The sun is setting. I turn my gaze to the tin roofs below and follow them down to a bay studded with hummocky little islands. I take in the magenta and orange hues of the sky as it fades into darkness. I watch a tiny, skittish gecko scampering along the rail of the terrace where I’m sitting, twitching a curly question mark tail.
Staples and blu tac
I’m in Labuan Bajo in Flores, Indonesia, hopping off point for Komodo national park. When we plotted to come here all our thoughts were fixed on getting out to the islands to see the dragons (which we did of course, read about it here), meaning we completely overlooked the fact that LB is a beautiful destination in its own right.
I’m not going to lie, the other thing that absorbed my attention in the lead up was the anxiety of flying on a propeller plane run by an airline which is banned from European airspace thanks to its lack of safety standards. When we boarded my fears were momentarily allayed by the fact it felt like a normal plane, it wasn’t held together with staples and blu tac. But then I found the card in the pocket in front of me with prayers in various different languages to protect us when flying, and had a pant-shitting moment.
A tale of terror
With that journey over there’s a bit more mental space to admire this sleepy little town. It’s not pretty per se. It feels like a working town with a burgeoning tourism scene, where the latter hasn’t yet stamped out the visibility of local life. The views across the bay are pretty spectacular, and our resort, the Puri Sari beach hotel, is set out of town along a stretch of coast and surrounded by lush green gardens piping with birdsong.
We’ve dumped our stuff, got back into town to book our dive/snorkel trip and are now rewarding ourselves with a beer at La Cucina (recommended by the good folk at Neren Diving) to take in the sunset. Another tourist is sat here eating and he tells us he already took his trip out to see the Komodo dragons. We laugh about our ridiculous fears of being eaten. He tells us solemnly that a dragon tried to board the small boat he was sailing away from the island on, the locals had to hit it with a large wooden oar to fend it off. ‘Oh, but you’ll be fine. You have a guide. Oh yeah, but ladies don’t forget to tell the guide if you’re on your period. They go crazy for blood and can smell it from 5km away.’
We take more swigs of our beer.
It’s fun doing cork impressions. Honest.
The next morning we arrive at the Neren Diving offices early, then head down to the port to find our boat. It’s a matchless day, the sky cloudless and luminous blue. We discover to our delight that we have the entire large two tier boat to ourselves, other than the dive instructors and the boat crew. We head for the top deck where a plate of assorted doughnuts awaits us, and within minutes one of the crew pops their head up to offer tea. They obviously understand English people well.
We cruise further into the national park, napping on deck, spotting sea eagles and porpoises and marvelling at the immaculate greenery of the little islands.
Before our first stop we’re called together for a briefing. Me and Matt are talked through the underwater topography, where we can find the good reefs, where we should stay away from due to currents. I hoik on a lifejacket since I’m not the strongest of swimmers and want to avoid fatigue.
So, there we are about to jump into the water. The crew are watching as I try to descend, but I don’t jump into water with joyful abandon. I’m nervous of water, always have been. So I kind of flop in off the ladder, like a beanbag, then bob around like a little cork with my orange lifejacket puffing up about my ears. I know it must have looked ridiculous but I don’t know this as well as someone who actually witnessed it. The crew are clearly concerned for my safety at the same time as stifling laughter. I would not blame them at all for laughing. In fact that would probably just be karma for the number of times I’ve laughed at people falling over. Matt swims off like a minnow and I am bobbing around, fiddling with my mask, getting water in it and up my nose then flipping onto my back gasping like a fish out of water. A fish that can’t really swim.
The current is much stronger than I was expecting, and it’s a struggle to make any progress towards the spot we want. But my anxiety dissipates when Matt takes my hand and the pristine reef reveals itself to me. It’s like Eden – totally unspoilt. Schools of tutti frutti fish swirl one way, then another. Corals burst from every surface, this one yellow like a carnation, this one luminous orange and shaped like a tree. There are bright green clams and gigantic silver unicornfish. And then a turtle drifts by serenely, probably confused about what to eat first. I have never experienced anything in nature like this.
Back on the boat there’s excited chatter – Pete and Kirsten have had an exceptional dive and have even been treated to a shark sighting. As if on cue, we spot a school of fish leaping out of the ocean and can make out the shape of a metre long shark in hot pursuit.
Mesmerised by mantas
We dry off in the heat and then we’re chugging into our next spot. This is where we’re told we should find manta rays.
This time my performance of getting into the sea is even more spectacular. I’m trying a totally different mask as I’m sure the other was leaking. As snorkelers we’ve been warned off a particularly strong current. I plop into the water and immediately my new mask floods and I’m trying to remove it and pass it back to the guys on the boat to swap for my old one but they have no idea what I’m saying. A lengthy performance follows during which the boat is getting dragged into the current we’re supposed to be steering clear of, as are me and Matt. The crew are the most patient people I’ve encountered. I would have been tempted to let me drown. In the end, Matt and me swap masks and we set off again.
We’re very quickly clear of the strong current and this is a much easier swim than the last place. We splash around over a shallow seabed for a bit, not finding that much to look at. Matt decides we need a change of direction and heads off elsewhere. I drift after him, taking my time, and am delighted to spot a small brown stingray with fluorescent blue spots (a blue dot stingray I’ve since learned). And then I can hear Matt’s muffled shouts. I pop my head up and he’s calling and beckoning.
I reach him and we pop our heads under, heading for the reef drop-off. What’s that? The ripple of something large and white in the deeper, darker water. It almost reminds me of the northern lights. We move closer, and gradually they become visible. Five metres across, slow and graceful, it’s a group of manta rays skirting the edge of the reef. For a few moments it almost feels hard to breathe. I never, ever would have expected to get this close to such a gigantic, mysterious animal. They circle, their wings curving and drifting slowly. We don’t want to spook them by getting too near but they come towards us to investigate, sailing past so close I could touch them. I can make out scars and scratches on their slate grey backs. They are shaped like living spaceships, and they move like silk. It’s like entering another world, silent and entrancing. I am captivated.
This time when we surface we’re shattered but ecstatic. Pete and Kirsten declare it the greatest diving they’ve ever done. They’ve seen some really odd and eccentric creatures like frogfish and cuttlefish. And luckily for all of us they had a GoPro, so Pete has been able to make this amazing video of it.
Then you don’t want to leave
The rest of the day is spent on Rinca island seeking out Komodo dragons, which you can read about here. Just as final confirmation to the boat crew that I am indeed the biggest imbecile to ever set foot on a boat, I manage to drop my lens cap in the sea as we’re pulling out of Rinca harbour. One of the training divemasters actually jumps into the sea to retrieve it for me. I can’t really thank Neren enough for not throwing me in the sea after it, given all the trouble I bought onto that boat. They’re ace.
We journey back to LB in silence, enjoying the picturesque sunset, the breeze and the memories. Once we’re safely back we head to the open air, no frills seafood market by the harbour, which is packed with locals and tourists alike gorging on freshly caught snapper and prawns and other slimy delights. We perch on a well worn wooden bench, drink beer from the 7/11 and watch a stray cat with bad conjunctivitis trying to creep onto a pile of food waiting to be cooked. The waitress serves us barbecued fish and squid handpicked by Matt and Pete, along with rice and dips and vegetables. I tuck into some deep fried aubergine. This is not the place for vegetarians but it’s also not to be missed by seafood lovers.
The following day we’re due to leave on a late flight, so we laze by the pool wondering why on earth we’re not staying longer. We haven’t found the answer to that yet. We just know that one day, we’ll be back.
Okay, this was not the easiest trip to arrange. The main difficulty was getting to Flores. Many Indonesian airlines do not accept foreign credit cards, and I went through a hearty thesaurus of swearwords trying to book flights online. In the end we used ticketindonesia.info. Don’t be disconcerted by the out of date looking website and the slightly odd booking process. You can book multiple airlines using the site and it accepted our foreign credit card. The main thing is that they can’t immediately send booking confirmations – you’ll receive emails at multiple stages of the process after you’ve made the booking, so just keep an eye on them and check them to make sure everything is in order.
We flew with Nam Air and Wings Air. We got lucky and didn’t experience any delays or cancellations. However, I’ve read that a number of people do experience this, so if you’re fitting Komodo into a wider Indonesia trip I’d recommend leaving a decent amount of time either side of any trips you have booked around the islands once you’ve arrived. I know I mentioned the safety issue – I imagine flying in Indonesia is still far safer than getting in a car or on a boat. It doesn’t feel that unsafe – there are seatbelts and safety procedures etc. I guess it’s down to you how you feel about taking that risk but I’d say on balance you’d be silly to pass up this trip for that reason.
In terms of the day trip to Komodo national park, Neren Diving comes highly recommended. We emailed a number of companies a few days in advance and many outfits based in Labuan Bajo were already booked, but in the end this worked out well for us as we had such a good experience with Neren. One company we almost booked with wanted full payment online in advance. With Neren we paid once we arrived at their office and had a chance to meet them and hear more about the company which we found reassuring. You can take longer, live aboard trips with many outfits which is a tempting option for next time.
We thought Puri Sari was a beautiful resort and would definitely stay again. The grounds are amazing, the pool is lovely, service is super friendly and breakfast buffet is excellent.
The resort runs shuttles to and from town at set times so have a word with reception about booking them. They also provide free airport transfers. If you want to come back from town at night outside of the shuttle times it’s a little more tricky. There weren’t that many obvious taxis around. We ended up climbing into the back of an unmarked people carrier driven by a couple who we paid a very reasonable rate to.