Our Komodo National Park trip was a pain to find, but the hours of going through TripAdvisor reviews more than paid off. It turned out to be one of those amazingly perfect days, one that will make it into the top five highlights of our trip (along with the Great Wall). Komodo National Park is the only place in the world where you can see Komodo Dragons and we'd heard that it was easily done in a day. We had two options; a visit to Rinca Island, where the chance of seeing the dragons was better due to the islands smaller size, or Komodo Island which had the most spectacular scenery. We'd got it into our heads that we wanted to go to Komodo Island, that was until we found out it was a four hour boat trip, one way. The only way we could feasibly do it was to go on an overnight boat trip - this could have worked out well because we had one night where we needed to move hotel because Golo Hilltop was full (even though we made the reservation 3 months earlier!). But we couldn't find any trips that did everything we wanted. You see,
not only did we want to see Komodo Dragons, we also wanted to snorkel in the Komodo National Park - it seemed crazy to go all that way and only do land based stuff.
Just as we were giving up hope Paul spotted a company with a great TripAdvisor ranking that I'd dismissed because I thought they did canoe trips (all based on a picture!). Flores XP did a full on, 13 hour day trip that included snorkelling in Komodo National Park, a hike on Rinca with the dragons and a sunset visit to Kalong island to see Flying Foxes. Even with a discounted rate for a last minute booking it cost £60 each which is crazy for Asia, but I would have paid twice that for the day we got.
Most Komodo trips leave at 5.30am so the 7.30am pickup didn't seem too bad. By 8.30 we were listening to Paul, our guide, giving a safety briefing and an outline of the day ahead as we sailed out of Labuan Bajo. We had a two hour sail to our first snorkel spot, the aptly named Manta Point. Unexpectedly, this was the least impressive
of the three snorkel spots, and yes, we did see Mantas! We counted about seven in total, and we were blown away - it's hard not to be - however it was well and truly trumped by our third snorkel stop!
Our second spot was our guides favourite, a place called Batu Balong, which we'd read about when doing our diving research. It was absolutely beautiful - clear water, pristine, colourful coral and so many fish you needed windscreen wipers for your mask! We saw a large school of giant travellie here - in my fish classification they would fall into the ugly fish category, that is, ones you would eat as they are just silver and boring, but they were massive.
By this point we'd done about two hours in the water and were starving. After a short sail we anchored close to a small island and stopped for lunch. As post lunch coffee was served the crew started shouting 'Manta, Manta'! There was a group of three swimming under our boat. I was itching to get back in the water and willing everyone to drink their super hot, tar like coffee super
We were right at the front of the group for the third snorkel stop as we didn't want to miss the Mantas. As soon as we jumped in and looked under the water we saw a large group. Unless you're at a Manta cleaning station (where mantas come to be cleaned by smaller fish), they tend not to stick around for long, so I'd started snorkelling without properly getting my mask sorted. This meant it kept flooding (mainly because of my stupid hair being stuck in it) and my quick attempts to sort it without properly stopping were not working.
After ten minutes it became apparent that these Mantas were not in a rush and so I took the full 30 seconds I needed with my head above water to sort myself out. We spent at least another 20 minutes watching the group of mantas feeding (their big, wide open mouths funnelling the plankton out of the water), bumping into each other and generally photo bombing my pictures. Then something very unusual happened. They started swimming round in a circle. Two mantas grabbed our attention - the larger one in front was being
shadowed by a smaller one. The smaller one kept getting very close to the tail of the larger one, almost biting it, and the smaller one would shrug it off totally unimpressed. It was mesmerising to watch! Just as we thought it could not get any better the larger one came towards us and turned onto its back, flashing its white tummy, and of course the smaller one copied.
We have only snorkelled once before with Mantas, but have had several encounters with them on dives. However this experience absolutely blew the others out the water (pun intended!) I could not believe how lucky we'd been. In the end we only got out of the water because the captain was honking the boat horn as if to say 'we haven't got all day - we're on a schedule here'. Our guide was as reluctant as us to get out of the water and leave the Mantas behind - we'd clearly had a very unusual experience. Later that night we did some internet research into Manta behaviour and what we had witnessed was some full on Manta flirting - the smaller male, shadowing the larger female!
If the boat had turned around at that point gone back to Labuan Bajo we'd have still had an amazing day, but we shad two more stops ahead of us! It was time to dry off and change into our hiking gear ready for Rinca.
Due to the wonderful Manta experience we were a little behind schedule and didn't make it to Rinca until 4pm. This was perfect from a temperate point of view (although it was still baking) but it did mean we could only do one of the shorter hikes. We were both fine with this - it was definitely worth the trade off. We saw our first Komodo Dragon about 3 minutes after we set off, hiding in the long grass. They look very unthreatening when they are lounging around in the sun but they are vicious! They are carnivores with a venomous bite and eat mammals weighing up to 100kg in one sitting before retiring for up to one month to digest their food. Juvenile dragons live in the trees to stop the adults eating them; they're not even safe from their own mother - how's that for zero tolerance parenting!
Our hike was lead by a ranger, armed with nothing but a wooden forked staff (seemed a little light to me). Outside the ranger kitchen there were several dragons lazing around. Their choice of location begs the question of whether they are fed. The rangers say not, that they are attracted to the area because of the smell, but it's odd behaviour for lizards that are normally solitary and not very tolerant of each other. This encounter felt a little false - and we were less than impressed when we returned to the same spot after hike and some of the rangers started throwing rocks to get them to move.
Our best sighting was a large, solitary dragon which was slowing moving through the grass (away from us, thankfully!) on the side of the hiking trail. They are so large and cumbersome that they move very slowly, giving the impression that they are barely able to lift their weight. But this paints a false picture as they can move at speed when hunting. If I'm honest they freaked me out a little bit and I was not keen to be at the front (or back)
of the group!
The rest of our hike took us upwards to a beautiful look out point with 360 degree views across fields and the ocean. After a few pictures it was time to head back to our boat so we could get to Kalong Island in time for sunset.
Kalong Island is home to thousands of Flying Fox bats. Every day at sunset the entire colony migrates to Rinca island. We got there in the nick of time, just as the first few bats had had started their journey from the island. After a few minutes the entire sky was full of them - it felt like something out of a batman movie. We'd not been at all bothered about this final stop, having never heard of Kalong island, but it was really impressive and turned out to be a perfect end to the perfect day.
***Please scroll down for lots of Manta pictures 😊 ***
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