It was carnage. They attacked the food with no reserve, beating off the competition with their elbows, asserting their dominance with hardened expressions and decisive, practiced movements.
It wasn’t Komodo dragons that I was observing. It was my fellow boat-mates, two days into the trip.
As the piles of food began to diminish before my eyes, I took a brief, shifty look around before diving in myself.
Well, I didn’t want to go hungry either.
The sea less travelled
Four days, three nights. That’s how long it takes (with stops, of course), to sail between the islands of Lombok and Flores in Indonesia. The Lombok to Flores boat trip is a popular route among backpackers, but not all that well known outside of those who have made the trip here themselves.
We were half way through, and settling into life aboard a twenty-some metre vessel. We knew pretty much what we were letting ourselves in for when we booked – all the reviews of this particular trip said cramped conditions, no privacy, limited and basic food.
Pretty much no different from any other day in the life of a backpacker.
In the event, it wasn’t as bad as was made out on Facebook and Trip Advisor. It wasn’t five star luxury, sure, but we certainly hadn’t paid enough to warrant that anyway. Sleeping (unless you’d paid extra for a cabin) was sardine-style: a sleeping mat, thin blanket and pillow laid out for each person, covering the whole of the shaded section of the upper deck.
You pretty much share breathing space with your neighbours. And forget walking about up there – it’s crawling, or bending double, unless you want to sustain some serious and ongoing head injuries.
Still, despite the discomfort, it was well worth the trip. It’s an efficient way of getting east of Lombok without flying, and you get to see some amazing spots along the way that you might otherwise miss out on.
Different boat companies make different stops on the route, but we had to leave on a Monday (allowing a day to recover from the Rinjani trek), so we went with a company called Komodo Star Cruises, as the more popular ones only leave on Wednesdays and weekends.
We miraculously managed to coordinate with our friends Tim and Bernice, who we met in Kuta Lombok, and book a tour all together. It’s very helpful, when you are about to spend four days straight with a group of people, already knowing some of them beforehand.
Luckily, we liked them too.
So we rocked up at Bangsal harbour at some unreasonable hour, ready and excited for a further four days without a shower.
We miraculously found our friends, who had come from Gili Air, in the café, where what felt like hundreds of people were waiting for their trip to begin. We nervously looked around, wondering whether all of these people were supposed to be on the same boat.
We’d heard tales of overcrowding, but surely not…
Our fears were unfounded.
“Komodo, Komodo,” came the call, and a smaller contingent from the crowd got up from their seats, shouldered their bags and made their way down to the harbour, where the boat was waiting for us. And, joy of joys, it was a seaworthy vessel, with a motor and toilets and a place to sleep and a mast and sails and all the things that a boat should have.
So it was a good start.
A day of sailing
We had many discussions about what the word is for when you are travelling by boat but aren’t primarily using the sail. Motoring?
Anyway, the majority of the first day and night was spent [insert maritime verb here] our way around the island of Lombok, trying to cover a bit of distance before we got onto seeing the sights in the next few days.
We had just the one brief stop, which was just a chance to jump in the water – a blessed relief after a few sticky hours of recklessly soaking up the sun on deck. We all duly hurled ourselves off the side (OK that’s a lie, I climbed gingerly down the ladder), and splashed around for a while.
It was pretty wonderful. The water was cool and refreshing, and there were enough people about that even I wasn’t that worried about things lurking in the deep.
Rene, the cheerful German man who has enriched all our lives since the trip with his frequent and extensive Facebook posts about his travels, was in his absolute element. He would bomb in from the top deck, whooping, then clamber back up and do it all again. He spent a considerable amount of time and effort encouraging (pestering) others to join him in this activity, too, with some success.
All salty and soggy, we hopped back aboard and the journey was resumed.
Luckily we had beers and good company, or it might have been a less than thrilling afternoon and evening, as there wasn’t much to see but the hulking mass of Lombok on our right, and open sea on the left.
The drinking session was abruptly halted about an hour after sunset, as the sail was hoisted and the boat began to rock somewhat alarmingly as it churned through the water. It was all we could do to keep hold of our Bintangs, so the few remaining up on deck soon retired to bed.
We sailed (motored?) through most of that night, pausing at about 3am to drop anchor. The sea wasn’t especially rough, but even still it felt like we were lying in hammock accidentally caught in a high wind – less being rocked gently into slumber, more clinging on for dear life.
Though sleep was not particularly easy for most of us, fitful rest does mean that you are more likely to be privy to sunrise views, which none were complaining about. There is hardly a sunrise more magical than one viewed from a boat on the open sea.
I blearily poked my head out the window to watch, smiled in a vague, pleased way, and promptly drifted back off to sleep.
Once morning proper had arrived, we set off again, this time with a destination in mind. The first stop of the trip was Medang Island, one of Indonesia’s smaller inhabited islands, for a nose round.
The thing about budget trips is that sometimes you have to rough it. There was no smaller boat to take us to shore: it was a case of jumping in and swimming.
Everyone dealt with this cheerfully enough (even Bernice and I, who were both slightly nervous of ocean life), and we all emerged onto land in one piece. Our clothes were rowed over by two of the crew, and we all collected our possessions, dressed, and followed Iksan – our guide – along the streets of the village.
This is Indonesia, though, and no guided tour is ever all that guided. Half the group was soon lost somewhere along the way, Tim found himself invited for a spot of pisang goreng (fried banana) with an elderly local, and my half of the group were wandering without purpose, leaderless.
It was pleasant enough, though, and we got to see streets full of colourful houses constructed from bamboo and mud, and entertain several hundred primary school children with waves and high-fives.
Iksan caught up to us eventually, and told us to turn back around.
Just before we made it back to the beach, we encountered a group of locals carting two huge (and I mean HUGE) fish along in a wheelbarrow. As you do.
Turns out tuna are quite large. And we were about to enter the water from whence they came. Eek.
Next on the itinerary was Moyo island – smaller than Medang, and uninhabited. Here we walked a little way inland to find a hidden waterfall.
We then climbed up the waterfall, to reach a swimming spot (complete with rope swing and lots of high things to jump off). The boys (and Bernice) all took it in turns to do progressively stupid things into the water: jump from the rock, jump from the tree protruding from the rock, jump from higher up the tree on the rock, backflip off the tree on the rock.
I amused myself by sitting on the side and observing the expressions of regret on certain people’s faces (Tim) as they climbed higher than they had meant to and then had to jump.
One of the more active stops, Laba Island was a short hike uphill for views of the aquamarine waters surrounding it. I slightly regretted my decision to wear my sandals for the hike – but at least I didn’t have to dig around in my bag for my trainers.
Still, I wasn’t the most ill-adapted for the walk: we came across a girl wearing a bikini and a billowing Grecian dress-robe with a team of two photographers in tow, making the most of the view by inserting herself into it and taking pictures.
Sometimes I marvel at how weird this world is.
I had been worried about this part of the tour for pretty much the whole of the first two days.
For most of my adult life, I have been somewhat scared of fish.
Manta rays? Surely getting in the water with them would be some sort of cruel and unusual torture.
But the thing is, spending several days on a boat with more than a few diving enthusiasts meant that I gradually adjusted my view on things. It has taken more than a month in Indonesia, regular snorkelling (always with supervision), and no small amount of self-talk, but I think I am maybe over my fears.
At any rate, I jumped (OK, gently slid) into the water with almost as much enthusiasm as everyone else when the cry came up that mantas had been spotted. And anyway, Bernice already had a vice-like grip on one of Tim’s hands, so I couldn’t very well rid him of his capacity to swim by insisting on clutching the other.
I snorkelled all by myself in the deep, scary water, and I saw a manta ray drifting below us, and it was wonderful.
Until another boat almost ploughed through us all.
Red (okay, more like very slightly peach-coloured) beach
This was the last and best snorkelling spot, so it was only mildly disappointing that the beach was rather optimistically named.
Maybe sometimes it is red, who knows. When you pick up handfuls of sand, you can indeed spot pinkish particles in it, but by no means does it actually look to the naked eye like a red or pink beach.
But the snorkelling was something else. No bleaching or dead coral here: it was hordes of fish of all colours and shapes, darting in and out of healthy, vibrant reef. It was just incredible. If I hadn’t been so worried about getting sunburnt, I could happily have stayed in there for hours.
Komodo and Rinca Islands
The final major stops of the tour, on the last day, were Komodo and Rinca Island. Komodo National Park covers 669 square miles and encompasses a vast marine area and numerous islands. Komodo dragons are present on five of the islands within that area, and we visited two of them.
When you do the boat tour to Komodo island, you kind of prepare yourself for the fact that you might not actually see any Komodo dragons. It’s like when you do a jungle trek, you might not get to see the orangutans or the rhinos or the tigers.
So it was a bit of a surprise when we strolled down the boardwalk onto Komodo Island, and one was right there, lumbering around on the beach. And there were three more a little way further down, soaking up the sun on the sand.
Needless to say, they were awesome. In the real sense of the word.
But since we’d immediately seen them, it felt a little bit daft to go and walk around the national park on the hunt for more. But we did anyway, and we did indeed see more dragons (what a weird sentence that is), including a couple of baby and adolescent ones.
We then headed over to Rinca, which was essentially the same, and did pretty much the same thing. I’m not sure why the boat bothers to stop at both islands, but I guess we were getting our money’s worth so we didn’t mind too much.
We then had one final stop to plunge into more startlingly blue water, and from there it was on to our final destination: Labuan Bajo, and Flores.
It was an amazing trip, but boy was I looking forward to a shower.