“”Watch out. Crocodile! Crocodile!”” shouted Sunardi, our 15-year-old guide. Without thought we rowed as fast aswe could to get away. Crocodiles, locally called bokeo, are common in the area.
It was our fourth day of traveling along the edge of Rawa Aopa, the largest swamp in Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park, Southeast Sulawesi. We were looking for a kind of heron locally called aroweli (Mycteria cinerea), one of the rare birds which lives in the swamp, to photograph it and complete our research on bird watching.
For almost five hours we rowed without a rest. The canoe was made from a hollowed-out tree and was almost full of water. The rocking of the canoe and the rain allowed water to enter. I had to drain it with a plastic tumbler while my friend continued rowing.
For bird-watchers around the world, Rawa Aopa is known as a heaven for the birds. Some of them are migratory birds, who visit Rawa Aopa on route to their final destination. For example, many birds which fly from Australia to Asia will stop here.
Unfortunately, Rawa Aopa is still an unheard-of place for people in Indonesia, even for people in Southeast Sulawesi. It has many beautiful views of nature and it also offers the prospect of finding undiscovered wildlife.
Most of visitors here come from abroad. They are scientists, biologists, bird-watchers or just ordinary people concerned with nature conservation; only a few were from Indonesia. They were students or, like us, students doing research.
Rawa Aopa is 30,000 hectares, with one-third of the region designated as a national park area. The area’s border is signaled by Aopa Bridge, an ironsteel bridge that connects Aopa and Mokaleleo villages. From Aopa village, the left of the bridge is a national park area. To the right is another village area.
“”There are many rare plants and birds in the national park area. It is different to the swamp because of this. Besides, most of these villagers depend on this place to live. Their houses are around this swamp and they work by fishing,”” explained Membale, a national park guard responsible for the security of Rawa Aopa.
It is an ideal habitat for many plants to live. There are tall grasses (Saccharum spp.), edible ferns, red and white lotus, and trees such as waru (Planconia valia), betao (Callophyllum soulatri), and uti (Bacchia frutescen). The plants are attractive to fish species, which in turn draws birds seeking a meal. When egg laying season begins, many snakes and crocodiles lie in wait, ready to eat the chicks who have already hatched. It is why so many kinds of birds are seen all day long, especially after rain.
I never imagined I could see a lotus field extending as far as the eye could see. There were red lotus that had to be protected on the upper course in the national park area, and white lotus on the lower course, out of the national park. Many kinds of birds sang as they perched atop the plants. There were kingbirds with their small, slim and red bodies; rangkongs (Rhyticeros cassidix), pecuk ulars with their long necks and black bodies, black herons and forest pigeons (Ducula spp.).
Behind a wide lotus leaf, I could see many yellow fish eggs which looked like bubbles. “”Fishes like to live here. Unfortunately I have often found many fishermen spreading their very small, red dragnet to catch fishes. They didn’t care if their actions endangered the vegetation because their dragnet could catch little fishes,”” explained Membale.
While crossing the swamp by canoe, I saw a small island called Harapan. Tall grasses surrounded it. One of the chairman of the forestry department in Kendari told me one day that foreigners found local varieties of rice and corn around this area. He ordered me to try and find them when I went there. But it was difficult passing through the grasses with the small canoe and simple equipment. I decided to come back another day.
There is a history behind the name Harapan, which means hope. In the past, there was a rebellion led by Westerling, a Dutch soldier who tried todivide Indonesia and build a new nation. This group terrorized people around Aopa village, forcing them to flee to the island.
“”Do you know what happened when this group tried to chase them? The island looked like it was walking, to keep away from them. So, the island became our last hope,”” told Karate, an old fisherman.
In the past, the island had facilities for tourists. There was a wood tower to observe animals around the island, a shelter for tourists who wished to spend the night there and a small quay for canoes to land. But all of them were destroyed by a storm. “”We will repair them soon so many people can come again,”” promised Membale.
The only way to cross this wide area is by using a canoe, which is provided in a large and small vessel. The bigger dugout can carry five people but only when crossing the nearby areas where there is not much grass and lotus. The small ones can reach distant places in the upper course area of the downstream area. But this particular canoe only carries two people, which includes the canoe keeper. The cost of the canoe was not expensive. I had to pay them the same wage as they received for fishing forthe time I spent with them.
When we were tired, Sunardi took us to the hut. “”This is a hut for the fisherman who use a dragnet,”” he said. The hut is the only place to take a rest in this swamp, but fortunately there are many huts around this area.
The hungry can buy smoked fish from fishermen in the hut. I got 30 fish for my Rp 1,500. “”I will take the fish to the market tomorrow morning,”” said a fisherman. Usually, he earns Rp 5,000 daily through selling his fish.
Despite its poor facilities, Rawa Aopa is an interesting place to visit. It takes two hours to reach Aopa village from Kendari, the capital city of Southeast Sulawesi, by public transport which costs Rp 3,500. If you want to stay, you can rent a forest guard’s cabin or sleep in the chairman of the village’s home, but permission from the forestry ministry in Jakarta orits office in Kendari.
If you decide to stay in a forest guard’s cabin, you have to bring food and cook for yourself because there are no restaurants. However, there are many small markets that sell basic necessities. In the morning, fresh fish and bunches of bananas are hung in front of the villagers’ houses. The foodis for sale, and visitors can take their pick. (artikel ini pernah dimuat The Jakarta Post)