Monday, May 5, 2014

Backpacking Komodo by Boat

Komodo dragons are creatures that you see in zoos but don't really think about where they're from. Well, Komodo, of course, but that could be anywhere. To me, at least. I was probably alone in my ignorance of where Komodo actually is in the world, but until I started researching possible stops in Indonesia, it didn't all come together for me. But then, when it did and I heard tales of a four day boat trip to these mystical islands teeming with giant lizards and manta rays, I instantly knew we needed to go. I needed to convince Charlie, though, because all he could visualize was a sinking boat (his vision was backed up by articles from a recent incident, but we ultimately managed to look forward instead of to the past. It helped that our boat stayed within sight of land for the whole trip. And that our crew was superstitious).

"What's the chicken foot for?" I asked, eyeing the dried appendage hanging near the bow of our boat. "Luck – something like luck," was the response I got from our guide, a funny young Indonesian named Vic who spends his days with Western travelers on a boat sailing between Lombok and Flores. We were OK, but somehow, I don't think the chicken foot was involved.
We tried to research the best companies that offered the USD $175 four-day, three-night trip, but really only came up with Wanua Adventures and Perama. Perama is a huge tour company in Indonesia (it was their boat that sunk) and offers a bigger boat with a higher price tag, so I decided that it wasn't for us. Wanua it was. We ordered enough beers for ourselves for the trip and boarded the boat in Lombok with 18 other foreigners – German, English, French, American, Scandinavian and Dutch – aged between 19 and 55. We were a motley but good humored crew, already ragged from weeks or months of travel and ready to sleep for four nights on thin mattresses to the tune of a grumbling motor. And to embrace the floor of the sole bathroom that sloshed constantly with unidentified liquid (no shoes on board) and the more-than-occasional bed bug and roach sighting. Anchors away.
We spent the first afternoon, evening and night motoring away, heading east, hugging the mountainous green shadow that Lombok represented to our right. We had our first and last fish dinner that night – we caught a barracuda on a dragging fishing line that afternoon, but didn't again for the next few days. The barracuda curry was served on the floor and accompanied by marinated tempe and cabbage salad – something we'd get used to over the next few meals. We ate and chatted on the bow of the boat and broke into our first few beers that were kept cold in a kitchen refrigerator that was turned on its back and used as a cooler. The ice didn't last through the first night, but, miraculously, during a stop on day two, a dude turned up in a little boat, seemingly from nowhere, to deliver new ice. Brilliant. We stopped sailing from 6 until 10pm, and then chugged on through the night.
We woke up early on day two after barely having slept and swam to shore for the first time to hike to a waterfall on Moyo island, monkeys in the distance. As far as waterfalls go, this was a good one with cool, fresh pools that offered only a temporary clean – there was no shower on board our boat and after the waterfall, we had to swim back through the salt water, anyway. We motored on towards Satonda Island where a shallow stretch of great snorkeling sprawled between our boat and the beach where there was a strange saltwater lake inland. While snorkeling here we spotted a huge cuttlefish – an alien-like creature that hovered below us with its delicate edges rippling endlessly.
After Satonda we were to motor for 16 hours – that was never going to happen in Indonesia's sticky heat, though. We begged and begged our guide for a quick stop, and he finally conceded. And this time, they didn't even empty the boat's toilet into the water when we were swimming! Progress. Sailing on, we spotted racing dolphins in a pod of over 20. Some escorted our boat by its bow, while others jumped in unison in the distance. The sun set behind a brewing storm, but we avoided the rain successfully.
When the motor stopped in the morning and I looked out the window next to my mat, my eyes met a pink sky and a light green expanse of rolling hills – Laba Island. Komodo and the surrounding islands look markedly different than Lombok and Sumbawa; the park's hills are mostly savannah instead of the normal, emerald green forest. We began the day with condensed milk topped banana pancakes and a snorkel session during which I was enticed by a timid octopus and was the last one in the water. On to Manta Point, where we were promised something like a 60% chance to see the graceful giants in open water. 
Finding the mantas was a chore on its own. After motoring around to survey the scene our boat's trusty captain (who until this point was mainly just a silent fixture who smoked cigs and helmed the boat) dutifully donned his snorkel gear and hopped in to track down the creatures soaring below. At his command we all jumped in, the strong current immediately sweeping us away from the boat, us kicking furiously to follow our non-English-speaking leader and get a glimpse of the mantas below. And we did. The rays were bigger across than I am tall and jet black – they moved across the ocean floor with a gentle flap of their enormous fins. We could keep up with them for a minute or two, before letting them slide away into the distance. We saw four or five rays while swimming around, once, two at at time, crossing paths and swimming together. We finally let the current sweep us back towards the repositioned boat, just to perform the whole exercise again. Snorkeling with the mantas was a highlight of this trip for me.
After a swim to a pink-sanded beach, it was time to head to Komodo, our first stop aimed at hunting for dragons. We pulled up the island's huge dock and were the only boat there – the island reminded us a bit of Jurassic park. It had all the infrastructure to welcome lots of visitors, and had no visitors. But it did have beasts. We met our guides, who each wielded long, protective sticks (reassuring, really) and didn't have to walk far before spotting our first dragon. It was the only one we'd see on the walk and it was quite vegetative, but it was big. We found two more on the beach, later, where they congregate, lured by the scent of the guides' food. The lizards we saw had visibly full stomachs – our guide told us they just ate a deer the a few days before and wouldn't need to eat again for about a month. So they weren't hungry, like, for us.
We got back on the boat after seeing just the three beasts. Since we had good weather, our guide decided that we'd sail on and dock closer to our destination for the morning. We pulled up in the dark next to a small boat in the shelter of a cove, and were asked to move away for fear that we'd be loud. That was a good prediction. It was our last night, and we had a lot of warm beer to finish over a huge game of Kings Cup. Of course, that beer seemed to finish prematurely. We were on an honor system of taking our own purchased drinks from the cooler, and I think everyone managed to lose count by night three.
By our last day, I was desperate for a shower. Think about how you feel after you swim in the ocean, and now multiply that by four days. Salt was everywhere. And sweat. I wore the same bathing suit, day and night, for four days. Hey, it was dry by bedtime, and there was nowhere to get changed anyway. Our bags were stowed below deck – access came with constant crouching, the smell of petrol and heavy heat.
We started our last day at Rinca, another island that's home to Komodos, this one more picturesque and rugged. Our group decided to take the long trek which would be about two hours of hiking and, surely, dragon time. But during the entire trek, we saw just one distant dragon. And a water buffalo. The scenery on Rinca is gorgeous, but I had to spend more time watching my feet during our strenuous walk through the hills and forests of the island than taking in the sights.
After a quick snorkel stop at a tiny island in our path where I taunted a tiny clownfish near his tiny anemone for far too long (they're so confrontational!), it was time to sail the final leg of our journey to Flores, just about one hour away. We packed our things eagerly in anticipation of a shower and an Internet connection and when our boat squeezed into an impossibly small dock space in Labuanbajo, I was definitely ready to get off. But now, weeks after the journey, I find myself looking back longingly. Wishing to be back on the sea without a worry in the world, scanning the horizon for dolphins.

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