Go komodo!

Trip Start Feb 23, 2011
Trip End May 09, 2011

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Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Thursday, March 24, 2011

As we departed Ubud bound for Flores the deep blues and soft pinks of the sunrise over the rice paddies were breathtaking. We were also afforded a glimpse into the pre-dawn markets in the numerous small Balian villages leading to the Dempesar airport. Each gathering looked quite similar: dozens of motorbikes and scooters overflowing into the road while families shopped for vegetables, fish, and live chickens. The markets appeared picked over and ready to shut down by 6AM. Given the heat, sleeping in is not option.

Labuanbajo, an eastern port town in the province of Flores, was the next destination. Well, we should say, Komodo National Park was the actual destination, but one cannot skirt Labuanbajo despite one's best efforts. The town was a bit of a challenge...the people were not too friendly, the town dusty and dirty, and with the exception of a couple of decent tourist-focused restaurants, far from the culinary capitol of Indonesia. What Labuanbajo does offer is a couple of inexpensive, clean hotels carved into the hills with stunning harbor views and a launching pad for our two-day boat trip to the Komodo islands.

We were greeted by "Cobra", the captain of our boat and his friendly team at the docks. By 9AM we were cruising past small deserted islands with dolphins providing entertainment along the way. First stop: Rinca, one of the two Komodo National Park islands, home of the infamous Komodo Dragons. Our guide, a park ranger no more than 20 years old and about the size of Erin, warned us not to stray from his sight nor make loud noises or gestures. Perfect words to put us at ease with these reptiles.

Let's talk about the dragons for a moment. They roam the Komodo and Rinca islands freely. No fences or cages between vicious lizards and innocent tourists. Komodos are roughly six to nine feet long, head to tail, with razor-sharp claws, a strong whip-like tail, and snappers to make any crocodile envious. They can smell food five kilometers away. They are cannibals. The female dragons will guard the egg nests for only the first four months. The final five months in the shell and first six months of the baby lizards' lives are susceptible to being eaten by the adults, not excluding their own parents. Rough childhood, to say the least. The beasts are the king of the islands, taking down deer, goats, monkeys, boar, and even water buffalo. They wait for the large animals by the water holes, and bite a foot. The bacteria in their saliva will slowly kill the buffalo over the course of three weeks at which point the buffalo collapses and the feeding frenzy commences. Glad we were not there to witness that.

After tiptoeing around a handful of dragons on Rinca, we hiked the lovely island with varying terrains before returning to the boat. We went snorkeling in a few places, including sPink Beach, a small island with roaming wild boar and beautiful coral and colorful fish, for snorkeling in the drastically cooler water. The final destination for the day was adjacent to Komodo Island to witness thousands of flying foxes migrate from one island to another at sunset for their nighttime hunt. These creatures are essentially very, very large bats. Like the name suggests, they look like small foxes (minus the tail) with thin, black, leathery wings. We also had the benefit of boat hawkers who paddle up to your boat to sell stuff (literally the middle of nowhere and people trying to sell you stuff. "two kimodos fighting! T shirts! Pearls!-Charlie, don't worry, we got you a priceless souvenir from here).

Early the next morning we had fried bananas and coffee prior to docking at Komodo with the goal of seeing more lovely dragons on our hike. Mission accomplished. Like Rinca, the dragons were lurking near the ranger's kitchen, hoping for a snack. We saw one large female dragon, sunning herself on a rock, toward the top of the trail. At this point Allison was quite keen on returning to the dragon-free boat. Did we mention the cannibalism?

Our next capricious tour decision turned out to be our favorite memory while traveling Indonesia---funny how these things work out some times. Our boat departed Komodo National Park, navigating between small deserted island through extremely strong currents towards an area populated with hundreds of manta rays. Mantas "vacation" in this area as the strong currents provide lots of nutrients and plankton, the staple in the large creatures' diet. Without over-thinking the situation too much, Allison and I put on our fins, masks, and snorkels, and stepped off the side of the boat into the strong current with the faith that 1. our boat would pick us up downstream, and 2. Mantas really do not eat humans.

The currents in these islands are extreme because of the volcanic activity on the floor-literally I can go from calm to pushing a boat under engine hard port or starboard. When we jumped in we
Were rushed to the side and off to the races. Fast.

Looking down through the deep turquoise water to the coral 15 meters below, we saw them. At least a dozen of them. The mantas look like large black diamonds gracefully swimming against the current on the bottom of the ocean. Words cannot describe how beautiful they were. Allison and I gripped hands as we zipped down the strait, more as a means of staying together rather than a gesture of love (i mean, the love helped, but still). I felt Allison squeeze my hand rather tightly complete with an underwater squeal as an enormous manta ascended toward the surface in our exact location. It was roughly 9 feet wide with a gaping mouth about the size of my arm. Needless to say, it did not attempt to eat us; in fact, it did not come close to us but given the sheer size and velocity at which it was moving we were positive a collision was inevitable. It was absolutely unreal. With our hearts pounding and adrenaline coursing through our veins, we decided to motion for the boat to intercept us. Clearly nothing could top such an exhilarating experience, so why push it?

A note here that is really important. We are very very lucky to be comfortable in and on the water, strong swimmers with an appreciation for the sea and how bad it can get. When we were with the mantas a French guy next to us said 'zut' about 30 times and eventually got out of the water from fear. Thanks to our parents for throwing us in multiple pools and oceans as kids. It let us swim with mantas and it meant we were one of the only non sea sick people on a boat a few days later...

Once safely onboard, Cobra turned the boat around to accompany the rays as we made our way back to Labuanbajo. "WOW" was the only thing Allison and I could repeat as a strict line of dozens upon dozens of mantas surfaced and flapped their massive wings along side the tour boats. We parted ways and headed east to end the Komodo Island tour. Wow.

Two hotels in Labuanbajo
Golo hill top: great location, out of the fray, definitely reccomend, near Paradise
Bayview gardens: again great location, though this place seems half way finished or still in process. Would put Golo ahead of Bayview.
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