In October 2018 we spent a month traveling Bali. Among all the coffee shops and long lazy lunches we thought we’d be a little daring and make our way towards Flores and Komodo Island. When we first approached the Kanawa Tour desk we didn’t exactly know what we were signing up for but we sent caution to the wind and strapped on our packs for an adventure. This is our account and I hope it helps those of you considering the same journey to see the Komodo Dragons, and for those that aren’t I hope it gives you a little taste of our time out on the ocean.
The excited energy of our group trip was quickly tempered by our first hours on the boat from Lombok. The wind whipped through the narrow strait and helped the swells dip the boat left and right. Conversation dried up as the waves crashed down over the boat each time it swayed one way and then the next.
Some retired to their ‘beds’ on the deck to instead tackle the churning of the ocean on their backs. We persevered at the front of the boat, both mesmerized by the deep walls of water that would rise up next to us and also just happy to keep one eye on the horizon.
Flying fish broke the waves ahead of us, rapidly flapping their fins as they glided above the choppy waters. Their presence broke the spell of fear the ocean had over us and before long the waves subsided. We anchored the boat in the calm waters off the shore of a tiny island, abandoned after recent earthquakes, and wound the day down on the cluttered coral beach.
Kenawa Island is a tiny desert-like island that sits just off the coast of Sumbawa. There’s almost no infrastructure on the island except what has been built by an American man using concrete and recycled materials. There are two main structures in the style you’d imagine Hobbits might fashion if they only access to concrete and glass bottles.
The rest of the island is dotted here and there with crooked wooden salas and one small make-shift wooden restaurant. All of it has been abandoned after the recent earthquake which had its epicenter a alarmingly nearby in the Indian Ocean. Deep cracks can be seen in the concrete giving the idea the integrity of the buildings has been compromised.
After a lazy swim we trekked through a field of shrubs that whipped in the wind around our shins. A textured sea of willow bushes surrounded us as we hiked up a small but formidable hill at the end of this lonely patch of land. The wind tried to keep us from ascending, but after so long a day nothing was going to keep us from finishing it with a sunset from the top.
Our day ended on the boat as a dingy ferried us back to our temporary home on the sea. The sunset itself had been less than spectacular but a final burst of oranges and purples seemed to want to remind us of what had been caught behind the clouds.
Night fell and we were called to gather ourselves around trays of fried vegetables and fish, to enjoy dinner on the lower deck. As people politely underfilled plates to ensure everyone had their take, conversation turned quietly back to the tumultuous ocean and if we’d have to endure the same again.
Where there is challenge there is adventure and where there is adventure their is excitement, so as people turned down to their blue floor-mat beds for the evening I would be surprised if there was anyone who fell asleep with more trepidation than anticipation. Let’s see what tomorrow will bring.
Sleep was intermittent that night as our boat motored along the coast of Sumbawa on our way to Komodo. Occasionally we’d wake with our heads pressed against the wooden guard rails and other times we’d find ourselves rolled onto our boat mates mats.
All was forgiven in the morning as we pulled into a little bay of Mojo island. A breakfast of pancakes and chocolate syrup washed down with Indonesian coffee set us up for our first excursion of the day.
We climbed into the smaller boat and stared with awe at the deep clear water which revealed a bustling coral reef below. A 10 minute walk took us to a ‘sticky’ waterfall which we could climb up because of mineral deposits that left the surface with a coarse grip.
After washing the previous day off our bodies in the fresh water pool at the top, we set back out to the ocean do some snorkeling. The reef was full of life; moray eels, sting rays, stonefish and a multitude of colorful tropical fish were all spotted among the vibrant corals.
After clambering up onto the boat it was hard to turn our back on the glassy blue water, in no small part because of the daunting 20 hours of boating we still had ahead of us.
The ocean stayed relatively calm for the rest of our second day on the boat. We cruised round the coast of Sumbawa without incident and enjoyed the afternoon soaking up the Indonesian sun on the deck of the boat.
We broke the monotony of the day with a swim in the shade of Mount Tambora which rose imposingly behind jungle buried villages and black sand beaches. Tambora is an active volcano and in 1815 was the site of the largest recorded volcanic eruption. So violent was the explosion it was heard 2600km away in Sumatra and the Earth’s temperature was affected for three years following.
After everyone had had their fill of jumping from the top of the boat we set out away from Sumbawa and on course for Komodo. While the ocean had kept its civility for our days journey, we wouldn’t be so lucky with the rest of the evening. The rough waters returned and put almost everyone on their backs and dinner, while taken in a period of relative calm, was subdued. Sleep came fitfully and without enjoyment, but with the prospect of an adventure packed day to come I think it’s a hardship we were all willing to endure.
Waking on the third day was more a matter of deciding not to lie down any more rather than returning to consciousness. Crawling out from under the small tarpaulin covered frame that made our shared bedroom, we were greeted with our first look at the shores of Komodo Island.
Originally Komodo was only scheduled for the fourth day of our trip, but if you’ve spent any time in South-East Asia you’ll appreciate the malleability of a plan. “Komodo! You’ll need shoes!” shouted our taciturn guide to just one third of the group, and off we went.
Past the white sanded beaches the island becomes hot and dry with scraggly limbed bushes breaking occasionally to dusty patches and tall palm trees. “There’s no guarantee we’ll see any Komodo Dragons on this hike,” a park ranger offered right before an excited bustle broke out at the back of the group.
Underneath a bush, blended perfectly with the browns and muted greens was our first dragon. It sat deathly still but at the same time acutely aware of our presence. The guide seemed genuinely surprised to have found one so quickly, adding to the authenticity of our sighting.
It wasn’t long before we again came across a larger dragon cooling in the shade of a tree. We were able to get closer, but the way in which it’s head weighed each of us up had the rangers keeping themselves between us and the giant lizard. Attention was again suddenly shifted as others caught sight of a baby dragon crunching through the undergrowth behind us.
What had been promised as an hour and a half walk couldn’t have been more than 40 minutes and could have been disappointing if it were not for our final sighting of a massive adult komodo stomping its way along the shoreline. Even the curio sellers, who must surely see the dragons often, kept a healthy distance between themselves and the prehistoric-looking creature.
The dragon seemed to follow us back to the jetty, it’s tounge spitting frequently from its mouth as we backed cautiously away from its approach. A ranger ushered the lizard off before it could creep up on an unsuspecting group of tourists and our time on Komodo finished as the story-book beast carried on away up the beach.
The island of Komodo is famous for more than just its dragons. It’s also one of the few places in the world you can find a pink beach. The sand is given its pink hue by tiny red and pink shelled creatures that live on the reefs off the island. The colour is most prominent when the waves lap over the shore, churning up the sand and accentuating its pink glow.
Mari giddily dug her toes into the sand, recounting how when she was younger she’d marked ‘visit a pink beach’ on her bucket list. It was hard not to get caught up in her enthusiasm as for the second time in the day we were able to see something which before had seemed so exotic and unattainable.
Our days on the boat haven’t always been gorgeous sunsets and still waters but it has been filled with the kinds of moments that will define our time in Indonesia.
By now all our expectations of a set plan had gone out the window and we embraced the unpredictability of our next destination. “Manta Point!” exclaimed the guide popping his head out a cabin window.
He reappeared again a few minutes later with flippers and goggles ready to go. Most of the us were lucky enough to be gathered around for his instructions of “Keep sight of me, stay together and swim with the current.”
“What?” one of our group asked, echoing the thoughts of the rest of us.
“Stay together!” he repeated before jumping off alone into the water.
Those who were prepared quickly followed suit while others were left still rummaging around in the snorkeling gear box. The choppy sea made it hard to see far in front of yourself and only the occasional flash of orange or yellow kept us on course.
The guide waved us towards his position, about 10 or so meters ahead of the bulk of the group. With a healthy background dose of panic to motivate our movmements we made it over to him and realised he was pointing down at the sea floor. Below us a huge ray cruised over the sea bottom kicking up sand as it glided along. It was no manta, but at least the haphazard plunge into the open ocean had yielded something.
An unspoken decision was made to return to the boat and our group was made to realise this as some were towed off towards the main boat and the guide gestured in a series of cryptic points and beckons. One by one the group made it back, everyone double checking their friends made it too. “We try again?” asked the guide enthusiastically.
Needless to say a much smaller group of people jumped back in for round two.
After the frenetic Manta Point open ocean jump, we were taken to a little cove for a less stressful snorkeling session. We were never rushed to finish our activities and while that was most often appreciated, on this day a little haste might have helped.
The sun had moved into that part of the day when it’s heat had gentled and its colour had begun to shift to darker shades. Little did we know at that point we’d already entered into a race to catch our last sunset view point of the trip.
Padar Island used to also be home to the dragons but now is famous for its pink, black and white sanded beaches and its dramatic view point. We approached the island just as the sun had begun to dip past the hills highest point and whether we’d be able to catch it before it disappeared would be touch and go.
The first seven of us piled into the little dingy which would carry us over. As the boat pulled off the motor cut out, setting us adrift of the main boat and heading in the opposite direction of where we needed to be. Our guides frantically worked the engine over trying to spark it back to life as the rest of the group watched in amusement as we drifted off on the currents.
Finally the engine sputtered back to life and we struck out for the jetty. By now the sun had fallen out of view and we knew we’d have to run to catch anything but the dusk. We bounded up the view point steps two at a time, passing up the lesser view points to reach the top of the hill.
What is probably a 30 minute hike to the top on most days took us just over 15 instead. Sadly the sun had gone, but it had left parts of it colour behind that still lit up a view of the spectacular Komodo National Park.
While the rest of the group made their way up the long flight of steps we were lucky to be able to take a long look at where we’d been and where we were. There’s a magic and a wildness to the islands and, no matter how far up the hill our group had made it, I don’t think anyone could have failed to appreciate just how lucky we all were to be there.
We spent our last night on the boat tucked away in the bay of Padar Island. A couple of other boats had the same idea, but none seemed to celebrate the evening with the vigor that ours did. The cooler box was emptied of its last beers and a bottle of Arak, a locally brewed alcohol, was unwrapped from one of the group’s luggage. Music did its best to blast from some tiny portable speakers and most of the group busted out their best dance moves on the lower deck.
Despite the late festivities most of the group woke with the sun, eager to catch the final rise of our four day trip. By the time the rest of the stragglers were up, lured in no small part with chocolate syrup pancakes, we had pulled into a small bay for some morning snorkeling.
No one was out for very long, perhaps eager to finish our journey or otherwise feeling some remnants of the night before. This set us on course for our penultimate destination Kelor, a tiny island within sight of Flores and the fishing town of Labuan Bajo.
A small but steep hike offered a final panoramic of Komodo National Park before our last tussle with awkward fitting snorkel masks led us back out to the small reefs surrounding the island. We took lunch on the boat and wound down the hours until finally wrapping up our time on the Flores Sea.
We’d all been offered the free accomodation of the boat for one more night, but long before we pulled into the harbour everyone had made alternative sleeping arrangements. There was no doubt we were all ready to leave, but certainly not without a just little melancholy as we hoisted our bags over to the pier.
Contacts were exchanged and some of the group planned to stay together that night, but we were ending our trip and one could already sense nostalgia for a unique memory coming to a close. There are undoubtedly improvements that could be made to the tour, but I don’t believe a single person will look back and regret our voyage across this little stretch of Indonesian ocean.