As a young boy I had grown up hearing all about the largest lizards on earth, the Komodo dragons. I had seen National Geographic cover them plenty of times and was infatuated, as many kids are, by the dinosaur-like creatures. Watching the three meter long lizard bite a buffalo and stalk it for days, and then fight over their prize with fellow dragons was enthralling. Sissy and I had planned to spend a month in Indonesia to start our Southeast Asia trip and figured where better to kick it off than Komodo National Park.
Our trip to Komodo National Park started as most do, on the island of Flores in the town of Labuan Bajo. Labuan Bajo is an old fishing turned tourist town, and is a short boat ride from the park. After flying into Bali and paying $40USD each for the hour long flight into LBJ, we dropped our bags at our hotel and walked into town. Labuan Bajo isn’t a whole lot to look at, it’s a bit dirty and dusty with more traffic than a town its size warrants. It’s a harbor town so there aren’t beaches along the main drag, and the smell of sewage creeps up from time to time. There are tons of dive shops and tour salesmen at every turn on the main road, with signs everywhere calling out that they need more people for a trip tomorrow.
Diving in Komodo
We had been told that the diving in the park was amazing, so our first order of business was to organize some dives for the following day. After checking with five different dives shops we found that a large group of shops had banded together to set identical prices, which weren’t low by Southeast Asian standards. It looked like two dives and lunch with all gear included would cost about $100 once you counted in the national park fees, and three dives would be $125. While that’s not expensive in general, it wasn’t close to the $35 for two dives and lunch we got accustomed to in Egypt or the $30 per dive we paid in Mozambique, but of course this was not Africa and even though Southeast Asia is cheap in general, this particular dive site would be on the pricier side.
Uber Scuba ended up being the dive shop we went with, and at 7am the next morning we hopped on their well made boat, ate some doughnuts they had brought for the trip, and were on our way to the first of three dive sites for the day. The company seemed well organized and handled the eighteen divers on board really well. The boat had a lounge area up top and at the front and never felt cramped or crowded. Two hours after leaving the dock we got to our first dive site, Siaba Besar. Gearing up for the dive ran smoothly as people were split up on either side of the boat and sent to get ready in the order they’d get into the water. The groups were about four divers per dive master, making the whole experience personal despite the large number of divers on the boat.
After descending we explored a sandy sea floor for a long while, checking out tiny nudibranchs, cuttlefish, mantis shrimp, and various other tiny sea creatures. Swimming toward a coral outcropping, we moved into an area known as Turtle Town. The first turtle we saw was surprisingly big, and we swam along near it for some time, admiring its size and beauty. Before long we noticed that it isn’t called Turtle Town for no reason, there were turtles all over the place. After a full hour under, up we headed and onto the next dive site.
Batu Bolong, or hole in the rock dive site, was next on the list. We were told it’s one of the best dive sites in the park, and also one of the trickiest as the currents are generally tough to predict and become very strong. The original plan was to go to Batu Bolong last, but the current was good, so we jumped in and descended while we still had the chance. Immediately after descending I looked around and felt like I was in a gigantic aquarium. There were thousands of fish in every direction, varying from tiny clown fish to massive sweetlip fish and tons in between. The coral was every bit as vibrant and alive as anything we had seen in the Red Sea, if not more so.
We descended further down a chimney, or a steep drop off with walls on either side of us, and found multiple whitetip reef sharks among the hordes of fish below. The current was pushing us along pretty fast, and at times we had to turn into it and swim in order to stay stationary long enough to observe something. At one point our divemaster called us over, put her head near a hard coral, pulled out her regulator, and opened her mouth. As soon as she had done that, two huge shrimp jumped in and started cleaning away, the way they would on a fish! At the first sign of her mouth closing, they jumped back out into their coral and off we went.
Our final dive site for the day was Manta Point, which is a name that puts a lot of hope into anyone heading to it. The first thing we noticed after descending was the strong current pushing us along. We floated along with the current, passing more vibrant coral, a few sea snakes, and another reef shark. After 45 minutes of riding the current we finally saw our divemaster make the sign for manta and point ahead. A manta was flying along in the distance, and while it was a reef manta, not the larger oceanic manta like we had seen in Mozambique a year prior, it was still around three meters wide (10 feet) and as majestic as anything we’d seen. Another large manta flew past it, and we’d see two more over the next few minutes, before we ascended to the surface.
Sissy was accidentally hit by a passing manta while videoing near the surface!
Beyond the sea snakes, shark, and amazing coral, we had seen four mantas! Our final dive for the day was deemed a success and our divemaster told us how relieved she was that after 45 minutes we finally got to see mantas. Imagine the pressure on a divemaster to ensure you see the namesake creature of a divesite, especially when you factor in that some divers (or people in general) don’t understand that wild animal sightings cannot ever be guaranteed. We were beyond happy with the three dives we had done, with the overall day of diving being the best we had ever experienced.
Komodo and Rinca Islands
Our next mission was to find a boat that would take us to the main attraction of the area, Komodo and Rinca Islands. Komodo Dragons live on a handful of islands in the park, with the highest concentrations on these two larger islands. Plenty of shops had signs that had the words, “2 day/1 night trip to Komodo and Rinca leaves tomorrow, need more people” permanently painted on them, however talking to the people inside brought out the real story. Most shops required a minimum of five people to go out, and most didn’t have anyone signed up. Once we finally found a place that would take us, we agreed to pay the equivalent of $75USD for the two of us together to go out the next morning.
Around 7pm that evening we were told at our hotel that someone from the shop was looking for us. The guy who sold us the trip told us that the other people that were supposed to be joining us in the morning had been in a motorbike accident and wouldn’t be joining, and we’d have to book a private trip if we wanted to go, which would be about three times the price. We declined and headed back to the main street in hopes of finding another boat for the morning. Walking along we ran into a couple that we shared a taxi with from the airport, and they told us the same thing had happened to them, but in their case the other couple became sick. Apparently it’s common for boat operators to claim to have enough people to go out, but then at the last minute if no one else signs up, to claim the others had some problem and now you’d have to book a private tour or not go at all.
We went from shop to shop to try to find any way into the park the following morning, when we finally came across Captain Fiko’s shop. The man we spoke with was very proud to be the owner of his shop and boat, unlike the other shops around, which according to him employed less honest salesmen that then contract out to other low quality boats to take people into the park. Captain Fiko was proud of his luxury boat, which had western toilets, showers, and even the option for air conditioned cabins. Most importantly, he had seven people signed up to go out in the morning for two days and a night. After some haggling he brought the price for us to sleep on the deck down to $90 for the two of us, and threw in an offer for us to stay a second night on his boat in the harbor for free. We agreed and told him we’d meet him bright and early, about nine hours from then, at the shop.
The following morning we were led to a comparatively nice looking three story boat, which would take us to both Komodo and Rinca Islands that same day. It was a Friday, and the national park fees were lower than on Saturdays and Sundays, so we planned to go hiking on both islands that day, when normally the two hikes would be split up between the two days. Anything to save us some money was more than welcome. We were very content with the boat, especially as we watched some of the other boats that were going to the same place putt along, looking like they could sink at any moment and sounding like an old V-8 with no muffler on it.
A few hours later (nice as our boat was, it was really slow) we arrived at Rinca Island, and headed past the throngs of macaque monkeys to pay our entrance fees. A guide was assigned to us, and three of us chose to do the medium length hike, which would take about an hour, while the rest chose the hour and a half long hike. Sissy and I had just come from a frigid, wet climate in New Zealand and weren’t used to the sun and heat again yet, so an hour sounded just right for us. Shortly after entering the park we were greeted by tons of small crabs dueling with each other, and a lone Komodo dragon laying under a tree.
Once we reached the bathrooms and shop, our guide took us a few meters further where there were four huge Komodo dragons laying in the shade of a building. We had barely entered the park and already we had seen five of the giant lizards, with two of them walking around and flicking their snakelike tongues in and out of their mouths.
The beginning of the walk brought us past quite a few massive dragons, but as soon as we left the cover of the trees there wasn’t a lizard in sight. After 45 minutes of no dragons we reached the shop again, where a wild deer roamed around. Our guide had told us that the macaques and other wildlife existed here on the islands with the dragons, but no longer in Labuan Bajo because it was too dangerous for them there. The macaques had swam from Flores to these islands, where the world’s largest lizards would eat them whenever they could, because people were too deadly for them to survive. The other group who had chosen the long walk said they actually saw fewer dragons than we had, and wished they had gone with the medium length option as the heat was overwhelming.
A few more hours on the boat brought us to the island we had been waiting for, Komodo Island. One member of our group had been to the islands before and he had skipped walking on Rinca because he knew that Komodo was that much more impressive. Just after we got off the boat we saw wild pigs trotting by and wild deer roaming around. Mostly due to my exhaustion, our same group of three chose to take the short walk on the island, which would be an hour long. The medium option was an hour and a half, and the long walk was around three hours.
Just after starting the walk again we were greeted by Komodo dragons, and our guide offered to take pictures of the group with them. As the pictures were being taken, the main dragon got up and started coming toward us. We were quickly pushed back and out of the way, and the lizard calmed down and laid down again a few meters from us.
Our guide on Komodo did an excellent job showing us not only the dragons, but the different parrots that were in the trees above, the wild chickens at the tops of the tall trees as well, and the snails on the plants, with their incredibly ornate shells.
When we came to a watering hole we found a few more dragons, and had to have our picture taken with one. Our guide told us that the dragons would often lay still near the watering hole and wait for buffalo and deer to come drink. When the animals weren’t paying attention, the dragons would strike and bite them, causing the animal to become sick and die over the course of the next few days.
Rinca Island was really good, but Komodo was in a league of its own. Our boat had been exceedingly slow that day, so we left the island just before the sunset, long after park hours were over.
The next morning we headed to an island famous in Indonesia for being picturesque, Padar Island. The plan was to get there around 5am, so we could complete the half hour hike up in time for sunrise. Unfortunately our captain seemed to have slept in, so we got to Padar shortly after sunrise, and hiked up past the throngs of Indonesian tourists to the top. Luckily no one outside of our group seemed interested in hiking too high up on the island, so while it was very crowded at the first lookout point, another 10 minutes up the hill left Sissy and I completely alone with a great view over the island.
After Padar we cruised over to Manta Point, the same place we had been scuba diving two days prior. As the boat anchored we could see at least a half dozen manta from the boat, all swimming around at the surface. Everyone grabbed a snorkel, mask, and fins, and jumped into the water.
The mantas seemed to be everywhere, and they weren’t a bit shy. At first a few mantas swam by, and the longer we stayed the more seemed to come. Sissy was videoing one of the mantas and it accidentally hit her with a fin as it swam by. During the hour or so at manta point we must have seen at least two dozen mantas, with most of them coming close enough to touch if we had really wanted or tried.
Sadly we had to move on from the best snorkeling we had experienced toward Kanawah Island. When we reached the island we saw the white sand beaches with beach umbrellas and lounge chairs looked like something from a postcard. We snorkeled around the island for a bit, still blown away by the quality of the coral and amount of small fish in the area.
We arrived back in Labuan Bajo in the late afternoon, and decided to stay at a local homestay instead of on the boat that night since the harbor wasn’t very nice and was a bit loud. Once we got to our homestay we found the water and power had been out for a while, so bucket showers and stifling heat met us since the fans obviously weren’t working as well. A hotel nearby, Le Pirate, was showing a free movie every evening on the rooftop, so we spent the evening watching the boxing movie, Creed.
The final thing we thought we’d do while in Labuan Bajo was to rent a motorbike and head to a nearby waterfall. Neither of us had driven a motorbike before, but figured it was a good time to learn since we’d have another six months or so in Southeast Asia, where motorbikes are the primary method of transportation. Like everything else in Labuan Bajo, a motorbike rental was a bit pricier than elsewhere in Indonesia, which meant it would cost us $6 for the day. The guy at the rental shop explained how to get to the falls, and told us it’d take about two hours each way.
Just over an hour into the ride, all was going well, and we found the turn the guy had described. After we turned we realized we must have made a mistake. The road was so incredibly broken down that it was literally more large rocks than pavement, and some of the gaps between the dirt and rock part of the road and the transition back to pavement were nearly a foot high. I stopped at a few shacks on the side of the road to ask if this was the way to the waterfall, and obviously nobody spoke English, but would smile and point and say, Cunca Rami.
About 45 minutes after the turn and a few small heart attacks later, we came to a shack where the locals hailed us to stop. In extremely rough English they explained they were guides, which we had been told prior we would need to pay to take us to the falls. The man followed us for another 10 minutes down the road, him on foot and us on the bike, and we both got to the start of the path at roughly the same time. We agreed to pay him 100,000 rupiah, or $7.50 to take us to the falls and back.
A half hour into the walk, which descended through the jungle, we caught our first glimpse of Cunca Rami, and it was much more impressive than expected. We walked along the rice terraces, balancing on the mud irrigation walls, as we came to a shack near the base of the falls. A bamboo fence was in our path and a lady who looked like she hadn’t heard of a toothbrush before (she probably hadn’t to be fair) smiled as we read her sign that asked for a “donation” in order to pass. We dropped 10,000 rupiah (75 cents) into the plastic jar and she slid back the bamboo so we could pass.
At the base of the falls the incredible heat we had been hiking through gave way to a cool spray from the gorgeous waterfall. It may have been the reprieve from the heat, or our happiness from finally being in an exciting country again, but that waterfall must have been the most beautiful falls we had seen in a long long time. The freezing cold pool at the base of the falls was the most amazing feeling and the color of the water was a light turquoise. We swam around in the pool for what felt like hours, and agreed that the terrible motorbike ride had been worth it.
The next day as we prepared to leave Labuan Bajo we found that we wished we could stay in the country for more than just the month we were given. Flores alone held so many things we were dying to see, but we were off to see if Bali could live up to the hype it has generated!