Flores - Labuanbajo and Komodo National Park

Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
Trip End Jan 28, 2005

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Where I stayed
Gardena Hotel

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Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Mon 16 Aug - Day 106
Woken from sound sleep at 4am by a nearby cockerel, who set off a cockerel chain reaction. No idea what they're playing at as it doesn't start getting light until 5.30am.

Labuanbajo is a small fishing community with a busy port on the western edge of Flores. It has a picturesque bay which is sheltered by the numerous surrounding small islands.

The Gardena Hotel, isn't a hotel at all, it's a collection of of small wooden basic bunglaows in a commanding postition. It's a bit of a climb up from the road to the restaurant and reception, then a further climb up to the bungalows. Our bungalow was right at the top, a step aerobic workout, but worth it for the amazing view.

When I say bungalow (that's what they're called here) you should be picturing a large B&Q shed on stilts, just bigger than the bed, with a balcony and attached mandi containing a squat toilet, half a plastic oil drum full of water and a plastic scoop. The fixed shower head coming out of the wall, barely dripped when full on. The best bit of mandi was the large red dotted, huge headed gecko that lived behind the door. Rene nearly sucked herself inside out she gasped so loudly when she first saw it.

Rene is an Indonesian male magnet, they are after all, only human. It's as if they are H- Y- P, hypnotised (play it loud all you Undertones fans) when she walks past. Much as Rene would like to think it's just her it's not, this happens to every Western woman passing any Indonesian males. Walking 5 yards behind Rene (it was part of our pre-nuptial contract) it's like watching spectators at a tennis match, in slow motion, as their eyes follow the ball across the net. Its happened to me a couple of times as well, beautiful looking ladies with long dark hair, ruby red lips and yep, you guessed it, fishermans hands and unfeasibly large adams apples.

It is also part of the Indonesian nature to approach total strangers and extract as much personal information as possible in a Dawn Hallam stylee. Dawn, who worked for the Gestapo in a previous life and is the IOM Queen of personal information extraction, would love it here. It's a bit disconcerting at first, you have to lose your 'it's none of your business' initial reaction and answer politely. It happens all the time and Rene has started to slightly change her personna and call herself Katerina and happily tells everyone she is an accuntan (accountant in Indonesian). Indonesian girls are very beautiful, they are also shy and retiring, a complete contrast to the men.

Last night Rene was approached by a man called Ji, a boat owner looking for customers. This morning we met him again and having seen his boat, and agreed a price we graqb our swimmers and head off for a day snorkelling.

It can't get much better than sitting together on the wooden bow deck of a boat as it cruises between ivory sand fringed islands on the tranquil Flores Sea, under a cloudless Flores sky. It did get better though, we saw a dolphin, fish eagles, flying fish and stopped at a couple of islands for some acquatastic snorkelling.

It was worth the money just to see flying fish, we'd never seen one before, they're the craziest things. Travelling at approximately 10,000 miles an hour as they leave the water, they torpedo along at an altitude of about 200mm (8 inches) above sea level. With their fins/wings going like the clappers a distance of about 20 metres is covered before they disappear. The fins/wings remind me of onr of those wind up bath fish, with fins that go mad when released.

The boat is Ji's pride and joy and rightly so. He spent a year building it from scratch, by hand, out of mainly teak. It's a large (60 ft) handsome, functional boat with two large inboard engines, a small wheelhouse at the stern and spacious canopy covered deck. Like most wooden boats here, it's painted white and sky blue. It's often chartered to take up to 20 divers to various local sites, but today it was just Rene and I.

A price of 150,000 rupiah, 9 pound, had been agreed this morning, which we presumed was for each of us. ( pound each for a day on a boat, plus snorkelling seemed like a bargain. So back at the crowded harbour we handed Ji 300,000 rupiah, thanked him for a great day and were about to walk away when he told us we'd made a mistake and given him too much, he promptly returned to us 150,000. Stunned and touched by his honesty we made our way slowly back to our hilltop hut.

Guess what we had for dinner? Oh yes, snapper sizzling hot plate, would be rude not to. Ji joined us later for a bottle of Bintang (local beer).

Expenses(16,500 rupiah / pound): Accom 50000, boat hire 150000, lunch 27000, dinner 68000, beer 24000.

Tues 17 Aug - Day 107 (Happy Birthday Louis)
Our number 1 must see in Nusa Tenggara was a Komodo Dragon and Labuanbajo is the nearest port with access to the islands of Komodo and Rinca, home to the grandaddy of monitor lizards. As luck would have it, Ji had one more free day before he was booked up, so we jumped at the chance of chartering his boat again. 300,000rupiah for the day. After a chat with Ji, we decide to opt for Rinca, which is 2 hours closer than Komodo, has less visitors and a better chance of seeing dragons.

It's another beautiful day as we follow the dramatic jagged volcanic coastline of Flores, south to Rinca. We pass tiny isolated fishing villages, coral ringed deserted islands and small, one man, sail powered fishing canoes with bamboo outriggers. On the approach to Rinca the surface of the water about 50 yards to starboard is broken by hundreds of jumping fish about herring size. Ji tells us that this is caused by Barracuda, Tuna or Snapper encircling a school of smaller fish, causing them to panic and be easily caught. Where's a rod when you need one?

The convergeance of the warm Flores Sea with the cooler Sumba Strait (Indian ocean) means there is an abundance and great variety of marine life in the waters surrounding Komodo and Rinca including Whales, dolphins and Manta Rays. This is no place to hire a pedallo though, these are tempestuous seas full of riptides and whirlpools.

Captain Ji and his extensive crew (Maxi, aged 15) used all the latest satellite technology (a small Indonesian flag) and safety gear (shorts) to land us safely at the jetty in Loh Kima (Rinca). There's a very sheltered lagoon here which is full of superb Ocean going yachts, from Australia, America, Asia and Europe.

From the jetty Rinca looks like perfect dragon country, rocky, desolate and dry as a bone. It was an extremely short wait to see our firsat Ora, (it's only Westerners who call them Komodo dragons), in fact we hadn't left the jetty when we saw him/her (I thought it best not to lift its tail and have a look) lying directly in line with the end of the jetty under an overhanging rock. It was a beauty and young five footer, with a do not disturb look on its tapered face. We had a staring competiton for a few minutes then started walking the 1km to to the Park HQ.

Rinca is part of Komod National Park, and you have to sign in when you arrive. This is so they know how many visitors have been each day. You are also assigned a guide to walk you around a 5km circuit. The entrance fee for the park is 20,000 rp per person and it's another 20,000 for the guide. They were short of guides so we were joined by another couple, who were American. Straight out of the woods of Arkansas, all black clothes, whispy facial hair and walked with their arms by their sides, like Irish dancers. They never said a word. Not sure they could.

There were more dragons by the headquarters, again lying still and totally unfazed by gawping tourists. As we set off on our 5km loop, Rene positioned herself as close behind Gabriel, our guide, as she could, without standing on the back of his Reebok trainers. This is prime snake country and Katerina was more than a little anxious. I guessed that now wouldn't be the time to point out that today she was much more likely to have her legs bitten off by a 4 mtere long, 120 kg dragon.

It's an incredible landscape. Full of undulating hills, dotted with towering palm trees, huge rocky outcrops and squat broad canopied trees. The riverbeds were dry and rocky. At first we saw long tail macaques, wild water buffalo and bush turkeys. Gabriel then spotted a dragon and we were off in pursuit. It was toying with us, we'd just get within range for a photo, then it was off, with a side to side constipated swagger. They're fast when they want to be.

Guess which pair of muppetts forgot their hats? Luckily it was only 36C in the blazing sunshine and there was hardly any shade.

The first monster lizard we saw was asleep in the shade of a tree. He looked mean and magnificent. His body was about 6 foot long with its tail a further 5 foot. It looked totally relaxed with his feet splayed out underneath its massive body, and its tapered head resting on the ground. We approached gingerly. Despite being thought to be stone deaf (they never answer when asked) the dragons have a tremendous senses of smell, we got to about 8 feet away before this one opened his eyes. He had eyelids and round pupils and we noticed small ear openings. He wasn't even slightly bothered by us and soon closed his eyes again. We were able to have a real good look at his incredible chain mail like skin, which is actually small non overlapping raised and bony scales, and his powerful squat legs each with a five toed foot. It looked like they were from a joke shop horror section all wrinkled and leathery with huge black talons.

Gabriel tells us this particular male is about 30 years old (they can live to 50), and will feed on deer, wild pig, goat and even water buffalo. He has a very powerful jaw and can greatly expand his mouth cavity, allowing him to swallow a goat whole (that's some party trick). Komodos only have to bite the likes of a buffalo, the wound becomes infected and they die a slow and horrible death. The Komodos keen sense of smell soon finds the body.

The female Oras lay 20-30 large 200g eggs at a time, burying them in the wall of a dry river, where they hatch themselves 9 months later. They are outnumbered 3 1/2 to 1 by males, noone's sure why. Also no one is clear on the reason why they only exsist on and around Komodo Island.

Thankfully we didn't get to see this monster sprinting or rising up on his hind legs just before attacking, it was all he could do in the midday sun to open his eyes.

The next tree along had another gargantuan male, equally unperturbed by our presence. After 2 hours walking around and watchinhwe arrived back at the headquarters and despite having heads like stewed apples and Rene wearing her hands as a hat, we were elated at having seen close up and personal, these awesome and unique creatures. And not the hiss of a snake.

Back on board, we chug an hour back towards Labuanbajo then stop at a small island for swimming and snorkelling. More white sand, turquiose sea and an abundance of sea life.

From a distance the islands and coast look barren with a dusty orange dirt surface, but the orange isn't dry and dusty ground, it's a thick orange grass which when you get closer looks like fur.

We say our goodbyes to Ji and Maxi back at the harbour and thank him for 2 great days out. If ever you're in Labuanbajo and fancy a boat trip, Ji's boat is called 'Idola' and anyone down by the harbour will point you in the right direction.

At the Gardena we book boat/bus tickets for the morning and make it a Snapper hot plate hat trick.

Expenses: Accom 50000, boat 300000, komodo 60000, postcards 15000, drinks 20000, snacks 5000, towel 2500, dinner 93500
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