Our roving international correspondent, Bob Schiff, has been traveling throughout Asia, reporting on the obscure and exotic. Here is his sixth installment detailing his travels. Enjoy Shiff's musings on the locals, customs, accommodations, and certainly the visual and descriptive majesty of the sites he is visiting and documenting.
Visions of death by natures predators, particularly horrific and gruesome endings might include being torn apart in a dark watery ocean by a large shark, being mauled by a big cat in an African jungle, being subject to a death roll griped in the jaws of a crocodile in an Australian swamp, and perhaps being swat to ribbons by the claws of a bear in the Rocky Mountains. I can now add to that list being eaten by a Komodo Dragon. Komodo Dragons are large carnivorous monitor lizards that live only on the island of Komodo (about 1,700), the nearby islands of Rinca (1,300), Gili Dasami (100), Gili Motang (100) and across a narrow channel on western Flores (2,000) - all just east of Sumbawa island in the Indonesian archipelago of Nusa Tenggara. Males grow to over three meters and can weigh up to about 200 kg. They are fearsome predators capable of sudden bursts of speed to over 20 kph (over 12 mph) with sharp claws, powerful tails, serrated teeth and a tough scaly covering. Their saliva contains a mild venom and deadly bacteria - once bitten a dragon will stalk a large ever weakening victim for days or weeks until near death and then move in for the kill. More modest size prey are just torn apart and eaten on the spot. Dragons are not fickle eaters, they even eat carrion (dead and decaying animals).
The dock at Komodo Island.
Labuan Bajo on the western tip of Flores is the gateway to the Komodo National Park, a World Heritage site and home to a rich and diverse terrestrial and undersea ecosystem. There are few ways to get there; either fly from Denpasar (Bali) or take a multi-day boat trip from Lombok. I was already in Lombok and didn't want to backtrack and the boat trip seemed like a more adventurous option anyway. There are several boat operators most with horrible reputations - no radio on board, no navigation equipment, no safety equipment, no fresh water, poor food, filthy sleeping accommodations, etc. The route along the north shore of Sumbawa island is remote and the seas can at times get rough. For both safety and health reasons (comfort too) this is not a trip to take lightly.
Perama Tours is a well established operator and has the best reputation for this particular trip. They have a boat that leaves every six days from Lombok making a few stops for swimming and snorkeling along the way
culminating with the highlight of the trip, a stop at Komodo island to see the dragons before disembarking at Labuan Bajo.
Back to the boat.
"What do you mean the tour already left?" I'm calling to confirm tomorrow's trip. A bus from the west side of Lombok travels to Kayangan Harbor on the eastern side to meet the boat and it left today, not tomorrow. Don't ask. After several phone calls and a quick review of my limited options I call back and ask if I can meet the boat at the harbor. Sure. I hire a driver, do a fast pack and off we race to meet the boat. It's a scary three hour ride over poor roads passing everything in our way but we make it.
At about 25-30 meters what I suppose is an Indonesian classic wooden passenger cruise boat is tied to a dock dwarfed by a much larger Makassar freight carrying schooner. With 20 guests and about eight crew I would have preferred the larger boat. There are two classes - deck and cabin. At 600,000 rupiah (about $66 USD) more I opted for cabin class. At first they tried to jam three guys into a cabin that could only reasonably hold two so we had to sort that out before departure.
Then it was off for a short journey to our first port-of-call, a tiny spec of sand and scrub about an hour away. We spend the late afternoon swimming and snorkeling while the staff prepares dinner - fresh fish and vegetables over an open fire. After some hokey attempts at bonding (guitars and signing around the fire, learning traditional dance steps) it's back to the boat for a 9 p.m. departure. It's a beautiful starry night. The seas are calm and that hokey bonding seemed to work - we have a great group of travelers (all European, mostly from Holland) all with interesting stories and all looking forward with great enthusiasm to the adventures that lie ahead.
I'm up at 5:30 a.m. and watch sunrise with the captain, easy going and always with a smile he clearly enjoys his job. I'm reminded that coffee always tastes best during early mornings at sea, especially the thick rich local brew here in Indonesia. We arrive at a small island at about 7 a.m., drop anchor and rustle up the late sleepers so we can have breakfast. They ferry us ashore in the small tender for some swimming and snorkeling and then it's off again - seven hours to a stop along the northern shore of Sumbawa Island for dinner before our night journey to Komodo. Just after lunch we are hit by a squall - about 25 knots of wind push the seas up into rolling two meter swells that send many in our group to the lee rail. Torrential wind swept rain drives everyone to their cabins. Spirits seem dampened, literally. I stay in the wheelhouse with the captain. The squall passes but leaves behind a lumpy
sea. We arrive at a small niche of a bay along the desolate northern shore of Sumbawa, the seas subside and spirits lift. After dinner some are not so anxious to head back out but we have dragons to see so it's up with the anchor and off we go for a full night's sail to Komodo.
On Komodo Island - a national park that gets about 35,000 visitors per year to see the dragons.
This time everyone is up for sunrise. We are chugging along in calm waters through a sea of dry forest-covered mountainous islands. Many white sand coves ring the islands. In the early morning light the scenery looks mystical, almost eerie. Maybe it's partly influenced by our knowledge and hidden fears of our upcoming encounter with the dragons. As we close in on Komodo iIland I'm reminded of all those old movies about explorers finding monsters on islands not unlike this (Edgar Rice Burroughs "The Land That Time Forgot" perhaps). During our briefing before heading off to the island the tour leader asks if any of the women are menstruating. Pretty personal question to ask in public. Apparently the dragons can smell blood from several kilometers away. He recounts a story when the dragons became aggressive and surrounded a group. Turns out one of the women was menstruating. The guides had a bit of a time getting her away safely. He had our undivided attention. After that story I'm sure none of the women were menstruating. Even those of us with fresh cuts and scrapes looked concerned. We are all nervously joking that we don't have to be the fastest runner in the group, just not the slowest.
We are to take a two hour trek inland. The group is split into two with two guides each - one in front and one behind. They carry a sturdy stick about three meters long forked at one end. Protection. We are told to stay together in a single line. To emphasize the point they tell us a story of a visitor a few years ago that got separated from the group. Months later they found glasses and a camera. We have no stragglers. The guides come from the small fishing village on the island - imagine having children in a place like this - so at least they have experience with these monsters. Still not too sure about that stick though. After about an hour's trek into the forest we come across our first dragon. About 10 feet long lounging in the brush. We all move in for pictures. The guides go on alert.
At first the beast is just lying in the open. Docile. As people move in to get their pictures the creature raises its head and takes note. Some of us freeze. Some move back. Powerful legs come alive and the thick scaly body slowly rises. Both guides move closer with their sticks as those of us in close slowly move back. The dragon lumbers away toward the underbrush. I guess he wasn't hungry this morning.
Morning of last day arriving at the area between Sambawa and Flores Islands.
We don't see any more dragons as we head back to the park entrance area. As we approach the refreshment building we spot three. Must be the kitchen scraps that attract them. One smaller female walks right up the steps into the seating area. One of the park rangers
carefully ushers her out with a stick. There is one lying under one of the buildings and a much larger one lying out in the open. This one is big. Many in our group jockey for close-up pictures. The guides seem to get a bit nervous at our new found bravery. Still the monster just lies there. By now we are all crowding around some as close as maybe 10 meters. The claws are huge. The dark eye seems to follow us. A split-tipped yellow tongue slides in and out between a row of menacing looking teeth. This is truly something from another time. Prehistoric. Not in one's worst nightmare could one envision such a horrific looking creature. He lifts his head and turns toward the group. The guides, voices a bit strained but trying to retain a calm professional manner direct us to all move back. Slowly. The dragon raises onto all fours, moves about two meters away, lies back down and continues his rest. Enough drama. We have seen the devil; and he has seen us. Time to go.
Sunset from my deck.
We stop at a beach about 15 minutes away speckled with pink sand. Great snorkeling in the shallows over a vibrant coral reef. Predominant color, pink. The tour leader assures us there are no dragons in this area of the island. Still I scan the hills behind the beach. Constantly. And yes, the dragons can swim.
Three hours and another squall later we dock in Labuan Bajo. A few are staying with the boat for the return trip to Lombok. The rest of us head ashore to find accommodations. Then it's back to the boat for a farewell party. They anchor the boat out in the harbor and we wash down our last dinner aboard with cold Bintang. Around 9:30 p.m. they ferry those of us who are staying (and a few that aren't that they will pick up later) ashore. There is one club in Labuan Bajo, Paradise Cafe, that on Saturday night has a live band. It's Saturday night so about 15 of us head over. More Bintangs and a few shots of the local palm whiskey, Arak and we're all up dancing with the locals. Maybe six local girls
and 75 guys and we are crazy feeling-no-pain bules. I'm convinced that the two most popular men in Indonesia are Obama (I think they all think he's Indonesian) and Bob Marley. What fun. Needless to say the next morning was a bit rough.
My plan was to stay in Flores for a few days, extend my visa
here and do some diving. I come to learn that the only immigration office is a two day bus ride to the eastern side of Flores. I would need to do this before the weekend (current visa expires) and then take the ride back. Brutal waste of time. When I leave Flores I need to fly back to Dempasar (Bali) to catch a flight to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi, my next destination. I can extend my visa in Denpasar so a quick change of plans and I'm off tomorrow.
I spend my few days in Labuan Bajo catching up on my emails and the news, reading, posting my pictures, writing my stories and relaxing. I got run off the road on my motorbike in Kuta by a truck and have a cut on my foot that I'm trying to let heal so no diving. A shame as there is great diving here but so is there in Sulawesi. The place I'm staying, Golo Hilltop is a sweet little hotel with bungalows perched on a hillside run by two Dutch ladies. It overlooks a bay dotted with tiny scrub-covered mountainous islands and the Flores Sea beyond. In the course of a day I see many different shades of blues and greens in the water. Sunsets are pretty special. Sunrises too.
STAY TUNED FOR SCHIFF'S NEXT INSTALLMENT