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  'Have another beer first.'

  I did.

  There are,' said mark, 'more poisonous snakes per square metre of ground on Komodo than on any equivalent area on earth.'

  There is in Melbourne a man who probably knows more about poisonous snakes than anyone else on earth. His name is Dr Struan Sutherland, and he has devoted his entire life to a study of venom.

  'And I'm bored with talking about it,' he said when we went along to see him the next morning, laden with tape recorders and note books. 'Can't stand all these poisonous creatures, all these snakes and insects and fish and things. Wretched things, biting everybody. And then people expect me to tell them what to do about it. I'll tell them what to do. Don't get bitten in the first place. That's the answer. I've had enough of telling people all the time. Hydroponics, now, that's interesting. Talk to you all you like about hydroponics. Fascinating stuff, growing plants artificially in water, very interesting technique. We'll need to know all about it if we're going to go to Mars and places. Where did you say you were going?'


  'Well, don't get bitten, that's all I can say. And don't come running to me if you do because you won't get here in time and anyway I've got enough on my plate. Look at this office. Full of poisonous animals all over the place. See this tank? It's full of fire ants. Venomous little creatures, what are we going to do about them? Anyway, I got some little cakes in in case you were hungry. Would you like some little cakes? I can't remember where I put them. There's some tea but it's not very good. Sit down for heaven's sake.

  'So, you're going to Komodo. Well, I don't know why you want to do that, but I suppose you have your reasons. There are fifteen different types of snake on Komodo, and half of them are poisonous. The only potentially deadly ones are the Russell's viper, the bamboo viper and the Indian cobra.

  The Indian cobra is the fifteenth deadliest snake in the world, and all the other fourteen are here in Australia. That's why it's so hard for me to find time to get on with my hydroponics, with all these snakes all over the place.

  'And spiders. The most poisonous spider is the Sydney funnel web. We get about five hundred people a year bitten by spiders. A lot of them used to die, so we had to develop an antidote to stop people bothering me with it all the time. Took us years. Then we developed this snake bite detector kit. Not that you need a kit to tell you when you've been bitten by a snake, you usually know, but the kit is something that will detect what type you've been bitten by so you can treat it properly.

  'Would you like to see a kit? I've got a couple here in the venom fridge. Let's have a look. Ah look, the cakes are in here too. Quick, have one while they're still fresh. Fairy cakes, I baked 'em myself.'

  He handed round the snake venom detection kits and his home-baked fairy cakes and retreated back to his desk, where he beamed at us cheerfully from behind his curly beard and bow tie. We admired the kits, which were small, efficient boxes neatly packed with tiny bottles, a pipette, a syringe and a complicated set of instructions that I wouldn't want to read for the first time in a panic, and then we asked him how many of the snakes he had been bitten by himself.

  'None of 'em,' he said. 'Another area of expertise I've developed is that of getting other people to handle the dangerous animals. Won't do it myself. Don't want to get bitten, do I? You know what it says in my book jackets? "Hobbies: gardening -with gloves; fishing - with boots; travelling - with care." That's the answer. What else? Well, in addition to the boots wear thick, baggy trousers, and preferably have half a dozen people tramping along in front of you making as much noise as possible. The snakes pick up the vibrations and get out of your way, unless it's a death adder, otherwise known as the deaf adder, which just lies there. People can walk right past it and over it and nothing happens. I've heard of twelve people in a line walking over a death adder and the twelfth person accidentally trod on it and got bitten. Normally you're quite safe if you're twelfth in line. You're not eating your cakes. Come on, get them down you, there's plenty more in the venom fridge.'

  We asked, apprehensively, if any of the folk remedies or potions we'd heard about were any good.

  `Well, nine times out of ten they'll work fine for the simple reason that nine snake bites out of ten the victim doesn't get ill anyway. It's the last ten per cent that's the problem, and there's a lot of myths we've had to disentangle about snakes in order to get at the truth. You need accurate information. People's immediate response to snake bites is often to overreact and give the poor snake a ritual beating, which doesn't really help in the identification. If you don't know which exact snake it was you can't treat the bite properly.' .

  'Well, in that case,' I asked, 'could we perhaps take a snake bite detector kit with us to Komodo?

  'Course you can, course you can. Take as many as you like. Won't do you a blind bit of good because they're only for Australian snakes.'

  'So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then? I asked.

  He blinked at me as if I were stupid.

  'Well what do you think you do? he said. 'You die of course. That's what deadly means.'

  'But what about cutting open the wound and sucking out the poison? I asked.

  'Rather you than me,' he said. 'I wouldn't want a mouthful of poison. Shouldn't do you much harm, though. Snake toxins have a high molecular weight, so they won't penetrate the blood vessels in the mouth the way that alcohol or some drugs do, and then the poison gets destroyed by the acids in your stomach. But it's not necessarily going to do much good, either. You're not likely to be able to get much of the poison out, but you're probably going to make the wound a lot worse trying. And in a place like Komodo it means you'd quickly have a seriously infected wound to contend with as well as a leg full of poison. Septicaemia, gangrene, you name it. It'll kill you.'

  `What about a tourniquet??

  'Fine if you don't mind having your leg off afterwards. You'd have to because if you cut off the blood supply to it completely it'll just die. And if you can find anyone in that part of Indonesia who you'd trust to take your leg off then you're a braver man than me. No, I'll tell you: the only thing you can do is apply a pressure bandage direct to the wound and wrap the whole leg up tightly, but not too tightly. Slow the blood flow but don't cut it off or you'll lose the leg. Keep the leg, or whatever bit of you it is you've been bitten in, lower than your heart and your head. Keep very, very still, breathe slowly and get to a doctor immediately. If you're on Komodo that means a couple of days, by which time you'll be well dead.

  `The only answer, and I mean this quite seriously, is don't get bitten. There's no reason why you should. Any of the snakes there will get out of your way well before you even see them. You don't really need to worry about the snakes if you're careful. No, the things you really need to worry about are the marine creatures.'


  `Scorpion fish, stonefish, sea snakes. Much more poisonous than anything on land. Get stung by a stone fish and the pain alone can kill you. People drown themselves just to stop the pain.'

  `Where are all these things??

  'Oh, just in the sea. Tons of them. I wouldn't go near it if I were you. Full of poisonous animals. Hate them.'

  `Is there anything you do like??

  'Yes,' he said. `Hydroponics.'

  We flew to Bali.

  David Attenborough has said that Bali is the most beautiful place in the world, but he must have been there longer than we were, and seen different bits, because most of what we saw in the couple of days we were there sorting out our travel arrangements was awful. It was just the tourist area, i.e. that part of Bali which has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.

  The narrow, muddy streets of Kuta were lined with gift shops and hamburger bars and populated 'with crowds of drunken, shouting tourists, kamikaze motorcyclists, counterfeit watch sellers and small dogs. The kamikaze motorcyclists tried
to pick off the tourists and the small dogs, while the tiny minibus which we spent most of the evening in, shuttling our bags from one full hotel to another, hurtled through the motorcyclists and counterfeit watch sellers at video game speeds. Somewhere not too far from here, towards the middle of the island, there may have been heaven on earth, but hell had certainly set up business on its porch.

  The tourists with their cans of lager and their `Fuck off T-shirts were particularly familiar to anyone who has seen the English at play in Spain or Greece, but I suddenly realised as I watched this that for once I didn't need to hide myself away in embarrassment.

  They weren't English. They were Australian.

  But they were otherwise so nearly identical that it started me thinking about convergent evolution, which I had better explain before I go on to say why they made me think of it.

  In different pacts of the world strikingly similar but completely unrelated forms of life will emerge in response to similar conditions and habitats. For instance, the aye-aye, the lemur Mark and I originally tracked down in Madagascar, has one particularly remarkable feature. Its third finger is much longer than its other fingers and is skeletally thin, almost like a twig. It uses this finger for poking around under the bark of the trees it lives in to dig out the grubs which it feeds on. There is one other creature in the world which does this, and that is the long-fingered possum, which is found in New Guinea. It has a long and skeletally thin fourth finger, which it uses for precisely the same purpose. There is no family relationship between these two animals at all, and the only common factor between them is this: an absence of woodpeckers.

  There are no woodpeckers in Madagascar, and no woodpeckers in Papua New Guinea. This means that there is a food source - the grubs under the bark - going free, and in these two cases it is a mammal which has developed a mechanism for getting at it. And the mechanism they both use is the same -different finger, same idea. But it is purely the selection process of evolution which has created this similarity, because the animals themselves are not related.

  Exactly the same behaviour pattern had emerged entirely independently on the other side of the world. As in the gift shop habitats of Spain or Greece, or indeed Hawaii, the local people cheerfully offer themselves up for insult and abuse in return for money which they then spend on further despoiling their habitat to attract more money-bearing predators.

  'Right,' said Mark, when we found some dinner that night in a tourist restaurant with plastic flowers and muzak and paper umbrellas in the drinks, 'here's the picture. We have to get a goat.'


  'No. In Labuan Bajo. Labuan Bajo is on the island of Flores and is the nearest port to Komodo. It's a crossing of about twenty-two miles across some of the most treacherous seas in the East. This is where the South China Sea meets the Indian Ocean, and it's riddled with cross currents, riptides and whirlpools. It's very dangerous and could take anything up to twenty hours.'

  `With a goat?'

  'A dead goat.'

  I toyed with my food.

  'It's best,' continued Mark, 'if the goat has been dead for about three days, so it's got a good smell going. That's more likely to attract the dragons.'

  'You're proposing twenty hours on a boat...'

  'A small boat,' added Mark.

  'On violently heaving seas...'


  'With a three-day-old dead goat.'


  'I hardly know what to say.'

  'There's one other thing that I should probably say, which is that I've no idea if any of this is true. There are wildly conflicting stories, and some are probably just out of date, or even completely made up. I hope we'll have a better idea of the situation when we get to Labuan Bajo tomorrow. We're. flying tomorrow, via Bima, and we should be at Denpasar airport early. It was a nightmare getting these tickets and the connecting flight and we mustn't miss the plane.'

  We did. Fresh eruptions of hell awaited us at Denpasar airport, which was a turmoil of crowds and shouting with a sense of incipient violence simmering just beneath the surface. The airline check-in man said that our flight from Bima to Labuan Bajo had not been confirmed by the travel agent and as a result we had no seats. He shrugged and gave us back our tickets.

  We had been told that serenity was the best frame of mind with which to tackle Indonesia and we decided to try it. We tried serenely to point out that it actually said 'Confirmed' on our tickets, but he explained that 'Confirmed' didn't actually mean confirmed, as such, it was merely something that they wrote on tickets when people asked them to because it saved a lot of bother and made them go away.

  He went away.

  We stood waggling our tickets serenely at thin air. Behind the check-in desk was a window and from behind this a thin airline official with a thin moustache, a thin tie and a white shirt with thin epaulets sat smoking cigarettes and staring at us impassively through narrow wreaths of smoke. We waved our tickets at him, but he just shook his head very, very slightly.

  We marched serenely over to the ticket office, where they said it was nothing to do with them, we should talk to the travel agent. A number of decreasingly serene phone calls to the travel agent in Bali simply told us that the tickets were definitely confirmed and that's all there was to it. The ticket office told us that they definitely weren't, and that's all there was to it.

  'What about another flight?' we asked. Maybe, they said. Maybe in a week or two.

  'A week or two?' we exclaimed.

  'Moment,' said one of the men, took our tickets and went away with them. About ten minutes later he returned and gave them to a second man who said, 'Moment,' and went away with them in turn. He returned fifteen minutes later, looked at us and said, 'Yes? What do you want to know?' We explained the situation all over again, whereupon he nodded, said, 'Moment,' and disappeared again. When, after a longish while had passed, we asked where he was we were told that he had gone to visit his mother in Jakarta because he hadn't seen her in three years.

  Had he taken our tickets with him, we enquired.

  No, they were here somewhere, we were told Did we want them?

  Yes, we did, we explained We were trying to get to Labuan Bajo.

  This news seemed to cause considerable consternation, and within minutes everyone in the office had gone to lunch.

  It became clear that the plane was going to leave without us. We had the option of doing the first part of the flight, as far as Bima, and then being stranded there, but decided instead to stay in Bali and go and deal with the travel agent. No more Mr Serene Guys.

  A minibus took us back to the travel agency where we stormed slowly up the stairs with all our baggage and angrily refused to sit and have coffee and listen to a machine which played 'Greensleeves' whenever the phone rang. There was a sense of muted horror in the air as if one of us had died, but no one actually paid any attention to us for nearly an hour, so in the end we started to get angry again and were immediately shown into the office of the director of the agency who sat us down and told us that the Indonesians were a proud race and that furthermore it was all the fault of the airline.

  He then soothed at us a great deal, told us that he was a very powerful man in Bali, and explained that it did not help the situation that we got angry about it.

  This was a point of view with which I had some natural sympathy, being something of a smiler and nodder myself, who generally registers anger and frustration by frowning a lot and going to sleep.

  On the other hand I couldn't help noticing that all the time we had merely smiled and nodded and laughed pleasantly when we had been laughed pleasantly at, nothing had happened and people had merely said 'moment, moment' a lot and gone to Jakarta or peered at us impassively through narrow wreaths of smoke. As soon as we had geared ourselves up to get angry and stamp our feet a bit we had been instantly whisked to the office of the director of the travel agency who was busy telling us that there was no point in us getting angry, and that he would arrange an
extra flight specially for us to Labuan Bajo.

  He tried to demonstrate the uselessness of stamping our feet to us with maps. 'In these areas,' he said, pointing to a large wall map of half of Asia, 'it works. East of this line here it doesn't work.'

  He explained that if you are travelling in Indonesia you should allow four or five days for anything urgent to happen. As far as our missing plane seats were concerned, he said that this sort of thing happened all the time. Often some government official or other important person would decide that he needed a seat, and, of course, someone else would then lose theirs. We asked if this was what had happened to us. He said, no, it wasn't the reason, but it was the sort of reason we should bear in mind when thinking about these problems.

  At this point we agreed to have the coffee.

  He organised hotel rooms for us for the night, and a minibus tour of the island for the afternoon.

  There is a good living to be made in Bali, we discovered, from pointing ,at animals. First find your animal, and then point at it.

  If you set yourself up properly you can even make a living from pointing at the person who is pointing at the animal. We found a very good example of this enterprise on the beach near the famous temple of Tanah Lot, and apparently it was a long established and thriving business. Up on the beach there was a very low, wide cave, inside which, in a small cranny in the wall, a couple of yellow snakes had made their home.

  Outside on the beach was a man who sat on a box and collected the money, and pointed at the man in the cave. Once you had paid your money you crept into the cave, and the man in the cave pointed at the snakes.

  Apart from this highlight the guided tour was profoundly depressing. When we told our guide that we didn't want to go to all the tourist places he took us instead to the places where they take tourists who say that they don't want to go to tourist places. These places are, of course, full of tourists. Which is not to say that we weren't tourists every bit as much as the others, but it does highlight the irony that everything you go to see is changed by the very action of going to see it, which is the sort of problem which physicists have been wrestling with for most of this century. I'm not going to bang on about Bali being turned into a Bali Theme Park, in which Bali itself is gradually destroyed to make way for a tatty artificial version of what used to be there, because it is too familiar a process to come as news to anybody. I just want to let out a squeak of frustrated rage. I'm afraid I couldn't wait to leave the most beautiful place on earth.