I should have been sad on our last morning in Indonesia, but as Vince and I walked down the dark, empty streets of Labuan Bajo at 5 am, I found it difficult to muster any feeling other than tired. We met up at the little stand where we had pre-booked our Komodo National Park tour and then followed the man we had booked with over to the docks where he directed us to a boat. We were the first people on the creaky, wooden boat, and we picked a spot on a narrow bench and waited as a handful of other tourists joined us. Within 20 minutes our group of about twelve was assembled and our driver maneuvered the boat out of a crowded marina just as the sun started to rise.
A pleasant breeze rushed through the boat as we headed toward our first stop, Padar Island. I was fully awake by now and excited for the day ahead, but I soon started to realize why the tour had started so early in the morning. This was the slowest motor boat that I had ever been in my life. The boat chugged toward our destination at a snail’s pace, and after hours of sitting on the uncomfortable wooden bench, we were finally in view of Padar Island. Once we could actually see our destination, it took another half hour just to make it to the island’s dock.
With our expectations for the tour now at a more appropriate level, we clamored off of the boat into the blistering Indonesian sun. It felt amazing to stretch my legs, and Vince and I began the hike up to the top of Padar Island enthusiastically. The main attraction on Padar is to climb up a tall hill for a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountainous island. While this was by no means as difficult as hiking in the rockies, it came with its own challenge: the heat. While we began the hike with energy, we quickly slowed down just because of the scorching temperatures. This didn’t detract from the experience however, because it gave us more time to appreciate the view as we ascended the hill.
The big claim to fame of the Padar Island view is that you can see three beaches, one with black sand, one with pink sand, and one with white sand, all at the same time. The pink sand beach, although a bit subtle, was visibly pinker than I expected. Near the base of the trail, we were surrounded by other tourists but after the first major viewpoint, the crowd thinned out drastically. Vince and I hiked all the way to the top of the hill where there were only a few other hikers.
Without all of the commotion of the bustling trail below, the top of the hill seemed very quiet, which almost gave it a quality of being frozen in time. I think the heat added to this feeling for me since it was making me feel much more sluggish than usual.
Vince and I enjoyed the peaceful scene for as long as I felt my skin could take it. Eventually, I started to feel like I was roasting, despite my fresh layer of sunscreen, so we started the trip back down the hill. We noticed some of the others from our boat still making their way uphill, and ended up being the first ones back on the boat.
Once everyone else had assembled, we left the dock and headed for our next destination: Komodo Island. This leg of the journey also took an insane amount of time, but eventually we pulled up to the large dock at the entrance to Komodo National Park. We docked two boats down from the actual pier, and had to climb onto the roof of our boat, and then jump across two other boats before finally jumping up onto the pier. Then once we were finally ashore, we didn’t really know what we were supposed to do. The two “guides” that were on the tour with us hadn’t spoken a word of instruction since we left Labuan Bajo. Even if I hadn’t known what to do on Padar Island, it would have been easy enough to figure out on my own, but Komodo Island is bigger and when you approach it from the pier, there are a lot of park buildings, and no one nearby to tell you what to do. The entire group from our boat stuck together as we tried to figure out where to go. We knew we had to get a ranger to guide us on a Komodo dragon walk. We knew this because many of us had done our research before arriving in Labuan Bajo. We didn’t know where to go to find a ranger, and our tour guides just stayed on the boat at every destination, so we did the only thing we could do and started approaching buildings, hoping to find some rangers. After striking out a couple of times, we were near a small souvenir market where a shop owner pointed even further down the path to another park building. This did finally turn out to be the correct spot, and we hired a guided walk and paid our park fees, a charge that our guides never warned us about. I guess I don’t really mean for any of this to be a scathing indictment of our tour. We basically got what we paid for with this. We definitely could have paid three times as much and done a tour on a fastboat, but we went for the cheaper option and overall, we did have a good time.
We ended up with two rangers who gathered us all together for a brief talk about Komodo island and the dragons. They warned us that the dragons wouldn’t be very active because of the extreme heat, but seemed hopeful that we would see one anyway. After the briefing, they led us onto a scorched forest path. Everyone walked very quietly, listening to the rangers’ intermittent observations.
Abruptly, the rangers stopped, and it took me a moment to realize that they had spotted a dragon. When I finally saw him, I couldn’t believe I had missed him before. He was huge, but he was lying so still and camouflaged so well with the forest floor, that I just hadn’t noticed. We approached him quietly and had some time to take pictures of him.
Then the rangers had us line up and took our cameras to get pictures of us posing behind the dragon. This cracked me up because back home, a few people had warned me to be careful around the dragons, going into grotesque detail about how violent they are. Even as we posed behind the creature, the guides warned us to stay a certain distance away, and held long, pronged sticks meant for fending him off in the need arose.
As Vince and I approached the dragon for our picture, I heard someone ask, “Do people eat dragons?”
The guide cheekily replied, “No but dragons eat people.”
With that comforting thought in mind, Vince and I smiled as the ranger clicked a few really nice pictures. Clearly he had a lot of practice with this.
After the encounter, we walked away as I pondered how strange it was that I was able to safely get that close to vicious predator just because it was hot out and he wasn’t hungry.
As the hike continued, we saw some beautiful birds, a wild boar, scores of timor deer, and a young Komodo dragon that put me to mind of the goannas, another type of monitor lizard, we saw on Whitsunday Island in Australia.
After the hike we had some time to grab a snack and poke around the market before we went back to the boat. Then our guides handed out our lunches and we ate as we took a much shorter ride to a pink beach.
The boat couldn’t pull up to the beach because it was surrounded by a shallow reef, so we had to jump out and swim to shore. When we washed up on land, I was again surprised at how visibly pink the sand was. I had this impression that most pink beaches must be highly exaggerated because when you look at pictures online, they tend to be obviously photoshopped to some bizarre shade of fuchsia. I just assumed that people did this because although the sand may contain some red particles, it is still mostly white, which isn’t going to be wildly popular on the internet. While the sand here wasn’t a blinding neon pink like those photos, it was very obviously a light powdery pink. This is caused by fragments of red coral sand mixing in with white sand.
Feeling satisfied to know that there actually are pink sand beaches in the world that aren’t complete lies, Vince and I got back into the water to snorkel. My perspective on snorkeling was completely different after spending the previous two days diving. I missed the weightless feeling of being submerged and neutrally buoyant. Diving had felt like I was a part of the ocean ecosystem, and snorkeling now felt like I was “the other.” This feeling physically manifested itself in the reactions of the fish. While diving, the fish and other creatures didn’t really seem to give much of a thought to our presence. They just went about their business, fairly ambivalent to us. When we were snorkeling, the fish darted away any time I so much as looked in their direction (save for a couple of clownfish that I was able to observe darting in and out of their anemone).
Despite my wistful feelings of missing diving, I did enjoy snorkeling at the pink beach. There were a lot of corals and fish, and it was fun to get one more swim at a reef before going home.
After pink beach, the tour had one more potential stop. We were going to swing by manta point, and we would get to jump in if there actually were any mantas around. I wasn’t very hopeful for this because I had heard that this wasn’t a good time of year to see mantas in Komodo, and that they had mostly migrated to the Bali area by now.
As it turned out, we were lucky enough to see a manta. The boat slowed down (a feat that had hitherto seemed impossible given how slow it was already going) in an area of open water where one or two other boats floated. Everyone began peering over the edges of the vessel, and sure enough, we could see a manta gliding around near the surface of the water. Our driver pulled up closer to the animal as we all frantically donned our snorkel gear.
One by one, we jumping into the cold water and started looking for the manta. My skin stung from some unseen irritant that I remembered being present when we swam with mantas off of Nusa Penida. Other than that, the experience couldn’t have been more different. The only people around were about six of us from our boat, and when I did see a manta, it was not because anyone had been chasing it or crowding it. Vince and I were floating farther away from the rest of the group when a manta emerged from the blue and swam right in front of us before disappearing back into the murky water. Watching the graceful manta glide through the water with ease was a mystical sight, and a memory that I will cherish.
It was a long ride back to Labuan Bajo from there, but we got to enjoy another breathtaking sunset, which seemed like a fitting farewell to the Komodo Islands.
The next morning we were able to enjoy at a slow pace before we had to get to the airport to begin our long journey home. Our time in Indonesia was coming to a close, but we were looking forward to spending a long layover in Taipei on our way back to the US.