Komodo Dragons & Labuan Bajo
All of my teenage years were during the height of Steve Irwin’s reign among the top tv shows in America with his show The Crocodile Hunter. Okay, maybe it wasn’t one of the top tv shows in the USA during that time, but it was definitely one of my favorite shows growing up. I was always fascinated by travel, nature and animals. Throw in a wildly energetic zookeeper, who had a goofy accent and the balls to jump on the back of hungry crocodiles and I was hooked. One of my favorite episodes was a trip he made to Indonesia. It introduced me to a living dinosaur or more commonly known as the Komodo Dragon. Ever since that episode it has been a bucket list item to see these creatures in their natural environment.
So after spending almost 3.5 months in Bali I finally decided to book the travel and make the trip happen. I’ve never been one for researching travel plans and I kind of just go with the flow. I did a quick search and found a company online who offered a 3 day, 2 night boat trip from the city of Labuan Bajo. They were sold out for the weekend I wanted to go and gave me a recommendation for another local company; Indahnesia. I sent Indahnesia a WhatsApp message, they confirmed availability and I booked the trip without doing much research besides briefly looking at their website.
I invited my ex-fiancé, Brittany, to join me for the trip. Yes, I know a bit weird and confusing to invite an ex along for a trip like this, but we remain friends. She enjoys traveling, was in Bali at the time and we get along when traveling so I thought it might be nice to have some company. Traveling alone for 9 months has had its lonely points and it was nice to be around someone who understands my personality.
We arrived to the Labuan Bajo airport in Flores after a 1 hour flight Thursday morning and grabbed a ride with a local taxi driver for 50,000 Rupiah ($4 USD) to Villa Domanik. If you ever head to Labuan Bajo I would highly recommend staying at this villa. The views and ambiance from the property were stunning. The beds were comfortable and there are only 5-6 rooms so you are guaranteed to have a relaxing stay away from the hustle and bustle.
I was recovering from a bad sinus infection and strep throat, but we needed to meet up with Indahnesia to pay for the trip before we left the next day. We headed “downtown” for dinner at the Happy Monkey. It is the famous local Westernized sushi restaurant and it lived up to the hype. For $30USD we had two gigantic sushi rolls, two miso soups, two ginger-honey teas and a bowl of edamame. June (our trip guide) and Vita the manager from Indahnesia met us at dinner to collect the payment. The trip cost 5,500,00 IDR or $440 USD for two people ($220 per person). June is one of those humans who never stops smiling so we knew we were in for an exciting trip!
We went back to the villa that night and I was in bed early because of my head flu. I woke up in the middle of the night (11pm) burning up from a fever and thought I might need to go to the hospital instead of going on the boat trip the next day. I took a cold shower to cool down, was doused by Brittany in essential oils and covered my forehead with a wet towel. My fever subsided and I was able to go back to sleep for 6 hours. I joke that essential oils are some sort of wizardy-witchcraft, but the truth is I've become a firm believer in them thanks to Brittany and her mom.
We arrived at the harbor and June was there to greet us with his never-ending, big friendly smile. We were the last of 9 tourists to load the boat. We also happened to be the only foreign tourists on this trip and were lucky enough share our trip with seven Indonesian tourists. Five of our seven boat mates were able to speak English, which made it nice since neither of us knew Bahasa.
The boat was off and our new family of adventurers was headed into the deep blue sea together. It was a bit cloudy, but we decided to climb to the top deck of the boat for a better view of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains. Less than an hour into cruising we were fortunate enough to see some dolphins swimming off the bow of the boat. Shortly after this we reached our first destination of the trip, Kanawa Island where we got off the boat and explored what felt like a deserted magical island due to the tourism off-season. While walking on the beach we saw two baby sharks swimming in the water close to shore. Afterwards we went snorkeling around the local reef and saw some of the most beautiful underwater marine life Indonesia has to offer.
We got back on the boat where we were served a traditional Indonesian meal of fresh fruit, rice, fish and potatoes. After lunch we sailed a couple of hours to Gili Lawa. Here we went for a hike to the top of a beautiful peak to take in a magnificent sunset. The sunset was accompanied by several island mountain peaks, teal blue ocean waters and scattered rainstorms.
During the sunset hike I began to fully understand and grasp how much the social media lifestyle has in a way the ability to show all humans are basically the same around the entire world. We were sharing this trip with seven Indonesian locals who happened to all be Muslim (Islam is the largest religion in Indo). There was absolutely no difference in the amount of selfies taken versus having traveled with seven Americans, Aussies, Vietnamese, British, etc. I’m not judging anyone for taking selfies as I know I take an inordinate number of photos and video clips for Instagram myself. I’m just talking to the point that no matter how different our backgrounds are around the World social media photography has become something a majority of humans share. It was a fun life experience to share this similarity with people who grew up on the opposite side of Planet Earth.
Back on the boat we were served another delicious Indonesian dinner before we anchored down for our first night of sleep on the boat. Getting ready for bed we discovered that we made the mistake of forgetting sunscreen earlier in the day. Thankfully, there was no lack of essential peppermint oil with Brittany on board to cool down the skin. Since we were the last two on the boat we had the last choice of rooms and ended up on the bottom bunk (floor) sharing a room with our new friend Dika. Thankfully each room had air conditioning and our mattress was comfortable enough.
The next morning we headed to a small sand island in the middle of the sea to walk around and take photos. This island all but disappeared later in the day when the tide changed and made it even more unique that we were able to spend time on it during low tide. After this we headed off to our next snorkeling adventure, which coincidentally ended up being my favorite part of the trip. During this snorkel session we had the privilege of swimming with giant manta rays. They were absolutely stunning and majestic creatures. Our new friend Dika found a local fisherman diving from his wood boat during this adventure. He bought a gigantic lobster for the boat to share at dinner later that night.
We made one more stop at the famous “Pink Beach” where the sand is a pink hue due to microscopic animals (Foraminifera), which produce a red pigment on the coral that then blends with the white sand to give the appearance of pink sand. During this part of the trip we were met by local pearl salesmen who were selling all sorts of real pearl necklaces, bracelets and earrings. If you’re a pearl jewelry person make sure you bring some extra cash. The pearl necklaces were about $12 USD or 150,000 IDR each. I'm sure the ladies in my family will be upset with me for not bringing enough money with me to fill their Christmas stalking later this year!
After this excursion the boat headed off and we were en route to the Komodo Island National Park. We arrived at the dock just as a down pour of rain arrived. Seeing Komodo Dragons had been a bucket list item of mine for almost 20 years now my patience has never been the best. Waiting out that rain storm was a brutal internal fight with myself. Finally, the rain subsided after 30 minutes and we were able to go explore the island. I practically dragged Brittany to the shore with excitement only to realize we had to wait 15 more minutes for the rest of the crew to finish taking selfies on the boat dock before starting the tour. I saw a massive deer resting on the beach that allowed me to get much closer to it for photos than made me comfortable. Later, I found out it was slowly dying from a Komodo Dragon bite. The dragon’s saliva is full of bacteria that infects it's prey. The bigger the animal, the longer and imaginably more miserable the death process is while it's body unsuccessfully attempts to fight the infection.
As soon as the group caught up we saw a young Komodo close to the beach. It was massive and being close to it had my adrenaline pumping with excitement for our hike to see more adults possibly seeking to hunt their next meal. Komodo's have very rarely attacked and killed tourists with an infectious bite before. I knew I could outrun everyone in our group if the dragon's came hunting a tourist meal.
We were told the Komodo’s go into hiding during a rain and take their time to come out to explore afterwards. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any during our nature hike. We did find one that took shelter in the men’s bathroom during the rain and saw another one on the beach that looked well fed and not very interested in us following it around for photo opportunities. The Komodo Dragons just weren’t meant to be as exciting as the 20 year anticipation had been built up. They were still massive, interesting and beautiful creatures I’m glad we had the chance to see in person roaming around their home island and not locked up in a zoo.
After enjoying a walk along the beach of Komodo Island we got back on the boat while the sun was setting to cruise to our docking spot for the night. We were served another scrumptious Indonesian meal for dinner, but this time we had a special delicious surprise. The massive lobster Dika bought earlier in the day was amazingly seasoned and shredded up to add as a topping on the rice.
Following dinner we headed to bed only to find out our air conditioner stopped working and could not be repaired. The room was not getting much of a breeze. After a couple of hours sweating through the sheets I went upstairs and slept on a comfy padded area on the deck. This was more comfortable and enjoyable. I could hear and feel the ocean breeze all night long as I slept. It ended up being much better than sleeping in the bed as I was able to watch the sunrise without getting up from my sleeping spot in the morning.
After the sunrise we were at Padar Island for a morning hike. The weather was beautiful and the air was still cool for the hike. Due to Brittany and I having forgot to apply sunscreen on our first day I was using a t-shirt like a scarf to protect myself from becoming any more of a redneck than I already I am. The views atop Padar Island were magnificent of course and with each 5 minutes of extra climbing they only became more awe inspiring. Brittany and I were the first to hike back down after making it to the top. We met one of the local coconut salesmen and bought a fresh coconut to share. The coconut salesman had a special smile and positive aura about him. Even though we didn't speak much of his language and he much of our language he had a bit of a draw to us. So much so, he wanted to take a selfie with us. We enjoyed being a part of it and asked him to take a selfie with us too. These are the type of people you meet when traveling who make places you visit exceptionally memorable.
We were back on the boat and began the trip back to Labuan Bajo, but not before we stopped at Kelor Island for one last beach walk and snorkel swim. We ran into an “instafamous” cat on this island. The cat was being walked by leash and put in trees for photo opportunities. You can’t make this stuff up. After having some laughs at this we rode back to the marina at Labuan Bajo. We said goodbye to our new friends from Indonesia and felt lucky to travel with such great and interesting people.
On the boat dock we were greeted by local children climbing as high as they could on the wooden dock shelter to jump off into the water below. I could have sat there and watched them all night long. It was refreshing to watch children enjoying what the world has to offer versus being stuck with their head down looking and scrolling through a smart phone like myself and so many others are guilty of due to today's technology.
Indahnesia covered the cost of the taxi ride for us and took us back to Villa Domanik where we enjoyed one last sunset on top of Labuan Bajo. The trip was not a rekindling moment for Brittany and I's relationship, but having her company there reminded me of how nice it is to share your travels with someone else. Traveling alone is fun, exciting and forces me to grow by jumping out of my comfort zone. However, sharing new experiences with a travel buddy can make the time even more memorable. During my future travels I will look to spend some time alone, but also to find other adventurers to join me in making memories.
I want to say thank you to June and the entire staff from Indahnesia for doing such a wonderful job throughout our trip as well as the staff from Villa Domanik. Neither of these places were a sponsored visit. If you ever find yourself in Bali or Indonesia you should make sure to visit Labuan Bajo.