Chapter 23: The Komodo Debacle

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Sunday, February 1, 2004

Saturday morning I said my goodbyes to Tamarin and Rhiannon, which was sad, and then took the shuttle bus from Ubud to the ferry waiting on the east coast of Bali. On the ride I met Jason, a nice Brit heading to the Gili Islands (where I was going also), and Justin, a cool 26yo South African who wanted to get from Senggigi, where we all would have to spend the night, to Komodo Island. The ferry from Bali to Lembar, Lombok, took 4 hours, but the time flew by quickly because I ran into Gail, the Indonesian language teacher from Australia who I'd met on the bus to Ubud. We talked about our plans and decided to investigate the Komodo options when we got to Senggigi, as neither of us wanted to spend 8 days in the Gili Islands. Plus, the idea of roaming around Komodo Island looking for 3M-long flesh-eating monitor lizards was exciting.

The boat got to Lembar at 5, and it was immediately obvious that Lombok was far less developed than Bali. The buildings were plainer, the people looked poorer, and there were very few tourists. We took the shuttle through the city of Mataram and got to Senggigi around 6. Senggigi was a little sad. In the 90's it was a booming beach resort town, complete with 5-star hotels and many international visitors. In 2000, though, some anti-Christian riots resulted in a bunch of burned-down businesses in Mataram, and Lombok's image as a peaceful holiday destination was shattered. The Bali bombings only made things worse, because no one comes to Lombok without going to Bali. As a result, there are now more street vendors in Senggigi than there are visitors. On the upside, a decent hotel room for the night only cost US$4 - a new record low for my trip!

Jason, Justin, Gail, and I had a good cheap dinner on the beach at sunset, and then walked around the tourist agency stalls asking about Komodo trips. The nicest trip (4 nights on a boat) was 1,250,000Rp, which sounds like a lot more than it is (US$150), but that was still more than we wanted to pay. The middle-ground option was 550,000Rp for a few nights on the boat; the only problem was that it dropped you off in the town of Labuhan Bajo (on Flores Island) afterwards, and you had to find your own way back. Plus it didn't leave until Wednesday, and I had to fly out of Bali on Sunday. The final option was a 190,000Rp 24-hour local ferry/boat combo that would take us to Labuhan Bajo. From there we could charter a cheap boat from there to get to Komodo to see the dragons, and then take the same 24-hour ride back. We decided to sleep on it. By 8am Jason and Gail had opted out of the 24-hour journey in favor of relaxing on the beach on the Gili Islands (just offshore from Lombok). Justin and I thought we'd be true adventurers and give Komodo a shot with local transport. Ooops.

We bought our tickets to Labuhan Bajo after breakfast and then walked around Senggigi until 11. The trip was supposed to go like this: shuttle to Mataram bus station, 2 hour bus ride to the ferry, 1 hour ferry to Sumbawa Island (the bus goes too), overnight bus ride across Sumbawa to the city of Bima at 4am, new 2-hour bus from Bima to Sape on the east coast by 6am, then a 7-hour ferry to Labuhan Bajo at 8am, arriving around 3.

We got to the bus company in Mataram, where we found out that we (and an older English guy named Jim) had bought the last 3 tickets on that bus to Labuhan Bajo (LB). My seat, however, was incredibly small, in the middle of the back row, right next to the toilet, and with no leg room. I told them "no thanks," - if there wasn't a better option then I'd just take my money back and head to the Gilis. Jim stayed on that bus, and the tour guys took me and Justin to the main bus terminal, where they bought us the last two seats on a diferent bus heading to LB. This one seemed fine; our seats were together and they were the last ones in front of the back exit, so we'd be able to recline all the way.

Justin and I had 3 hours to kill at the Mataram bus terminal, which was smelly, run-down, and crowded. In other words, it was my first real 3rd-world experience. We were the only people out of thousands with white skin (or money), so I'm not sure why we thought the packed local market would be a good place to hang out, but we did. As soon as we walked in, we were surrounded by sketchy guys whispering to each other "psst psst psst tourist psst psst psst" and shouting at us (mostly offers of transport, but it was hard to shake them off). I felt reasonably safe because there were plenty of women and children around, and I thought we were mostly a curiosity; Justin, on the other hand, was sure we were about to get mugged or, at the very least, pickpocketed. He'd just spent several months in South America, and claimed he'd never felt so unsafe there, so I deferred to him and we scurried back to the bus station. Back in the terminal we bought return bus tickets from LB from a shady young guy in a Calvin Klein T-shirt who may or may not have worked for our bus company. At 2:30 I decided I should probably use the restroom before getting on the bus, so the Mataram Bus Station is where I had my first real squat toilet experience. Ugh. Luckily I only had to stand, but that was bad enough. I was in sandals, and the floor was drowning in almost an inch of mysterious water, so I stood as far away from the "bowl" and footpads as possible. The kicker is that I had to pay 1000Rp for the priviledge!

3pm finally arrived, so we loaded our stuff on to the bus, noting with a chuckle that the driver was tinkering with the engine as we boarded. The bus seats were comfy, and things were looking good until 3 guys hauled an enormous Honda motorbike onto the bus and tied it down behind our seats - not only blocking the bathroom door, but also making it impossible for us to recline as far as everyone else. On top of that, the three guys didn't have seats of their own, so they stood for the whole ride, and one of them wouldn't stop yacking. All of that would have been OK, except the A/C only half worked, so we were drenched in sweat before the bus left the terminal.

Things got less miserable en-route, as one by one the extra passengers hopped off, and the A/C kicked in (a little). It took 2 hours to reach the ferry, and we all got off the bus for that next leg of the trip. Justin and I sat on the top deck for some fresh air, which turned out to be a misguided idea because we ended up coated in soot. At least we met some chatty young local guys. One was studying economics (in Indonesia?! Poor guy...) and was interested in becoming pen-pals or something. Another kept calling me "handsome," which was funny. Indonesian culture allows for men to be very touchy-feely with each other (even straight men), so it was normal to see these guys sitting with their arms around each other, and it was tough to tell if they were being friendly or flirty. Or maybe I'm just naive.

Anyway, the ferry trip was an hour long, and we got some great views of the sunset over Lombok. It was dark by the time the bus was moving again, and the trip was relaxing for the next few hours. We stopped at 9 for a surprisingly good dinner (well, rice & chicken & tofu & water) that was included with the trip, and then kept rolling. Justin and I dozed on and off. At 1am the bus stopped for 1/2 hour. After much clanking of metal out back, we started moving again... until 3am. We didn't start again. The driver disappeared. No one else seemed to speak English. By 3:30 half the passengers had left. Around then some enterprising locals (whispering "psst psst tourist psst psst") hopped on and told us that we were in Dompu, which was still over an hour from Bima, and a few hours from Sape. We checked the map, and it was bad news indeed. They offered to take us to Sape on the back of their motorbikes for 300,000Rp, but A) that seemed expensive, B) that seemed like an unsafe drive at night with packs and without helmets, and C) wasn't that how stupid tourists got robbed and/or killed? They also kept telling us how dangerous Dompu was, which seemed like a backwards strategy to me since that's where they were from.

We debated back and forth between ourselves and argued over the price with them for an hour, until it was clear that we either had to go with those guys or definitely miss our ferry from Sape. We refused to take the bikes for the 3-hour trip, though, so eventually we settled on 200,000 each for a trip by car. So at 4:30am, in the absolute middle of nowhere, Justin and I got on the back of 2 motorbikes and sped off through the mist to the ringleader's house, where we stood with 6 random guys by the side of the road until a dilapidated old van chugged up beside us at 5. The posse was funny, because apparently the young Indonesians had nothing better to do at that time of night than tag along for the excitement. Maybe they all got a cut of the money just for showing up?

The harried ride to Sape was memorable. The road through the mountains was in decent shape, but it was very twisty, and I had no idea that 1970's vans could corner like that! The engine on the poor old van was struggling to breathe, and at 6am, the inevitable happened: it died. Four guys jumped out and managed to get it push-started, but for the next two hours every time we stopped, the van died again, and they had to repeat the procedure. Conversation along the way from our "guide" was entertaining: "Indonesian man got little stick [held up pinky]. Indonesian girl like Europe man - he got BIG stick! Hahaha!" Justin ended up talking politics and religion with him; I feigned sleep. Somehow we scraped into Sape at exactly 8am, nearly mowing down countless donkey carts in the process. It was endearing watching this rag-tag bunch of guys desperately trying to get us to our ferry on time, but alas, there was one big problem: when we frantically pulled up to the Sape marina, there was no boat. We were casually informed by a toothless old guy on the dock that the ferry was broken, and it wouldn't be running to Labuhan Bajo again until Wednesday. It was Monday morning. We almost fainted.

As we stood there contemplating the past 20 hours, and our next move, Jim came walking up! His bus had arrived without a problem, but they hadn't told him about the ferry problem either, so he was also stranded along with a German guy and his Indonesian girlfriend. We all wanted to go to Komodo, and as a team of 5 we had some bargaining power, so we set about trying to haggle with local fishermen over the price of a boat for 3 days / 2 nights. One guy finally agreed to 250,000Rp each for a trip on his friend's fairly seaworthy-looking vessel, so we thought we had a deal... until the captain came back and wanted 350,000Rp each. That was the last straw. Every sign was telling us that we weren't meant to get to Komodo, and the other boats looked deadly, so Justin, Jim, and I decided to cut our losses and head back to Lombok.

Unfortunately that meant we had to spend 7 looong hours in the sweaty, dusty hell-hole of Sape. The marina toilet made the Mataram one look like a Four Seasons marble bathroom (although it still cost 1000Rp), there were naked children staring at us, and the sun was incredibly hot. Plus we hadn't showered, shaved, slept, or even washed our hands in over 24 hours, so the minutes passed like hours. Eventually around 1pm we found some shade and chatted with some old locals, who told us about lots of interesting things in the area: the island just offshore that's surrounded by so many sea snakes you can reach out of the boat and grab them (not that you'd want to), the active volcanoes that periodically erupt, and the earthquakes & accompanying tidal waves that sometimes wreak havoc. It would have been nice if they'd told me about the snake island a few hours earlier, because I would have paid lots for a day-trip out there! Anything to get out of Sape for a while!

At 3pm we got on the uncomfortable bus back to Bima, and in Bima we transferred to the Surabaya Indah bus bound for Mataram. The bus conductor wasn't sure our tickets were legit (I wasn't sure, either), but he let us on, and we even got refunds for the ferry crossing that we didn't use. The bus was mostly empty, if lacking in comforts; at least we got to stetch out. Aside from the facts that the driver didn't use headlights until an hour after he should have, and we broke down once for a half hour, the ride was mercifully drama-free. We slept on and off all the way back to Mataram, and then took a shuttle back to Senggigi and harrassed the travel agents until they gave us a good chunk of our money back. Then we booked ourselves on the ferry to Gili Trawangan the next day, did some laundry, relaxed with some cold beer, and tried to forget that we ever wanted to see Komodo.

Wednesday morning we took the 1-hour shuttle boat to Gili Trawangan, which is one of the primary backpacker destinations in Indonesia. It's only 2km x 3km, there are 700 residents, there are no vehicles aside from pony carts, and there's a beautiful palm-fringed beach with a nice coral reef ringing the island. The east coast is well-developed with little convenience stalls, hotels & homestays, dive centers, restaurants, and bars complete with chalkboard signs out front selling "bloody good f-cking fresh Lombok magic mushroom fly you to moon guarantee!"

We checked into Sirwa homestay, right in the center of the action (as such - Gili Trawangan had more travellers than Senggigi, but not by much). It was only 25,000Rp (US$3) per room per night, and each room came with two queen beds, mosquito netting (useful - Lombok is a malaria zone), private bathroom, and a fan. Justin and I went snorkelling in the afternoon, and it was amazing. The visibilty was good, and we saw lots of coral, heaps of beautiful fish (including some scary titan triggerfish), a freaky moray eel out of its hole, and best of all, sea turtles! On my second trip out I found a green turtle, and it let me swim alongside it for about 10 minutes before it got too far out for me to follow. The current is very strong just offshore, and supposedly lots of people have died trying to swim between Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno, which is only 1km away or so.

It doesn't get much better for me than living & eating well (and cheaply) on a beautiful, near-deserted tropical island where you can splash around with sea turtles. Unless you add natural psychedelic drugs to the mix. At US$4 a pop, we couldn't resist trying magic mushroom shakes ("happy shakes") on our first night. I guess they're technically illegal in Indonesia like everywhere else, but the island is so laid back and there's no law enforcement there, so the government turns a blind eye and people are free to do whatever they want (hence the blatant advertisements). The shakes were fun, even if they tasted like sewage. Basically we just got super-giggly and euphoric for a few hours, and real life seemed light years away as we sat by a big bonfire on the beach chatting with the other travellers.

On Thursday we slept in, and then hit the beach again. I brought my camera this time, found two turtles, and started snapping shots. Most of the restaurants and bars show free movies (often bootlegs of new releases) at night in an effort to lure in patrons, so we decided to do a double feature that evening: "Final Destination 2" and "Mystic River." The former is notable for its incredible death sequences, and the latter was engaging and well-acted (Tim Robbins was especially good), but I don't think it deserves many of the major awards it might win this year.

Yesterday Justin and I walked around the island, which was kind of a letdown aside from the exercise. There's really nothing to see on the deserted west coast, and all of the good snorkelling is on the east, too. We were so hot after the walk that we had lunch at one of the dive centers just so we could use their pool. Justin signed up for a dive for Saturday; I decided against diving the Gilis, because I'd already found turtles, and the diving isn't supposed to be that great. It poured all afternoon and into the evening with a series of thunderstorms, so after an hour of playing cards we decided there was nothing else to do but have more mushroom shakes. It was even more fun that night, although I felt like a total cliche, sitting on the porch with the lights out listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" and watching the lightning show. The Gameboy was a big hit that night, too; we took turns playing games from our youth (Super Mario Bros., Arkanoid, DigDug, etc.) on the bootleg cartridge I'd picked up in Kuta.

This morning I woke up early, packed, said "bye" to Justin and traded e-mail info with him (we may cross paths up north), and took the shuttle boat back to Lombok. It was a long day of travelling: 1 hour on the boat, then 2 hours on the bus, then 5 hours on the ferry, and then 2 hours on another bus. I got back to Kuta at 7pm and checked into the Masa Inn, which is closer to the airport than Bali Matahari. When I walked to my room I bumped into Jim (from Sape), who just happened to be staying there too. Tomorrow I'm leaving for Singapore, which I'm very excited about. I'll write again soon!

- Tim

p.s. - Send e-mail! I'm soooo out of touch with everyone and everything back home!
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Marga on

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