There is more to Komodo National Park than dragons, coral, currents, and big fish. There are beautiful hikes, Bajo villages, flying foxes, and gorgeous beaches. It seems odd to me that many backpackers come to one of the world’s most beautiful places then opt for a cheap-ass tour, on a crappy boat, with no safety equipment or English-speaking guide. Yeah, they see the dragons, snorkel at Pink Beach, and have a craic with like-minded cheapskates. But that seemed a bit lame to us.
We had already spent 3 days on the Wicked Diving liveaboard in Komodo, but we wanted to take another trip to see the dragons on Komodo and Rinca, snorkel, and hike. We wanted a good boat and an excellent guide with great language skills and knowledge of the park. Safety was paramount too. We want life vests, radios on board, and a speedboat for evacuation and/or transfers to beaches and snorkel spots.
Not too much to ask. But, unbelievably, there is only one operator in town that offers such a service. That company is Flores XP Adventures. And, thankfully, they had a trip that fitted into our schedule. We joined their 3 day Liveaboard Adventure and it was fabulous. Even better, Mikel, one of the company owners and our guide for the trip, threw a bunch of dive gear onboard just in case we had the urge to sink below the surface.
Flores XP picked us up bright and early and we were whisked down to the port area to join up with our fellow adventurers and the boat, Salacia. We were joined on board by Alessio and Ylenia, air traffic controllers from Italy, and Holly, a Thailand-based American travel agent.
There was a crew of four: Mikel (divemaster and guide), Eduardo (snorkel and land guide), the captain and the cook.
The boat was a pleasant 17m two-deck boat. Communal eating and chilling area at the front. Mid-ship was bridge, bathroom and kitchen. Back of the boat was the wet area for dive gear. Sleeping was on the top deck. Everyone bunked down in the same open space.
Day One: Lionfish, Dragons, and Flying Foxes
Our first port of call was Kanawa Island. The island has one expensive resort and some nice coral gardens and fish just offshore. There was little in the way of current so it was a good spot for the Italians to do a discover dive. The Americans went snorkeling.
After the moderate stress of diving, it was nice to be light on gear and floating on the surface. You see some cool shit when snorkeling too. I hadn’t seen any big lionfish and the island boat jetty apparently was one of their favorite haunts. And, lo and behold, within seconds we found one. We saw a ton of large batfish, some huge pipefish, and some decent sized groupers. The coral gardens were darn pretty too. Our guide seemed a little shy, which was no big deal in the tranquil waters of Kanawa. But I hoped he would be more instructive on the more challenging snorkels.
After lunch, we steamed merrily on to the island of Rinca. This was to be our first encounter with the legendary dragons of Komodo. On the way, Mikel told us stories of nasty saltwater crocodiles at Rinca. Now, if there is an animal I truly fear, it is the ‘Saltie’. There ain’t that many at Rinca but they live in the mangroves around the park entrance. Oh, nice!
We couldn’t quite put our finger on it but there was something ominous and creepy about Rinca. The guides seemed tense, the trees seemed tense, man, even the dragons were stressed out. Maybe.
Komodo National Park has some pretty steep fees. People bitch about them, but if it keeps the park pristine and well maintained I guess it is worth it. We coughed up our $20 each, met our guide, and got the lowdown on the dragons. They are nasty beasts. They eat anything. Even their own offspring. Their mouths contain an evil cocktail of nasty bacteria and poisons. Their favorite feast is buffalo. They bite them and hang around as the buffalo gets weaker and weaker from infection. Then, they tuck in. They are happy to linger around a dying buff for weeks awaiting a hearty meal.
As the guide was doing his intro, a juvenile Komodo dragon appeared just above his head on the roof of the ranger station. The younger ones stay up high for five years or more until they are strong enough to avoid becoming a snack for mommy. The young Dragons are actually quite beautiful. They have lovely yellow scales around their heads. Still, they manage to look menacing as their tongues slithers out of their mouth.
The guide gathered up his weapon (a forked stick), and led us up a trail. We passed the kitchen where a bunch of dragons hang out. The rangers are not supposed to feed them, but given the lazy demeanor of the hangers-on I figure they don’t chase buffalo that often. A couple of huge dragons hissed at each other. A foul sound. I would like to love the dragons more but they are the least cuddly animals I have ever seen!
The jungle walk was fairly uneventful. We crossed the path of the odd dragon, saw buffalo, jungle fowl, and dragon nests. It was really goddamn hot and humid so we were glad the walk was short.
Back at base we saw another couple of juveniles on the ground. To be honest though, we were glad to be heading back to the boat. We didn’t see any crocs up close but having seen a male thrashing the water with his tail we were glad it was some way in the distance.
After Rinca, we headed off towards Kalong Island to see the flying foxes (giant bats) come out of the caves to feed. While we were in the area, we moored up at a Bajo “sea gypsy” village to take in some local culture.
The village was pretty cool, but something more ominous than crocs or dragons was heading our way. A huge tropical downpour. Captain was keen to move to less stormy waters to safely moor up for the night. We outran the storm and saw a few shadowy Flying Foxes over the sea. Big looking buggers!
After dinner, we lay on the deck, gazed at the incredible night sky, talked some travel shit, and reflected on a rather wonderful first day.
Day Two: Coral, Groupers, Giant Mantas, and a sweaty uphill hike
Today was all about the sea. Three classic snorkels. And, for the divers a chance to dive at Batu Bolong, one of the world’s classic sites.
We started the day with a gentle cruise to Siaba Besar. Laura and I were very familiar with this spot since it was the site for our diving liveaboard hostel. Mikel took the Italians on another discover dive, while us Americans floated above the coral. And, what magnificent coral it was! Huge Rose-shaped coral everywhere you looked. There was tons of fish-life too. Even better, the currents were extremely mild.
Next stop was Batu Bolong. Laura had dived here a week ago and declared it the best dive site she had visited. This is no place for novices so I passed up last time. Mikel told us that it was a great snorkel spot so I was very excited to get a glimpse of what Laura had seen. Laura, of course, got geared up and dove with Mikel and Holly.
Batu Bolong is a curious attraction above the water. It is a rock pinnacle with a protruding area of a mere 30m long and 20m wide. It is in a channel with extremely strong currents so you have to pick your time to enter carefully. It was quite placid when we arrived so we would be able to do a 270 degree swim around. Usually, the side currents are too strong to allow this. I have to say I was nervous. I stayed damn close to the guide!
But, it was an extraordinary snorkel. Every direction you looked there were huge amounts of fish. Some of them enormous. Man, I have got to come back and dive this some time. Here are a couple of Laura’s pics and a video from her dive.
We were absolutely buzzing after Batu Bolong. Only one thing could top that: Manta rays.
Not before we had a quick lunch break at a breathtaking spot out in the ocean though. The Salacia moored up at a tiny sandy beach in the most beautiful turquoise waters. Sensational!
Laura wanted a few photos out on the island, so we decided to swim the twenty meters over. For the deep sea snorkels, I usually keep on a life vest. No need to stress myself out unnecessarily. For this short swim, I ditched the vest. Bad mistake! I jumped in and for some reason I breathed in while still below the surface. I got a lung full of saltwater and freaked out! Worse, there was quite a strong current. I panicked a little, my swimming form went awry, and I started to float away from the boat. Not cool. Eventually, I struggled back towards the boat and Mikel tossed out a line to me. Ugh! After all the good work in the water in the last few months that seemed like a step backwards.
I took the small boat to the island and took a few sheepish photos with the missus. I did swim back to the boat though. If you fall off a horse get right back in the saddle…and all that!
The mantas. Well, it was our third time at Makassar Point and on the previous two occasions we had immense encounters with the big beasties. The Italians told us that the main aim of the holiday was to see mantas. Should be easy! The water was really really cold. The rays love that. We saw several huge mantas from the boat so we knew our luck was in. Then, we jumped in. No goddamn mantas. WTF! We swam further and further from the boat in search of. Nothing. And, now it was getting real cold. I was shivering. Laura must be absolutely frigid.
Our speedboat came out to us and I thought that’s it. Freezing cold for nothing. Damn. The Italians will be disappointed. I looked down once more. And there it was. A real biggy. I raised my head and yelled ‘Manta’. The Italians looked around confused. I pointed down… suddenly they came to their senses looked down and whooped for joy! Not only that… big boy had brought along a few buddies. At least nine other mantas joined the party. They circled below us for quite some time. Once in awhile we had to swim 20m or so as they moved about. But, in the main, for twenty minutes and more it was manta showtime. Such beautiful animals. Disgusting to think there is a market for their gills in China. A spurious cure for some modern ailment.
The speedboat eventually picked us up and took us back to the Salacia. There was quite a buzz on board. While we hanging out at the back of the boat Laura commented, “It would be cool to see a manta breach.” Literally seconds later, a giant manta leapt out of the ocean and crashed down on the water. Unbelievable! What a day!
Nothing would top that but we were still eager to see sunset from Padar Island. The boat whizzed us over the ocean and pulled into a gorgeous pink sand cove about 30 minutes before sundown. Laura was in a hurry and legged it up the slope. It was getting cooler but it was still a sweaty old hike up. The view was amazing. A truly stunning spot. Clambering down in the dark was a little slow going. The underfoot conditions were crumbly and dry. Fell on my ass a bunch! But, wow, I could have bust a leg and the day would still have been one of the best ever!
Day Three: Komodo Island, Dragons, and Pink Beaches
You can’t go to Komodo National Park and miss out on the island and its monstrous beasts. Even if you have seen dragons on Rinca. Allegedly, the Komodo lizards are bigger and the Rinca reptiles more aggressive. And, yes, there were some big ol’ dragons on Komodo.
Komodo Island was more scenic and less creepy than Rinca. Laura reckoned she would like to return one day and walk the 10K adventure trail across the island’s hilly spine. My terms for returning are an IPA every two kms, a walking aircon unit, and do it at night. It was so hot! Even walking a couple of kilometers. It is a curiously beautiful island though.
We saw a big dragon moving slowly down the trail. He was slow and lumbering. The guide said he looked ill and/or low on food. Great! A hungry beast heading our way. The dragon looked kind of pathetic. Sadly, he could be on his last legs. He couldn’t even bother to look scary.
His younger brother near the camp, however, did a great job of looking menacing. He walked down the path with a swagger and with drool hanging from the corners of his gargantuan jaws. He wasn’t going to be moved from the path either. The guides once in awhile had to steer him away from tourists. He wandered alongside us for quite a distance then slumped down with some malevolent looking buddies in the shade of a giant tree. I could easily see this one taking out a buffalo.
After baking our heads on the trail, we headed out to one of Komodo’s famed pink beaches for a cool-off and snorkel. We had more of a cool-off than we bargained for. The water was absolutely freezing. The currents in the area create some crazy water conditions. The currents were strong too, so this had to be a short and sweet snorkel. Mikel guided us this time. He took us over a precipitous drop off to see the big fish. There were some big groupers, humongous pufferfish, a rare filefish, and lots of gorgeous pink and purple soft corals.
We checked out a few of the cheapie tours on the Labuan Bajo main drag. Ugh! It was depressing. Local youths fronting shabby shops all selling the same lame tours. We would ask where the tours went and they would invariably point at the wrong areas of the map. None of the boats had English-speaking staff. So, if there were problems or questions then communication would be tricky. We heard from fellow travelers that tours were poorly run, the food was bad, life vests absent, no safety craft, and, often, the boats took you to snorkel spots with dead coral and no fish. Those people may have more change in the pocket than us now, but we have seen the best that Komodo NP has to offer.
We reckon that if backpackers keep going with the shoddy cheap-ass operators, then standards will never improve. Why up your game if the rupiah keep rolling on in? However, there is a better option and that is to go with Flores XP. This is definitely a midrange option that was a splurge for us budget travelers, but it was worth every rupiah. Mikel and his crew really knew their stuff and provided an excellent service. You snorkeled at dead coral cove. We went to Batu Bolong. We felt safe, well-informed, and well looked after. The tour is in our top ten experiences of our whole trip. If we had gone with the cheapies, I am not convinced that would have been the case.