Indonesia: Labuanbajo & Komodo

Next stop for Will and I after a chilled few days in Lombok was Labuanbajo; the western-most town on Flores island, and the gateway port to the Komodo National Park. You can do a 4-day boat trip (called a liveaboard) from either the Gilis or Lombok to Labuanbajo, which stops at various points along Sumbawa and in the national park for snorkelling and sight-seeing. Seasick Ellie thought this might not be the best idea, so we opted to fly (and speaking to some people who’d done it, I think we made the right choice – this time of year the sea can be incredibly rough which made for some sleepless and nauseating nights on the boat!). Our flights from Lombok to Labuanbajo, and Labuanbajo back to Bali, cost us each 1,200,000Rp, which was a similar price to the liveaboard trips.

We first had to fly to Bali which was a quick 25-minute hop, and we then had a few hours in Bali airport as our connection was delayed – but we bumped into a German couple we met in Yogyakarta so killed a bit of time catching up with them. We boarded the little prop plane and had a 1hr 20 min flight over to Labuanbajo. Wings Air have a reputation for delays, so if you can, travel in the morning as these tend to be less delayed, and don’t book any onward travel for the same day… It was a pretty flight, particularly over the volcanos of Bali and Lombok which towered through the clouds. We landed, did a little celebration dance when we realised our luggage had made it all the way from Lombok, and waited for our free shuttle to our hostel.

Flying over Lombok’s Rinjani volcano

We bumped through town and up a hill, and arrived to Ciao Hostel, a great place with an incredible view over Labuanbajo harbour. We were shown up to our room and had a little ‘wow’ moment as we walked in: we were on the top floor of the hostel, and the dorm had an open front wall so you could lie in bed and watch the sunrise through only your mosquito net. The sun was setting as we arrived, and the sky went through blue, pink and orange to blood red, which was incredibly beautiful. Make sure you book the 12-bed dorm as this is the only open air one. We went downstairs to the restaurant which had the same view a floor down from our dorm, and ate watching night fall over the harbour. The restaurant at Ciao was one of its drawbacks; the food was okay but definitely overpriced – and everywhere in Labuanbajo adds 11% government tax to your bill. Walk, drive a scooter, or get the hostel’s free shuttle into town for some more, better and slightly cheaper food options (though we did find restaurants there in general much more expensive than we were expecting).

The Ciao sunset viewpoint: my bed

Each evening, the hostel puts on a movie at 9pm. They have 6 film options written up on a board for people to vote for over the course of the day, and the one with the most votes is the evening’s showing. The evening we arrived we watched the new Jumanji film, which contrary to a few things we had heard, was actually quite enjoyable. A good cast and quite funny, easy to watch and a nice atmosphere with everyone just sat on bean bags in the common area watching the film projected up onto the wall.

The following day we got up, had a fairly disappointing breakfast, and rented a scooter (75,000Rp for 24 hours from Ciao). It was a yellow Yamaha which looked a bit like Bumblebee from Transformers – a nippy thing! We drove down to town to pick up a supplementary breakfast bun from the great little bakery, then continued on to Batu Cermin Cave outside of town. We parked Bumblebee, bought our ticket (20,000Rp each) and followed the path through the jungle to the cave. It was quite small but striking, and unlike the other caves I’ve visited in the last few months, there was no-one else there. We found a pile of hard hats on corner before a small black hole opening, so we plonked one on and proceeded into the abyss. Lit only by our phone torches we scrambled through the cave, looking at the weird and wonderful rock formations and enjoying a little stand-up space and slice of sunshine where there was a crack in the roof.

A ray of sunlight leaking into Batu Cermin cave

We were only there for half an hour or so, so we wandered back to Bumblebee (Will obliging some local guys with a selfie request) and drove back to the hostel where we sorted our flight back to Bali and did a little more organising for our Komodo adventure. In the evening we scootered back into town for Taco Tuesday at a Bajo Taco, a good Mexican place we’d been recommended that overlooked the harbour.

The following day was Komodo day! We booked our tour through Ciao, who offer both one and two-day tours of the park. We opted for the one-day tour at 400,000Rp each, but the two-day had three extra stops for 800,000Rp. These are also subject to an additional 250,000Rp each for the national park fee on Komodo and Rinca islands. We were up at a fairly ripe 5am for our pick-up down to the port. We were sorted out with some snorkel masks and flippers, and shown down to the boat where 10 others had already arrived. The crew did some tight manoeuvring to get us out of the squeezed little spot we were moored in, and we set sail just after 6am.

Our first stop of the day was Padar Island, but this was about a 2.5hour ride from Labuanbajo. We chugged along, watching the sun rise over the island and the sky light up the smaller islands around us as we went. There were barely any boats out which made it quite a magical journey. There are hundreds of little islands off the coast of mainland Flores, dotted between Rinca and Komodo – the two largest islands in the Komodo National Park. They’re all so green, and a couple of islands have some half-floating villages built into and out from them. There aren’t many local communities in the park itself, so it was interesting seeing where the few groups out there do live.

After a fairly sleepy journey (interrupted by a couple of massive waves which drenched Will and his camera. Eek.) we arrived at Padar. This stop was for a little hike up to a viewpoint at the peak. It didn’t look very far from the bottom but the heat was already intense so it made for a sweaty scramble. It took about half an hour to get to the top, and the view was incredible. In one direction you looked over to Komodo islands and in the other, over the islands back towards Flores. There were a couple of small aquamarine bays off the foot of Padar which were almost sparkling in the sunshine – and we even spotted some dolphins playing in one!

The view from the top of Padar Island

We took some snaps, glugged a lot of water, wiped our sweaty brows and started clambering back down to the boat. We then had an hour’s boat ride over to Komodo island, where we docked and walked up to the ranger station. As komodos can be aggressive and have a potentially fatal bite, you can’t go wandering off into the jungle hunting dragons unaccompanied. Each group is allocated a couple of guides to lead and bring up the rear, armed with forked sticks to fend off attacking dragons. We were just hoping they wouldn’t need to be used… There are short, medium and long trek trails marked on the island. As we were on an organised tour with several stops we only had time for the short one, but if you’ve chartered your own boat and have longer on Komodo island, the medium or long ones looked really good.

We paid our national park fee and set off behind our guide, spotting deer and wild boar along the way. After about 10 minutes we arrived at the spot called the watering hole, where the komodos go to hunt. The dragons aren’t contained within a specific area, they roam around the huge island as they please, and they’re not fed by the rangers – they’re fully wild animals, so seeing them is not guaranteed. However, when we walked into the watering hole, we were lucky enough to see four dragons sprawled sleepily in the clearing. There were three males, up to about 3.5m long, and one female – which was much smaller but still as mean-looking. They looked very chilled out, starfished on the ground dozing, but the guide told us they’re always alert as this is their hunting ground, so they can get up and move very quickly when they want to – they can actually run up to 25 km/h! We took about a million photographs, creeping around quietly so as not to startle these beasts out of their slumber, before we moved on through the jungle – luckily no use of dragon sticks required…

How to train your dragon: the real-life edition

On the rest of our walk through the jungle we saw a baby komodo up on the path ahead of us – a lucky escapee, given that komodos are cannibals and like snacking on their own babies. Young live up in the trees until they’re big enough for the adults to pick other targets. We saw some more deer and wild boar and in what felt like no time, we were back at the ranger station being bid farewell by our guide. Our visit to Komodo island had gone far too quickly, but at least we’d seen a good handful of dragons!

A male dragon looking deceptively sleepy…

We got back on the boat and had our lunch boxes of rice, chicken and tofu on the way to our next stop: Pink Beach. This was a tiny little stretch of beach on an island just off Komodo, and if you look close enough the sand looks pink rather than white. We couldn’t quite glean what made this the case, but it was quite pretty. There wasn’t anything to see with the snorkels, so we just had a swim and a quick lie on the beach before heading back (through the very strong current) to the boat.

Beached on Pink Beach

Our last stop for the day was a snorkelling spot called Manta Point – imaginatively named for the fact it’s a good spot to see manta rays. It was about an hour’s chug from Pink Beach, passing more beautiful little spots of land and gliding through the crystal water. When we arrived at the spot, one of the crew went and stood at the bow of the boat keeping a keen eye out for mantas. It reminded me of our outing on Koh Libong and the dugong spotters! We were cruising around for about half an hour before the guides apologised and said they didn’t think there were any mantas in the area. We were given some time to swim anyhow – I passed as the water was surprisingly cold but Will jumped on in. As luck would have it, a manta then appeared out of nowhere under the boat! There was a scramble to grab snorkels and flippers and someone took mine in the bustle so I couldn’t get into the water in time to see the ray at close quarters. I did see it from the boat, and luckily Will had my GoPro so he followed it for a while and managed to get some nice footage.

Manta-spotting

When we’d lost the manta, the swimmers clambered back onto the boat and we started the 2.5hr journey back to Labuanbajo. We arrived just as the sun was setting – another beautiful orange sky – and walked the sweaty hill back up to our hostel for food, packing and bed after our early start.

I think the Komodo tour day was one of the best days of my whole trip so far. It’d been an experience, much like the hot air balloons in Bagan, that’d I’d earmarked before I left home as something I really wanted to do – so I’m so glad we saw some dragons, and the beauty of the National Park wildly surpassed my expectations. My only regret is not having had enough time (with visa expiry looming and funds running on fumes) to go further east and explore the rest of Flores island. There are some beautiful rice paddies and an amazing volcano hike called Kelimutu, amongst other natural wonders towards Ende and Maumere. I’ll definitely be coming back to Indonesia to explore further as it feels I’ve barely scratched the surface – Sulawesi, the Banda Arc and Papua are other provinces high on my list.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 7, including a Dutch guy who’s been living and working as a DJ in Bali for 8 years, and who was in Labuanbajo to play an exclusive gig on a private island by the national park.
Interaction was: a sneak peek into the definition of ‘living the dream’.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield


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