Komodo Island has always been very high on my bucket list but when I heard that the government was going to shut it down to tourists it jumped close to the top of that list. Several years back the island was used as a backdrop for several HBO series including Game of Thrones, leading to an increase in tourism. Just like in Bali the government regulation was non existent and the ecosystem suffered. Only days after we booked our trip here the government announced that at the end of this season it was going to stop all visitors to the island in an attempt to reverse the damage to the ecosystem and restore the population. A gift from the travel gods.
There are 2 ways to get to the National Park. You can take a 3 night cruise from Bali or one of it’s neighboring islands or you can fly into Labuan Bajo, the closest island to Komodo Island National Park. Labuan Bajo is a tiny island with around 500 residents. We choose to fly in.
Day 1- We landed at the small airport around 11am on one of only 3 daily flights. The island is so small we decided to walk to our hotel 10 minutes uphill in the blazing sun instead of dealing with the scamming taxi drivers. Easy peasy. Our room wasn’t ready so we left our bags and headed to the harbor to explore. There’s no wifi on the island today and we were told even when it does work it’s painfully slow. This is by far the the dirtiest harbor and most unwelcoming place we have visited in Indonesia yet. After a quick bite to eat we retreated to our air-conditioned room and enjoyed time alone with no tech, wifi or TV. We left the hotel only to grab dinner and by chance ended up with some really good Mexican food.
Day 2- The Big Day!
We left our hotel at 5:30 am and met up with our tour group. Our guide went over the itinerary and explained that it was mating season and that the dragons retreat into the jungle for “boom boom”, so the chances are we wouldn’t see any. He said they haven’t seen any in days. Another let down like the Manta Ray tour last week.
The Komodo Island National Park is a series of 29 islands. There are 1800 indigenous people who live on the islands. 80% live off tourism and 20% live off the sea (fisherman). Dragons only live on the 2 biggest islands that have jungles on them.
Our tour group was made up of 17 tourists and 4 crew members. 2 well behaved children, a really great Canadian couple who we really hit it off with as well as a variety of easy going Europeans. A pleasant group always makes 12 hours tours much better. Our first stop was on Pandar island, the third biggest island. The only thing on this island was a trail to the top of a huge mountain offering spectacular views. Most of the group hiked halfway up, posed for pictures and returned down to the boat. Not being half-way hikers, Alyssa and I took all the allowed time and hightailed it for the peak.
The second stop was at Pink Sand Beach. The sand is pink as a result of the coral the breaks up and washes ashore. We spent some time playing on the beach then swam out for some really good snorkeling with live coral beds and tons of different fish.
The third stop was the big one, Komodo Island! We entered the park and met our guide who again warned that no dragons had been seen in days. As we waited for our groups turn to head down the trail I went to the bathroom and when I came out I wandered behind the rest rooms and ran across a large dragon. As my heart started racing I turned and saw another. I ran to get Alyssa and our Canadian friends figuring this may be our only chance at seeing them. It is so surreal seeing these giant creatures in the wild. We returned to our group feeling gitty and within minutes into our hike we came across 2 more. One got up and walked through the group and the other was lounging in the shade only moving to acknowledge us and reposition itself. Our guides allowed us to pose with this one. One guide took our picture as the other guide stood by with his dragon stick ready. Although, I can’t see how the stick would have done anything to stop him. We didn’t see anymore dragons on our hike in the jungle but I used the time to ask our guide about the park closing. He explained that he lost his voice the day before when he and a large group of others went to the mainland to protest to the president. The president is closing the island because he feels the dragons food supply is diminishing. The guides, those living on the islands disagree. The current plan is to close Komodo Island for at least one year and to take tourists to Rancin Island, the other island with dragons at dramatically increased cost. This will cause problems for the 80% of the locals that survive off tourism. This stop was perfect as we got to hear the locals side of the story and cross Komodo dragons off the bucket list. Alyssa and I don’t go to zoos for ethical reasons and we get a real rush seeing rare animals in the wild.
Back on the boat we were served a decent local lunch on our way to a small white sand island. It was really just a sand bar but we got to lay around recounting all our dragon stories and swimming in crystal clear waters.
Then something amazing happened as if this day could get any better. On our way to the next and last stop the captain abruptly stopped the boat and started yelling for us to grab our snorkel gear and jump over the side of the boat. First thought was we were sinking, then the crew started yelling “MANTAS” in English. We were looking at the pictures of the dragons on our GoPro when the yelling began so we hit record, grabbed our masks and were the first ones in. The water was over 50 feet deep and clear as day. As soon as we looked down we could see a giant Manta Ray right below us. It had a 20 foot wingspan and glided past with a majestic presence. Being in the water with no protection between us and them had our hearts were racing even faster then with the dragons. As we turned back to look for our boat a spotted baby Ray swam by. Then 2 more giants Ray’s followed. Since we were in front of these we got a glimpse of the huge 8 foot wide white mouths. I’ve had 24 hours to think about this and still can’t come up with the proper words to describe this moment. All I can say is I am so glad I got to share it with someone who appreciated and embraced it as much as I did and who I can swim faster then. This wasn’t like at Manta point in Nusa Penida where we saw shadows in the distance. These graceful giants were right below us in perfect view.
All thanks to the eagle eyes of our captain and pure chance. Once on board we spent the 30 minute ride to the last stop laughing in disbelief and joy. Our last stop was at a small island with the option to snorkel but knowing nothing would top that we choose to sit in the beach with our new friends reliving the experience though each other’s eyes. We returned to the port, had a great Italian dinner and fell sleep thinking how blessed we were by the travel gods and how this was one of our top travel days ever. Very few people will ever get to experience what we did today. And to share with the people we were with made it perfect. Best and last day in Indonesia!
We are traveling back to Bali now to catch a flight to a new country and start a new adventure. We are going to keep the plans less structured from here but we are super excited to meet up with a friend we met on our first assignment and have gotten very close with over the years. See you soon Glen!