Obi – Indonesia – The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

One might think I wouldn’t have a single nice thing to say about the island of Obi, with one of the worst events happening to me there and all, but to be honest, that isn’t true. I do have nice things to say about Obi, a lot in fact. But if I have to be completely honest, I have some not so good things to say as well.

First and foremost let me say I have met some of the absolute nicest, friendliest and most helpful people while visiting Indonesia. Of all of our travels, of all of the places we’ve been in this world, Indonesia is proving itself to be one of my favorites simply for the fact that the people have been so welcoming to two strangers. We’ve been showing up unannounced to peoples’ homes since we got here and never has anyone done anything but take us in with open arms…and ask us to take a selfie. Obi was no different, in fact, the people we met on Obi were in many ways the absolute friendliest, and until I find others to top it, will be my favorite that we stayed with. But, there are some bad apples and bad things do happen when you let your guard down and at some point while on Obi, I crossed paths with a bad apple. As a result… I no longer have binoculars. Binoculars! Probably the single most important piece of gear to have on any birding trip. While I’m absolutely devastated that my $800 binoculars are gone, I am thankful that it was a police report we were filing and not any medical emergency claim related to our well-being. There’s a bright side to everything and I’m going to choose to look in that direction regardless of how sad I am going to be when I can’t actually see any of the birds I am supposedly looking at. And if there was any piece of “important gear” to have stolen while on our trip, my binoculars would be it. It wasn’t the scope, laptop, camera, recording gear, or God forbid, Ross’s much more expensive binoculars and for that I am thankful.

Obi was one of the places we were visiting that Ross was most excited about, mainly because it is a remote island only accessible by a 15-hour ferry ride and not visited by many birders, let alone international tourists. Ross informed me with almost near certainty that in visiting Obi, I would be one of the first young, white females to step foot on this island. Needless to say I was a bit nervous! The long ferry was surprisingly uneventful and rather enjoyable save for the legitimate pain I would feel every time someone would simply throw their trash overboard and into the sea. Watching the ocean being treated as one big trash can and knowing the implications non-biodegradable items like plastic have on the wildlife that call it home is absolutely upsetting. That being said, I know it is a lack of education that leads people to do these heinous acts and is a driving force to why I want to do all I can to help save this planet we call home. I could honestly go on about that forever, but I’ll just stop there and say that after 15 hours and a few short port calls, we arrived on Obi and sought out the family of the homestay that we hoped to spend the night at.

Pak Sabar and family were welcoming and immediately took us in and helped us sort out some of our other logistics for our visit. We then went to introduce ourselves to Pak La Gode who according to the only other information we had, could take us to a few birding spots and show us where to look for a few of the island’s endemics. We met with Pak La Gode at his house and told him that we essentially wanted to go up as high in elevation as we could and camp as most of the birds we really wanted to see were found at higher elevations. He said that was fine and planned to meet us back at our homestay later that night to finalize our plans. We still had a few hours left in our afternoon so we planned to do a short 4 km hike to a spot that Moluccan Woodcock are known to display. So let me get one thing straight before I go on about Obi, while we had very little information to go on, we did have something. And that something came from a respectable journal, Forktail, where John Mittermeier had conducted extensive surveys on the island of Obi and mentioned a few birding spots and even some directions on how to get there. Although we are very thankful to John for the invaluable information, some of the distance totals mentioned were a bit off! What we thought would be a 4km hike based on what was said in the article, turned into about double that just to get to the river! (It was supposed to be 2km to river and 2km along a trail to the site!) We spent the rest of the afternoon essentially wasting it away before we arrived at the river and found that it was flooded and we couldn’t continue on anyway, not that we would have gotten to the site in time because we later found out that the “2km” to the site was also a bit longer than expected. It was a bit of a waste, but at least we knew a little bit more about the area now. We headed back to the homestay, ate our dinner and afterwards Pak La Gode arrived to finish discussing our plan for the next day. We had coordinated with him earlier and had it all figured out that he would take us where we wanted to go but learned he wanted 500,000 rupiah per day per person! Insane! We were not going to be paying him that and attempted to negotiate but for some reason people can be stubborn and instead of wanting to make some decent money he opted to make none instead. I’ll never understand that mindset. We didn’t use him and decided we would just do it ourselves. We had 21 target birds. Ready, Go!

The next morning Ross and I headed back towards the river we saw the day prior because Ross knew from scouring topographical maps of the island that that area should get us into the right kind of elevation. We took motorbikes to the flooded river and set out on foot knowing that past that area is a water plant of some sort that we noticed from the day before where people seemed to stay and we hoped they would let us camp out with them. Luckily they were happy to have us and allowed us to store our bag in a spare room while we set out on foot hoping we could find a trail that would take us up the mountain into higher elevations. The mountain is currently being logged and luck was in our favor as there were several “roads” up the mountain. These “roads” are more like trails with some composed of mud that more closely resembles soup than it does terrain and I couldn’t imagine any kind of vehicle being able to traverse them, but there were tire marks so surely it was done at least once before. Ross kept his GPS on and kept watching where we were on the topographical map and we made our way up in elevation along the old logging road attempting to always zig in the direction that would take us higher. While walking up we had views of White-bellied Cuckooshrike, Obi Golden Bulbul, Obi Whistler, Obi Spectacled Monarch, and Moluccan Monarch­, but the walking was tough and the trail was made up of thick mud that would appear stable but until your foot was planted and you had sunk in like it was quicksand, did you know that it was not a place to step.

I made it as high as 250m in elevation before I decided I was tired of hiking in ankle-deep mud and reading my book sounded like a much friendlier alternative than going any further. I was not convinced that these roads would take us anywhere. Ross continued up higher and made it to 560m elevation before he couldn’t figure out how to get any higher. We both saw Obi Fantail from our respective locations, but Ross also managed to tick Pale Cicadabird, Obi Common Paradise Kingfisher, and Obi Myzomela off of his target list. We worked our way back down and although we weren’t planning on going back to the place our bag was stowed at, we had met a man who agreed to show us trails up the mountain for the following day and we wanted to be sure to show him where to meet us. And then it started to rain so we decided we’d just seek shelter there!

We went back to the little “homestay” and everyone was so friendly and so welcoming to two strangers! They had never had anyone like us stay with them before and they were so happy we were visiting. Seriously, these were the people I was talking about earlier, the ones who were just everything you would want. We showed up out of the blue and they invited us in for a delicious lunch! And to this day, the food we ate with them remains some of the best Indonesian cooking we have had! We weren’t expecting to be fed and had packed ramen noodles to get by on for lunch and dinner but turns out we never needed them! We ate a quick lunch and watched as it rained and rained and continued to rain. We watched as the river rose and the whole area around us began to flood. It was crazy to see such a big difference in such a short period of time. Luckily the people made for good company and although we didn’t speak the same language we still found ways to communicate.

To get back to where we were the day before as we were planning required us traversing a river three times. We’d done it the day before and were planning to do it again but when we came to the second river crossing the current was still so strong from flooding the day before. We did make it across but not without some serious resistance. Ross had to go across and then come back and act as a support so I could even wade through it. Once we were on the other side we learned that what was a road the day we walked up, was now part of the river. Not cool. We decided again that going up was going to be too risky, especially if we were go to up the mountain and it rain more, we wouldn’t be able to get back across the river so we stayed down below. We at least were in the right area to finally try for those woodcocks we’d been trying to see since we got to Obi. We waited for sunrise and just before first light we heard our first Moluccan Woodcock call. Unfortunately we never managed to see one!! They were close but apparently not close enough. We crossed back over the river and birded the lower elevations.

The morning wasn’t as productive as we would have liked and it seemed to quiet up early but we still managed a few goodies including Rufous-necked Sparrowhawk and North Moluccan Pitta. Then, as rain was approaching, we headed back to the homestay and hung there for the next SIX HOURS as we watched the rain come even harder than the day before and again watched as the river rose and flooded the area. Great, we were hoping to go up to higher elevation the next day but now the super strong current wouldn’t have receded. Ross and I were hanging out at the water plant when we heard the distinct call of a Moluccan Woodcock. It sounded close. Don’t you know that little bird flew directly over where we were sitting. We had great looks and were able to explain to the people there that this bird is only found here on Obi. They of course told us they hear it every night at 7pm. We showed them pictures in the book and I think they were very appreciative of this new knowledge. That night we finally managed to get out and try for the obi subspecies of Moluccan Scops-Owl. Ross was continuing on his quest to get a photo of every subspecies of this bird and I was finally going out to see one, something I hadn’t done up until this point (oops). We walked up only about 200 meters from where we were staying and despite a slight drizzle had a Moluccan Scops-Owl respond to playback and sit overhead. He was sopping wet but so absolutely adorable as he called back to us and posed for a photo. Before we went out we were sure to tell everyone we were going to go out and look for the “Buru Hantu”, the Indonesian word for owl. We went back to the homestay to show everyone a photo so they could put a face to the name of their Buru Hantu. Ross said “is this the face you want to show them, the bird is soaking wet.” I simply responded, “I don’t think there’s any better photo of this owl than that.” Naturally they loved it.

We went to bed and Ross woke up early gung ho to get up the mountain. I simply wasn’t going to risk it but I wasn’t keen on him going alone. Finally he convinced me he would be fine so he left at 3am while I stayed behind. When I finally woke up at 6am and left to go birding at 7am, I couldn’t find my binoculars. I thought there was a chance that Ross might have them in his backpack so I wanted to wait to hear back from him before I got too worked up about them being missing. I sat next to a fruiting tree hoping that a Carunculated Fruit-dove might come to feed, but no such luck. I did manage to see Dusky Myzomela before I met back up with Ross who informed me that his morning was quite interesting. The river was raging and he wasn’t sure he would even be able to cross but he found a stick and essentially used that as a support to get across. When he finally got up the mountain, apparently the road he went up the day before had completely collapsed out. There was no going any higher than 400m even if he wanted to. Pretty scary stuff to know the hillside you were/are standing on is not structurally sound. At least he did manage to see Island Flycatcher, Obi Myzomela, and Obi Common Paradise Kingfisher, but still no white-eye, leaf-warbler or rufous-fantail – just couldn’t get high enough. I soon learned he did not have my binoculars and we went back to the homestay. The people were very helpful and helped us look but they did not turn up. I honestly do not think one of the people we stayed with took them, but there were a few people there the night before who were up late that could have perhaps swiped them off of my bag. Either that or any of the people who go by to get to the logging road saw them sitting on my backpack and took them. I realized I hadn’t actually seen them since noon the day before because that was when we stopped birding and the rain began. The note we had to leave on was devastating. We went back to town and filed a police report in the hopes that we could get something back from our travel insurance.

After a miserable 3 hours in the police station filing our report, we went back to the first homestay near the port where we had stored our other bags and broke the news to them that we were going to spend the night in the hotel in town instead of their front yard. We hung out for a little, took a few photos and then made our way to the hotel where we knew we would be a bit more comfortable, despite the hospitality shown to us at the homestay. Ross opted to do a little scouting mission and found a motorbike to ride him up to another area that he thought might get us into some decent elevation.

The next morning we headed to that area, but not without a little bit of a headache. People of Indonesia, while extremely nice, can agree to things they may not have any intentions on doing just to make you happy. Such was the case with the motorbike driver who told Ross he would pick us up at 4am and take us back to where he took Ross to scout the day prior. We gave him the benefit of the doubt at first as it was raining at 4am, but soon 5am rolled around and he was a no show. It was a mess. We didn’t actually find two motorbikes until 5:30am. (Word of advice for anyone planning to visit Obi, coordinate your motorbikes through the homestay as they are at least reliable.) We were up to 200m elevation when the motorbike I was on stopped working and Ross and I agreed to walk. We continued up the road following along with where we were on the topographical map but never knowing if the road would zig when we wanted it to zag. We made it as high as 400m elevation before topping off. The morning was unusually quiet and we didn’t hear any of our three main targets but did have views of Obi Paradise Crow, Scaled Lory, and Ross’s third (and my first) Obi Myzomela of the trip, a bird that is supposed to be rather difficult to find on Obi, certainly known to be trickier than the other three high-elevation species we were looking for. There was a Y in the road so we decided to hike back down and see if going the other way would take us up to the other mountain in the area. We walked for a ways up the valley before deciding it was just too far to go before we would even begin climbing in elevation again. We didn’t have the time to walk across the valley, up a mountain, do some birding and get back before the afternoon downpour that we’d come to expect so we started to walk back out. I had just finished complaining to Ross that I was going to dip Carunculated Fruit-dove when we flushed a dove out of a tree and into a nearby one. Unfortunately it was just a Black-naped Fruit-Dove, and not the one I was looking for. But thanks to it flushing we decided to spend some time in the area and before long noticed that a different tree in the back looked like it was fruiting and might have a few visitors. We walked up close and there it was, a Carunculated Fruit-dove with its namesake orange fleshy knobs at the base of the bill easily visible as the bird perched right in the open for us to see! We heard a few little calls but Ross was under the impression that the species was mute based on some of the information he had, so he had moved on to focus on photographing the silly-looking birds. I wasn’t convinced the species was mute so I was setting up the recording gear when I heard Ross tell me to bring him the stuff. Lucky for him it was already set up. He managed a few top-notch recordings of the low-pitched purr/growl they were making and a few photos when we decided to get a ride on the next available vehicle out. That vehicle turned out to be a large truck transporting coconuts. It got the job done and we made it back to the hotel just as the rain started. It really wasn’t raining like it had the past few days, but we were a bit annoyed so we opted to stay in and catch up on some rest.

After an afternoon siesta we hopped on two motorbikes to take us back towards where Ross heard a woodcock call once before and finished our night with some flyby Moluccan Woodcocks doing their evening displays. The following morning we hopped back on the ferry and said goodbye to the island of Obi where we had met some of the most amazing people and also one of the worst.

2 thoughts on “Obi – Indonesia – The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

  1. I am a big fan of your blog and I feel bad you got such a bad experience in my country. Hopefully you can get some better binocular soon! Keep writing 😀

    P.S. If you come to Yogyakarta, I would like to show you some birds around!

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    • We have absolutely been loving Indonesia and the people and the beautiful forests. It was one bad event amongst a slew of good ones so can’t complain too much!

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