The Komodo Islands, Indonesia
First thing’s first. Go right now. Forget the rest of this article and go before it’s too late. This place is still pretty perfect. So go whilst the coral is still mindblowing. Before prices rise to reflect the beauty of this place. Before everyone else goes and treads all over it.
Labuan Bajo, on Flores Island, is the hub of the area. It has an airport so you can fly in and out, although there are limited flights each day, so don’t make the mistake of expecting there to be availability at the last minute. From the town there are various excursions you can take to hit the key sites and activities.
Activity Number One: Diving. This area is correctly being labelled as one of the best for diving in the world. I’m not actually a diver, but I did a liveaboard trip for two days alongside a lot of divers, and snorkelled directly above them, so could largely see what they saw. I saw: giant manta rays, sharks, really big turtles that happily swim right next to you, and lots of other cute fishies and corals from Finding Nemo. Dolphins were spotted from the boat on numerous occasions, and my boyfriend saw dolphins while he was diving. There was a lot of chat about nudey branches, trigger fish, stone fish, currents, night diving, oxygen tanks, equalizing lalala. In summary (layman’s), the region has a lot of strong currents bringing in a lot of nutrients, so a lot of very healthy coral, loads of different dive sites to explore, and many things to see, including what I gathered to be bucket list items for seasoned divers: giant mantas, whale sharks and dolphins. Warning: the water is incomprehensibly cold for a place that sits on the equator and the currents are actually quite dangerous in many of the sites, so you do need to go with a reputable company. We did our liveaboard with Wicked Diving, who were a lovely bunch, and prep and lug around all your dive stuff for you. They also support the community by running internships for young locals each year, who have to do well in a series of aptitude tests (only a handful of places are available each year). This was also nice for us because we got to dive and snorkel with qualified Indonesian guides who speak great English and are actually from the Komodo area.
The best way to do day trips from Labuan Bajo is to go down to the harbour in the morning and commission a private boat. There are guys with boats waiting around at the harbour every day for this purpose. You’ll save both you and them the slice that would otherwise have been taken by a tour agent on the main street. We bought a day trip to Rinca the night before, from an office on the main street for 800,000 Rp. The next day we learned that our boat was only receiving 600,000Rp, the £10 discrepancy was pocketed by the guy in town for doing nothing.
The Komodo National Park is one of the New Seven Wonders of nature (www.n7w.com). Komodo dragons live in the wild on Flores (about 50), Rinca (~1100) and Komodo (~1250). We did a day trip to Rinca where we did a trek and saw a pregnant momma dragon who wasn’t scared of us in the slightest. She was merrily striding towards us while we were taking photos and running away like giggling school girls. You can’t go trekking without an armed ranger. Their bite itself won’t kill you, but the manky bacteria in their mouth will kill you over the course of a week, the dragon will stalk you over that time and then swallow you and munch your iPhone with the photos on it. Komodo dragons exist only on and around Komodo. There are 3.4 times as many males than females and nobody knows why. It’s a good idea to ask for a guide that speaks good English so that you can ask questions and learn a little along the way. You have to pay for a permit to enter the National Park, for Komodo spotting or for diving, which is fair enough as it goes towards the conservation of the area.
There are also plenty of other small islands of deserted-beach-paradise flavour that you can get to easily from Labuan Bajo. A private boat to Kanawa island costed 500,000 Rp (~£25). We spent a day there snorkelling in beautiful, shallow coral and saw a baby white tip shark (but it doesn’t compare to what you see at the proper dive sites).
The tri-colour volcanoes (Kelimutu) on Flores is something that I wanted to do but didn’t have time. I’m gutted, so I’ll just say the three crater lakes change colour. Like magic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelimutu
This area currently attracts a really nice balance of visitors, there are travellers and holiday makers of all ages and origins, families, couples, lone backpackers. A healthy mix that makes for rich conversation and experience. The islands still have a very authentic feel, like tourism hasn’t been here for long at all. The main road in Labuan Bajo is a bit manky, there are gaping holes in the pavement of Labuan Bajo main road, and there aren’t streetlights, so watch your step because you can quite easily fall down one and die. The main street in town doesn’t have any nice beachy areas. We initially spent a night in town at the Blue Marlin Dive Centre but it wasn’t particularly relaxing. For the same price (£50 a night) we got a lovely room in a gorgeous hotel with a pool and beach: Bintang Flores Hotel. We hired a moped for the entire time for about (£5 a day) so we could easily get into town (~ 5 min ride).
Street food is a bit hit and miss, try it but approach with caution. I bought some ‘meat’balls which tasted like a mix of rubber, plastic and bread. Do make sure you have a meal at the fish market at the harbour (~£8 for two with beer). This is open every night, you choose your seafood and then watch it get sliced up and put straight on the BBQ. Made In Italy, on the main street is expensive, but does phenomenally good food (~£30 for two with wine). The sausage and gorgonzola pizza was unspeakably good. For authentic Indonesian food try Warung Mama on the main street (<£7 for two). Green Hill for coffee. The Lounge for live music and cocktails. While we were there, there was a big party at Paradise Bar (a short walk out of town) that went on till the early hours.
There are cash machines in town, £1 = 21,500 IDR. I had no phone reception anywhere, but any hotel, restaurant, or dive centre in Labuan Bajo has wifi. The smaller islands nearby have no connectivity and I’m very happy for them to stay that way. They are beautiful and often deserted. If not for my commitment to Instagram I would have turned my mobile off for the entire trip.