Lombok to Flores: A tale of boats, tropical islands and dragons
I’m actually not very good on boats. I am particularly vulnerable to sea sickness however I still manage to find myself on some form of boat trip most years. When planning my expedition to Indonesia, seeing Komodo dragons in person was at the very top of my to-do list; I also knew that this would therefore require me having to sail to Komodo National Park. It was actually off the recommendation of a friendly Dutch couple I met in a bar in Bali that I booked my 4 day, 3 night Lombok to Flores sailing trip with Wanua Adventures; the couple had said it was the highlight of their trip thus far. Here is my story.
Day 1: Arrival on the boat and the world’s windiest island
The boat was as expected, large but pretty basic. A shower (cold), a toilet (no flush), a seating area (on the floor) and a sun deck for relaxation (also on the floor). I had paid the cheaper package option of deck class accommodation, which was exactly what it meant; 30 thin mattresses all in a line on deck.
You slept 30cm left and right of other passengers, crossing your fingers that the turbulence does not roll you into a stranger’s grasp during the night! Cosy!
Lunch was served before departure and despite the appearance (piles of food bowls laid across the floor holding down a thin picnic blanket) it was fantastic. Fresh tuna, steamed vegetables, mi gorung (friend noodles) and nasi gorung (fried rice) it was an explosion of flavours. After lunch we set off, sails bursting with wind which I swear just appeared out of nowhere as we exited the harbour. This would become the staple of my entire sailing experience, wind, lots of wind. Before long we arrived at the first stop on our sailing adventure; a small island emerging from the ocean no larger than three football pitches and entirely flat apart from a singular steep hill on one end. It seemed to stand there so out of place with the surrounding landscape, looming. We dropped anchor and piled into smaller boats which began transferring us 5 at a time to the shore of the smaller island, it was 4pm and we would be staying here to watch the sunset at around 6pm. I remember taking one step onto the beach and immediately being blown back into the boat, a savage wind battered the tiny island which had no protection from surrounding islands and therefore took the full force of the sea-breeze in its entirety. Not being able to hear each other in the wind, myself and my new boat companions switched to the international language of hand gestures and pointing. Establishing that the solitary hill was probably the best vantage point for sunset with its westerly direction and therefore must be climbed.
We trudged onwards up the steep hill, I lamented my choice in footwear and brought a whole new anecdote to the term ‘sliders’. (see below picture of my victory stance)
Once at the summit we located a small incline shelter and buried ourselves from the wind as best we could in anticipation of the sunset. It was much easier to hear each other now and I finally got the chance to introduce myself to the friendly faces around me: two Dutch faces, an American face, a German face and a Scottish face; faces of which would single-handedly become the best parts of my entire trip. Later that evening we sat up on the sun deck of the boat, under the moonlight and traded stories about politics, Brexit and gun laws, argued about the 5 most essential ingredients for each of our refrigerators, drank beer, played cards and watched the stars.
Day 2: Waves, waves and bigger waves
I awoke from my deck class mattress at sunrise and watched as delicate colours of red, yellow and orange flickered and danced on the water. We had sailed during the night and therefore what greeted my eyes was a totally new landscape. It was one of those moments in life where every person is silent, but you know precisely what they were thinking and yes, it was beautiful. That morning, after a banana pancake breakfast, we snorkelled to a nearby island where we would meet on the beach and trek inland to a famous waterfall. The adventure and the chance to see a waterfall (I always get super excited about waterfalls – ask my students) was a welcome one and myself, Dutch and American even trawled the beach collecting suitable rocks of different colours to use in our scheduled cabin poker tournament on the boat that afternoon.
After suitably impressing gathering females at the waterfall with our macho display of manhood by jumping from a high rock into the plunge pool below, we returned to the boat. We sat and dried in the sun and began distributing our new collection of rocks into equal proportions of monetary value. My dad always used to tell me, “Tom, don’t ever play poker, you’d be useless” and naturally I was all-out after only 5 rounds. I got a little excited and went all-in on my 'straight' only to find out that a straight requires 5 running cards and not 4; what I had in fact was a big, stinking pile of 8 high (nothing). I was relegated to being dealer. A classic Tom moment, but apart from that it had been a lush morning.
It was at this moment the news broke. First as a rumour whispered between passengers before it was substantiated by the captain; there was to be a 16-hour non-stop sail before we arrive in Komodo National Park, our next stopping point. I had previously heard rumours from those who had completed this voyage before that day 2 was a killer, plus waters in the Bali and Flores Sea were renowned for riptides, choppy waves and whirlpools. The water truly lived up to its reputation. Waves at times reached 5m and we were thrown from side to side perpetually as we sailed and sailed and sailed. It was too turbulent to move, eat or drink and too windy to attempt any reading or writing, so we sat, isolated and trapped in this repetitive movement. 5 minutes felt like 1 hour and 1 hour felt like a lifetime. I was sick off the side of the boat 3 times that afternoon, skipped lunch and dinner to retire at 5pm and to try and sleep off my sea-sickness. Not quite such a good afternoon.
Day 3 – Dragons
I awoke on day 3 to the early beginnings of sunrise creeping through the gaps in the slats on deck. 5m waves had been tamed into no more than a fluttering of ripples and the wind was no more than a whisper on the water. We must have sailed all through the night as we had anchored right in front of a large, mountainous land which Google Maps informed me was in fact Komodo Island. After wolfing down a pineapple pancake (a combination which should not work but just seems to when on a boat) and showering (by jumping off the boat), I was back to feeling myself and ready for the day.
First thing on the itinerary for today was snorkelling with manta rays, or trying to. We sailed to a spot in the Flores Sea called Manta point and joined a small armada of other boats clearly here for the same reason. We kitted out in the highest grade of 50+ year old snorkels and face masks with mould growing on them and positioned ourselves on the edges of the boat, waiting for the signal to jump in. This is how we stayed for probably the longest 30 minutes of my life, searching and scanning the water below, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the white underbelly of a manta ray; I saw nothing. We were about to give up hope when suddenly our captain pointed at a patch of water some 10m away and exclaimed, “in, in, in, in, in”. What ensued was total madness. It was a brawl on deck as bodies leapt over the sides of the boat and flopped into the water, or in many cases onto the person below, and tucked their heads to try and catch a glimpse. I was fortunate enough to be in a prime position at the hull of the boat and therefore was in the water 0.001 seconds after the captain’s instruction. What I saw was a dark silhouette about 3m wide drifting along the ocean floor some 15m deep, far too deep for a clear sighting and also too deep for me to attempt a dive; but sure enough it was a manta ray. 10 seconds later the manta disappeared into the black and I resurfaced, somewhat disappointed with my brief encounter and was collected by the boat. It turns out that my brief sighting of a manta ray was actually the only sighting of a manta ray, with those who delayed in jumping in the water seeing nothing but water and the questionable choices in swimwear of others. I guess sometimes the early bird really does catch the worm, or “no manta no cry” as put hilariously by our playful captain. Many of us were slightly disappointed that our ‘snorkelling with manta rays’ had not quite materialised how we perhaps had romanticised it to be. Little did it matter however as everyone knew what else was on the agenda for today, the big one was coming up, searching for dragons on Komodo island.
As we approached the jagged but subtly eloquent landscape outline of Komodo island we sat huddles on deck as the captain delivered his safety brief. Considering the facts that Komodo dragons have razor sharp claws, poisonous saliva administered through a powerful bite, can run up to 20mph, grow up to 2/3m long, can climb trees, can smell us from 15km away and have been known to cause human fatalities in the past, I giggled as his brief simply consisted of, “stay together you must at all times… as a group… dragons dangerous”; oh and he did like to mention that he would “go to jail” if something happened to any of us… reassuring.
The Komodo dragons lived up to their formidable reputation. They were in fact absolutely MASSIVE and you could see the size of their claws from the ‘5 meter’ radius we were supposed to keep at all times. Our local guide (if you could call him a guide) carried a long stick, that I actually mistook for a walking stick, which was to be used (presumably by throwing and playing fetch?) in the event of a dragon attack and lead us on a trail. (Side note: I fail to imagine a wooden stick would do much to stop a 3m dragon leaping at you). We were told before starting our trek that dragons would avoid noise created by tourists and therefore we must be quiet to increase our chances of spotting them and of course, remembering never to leave the group. This was ironic because a mere 5 minutes into the trek our guide spotted a dragon ahead on the path and everything said before was irrelevant.
“Over there! Look! Komodo! Quick quick we go!” and with that he pelted off, running up the path directly towards the dragon. I am still not sure what part of my brain told my body to react the way it did, but I instantly found myself also running, flat out, directly towards a 3m Komodo dragon I knew full well could kill me… as did all 30 people on our boat. So much for keeping quiet.
What happened next was more unbelievable still. The dragon was trudging up the trail path and we were hot on its tail, some 5 meters back; I was terrified but in absolute awe at the magnificence of these incredible beasts and stood there with my jaw dropped.
Then I felt something pull on my arm. I look to my left to see the guide stood beside me, holding my arm, grinning, “Come with me, it okay” he said and pulled me closer and closer and closer to the dragon. What are you doing? Is this safe? Should we be this close? Will we scare it? Will it attack? Do you have your stick? Questions of which my rational brain would have normally thought of in this situation, but all I could hear in my mind was not a question at all, more a statement, loud and clear; I AM GOING TO DIE.
I was so close to the dragon that I could reach out with my hand and touch it. What had happened to the 5m radius I do not know, but the reassurance of the guide seemed to make me believe I was going to be okay; at least I could push him in front of me as tribute if the dragon became lairy. The dragon walked right passed me. So close that I could actually feel the drift in the air as its tail swung from side to side; but I stood my ground, camera in hand. If I was going to die, I would at least do some with some seriously epic footage. As I stood there I could not shake the fact that, if inclined to do so, the dragon could rip me apart and gobble me up as a nutritious (if not slightly overdone from my time in the sun) snack; but apparently this particular dragon had already demolished a tasty buffalo this week, so I was in the clear… for now.
More importantly though, take a look at how my bravery was rewarded with the video of this encounter.
It was actually the evening that followed which became the highlight of my entire trip.
As we retreated back to the boat, exhausted from trekking and sun-kissed, we shared a delicious buffet of steamed rice, fried vegetables and pineapple (for the 3rd day running) and began admitting to one another just how absolutely terrifying the dragons actually were up close, as the sun began to set across the Flores Sea. Our bellies were full of food and our hearts full of love when we heard the shout from on deck, “Guys! Dolphins… right side”. We immediately dropped everything: coffee, rice, towels the lot and ran to the side of the boat. Just as I arrived on the scene I saw the dorsal fins of several dolphins penetrate the water beside the boat. Bugger, I thought. But I need not have worried as moments later another dolphin popped up from the blue about 20m away from the boat clear as day, then a second dolphin… and a third, fourth, fifth. It became clear that an entire pod was tracking our boat through the water and were currently tailing us. We sat on top of the sun deck and watched the silhouettes of dolphins playfully performing a dance routine for our entertainment, in the flickering orange light of the setting sun over Komodo island. It was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen and I could only sit there with my new friends, marvel at the beauty and revel in the moment before the sun submitted, the blackness overcame the sky and the day was done.
Day 4 – The most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen
I was awoken by the feeling of having my feet tickled. Now, I have woken up in a multitude of bizarre and unorthodox manners throughout my adventures, but nothing will quite match opening my eyes to the sight of a grinning Indonesian head poking up through the deck ladder, with my foot in his hands, fingers playfully flicking my toes and saying, “morning, morning, we go now, 10 minutes”.
What? What do you mean we go now? I look overboard and out into total darkness. It was not even morning. I check my phone, 4am. Sunrise is around 6am in these parts. Where on Earth could we possibly be going now? Where even are we? Though more importantly, WHY ARE YOU STILL HOLDING MY FOOT?!” Too many questions for 4am and needless to say I dislodged my foot, tucked myself back inside my sleeping bag and buried my face in my towel pillow. Obviously I had misjudged the ingenious and perseverance of this crew member, as I immediately felt the tickling continue. I quickly realised this was a battle I was never going to win; he held all of the cards, or my foot rather. Tired, hungry and still in the same clothes from day 1, we were bundled through the darkness into the small boats and dumped off on the peer of an island we could barely see with the simple instruction from our non-English speaking chauffeur, “climb up” as he pointed towards the outline of a nearby mountain. We swiftly decided our chances of surviving this trek Komodo dragon/spitting viper attack free was to stick together, so we huddled up, found the small path and began climbing with myself as the sole torch bearer unanimously voted to take the lead. It was a short but arduous climb dodging unstable rocks and mistaking mice for man-eating dragons, but we eventually found ourselves at the peak for 5:30am and secured a good viewpoint after working out (amazingly it took us quite a while) this was a sunrise trek.
What I saw as the time ticked past 6am I would not be able to give suitable justice using any of the adjectives or superlatives in my arsenal; I can only offer this time-lapse and declare it as the single most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen.
Following sunrise, we explored what we were eventually informed was Padar island and collected some dramatic photographs of the many bays and beaches glistening in the morning sun. Padar was absolutely stunning. The mixture of bays and beaches which seemed to have a perfect curvature, rolling hills with dramatic cliffs and edges all bottle green was glorious. Padar was completely untouched by anything anthropogenic and it felt free. It was like looking at a postcard. 360 degrees of nothing but stunning nature, clear blue water, white sandy beaches and seemingly impossibly shaped mountains. I sat there and breathed it all in, wishing I could draw well enough to capture what my eyes were still deciphering; considering I sometimes struggle to draw a straight line with a ruler, I saved myself the embarrassment and so you will have to settle for some photographs.
The rest of the day seemed to breeze by and felt slightly anticlimactic after such a breath-taking morning. We set sail for Flores where our adventure would end at Lubuanbajo harbour after 4 days and 3 nights at sea.
A short interlude at Rinca island en-route to Flores was brilliant however, as we embarked on another Komodo dragon trek and saw them in a more natural habitat than on Komodo itself. Our guide this time was far more knowledgeable, equipped with a wicked sense of humour and his personality really made our 2-hour trek across Rinca thoroughly enjoyable; I almost forgot that I was yet again surrounded by animals that could quite feasibly kill me. I still can’t believe these guys actually live on these islands! Personally, I much preferred our Komodo dragon spotting experience on Rinca island rather than Komodo island, as it felt more authentic – one to remember if you’re ever in the area!
We arrived in Flores at 5pm that afternoon and with a warm and friendly goodbye to the crew we disembarked at Lubuanbajo harbour. With the exception of my now close Dutch friends who had agreed to find some accommodation together that night, we all parted ways to continue with our individual adventures.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure and the visits to Padar and Komodo Islands were worth the seasickness.
Special thanks – to Yves, Fleur, Dom and Gavin
As I have eluded to at several times throughout this story, despite the spectacular landscapes, beautiful sunrises and sunsets and adrenaline pumping encounters with Komodo dragons, by far my favourite experiences and most cherished memories were that of the people I met. I want to reference a quote from one of favourite books written by Alastair Humphreys,
“The people I meet are the highlight of the journey. I meet good people, kind people, funny people, mad people and sad people and one or two bad people”.
I met good people, Dom from Los Angeles was probably one of the most genuine and kind-hearted 18-year-old males I have ever met in my lifetime; and I teach 18 year olds for a living! Dom was actually the first person to say hello to me on the boat and we became friends straight away. He was fun to be around and also joined in with a smile, despite us bullying him about ridiculous gun laws in the US. Thank you Dom!
I met kind people, Fleur from den Bosch (The Netherlands) had one of those smiles that makes you feel warm inside. I think back to the entirety of the 4-day boat trip and I struggle to remember a moment when I did not see Fleur smiling; aside from when we were ALL feeling utterly seasick. Fleur had the rare ability to listen, but really listen to what you were saying; which in my case was an awful lot as we all know how much I love to talk! But she would listen to every word and engage in my stories, so thank you Fleur for not getting sick of me.
I met funny people, Gavin was the only other representative from the home nations on the boat, but unfortunately he was Scottish. Gavin had a wicked personality and cracked me up constantly with his sense of humour. He told me stories of his career at sea off the coast of Brazil, laughed at my seasickness but most importantly he very generously shared his snacks and gin – what a bloke. Gavin’s highlight was on the last day when he whipped out the most Creamfields festival hat I had ever seen and had me in stitches. Cheers Gavin!
I met mad people, Yves from Eindhoven (The Netherlands) was a bundle of fun. Cracking personality, modest and caring but was still always one of the first to get involved in anything fun. We clicked instantly and had an identical sense of humour, from laughing at ‘Je moeder’ jokes, to creating bonkers mad catch phrases, dares and pranks. Yves never missed one of my jokes and was always there to laugh and compliment me on my comedic genius, everybody needs an Yves in their life! We were the dynamic duo of the boat.
I did not meet any sad people or bad people.