19 September, 2015

Petra O’Neill travels east to the far-flung Indonesian Islands of Sumbawa, Komodo, and Flores.

By Petra O’Neill 

We were snorkelling at Pantai Merah, a beautiful pink beach tinged with crushed coral when Jennifer our guide announced that Komodo dragons are just as agile in water as they are on land. 

Our adventure had begun in Bali where I joined six other passengers onboard the Katharina, a traditional phinisi handcrafted from ironwood from where we departed cutting through the sea eastwards across the Lombok Strait. For the next 9 days we would wake early at sunrise to strong Indonesian coffee followed by breakfast that included fresh tropical fruit and cashew nut muesll before commencing our excursions on land and underwater. With my mask on I’d seen parrot fish, angel fish and bright yellow butterfly fish, leathery turtles their dorsal fins paddling and vibrant multicoloured coral. As the blue water lapped against the Katharina’s sides, pods of dolphins would playfully dart beneath then race in front.  

More dramatic was a close up encounter with the Komodo dragon. Growing up to 3 metres in length, with a speed of 20kms per hour, it has razor-sharp claws, a powerful tail and saw like teeth. Our ranger guide Hakim lifted his forked wooden stick, our only defence against snapping jaws, before strutting confidently towards a grove of palm trees probing the underbrush periodically with his stick. Under a tamarind tree we saw a female Komodo dragon sprawled out, her forked yellow tongue slithering to and fro, her tail swinging from side to side. Slowly she kicked her rear legs and swaggered away. Huddled together we continued bravely on a hike through shady gullies to savannah covered hills climbing to a viewpoint overlooking the turquoise bay below. Hakim pointed to the spot where Baron Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg, an elderly Swiss tourist vanished in 1974, leaving only his hat, binoculars and shoe behind. 

Komodo National Park is World Heritage listed with some of the richest land and marine life on the planet and while the dragons take centre stage, underwater is no less exhilarating. Flipping backwards from our tender boat to snorkel I saw beneath me two Mantra Rays then seven more as they glided gracefully by. 

At Wera, a settlement of Bugis, renowned shipbuilders originally from Sulawesi, men were working overtime to complete a massive cargo boat they had been crafting by hand since 2009. Made from ironwood it was due to be launched the following week with people from neighbouring villages expected to attend the celebration. The women were equally busy cooking in preparation for a wedding making sweet treats including deliciously crunchy palm sugar toffee that they invited us to try. 

On the final night of the cruise on a deserted island, we enjoyed a beach barbeque, lit a large bonfire and under a night sky filled with the stars of the Southern Cross, sang songs and danced with the crew. 

Our joumey ended at the western tip of Flores in the port town of Labuan Bajo, meaning port of the Bajo. A ramshackle town of considerable charm the dusty main street is lined with funky cafés, dive shops and restaurants, the hilltop and waterfront scattered with brightly painted houses, hostels and quaint boutique hotels while boats lie at anchor in the picturesque harbour. With twenty plus world class dive sites nearby, travellers come from all over the world, mainly from Europe, creating a divergent mix of accents with Italian and German dominating. 

While in Labuan Bajo, I hiked to a cave, swam at a pretty pink sand beach, bought hand woven textiles from the local market and visited the village of Melo to see the Cacl Dance, a traditional combat performance between two men, one using a whip the other a rattan shield. The upper body remains bare with a belt of bells jangling from the hips and strung from the ankles creating a mesmerising rhythmic sound accompanied by drum and gong instruments.  

When a Portuguese expedition reached the island of Flores in the early 16th century, they named it ‘Cabo das Flores’, or ‘Cape of Flowers. Flores and the vast expanse of small islands and coral reefs provided the most spectacular views I have ever seen from an aircraft during the 90 minute flight back to Ball as we flew over the unspoilt islands we has sailed by, just a glimpse of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Ari the guide on my last trip onboard the Katharina said I should visit Labuan Bajo, his hometown and explore Flores. When we arrived, I asked around. The boat he was on could be seen sailing out of the harbour and now from the plane I could see it once more, a small white speck alongside a coral reef. He was right, such a beautiful and enchanting destination. Someday I’ll come back to explore it further. 

Garuda Indonesia flies from Australia to Labuan Bajo via Ball. The Katharina is an elegant 40 metre long schooner built from ironwood in the style of a traditional phinisi. Six compact cabins have ensuite bathrooms, large outdoor decks and the friendliest crew. 



Source: Cruising Magazine