The first glimpse I took of Labuan Bajo (LB from here onward) made me feel warm and cozy inside: It was love at first sight. It was the first place I visited thus far that made me feel that way from the get go, so I was pretty excited. As the ferry approached the port, my eyes could not decide what to focus on. There were many colourful fishing boats of all sizes, alongside big luxurious vessels for the wealthier holiday makers. And then of course, there was the settlement itself. It sits on the edge of the water, with its lush forest hiding most houses, showing a pleasant, quiet, small town there, arms wide open to welcome us.
The ferry finally made its way into the port, where a few lads jumped on to help unload and get some tips from the people aboard. We were one of the first few to disembark, as we had agreed with our host that he would pick us up, and the ferry was delayed, so we did not want to keep him waiting any longer. As we made our way down the isle, a bigger than normal, friendly looking Indonesian stopped us and greeted us. “Are you Tim? I am Eddy!” We immediately liked him. He had this chilled, nice-person aura around him that made us trust him straight away. We told him we wanted to go to the Flores XP office, to book our upcoming trip of Komodo National Park, as they were the company we had chosen after doing extensive research on the matter. Soon we realized the main street was full of agencies that offered similar services, but we were quite happy with our original decision, and had no regrets afterwards.
The guy behind the counter was very nice, but his English was poor and could not answer many of our questions… However we met a Spanish/French couple that were diving instructors trying to find permanent accommodation. They soon convinced me that it would be silly for me to leave this place without doing some scuba, as it is one of the most famous places in the world for its under water life (both fish and corals). I took a liking to them straight away, as they were simple and honest, the kind of people I like best. We thanked them and returned to Eddy and the other bike (aka Ojek) that were taking us to our new temporary home. LB has a one-way street system, which means that, to cover a rather short distance, (Port to accommodation, maybe a 15 minute walk) we had to go through the main street in town, up and around the hill. To make things even more awesome, the sun was getting closer to the horizon, making the whole sky turn bright orange and providing a nice sea breeze to keep us cool. We settled in our room, and took some plastic chairs outside to enjoy the sight. Located in the fishing village, Eddy’s place sits right on the water, with a view of the little fishing boats and some close, wild islands: a true paradise.
About 5 minutes walk from this place, the night markets emerge from the shadows when the sun sets. They are composed of multiple stalls that sell fresh fish, calamari, prawns, squid, typical Indonesian food, and a new one in our menu so far: Martabak. The best way to explain what this is, would be the following: Imagine a pancake and an omelette made love, and this is their deep fried offspring. And yes, it is as delicious as it sounds! So we had all our dinner at this place while we stayed in LB, and so far, it has been the best Indonesian food I have found.
We had one day to kill before our tour began, so we spent it walking around town, exploring the fish market, and chillaxing (yes mum, it is a word). By this point my book 1Q84 was progressively getting more intense, so I treasured being able to sit in the sun and read until my eyes hurt. We also used this day to check out the diving options, finally deciding to go with the company the Spanish/French couple worked for (Wicked Diving), as it seemed to be one of the best in town. As we had not done any scuba since Rarotonga, in Octobre 2013, they had recommended we got a “refresher”, first to ensure our safety and secondly so that we would feel nice and comfortable when the time for us to be on our own came. This sounded more than fair enough, so we booked our trip for Monday, tried all the equipment on, and were overall delighted with our choice.
Bright and early, we woke up the next day, and waited for our ride to pick us up to start our tour with Flores XP. Our host welcomed us, while giving instructions in Bahasar to his crew. His English accent sounded familiar, and I soon found out, our guide Mikel was from Spain. He most certainly made all the reviews we had read completely accurate. He was friendly, attentive, knowledgeable, and at the same time managed to be non intrusive, leaving us alone when we wanted space, and engaging in very interesting conversation when the time was ripe. We only shared the comfortable boat with a lovely English couple, Ian and Chloe. We spent the first day going to a few spots and snorkelling. All we had heard about Komodo’s surroundings was starting to take shape. And we were stunned with what our eyes were showing us. That night, we camped at a deserted beach, and shared a lovely meal. Mikel then proceeded to explain all the initiatives he and some others were trying to accomplish in the area, mostly around education and waste disposal. He is most certainly a very passionate person, so hearing about this was truly wonderful. Later on, the sound of the waves rocked us to sleep, and also woke us up in the night, reminding us how wild a place we were staying at.
The next morning the heat of the sun woke us up nice and early. After a simple breakfast, we were all ready to go, as we all knew that this day had some wonderful sights ahead. We first headed towards Komodo Island, more specifically, Manta Point. The currents meet alongside the island, creating wonderful conditions for these amazing creatures to hang out. On the way, Mikel explained about their lives, and how little us humans actually understand of the creatures… And of course, how to interact with them. The boat roamed around for a while until we started spotting them all around us, and that is when we jumped in the water. The current was strong, but all we had to do was drift, as the boat would pick us up on the other end. We saw plenty of mantas, some coming as close as 2 metres from us: They are curious animals. We were delighted to watch them majestically swim around, with no worries in the world. Some of them stay around this point their whole lives; some swim as far as Bali. It was a stunning experience to hang out with these big guys, and I am thrilled we got to experience it. (check Facebook for the video!)
The following highlight in our itinerary, was the reason we came to this part of the world to start with: the Komodo dragons. Needless is to say, I felt like a little girl about to get candy, so excited with the prospect. We landed in Rinca, paid our park fees, got a mandatory ranger/guide to accompany us, and started walking around. The first dragons were just hanging out by the kitchen. Although they do not get fed by the park keepers and they only eat once a month, the smell of food most certainly attracts them. Truth be told, and despite what I was hoping for, they were rather boring. They move very slowly, and mostly just alternate between shade and sun a few times a day, and spend the rest of the day doing a bunch of nothing. It would have been a different story to arrive in mating season and see them wrestle, but it was not going to happen this time around.
We carried on, went for a walk around the island, saw a water buffalo immersed in a stream, a deer, two land birds similar to the Wekas, that find a mate for life and never again separate (how romantic!) and a bunch of monkeys. We did not find any more dragons in the jungle, which was disappointing. We heard some cool stories from the ranger and Mikel though, who told us he had been there with Italian TV a few months back, and that one of the crew was getting too close to a nest, so mamma dragon got angry and started chasing them away… and recommended, in the unlikely event that were to happen to us, to run in zig zag, as the mass of their bodies prevents them from turning quickly.
Next on the list was Rinca Village. The people living there have, for many generations, lived alongside the dragons. Just recently, they had started building a fence around the village to keep them away, but before this, they would have giant lizards in their village daily. For those of you that don’t know much about the Komodo dragons, they are one of the most deadly creatures on earth, strong, fast, poisonous. And when they are hungry, they don’t even distinguish among their relatives. In fact the parents would try to eat their recently hatched offspring if they were not to climb up a tree right after they are born… and stay there for about 3 years until they are big enough to get down and fend for themselves. So there we were in this unique village, and we took a stroll alongside some small fish left in the sun to dry, and into the school. There was a kid there that explained to us (via Mikel’s translation) that they had 3 hours of school every day: One was religion/Arab (muslim village), one was physical education or sports, and the last was… well, everything else! Everyone in the village was very welcoming and said Hello as we past by. The kids were all piled up at the pier, and I got many high 5s before finally returning to the boat.
For our last cool down, we went to another spot to snorkel. This place was also thriving with wildlife. It is rather amazing that diversity in the park is so marked; each place has its own characteristic set of animals. This one had a lot of crazy shrimp, that are hard to spot as they hide if you move at all.. They were quite magnificent, with their multiple colours and weird shapes.
As the daylight was dimming, we approached the last highlight of our journey. A little island made of mangroves, where all the flying foxes nest, waiting for sunset to leave their homes and head inland for a feed. Soon enough, the sky turned deep orange, the sun started vanishing in the horizon, and thousands of bats were passing over our heads. It was a spectacular sight, and their way of flying is hard to describe. After hanging out there for quite a while, we turned around and headed back to LB. We lay down at the front of the boat and quietly gazed at the stars for over an hour. A fantastic way to end a most splendid trip.
Our following day in LB was relaxing and quiet. We used it for doing some long overdue laundry, talking to Eddy, and finding internet to let our mums know we were still alive. We tried to find a Pelni office to book our upcoming trip, but they were unable to find the trajectory we wanted on the date/time we wanted it, and were offering one three days later for 3 times the price… No, thank you. Hiding from the sun, as the snorkeling had left its marks on my skin, I spent most part of the day lying on a shady hammock hammering away at Murakami.. The book was not about to let go of me; it had been dragging me to this mysterious land of 1Q84, making the trouble the characters were in, part of me. I love it when books do that!
Around 4 PM, Eddy took us to see his martial arts class. I am unsure how the topic arose, but we learned he was an instructor, and had started his own ‘school’ for kids and youngsters to learn this traditional fighting style. We soon found similarities with Aikido, in the sense that it is mostly for self defense.. but it combines aspects of brutal striking as well. It was impressive to see them working out in the harsh sun, and we got introduced to all when the time for a break came. In the mean while, we went through a few techniques with Eddy, while showing him similar Aikido methods we had learned to face the same type of attacks/grabs.
Monday was our dive day. We woke up around 630, and made our way to the shop. A short walk to the pier later, we boarded the boat. We were sharing the cozy vessel with some people finishing Open Water/Advanced dive skills, and even a charming Australian guy on his last day of a Rescue Dive course… We learned that Wicked Diving devoted part of their funds to training locals so they could become Dive Masters or Instructors, therefore developing the local skills into this business, traditionally left to foreign investors/migrants. The girl in charge of us for the day was a lovely American called Kaelyn. She took us through some questions to see how much we remembered of our course, and reviewed a few skills with us in shallow water. This bit lasted less than 5 minutes, and we proceeded to go deeper into the water and explore the beautiful surroundings. The next dive spot, though, was the best I have ever experienced. The underwater garden showed magnificent colours, and abundant wildlife. Clown fish (yes, we found Nemo!), Angel fish, Unicorn Fish, a huge turtle, and a hundred other fish I don’t know the names of. But the most impressive part for me, were the corals. I had no idea they could be so bright and diverse, so full of personality. It was purely incredible. The last place we went back to, was Manta Point. This time, we got to see this crazy creatures from below. I enjoyed the ride back to town, chatting away with some very interesting people on board, and relaxing in the late afternoon sun.
Being our last day in LB, we had to pack and get our shit together that night, so we had to decline the invitation to go out. Instead I stayed awake until my novel was over, as I figured symbolic. Finish the LB chapter and 1Q84 at the same time. With no doubt, my favourite Murakami novel so far.