Gateway to Komodo National Park.

We flew out of Yogykarta in the very early morning, leaving behind the island of Java for a stopover in Bali, and then an arrival in Flores, an island in East Nusa Tenggara. Though we waited in Bali for two hours, the flight on either end was just over an hour, in an Airbus A320 type of six-seater plane that brought us to a still up and coming part of Indonesia. Flores is known for its coffee, some hiking, and mainly the gateway to the Komodo National Park, islands situated just west of Flores and not easily accessible through other destinations. When we landed in Labuan Bajo, it felt like we had just flown back through time to an Indonesia that was much less developed.

The worn SUV that picked us up had a young man with a toothy smile and an older man who didn’t speak any English. We left the polished newly-built airport and rocked our way down the mostly dirt (some paved) roads to our lodge, which was thankfully quiet and clean. Our first afternoon there, we simply walked down the long dusty road (sans sidewalk) that comprises the main part of the town of Labuan Bajo, which took about half an hour in total, not because it was all THAT long, but because it was hard to navigate, and you had to . It was noisy, filled with little vans that came by every 3-5 minutes blasting rock music and decked out in neon, and people ducked in and out of them, the local unofficial bus service. There were some restaurants ranging from very high-end Italian food serving locations with pristine terraces over looking the bay to tiny local hole-in-the-wall without any sort of English signage out front. And a billion travel businesses – everyone advertised some sort of day trip or 2D/1N or 3D/2N tour to the Komodo National Park. You could find liveaboard experiences with A/Ced cabins, with open upper decks where you slept with other people on a giant mattress and a sheet wrapped around you. You could find tiny fishing boats that were repurposed for tourism purposes or large speedboats that could cover the same distance in half the time. We ventured into a few joints to get quotes back and forth, and ended up settling on one place. However, when we went out to go get our money from the ATM, it did not cooperate, and we ended up going back to our house to figure out if there were any problems. While Steve wrestled with his bank support on the Skype, I took a nap, and after visiting about all the ATMs in the town of Labuan Bajo, we finally put in 400.000 IDR (about $30 USD) per person for our day trip to Komodo National Park. 

The next morning, we woke up before dawn (are you seeing a theme here with our trip to Indonesia?), grabbed the breakfast boxes that had been made for us, and dropped off our luggage at the front desk, because we only booked one night. Sitting inside our tour operator’s tiny office, I made egg sandwiches for Steve and me while our operator found us some lunchboxes and snorkeling gear, and by 6 am we were making our way to the docks amid what seemed like a few hundred other tourists going off for the day. We started seeing a lot of nice boats, fairly fancy and polished boats, some with upper decks, other large ones just containing a single family sailing off. We ended up on a blue-ish boat with eight other people: an Austrian/Brazilian couple, a German girl, a few Indonesians, and two Japanese men (who came separately). It became clear we were all cobbled together from different tour operators and companies, as our lunches all came in different packages and groups, and finally, a nice young man with a big smile and fairly decent English announced that we were about to leave as soon as the captain showed up, and then promptly took his leave. While waiting, we saw a crew member came over, quickly take off his shoes, and tossed them toward a pile of blankets near the helm. Needless to say, all of us were startled when the blankets got up and started cursing (in Indonesian) at the crew member. It turns out the captain had been sleeping there all along while we were making our way onto the boat! He and the crew member who turned out to be a brother of some sort, started making us ready to leave, but once loosened from the dock, there were some engine problems, so we all sat there watching them fiddle with the engine belching black fumes from the depths of the boat while the sun started rising behind the hills, dazzling and painting the sky pink and gold. It took at least 20 minutes for the engine to sort itself out, but eventually, we got on our way.

The strange things about sea journeys is that you are aware of every single minute that passes. It’s hard to daydream or zone out into a smartphone or screen, sometimes because there’s just not much reception or data out in the middle of a sea, but also because the environment is distracting. The steady glare of the sun, the rhythmic pounding of the boat when the waves hit us, and the overwhelmingly loud drone of the boat engine all kept us alert and awake. We watched islands crawl past with devastating slowness, as it became obvious that we were traveling at about 10 miles an hour. They looked gorgeous from far away, their creased hills like folds of golden-brown velvet, bare of much more than shrubs. Few islands had actual trees in this glaringly hot environment. Better equipped boats and other speedboats outpaced us, but either way, everyone was bound for disparate destinations. We tried to sleep with our heads on each other’s shoulders, and somehow whiled away the time until we arrived at our first destination two hours later.

We shuddered to a stop at the pier of Padar Island, and fellow boatmen handed us from one boat to another and onto the wooden pier, after our captain solemnly told us, “One hour,” in his simple English. Padar Island is one of the most picturesque islands around the park, but also fairly barren. Most of these islands are covered by low-lying shrubs and golden brown grasses, with the odd tree here or there. As we climbed up on stairs made of wood and then rough-hewn stone, I found myself wishing for shelter or shade of some sort, but most of the time, we were just walking in the hot, hot morning sun. The trail petered out at some point, more steep hills of gravel and dirt than real stairs. Despite the remoteness of the destination, we were walking among a hundred other tourists, all eager to reach the top. At the top, the island’s view really opened up, and behind us was a vista of the island, with multiple bays and curves of sandy beaches, the water near shore looking invitingly turquoise. After getting up there and taking some photos, it was time to go on back. While Steve is one of those people who can lightly skip down a steeply graveled hill, I am inevitably the one whose cautious, heavy footsteps skid and slide, causing a heartstopping few seconds where I lose control and frantically try not to fall off the side of a mountain. It took a while, but we made it back just outside of an hour. Before we knew it, we were off again to the next destination.

As with Padar, we were told that we get an hour in Komodo National Park. We first walked down a long concrete pier to with another boat’s passengers who disembarked at the same time. Our two groups walked around and poke around for a good 15 minutes before finding the building we need to go buy tickets at. Here, half a dozen guides who all wore long-sleeved white collared polo shirts with their name embroidered on it were talking and relaxing on the porch. The office didn’t seem to be staffed, and finally after we asked around, an older man with glasses and a button down shirt made his way slowly into the office. What ensued was a lot of waiting, a lot of bureaucratic nonsense, and some arguments. We were kept forever waiting while the old bureaucrat searched for piles of papers and permits to staple together as though it was his first afternoon on the job. Eventually one of the young tour guides jumped in to help process paperwork, but it was still easily 45 minutes  before they started relieving us of 260.000 IDR each ($20 USD per person), and then ushered us outside. Our local Indonesian tourists were of much help in moving this process along. Our boat of 10 people was assigned two tour guides, and while we were already an hour out, we stubbornly insisted on another hour-long tour around the island, because this was what some of us have travelled days and days to see.

Our guide was a nice young man whom I got to interrogate by virtue of walking fast enough to keep up with him. He was a native of the island, and though he only trained as a guide for two years, I believed him when he said that all children grow up understanding how to deal with the Komodo dragons. At times he would pause and point out quietly animal near our path to us, like a wild pig or a snake, which Steve swore he could only catch the tiniest glimpse of because it had been pointed out. It was a mystery to us how he had honed his vision to see such things! We arrived at a watering hole (made by the locals) about 15 minutes into our walk, and the guide told us it was our best chance for seeing Komodos later in the day, though he made no promises. We slowly surveyed the clearing of muddy ground and followed him, and I was walking near the front with Steve, when I rocked to a sudden stop, arrested by the sight of a Komodo dragon less than a meter in front of us. It was an incredible moment where I managed not to yelp and instead just say quite calmly, “Oh, my God.” Later on, I found out that this was how Komodo dragons usually get their prey – they sit and look like the laziest, most sleepy animals, unmoving for hours, until a deer or pig, lulled into complacency, walk past a little too close. Then they lunge with amazing speed and incapacitate the animal with a vicious bite of its jaws, and either the venom or the shock of losing blood slow the animal down, so the Komodo dragon can easily track it through the grass. To defend us, the guides all have the all-purpose weapon of a thick wooden stick with a Y-shaped fork at the end. Yes, that’s it. Our guide confided that Komodos were very hard to judge, acting quite unpredictably with tourists and other animals. While we gazed, fascinated at the still but alert-looking giant lizard in front of us, he and the other guide moved around, drawing a line in the dirt about a meter behind the Komodo dragon. That’s where each of the tourists knelt after handing off their smartphones to the guides, posing behind the Komodo and looking deceptively close. While we were still taking pictures of this one, we also saw another one walking toward us, which people flocked toward. No one got too close, but it was quite scary how well they blended into the dirt by virtue of their unremarkable looking hide. When we were taking our picture, I was quite alert because the Komodo seemed like it was about to turn its head. It was a thrilling experience, but I started getting up early because I don’t think a selfie is worth that much!

We ended up seeing four Komodos in that park before we slowly made our way back out to the beach. The guide told us all sorts of crazy facts – for example, Komodos are cannibalistic. Once the eggs are hatched, the mother forgets that they are actual babies and treats them as fellow competitors, so many young Komodos are eaten by their parents. They must quickly flee the nest and climb nearby trees, staying there and eating small birds and insects until they come of age and grow large enough to start hunting on the ground. Old Komodos are typically eaten by others when they grow too slow or feeble to hunt well. It’s a truly vicious animal species. And they can swim too! They are the apex predator on the islands that they colonize, and we are just visitors in their environment. Seeing these animals and knowing that they are no where else on earth but here was a humbling and unique feeling, and of course, nothing beats telling people you had a close escape of being eaten by a Komodo dragon.

When we finally made our way back to the boat, lunch was importance of the first order. Most of us wolfed down our lunch while en route to our next destination, and supplemented our rations (some of which were meager) with the loaf of bread and strawberry jam that had been the boat’s self-supplied breakfast. We arrived at Pink Beach an hour later, but to our surprise, the boat anchored with a few other boats about a hundred meters from the beach. Some of us jumped out to swim around, but the current was so intense that Steve and I could hardly keep up. As soon as you stopped swimming, you found yourself moving past the ship. After a dip, we just sat on the boat and enjoyed the sun. Finally, when we moved to our next stop, Manta Point, the captain told us that we would try the best to find actual manta rays. However, it was past the season. Manta Point was a remarkable place where dozens of manta rays sometimes gathered. The crystal-clear water made it possible to see the amazing animals, fifty meters below the surface. Unfortunately for us, we only saw one small manta en route to the place, which looked like any other to the rest of us, an anonymous spot in the sea between some islands, with nothing but other boats around us. Each boat had someone at the helm who slowly steered, and a person at the bow, shading their eyes and looking around, scrutinizing the sea below for potential mantas. Finally, we gave up and simply snorkeled a bit. The water was warm and lovely, and we just enjoyed swimming before getting back on board. It was another three hours home.

While people sat at the prow or watched the islands float past again, the sunset slowly unfolded behind us, providing an amazing 270 degree show as the shades of pink and red and orange spread on all three sides, throwing a beautiful reflection onto the water. We stood at the prow for a while, enjoying the amazing feel of the breeze, watching the ripples on the water, and situating ourselves as far away from the noise of the engine as possible. Later on, we agreed that we should have taken a slightly more expensive tour operator with a bigger and nicer boat, but at the same time, we felt we had gotten a good enough deal for what we paid, and certainly saw the same things we wanted to see. An exhausting day, but a rewarding one!

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