x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Exploring Indonesia's islands by boat

An unhurried boat trip from Flores to Bali is the perfect way to explore the lesser-known islands in the Indonesian archipelago and to observe the famous Komodo lizards in the wild.

The journey by boat, with stops at a number of small islands in between, is far more interesting than the alternative - an exhausting 11-hour bus ride.
Scott MacMillan for The National
The journey by boat, with stops at a number of small islands in between, is far more interesting than the alternative - an exhausting 11-hour bus ride. Scott MacMillan for The National

Like little Jackie Paper, I've come on a boat to a land of dragons. Our guide, a man who calls himself Brother Lemon, leads the way up a sloping savanna to a prehistoric view.

"Welcome to our Jurassic Park," says Brother Lemon. The grassy hills roll to the horizon, and though there's no herd of brontosauruses in the distance, the scattered palms topped by round moppish tufts do vaguely resemble something from a Dr Seuss book. I'm half expecting a sabre-toothed Cat in the Hat to jump out of the bushes.

There are dragons here on Indonesia's Rinca Island - actual dragons, with forked tongues and fearsome claws - for this is the only place on Earth where the Komodo dragon, the world's biggest lizard, roams free. We're in a part of the Indonesian archipelago called Nusa Tenggara, or the Lesser Sunda Islands, where Komodo National Park provides sanctuary for a beast that, if it did not occur in nature, may well have been invented by a children's author with a streak of the macabre.

We spot the dragons slinking their way through the grass and forests, some of them approaching three metres from head to tail. Slothful but able to sprint short distances, albeit with an exceedingly awkward gait, they're hardly shy of humans. It's wise not to get too close, however. The Komodo dragon subsists mainly on scraps and carrion, plus the occasional whole goat or deer, and its saliva is so septic that its unfortunate prey, once bitten, dies slowly of a blood infection. When it's done swallowing the poor thing in huge chunks, it vomits the hair and horns in a smelly mess.

There are only a few thousand Komodo dragons left in the world, and nearly all of them live here, an area that's a dreamland for wildlife nuts, both above ground and underwater. Off the coasts, the tides between the Flores Sea to the north and the Sawu Sea to the south squeeze through the nearby straits, creating currents that make the corals, many of them shallow enough for snorkellers, teem with sea life.

We almost didn't make it here, for had we been more cautious travellers, we'd probably have taken a pass on this entire journey. In the town of Labuan Bajo, on the western edge of Flores, we met a man named Vigo, a good salesman with a few too many ready answers to every question. Vigo promised us a four-day, three-night live-aboard boat trip from east to west, starting here in Flores and ending in Lombok, where, on the morning of the fourth day, a bus would be waiting to drive us across the island to the Bali ferry.

Included in the package would be three meals a day, cooked up by the boat's own chef, daily stops for snorkelling and visits to the dragon sanctuaries of Rinca and the nearby Komodo Island - the highlights of Nusa Tenggara, in other words, all for about US$164 (Dh600) per person. I agreed with my co-travellers, an American-Irish couple, that this seemed the best way to reach Lombok and the delights of Bali, for the boat would bypass the arduous 11-hour bus journey across Sumbawa Island.

The Bali-Flores boat route has become popular in recent years as Flores and Komodo National Park have risen to must-sees on the Indonesia circuit. Flores natives like Vigo have capitalised accordingly, providing transport options - some cheap, some dear - in a place where tourism is still in its infancy. In Labuan Bajo, real estate prices have gone through the roof. "Ten years ago, land sold for 500,000 rupiah [Dh202] per square metre," Vigo told me. "Now it's 2.5 million [Dh1,006] per square metre."

We were sold on Vigo's boat offer - or so I thought, until my companions went to check their e-mail and came back shaking their heads.

In parts of the world where tourism is still a fresh commodity, a cautious traveller should beware of fly-by-night operations, especially where personal safety is concerned. Apparently, they'd found a post about Vigo and his company on the Lonely Planet message board, calling him a schemer and a liar while raising concerns about the safety of his boats. "This is an outfit you want to avoid," the post says, or rather screams, since it's written in all caps.

We hem and we haw. The timing is perfect. So is the price. We examine the vessel, the Dua Putra, and meet the crew - five guys, including the chef. The Dua Putra seems seaworthy enough, and yes, there are enough life jackets to go around. What's the worst that could happen? Capsizing, perhaps even death, true. But what the heck. We decide to go for it.

By our 9am departure, the two other potential passengers, a Hungarian couple, have cancelled, their money having been stolen from their hotel room. We set off with more crew than passengers: me, the American-Irish pair and a book filled with New York Times crossword puzzles.

An hour out from Labuan Bajo, we pull up to a deserted island for our first swim of the day, plunging into the water to explore a jungle of coral on the shallow seabed. With mask and snorkle, the world beneath quivers in otherworldly hues: turtles, sharks, manta rays with two-metre wingspans, and shoals of Moorish idols or schooling bannerfish shaped like kissing scimitars. There are also pulsating sponges, looking like disembodied human hearts painted in Fauvist colours, stuck to the sides of smooth grey-blue brainy lumps, breathing through aortas that expand and contract in silence.

Exploring Rinca in the afternoon with Brother Lemon gives us an altogether different view of the same area, with an unrelenting sun scorching the earth and everything on it. Even the dragons take to what little shade there is. As night falls, we take shelter in a cove off nearby Kalong Island. The sun sinks into the horizon in mere moments this close to the equator, and as the sky darkens, thousands of flying foxes, native to Kalong's mangroves, begin swooping overhead.

The sun rises at 6 in the next morning in the blink of an eye, and the boat sputters through the mist on the water's edge to the dock at Komodo Island, a shadier sanctuary for the reptiles. We get a closer look at the dragons' scaly hides here as they lurk among trees that provide cover and perches for even more fauna, including a pair of white cockatoos never before seen outside the local pet store. For the remainder of the day and night, we chug through the sea along the north coast of Sumbawa, making occasional snorkelling stops but glad to have brought the crosswords to pass the time.

Late in the day, a storm hits, shortly after we pass the lava-grooved slopes of the volcanic island of Sangiang. This entire coast is riddled with the signs of seismic restlessness: cones, craters, calderas and thermal pools. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the north coast of Sumbawa, registers as the most destructive volcanic explosion in known history, greater even than Krakatau. The event darkened skies and caused crop failures across India, Europe and North America, leading 1816 to be known as "the year without a summer." Though still considered active, Tambora has not erupted since 1967. Still, our sleep that night is disturbed by rough seas, as if the ocean itself wishes to remind us of its unquiet slumber. The boat moves side to side all night - lifted on a swell, then circling back down and up again in what seems like endlessly repeated figure eights. Despite being knocked about, our confidence in both crew and vessel is unshaken, and we're glad to have taken a chance on Vigo.

On our third day, I take a dip in an uncomfortably warm salt lake that takes up most of the centre of Satonda, an islet that huddles below Tambora's cone. We pull into Moyo, another island off Sumbawa, for one final stop, for we'll cut through the choppy seas until our morning arrival in Lombok. Our hair stiff with salt, we swim to Moyo's shore and head into the woods for a fresh-water swim.

It's hard to describe the experience of Moyo, for one can't seem to imagine a sylvan idyll like this one without picturing a soap commercial. To be here is to enter a world of crisp vitality and heightened colours. A swarm of butterflies flutters on the bank of a stream, their orange wings lit by sunlight piercing through the leaves. We wash off the accumulated sea salt in the pools of a waterfall, hanging onto roots that cling to outcroppings worn smooth by erosion. It's a comically perfect Garden of Eden, and for about an hour it seems I've been transported to a pure land without words, money and disreputable touts.

One is rarely far from the crowd in South East Asia's paradisical hotspots, but we saw no trace of humans on our brief foray inland here. It's not that Moyo is truly untouched, for the island's forest reserve is home to Amanwana, a luxury "tent resort" where splendid isolation sells for $800 (Dh2,938) a night. Even in the seemingly far-flung Nusa Tenggara, the tree of knowledge is never far off. I wonder later if the blissful experience of Moyo was just an effect of not having bathed properly for days, or of having arrived on a sputtering tub, tossed about all night by the waves. I didn't ask too many questions, but instead let the sensation wash over like the thundering cascade.


If you go...

The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Dubai to Jakarta via Doha cost from Dh1,715. Return flights on Air Asia (www.airasia.com) from Jakarta to Bali cost from 685,500 Indonesian rupiah (Dh280).

The journey Kencana Adventure (kencanaadventure.com; 00 62 370 69307)