My trip to Istana Ular Snake Cave

Highlights: Bats (abundant), snakes (high potential to see one or more pythons), other cave fauna, wading and swimming in the Wae Nengke River, taking the irrigation tunnel short cut, 100+ year old irrigation dam, encounters with locals.

Challenges: Wading Wae Nengke River in higher water, wading through a rich soup of bat and snake feces with or without hip waders.

Best time: May – October (primarily due to need for crossing rivers/creeks under low water conditions

Recommended Equipment: Sport sandals/hiking shoes, hat, gloves (rubber, surgical or even cotton), hip waders (for snake/bat cave), dust mask, two flashlights, safety glasses (no essential), camera, walking stick, small first aid kit, waterproof pack sack, liter of bottled water, sunglasses and sunscreen. Local people do this trip in bare feet, with no other equipment than a flashlight.

Guides: A local guide can and should be obtained near the departure from the main road. While fees for guiding are variable, expect to pay in the range of 200,000 rupiah (approx $22 US).

Time Commitment: Plan on a full day, though with determination one can leave Labuan Bajo at 9 AM and return by approximately 3 PM. Best arrangement is to depart approximately 6 AM, in order for morning arrival, when snakes are more active. Early departure also leaves potential for visits to other sites, such as: Cunca Rami or Cunca Wulaong falls, or traditional villages.

Access: Approximately 60 km from Labuan Bajo. Main road is paved, narrow and generally in good repair. However, rock slides and tree falls may be encountered. Numerous switchbacks and some considerable elevation gains are required to traverse the upper shoulders of Mt. Mebeliling, before descending down to the gentle landscape around Lembor. Using a trained local driver is definitely an asset. Access by conventional vehicle will take you within approximately 7 km from main road at Tondonglewe. From this point, either walk, use a high clearance 4x4 vehicle or motorcycle to gain access within about 1.5 – 2 km of location.

A creek crossing at approximately 1.5 km from main road, may be impassable by conventional vehicle or even 4x4, if heavy rain.

The trail off the main road follows an old road, used to service a small dam and irrigation works. Small farm plots and forested areas are observed along the route. Easy walking with a few minor hills, until within approximately 1 km of the cave, where a somewhat steep hill must be traversed. The route follows the switchbacks of this old irrigation road, at times overgrown with vegetation. The final approach to the Wae Nengke River requires crossing a local farmer's land. He is deaf and dumb; so his wife acts as the spokesperson. They are gracious people who tend a small patch of ground and run a few buffalo. A tip of a few dollars and a cigarette are appreciated.

The cave lies just above (approximately 15m) the lower bank of the Wae Nengke River. The Wae Nengke River must be waded. the boulder strewn river and submerged outcrops are not too slippery and afford reasonable footing. Traversing this river is recommended using the buddy system. This river can be impassable following heavy rains.

Entering the cave, visitors have to wade through up to half a meter of soupy bat and python excrement, bats are numerous and there is high potential to observe medium sized pythons which may be actively hunting or sheltering in crevices within the cave. One need only go approximately 50m into the cave to have contact with both. The drier portions of the floor of the cave and side walls, in places, team with insect life. Local guides and the not so squeamish wade bare foot through the muck.

Following the cave experience, a wade and swim in the Wae Nengke River is incredibly welcome. Once on the side of the river opposite the cave one can take a short cut through an old irrigation tunnel that passes under a small hill. The tunnel is perhaps 200m long. Traversing the tunnel should be avoided if there is risk of flash flooding.

First creek crossing encountered off main road on approach to Istana Ular cave site, May 14, 2010.

Foot and scooter bi-pass to first creek crossing on way to Istana Ular cave site.

Tree bearing fruit along main trunk, encountered along the Istana Ular cave trail , May 14, 2010.

Clearing overgrowth of vegetation on old irrigation system service road.

First view of Wae Nengke River, May 14, 2010.Istana Ular cave located in forest on lower slope on opposite side of river approximately 500m downstream of this location.

Preparing to cross the Wae Nengke River approximately 200m upstream of Istana Ular cave, May 14, 2010.

Inside Istana Ular cave, May 14, 2010.

Well fed python in Istana Ular cave, May 14, 2010.

Nearest local inhabitants to Istana Ular cave site, May 14, 2010.

Short cut through old irrigation tunnel, May 14, 2010.

Inside of old irrigation tunnel, May 14, 2010.

100+ year old Irrigation dam near Istana Ular cave site, May 14, 2010.

Local guide and family, May 14, 2010.