Nick and the Army Ants

Selamat Datang, or good day, mates! This is your buddy, Nick, ready to bear his soul and tell you another true tale of disbelief and amazement! Never doubt what you hear, as this world is full of wondrous and strange happenings. Of course, a good dose of scepticism is also a good thing, as our minds can sometimes play tricks on us, and leave us wondering if the incredible events that just seem to happen to us are mere dreams or stark, brutal reality that we want to banish from our minds.

Do you remember that incredible hike I was telling you about? The one where we met the Stinking Giant while camped out on the pile of rocks known as Bata Gajah on the banks of the raging river Bohorok? Well, that strange event was only the beginning of one wild and crazy night. I thought I would spare you the nightmares and anxiety by telling this story in small pieces. You remember the Hiking God? The cool dude who led us over one mountain after another, deep into the Gunung Leuser wilderness? Well, he brought a chicken with him in his pack.

We didn't want to comment on the chicken, even though it raised a holy racket as it squawked and cackled all the way up and down every mountainside. We thought, like you, that it was strange, but we were afraid to mention it to him. We didn't want to appear like we were insensitive to his culture or his feelings. After all, it might have been his pet chicken, his good luck charm, his confidante, or maybe it had just slipped into his pack when he wasn't looking to get at the microwave popcorn bag that he had brought. But wouldn't he have heard the chicken!? Did he think it was some rare, two-horned, multicolored hornbill that was following us in the canopy of the forest for six hours?!

Well, when we arrived at the riverside camp, the first thing Hiking God did was to grab that scrawny chicken by the neck and shove him into a wicker basket that he immediately placed in a banyan tree beside our tent. Obviously, it was not his pet fowl. He looked at us as if to say, "don't bother asking, cuz I'll pretend I don't understand", so we let the matter drop and since the feathered friend stopped clucking, we soon forgot about it.

Later, after setting up camp, we took our walk in the forest and decided to look for the Stinking Giant (that was another tale). On our way back, after our amazing encounter with the Giant, we came across an unbelievable sight. But you must believe me because it's the absolute truth, hope to die, stick a rattan needle in my eye! Crossing our path on the dense forest floor was a column of giant ants, millions of them! They formed a line about six inches wide and stretched as far into the bush as the eye could see, which wasn't very far, but nevertheless, as Hiking God told us, went for at least a dozen kilometers. They were army ants! Huge, at least an inch in length, each with big, fat heads and giant pinchers that snapped open and shut as they looked for prey crossing their path to rip apart. The marine guards were stationed along the outside of the column and were actually locked together, pinchers intertwined, and formed a living, seething, writhing, canopy of squirmy arthropods. They arched over the mass of ants streaming underneath and actually formed a tunnel so the worker ants could carry their food and eggs along the jungle floor in safety. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would dare disturb this heavily armed guard of snapping ants as they protected their community that for some reason was on the move.

Hiking God said that these ants were the grim reapers of the jungle, the butchers and the undertakers, who would attack and kill anything that came in their path. They periodically decided to move their entire community of perhaps a million or bazillion individuals through the jungle in search of a new home, maybe 50 miles or more away! They would march on, single-mindedly, like a guided missle until they found the next place to call home. We were impressed to say the least and decided to leave these dudes alone and move along before they found out we were there. That is, all except for one individual who decided to do a little experiment with these deadly ants! Jake Gardner was fearless. A little crazy perhaps. He was also in the front of the line, and before stepping over the column of ants to proceed on his merry way, he took a big gooey gobstopper from his mouth and flicked it right into the center of the army of giant ants! YOW! You've never seen anything move so fast! Those marine guards broke rank and swarmed up his pantlegs so fast that he could only scream in shock and certain pain as he felt the wrath of their sharp pinchers biting into his tender flesh! The rest of us ran into the bush in all directions in stark terror. Jake had to pull down his trousers and pull off each biting ant while screaming in obvious pain. Hiking God told us later that the local villagers used these ants to close up or suture wounds on their bodies. They would let the ants bite the cut which would pinch it shut, then they would cut off the heads of the ants and the pinchers would be like stitches! Well, Jake got stitched all right. The rest of us eventually regrouped and got back down the path as fast as we could.

That night, we were tired from all the commotion so we got to bed early. We said goodnight to the chicken that still sat clucking in its cage next to our tents. We meant to ask Hiking God why he had brought it, since we had had rice and fried bananas for dinner and not any fresh meat. But we fell into a dead sleep, being tired from the long hike and weird day. In my dreams, I imagined all sorts of crazy events, a collage of giants, chickens and ants, and it all seemed so real, even the sounds of clucking that I thought pierced my dreams.

The next morning I was awakened by the sound of a girl screaming! The chicken, the chicken! We all scrambled out of our bags and looked at the rear of the tent where the chicken's cage was still hanging from the tree. Hiking God was shaking and people were shouting in the Batak dialect. There, in the closed cage, was the skeleton of the chicken, still perched on its stick, but stripped to the bone of every feather and piece of skin and wattle. Like a museum piece, perfectly mounted, but nothing but bone. Hiking God shook his head; he understood immediately what had happened, and this is what he told us.

The chicken had been brought along to stand guard over our camp, to warn us against the approach of the deadly Sumatran tiger in the night. But something happened that was part of the law of the jungle, but totally freaky nonetheless. When Jake had tossed his gobstopper into the column of ants and been attacked in return, the battle had only just begun. Jake was covered in ant pheremones, a chemical scent that had left a trail all the way back to our camp, several miles away! It had taken the army ants the better part of the night to regroup and follow the trail to Batah Gajah, but sometime around 3 o'clock in the morning, while us weary campers were in the depth of REM sleep, they attacked. The clucking in my dreams was the last gasps of the poor chicken as he was beset by about a hundred thousand biting fangs, inserting poison drop by drop into the helpless fowl, paralyzing him before he could even budge from his perch. This nation of jointed warriors then proceeded to quietly but surely dismember the fowl, limb from limb, stripping away its flesh but leaving the frozen, paralyzed bird standing upright to continue its night watch until the dawn.

Without a word, we began to repack our tents and backpacks, preparing to move out at first light. Hiking God strapped an empty cage on his back and seemed lost in thought. That night, safely back at our Bukit Lawang hotel, no one ate the fried chicken that had been specially prepared for our return, and everyone locked their doors that night and sprayed Raid around their doors before going to bed.

I swear it's true. Nick.

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Patricia A. Weeg
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