomini are home to rich coral reefs flush with tropical fish as well as mangrove swamps thick with dugongs and sea turtles. Pristine jungles offer a habitat of rare hummingbirds, coconut crabs and the world's smallest primates, the beady-eyed tarsier monkey.
In the first several days of my ten-day trip, a family of indigenous Sea Gypsies taught me how to fish for barracuda with one of their ancient spear guns and I mostly floated around the lovely coral like a lazy dugong, enjoying sea life, cool beer and amusing travel tales.
After a week, I chartered a small fishing boat and headed from the eastern to the western half of the islands, landing at the Kadidiri Paradise Dive Resort, whose web page boasts "thrilling adventures to make your vacation a lifelong memory." Little could I have suspected that, a week later, I would return from my trip terrified by my own worst childhood nightmares.
Admittedly, what happened was mostly of my own making, largely out of blind ignorance. One quiet evening, I glanced at an offering to explore the island by night in search of coconut crabs, named for their penchant to use their claws to slice through coconuts for sustenance. A happy-go-lucky Dutch couple, Martina and Jeroen, joined me with Hans, a Swedish carpenter, after dinner, and we strolled to a nearby resort where we linked up with four more European tourists, everyone wielding flashlights, cameras and anxious to plunge headlong into the jungle.
As we scaled coral cliffs and peered down into a dark crevice, I queried our agile guide in flip-flops about what we would do in case of a poisonous snakebite. He was too busy scouring the rocks to answer back. Nevertheless, after ninety minutes of climbing up and down through petrified coral and dense vegetation, we came across just one sad-looking coconut crab, the size of a fist. Scratched by thorns and sucked on by leeches, we told our kind guide that we were ready to surrender and return to his restaurant for some local palm wine.
In the distance, I spotted the welcoming lights from our resort reflecting off a placid inlet lined with small outriggers. As we made our way down a narrow path, our guide trudged ahead, circled by two rambunctious white dogs, sniffing the ground as they went. Suddenly, we heard the sharp howl of an injured dog and I assumed that a vicious dogfight was underway.
Yet our guide, his eyes flashing with fear, whisked past me and grabbed a machete from his younger brother, suggesting that something far more sinister was afoot. Shining my flashlight into the woods, I spotted the coils of an immense black and brown camouflaged python, which had seized one of the dogs and was attempting with its body, some16-inches in diameter and 20 to 25 feet long, to strangle the howling canine. Jeroen and I froze in our tracks, watching the guide attack the snake, blood spurting up all around us. The python released its prey, raised its open mouth up some three feet in the air and hissed at the terrified guide, who immediately fled down the hill, leaving us stranded with the snake.
Next, the python turned its wrath and angry eyes our way. Its massive mouth, over 16 inches wide, opened in our direction to reveal rows of razor sharp teeth poised to strike. This was no doubt a very bad "B Movie" in the making and as the snake lunged at my ankles, I turned to run, stumbling to the earth, accidentally falling over my Dutch friend. As I cried "snake!" the Swedish and Finish tourists shrieked at the tops of their lungs as we scraped and clawed our way up a coral cliff.
To our collective horror, the serpent was not dead. It was still moving towards us. Our trekking party stood howling in fear and wondering if we should flee further back into the dense jungle or stand our ground. After expletives in English and several Nordic tongues, our Indonesian guide finally returned with his machete and led us all sprinting to safety.
"I've only ever seen pythons half that size," he exclaimed as we stumbled past the wounded dog and up wooden stairs for a round of drinks. His dark skin had turned white with terror as he cuddled his small son to his side. He knew, like I did, that we had just avoided something far nastier. Only a few months earlier, a like-minded creature had strangled to death a security guard in Bali at a five-star resort as some eight persons looked on without lifting a finger. (Personally, I don't think I would have the nerve to attack a snake that big either!) Everything I had read on the Togian Islands left out any mention of pythons, Asia's largest snakes and excellent swimmers, many of whom, kept as pets by American snake lovers, have escaped to live leisurely in the Florida swamps.
Back at my own resort, I was duly informed that the year before, another python had snuggled up above my mosquito net in a window opening. Still traumatized, I booked my return ferry ride immediately. I guess the lesson here is to avoid night trekking in the Togian Islands, or, for that matter, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. If you do go against my advice, you should at least wear heavy shoes, carry a machete and know how to use it on a serpent.
I am still dazed by the event. I've been kidnapped and shot at in war zones around the world. Every night now, I thank my lucky stars that the python did not manage to grab me. I must confess that I have never been so terrified in my life -- probably a factor of my own worst nightmares, almost always involving exceptionally large snakes. In any case, I have no doubt that I would have expired of a heart attack long before that damn snake had managed to suffocate me.