News Feature

The allure of Istana Ular Cave

The allure of Istana Ular Cave

A tourist enters the Istana Ular cave to observe snakes from up close. (ANTARA/Ho-BPOLBF/MY)

Kupang, E Nusa Tenggara (ANTARA) - To many travelers, the name of Galang village, Welak, West Manggarai District in East Nusa Tenggara may sound unfamiliar, but upon closer look, they will find the place as unique as its name.

Among the attractions of Galang village is the Istana Ular, a pitch black and grandiosely long cave, which is home to a veritable variety of snakes.

The Labuan Bajo Flores Tourism Authority has designated Galang village as a tourism village along with 30 other villages in Flores, Lembata, Alor, and Bima (Floratama).

The majestic cave even finds mention in Ronggot Tribe's lores. Locals believe a brother and sister, who had engaged in incestuous relations and had been exiled by the community, had once sought shelter in the cave. Their offspring had taken the form of a snake.

The perpetual curse had haunted them, and the siblings had transformed into snakes themselves. It is believed that they reside within the cave even today. Nobody has ever reached the end of the cave, locals say.

"We estimate the (distance from the) entry to exit is about 5 kilometers. To date, nobody has ever reached the exit, and those entering the cave can only reach 150 meters due to oxygen limitations," Shana from Labuan Bajo Flores Tourism Authority said.

A vlogger who once tried to explore the cave could not go beyond 300 meters, she added.

Istana Ular Cave was promoted massively only from 2017. Now, every month, it is packed with visitors, but it has remained relatively unknown among foreign visitors, she said.

The cave is the only unique tourist attraction in East Nusa Tenggara which is home to many colorful pythons, she added.

Traditional Rituals

It takes 2 to 3 hours from Labuan Bajo to reach Galang village via land transportation. Upon arrival, visitors can feast their eyes on groves of evergreen trees, paddy fields, and Flores' villages.

Visitors to the village can enjoy a traditional welcome before proceeding to the Istana Ular Cave, which takes 20 minutes to reach by foot from the village.

The area offers several facilities such as public toilets and rest areas provided by the government.

Before entering the cave, visitors can expect another ritual which involves offering an egg as a greeting and villagers beckoning the inhabitants of the cave to show themselves.

Galang villagers still believe that the cave's inhabitants are one of their own, therefore, Istana Ular Cave comes first and foremost in every tradition and in efforts to develop it as a tourist destination.

"We have traditional rituals (of) not slaughtering chickens, because according to the snakes in there, if we slaughter chicken, it is the same as slaughtering a person, because the snake in there is the manifestation of the djinn," Shana said.

"Of course, the visitors coming here must partake in the traditional ritual as a way to ask permission to see the snakes in the cave with their own eyes," she added.

Upon stepping into the cave, thousands of bats emit high-pitched greetings to visitors, Marianus, a local, said.

The snakes residing in the cave feed on bats. Trips to the cave are led by guides holding flashlights. Inside, snakes can be found curled between the cracks of the cave, the stalactites, and even the ceiling.

Thus, Istana Ular Cave needs to be on the list of visitors who like caves or who have geological interests, Marianus said. A trip to the cave allows visitors to see reptiles in their natural habitat from up close, which is bound to be an adrenaline rush, he added.

"One more thing, it is better for visitors to wear shorts because the location is watery and slippery," he suggested.

Support from Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry

Istana Ular Cave is believed to have the potential to attract tourists. Therefore, the Labuan Bajo Flores Tourism Authority, as part of the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry, is expecting other ministries to support the development of the tourist attraction.

The authority is encouraging the provincial and regional Public Works and Housing Office to build good pathways in order to promote the tourism potential of the area.

Its approach to developing the cave as a tourist area has involved three aspects -- attractions, amnesty, and accessibility (3As), as well as industry and institutions.

"So how do we make sure that the destination has proper basic facilities, a strong product narrative, and an organized guide. For industry and institutions, we focus on the governance of the institution so that the village enterprises and travel awareness group can be active, then (we) also focus on digital marketing, the introduction of tourism products to tourism business actors," Shana said.

The Istana Ular Cave is of special interest as it offers a special and different experience, she said adding, for the West Manggarai area it is the one and only such destination, and has the potential to attract tourist attention.

The tourist area has great potential because in terms of attractiveness, the snake species residing in the cave are interesting, and the connection between the snakes and the community is very close and immensely unique, Shana noted.

When planning a visit, it is necessary for visitors to pay attention to safety, particularly to tourist briefings regarding what must be taken into consideration in terms of health readiness, she said.

As the cave is narrow, people with respiratory problems, asthma, and other issues will need to take care and be prepared, she added.

Visitors will also need to carry basic equipment, such as flashlights and boots, as the water in the cave can reach up to the thigh level, she said.

There also needs to be a cap on visitors, depending on the number and capacity of the guides present, so that not just anyone can enter the cave, she added.

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