Published: April 12th 2012July 15th 2011
(M) After bidding a very sad farewell to Lombok, the time had come to enter the very last leg of our epic journey - to Flores, one of the country’s eastern-most islands. In the end we decided to take overland public transport via the island of Sumbawa, which consisted of a gruelling 36-hour bus-ferry-overnight bus-ferry combination. So we gritted our teeth and mentally prepared ourselves for our last uncomfortable journey, backpacker style.
The journey itself was pretty uneventful although we did make friends with two awesome couples from Spain and Argentina, and needless to say we had lots to talk about! Their company and deck of Uno cards went along way to passing the time, and the final nine hour ferry journey in the glorious sunshine, cruising past some of the country’s most idyllic scenery, was actually very pleasurable! Imagine unending islands with sweeping golden grassland dotted with the occassional palm tree and pristine deserted turquoise bays around every corner. It’s honestly like nowhere else on earth.
So when we finally landed in Labuanbajo, the travellers’ gathering point on the island’s west coast, we were brimming with excitement at the prospect of finding a decent place to stay and
scouting out a boat to take us diving – the reason we were there! I’d spoken to a lot of divers on our travels and the Komodo archipelago – famed for its resident Komodo Dragons – had consistently ranked in everyone's top three dive spots in the world. Having roughed it on the trip over, we now had money to spend on a live-aboard diving trip, enabling us to access more remote dive sites without the daily four hour return journey from the mainland. But first things first – we needed a place to stay.
We teamed up with our newly-made Latino friends and hit the streets just as the sun was setting. Flores is fast gaining in popularity as a travellers' destination but still lacks a lot of development and infrastructure - the main road was dusty and strewn with potholes. The remote location of the island also meant things cost more as supplies aren’t just around the corner, and the traveller to hostel ratio still works in the locals' favour, driving up accommodation prices. So we weren't exactly spoilt for choice, and had to split from our comrades to occupy the remaining room in what can only
be described as the grottiest guest house in all of South-East Asia... and that’s saying something! But we were pretty bushed and despite the stench, grime and not-so-inviting bed sheets (which gave Nina a skin funghus), the view from the communal balcony over the bay was something to behold, so we succumbed.
Bright and early the next day we set off to bargain hunt for two spaces on a liveaboard boat, hoping to depart the following day. Finding the best deal while avoiding being taken for a ride is an art form and our skills by this stage of our travels were fine tuned. But be that as it may, it’s always still a lottery and after speaking to pretty much every tour operator in town, we teamed up with a Belgian traveller to increase our bargaining power and secured what seemed to be a pretty decent deal for a 3-day dive trip. Of course the less you pay, the more chance you have of being disappointed... However the following morning, when we arrived at the pier and saw our 60-foot, 12-sleeper schooner complete with sun deck and pristine cabins, you couldn’t wipe the smile off Nina’s face if
There were only other three people on board - a mother and son from Jakarta, and an awesome Ozzie bloke from Brisbane. It was one of those all-inclusive setups, so from the moment we stepped on board to the moment we disembarked three days later, we were treated not only to an abundance of amazing food, but also fun-filled evenings of dancing and merriment and days filled with the most incredible diving we’ve ever experienced. For me, this was the perfect way to end our trip. I’d dreamt about diving in Komodo for so long, that my excitement was uncontainable.
We did nine dives all in all, including two night dives (a first for Nina), all of which had their own special qualities. Diving in Komodo is not for the faint-hearted, or the inexperienced. The currents, especially around the pinnacles of reef out in the middle of the sea are fierce, and without careful briefings and guidance, one can very easily land in trouble. The tales of numerous irresponsible tourists who’ve died diving these sites provided enough somberness for us to take it very seriously, and on a few of the dives we experienced first hand
the verocious pace of the island channels. The great thing about strong currents, though, is if you get your dive right, they can be huge amounts of fun. One of our absolute favourite dives was in fact a drift dive, where we experienced the next best thing to flying – the current propelling us at amazing speed for about a kilometer no more than 2-3 meters obove the seabed – what a rush!
But the piece de resistance was at a site called Castle Rock, probably the most famous dive site in the area, and for good reason. It’s a sloping cone-shaped pinnacle of reef about 60-70 meters in diameter at the base, which provides the perfect cover for those battling the currents, and therefore the perfect hunting ground for an array of predators. On the way down we had to dodge schools of hump head parrot fish and huge jacks, and everywhere we looked there were white-tip reef sharks, with the occassional grey shark drifting majestically by another school of chevron baracuda. It was literally sensation overload as everywhere you looked it was a feeding frenzy , with swirling shoals breaking away and reforming as jacks, tuna and
other hunters hurtled into their midst. And then someone tapped on their tank to get everyone’s attention, and we turned to see virtually everything suddenly shoot away to both sides to clear a path, through which a three meter bottle nose dolphin came screaming after its prey. The fish managed to dart under a table coral and the dolphin, hovering inverted, tried to get under the coral to catch his lunch. After several futile attempts, he suddenly shot upwards, 30 meters to the surface, jumped out of the water and came hurtling back down again to find a new target. This was quite literally nature showing off, and everyone sucked their air to the last conceivable second in order to stay down longer. It was the perfect dive.
The down time in-between dives wasn’t to be sneezed at either... one afternoon, moored in a pristine turquoise bay while lazing on deck chairs, we spotted a black shape moving gracefully in the distance, occassionally breaking the waterline. So we grabbed the snorkling gear and dived in to go and check it out. And for the next hour, we snorkled with our own giant manta ray, which kept gliding majestically around
us in a huge figure of eight, under and over us until he’d had enough lunch and disappeared into the blue as quickly as he’d arrived. It was absolutely exhilarating. We were also pretty excited about a visit to Rinca island to see the famous Komodo dragons - Rinca is smaller than Komodo and has a higher concentration of dragons so in theory there's more chance of seeing them. Unfortunately, the three dragons lazing around the park headquarters was as much as we saw. I learned from the guide during our two-hour walk that mid afternoon was the worst time to go looking for them as that's when they sleep - the timing of our visit therefore being one of the no-so-well organised parts of the itinerary! But at least we saw them, plus a few scattered buffalo skeletons - their staple diet - to prove that they were purking somewhere in the wild!
Before setting sail we had rather sensibly managed to procure a couple of bottles of Arak – the dodgy local rice wine brew – to spice up the evening entertainment. They ended up coming in quite handy on our last night on board, when the
captain and crew threw a bit of a party on the upper deck. One bottle for us and one for the crew, it ended up being a pretty funny affair complete with exotic local dance moves which became more animated as the night progressed! All up, this was an experience we’ll remember for a long time to come, and one of the absolute highlights of our whole trip. I’d thoroughly recommend anyone going to Flores to dive to take our lead and do the same.
After the live aboard, in the few days we had left before our flight back to Bali, we did manage to slip away for a couple of nights to a tiny island nearby called Kanawa. We had debated this for quite a while as it was pricey, but our decision was completely vindicated when, out of a grand total of about fifteen people on the island, one of them is Angie, one of Nina's oldest and best school friends from Munich! So we had 24 hours to catch up on virtually 24 years (not quite) and needless to say we made it count. After watching the most spectacular sunset in all of our travels,
we rounded it off with copious amounts of arak and banter, which resulted in Angie and her pertner Jeremy missing their early morning boat back to the mainland and flight to Denpasar. But hey, it was worth it ;-)
We stayed another day before it was our turn to undertake a very hassle free journey by plane to Bali. We crashed one night in Kuta, and rented a scooter the next morning to head for our beloved Balangan beach. After a couple of hours of trawling the accommodation options, we settled into a great little top floor room right on the beach which would be home for our last few precious days. I was drooling at the prospect of getting out into the water, so went in search of a couple of boards which we could rent for the duration, Nina also keen to give surfing another crack. After an awful lot of haggle and an earful of hassle, we got what we wanted and were ready to go.
Like almost all of Bali, Balangan is a reef break and when the tide’s out, it’s not for the faint-hearted! So we were limited to high tide surf sessions,
while we’d waste the in-between hours away drinking cold beer, making friends and watching the more experienced guys take on the tubes. When we did, the surfing was great, but not without incident! Fresh from having survived her ‘surf or sink’ lesson in Lombok, Nina was keen to build on her confidence levels. Unfortunately, reef breaks aren’t exactly the best environment for doing that... the problem is that if you get tumbled by a decent sized wave, chances are you’re going to hit something. This can often lead to major sense of humour failure, especially when you’re not sure which way is up and when you’re going to get your next breath of air! That was her first experience...
To her complete credit, though, she went out again in the afternoon - at the beach adjacent to Balangan called Dreamland, which had for years been just that until someone decided to wipe out all the beach bungalows and build an eye-sore of a hotel. The surf looked innocent enough, and after catching a couple of nice sized waves I thought it was all under control. But nature has a way of playing cruel jokes at the best of times,
and while I was paddling back to Nina, I saw an unusually large swell building towards us. I was too far away to help, and had to negotiate getting under the wave myself, so had little choice but to hope that she’d somehow not get creamed. The wall of water that came crashing down was so immense that I had to dive underwater to avoid direct contact. Unfortunately that meant my board was left on the surface, and the wave crashed down on the middle of it, snapping it completely in half. Once back above the surface after my underwater tumble dryer experience, I searched for Nina. Her half-drowned, panic-stricken face was something to behold, and spelled an instant end to her Indo surfing experience... but she gets ten out of ten for bravery and persistence, and a budding surf chick she remains!
Unfortunately for me, my snapped board also meant the end of my surfing, although I did find an honest local who repaired boards and was coincidentally related to the guys who rented me the board, so he quite literally smoothed things over on all fronts at minimal cost. Much to Nina’s delight, this freed up the
last couple of days to go sightseeing and, or course, shopping – the other thing Bali is famous for! Besides, we had to cash in on cheap clothing before heading to Australia.
We were constantly surprised at how beautiful the whole Bukit peninsula was. We’d hop on the scooter and go exploring the surrounding beaches, which were all stunning in their own right. On our last day in Bali, one of these little trips was to Uluwatu, the famed surf break right down near the peninsula’s southern point. After exloring the beach, we found a great little elevated cafe with a 220 degree view of the sea, ordered a couple of cold beers and watched the most outrageous surfing display, while the sun slowly drifted behind the horizon to a most spectacular sunset. What a way to end off our trip, and to this day it’s still one of my most memorable experiences.
And so the next morning, with heavy hearts, we headed to the airport, where immigration told us we had overstayed our visa by one day. This was an honest mistake of miscalculation, but depsite our pleading the official wouldn't budge and gave us a choice
of either paying a hefty penalty or prolonging our stay in Indo - in detention! As tempting as the offer was, we begrudgingly paid up and boarded the plane for Australia... The trip was finally over.
Part of us was looking forward to our next adventure, the creature comforts of Western society and getting back into some kind of productive routine; but a big part of us remained in Indonesia, remained in all of South-East Asia, South America and southern Africa. What we took with us was a treasure chest of memories, friendships and experiences, and new perspectives on each other, ourselves and the world around us. And what an amazing world it is.
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