4pm. The skies are dark, the rain drumming its deafening beat on the roof as we huddle in our room. With every clap of thunder, the child next door screams.
“What are we thinking? Seriously, are we mad?” In less than 48 hours we will be boarding a small local boat to take us the 600+km from Labuan Bajo to Lombok.
We ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ a little before confirming our booking, spurred on by the price and all it included, yet cautious due to the numerous tales of boats sinking and even the occasional fatality.
After bombarding the booking centre with question upon question, (“are there life rafts?” “does the boat have a radio?” “what if the weather turns bad?”…) we made our final decision after asking to see the boat. Remember that all the tour companies have different vessels, do not feel awkward asking to see the boat before you book, you need to put your safety first, and any good tour operator will understand this and comply!
We were shown the two life rafts – which I noted with a little surprise were both within their inspection dates! The fact that the radio worked was demonstrated to us, and we were given a tour of the top deck sleeping quarters and toilet facilities. All in all, it was a pleasant surprise. We booked, paid, and prepared to leave the following morning, at 8:30am sharp!
We had already been informed that there would be only four passengers on board for our trip to Lombok, so upon arriving first, we did not have long to wait before being joined by two guys from Switzerland. We were travelling in low season, advantage: fewer people and cheaper price, disadvantage: rougher weather. In peak season, they cram up to 25 customers onto the boat, not something I would like to experience!
Despite being asked to arrive at the office at 8am, the boat did not depart until 9:30, after loading up on eggs and rice! This just gave us time to get to know the crew and familiarize ourselves with the boat.
The top deck was our covered sleeping area. Tarps made up the roof, and you had to be careful to stay doubled over, or your head would quickly come into sharp contact with one of the numerous beams. Four, thin, plastic coated mattresses with a pillow and blanket each had been laid out for us. There being so few of us meant there were enough spare to double up on thickness. It is up here, beside our bunks, that we left our bags. Even in heavy rain they stayed perfectly dry, something I had been worried about.
The bow (front of the boat) was reserved for fresh water storage, shoes, and mainly taken up by the small sail. Behind this, the deck was covered, providing shade or shelter from the rain. We spent a lot of time here, including meal times, a blanket spread out on the floor. The rest of the boat was made up of cabins where the crew slept, the wheelhouse, with two toilets (one western, one squat) and the galley at the back. A small space, but comfortable enough with only twelve of us on board.
So, our exploring done, we were ready to set-sail (or more accurately, start motor) for Rinca island, our first stop. The trip took about two hours, the sun shining and the seas looking-glass flat, we drank in the impressive views as Labuan Bajo melted into the horizon behind us. Luscious green islands, the vegetation fed by the recent downpours, shone like emeralds rising out of swirling turquoise waters. Literally swirling. The Komodo area is known for its vicious currents, and small whirlpools were visible in every direction from the top deck. Not somewhere you want to fall in, or attempt going for a quick dip!
Lunch was announced around 11:30, as we were approaching Rinca. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we ate a meal of rice, veggies and fried tofu, washed down with some watermelon. Once we were fueled up on food, and the boat had been moored to the rickety jetty with only a little difficulty, we set off in search of Komodo dragons on Rinca Island.
We were met by a guide at the little harbour, and he led us to the Rangers’ station so we could pay our park fees and register. He was full of information about the island and its wildlife, with a good level of English meaning he could answer all of our questions. After a quick safety briefing, we followed the path to the rangers’ camp kitchen. Although they never get fed there, the dragons smell food and gather under the raised hut in the hopes of scrounging scraps. Here we saw five large males, resting in the shade. To me, they seemed rather like sleepy dogs, stretched out, their heads resting on their front legs. It was hard to believe that these lazy looking creatures can run at a speed of 18km/h! Our attention was quickly drawn away from the adult dragons when our guide spotted a baby – roughly a year old – behind us in the jungle. Juvenile Komodo dragons tend to live in the trees to avoid being eaten by their older counterparts, they only come down occasionally to hunt, it is therefore rare to spot them when visiting the islands. Once we had thoroughly inspected the little guy, we set off on the short trek to the top of Rinca Island, offering spectacular views of the bay and surrounding islands. A quick break and photo session, then back down to the kitchen where one of the rangers tossed a stone causing a dragons to dash after it, thinking it was food – and me to almost piss my pants as in ran directly at me.
Back to the boat, with only a few monkeys crossing our path along the way. The day was far from over, as we had yet to visit Komodo Island itself!
By the time we got to Komodo Island, it was grey and drizzly. The dragons are most active in the morning, so our visit was rather short. Compared to Rinca, Komodo has a wild feel to it. More jungle, more wildlife. We spotted monkeys, wild pigs and plenty of timor deer, all prey to the Komodo dragons. Devin managed to spot a dragon in its natural habitat as we followed a path through the jungle. A female, smaller and darker than the males on Rinca. We saw several others, hanging out under various huts near the beach. Komodo offers multiple hikes of varying distances, best visited in the morning. After this second dragon excursion, we were able to stop at Pink Beach for a dip and snorkel.
The engine put-putted to life around 4am as we got a bit of a head-start. Being used to boats, I let the familiar noise and motion lull me back to sleep until we were officially woken at 6am, banana pancake waiting. We were excited to be on our way to Manta Point, having missed out on seeing manta rays when we went diving. We equipped ourselves with masks and snorkels – unfortunately there were no fins – and jumping off the bow into the strong current. One of the crew came with us, although his high-pitched squeals every time he saw a ray were more a hindrance than a help, efficiently scaring off the majestic creatures. Floating along in the current, it was nevertheless an awesome experience, and we saw no less than eight huge mantas. Camera in one hand, lacking fins, I did my best to dive down closer to them, alas, I failed to get any good shots!
Hyped up by the experience, we clambered back on board, all grinning widely and still spotting rays from the boat. We all sat around in our swim-suits as it was only a short way to Gili Laba, where we would stop for a swim and stroll on the beach before heading out into open ocean.
As soon as we left the protection of the islands, the seas became much rougher. Everyone hunkered down with a book, a film to watch, or simply to sleep, while the crew huddled together smoking. We had 18 hours of sailing to do after almost two days packed full of activities, but once more, stormy weather had us seeking the shelter of land before nightfall. All in all, we were thankful for the break, and happy to eat our dinner without sloshing from side to side. It meant a decent night’s sleep, but lots of lost time to make up for!
Our last stop before arriving at our final destination, Lombok, was the island of Satonda. A small island, taken up almost entirely by a salt lake. We anchored some way off shore and our guide gave us a rapid overview of the area. We were ready, trainers on for hiking up the hill, camera in hand for photographing the views. “Ok, you can swim to beach now.” we were told. A brief silence ensued. I like to swim, I have no objection to swimming normally, but unfortunately my Nikon does. “Can we not take the little boat?” I asked, knowing that there was a small rowing dinghy at the back of the boat, surely it was there for a reason? The crew members exchanged nervous glances and held a quick discussion in Indonesian. I had meant for the four of us to row the tiny yellow vessel ashore ourselves, but we were told this was not allowed. Wi h a splash the tender was dropped into the water, and we stepped down into it, and instantly recognized our mistake.
It was like something drawn by a four year old (actually, I think I have seen better designs drawn by kids…). The bottom of the boat was flat on the water, and very narrow in comparison to the top, whose width literally rocked the boat. With four of us squatting down unsteadily, it seemed we may be swimming after all! Somewhat to our surprise, however, we made it to the sandy beach practically dry.
Devin and I set off up the steps through the jungle, while our Swiss friends went for a dip in the lake, enjoying floating around in its saltiness. The higher you climb up the hill, the nicer the views of the ocean to one side, and the lake to the other. The landscape had me sorely wishing I owned a wide-angle lens to be able to capture both in one shot! After a while, the humidity got to us so we headed back down to shade and where the air was cooler. Upon leaving, we had to pay a 20,000 rupiah fee per person for our visit. The boat trip back was made even more exciting this time, with the addition of a mounting breeze and forming waves, as well as there now being five passengers. Once again, we made it safely, with only our bottoms getting wet! From here on, it was to be full steam ahead until we reached the port of Bangsal, on Lombok. A storm was evidently brewing, the wind picking up, waves growing higher, and rain racing visibly towards us. We were due to arrive in Bangsal by 8am the next morning, but the fact that it is on the opposite side of Lombok, plus the deteriorating weather, made it look unlikely. For the third time, the crew decided to err on the side of caution and forego sailing at night.
By this point, we were sure that we would not be arriving in Bangsal by 8am. What we were u aware of, however, was our total change of destination! Due to time lost by anchoring overnight, a decision had been made by the captain to end our journey in Labuan Lombok, rather than Bangsal on the opposite side of the island. We were aiming to get to Gili Air the same day, an easy transition, as the ferries for the Gili Islands leave from Bangsal, so this threw a spanner in the works for us slightly. We needn’t have worried as a car was waiting to pick us up and drive us across the island. We had to argue the fact that our ferry ticket should also be included (as had been promised upon booking) but we eventually prevailed and made it to Gili Air that same day for a week of relaxing and doing absolutely nothing.
Cost of trip: 1.5 million rupiah, four days, three nights, including all meals and transfer to any of the three Gili Islands
Park and ranger fees: 250k – 350k
Satonda fee: 20k