In 2016/17, I was involved in a fairly large World Bank project involving Indonesia, and it was during this particular sojourn where I discovered the beauty of Komodo. While I have heard of the islands and its reptilian residents, it was only after this project when I suddenly got the call. In the grand scheme of ‘calling’ and my actual ‘action,’ this was definitely one of the fastest I have ever ‘implemented.’
The Spice Islands
Komodo is the main island within the Komodo National Park area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its world renown, it is still relatively untouched, all for the better. To get to the site, there is the usual ‘cruise from Lombok’ option, or for those with a rush, the ‘fly to Flores’ option, which personally, introduces you to the Spice Islands and the Pacific Ring of Fire first hand.
The most realistic option getting to Flores, named so because the Portuguese were spellbound by its beauty, is from Jakarta, where regular direct and connecting flights are available. Arrival in Komodo Airport is an experience in itself, as you pass volcanoes in the middle of the sea, or stunning landmasses amidst the deepest blue.
On arrival in Flores, and specifically Labuan Bajo, the sense of ‘island-life’ and ‘rustic idyll’ permeates, as there is no true ‘town centre,’ especially considering that this location is essentially a fishing village which relies on the tourism and fishing industry. You would want it that way, as what better way to relax than having a nice drink overlooking the bay, with good fresh seafood from the fishermen and vendors who give you a fair price?
The primary reason most travellers come by to this relatively remote part of Southeast Asia, are for the komodo dragons, islands and diving. While regrettably I did not have enough time for diving (as I need a refresher after 3 years of not diving), I did make sure I had enough time for dragons, islands and beaches.
There are a number of operators that do island safaris from Labuan Bajo, some on speedboats, some on dive boats, some on liveaboards, some on cruisers and some on fantastic yachts. I opted for a liveaboard. While not as fast as some of the dive boats or speedboats, I did have the whole boat to myself, with the only noise being the waves crashing against the bow. The speedboats on the other hand sounded like 10 Harley Davidsons with loudspeakers.
Most operators conducting day trips would suggest Komodo Island or Rinca Island as part of the itinerary, with a stop at Padar Island. While on maps, the islands look relatively close by, the straits that separate these islands are at the confluence of the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, and currents can be strong, especially between Rinca and Padar Islands.
I went with Komodo Transportation and Travel, a local outfit with a fantastic guide, who made my private tour really something. My boat, the aptly named ‘Traveller,’ was the perfect vessel, being a liveaboard, and having the capacity for 14 people. Yes, a boat for 14 guests and I was the only one.
As smaller, faster boats passed us, I lazed on the sundeck, with drink in hand, book by my side, sunscreen on the ready. We passed small fishing communities and wildlife on the islands as we cruised towards Padar Island, that large island between Rinca and Komodo, and where those stunning travel photos are usually taken.
The cruise, like all seabourne journeys, is subject to the currents, and while the first 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to the tip of Rinca were smooth sailing, the crossing between Rinca to Padar did get rough at times. If you are ever contemplating squeezing in Komodo’s Pink Beach, Padar Island, Rinca Island and Kelor Island, that would be almost impossible. It is either Komodo or Rinca, one cannot do both in a day cruise.
Green Hills & Gaping Thrills
Padar Island is worth the stop, if only for the summit climb. The beauty of being on my larger but slower boat, as that by the time we berthed at harbour, the larger tour groups were descending, meaning I had the summit walks mostly to myself. The mostly barren, steep island with sheltered beaches and coves makes it a magical site, with unobstructed views of Komodo and Rinca islands.
Rinca Island is one of two sites within the Komodo National Park where you can view the fabled komodo dragons safely. While Komodo Island is a spot where you are assured of sightings due to the dragons being used to humans, Rinca Island is a good spot to see the dragons in their natural habitat.
After a short walk from berth to park headquarters, pass low-lying flat lands and mangroves and the occasional buffalo, you will be mesmerized by the rolling hills of Rinca, resembling pastoral New Zealand than tropical Indonesia.
The 1.5 hour walk, with our park ranger, resulted me in counting at least 16 dragons. Yes. 16 dragons, from 2 baby dragons, to countless larger dragons underneath the kitchen giving a Japanese TV crew quite the fright, to a dragon guarding her nest to my favourite: dragon lazing on top of the hill, under a gazebo, monarch of all he surveys.
From Rinca, we made our way to Kelor Island, the final stopover before Labuan Bajo, and a frequent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, SUP-ing or a climb to the summit for a fantastic view.
Due to time constraints, I had to pass on the evening bat exodus, but time flies when you are having fun on a cruise.
View from Paradise
Despite the rural idyll, Labuan Bajo is a tourist town, but not in the veins of San Sebastian, Ubud or Queenstown. Prices are reasonable and the locals, on a whole, do not attempt to make a quick buck from travellers. The bars are good, the restaurants serve fresh fish and everything is mostly walking distance.
One of these spots, a bit off-centre, is Paradise Bar, which lives up to its name at sunset. Cool beach-house beats play, with a wide terrace overlooking Labuan Bajo, the bays, islands and sea beyond. Drinks are reasonably priced, and for the sunset views, worth the steep hike up.
La Pirate, a sister property of La Pirate in Bali, has a lovely rooftop terrace and bar, with an infinity pool overlooking the harbour. The drinks are pretty good too, and it’s a nice spot for a late lunch.
The stalls of the night markets along the seashore, where the fishermen dock and unload their catch, is an excellent site for good, cheap seafood in the evenings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. No overpriced fish for tourists and reasonable prices for locals here: it is very egalitarian.
For something posh, Atlantis on the Rocks at the Plataran Komodo, is without a doubt, a good escape from the world. Taking a car (or in my case, a motorcycle) along narrow roads, looking down at steep cliffs, rolling mountains, crystal clear seas to my left and right while riding on the saddle of a mountain, makes the journey (and the drink) worthwhile.
Komodo Travel & Transportation
I used Komodo Travel & Transportation, and Ali is a fantastic guide. His boat, the ‘Traveller’, is apt for those who want to rekindle that romance of travel. www.komodotraveller.com
Komodo National Park Fees
Weekdays: IDR 295,000 (trekking) IDR 310,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
and on Sundays/Public Holidays: IDR 370,000 (trekking) IDR 385,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
Times to visit:
Peak – April to October, as the monsoon is less prominent, and particularly busy during the dry months of July to September, when komodo dragons are out and about and the sea is more agreeable.
Off-Peak – October to December is a decent time to visit: weather is not as hot, the sites are not crowded and the komodo dragons are still around, as they tend to hide when the storms roll in from December onwards.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.