When I told people I’d be visiting Labuan Bajo, I got the same reaction: “Where?”. I’d never heard of it either. I had only one reason to travel to this unknown location in far East Indonesia; to see a Komodo dragon.
Labuan Bajo is on the island Flores, far from touristy Bali, but still the biggest development on this otherwise perfectly untouched island. Where every other island has their own language, here each village has their own.
A 1½ hour flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo airport eventually landed in a surreal miniature airport. The entire perimeter of the airport was surrounded by thick forest with a few tin shacks littered in-between. The plane practically grazed the tree covered hill upon entry. The islands highlight; the Komodo dragon, is emphasised, as it was called Komodo airport. A single conveyor belt and the exit 20 meters beside it, no security checks. A short taxi journey with two Germans dropped us off in the middle of “town”, which consisted of one street which held every warung, hostel, hotel and scuba diving centre in the area, and the entire fish market lined up along the end.
First task, find a hostel, without internet, and no information. Luckily a large sign sporting “backpackers” became my salvation. The hostel was one continuous room. The wall arrangement broke the room into sections, but in reality it was one large room with 30+ beds. Secondly, something very familiar in my time in Indonesia. The entrance wasn’t very appealing, frankly off-putting with the stacks of bin bags and seemed it was under construction. I didn’t have high hopes, however it was the cleaner and better equipped than most I’ve stayed in.
Second task; book a tour, should be easy. Every other building along the main street advertised some sort of tour, so shouldn’t be too hard to find one. All tours offered the same basic package, depending how long it lasts and how much you’re willing to spend. They’re all boat tours, taking you to sight-seeing spots and local sea life.
I learnt that there are two types of tours in the area: those who offer scuba diving, and those who take you to the highlight spots i.e. Komodo Island. More specifically, the scuba diving tours are by internationally companies, mostly coming from outside Indonesia. The highlight tours are arranged by locals, so they have a fair share of the business.
I had no interest in scuba diving (too expensive and inexperienced), so I visited the less than official looking offices for a local tour. Most were empty, emphasising the less than efficient nature of Indonesia. The populated offices gave ridiculous prices. First, I was quoted 4,000,000 rupiah (£240) which I politely declined. Most of these tours base the price on how many others are on the tour. So if you’re a lone traveller, it’s harder to find a bargain.
Eventually I stumbled into a toilet stall sized office to a man who gave me a flat price, regardless of others on the tour of 1,000,000 rupiah (£60) for 2 days 1 night on his boat. This was less than expected so I snapped it up. The price depended on where you want to sleep. Mine was for the deck, something I’d done in the past and found enjoyable. An extra 500,000 (£30) meant you slept inside the boat with AC, and an extra 1,000,000 for the so called, “VIP room”.
At 8am the next morning infront of the office, I met the mix of German, Canadian, Chinese, English, Australian and Indonesian, who I’d spend the next 2 days with. We stocked up on water and vital Bintang, and led to the port to our new home, an atypical Asian boat. Made completely from wood, with double mattresses strewn across the back of the top deck under a tarpaulin tent. It was perfect, and felt authentic for the trip we were about to take.
Our first destination, arguably was the most picturesque, Kanawa island. Unspoilt white sands seeping into crystal clear light blue water which covered the vast coral life underneath. An all wooden deck with a palm tree roof sat right above the perfect water, this truly was what paradise looks like. With the snorkelling gear provided, we launched ourselves off the side of the boat, and began our exploration of the surrounding area. Thousands of unrecognisable multicoloured fish with multi-shaped endless amounts of corals coating the entire bottom of the sea. This topped the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Endless amounts of clown fish, enormous orange starfish twice the size of your hands littered the seabed. I even ran into a particularly small but confident fish who engaged me in a stand-off, staring me down. I looked forward to the rest of the tour.
Rainy season came with a vengeance as the heavens opened. The crew pulled up close to another boat and began yelling across. We were told we’d see a manta ray. My eyes lit up with excitement. I had no clue this was a part of the plan, I’d always wanted to see one, since I had a book “Sharks, Whales & other creatures of the sea”. Never dreamed I’d be swimming with one. We lunged into the water, 30 seconds later, there it was. It was truly heart stopping. The enormousness of the creature is staggering. How graceful it glides through the waters with a slow flapping of what look like the enormous wings. We paddled above it as we watched the black kite-like figure peacefully circle the water. I dove as close as I could to get a closer look at this magnificent creature. It’s an image that will live with me forever.
We had one last destination for the day, Padar Island, where we got another example of stupid-rich-tourist scamming. From pictures, it looked stunning, so I was very keen, as the rest were. We were told that everything was included (except the Komodo park). However, the captain informed us that it “cost” 190,000 rupiah (£12) to visit Padar Island, rising from 120,000 (£7) since we’d left. Why did it cost at all, price of admission? Maybe a docking fee? Either way, we didn’t really want to pass up on the opportunity. SHIT! My wallet only had 140,000 rupiah. I handed it all the captain
“that’s all I have” he handed me back 20,000, put his finger to his lip “shhh”. Ahh, that’s where the money goes then.
We arrived at the small island, and waited for a speedboat at the dock (a few slabs of wood and plastic barrels) to pick us up. We made our way up the steep hill navigating loose gravel and boulders, with thunderous amounts of breathing and vicious burning in my thighs. An enormous raincloud heading our way didn’t help, which didn’t give my pictures justice. Only 3 of us made it to the peak, where it gave a spectacular panoramic view of the endless amounts of islands and beaches the area holds.
The speedboats that dropped us off at the island had left. No idea how they thought we’d get back to the boat, but they’d just called it a day and left us in the pouring rain. We were huddled under a leafless tree watching our boat bobbing in the sea about 200 meters away from us. At least an hour passed, waiting for something to happen. Eventually an annoyed Indonesian from a neighbouring boat eventually picked us up in his strong petrol smelling boat which barely fit us all.
Back on the boat, we drifted along the sea to where we would spend the night. We watched as the misty pink horizons surrounded the peaks of the scattered islands around us, and ate around the twinkling lights of the other boats that shared the bay.
Over the two days, the boats crew did an excellent job in feeding us. We would be given a spread of rice, noodles, tempe, chicken, fish. Authentic Indonesian food that was very warmly welcomed. I was educated the next morning when breakfast basically consisted of the exact same thing. No complaints from me. We sat on the deck talking, sharing stories and advice before I retired to bed.
On the top deck there were 4 double mattresses laid out across the floor under the protection of a tarpaulin roof keeping out the sharp rain that night. 3 of them were occupied by couples, leaving one all for me. Laying spread eagled with an eye mask, being rocked gently to sleep listening to the waves and the gentle rain, I was in paradise. To think I could have paid up to an extra £60 only to be more uncomfortable inside.
There’s one reoccurring problem with tours like these, you could end up with anyone. 99% of those you share the experience with will be interesting, charming, friendly people, but there’s still that 1%. There were these 3 guys, who did their best to alienate themselves from the group. They-did-NOTHING. They never got in the water (which was the majority of the trip). They pushed the limit when we visited the viewpoint. They came onto the island with us, didn’t walk up the very first set of stairs, and stayed on the beach. As I was walking down to the dock, I spotted the three of them get on the speedboat (the LAST). So while we were all stuck on the beach waiting for rescue, they were safe and warm on the boat, taking god damn pictures of us as their camera flash beamed in the distance, bastards. And the old “help yourself” system of food was taken full advantage of. These guys would serve themselves a god damn mountain of food, practically inhale the entire plate, and repeat.
It ached me having to pull myself out of bed that morning. However, we’d arrived at the dock of Komodo Island, and a painful realization hit. I heard the others talk of money for the entrance fee. I painfully remembered the fee was NOT included in the price, and after being scammed by the captain, I was broke. I couldn’t appreciate the quite eerie peaceful walk from the dock into the Jurassic park styled entrance sign into the forests of the island, I was full of worry. All I had on me was my bank card, and hoped to god (despite knowing the odds were against me) that they took cards. Things looked up as I waved my card in front of the park officials, they nodded
“yes yes yes”. Until it came time to pay, where they waved their hands and said no. Shit.
The park fee was 300,000 rupiah (£18). The Englishman on the tour said he’d already been there a few years ago, and paid 50,000 (£3). You’ve got to love the Indonesian’s business ethics. Everyone else had the cash and grouped around the tour guide as he gave the introductory talk. I stayed back with a blank heartbroken expression. This was my whole reason for coming to Labuan Bajo! But I’d be damned if I went all that way to only hang back by the entrance. So as the tour made their way into the forest, I simply put my head down, passed the payment office, and joined the tour, saving myself a handy £18.
We had a choice of treks, each of varying length. We decided on the middle. As we delved deeper into the woods following the guide with his walking stick/dragon repellent, we were told to keep our voices down. Quickly we stumbled upon our very first Komodo dragon. It was stunning. The enormousness of the creature was staggering. I’d been led to believe that they were vicious deadly things, but we were brought incredibly close, closer than one would think safe. It lay there, completely undisturbed by our presence, with their legs strewn flat behind them and their eyes closed, basking in the sun that broke through the trees. We stumbled across a second dragon, who was also situated remarkably close to a sign indicating where a dragon would be, suspicious. Just like the other, he lay there completely undisturbed. Here I got an opportunity to film the creature up close…as close as I felt safe.
We got to the end of the tour quite quickly, returning to the offices 100 meters from the shore. On that beach, there were a total of 6 dragons remarkably close to each other. Bare in mind I would have had to pay £18, and saw 2 komodo dragons, where if I stayed back on the beach, I would have seen 3 times more. They all had the same attitude, not bothered one bit by us. This is apparently because (rumours) the guides will actually feed the dragons, meaning they have no reason to be threatened by humans. I also did the guides job for him, luckily. As he was pointing down the beach at other Komodo dragons, I looked to our left about 5 meters away and told him
“there’s one there…”
“oh yeah, didn’t even see that one” Glad we required a guide for our safety.
When we got back to the boat, we had another group choice to make. There were two places to see Komodo dragons; Komodo Island and Rinca. Even though we (well, not me) had already paid for the entrance to Komodo Island, we’d also have to pay for Rinca. The other option was to go to another snorkelling spot. Considering the additional add-ons kept popping up on this tour, (and I was skint) we decided as a group on the latter.
A wise decision, as we were guided to our next spot by an enormous group of dolphins. This spot again had its own huge selection of multicoloured fish, including clown fish the size of fingernails. This particular spot had something about it, that was a beach of pink sand. It was completely baffling, swimming from the boat to the beach and see PINK sand wave across my flippers. Upon closer inspection, the sand was made up of white sand and red specs of broken up red coral which were dragged in by the waves, giving the beach an entirely pink hue.
We were taken to our final snorkelling spot of the day, and warned that the currents here were quite strong. So strong, we had to board 2 neighbouring boats just to jump off at a safer spot. They were still powerful enough to drag the group away from the boat we’d just left. The closer we got the beach the calmer the seas became as we were protected by the cliff edge. Here was possibly the best snorkel spot of the lot, with many thousands of fish of all shapes and sizes were everywhere we turned. Among which we’d found a blue spotted stingray and even (by chance) saw an octopus, only visible when it launched out to grab a fish.
On the way back I lay on a deck chair on the top deck as the boat was slowly brought back to the port of Labuan Bajo, absorbing every last bit of the stunning environment I was in while I still had the chance.
From the boat I made my way back to the same hostel I’d stayed before to a warm welcome from the owner. A couple from the tour (Englishman and the Canadian) also happened to be in the same hostel (and were actually there the first night). That night we all went out for dinner overlooking the fairy lights of the various boats across the dock, each of us still unintentionally swaying to the rhythm of the boat we were no longer on.
The next night I spent at the local fish market, which ran down the length of an entire street. It was a real sight to behold, hundreds upon hundreds of unidentifiable fish lined the entire street. Endless amounts of roadside warungs, which was the first time I was introduced to these. The majority of my food throughout Indonesia were bought out of these warungs, so it’s worth explaining what they are.
If you’re looking for pristine 5-star restaurant experience, look elsewhere. With the likes of stray cats and equally big rats running beside my feet, they might not reach the UK health food standard. However in these places I’ve had some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Most of the time, there’ll only be one dish, you sit down and take what you’re given, all local food of course. You might have them in a little building, or it might only be a small hand cart with a sheet of tarpaulin covering a set of table and chairs with a firepit used as a cooker. Oh and of course, CHEAP, as little as 20p in some. Naturally being a fish market, I’d have to indulge in just that.
The rest of my time was used to plan my next step. I debated travelling across the West island, however no public transport, and a taxi across the whole island would have cost a fortune. Some suggested I take a boat from Labuan Bajo to Lombok, however I’d heard from that some of the 4-day long boat tours had sunk or even exploded in the past. Not sure on the legitimacy of those claims but it was enough for me to decide to pass. It seemed the cheapest and all round easiest option was to fly.
My next target was the island of Lombok. However, it turns out there is no direct flight from Labuan Bajo to Lombok, you’d have to go via Bali. With the price of £70 for the last-minute ticket, I didn’t dwell over the stop-over. After sharing a taxi with my new happy couple friends to the Airport and bidding them farewell, I prepared for my next destination, Lombok.