19 Feb

On a typically drizzly morning we departed from Denpasar airport to Labuan Bajo, a small “city” on the westernmost point of one of the easternmost Indonesian islands, Flores. We came all the way to these parts to fulfill our dream of seeing Komodo dragons, not knowing very much about anything else in the area. The Komodo dragons don’t live on Flores, but the port town of Labuan Bajo has become the main jumping off point for boats heading to the islands of Rinca and the main Komodo island that form Komodo National Park. Before we would be making any moves towards the dragons, however, we had two nights booked in Ciao Hostel so that we could take in Labuan Bajo. While there is not much to see in this small town, the relaxed waterside vibe is enough to keep you around for a few days, enjoying your lay time and some incredible fish.

After a massively delayed flight that caused us to miss the free shuttle service provided by the hostel, we paid a taxi driver to take us to Ciao. While not very far away by mileage, the hostel is located at the top of a massive hill which had us thankful we hadn’t attempted to walk. While a pain in the ass to walk up, the hill gives the hostel something worth bragging about, a view that nowhere else in LBJ can compete with. It truly took our breath away. We spent a few hours hanging around the hostel until about dinner time, when we decided that we would head down the hill and try or hand at the fish market, where we heard you simply pick your fish and they scale, gut, butterfly and grill it to perfection. Luckily, noticing we were heading down, another guy staying at the hostel said he would join us, telling us that he had amazing fish the night before and that he would take us back there. We later found out that James is half Indonesian and half Australian. He blew us away with his ability to talk and negotiate with the women at the market stall he had become loyal to. We had to do little to no talking as he broke down the prices and fish types for us. We picked up a couple of beers across the street, the cheapest we’ve had in Indonesia, and settled into the plastic chairs for a few rounds of cards and plenty of questions about James’ unique background. Our red snappers came out alongside rice, herbs, veggies and a fresh chili sauce, all for 50,000 rupiah, under four USD. Hands down, it was the best fish I have ever had and I instantly knew I would like LBJ.

The following day we didn’t do much, just relaxed. I wrote, some read and we walked around town to ask about prices for Komodo tours. We decided to book the two day, one night tour through a woman who comes up to the hostel every night, after hearing raving reviews from the people who ha\d done it previously. We were told we would be on the boat with three other guys staying at our hostel who, ironically, had known James from a previous hostel. We had agreed to dinner again that night with James, and he had roped in the three boys, Oz, Scott and Ollie, all hailing from different parts of England. After some delicious fish, a few rounds of cards and plenty of laughs, we knew we would have a good time with these guys over the next few days.

We were up bright and early the next morning and shuffled into a van that took us down to the harbor. We were directed to one of the many rickety looking wooden boats, which had a simple table, and some mats that we quickly realized would function as our beds. We sat down at the table and instantly started playing our favorite card game, Hateful Six, which we decided to have a 10 game competition to determine a “mega score” winner. The boat, after some trouble getting out of the space, slowly made its way across the ocean and past the endless beautiful green islands. It didn’t take long for it to start raining, as February is the rainiest month in Indonesia, and the men working on the boat did a very botched job at tying tarps down to keep the water out. Only one side of the boat could have the tarps down at a time, so one side was always unhappily wet. It didn’t take long to realize that no one in the crew spoke any English, which was certainly problematic because no one knew exactly where we were supposed to be going on which days.

We started at Rinca Island, which took me by surprise as for some reason I thought we were supposed to do the Komodo islands on the second day. The rain continued, and we made our way off the boat in our raincoats down the flooded pathway to the ticket office, buying our one day pass that was good for both islands. We got our guide and started the trek through the muddy, muddy land, arriving at our first stop where a Komodo laid lazily next to the building that the cooking gets done. He was clearly no fool. We were all certainly on edge at our first Komodo sighting, even though we were convinced this one had been sedated (this is allegedly not the case). The beast simply lay there staring at us while we uneasily moved around it trying to get some pictures. We continued walking along, passing a stream that we made the boys carry us over which induced plenty of laughter, arriving at the spot where the female dragon lays her eggs, in a massive nest with multiple decoy holes. We then made it to the top of a hill where we were greeted by another camouflaged, sleepy, sunbathing dragon. We learned a lot of facts about Komodos during our visit:

  • Similar to humans, Komodo eggs have an incubation period of nine months. The females lay about 20-25 eggs at a time, with about a quarter failing to hatch.
  • When they hatch, babies are about 30-40 centimeters long and 100 grams.
  • Females will eat the babies once they hatch if they don’t get away quick enough.
  • Baby Komodos, after hatching, climb to the top of decaying trees, where they hide themselves in a hole, avoiding their own kind trying to eat them on land as well as predators in the sky such as falcons.
  • Komodo dragons only need to eat once a month (hence why they’re not ravenous to take us down as long as we’re not bothering them).
  • The dragons have venomous saliva to help kill their prey.
  • They camouflage in the grass to look like rocks or logs and it’s fucking cool.
  • There have been 22 incidents of a Komodo attacking a human (tourist, guide, local) in the National Park’s history.
  • The best time to see Komodos is early in the morning when they come out to sunbathe on the beach and the hill tops before the day gets too hot.

We made it back down to the bottom of the hill and to the boat with the weather still uncooperative. We asked our boat crew if we were going to the next Komodo island or snorkeling and after much trial and tribulation we were able to determine we were going snorkeling. The rain subsided quickly after our return to the boat and we were able to put on our bathing suits and sit on the top level of the boat taking in the sun and the sights. The boat took us to Pink Beach, which is not very pink at all, where we anchored and jumped into the water for a good ol’ snorkeling session. There were plenty of fish of all kinds and colors and we even had a blue starfish sighting. Luckily this time there were no jellyfish in the water. It was starting to get late so we all piled onto the boat and asked if we were going to Komodo today, to which the crew replied “yes, today” with smiles. Turns out they thought today meant tomorrow. The boat powered across a few more meters to a different bay where it dropped anchor for the night. This was problematic, since the tickets we bought were day passes and cost us a hefty sum of 250,000 rupiah and we were definitely supposed to be taken to both parts of the park on the same day. I figured we were going to have trouble getting in the next day but since there was nothing we could do we simply hoped they were 24 hour passes. The rain started up again and all the tarps were assembled for the evening. After dinner (which was fabulous as was lunch and every meal on the boat, surprisingly), we whipped out the cards, beer, vodka and arak, a bootleg Indonesian liquor that the boys bought off one of the workers at the fish market. Arak resembles Vietnamese rice wine in flavor, with a more powerful smokey, gasoline-like kick. Just what you want from your local kitchen’s brewery. We spent the evening playing cards, drinking, eating an unnecessarily large amount of snacks and listening to good music before laying down on the mats on the boats floor, with gross blankets and pillows, letting the boat rock us to some semblance of sleep.

The next morning, we were awoken by the boat’s motor starting and the intense sunshine coming through the space where the tarps had hung during the night. By some miracle of the arak gods, no one was hungover and everyone was ready for Komodo island part II. We pulled up to the island and approached the beach, where we instantly saw two sunbathing Komodos. We had yet to see one without a guide near us and instantly panicked, hoping they weren’t hungry. Few of the more adventurous of the group tried to approach closer to take pictures while I happily waited on the outskirts. As they approached close though, the Komodos couldn’t be bothered and slowly hefted all their weight away down the beach. We quickly made our way to the ticketing office, which was surprisingly difficult to locate, and were naturally denied access to the park with our precious day’s ticket. After much argument, anger and deliberation we decided we should just pay to go in again since we were here anyway and hopefully we would get some money back later from the woman who set the tour up. We had been told prior to the boat trip that since it’s rainy season, you don’t see as many Komodos on the island and some have made it without seeing a single one. However, today was different and our group got the finest Komodo weather and luck.

After our sighting of two on the beach, we started trekking up the hill, where we saw three more and then another two down on the opposite side of the beach. We stopped for a photo shoot, anxious to be so close to their sledgehammer tails, and after a group shot we made a run for it as he slowly turned his head back to us with a look that said, “please leave me alone.” We made our way back to the boat totally shocked by our lucky interactions and were ready for anything else that would come our way. When we got back the crew was trying to communicate with us that we were going to the viewpoint, while Oz made a last ditch effort at flapping his arms and saying “Manta” over and over again to try to get us to Manta point, which we had skipped the previous day due to the strong currents. We managed to somehow communicate that we would rather do Manta point than a hike up to a viewpoint and we were off against the currents.

When we approached Manta point we were all leaning over the edge of the boat at the instruction of the captain to look under for mantas, but the visibility was bad. At one point, a few of us thought we had seen a shark and were concerned about the waters. Turns out they were the wings of mantas gliding up near the surface of the water, not shark fins. The captain pointed us in the direction we should jump in and we eagerly launched ourselves off the edge of the boat. After a few minutes, I was looking down at the ocean floor as this majestic creature slowly glided past just beneath me, it’s dark surface making it sometimes difficult to see at the approach. Anywhere you looked there could be a manta, you would be swimming one way searching and glance back on a whim and there one would be. We saw more mantas than we had expected, some coming super close to us. After a while of pure excitement, with everyone yelling which way the mantas were and giddily laughing and smiling, the currents became very strong and we had to exit the water. I was holding onto the ladder, with Christine holding onto a rope and me as the currents tried to pull us away. We made it onto the boat after a struggle and started the rough journey back towards our final destination, another island where we could snorkel. Even though the water was terribly rough and Christine and Angela thought they were going to be sick, we were all endlessly happy about our manta experience that we weren’t even supposed to have.

We ended at another small island to snorkel, with the reef so close to the shore, crystal clear water and starfish EVERYWHERE. It was a beautiful sight. Angela and Scott went further out where they saw the much sought after sea snakes. When they were just about getting back to shore the wind and rain started and quickly got intense. The sand and rain pelted us as we tried to run back to the boat. The boat, however, was squished in between other boats and four boats away from the dock. So we had to climb our way through other boats to get there. As expected, our boat did not have its tarps down so everything was wet and we were terribly cold. The boat tried to get out from between the other boats but the wind and rain made it really difficult and there was much commotion and yelling. When it did actually get out, there was a crack in the side of the boat and a piece had fallen off of a neighboring boat, leaving us all a little anxious. We spent the boat ride back in the pouring rain and wind.

We arrived back to the dock soaking wet and luckily got transportation back to the hostel where we showered, hung out a bit and headed back down to the fish market for our last supper as a group since the guys were leaving the following day. After some delicious fish, incredible fried eggy pastry concoction and a few beers we took the party back to the hostel where we lasted another beer before having to pass out from the exhaustion of the trip. The following morning we had breakfast, finished our mega score tournament (which I landed in last place for) and put our hand prints on the hostel wall in our own little spot. We said our sad goodbyes to the boys and spent the rest of the day recovering from our trip, walking into town for food and watching a moving that evening on a massive projector.

We had two more days in Flores and decided we would finally rent scooters and head out to see one of the many waterfalls. The problem, however was that the rain was terribly unpredictable. After breakfast on our last full day we headed into town and the rain started just as we were about to rent bikes. We took a break in one of the shops and when it passed got the bikes and headed out to Cunca Wulang falls. The gorgeous ride was surprisingly easy with a few tough turns up into the clouds. The main road was lined with little villages, ominous churches, a few mosques and some rice fields. We saw plenty of school children, all of whom were fascinated with us and would reach their hands out for high fives. Luckily, we weren’t rained on badly, but did end up in the clouds for the end portion of the journey up, creating terrible visibility for my already nervous self. For the final portion of the journey, we took a small, bumpy, puddle-filled road down to the entrance where we paid our entry and got a local guide to take us to the falls. While certainly not always the case, the guide was definitely necessary for this surprisingly long trek, which brought us through the jungle and around rocky bends where we got a view of the plummeting waterfall. While you can swim across the river and jump off a rock formation into the pool of water beneath the waterfall, we were reluctant to do so due to the rain, figuring the swim would make us pretty cold for the bike journey back. So, we bitched out and made the long trek back. With another stroke of luck we did not get rained on for the return journey and made it back safe and sound on the bikes.

We woke up on our final morning super early to go see the nearby Batu Cermin cave to get the most use of our scooters before returning them. The ride was quick, and thankfully so because it was definitely the least impressive cave we’ve seen and within five minutes of reaching it we had seen it all and were ready to go. We headed into town for some breakfast and to return the bikes before making the final trek up to the hostel to gather our things and head to the airport. Naturally, our flight was delayed by about two hours and we were terribly anxious that it would be canceled after an announcement of a different flight’s cancelation. Luckily though, we made it onto our flight back to Bali with ample time for Angela to make her flight to Taiwan that evening. We had or final supper with a few beers and I said goodbye to Angela, sending her off on her final week of travel before her return to America. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a little emotional after the fact. It had been five months of ups and downs and traveling the world together and no one has shared or understands my experience as much as she. But alas, all good things must come to an end and it was her time to head home.

Another month, another country. When I had started this experience, I naively thought I would be in Indonesia at the start of December, enjoying two to three weeks of relaxing beach before heading home for Christmas. However, it’s now February and my favorite parts of Indonesia weren’t the beaches of Bali like I had expected, but the places that brought me adventure and quite the opposite of relaxation. Experiences like Mount Ijen and Batur, the Komodos, and biking up to the waterfall. While it certainly was not the Indonesian experience I had expected, it was definitely better – a fantastic thirty days that allowed me to see and feel so much of the country in such a short time.


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