llustration: Xavier Lemmens
Of all the mystery primates in the world, none has attracted such attention in recent years as Sumatra’s orang-pendek (the name means "short man" in the local language). Reported since the days of the Dutch colonists and subject of remarkably consistent sightings in recent years – most notably by conservationist Debbie Martyr, who claimed to have seen the orang-pendek on more than one occasion (see FT83:19; 182:37) – it may turn out to be a real creature as yet unknown to science.
In 2003, a CFZ expedition set out in search of orang-pendek and another cryptid reported from the Sumatran jungle – the cigau (pronounced chi-gow), a big cat described as smaller and stockier than a tiger, with a lion-like mane, golden fur and a short tail (see FT182:32-39 for a full report of the expedition). We had hoped that one of the hair samples we had brought back would prove to be from either the orang-pendek or the cigau; Dr Lars Thomas’s tests, though, established that the smaller grey hairs turned out to belong, as I’d suspected, to the Malayan tapir, while the longer brown ones were from an Asian golden cat.
The 2004 expedition aimed to explore the "lost valley" Debbie Martyr had told us about on our previous visit. Situated beyond the lake of Gunung Tuju, it had never been penetrated by Western explorers. Once again, along with Dr Chris Clarke and Jon Hare, I prepared to head into the unknown.
Our first destination was the village of Kersik Tua, and the house of Mr Subandi – a keen naturalist and gracious host whom we had met the previous year. Mr Subandi had uncovered some recent orang-pendek witnesses less than an hour’s drive away in a village called Te Uik Air Putih.
By a remarkable stroke of luck, a specimen of the Titan arum, the world’s largest flower (below), and one that blossoms only once every 10 years, was blooming nearby – an unmissable opportunity.
The village backed onto an area called "the garden", cultivated land that is used for growing crops but which merges with the jungle seamlessly and is, in some areas, very overgrown. Due to the garden’s more open nature, one usually encounters more wildlife here than in the jungle proper, and this is where the T. arum was to be found.
It lived up to its name; it is truly the Godzilla of flowers, looking like some strange surrealist sculpture or something made by the BBC special effects department. It stood 7ft (2m) tall, the elephant’s foot of a stem widening into a barrel-sized green bowl. This in turn flared out into the petal, which looked like nothing so much as a Spanish Flamenco dancer’s red dress. Finally, a phallic stamen of bright yellow stabbed upwards from within the petal’s folds.
The scent of the T. arum is said to be like rotting flesh; it is pollinated by flies attracted to what they assume is a cadaver. We could detect no such smell around our flower – but close by the fresh carcass of a bearded pig was stealing its thunder.
Above: The amazing Titan arum growing in the "garden".
We found the house of the first witness and, with the help of Mr Subandi, interviewed him. His name was Seman, and he had seen the creature in an area of land adjacent to a river at mid-day during February 2004. The area was overgrown, and the creature had only been visible from the waist up. It had short black hair, a broad chest with pink skin visible on it, and a pointed head, possibly indicating a sagittal crest, with long ears. The creature vanished, and Seman said that he had the feeling it had fled to the river and swum across it, though he did not see this. The thing had been in view for about three minutes.
Seman produced a sketch showing a powerfully built, ape-like creature with broad shoulders, long arms, and a conical head. At no time did it raise its arms, as gibbons are wont to do on the rare occasions they descend to the ground.
Our next witness, in the same area, was a young man in his twenties by the name of Ata. He had seen his creature one morning around 10am, about three weeks after Seman’s sighting. He had heard strange cries – a loud OOOHA! OOOHA! sound – coming from the same general vicinity where Seman’s encounter had taken place. Upon investigation, Ata managed to reach a point only 5m (16ft) from a strange beast. It was 1m (3ft) tall, with short black hair. The prominent chest gave the impression it was female; its lower half was hidden by vegetation. He noticed that it had large owl-like eyes, a flat nose, and a large mouth. It seemed aggressive, and Ata said he had felt the hairs on the back of his hands rise up in fear.
He produced a drawing of a muscular, upright creature, with large round eyes, but lacking the pointed head of Seman’s description.
The next day, we were reunited with Sahar, our guide from the 2003 expedition. He casually told us that he had seen a giant snake captured by a jungle-dwelling tribe called the Kubu. We instantly recognised this as the story that had reached the British press of a 49ft (15m)- long, 985 lb (450kg) python called "Fragrant Flower" (FT181:21). The giant reptile had reputedly been looked on as an elder by the tribe. It was alleged that Imam Darmanto, the owner of a zoo in Java, had persuaded the Kubu to part with the giant – although it had taken 65 men and the blessing of a tribal leader to capture it. The snake was transported to Java, where it was put on display and fed a diet of dogs. Unfortunately, when the Guardian sent over a reporter with a tape measure, Fragrant Flower had shrunk to 23ft (7m). It seemed that the whole story was a publicity stunt by Mr Darmanto to promote his tawdry zoo.
Sahar confirmed that the snake had been about 7m long; more interestingly, he also promised to take us to talk to the very tribe who had captured it when we returned from the lost valley.
The track, though not as steep as those we’d tackled the previous year, had been turned into a quagmire by cattle and rain; consequently, the going was slow and tiring. We watched a troop of pig-tailed macaques through binoculars as they snooped around some farm buildings in search of any food they could pilfer.
We finally came upon an abandoned hut of the kind farmers build to shelter in when tending their crops. It was obvious that no one had inhabited it for years. It stood on wooden stilts and was festooned in cobwebs and fading graffiti. We decided to spend the night in this malodorous shanty. Sahar’s brother had not brought a sleeping bag and had to fashion a crude equivalent out of plastic sacking. During the night, he was beset by ants. Another unwelcome visitor was a gigantic spider, four inches across, that Sahar discovered scuttling around the floor. It was, he told us, venomous – not fatal, but certainly painful. We ejected it from the hut, but next morning I discovered it – or a similar one – in my sock!
We sallied on. The path was dull and difficult, and the mud slowed us to a snail’s pace. Gradually, the garden began to give way to the jungle. We walked for hours, becoming increasingly fatigued until night approached and we stumbled across a small and familiar-looking stream. Behind the stream was the shanty. We had come full circle and wasted a whole day. We climbed the ladder into the hut and retired to bed in poor spirits.
Next day we set out along a different path, and once again became lost. Sahar, it seemed, was not au fait with this area. By pure chance, we came across a farmhouse. The family not only put us up for the night but also found us a man called Pak En who knew the way to the lost valley. He was a sprightly old fellow who had ventured into the valley years ago on a fishing trip, and he agreed to be our guide for the next few days.
In the morning, we set out for the lost valley with Pak En leading the way. We trekked upward into the jungle. As we progressed, we encountered a major leech problem: dozens of the micro-vampires silently attached themselves to our legs. Sahar had a novel way of thwarting the tiny horrors. He daubed our boots with damp tobacco. It seems that leeches abhor the stuff.
Towering mesas loomed out of the jungle. Behind them, a fat daytime moon was fully visible, giving the vista an alien look. Sahar came across the droppings of a sun bear; although they are the smallest of the bears (about the size of a big St Bernard dog) they are second only to the polar bear in terms of ferocity, sporting outsized claws for ripping into rotten logs in search of insects or honey. They can just as easily rip flesh.
Finally we came to the valley, and it became clear that there was a damn good reason why it was lost. Sheer cliffs fell 300m (1,000ft) into rapids. The sides of the valley were swathed in savagely thorned rattan. We had no rope. If we wanted to see the bottom of the valley we would have to risk scrambling down by hand.
Pak En found a part of the valley wall that was slightly less than perpendicular and we gingerly began our descent. What looked like solid ground would often be no more than loose topsoil and would cascade from underfoot. Sturdy-looking branches would turn out to be rotten and snap when used for support. Half sliding, half walking we made our way down to the bottom.
Walking out into the sunshine of this river-carved gorge, it was astounding to think that I was the first Westerner ever to set foot here. The river was neither deep nor very wide, but it was fast-flowing and its bed a mass of slippery rocks. The only place large enough to set up camp was in a small area of jungle close to where we had descended.
In camp that night, in the eerie light given off by thousands of green fireflies, Pak En told us about his own meeting with an orang-pendek in the jungle just above the valley three years earlier.
He was walking along a trail when he saw it approaching. His description was very similar to those of the witnesses we had questioned earlier: the creature was 1m (3ft) tall, upright, and powerfully built. It had black hair with red tips and a broad mouth. Its prominent breasts made Pak En think it was female. He noticed that it grasped the vegetation as it moved. It let out an OOOHA! OOOHA! sound. He watched it move down the trail for two minutes before it saw him, when it turned quickly about and walked back the way it had come.
After breakfast next morning, we set out to explore the valley, but it was slow progress. More than once, the riverbank petered out into sheer cliffs on one side, forcing us to cross the rapids to the other. Landslides had dumped hundreds of tons of earth, rocks and trees at the foot of the cliffs at some points, blocking whole areas and making the journey more arduous as we scrambled over slick boulders or walked across fallen trees.
We saw many small animals, some probably unknown to science: tiny fast-moving fish; a gigantic toad with tiger-like stripes on its hindquarters; oddly flattened tadpoles that stuck to the rocks like sucking loaches. Above us black eagles whirled.
Progress was so slow that we realised that we would not make it to the end of the valley and back to camp before nightfall. The river was treacherous enough by day; in the dark it would be deadly. A broken leg in such a remote area could mean death. Sadly, we had to turn back about three quarters of the way along the valley.
Fascinating though the place was, it didn’t look like suitable orang-pendek habitat. It was too narrow and there was nothing in it to really justify the arduous climb down – surely, orang-pendek would have enough common sense not to bother.
When we once again reached the top of the gorge, Pak En took us to where he had seen his orang-pendek, miming the strange way the creature had walked, gripping at the plants as it went. He told us that its outsized muscles reminded him of Mike Tyson.
That night around the campfire, Chris, Jon, and I picked 100 leeches off our legs. The camp was alive with cicadas. Our socks and mosquito nets were festooned with cast-off exoskeletons that looked like little yellow ghosts.
In the morning, Sahar found a long black hair in the camp. It looked human, but was far longer than the hair of anyone in our party. Could it have been from the mane of an orang-pendek? We might have brushed past a hair sticking to undergrowth and not noticed. Sahar told us of legends of beautiful longhaired women who lived in the jungle. I found myself hoping that we would stumble upon a tribe of oriental amazons whose men folk had died out (perhaps from exhaustion). I placed the hair in a sample bag.
Back at Mr Subandi’s, we made plans to visit the Kubu and enquire after giant snakes. After a day of rest and birdwatching with our host, we set off for the lowland jungles of Jambi Province. It proved to be a long and largely dull journey, enlivened only by the appearance at dusk of gigantic flying foxes with five-foot (1.5m) wingspans that flew alongside the car. They roosted in huge groups, looking like masses of giant umbrellas in the trees.
We stayed in the unprepossessing and unremittingly dull town of Bangko, where Sahar found out that one of the men working at the hotel knew the Kubu and could speak their language (which is quite distinct from Indonesian). The man agreed to take us to see the Kubu in two days’ time.
In the meantime, we managed to find a restaurant shaped like a steam locomotive which served quite passable food. I wondered whether anyone in the whole world was doing the same thing as us: eating in a train-shaped restaurant while waiting to question tribesmen about giant snakes and ape-men.
We set out the next day, together with our translator, for a bumpy ride along an ill-maintained road into the jungle. The Kubu were once a totally nomadic tribe, but nowadays they alternate spells of months in the jungle with living in houses.
We found the chief of the Kubu, a man named Nylam, in a roadside house with his family and several members of his tribe. He had been suffering from malaria and was glad when I was able to give him some medicine.
With us putting questions to Sahar in English, Sahar asking the translator in Indonesian, and the translator asking the Kubu in their language, we succeeding in conducted an interview.
Nylam confirmed that he and his tribe had indeed captured a large snake. It was a python. When asked about its length he stated that it was 23ft (7m) long. This tallied with both Sahar’s estimate and the measurements of the Guardian reporter. The snake had been sold to a man in Java. The chief said that they had caught a 26ft (8m) specimen shortly after, but had let it go back into the jungle again.
I asked if any of the Kubu had ever seen a 15-meter snake. They all agreed that they had never seen one so large. I asked how long the largest snake they had seen was. Nylam and several of his hunters all said they had seen several snakes of 10m (33ft). One in particular had been living close to their habitations about six months ago.
Now came the strange part. All three men were adamant that these 10-metre snakes sported cow-like horns. One man had been within 5m (17ft) of one of the giant snakes and confirmed that it had horns. They also said it had a moss-like growth on its back. I asked them to draw a picture for me but none of them could draw. I produced a quick sketch of a reticulated python to which I added horns. It met with enthusiastic nods of approval.
Stranger still were their beliefs about these huge snakes. Once a snake reaches a very large size, it begins to get fatter and shorter. It grows four legs, each with five toes. Then it swims out to sea. I drew another picture, this time of an Indo-Pacific crocodile. The Kubu all agreed that this is what the great horned snake eventually becomes. In this form they called it a naga. They said it was larger than the common crocodile (or buaya, meaning "rascal" in Indonesian).
The Indo-Pacific crocodile does inhabit the region and, at its extreme may reach 10 metres. This is the record length for the reticulated python as well. It is interesting that the term naga is used for these creatures. You may recall my 2000 expedition to Thailand in search of the naga (see FT166:30-35). In India and Indo China, naga specifically refers to a giant crested snake, possibly an unknown species. In Indonesia, naga means dragon and appears to be used loosely to describe any monster reptile.
As far as I know this belief that pythons become crocodiles is unique to the Kubu. Quite where such a queer fancy springs from it’s hard to say. No one seems to have studied the Kubu and their folklore.
Nylam had also seen an orang-pendek in the area only three months ago. He had been up a tree at the time. The animal was 1.25m (4ft) tall and covered with red-tinted, black hair. It had a broad mouth, walked upright and held its arms like a man. It made a WEEEEHP! WEEEEHP! noise, and looked about itself as if it could smell its observer. Nylam watched it for half an hour.
When questioned about the cigau. the Kubu had all heard tell of such an animal but none had seen it.
My conviction that orang-pendek exists has been strengthened more than ever, though I feel that the cigau may now be extinct or very, very rare.
What of the horned snakes? Perhaps, alongside the reticulated python there could be a second, undiscovered species. The horns would probably be modified scales – as in several small types of snake such as the horned viper and rhinoceros viper. Maybe the Sumatran snakes are related to the larger nagas of Thailand. Almost predictably, the second CFZ expedition to Sumatra has provided us with more questions than answers.