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Indonesia Part 3 – There be dragons and magnificent mantas!

So, it turns out that we inadvertently saved the very best for last (or nearly last). Our three-day, two-night boat trip around the islands within the Komodo National Park, off Labuan Bajo on the eastern tip of Flores, were some of the most memorable days of all our lives. It’s testament to how exceptional the trip was that even seeing the three-metre long Komodo dragons up close and personal was not in fact the best part of the experience. Nor was it watching hundreds of thousands of fruit bats flying over our heads as the sun set over the horizon (although that memory will stick with me for life). That spot was instead saved for the opportunity we had to swim with no less than twenty enormous (2.5m in width) manta rays, on our own, in the middle of the ocean, as they fed at the surface. For at least an hour. Aside from the birth of my children and my wedding day, this ranks as the very best experience of my life. Seriously. They are such exceptionally gentle, beautiful and inquisitive creatures that it brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it. And for Bean9, whose favourite animals are rays, it was out of this world. But more about that later. First, back to the start of the trip.

Day One

MrJ had hired a liveaboard boat, the LabaLaba Boat, for our sole use over the three days. A bit decadent maybe, but certainly worth the money, particularly at the lower Indonesian rates. In the early morning, we set out from our Labuan Bajo hotel and were met at the port by our captain, the first mate and chef. All seemed to be in their early twenties with very quiet, exceedingly laid-back demeanours, which I have to admit didn’t initially fill me with a huge degree of confidence. But it turns out, I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Although young and shy by nature, it turned out these three were exceptionally competent and I could not have asked for a better crew.

Our home for the next three days

As we jumped aboard the boat, the Beans were very keen to explore every nook and cranny. Our main living area was a large space at the top of the boat, most of which was covered, with the option of leaving the sides open in the day to allow a cooling breeze to blow through or be closed up at night to stop me stressing about the children falling overboard in their sleep! This was filled with six large mattresses, cushions and sleeping bags. There was a smaller uncovered section with large bean bags for laying in the sunshine and watching the stunning scenery pass by. We also had a small cabin off the main deck with two bunk beds, should we prefer to sleep inside (although this never happened). After allowing us time to explore and settle in, the chef brought us some delicious muffins and brownies and we set sail for our first stop, Kelor Island, only about 30mins from the mainland. 

Here, they anchored up and took us over to the island in their small tender. We hiked (or in Bean8’s case ran) to the top of the hill to see the stunning views over the reef and then it was time to get in the water for another snorkelling opportunity. Although not as pristine as the reefs off Hoga, they were nonetheless excellent, with abundant fish and corals and, now we’d got our eye in thanks to the lectures on Hoga, we managed to spot so much more. We were lucky enough to see a Warty frogfish hiding himself in the shallows, along with many different types of anemonefish, the babies of which are seriously cute! A cheeky damselfish took us by surprise by attacking us for invading (albeit hovering above) his territory – he even bit MrJ on the leg!

Back on the boat, it was time for lunch, which was unexpectedly both enormous and delicious. The food on the trip was a real highlight. Each meal, he served at least 6 different dishes (sometimes more) and it was quite honestly some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, all cooked in the tiniest kitchen space at the rear of the boat. I’m in complete awe of how he produced this mountain of delectable tastes from such a cramped and basic space. And in addition to the food, he also brought out a variety of refreshing ice-cold smoothies and fresh fruit juices, always at just the moment they were most desired, like after a sweaty trek or long swim!

Then, it was off to our next destination, Manjarite Island, for our second snorkel of the day. This one was much more diverse and interesting. We headed away from the jetty, out to the edge of the reef and along its length (always the best place for spotting interesting fish). The further out we ventured, the greater the biodiversity until we found ourselves amongst what felt like a private swimming pool filled with hundreds of brightly coloured fish darting in and out of the rocks and crevices of the coral reef. The large batfish, multicoloured parrotfish and distinctive Moorish Idols were some of our favourites. The Beans never tired of diving down as far as they could to get a better view of these fascinating creatures.

Do you see the little boxfish?

After at least an hour of snorkelling, which was exhausting given the strong currents in these areas, we took a well-deserved rest on the top deck whilst we sailed for a couple of hours to our third island. The first mate ferried us over to the island and, hopping out amongst the mangroves, we trekked up the hill to a large pink rock face with beautiful swirls of yellow and what seemed like iron ore deposits contained within. It looked in places like a giant piece of natural Aboriginal art. It was stunning – see the photos below. Bean8 has a passion for geology and loved exploring this natural wonder.

Once back on the boat, we laid out on the top deck in the now cooler temperatures as we headed over to our fourth island, Kalong Island, to wait for the sunset and the arrival of the bats.

Just before the sun dipped below the horizon, a trickle of large fruit bats started to fly off from the island and out over our heads (the captain had positioned himself in the perfect spot for watching this amazing phenomenon), and soon the sky was literally filled with a flurry of these black-winged mammals flying oh so very close to us. I’m not exaggerating when I say there must have been hundreds of thousands of them – the stream of these creatures venturing out to find food lasted for at least 30 minutes. It was a wonderful scene for us to experience snuggled up together on the top of the boat, as it bobbed up and down with the warm air blowing all around us. Set against the heavenly pink-orange sunset, this is a memory that will remain with us all for ever.

After the sky had turned an inky black, we moved to our overnight spot for anchoring up, eating another delicious meal and settling in for the night. We were thoroughly exhausted, so sleep came very quickly to us all.

Day Two

On a boat, you very swiftly adjust to a routine of sleeping when it’s dark and rising as the sun comes up, which makes for some early morning starts. This proved a huge advantage as the first activity for the second day was an hour’s trek on Rinca Island to see the infamous Komodo dragons! The temperatures in the Komodo National Park were in the late thirties and with high humidity, it made walking around in hiking boots a very sweaty endeavour. Hiking at 8am made it somewhat more bearable but energy zapping, nonetheless.

Our allocated guide for the trek was named Save (pronounced safe), which for some illogical reason made me feel more relaxed! He turned out to be an excellent and very safe guide! I’ll be honest and say that we were all VERY nervous of these, the largest living species of lizard, which can grow up to 3m in length and weigh up to 90 kilos. They have up to 50 different types of bacteria in their saliva, with two glands in their lower jaws secreting several toxic proteins. They eat very large prey such as water buffalo, deer, pigs and even humans. To kill their prey, they spring up and knock them over with their large feet and then use their sharp, serrated teeth to rip up their prey’s flesh. Should the prey manage to escape, they will die within a week of blood poisoning. The dragons follow them around until they drop, before finishing off their meal. And our protection against these terrifying creatures: a seven-foot long stick, which was forked at the end… What could possibly go wrong! But Save assured us that the lizards were afraid of the stick… Not wholly convinced, but aware that the only deaths have occurred when tourists naively go off on their own, and keen for the Beans to see these amazing animals, we set out to find some.

I first saw Komodo dragons with my family when I was thirteen. On reflection, as a young teen and new into the travelling world, I was not remotely safety conscious or worldly wise. I’m embarrassed to admit that I distinctly remember chasing one Komodo dragon (on my own) just to get a good photo shot before my sister and mum realised and dragged me away… Not very clever. Luckily for me, they were very well fed in those days and so I survived to tell the tale. But something changes when you have children – you become decidedly aware of every possible hazard that could conceivably occur to threaten your loved ones. And so, this time around, I made sure to fully brief the Beans (who are significantly more safety conscious and worldly wise than I was at their age) on all the potential dangers. Aside from the dragons, Komodo Island (and I’m assuming it’s pretty much the same for Rinca) has the world’s highest concentration of venomous snakes per square metre – it averages out at one venomous snake per square metre… So, we made sure to not only keep them behind the ranger (and the big stick) but also in the middle of the pathways and to not trail their hands into the neighbouring vegetation as Bean8 has a tendency to do!

Although the Indonesians do not feed the Komodos anymore, they often hang around the ranger’s camp as they smell the food from the kitchen, so we didn’t need to go very far to see our first glimpse of these behemoths right next to where I’d just taken the children to the toilet! It ambled towards us and then stopped to bask in the sunshine. We watched him for a while and then moved on. A few minutes later, Bean8, who had, despite the warnings, managed to get marginally ahead of the ranger, started to turn a corner around the edge of a building but then jumped back in fear, muttering, “There is no way I’m going around there!” As we peaked around the corner, now behind the ranger, there in front of us were no less than eight of these enormous beasts, some laying down and others roaming around, clambering over one another. It quite literally took my breath away! I must have been mad to try and chase one of these.

Cautiously we positioned ourselves closer, watching and photographing them before heading off into the jungle for our trek. Apparently, it’s very unusual to spot the Komodos in the wild or to see them moving around. Normally, you’ll just get to see them basking in the sunshine by the ranger’s camp. We were very lucky indeed to spot one crashing through the jungle, another sauntering through the mangroves and two more wandering along beside us on our hike across this island. Save showed us where the Komodo nests were located – they make several of these nests, many of which act as decoys. It takes eight months for the young Komodos to be ready to hatch out of their eggs and the temperature of the island at that time determines what sex the dragons will be – if it’s hotter, they’ll be male, cooler and they’ll be females. In addition to the dragons, we stumbled across some long tailed macaques, water buffalo, many deer and some stunning views from the top of the hill. A good morning’s hike all told! And a great story to tell their cousins – their three-year old nephew in particular was seriously impressed to see the picture of them with a real life dragon!

Back on the boat, we headed to the aptly named Pink Beach – the sand really did look pale pink thanks to the eroded particles of pink coral mixed in with the ordinary white sand. Here was another opportunity for some excellent snorkelling with pufferfish, colourful wrasse, parrotfish, butterflyfish and anemonefish galore. There were however also a lot of jellyfish floating around, which managed to sting us on the small areas not covered by our wetsuits or masks. Following a particularly bad sting on the lips, Bean8 decided to head to the beach instead to make a coral garden out of washed up pieces of dead coral. Bean9 stayed out with me for a little longer before following her brother in the coral garden construction but I remained out on the reef for as long as possible. After this, we had a little bit of time to wait on the boat before lunch. So, the Beans decided this was the perfect opportunity to jump off the boat from the top level into the crystal clear blue sea, about a 4m drop! Screams of delight were heard as they jumped in over and over again, pulling funny poses for the camera!

The Pink Beach

Fortunately, after a large nosh up, we had a fairly long time to rest and read our books as the boat made its way to Komodo Island for our afternoon hike. To be honest, we probably could have done without this second walk and we certainly saw much less although the three Komodo dragons we did see were the biggest of the lot and it’s the only time I’ve ever spotted deer and wild pigs chilling out on a beach. Our guide was less than keen to hike anywhere other than the two spots near the camp where the Komodos hang out, but we eventually persuaded him to go on the medium trek up the hill. Overall, Komodo Island felt much more touristy and there was a certain edge to it (this was the only place in Indonesia where the locals were less than friendly) – if you had a choice, I’d definitely recommend going for the quieter island of Rinca instead for your dragon spotting experience.

To finish off the day (although I was ready to crash by this stage after all the physical activity we’d done in the excessive heat), the crew took us to a little beach, set up a table and chairs for us with lights and candles laid out all around. They started a fire to cook our fish for the evening meal whilst the Beans set up a long jump in the sand, spending ages trying to outdo each other’s length jumped. I looked on in wonder at their boundless energy – I’d have happily curled up in the sand and fallen asleep if I could! The crew served us our tasty dinner after which we hopped back in the tender and straight to our beds. Unfortunately for me, I woke in the middle of the night to a sharp pain on my back. Something had obviously got itself wrapped up in my sarong and I must have rolled on it in my sleep. I reached out to pull it off and it attached itself sharply to my finger. After a lot of flapping and yelping on my part I managed to get it off and find the torch to see what had attacked me. It turned out to be a praying mantis! Who knew that these placid looking creatures could give such a nip? In my panic in the dark, I’d imagined much worse, especially as we’d spotted an enormous (and very venomous) sea snake beside the boat before heading up to sleep.

Day Three (our favourite)

As if our experiences to this point were not enough, the best was still to come. We started our day with another early morning hike to the top of the hill on the beautiful island of Padar. From the top, you could see the most gorgeous view across the four beaches on either side of the island. Just stunning and worth the sweat and toil to reach the summit. I’ll let the pictures do the talking!

We then set off for Manta Point, but before we even reached it, the first mate popped his head up and asked if we wanted to see mantas. Err yes, most definitely! I’d hoped we’d be able to see these majestic creatures, but I wasn’t convinced we’d be that lucky. In our excitement, we literally ran to the bow of the boat to watch these enormous animals swimming alongside and under the boat. In my rush to get into the water, I pulled on a pair of swimming leggings, grabbed my mask and jumped straight in, not bothering to change my top in my haste. The captain threw me down some fins so that I could do a recce whilst MrJ helped the kids get ready. Unfortunately, the currents were so incredibly strong that I couldn’t catch up with the manta rays. There was no way the children would manage with these currents. So, they pulled out the tender for us all and drove us on to where the mantas were swimming. We slipped into the water and it was like entering another world.

At least twenty of these sublime beauties were feeding at the surface, swimming around us in circles. It was at the same both time terrifying (they’re so big!) and breathtaking. You’d be gaping at one 2.5m wide manta ray and then turn around and be faced with another moving gracefully through the water straight for you. We were being stung by jellyfish, but I genuinely didn’t notice until later such was my focus on these gentle giants. MrJ and I had a child each and we tried to keep up with them, but at the same time out of their way (I didn’t want to interrupt their feeding process). They seemed completely unfazed by our presence in the water with them and if anything were just curious about us, swimming so close we could have reached out and touched them! All told, we were in the water for about an hour, slipping in and out of the tender to keep up with them. I could have stayed in their presence all day, but I started to feel Bean9 shivering uncontrollably next to me. She hadn’t complained once such was her desire to stay with them, but it was clear we needed to get her warm. Reluctantly we decided it was time to head back to the boat, all of us grinning from ear to ear and buzzing with the excitement and privilege of such a phenomenally special experience. It was life-changing. I really don’t think my words do justice to just how sensational this encounter felt.

If you’re remotely interested in seeing the mantas for yourselves, I’d highly recommend this part of our trip. In 2014, the Indonesian government realised the manta rays were worth about a million dollars each in tourism revenue over their lifetime as opposed to $300-400 to sell for meat. As such, they outlawed the fishing and export of manta rays to protect the species, offering sanctuary in Indonesian territorial waters to more of these creatures than any other place in the world. Manta Point sits directly on the channel connecting the Indian and South West Pacific Oceans and is rich with plankton, attracting the beautiful manta ray for feeding and cleaning.  Sadly, these creatures are classified as vulnerable, as whilst safe in Indonesia, in other parts of Asia they are hunted for their plankton filtering gills which are used to produce medicines. It would be criminal were we to lose these intelligent good-natured animals. At least for now, they’re safe and thriving in Indonesian waters.

It was dragons that drew us to the Komodo National Park, but we left with manta rays in our hearts.

After this overwhelming experience, we needed a bit of a rest, but first up the crew took us to a tiny little strip of white beach in the middle of the ocean, with a circumference of only 200m! We explored a little whilst Bean8 made another coral garden and then it was time for our last lunch on the boat.

Our final destination for the day was Kanawa Island, for more snorkelling/relaxing on the beach before heading back to Labuan Bajo for the evening. We were sorry to say goodbye to this lovely little boat and her crew, but quite keen for a proper wash after our three days at sea!

There have been so many amazing experiences on this extended trip of ours, but without a doubt in my mind, this three-day excursion has to top them all.

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