Part One of the trip to Komodo & Rinca Islands, Indonesia.
05.09.2012 - 06.09.2012
After spending some time on a boat, it’s not hard to start projecting personas onto the islands that you pass by. Some can look like paradise, with clear waters and lush vegetation, and others can look terrifying with dark caves and harsh grey cliffs.
In times gone past, if an island looked intimidating sailors would mark their maps “Here be dragons” to show dangerous and unexplored areas. I’m unsure whether they were being metaphorical or literal, probably a mix, but I would imagine a few were of the superstitious breed and perhaps imagined giant flying fire breathing creatures lurking in the shadows of the dark volcanoes.
Mythology aside – and yes I’m sorry to confirm that the flying fire breathing creatures known as dragons are definitely safely categorised as myth (this is just a little nod to someone I met in the past six months who truly believed they are real). Anyway, mythology aside, there does exist an extremely large species of monitor lizard with the thrilling name, Komodo dragon. They are the largest living species of lizard on Earth; growing up to a length of 10 feet (3 metres) and weighing as much as an average man - a slight upgrade from the common newt-sized lizards that you normally see.
I’ve known about the Komodo dragons for as long as I can remember; it’s not the kind of animal a young boy forgets once he’s seen it, even on a documentary. As a child I loved animals, and I loved dinosaurs, so Komodo dragons naturally fit the bill for one of the coolest animal alive.
Fast forward to today and I’m pretty much just a 6foot2 version of that same child; I still love animals and dinosaurs and so Komodo dragons were definitely on my list of things to see in South East Asia. Indonesia is the only place in the world to find them in the wild, and more specifically, only a handful of small islands in Indonesia. Some online research resulted in Komodo and Rinca Islands being our two destinations to hopefully catch a glimpse of the beasts.
The trip didn’t look amazingly easy from what I read. Firstly, the only two airlines that could take us from Bali to the port town of Labuan Bajo were very unreliable. And two, the ocean waters that the boat trips go through to Komodo can be treacherous and have resulted in numerous accidents.
We looked into some package tours with the hope that they could offer us some security with the flights and provide us with a professional boat crew. Unfortunately the $500 price tag for a one night two day tour was too high for us and so we sat slumped in Bali deciding whether to try to plan the trip ourselves or give it a miss. It came down to our last night in our current hotel and we needed to decide whether to risk the trip, or make other plans. I rang the airport to see how much the flights were for the following day. The flights were affordable but the last possible time to book for the following day was in person, at the airport, in an hour’s time. The airport was an hour away in good traffic. A last minute spontaneous decision saw us racing to the hotel’s taxi stand. We told the driver we had to be there in forty-five minutes.
What followed was like a Hollywood car-chase scene. We raced through the tiny Balinese streets, overtaking cars, buses, bikes… weaving in and out of lanes. The Balinese driving is mental already, with the streets filled with scooters and seemingly no rules, but this was even crazier. We slalomed our way to the airport, being thrown around the insides of the car, and then ran to the flight office, barging in through the door. “Anthony?” The woman from the phone was expecting us. We had about three minutes to spare. We booked the flights. To celebrate we picked up some KFC and enjoyed a normal paced taxi drive back to the hotel.
We fired off an email reservation to a hotel in Labuan Bajo and the next morning we were boarding a little plane to go see some dragons.
The plan was a bit of a gamble as we had booked the flight with no boat trip organised and so we hoped to find ourselves a tour whilst there. I had read online that you can directly approach the boat captains at the harbour and haggle for prices, so that was our plan.
We arrived in Labuan Bajo ‘airport’ (it was just a room) and watched people get harassed by taxi drivers for a while whilst we adjusted to the heat and prepared for the coming price-haggle. All the drivers were charging well over what you would expect to pay for the 10 minute drive to the harbour. I scanned the room to see if any other travellers roughly fit into our backpacker demographic and I hit upon a tanned couple, with backpacks on, looking in their Lonely Planet book. Bingo. Within a few minutes we were all acquainted and in a taxi together with our taxi costs cut in half.
Vicky and Álvaro are from Spain and they were here in Labuan Bajo looking for an ad-hoc boat trip as well. We all arrived at the harbour and began our search for tours. There were a few more shops set up with packaged tours than our online research led us to believe. The town itself was small and dirty and it looked like it surely wouldn’t have any tourists if not for it being a base for Komodo Island etc.
Laura and I clocked a few advertised prices and then headed to the main harbour to see if the whole haggling with captains’ thing could work out. We only spoke to one ‘captain’ and he offered us an okay price. We told him we’d be back. Our plan was to just get an idea of the prices, then go to our hotel, and then return with a plan of attack price-wise the next day when we were rested and without our heavy bags.
One initial concern that crept up was the fact that a lot of people stopped us on the street saying “You want to see dragons? I have boat, I am captain.” Far too many people seemed to be captains. This made us slightly wary over who to trust; even the guys at the harbour standing in front of boats could be anybody. Nobody looked official enough for us to be sure. There weren’t enough boats in the whole of Indonesia for all these men to claim. The guy on the harbour we actually spoke to wasn’t the most convincing either, he pointed lazily to a random boat declaring it was his; but we wouldn’t know until we left on it with him, and even then, how would we know that he would keep us safe, or that we hadn’t all just become boat-thieves… that would technically make us pirates though, which would make for an interesting story.
We had these seeds of doubt in our heads as we left the harbour. We didn’t mind too much as our immediate plan was to go rest, speak to the staff at our hotel and figure out a strategy, rather than to just say yes to a random person at the harbour. At this moment we bumped into the Spanish couple again and they had received a good quote for a trip, and an even better price could be offered if we all went together. It was organised through a proper tour agency in a hotel (Gardenia Hotel). It was very well run, names taken and sent to the harbour master etc. and plus it was a great price. The Spanish couple also had two nights’ accommodation booked so it all worked out perfectly, we all booked for a tour for two days’ time.
I’ll keep our hotel stay short; just to say that the island and its surrounds were beautiful. We had a bungalow on the side of a hill, and the most amazing views of the surrounding ocean and islands.
Cut to two days later and we were on our official dragon boat. It was a small simple boat. We had a weathered-looking captain, two younger crew, and our own little cabin with two double bunk beds… we were all happy. The captain and crew busied themselves with boat stuff whilst the four of us chatted away about travel stories.
Our agreed itinerary: First thing on day one we would try to spot manta rays, then we would go to ‘Pink Beach’ to snorkel, after that we would reach Komodo Island for the dragons, and finally anchor up to sleep near where a bunch of flying foxes hang out. Day two we were finish off at Rinca Island for more dragons and a bit more snorkelling.
A little while into our journey I decided it was time to tell Laura some small facts about the islands and dragons. Laura was fully up for the trip from the first moments, but really on no other information than that the Komodo dragons are pretty awesome. I had a little more of an involved interest for the trip and thus I was more read up on the situation and I had perhaps held back a few tiny facts from her that I thought may endanger the trip itself if she knew… and I really wanted to go. You have to be careful when you suggest a trip like this to a partner or friends, especially ones who may scare easily. Now that there was no going back though, I thought I should give her the full sales pitch.
For instance, I now mentioned the fact that this is an animal bigger and heavier than herself, an animal whose diet consists entirely of meat, and one that will eat almost anything; from their own young to deer to buffalo. This is an animal that can swallow a goat whole, using their loosely articulated jaws and expandable stomachs. An animal with a mouth full of bacteria-ridden saliva that basically forms venom to infect and slowly kill their prey... and we will have nothing but a ranger with a long stick to protect us.
Laura sat there wide-eyed looking at me, but I continued on and tried to calmly slide in a few other facts to make the dragons seem like less of a worry, such as Komodo island having more snakes per square metre than anywhere else on the planet and that the ocean here is potentially very dangerous; the islands being in the region where the Pacific and Indian oceans collide, causing strong currents and whirlpools.
After some laughter (from me) and fretting (from her) I downplayed it by comparing it with the fact that we’d just lived, and even camped, in Australia for a whole year; the home to some of the world’s most dangerous snakes, spiders, sharks, and jellyfish, and we’d come away completely unharmed. I told her we’d be fine. Our biggest danger was probably severe sunburn. Probably.
After an hour of chat we spotted some boats ahead with people in the water snorkelling, this apparently meant that there were manta rays in the area. The two crew boys jumped high up on our boat and started to try spot the rays. We all strained to see any dark blobs under the surface but unfortunately nothing was spotted in the area and we left a little disappointed.
The crew stayed vigilant however and about ten minutes later one of the guys spotted something far off into the distance. It took a further five minutes of closing in on the manta ray before any of the rest of us actually saw it too. A big black blob gliding near the surface of the water, it looked to be around 5 feet wide, a baby in manta ray terms. The Spanish couple were prepared with snorkels on and flippers attached, and they dived in instantly. Laura and I didn’t have our own equipment so we used the ones provided by the boat crew; just a mask and snorkel. We got prepared and waited a few more minutes as we coasted alongside the manta ray and the Spanish couple.
Laura kindly offered that I went first, and so I did. I jumped in and was immediately swept alongside the boat; this seemed a lot harder than it appeared when the Spanish couple entered the water. When they entered they gathered their own speed and kept a steady path parallel to the boat. I on the other hand was behind the boat within about ten seconds. A couple of things happened here: Huge waves battered my face every few seconds, and my mask seemed to do absolutely nothing; I snorted salty water up into my nostrils, which when combined with the fact that I haven’t swam in the ocean, or even swam in general, for years, entailed a mild flapping panic on my behalf.
I could see the boat advancing ahead of me with Laura happily still sat on the edge of the boat looking at the manta ray, unaware of my predicament.
I had my mask on but water was still somehow getting up my nose so I tried to keep my head above the water, which was hard with the constant waves bashing into me, and I swam full pelt front crawl for around thirty seconds to catch the boat (or so I thought). Now combine the initial snorting oxygen-gasping panic with the shock to every muscle in my body from this sprint after no warm up (not to mention an awful current level of fitness) and you have a very tired backpacker. I stopped after what felt like an age and looked at where the boat was. I was no closer! The crew finally realised that I looked like I was dying and they threw an inflatable thing attached to a rope and slowed the boat down. I still had to swim for another thirty seconds or so to grab the thing but I made it and they pulled me in, like the frail old lady that I seemed to be.
I reached the boat to hear the crew shouting to everybody to get back aboard. Apparently there were some strong currents here and we should get out…
I’m glad my flailing attempt to keep alive made them aware of the menacing current in the area. The whole thing only lasted about three or four minutes but my body felt like the ocean had just abused me for hours.
Laura and the Spanish couple seemed totally unaware of my slight ordeal. Vicky and Álvaro were obviously swimming way up ahead and had no idea, and Laura just didn’t see what happened; she was only in the water for about a minute herself before she was told to get back out. Anyway all three of them were fortunate enough to swim close to the manta ray and they were overjoyed chatting about it on the boat. Meanwhile my body seemed to go in to a mild shock for ten minutes; my legs and arms were jelly, with a banging headache and I felt like I was going to throw up. I was really happy for them though, really I was.
The 30+ degree heat was attacking us from all angles as we chatted for the next hour or so. We approached our next destination, pink beach. The Spanish couple shared a brilliant recent travel story. Only a week earlier Vicky had found a small book in her bag that wasn’t her own. Álvaro apparently teased her saying it wasn’t her bag, but it turned out it was indeed her own bag – but the book was not. Was this just an accident…?
Vicky got the book out to show us and she pointed to the book’s main title, which seemed to be brilliantly relevant; “How did it get here?”
I could leave it at that and it would be a nice little story, a strange coincidence or perhaps a funny prank by a fellow backpacker, but a few more details reveal a more calculated cause of events. The funny title was a word longer upon closer inspection, “Life - How did it get here?” Our eyes narrowed as we looked over the rest of the cover: the subtitle in smaller letters “By evolution or creation?”
A brief flick through the pages saw this old and colour-faded book try to argue that evolution is a lie created by Satan and that the only other answer to life must be the magic snapping of fingers by a God. This was a sneaky Jehovah’s Witness book-plant! Some sneaky little faithster had moved on from door-knocking and turned to leaving religious booby traps in the bags of backpackers.
What a brilliant story to have, I wish it were my own. If I can spare the money and identify any Jehovah’s Witnesses I intend to buy a few copies of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and return the favour – one day my friends, one day. I wonder if they would also tell the story with some of their friends and laugh about it as Vicky and Alvaro did. One can only hope they would find the humour in it all but I am highly doubtful.
We arrived at Pink beach and moored to a buoy away from the shore. We didn’t know what to expect but the sand didn’t look very pink from the distance. I stood up and looked gingerly at the ocean to see if it was mocking me post-abuse. I had spent the last twenty minutes being laughed at by Laura after I told her what happened; it was already just a funny mishap so we donned our snorkels and entered the water. I still didn’t actually know at this point that my mask was faulty; the early part of this blog only knows of that fact with hindsight helping out.
We were about a five to ten minute swim away from the shore and we heard there were some amazing coral and fish to see so we slowly headed out into the water. I immediately struggled again as I snorted up some water. I was confused as I didn’t know if it was my own fault (mask not tight enough or breathing wrong?) or if it was the mask itself. With the waters being a bit calmer and the fact that I wasn’t being swept away in a current, I had time to tread water and actually think of what to do. I decided to make it to the beach first; on the way spotting a huge turtle swimming below Laura and I. The turtle effortlessly glided past us, Laura swam after it for a closer view as I headed for the shore.
I was joined by Laura five minutes later after she’d swam with the turtle for a bit longer. We led on the beach for a while and talked about the amazing sea life here, it was full of all kinds of different colourful fish. On closer inspection the sand was actually sprinkled with red bits, I guess just not enough to look red from a distance, but it did appear pink up close. I was annoyed at only being able to get short glimpses before my mask filled with water.
A speedboat brought some elderly tourists from their main boat right up to the sand. They all stumbled out and immediately took the only shade offered on the beach under a tree. The temperature was intense; we couldn’t stay on the beach very long. Laura suggested we swap masks and she ventured into the water. She came back up gasping for air herself. The surprise of water slowly leaking in the mask to then be ingested up the nose proved to be as much as a shock to her as it was for me. I was able to regain a fraction of my ego by telling her to imagine that feeling combined with being completely exhausted and in the throes of a strong current trying to kidnap her.
Back on our boat we dried off and discussed the stunning sea life. Our excitement levels started to rise; this was the final stretch of sailing before we reached the reason why we were all here. We were here to see the prehistoric-looking Komodo dragons in the wild.
A little word on how they look… Along with crocodiles, the dragons are perhaps the closest looking thing to dinosaurs, and this excites people, including us, into thinking they are some kind of leftover survivor of the dinosaurs. This fantasy is to be short-lived however once you look at the science. The Komodo dragons are but a cousin of the dinosaurs, having evolved down a separate path. Crocodiles are also just cousins of the extinct monsters (closer cousins than the dragons). Against our all intuitive protests, today’s birds are decidedly the direct descendants of the dinosaurs and the closest related thing to that big tyrannosaurs rex you saw in Jurassic Park. But still… birds are a bit of a let-down when compared to the idea of dinosaurs, and Komodo dragons do still look like dinosaurs, and that is still good enough to get us excited.
I don’t apologise for sneaking in bits of education, but let’s get back to the actual adventure. We approached Komodo Island. All we could see in the foreground was a small deserted wooden pier. The bigger picture saw large ominous looking hills sprawl out to either side of us. We pulled up to the pier, our captain informed us that we had two hours and we left the boat. We found the small registration office and paid our fees for the national park entry and ranger guide. Our ranger was a small skinny Indonesian guy armed with a 6 foot stick. He briefly showed us a map of the walking route we’d be taking and we headed straight off into the dragon’s homeland.