Here be dragons
Trip Start Oct 31, 2009
52Trip End Feb 25, 2010
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To get to Flores - jumping off point for Komodo national park - we take an 1 1/2 hour flight in a 50 seater propeller plane from Bali - Riau airlines (no me neither). It is stunning day, and the plane flys low enough to get great views - the coast fo Bali; the 3 Gili islands glinting in the sea; Gunung Rinjani the huge volcano in northern Lombok; and the rugged hills and coast of Sumbawa. This final island has enough small deserted tropical islands off-shore and old volcanos to keep many a Bond villan in lairs.
The plane lands at Labuan Bajo airport, set amongst rugged hills.The airport boasts a paved runway, parking space for 2 small planes, and 1 small building with two rooms - arrivals and departures. A grand sign points towards baggage reclaim - which actually is a hand cart used to bring bags from the aircraft, which are then handed to you.
Flores island is famous for the discovery in a remote cave of bones of what some scientists think is a small extinct species of human (homo floresienis), popularly known as the Flores Hobbit. However its not hobbits in a hole we're here to see but dragons. The Lonely Planet is unclear as to whether the large active volcano at the other end of Flores has a forge for making rings of power.
Labuan Bajo itself is a small fishing town, beautifully situated on a bay full of islands. The town has a scruffy, ramshackle charm and a frontier feel - the main building material is weathered corrugated iron. All very different from the slick westernised tourist industry of Bali - and feels like more of an adventure.
Our hotel helps us charter a fishing boat, complete with taciturn but friendly captain and mate, for our two day trip into Komodo national park. We set off into the sea to the two islands with the main populations of dragons - Rinca and Komodo.
A bonus we hadn't considered when arranging the trip is how sublimely beautiful the scenery on the trip to the islands is. Amongst the best we've see on the trip (which is no idle boast). A smooth turquoise sea, full of small islands lined with bright white flashes of beach. Steep, rugged, ridged volcanic hills rise in the centre of the islands. There is no sign of people apart from the very occasional small fishing kampong (village). Sporadically we see the flash of a large turtle shell as they dive out of the way of the boat, or the arched backs of dolphins. Sometimes the boat passes through water so clear we can see the coral below us.
Day 1 we arrive at Rinca. The wildlife starts straight away, a small bat hangs from the ceiling of the ticket office. 2 hour walks round a corner of the island are available - you must walk with a ranger, he carries a long wooden stick. The stick is a wise precaution - as recently as last September a local fisherman was killed by a dragon. The first dragons we see are lazing round the ranger's huts right by the dock - almost too easy. We then see a few more - smaller ones in the forest, larger ones laying very still by a watering hole waiting to ambush water buffalo. The walk takes us through scrubby forest, and up hills offering stunning views across the island. The hills are grassy with the odd tall tallipot palm - all very Jurassic Park. The ranger tells me everyone says this.
After Rinca we sail to a nearby small island to snorkel - amazing coral gardens amongst the best I've seen anywhere. We spend the night anchored off the coast of Komodo - not long after we've stopped a small boy paddles from who knows where in a small outrigger canoe - trying to sell badly carved wooden dragons. Slightly later a better entrepreneur with a bigger boat and outboard motor arrives, selling more welcome Bintang beer. At dusk thousands of big flying foxes pass over us. The sunset is suitably red and stunning. The captain puts out a line and pulls fish after fish out of the sea, some get eaten some he takes home. We sleep on the deck of the fishing boat.
Day 2 - early morning and off to Komodo - as with Rinca a ranger with a big stick, and a 2 hour walk. We see fewer dragons on Komodo - but the ones we do see are bigger. Most impressive is our final dragon 3 metres (9 feet) of big muscley lizard stood in clear view. We approach as near as the ranger - stick held high - lets us for photos. The 10x zoom proves useful - we do not want to get too close. He has huge claws on the end of strong looking legs, and looks every inch a killing machine. Thick drool swaggers off into the forest - they have a strange alien gait - but there's obvious power and speed in his legs.
After the excitement of Komodo more snorkeling - less coral than the previous day, but lots and lots of fish - including a huge puffer fish with striking markings. Then back to Labuan Bajo for the local specialty - huge chunks of very fresh tuna on a sizzling hot plate with rice - all for about 2 pounds.
The good sunny dry weather stays with us until our flight back to Bali the next day.