The trip sounded like a dream; dragons and dolphins, clear blue skies stretching to a horizon broken only by an occasional uninhabited island. For four days we were to float upon the azure seas at God's mercy, with a reliance on an ancient engine and a toothless captain.
Taking the four-day boat cruise between the popular backpacker's destinations of Flores and Lombok, in Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara region, has become a very popular mode for independent travellers to break away from the tedium of uncomfortable bus journeys and nauseous ferry crossings. The boat trip avoids the island of Sumbawa, currently only a popular destination for surfers and famed for it's bizarre shape and painfully curvaceous roads. By taking the trip, the traveller avoids a painful posterior and a knotted neck and also gets to step foot on the legendary islands of Komodo and Rinca, home to the endemic world famous ‘dragons'.
Organising a trip to these islands from Labuan Bajo, western Flores' principal port, has become increasingly more difficult and more expensive in recent times since the ferry between Sumbawa and Flores ceased calling at Komodo daily and now only calls in twice a week. If one wants to be stuck on Komodo for three days then this is fine but for the majority of travellers a few hours on the island will suffice. Therefore, for most travellers the only other option other than the cruise is to charter a boat from Flores, which works out to be rather a costly venture. It all seemed logical to my partner and I to take the cruise, the most scenic and least painful way of getting back to Lombok.
The first issue to be decided upon was the boat itself. Was it going to be safe? A couple of travellers in Bali had informed us of their disastrous trip which ended alone on the shores of Sumbawa after the engine of their boat had died and the captain had fled into the balmy tropical night. The next question to consider was the number of tourists due to take the trip. We went to look at one boat to satisfy our curiosity. It was a 22ft long wooden vessel and was due to sail with four crewmen and fourteen tourists, all of whom were to be sharing sleeping space on the deck. Remembering the old adage that with each passing day on a boat the boat gets smaller I tried to mentally picture the possible scene. It looked like a potential sardine tin, with the potential outcome of Lord of the Flies, crammed full of beer swilling sun-ripened tourists, agitated and hungry.
From Sumatra to Flores we had heard tales of this infamous boat trip and the conflicts that had arisen due to a lack of food to satisfy the appetites of all. We decided that it would be better if we could make the trip in a slightly more spatially advantageous situation. As luck would have it, two other travellers we met had the same idea: Silke, a German lady with bright red hair and Giovanni, an Italian with an incredible south Pacific tribal tattoo on his right arm. As a group, we managed to persuade an operator to carry out the voyage with just the four of us. It all sounded rather promising.
Early the following morning we dumped our backpacks onto the wooden floor of our new home and the communal sense of euphoria rose rapidly. The blue deck was oozing with space, our crew was friendly and our toothless captain looked as though he knew the ocean as well as he knew the taste of rice. Happily, we set sail.
The first few hours cruising out of the serene harbour of Labuan Bajo were bliss. We were brought a great meal of chilli noodles, rice, boiled vegetables and fried fish. As we ate, the four of us chatted amiably. Silke told tales of her Malaria and the moving walls of Jakarta hospitals; Giovanni talked with profound enthusiasm of his hometown, Venice. Tania discussed the beautiful seafood which abounds in Nusa Tenggara whilst I was more than happy to chat about the benefits of Marlboro cigarettes. We were a united Europe, sailing the seas towards the dragon's lair.
After three hours of calm sailing, watching islands pass by, we pulled into our first port of call, the island of Rinca. Putting our feet once again on dry land we walked beneath the entrance gate, a high wooden portal topped with a thatched roof. It was deeply reminiscent of the grand gateway of Jurassic Park. It was hot, perhaps a little too hot for a two-hour hike and I was glad of the shade offered in the reception area. Whilst we waited for the attention of our guide I sat cross legged on the wooden floorboards with a cool drink. I noticed a rustling in the bushes to my left and turned my head. I saw my first dragon, walking around the outdoor toilets. It was a baby, maybe a meter long and extremely attractive with its huge eyes, long nose and awkward gait. Now I wanted to see its parents.
Our guide led us through parched woods, the trees holding their spindly branches heavenwards as if praying for rain. We walked up barren hills whose grass covering had been singed yellow by the strenuous sun. We saw a huge wild buffalo wallowing in a riverbed, looking just like one of Desperate Dan's own. He stared us down nonchalantly, this was his island and we were mere guests. We saw no adult dragons and all got a little sunstroke but it was worth it for the breathtaking view from the crest of a hill looking down over smaller hills crowned with lonely palms, towards the shimmering sea and in the distance, Komodo. With only a tiny village on the island, Rinca had a real Robinson Crusoe feel and its beauty lay in its stark wilderness, such a rarity and a privilege for our European eyes to rest upon.
From Rinca, it was a three-hour sail to Komodo. En-route, the sea lost its sense of calm and became nervous and agitated. There were no waves to speak of but one could clearly see whirlpools and areas where many currents met, causing the surface to ripple violently as if the sea was merely a stream passing over a rocky bed. Komodo loomed ominously; showing us it's jagged saw tooth peaks and empty grassland. We settled in a small natural harbour off the island as the sun dropped below the horizon turning a colourful day into a silent and black night. We sat under the gaze of the winking stars and with the low light of our kerosene lamp played cards and listened to the soft lapping of water against wood.
I woke to the soft colours of sunrise and the pungent smell of Kretek (clove) cigarettes invading my nasal columns. Today, we were to see the dragons. By 7am our wobbly feet were on Komodo soil, joining the feet of numerous other groups of tourists, hungry to meet the beast, clutching cameras with resolve to capture their prey on Fujifilm. We met our guide and after a few formalities he led us off into the arid woods filling up the silence of the morning with tales of the last human meals. In 1996, he said, Ora (dragon's local name) had severed the leg of a local school teacher, whilst a few years previous, a woman and a child had both been attacked and killed in Komodo's commercial harbour. He chilled us further with the tale of the disappearance of an elderly European lady, who had wandered away from the safe area of the camp and was never seen again. As we continued along the dusty pathways, we passed signs that forbade tourists bringing food into the interior. It was with a wicked glint in his eye that the young guide stopped our party, leant on his wooden stick and informed the females amongst us that the dragons could smell menstrual blood from 2km away. It was now that I cursed myself for wearing flip-flops.
Like Rinca, Komodo is a dry island. We were led along wooded paths echoing with the sound of leaves shattering underfoot that would have warned any fauna of our presence. The canopy overhanging the paths was gnarled and lifeless and gave the island a sense of desolation. As our guide finally left the paths and led us into the scrub to one of ora's main haunts, a wild pig sped across our line of vision, shattering the calm that prevailed. The island has a unique ecosystem. It is autopoetic in its balanced maintenance, with its wild population of pigs, buffalo and dragons depending on each other for survival. Human inhabitants have a limited effect on the system and apart from providing the odd unwilling meal for the dragons, the villagers depend mainly on the abundance of rich marine life off the island's shores.
As we were led deeper into the interior, the clouds of yellow and white butterflies became thicker, circling our heads and further adding to the mystical qualities the island seemed to possess. This spell of contemplative tranquillity was broken abruptly as we bumped into another group of touristus horridus, shattering any illusions I had of crossing onto another plane. The tourists were standing around the base of a tree and staring at something. It was then that I heard the word that makes my blood run cold, Snake, said someone without a trace of fear in their voice. This was a moment I had been waiting for. This was my first wild snake and was the time to face the fear of a lifetime.
As I approached, the group parted to allow me a glimpse of the serpent. It was small, maybe one foot long, startling electric blue in colour and coiled around the base of a tropical tree. Surely this was Eden. The snake lay still, conscious of its audience. This was a blue tree viper, endemic to Komodo and highly toxic, our guide informed us. I had always expected to feel panic-stricken encountering this moment but instead I felt an awesome calm. As our guide began to pick the serpent up with a stick I backed off but could not help but be overwhelmed by its splendour. The snake wanted to slither off into the dense undergrowth but the guide was insistent that he would place the viper back in the branches of a tree. It took the guide a few minutes to resettle the snake and before we left, this highly venomous creature stretched out, head held high and proud as it posed arrogantly for our cameras. Leaving the snake in harmony, I remembered we still had to see the island's star attraction. It was not long before we heard the cackle of fear tinged laughter from a nearby clearing. The tourists had found two dragons. They were fighting.
Blinded by flash lights we stumbled into the clearing and met a semi-circle of agitated tourists regarding these massive beasts in combat. The huge lizards squared up to each other and then attempted to get on top of each other in a clear show of dominance. One would break free and stare at the ensemble of tourists who would scatter and run when faced with the cold mischievous eyes of Ora. A dragon can run at 30kph and with a swift twitch of its powerful tail, can easily break a human limb. I was shocked at how close we were allowed to get to these huge scaly killers. One tourist was within two meters, shooting with his camcorder as though his existence depended on it. It was chaos in that clearing. Whenever the dragons got bored of fighting they would turn and stare at the tourists who would scatter into the woods, screaming with laughter.
The lizards, for that is what science deems them to be, were maybe two and a half metres long with dark olive skin and an impenetrable hide of thick scales. With terrible eyes they would size each other up and waddle around the clearing like sumo wrestlers. After quarter of an hour of combat they tired and left each other. We followed one beast as it lumbered down a path with a stride more suited to a Clint Eastwood film than that of a remote tropical paradise. The dragon turned to look at its stalkers and again we ran. Content with his performance, Ora strutted off into the scrub. That was the end of our dragon spotting experience and I was exhausted but ecstatic after seeing such an improbable place.
After such an experience I was again happy to set sail and recharge my depleted stocks of adrenaline. From Komodo it was to be a twenty-four hour sail until our next destination.
Hungry after our adventures, we were all looking forward to a substantial lunch and when it was brought out, I was not disappointed. It was huge. Every part of the meal looked fantastic but the second that I put a handful into my mouth it seemed to bounce out again with repulsion. Lunch was rice and boiled vegetables laced with a healthy dose of kerosene - not one of my great favourites. The rice was fortunately fuel free and for the next two days, I subsisted purely on it.
We left the waters of Komodo and headed towards Sumbawa, the boat started to roll in the swell. I thought this swell would be temporary. How wrong I was. We sailed through the day in these rough seas, swinging from side to side, playing chess with a mobile army, who were occasionally inclined to leave the battlefield for a more comfortable position on the blue deck. I spent a considerable part of the day gazing at the horizon dipping out of sight with my stomach rolling to the underworld with it.
Night fell and the energy boost that one normally feels with the transition from day to night was short lived in our pitching vessel. We continued ploughing through the seas along the distant sparsely lit coast of Sumbawa. The waves would roar, push and slap violently against our light boat sending spray onto our restless bodies. Hungry and wet we tried to sleep, waiting to roll into the ocean to become food for the beautiful angelfish beneath us. Giovanni's enthusiastic midnight presentation on the glowing plankton that seemed to light up the edges of our boat raised spirits and eventually, to the monotonous and somehow comforting chugging of the engine, we all fell into fitful sleep.
Our last full day on the boat was again to be one of almost constant sailing. I woke up damp and encrusted with salt to a staggeringly beautiful sunrise. The beginning of the flu was growing somewhere inside my cranium. We stopped at lunchtime in the waters off Pulau Moyo nature reserve for some much-needed swimming and body movement in the clear crystalline sea. The sense of calm and stasis was delicious as we all leaped enthusiastically into the water, no longer our enemy but our friend. Lunch was again a petrolifying experience and with resentment, another cigarette was gasped down as the motor began for the next seven-hour portion of our journey.
Once again, as we cleared the nature reserve, the boat began to pitch and anxiety eased itself into the driving seat in my mind. An hour after setting sail, two dolphins swam past our boat, the sun glinting gloriously off their silver skins as their bodies arched in and out of the water. Our wizened captain decided it was time for him to have a rest from steering the boat with his exhausted feet and handed the wheel to his nervous looking son. Our lives were in the hands of a 14-year-old boy. Again, our boat was receiving a pounding from Neptune and our new pilot slit his eyes as he concentrated on sailing the ship head on to the waves. One of the boys that made up the crew was vomiting over the side as the tea maker crashed to the floor for the tenth time in an hour. I sat cross-legged on the deck trying to hold myself in one place.
The captain would occasionally be woken by a thud on the hull and grumble at his stressed son. The boy had developed a thousand yard stare and beads of sweat dripped off his forehead whilst he sung ancient mariners songs to calm his mind. For seven hours it stayed this way, until darkness descended and we came to rest outside a little village off western Sumbawa. Tania was allowed to go to shore in a canoe to get some supplies. With no waves, but bountiful supplies of chocolate biscuits and beers, we were again a cheerful bunch.
Our last morning was fresh. I woke up dry and hungry. Lombok was only three hours away, and in the distance I could see the peak of Gunung Rinjani, pink as the sun brought warmth to another day.