When we decided last January that we’d be going to Bali in March, a side trip to see the dragons of Komodo was high on the agenda. Our enthusiasm drifted a bit as we started the planning process and found that it would be around $100 per day trip for the two of us to make our own arrangements to visit the park, not including meals and accommodation. Alternatively, we found a wide range of multiple-day, all inclusive snorkeling or dive tours that start around $150/day per couple and rise in cost as the extravagance increases. Either way, our daily Indonesia budget of $60/day was going to take a massive hit in addition to another few hundred bucks to fly from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo and back. Then there was the factor of the Indonesian rainy season that typically lingers through April. Our interest in Komodo was slipping away like a slimy eel held by greasy fingers in a hot tub full of olive oil.
The spark reignited in Java, in February when we met a pair of young travelers, Mimi and Eli who were heading toward Komodo soon thereafter on a tour they had just booked. The internet is absolutely astounding as a research tool for travelers and it has been a huge game changer for us compared to how we used to travel 20 years ago, but there still is and will never be a better source for travel info than current information exchanged among fellow travelers. Granted, you can’t always count on running into someone who will have the information you’re looking for in the same way that you can rely on the internet to always be there, but when such people with such info come into your view, that’s where the pure magic of long-term, open-ended traveling happens. We stayed in touch with those two, and after getting their report on how their adventure went, we promptly booked our own trip with Le Pirate, a company that we hadn’t yet come across on any of our previous internet searches.
We managed to score a sweet last minute deal through kiwi.com for a pair of roundtrip tickets to Labuan Bajo for $92. The early morning flight offered stunning views of the Indonesian archipelago between Bali and the island of Flores before landing us in the grimy port town of Labuan Bajo. It’s not a horrible place, but I see no need to linger there more than a few days, and there is a very tasty pizza joint called La Cuchina. The following morning we connected with the Le Pirate crew and the other 3 couples on our tour for a 4 day/3 night trip that ran us just over 500 bucks and included everything except park fees which set us back another $70. Price-wise, this company is definitely toward the lower end of what’s available, but we found the overall experience to exceed our expectations and render the money spent as no big deal.
The boat itself is a tight and stylish little set-up. There’s a covered hang-out zone/dining area with booth seating, where we spent most of our time relaxing on beanbags, nibbling on an array of snacks and chilling with the other guests, all of whom were super cool. The bathroom, kitchen, wheelhouse and crew quarters are toward the rear of the vessel, and most of the deck is covered by a second level that houses four sleeping cabins. The cabins are more like heavy duty canvas tents with comfy double mattresses and walls that roll up to make them open-aired. The coolest feature of the boat was the pair of outriggers on each side of the vessel that gave extra stability and supported netted lounge areas for us to relax on over the water. These were particularly fun to chill on while speeding along en route to the next location
Our four days aboard Le Pirate 1 basically revolved around two activities: snorkeling and hiking. We made two snorkeling stops on day 1, and it soon became evident that the underwater world of Komodo was just as enthralling as the above surface stuff, which is no slouch. At this point we had done numerous adventures throughout SE Asia, but the diversity of fish and corals here was on an entirely different level, and each spot had it’s own unique features and personality. Toward the end of the first day, we disembarked at Komodo Island to trek up to a stunning perch for the sunset. The views up there really put into perspective how vivid and rugged this region of the archipelago is, and the sunset itself was breathtaking. Darkness engulfed us as we made our way back down to the boat, and when we got there, there was a group of foreign tourists being interrogated by policemen. They had apparently rented their own vessel and had failed to purchase permits into the park. Our guide said they were likely to have their trip cut short and face some relatively heavy fines. He also told us that this was a common occurrence for travelers looking to save money and visit the region DIY style. After seeing the looks on their faces, we felt pretty good about spending a little extra to be fully taken care of by Le Pirate.
The next morning, we woke up around 6:00, about an hour before breakfast and started what became a tradition of going for an early morning snorkel while the others kept snoozing. The surface of the bay was a sheet of glass, and the underwater residents were just starting their day as the sunrise incrementally lit up the colorful aquascape. I figured I could start every day for the rest of my life like that, but we’d just have to settle for the next couple of days. Breakfast, like all of the meals, was basic but tasty enough, and everybody always got their fill, so kudos to the crew for keeping us well fed. The snorkeling spots that day were even more intense than the day before as we swam with sea turtles and had a close encounter with a banded sea snake, a venomous, but generally non-aggressive creature of intense beauty. The underwater highlight of the day came later in the afternoon when we located a group of manta rays and jumped in to snorkel with them for a while. These giant, gentle gliders laughed at us as we swam our asses off to try to keep up with them, and it goes without saying… we could not for very long. The end-of-the-day-hike on this day was particularly impressive, as we trekked up to a viewpoint overlooking Padar Island. This is the famous spot where the brochure photos get snapped, and even though we knew it was coming, it was about as dramatic of a sight as I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, and it was difficult for us to tear ourselves away from it, but the nightfall finally convinced us.
The next morning I went for a solo, early morning snorkel which turned out to be one of my highlights of the entire trip. The sea creatures waking up to start a new day of survival were entertaining as usual, and then a different sort of flutter caught my eye… a lone lionfish floating above intricate corals. As an aquarium enthusiast since a child, these have always been among my favorite fish, and it was a very special treat to be able to spend several minutes with this very large specimen as it patiently hovered in the same spot waiting for something tasty to swim too close and become breakfast. The first stop of the day was Pink Beach, a spectacular display of red coral crushed into a fine powdery beach. The contrast between the turquoise waters and pink sand was otherworldly, and the snorkeling in this spot was equally beautiful.
By this point in the trip, the eye-popping spectacles of nature were so common, that going to see the largest living lizards on the planet no longer felt like such a big deal, but still, we were all pretty pumped to disembark on Rinca Island and check out some Komodo Dragons. The set-up is a bit more controlled than I might have guessed, as this is not a pure wildlife safari kind of situation, but rather an outdoor educational experience focusing on these extraordinary reptiles. We arrived during the heat of the day in the late afternoon when all of the Komodo dragons were lazily sleeping the day away, as opposed to the early morning hours when they are active hunting, feeding, feuding and doing dragon things. There were about half a dozen dragons lounging around the park ranger camp, as they were attracted to the smell of food from the kitchen. This was great, as it gave us an opportunity to see these massive creatures relatively up-close. We were told not to get within 3 meters for our safety, as a bite can be devastatingly painful and loaded with bacteria that would require some serious medical attention. We were also told that there is a strict policy against feeding them, so that they remain reliant on their own hunting to keep themselves fed. The rangers were excellent guides with quite good English, and they led us on an interesting hike through dragon habitat, but there were no other sightings other than a nesting site, which they expected would hatch within the month. For me, one of the more interesting tidbits regarded their hunting and feeding methods. They typically prey on monkeys and deer by ambushing them and hitting them with a nasty bite. Sometimes they may be able to eat a monkey right then and there, but deer usually get away and don’t die for up to a week from the toxicity of the bacterial bite. Komodo dragons are master trackers due to their exceptional sense of smell, which means that numerous dragons may pick up on the scent of the dying animal, which will become the source of a communal feast. Apparently these beasts are fairly congenial about sharing.
For the final attraction of the day we jockeyed into position with several other boats near a small island just before sunset to witness the nightly ritual of approximately one million fruit bats leaving their daytime sleeping spot to search for food on neighboring islands. These giant flying mammals created a black, swirling cloud overhead for 30 or so minutes that was a curious mix of creepy and beautiful, and definitely spectacular. It was an exciting if not noisy sunset punctuated by occasional guano turds hitting the deck and a few passengers to boot.
Day 4 was comparatively anti-climatic. Part of that was due to an overcast, windy day with choppy waters which made for rough boating, but the other factor was that everyone was undeniably exhausted. There were a few more snorkeling spots, but by this point, most of the guests not named Jason and Haruka were taking a pass on more time in the water. We too were physically beat, but we just couldn’t resist the possibility of swimming with more mantas, turtles or some dolphins perhaps, and while those beauties eluded us on this day, we couldn’t deny the the gifts we’d been blessed with over the past four days. Group tours aren’t something we often go for, but there are situations where they just make sense, and in this instance, Le Pirate knocked it out of the park for us. So much gratitude for our crew, our guide Ferrell, our fellow travelers, Rae, Shi Ling, Zaki, Rima, Silvia, Lucas, and Mimi and Eli for the informative hookup!