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Dragon Spotting with a Couple of Mantas Thrown In for Luck

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 8 October 2006.

Indonesia, Country 24, Diary entry 25th August-3rd September 2006, Total distance in Indonesia:6654km

Finally, the ferry docked on the island of Flores at the sleepy fishing town of Labuanbajo, and I was first to drive off the boat with Virginia and Christian as new hitchhikers for the couple of hundred metres to the first guesthouse.

Continuing the theme of overpriced accommodation in Nusa Tenggera, the first place we checked out had spartan, grubby rooms at a ridiculous price. The second place was full, the third place looked OK but the price was double our budget, so we had to return to the first place and stay there, but in the morning went to the Gardena Hotel and quickly grabbed the rooms that became free as people checked out. Perched on the side of the hill overlooking the fishing boats in the harbour and the distant islands, the views were fantastic, or what you could see of them by peering through the gaps in the trees. Ian joined us there too so we had three rooms, and lucky we did grab them quickly as we saw many people turned away later in the day when the next ferry arrived (on time, of course).

Batu Cermin cavesReally there's not too much to do in Labuanbajo so I had a chance to relax a little, catch up on things after a few days of travelling, and plan the main two things to do in this part of the world, both in the Komodo National Park - visit the island of Komodo or Rinca to try to see the giant Komodo dragons, and the underwater attractions at some of Indonesia's best diving spots.

We had to wait until the evening when the diving guides had come back from their day on the boat to get concrete plans for the following day, but finally we managed to book some trips. It's possible to arrange a diving trip through a company called Reefseekers that also incorporates a visit to Rinca island to try to see the dragons there (less touristy than Komodo and not so far away), and Ian and I thought this was a good deal. If you're going to spend a few hours going somewhere on a boat, might as well jump off it and sink to see what's there! Batu Cermin caves with tree rootsUnfortunately though the downturn in tourism in Indonesia following the terrorist attacks in Bali (hundreds of km away) and natural disasters in Java and Sumatra (even further) meant that there were insufficient numbers to arrange a trip for the next day but the day after, so we had another day to kill in Labuanbajo. Pleasant though it is, it's not got enough to keep anyone interested for very long and there are no beaches, but I had my little veranda, a hammock and a book or two so I survived. Ian and I visited the local Batu Cermin caves which were very pleasant, overgrown with tree roots piercing the rock ceiling and floor to form columns along with the limestone columns.

That evening we discovered that the combination Rinca/diving trip Ian and I had booked had been cancelled. The best diving sites sometimes have strong currents and are more suited to divers with a little experience, and it turned out that the only other two other people who'd booked for the same combination of Rinca and the more advanced sites had pulled out, leaving only two of us wanting to go which wasn't enough. It was very late in the day when we discovered this and for some time it seemed that we would not be able to go on ANY trip the next day, but finally we managed to join Virginia and Christian's boat going with about 8 people to Rinca and the easy dive spots, again with Reefseekers.

Dragon welcoming us to the islandThe boat ride to Rinca Island took about two hours on mostly calm seas (thankfully) and like always I was trying not to get my hopes up too much about seeing the dragons as it is by no means guaranteed, but we spotted the first ones before even getting off the boat! In fact there were three together hanging around just by the jetty so we could all get a good look and lots of photos. These animals are truly impressive - the largest living lizards in the world growing up to around 3m in length and 70kg in weight, but despite this bulk are capable of running at speeds of up to 20km/h for short distances enabling them to take animals such as wild pigs or buffaloes as their prey. Best to strap on the telephoto lens and keep my distance then...

Fat lazy dragons waiting for scrapsThe park entrance and ticket office is in a village about 5 minutes' walk from the jetty. Although they stopped feeding the dragons several years ago to stop them getting fat and lazy (and to stop them associating humans with food!) the villagers must obviously throw scraps their way as there were another five dragons hanging around there, and then a guide led us along a track which loops through the forests and across a plain for about 3km along which we spotted a couple of dragons' nests - they dig several holes in the ground and lay their eggs in one of them to make it more difficult for a predator to know where the eggs really are. They look just like you'd imagine a dinosaur nest to look, just like something out of Jurassic Park. Really the egg-laying season is next month and one of the nests was unguarded so had been prepared but not yet used, but another had a female positioned nearby so we didn't get too close!

Dragon protecting her nestRinca also has a lot of other wildlife, much more than Komodo apparently, and we saw monkeys and a few different birds, but there are also water buffaloes, wild pigs and wild horses which keep the dragons fat and happy. We didn't see any of those though. We had one last dragon spotting as we were walking across a grassy plain, of a baby scampering through the grass with head held high - another Jurassic Park moment and we decided it was time to leave and see what we could find underwater.

Rinca island landscapeThe dive sites were at Sebayur Island, just on the fringes of the Komodo National Park. The water was a little colder than Bali even, which had already been a bit chilly, so the majority of divers were provided with 5mm full-length suits. Unfortunately they didn't have enough to go round so I ended up with a 3mm full-length and a 3mm shorty, meaning my torso was a bit warmer and my extremities a bit colder but on average it's about the same. The dives were not too deep, and there was plenty to see with lots of shoals of small fish, plenty of nudibranchs and in general a good healthy bed of coral. I felt it was very nice diving but not exceptional, and returning to the boat and talking to others who had been diving several days I was persuaded that the other diving sites were much better, so I decided to go out for another day.

The next day's first dive site was to the north of Komodo Island called Full Moon, so named because it is a circular plateau with corals forming craters. On entry to the water it was a little disorientating because I couldn't see the sea bed... because of all the fish in the way!! There were many large shoals of large fish - huge tuna, bannerfish, surgeonfish, trevally... each fish was large and so many of them together. If you ever saw such a concentration of fish together in an aquarium you'd be saying it was inhumane and calling the RSPCA. The corals in the area were beautiful but I can't tell you much about them as I spent most of my time looking up not down.

Sunset from Reefseekers' boatAfter a spot of lunch at a narrow point between two small islands where the current rages through so hard they've named the area The Cauldron, we spotted manta rays circling very close to the surface with the occasional wing-tip waving at us beckoning us to jump in - who were we to refuse? The guide was briefing us about how we were going to look for sharks first, blah blah, and we all told him sod the sharks the mantas are RIGHT THERE so we went manta hunting straight away instead. Sure enough, the moment we hit the water they all disappeared so we went on with the dive, but after about 10 minutes the first one appeared coming straight towards us and flying over our heads. There really is no other feeling like it, seeing such a large, strange but gentle creature flying so gracefully towards you. It went past us without stopping, but then took a big circle round to come past us again, and again, and again... it stayed with us for a good 15 minutes, and then others came to see what the fuss was all about. Our poor guide was busy trying to point out a nudibranch to find nobody paying him any attention. Well, I don't see mantas every dive even if he does!

Competition time! Click to enterOn the way back to Labuanbajo I was talking to Kath, co-owner of Reefseekers, who generously offered the another superb prize to raffle in aid of Care International - a superb 5 day diving and accommodation package for 2 people in Flores and the Komodo National Park. Click here to read all about it and enter the competition. Many many thanks indeed to Reefseekers for their generosity!

The next day, with Ian as passenger, I pushed on to get to the ports on Flores from where there are ferries to Kupang, West Timor, because I'd been completely unable to get information on the crossings from any reliable source. It seemed the only way was to drive up to the port and ask! Well... I soon found out that this doesn't really work too well either. The first port you come to is in the small village of Aimere, about 6 hours drive from Labuanbajo and since there was no ferry that day, there was nobody there to answer the question and no timetable stuck on the wall anywhere. In fact it looked like the offices there hadn't been used in many years, but evidently this was just the style. I found a guy in the car park who seemed to think that the next would be the following Sunday. This made it a reasonable back-up plan but not ideal so I carried on to Bajawa up in the hills and back down again to Ende on the coast, the next port, thoroughly tired from the extremely winding road. The following morning I went to the Ipi port on the east side of town from where the ferries were supposed to leave, for the Lonely Planet to prove once again its complete lack of worth - the ferries stopped going from here years ago and go from the town centre instead. Great... back into town then and found the port where we did find some staff, but they all said there are no ferries to Kupang here, only to Sumba Island. Not what I'd gathered from other sources, but these were the officials so they would know, I thought. They said I'd have to go back to Aimere. I decided to push on further east as I was pretty sure there would be something from Larantuka on the far east coast of the island. I since discovered that the Sumba from Ende continue on to Kupang - great staff training there huh?

So with Ian still in tow, I drove on to the small village of Moni, about two hours from Ende. We stopped at a restaurant overlooking the rice paddies at the start of the village and enjoyed the view for a LONG time while they took forever to prepare our meals (nothing difficult!) and I asked the owner if he knew anything about the ferries - yes from Larantuka he said, but didn't know the schedule. In the end I got him to phone the ferry company and ask them directly, and they said tomorrow and Monday, both at 2pm. Tomorrow was too soon, there was a reason to stop in Moni, and I looked in his phone book and yes it was definitely the actual ferry company he had called, but maybe I should make sure I'm there on Sunday just to check at the port!

The turquoise and brown lakes at KelimutuThe reason for visiting Moni is the spectacular crater lakes of Kelimutu. Around half an hour climb by car from the village, a small footpath leads round to the rim of the first crater from where you can peer down the sheer vertical crater walls to a large deep lake of a dark brown colour. Across to one side is another crater with another lake, so close that the rim between the two is collapsed leaving a narrow wall separating the two lakes, but this other lake is a vivid turquoise colour! Walking along the ridge I reached a viewpoint from where you can easily view both lakes. The sun was starting to sink in the sky at this point so as the shadow crept across the turquoise lake the colour muted to something more natural-looking. When lit by the sun it just looks totally unreal (the photos do it no justice at all).

Sunrise behind the turquoise lake at KelimutuFrom there another climb to a viewpoint called Inspiration Point, to the far side of the turquoise lake, and from there can be seen a third lake, and a third colour. The third lake is totally black! It was totally in shadow by this time though, so I made my way back to the car to return to the village and find somewhere to stay. I'd hoped to find a camping spot up there but the car park was grotty and everything else was rice paddies so Ian and I went back to the village. The accommodation in the village was ludicrously overpriced but finally we found something not too outrageous, a little homestay called Maria's, but Maria explained that though tonight was OK she was not able to accommodate us the following night. The reason was that her father-in-law had just passed away so they would be hosting the funeral the following day. In the garden a load of men were constructing a makeshift shelter out of bamboo and as soon as we agreed to stay the night they started letting off loud fireworks! Apparently this is to signal to everyone in the valley that someone had passed away and call them down to take part in the funeral. It didn't go on too late, but people were coming and going and chatting away in the garden all night, which made it difficult to get up well before dawn the next day to drive back to the top of the volcano to watch the sunrise. We managed it, just, and I was treated to the spectacle of the sun rising behind the coloured lakes.

The black lake at KelimutuNobody really knows why the lakes are coloured other than to assume that different minerals are dissolved in each, but volcanic activity deep within Kelimutu causes the lakes to suddenly change colour every few years. May be a good excuse to come back!

As stunning as the view was, I departed a couple of hours later. I'd hoped there might be some walks to other viewpoints, or at least that I'd be able to walk around the crater rims but it looked too dangerous, added to which my toes were getting pretty cold so I drove down the mountain and continued towards Maumere, my intended stopping point for the night. I made very good time compared to what I expected (still gauging my driving times on what Lonely Planet says the bus takes - they make stops but they drive like loonies in between so I only work out marginally faster) and arrived at the port in Maumere to check ferry times from there as I'd been assured there was one a week and it is run by a different company to ASDP who run all the others. At the port they told me that the ferry was no more and I'd have to go back to Aimere - at this point a good 7 hours back! What about Larantuka, I asked - a mere three hours further east. They said oh yes, maybe Larantuka. I looked at my watch and it was 10:30am, there was a ferry at 2pm according to the phone call and Lonely Planet says the bus takes "almost four hours". I'd beaten the bus times by reasonable amounts in Flores so far so rather than hanging around until the next boat I decided to press on and try to catch this one. Frankly, beautiful though Flores is, I was starting to tire of everything being so bloody difficult all the time. I'd been in Indonesia six weeks and I was starting to think that this was enough.

The road between Maumere and Larantuka actually had some straight sections which was a blessed relief. Many bendy sections of course, but a few straight ones. I made good time again and arrived at the ferry port at about 1:20pm - plenty of time to get the ticket and some rice parcels for the trip and get the car onto the ship.

The Flores-Timor ferry, pretty busyThe ship looked a little worse for wear - every single one of the steel panels making up the sides of the ship had large dents or scratches or both, and the bow door didn't seem quite straight when lowered down onto the quay but I had to trust that it would survive the journey. There were only half a dozen trucks or so as it is quite expensive to take a vehicle on such a long crossing. Instead, others had driven onto the ferry, unloaded their cargoes of rice, miscellaneous cardboard boxes and all varieties of farmyard animals onto the deck and driven off again, leaving a person or two stretched out on thin grass mats on the bare steel deck to accompany the goods on the voyage. By the time we set off there was some space available right at the front but then I discovered why - when the ship got underway the waves crashed through the large gaps between the hull and the bow door flooding the foredeck and causing little streams of water to run along the length of the ship. Wasn't that how the Herald of Free Enterprise sank? Anyway I got out a comfy collapsible chair and put my feet up with a book and tried not to think too much about dying.

It was soon getting dark and people were trying in vain to make themselves comfortable. I decided to turn in too and despite the commotion I knew it would cause I set up the roof tent there on the car deck! Lots of strange looks and shouts but I didn't care - I was going to have a comfortable night away from the squalor. As many times before, the act of zipping the tent shut zips away the whole of the outside world and after a bit more book I was soon sleeping comfortably.

I woke a couple of times in the night but on the whole slept well, until at 4:30am, a good couple of hours earlier than expected, I was woken by the ship's foghorn announcing to the sleeping residents of Kupang that we were arriving. I just had time to quickly pack everything away and drive off onto my final Indonesian island - Timor.

The reward for enduring the ferryOf course, there isn't much to do anywhere at 4:30am but I found a few palm trees on the edge of a beach, set up a hammock and promptly fell asleep again for another couple of hours, and when I woke had a much more civilised getting up process involving actually washing, brushing teeth and an attempt to control an increasingly unruly hairstyle. By the time I'd finished all that lot, it was late enough to go into town and find internet to check on some details I'd been trying to arrange for East Timor before finding the Lavalon bar on the sea front. Run by an amiable chap called Edwin, his website http://www.geocities.com/lavalon_edwin was the only internet resource I found that actually had any ferry details for this part of Indonesia whatsoever, and when I emailed him questions about which ones took cars he was very keen to help. I wanted to go and thank him personally for his help, and ended up snacking on freshly roasted peanuts, drinking Coke, using the internet (again) and using by far the cleanest toilet I'd seen since Singapore. He also runs a guesthouse and that is where I decided to stay the night. Finding a deserted spot on the beach that morning had been easy but I wanted somewhere to base myself for the day and get my head down for a snooze in the afternoon if I needed it. The guesthouse fitted the bill perfectly. Cheap and cheerful, but clean and friendly. I met an Australian who had looked at importing motorbikes to Australia once before and gave me some useful pointers about things to clean that people don't think of - like getting all the dirt from behind the rubber door seals. Hmmm I think getting into Australia is going to be a real pain as I have driven over wet tar several times now and collected a good coating of filth under the car. I went out again and bought scrubbing brushes of various sizes and various other cleaning products.

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Comment from Lara
Never thought I would be living vicariously through a mango pip! Keep going little Mango Lara!!
08 Oct 2006 @ 02:30:07