Chasing Komodo Dragons and Ferries in Indonesia
After one night in Kupang, West Timor, I set out before midday on the back of an Ojek for the port to catch the ferry leaving for Ende, a port town on the island of Flores. The ferry was scheduled for a departure of 1 or 2pm and without a confirmation of the exact time it was wise to get out there an hour earlier than the earliest time given. This worked out well in my favour because even though the ferry departure time was not until 2pm they let passengers start boarding the ferry around midday so I was nice an early to take advantage of a good area to sit in (or was I!).
When purchasing my ticket I was offered an economy ticket or a business class ticket and having not learnt from my last ferry trip I opted for the business class ticket, yeah right, like there is going to be a separate section for business class that they are going to check the tickets for. So yes you guessed it the boat was all economy or at least you could sit in any section you wanted with whatever ticket you had. I sussed out the two sections on the boat for sitting/sleeping and found myself a spot of 4 chairs near the side. Being the foreigner on the boat I hogged the whole 4 chairs so that I could stretch out later. I procrastinated over hiring a mattress for a good 30 -45 minutes and then decided that it was worth parting with my $1.20 as the seats were not ideal to stretch across and sleep on. The ferry got away nearly on time and I settled down for the 16 hour trip ahead of me. I was not the only foreigner on the boat as there was a group of 4 Estonians sitting in the same section. It all got off to a good start but then the music started and it was LOUD. I listened to my own music to try and drown it out and fortunately by around 8pm they had turned it off. By around 10/11pm I was nearly asleep on my little mattress between the seats as where the other passengers beside me, a group of 3 girls on one side and 2 mothers and their sons on the other side. Suddenly a gust of wind blew up and rain started coming in the sides between the plastic tarp windows. The passengers sleeping near the side, including myself, started to move back away from the rain coming in and then the next minute the boat dips down into a swell and it was enough to start setting people off with delicate stomachs into vomit mode. One of the girls to one side of me hurled like no tomorrow and then one of the son's (just a small boy of about 3) started projectile vomiting rice everywhere. I had really chosen my spot well!!
I promptly moved to another space to escape the vomit that was free flowing around me. As the available spots were now limited I had only the choice of a space in front of the TV. My sleep was restless but I made it through the night. Around 9 am we made it to the mainland of Flores but not before being welcomed by many dolphins, swimming and jumping beside our ferry.
The ferry docked out in the middle of nowhere meaning I needed to work out how to get to Ende to then catch a bus to Moni, a small village at the foot of Mt Kelimutu. There were plenty of ojeck's to give me a lift but I thought I would see first if there was a bus going directly to my destination. Everyone was telling me that no there was no bus and that I would need to catch an ojeck to the main bus station but for once I was not going to be fooled. My luck was in as there was a bus direct and with an English couple on board to confirm the destination I couldn't go wrong, unfortunately though I did not confirm the price and I would be stung at the end of my journey. The trip was about 3 hours and it was stunning scenery the only thing that was not that pleasurable was the boom boom of the stereo, Indonesian bus and ferry drivers sure do like their music LOUD.
Mt Kelimutu is a volcano (Flores has many) and the attraction of this volcano is the three crater lakes in three different colours. Unfortunately our timing was not great as only a month or two back one of the lakes changed colours (as it does often) and changed to the same colour as one of the other lakes. The journey to the lakes was to be taken early in the morning to see the sunrise so a wakeup call of 3.30am was organized and just after 4am there were 4 of us on ojeck's making our way up the mountain. On the way there was a flash of lightning and by the time we made it to the entry gate to pay it was starting to rain. After paying the fee our driver's decided to continue and having no wet weather gear I was wondering how I would survive. I huddled behind my driver letting him get the brunt of the now quite heavy rain and I managed to keep myself reasonably dry and wearing only shorts, only my skin which would soon dry, was getting wet. Just before the top of the mountain we came to the parking area that also had an undercover area where the locals sold snacks to the visitors. We hurried underneath to get out of the rain which was now coming down quite hard. It was now about 5am and the sun would be coming up if only we could see it for the clouds. We stayed here for about 3 hours waiting for the rain to clear (could have slept in) and then when the sky seemed like it was clearing a bit we decided to take the chance and go up. The clouds were like mist moving in and around the mountain. One minute you could see a lake and then the next minute it would disappear. With patience we got to see the three lakes and after many photos it was time to make our way down (by foot) the mountain. We had been given directions on how to get back to Moni and where the shortcut was. It was about a 3 hour hike through fields, backyards and villages. There were 4 of us making the walk together, Stephen and Sally (UK and on their honeymoon) and Ronald (Holland). Within a short time of our decent Ronald suggested we take another path which should cut off the corners of the road we were taking. It didn't sound like the shortcut that we had been explained earlier by the locals but it seemed like a logic choice. Well the shortcut ended up being a long cut and we gave the Dutchman a lot of s*** for taking us on a four hour walk but it was a beautiful walk and we met many friendly locals on the way. If we had gone the other way then we would of spent most of the time walking on the road with only an hour through the villages so it ended up being the best long cut to take.
The next day I was to head to Bajawa. I had planned to take the bus and was preparing myself for the hellish ride on the windy roads. It was about a 5 hour journey through stunning scenery but on a squashed bus, loud music and hot. I was however very fortunate to be offered (for a price) a lift in a private car. At first I was offered it for 200,000 but declined as the bus was far cheaper but when the price was cut in half I could not refuse as the bus was not that much cheaper. Ronald the Dutch guy was also going this way so he came along as well and there was already Pascal, the French guy, making the return trip. It was a great drive and in air-conditioned comfort and our driver even stopped for photos. Once in bajawa we then renegotiated the price to take us the following day to Labuanbajo as this was even a more hellish trip. It would mean that we would have to hurry our journey through Flores but it was worth it for the extra comfort and to avoid the vomit induced bus ride (the locals don't travel well and are always throwing up - yes on the buses also). I was able to also negotiate a visit to the traditional village of Bana as that was the purpose of the visit to Bajawa and the price was very reasonable. That evening the three of us partook in a bit of street eating which is always fun and of course delicious.
The next morning we set out at 7am for the traditional village which was just beautiful. With a volcano in the background and sweeping views of a valley out to the ocean you could not imagine a more beautiful place to live. We drank coffee with the locals and after a few bad experiences of drinking bad coffee my faith was restored with an amazing Arabica brew.
The drive to LabuanBajo was several hours and having not left the village until around 9.30am we would be getting in late, especially when we stopped at a lake, for lunch, via the ATM and the spider rice fields. We arrived well after dark and with the roads being so windy I was happy to be finally out of the car.
LabuanBajo is a port town and the gateway to the Komodo National Park which included both Komodo and Rinca Islands. My aim was to visit Rinca Island to see the famous Komodo Dragon as it was reported that this was the better of the two islands to see many Komodo dragons. As you can imagine with this being a very popular tourist attraction it was not going to be cheap to visit. The locals obviously had a cartel going on and no matter who you bargained with to get a boat over it was more or less going to be expensive. I only wanted to go and spend two hours there and come back but it was going to cost me about $80 - $100 to charter a boat, a very expensive price tag to see a Komodo dragon. I really needed to find some fellow travelers who also wanted to make this trip to make it less expensive.
I spent the afternoon in an expensive café that offered free wifi internet. It was a great opportunity to catch up on emails and my blog. It also proved to be a good opportunity to meet another traveler wanting to visit Rinca, however rather than visit for 2 hours he wanted to visit for 2 nights. We priced some boats together and it was the same everywhere, it was not going to be cheap. We hoped to find some other travelers wanting to go the same time as us but we did not find anybody and for David time was of the essence. I decided that I would make the trip for 2 nights as well after all that was my main purpose of coming to Flores. The next morning we set off for Rinca in our overpriced charter boat. I was expecting the trip to be about 3 hours long but in 2 hours we were there pulling up at the jetty of the national park with a Komodo dragon there to greet us. We were aware that the accommodation was basic but we were in for a bit of a shock in how basic, the staff even asked us a couple of times did we really want to stay. The rooms were very basic and the bathrooms just awful and at more than $10 a night an absolute ripoff but what could one do as there was no other choices and our boat had already left and we would not see it again until it returned for us in two days. Once we had settled into our hovels we were like 'so what now?' and decided to go on a hike to see some Komodo's. 1 hour hikes were free and 2 hour hikes came with a price attached. We would do a one hour now and then a 2 hour at the end of the day when it was a lot cooler because right now it was like an oven.
The walk was great and we saw a couple of Komodo's but it wasn't until the afternoon walk up the hill and then along to a stream that we got a real treat. In the stream was about 5 Buffalo's bathing and then there was also a Komodo lying in the water, very fat from a recent kill of deer. The Komodo can eat up to equivalent of 40% of its own body weight and then can go without eating for 1-2 months. Soon the Komodo was on the move and we were followed down the track. The Komodo can certainly move quickly even with a belly full of deer.
In between chasing Komodo's (or being chased by) we sat in our rooms reading or sleeping away from the blistering sun. As you could not go anywhere without a guide you were restricted in staying close to the ranger area or down to the jetty but it was really too hot to venture anywhere (even for a swim and I didn't want a Komodo swimming with me anyway). Our rooms we like a zoo with bats and rats visiting us and monkeys trying to steal sweets from our balcony's and Komodo's walking past below us, bees and wasp's buzzing around.
The following day we went on a 2 hour walk in both the morning and afternoon. We saw more Komodo's, deer, buffalo, wild boar and bush hens but it wasn't until the following day which was our 3rd and final day that we were privileged to something really amazing. On our way to do our final walk we stopped to take photos and video of the Komodo's hanging around the huts. One of the female komodo's had blood on her mouth as she had been out hunting deer. Our guide was taking photos of her and so I thought it must be something pretty interesting as our guide had worked for the national park since 1977. I decided to take video of the Komodo's rather than still photo's as there were 5 -6 of them hanging out. The male komodo's were taking great interest in the female as they could smell the blood on her mouth and then out of nowhere a large male attacked the female komodo and it was on!!! They moved very quickly and dirt was flying and then they flew from out under the hut and we had to run and then the guides were trying to pry them apart but it was very difficult. They spent about 10 minutes trying to get them off each other (there is only 1 female to 3 males so they really don't want to lose one) and then after tugging of tails and prying mouths open with sticks they managed to part them but then the male was once again chasing the female and it started again. The entire fight took nearly 2 hours and when it finished it was with no drama at all, the female simply walked off the males back and he just stood there almost stunned as if to say 'is that all you've got'. Komodo's are cannibals and if the female hadn't gotten away then she would have been his next meal. What we saw was something that does not happen very often and to of caught it on video from the very beginning was very lucky. We never did do our final walk, instead we watched the fight as it was more interesting and then it was time to pack and head back to Labuanbajo for a decent meal.
Once back in Labuanbajo I had two days until the ferry was to arrive to go to Sulawesi or so I thought. The information regarding there being a ferry on Monday was given to me by a few different people so I thought it couldn't be wrong but you could imagine my surprise when a ferry turned up to the port on the Sunday night. Why doesn't anyone tell you anything around here, maybe because I was asking about a ferry on the Monday, not the Sunday. The ferry that came in on the Sunday night was a Pelni ferry which are known to be the safest group of ferries in Indonesia (I'm yet to catch one) and this one sails into Labuanbajo every 2 weeks. It was massive, as big as a cruise liner and probably had at least 5,000 people on it. I contemplated whether or not to just pack my bag and jump on but something was telling me to wait and catch the other ferry which sailed to an island just off the south of mainland Sulawesi (or so I thought) and I was confident that it was leaving the next day (what time I wasn't too sure as I had been given a few departure times). So I watched the Pelni boat sail out to sea and hoped deep down that I didn't make the wrong decision.
The following day I bought food supplies for the trip, packed my bag and checked out of my accommodation. I was advised by the guy at reception that he thought the ferry was not until Tuesday but I was hopeful that my sources were correct and that I would be heading to Sulawesi that day…..Oh how I was wrong. I walked down to the port and of course there was no-one around…there is never no-one around when there is a ferry departing….they come hours before to get a seat and food vendors line the street to make a sale to those about to embark the 24 hour trip. Before giving up though I headed to the other port (yes just to make things confusing they have 2 ports less than half a kilometer from each other). I asked around but of course I could any straight answers but I was assured that there was a ferry departing the port I had just come from the following day. Trying to get a time though was another challenge and it was decided that I could be leaving anytime between 10am and 2pm so it meant that I had to get to the port early in the morning to get some real answers. I then proceeded back to my accommodation and checked back into my old room and spent the rest of the day in the café.
The next day I got up to find that there were 2 ferries at the port. Excellent as one of them surely had to be heading to Sulawesi and so I ran down to find out what time it would be departing. Again I got many different answers (even from the man selling the tickets for the ferry) on what time it would sail. To me it sounded as if they opened the gates at 10am and sailed at noon (although the guy at my accommodation said they didn't leave until 2pm and he was right about it leaving on Tuesday so why wouldn't I listen to him again!!!). I was not going to miss this ferry under any circumstance and wanted to be assured of a good seat and so made my way back with my back at 10am but of course it didn't sail until 2pm and so I sat and read and people watched for 4 hours waiting for it to depart and it wasn't even that full so I could of gotten a good seat even if I had boarded right at the last minute like one other traveler did. The 24 hour trip was fairly uneventful and when we departed the boat was probably not even half full but that all changed when we stopped at another island at around 1am and the boat became chockers interrupting my so called sleep I was trying to get. At around 6am we stopped at the southern end of the island of Selayer. I thought that this was the island that I was getting off at but the ferry actually terminated at a place called Bira which was part of the mainland and another 8 hours away (I made a mental note to myself that I really should have a map out when I am purchasing tickets so that I know where I am going to end up). Finally I made it to the Port of Bira and found myself a lovely little homely guesthouse that both the other traveler and I stayed at for at least 5 days and ate up their hospitality. Sulawesi was going to be a great place if this town and their people was anything to go by……………………