“You ate bats with who?”
My eyebrows barely had the time to fall back into place as I asked an affable, wide-eyed, jungle guide to repeat himself.
“I ate bats with Bill Bailey!” he said again. He was referring to the popular British comedian – a seemingly obscure name drop out in the far throws of South East Asia.
I was in Tangkoko National Park, on the northern tip of Sulawesi. Sulawesi is a lesser-known, strangely-shaped island near Borneo and Bali in Indonesia. After experiencing the unique traditions of Sulawesi’s Highlands, I traveled to the northern tip of the island looking to seek out the company of the cartoonish-looking Sulawesi Black Crested Macaque.
After dipping in and out of a football tournament in the village, my friend and I booked a tour guide, a kind and wholesome lady named Renny. However, on encountering Bill Bailey’s dinner one-time dinner guest moments afterwards, we started to have doubts.
“I can get you a good photo of the monkeys eating bananas from my knee!” he excitedly proclaimed, with the excited eyes of a teenager, though he seemed mid-forties.
As a portrait photographer, his pitch was appealing. I envisioned him knelt down, banana-baiting a salivating simian as I got some dreamy up-close shots of these fascinating creatures, better known to the world as the infamous ‘selfie monkey’.
“Come and watch a video of me eating bats with Bill Bailey tonight.” Sure enough, that evening, I witnessed the troll-looking British comedian breaking bat with our energetic new friend.
We watched Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero, a BBC travelogue that saw the intrepid Mr. Bailey traverse through Borneo, Brunei, Sulawesi and New Guinea following the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer had been “airbrushed out of history”, according to Bailey. The documentary was his way of paint stripping the walls of history, roughly speaking.
It was in and around Tangkoko that Wallace noted a physical divide between the animals in Sulawesi, which were Australasian in origin, and the animals in nearby Borneo which are classically Asian. The separation was due, in theory, to land movement. The divide has since become known as the “Wallace Line”.
In correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin, Wallace collaborated on the theory of evolution, subsequently jointly published along with Darwin’s papers. Darwin’s The Origin of Species followed, allowing Darwin to take the glory, whilst Wallace’s name was consigned to the history books.
The bat-eating guide would be a hoot, but we’d already made an agreement with Renny.
After witnessing a group of Tarsiers (the tiny primates that inspired the creation of Yoda) return from a night’s hunting at 5 a.m., Renny and her sister led us to ‘Rambo 2’, the most friendly of the four troops of Black Crested Macaques. Yes, it was named after the Stallone franchise.
As we walked through the forest we noticed the snapping of twigs from all directions, and suddenly little black figures darted into our peripherals from all directions . Being used to human contact, they weren’t at all worried by our presence, and before we knew it we were part of their primal quest for berries, grooming, play fights, and nap spots. The simple life.
Rambling through the foliage with the black crested macaque is an overwhelming sensation, like stepping through a screen and onto the set of David Attenborough’s latest project.
Despite an initial time limit, Renny allowed us to follow them for as long as we wished. This was testament to hers and her sister’s love of both the ‘macaca nigra’ (as the macaques are locally know), the jungle, and the art of guiding.
As a second day’s outing came to its end, the alpha male of Rambo 2 looked particularly at ease. Renny called me over to come and sit with him. His relaxed yawning revealed massive incisors. As big as his teeth were, he was completely relaxed and non-threatening, though I kept a respectful distance.
Then he did something remarkable. As Renny sat down nearby him, he got up and walked over to her, sat down and placed his hand gently onto her outstretched boot.
They locked eyes.
If there was a line dividing species here, it wasn’t overly apparent in this moment. The look between them painted a picture no amount of banana-baiting could match
This article was originally published in Busan Haps.
Renny can be contacted for guide services at Renny_linggar@yahoo.com and she operates from the guesthouse Tarsius.
Here is a video I made from the trip: