By Sue Hacking
The dry brown leaves crackled underfoot as we followed the path from the park headquarters toward the forest and hills. Large gray-brown roots of the ficus trees stretched across our path, and it was only a touch to the arm and a low pitched “Oh my gosh!” that halted us.
The “roots” were not plants, they were animals. Eight-foot Komodo dragons to be exact, lying immobile on the trail, their reptilian bodies still sluggish and chilled from the night air. Our park guide, gesturing with his stout forked stick, motioned for us to move aside, which we did gladly, realizing how close we had come to stepping on these powerful predatory animals.
We had arrived in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park located between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores at the border of the Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) and Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTP) provinces, just a few days before, entering by sea, from the east.
As there are no commercial facilities in the park, we made a quick stop at the town of Labuan Bajo, on the western end of Flores Island. LBJ, as it is nicknamed, has, since our last visit nine years ago, become much more upscale and inviting.
Previously, this town was no more than a dirty village of run-down buildings and broken roads, with no more than a few roadside shops, and a notoriously corrupt harbor master. Recently, the “new” LBJ has found its niche, catering to the dozens of beautiful “Phinisi”, traditional sailing ships, which ply the waters between Bali and Papua each year with their live-aboard divers or charterers.
In town, we were pleasantly surprised to find several small, but adequately stocked supermarkets, some lovely terraced restaurants serving the usual tantalizing Indonesian satays and grilled fish, but also pizzas, ice cream, Italian food, and Western fare.
The wet market dominates the waterfront with its slabs of concrete on which you can find all manner of fruits and vegetables, plus a huge array of fish, from small anchovies to mahi-mahi, squid, rays, baby sharks, and eels are evidence of the bounty of marine life in these waters.
During our stay in the park, we dove the gin-clear waters off Gili Lawa Laut and Gili Lawa Darat, home to world-famous Shotgun Reef and the current swept Crystal Rock dive sites. Swarms of trevally and fusiliers surrounded us. Soft corals swayed in the current, and turtles poked and prodded the dense acropora reef for tasty morsels. Bubble corals hosted tiny shrimp and green-bordered adhesive anemone sheltered skittish, curious orange and black anemonefish.We spotted reef sharks and huge tunas, and watched mouth-gaping moray eels as they surveyed their domains from the safety of cave-cut coral bommies. In the current-washed Selat Linteh (Linteh Strait) east of Komodo Island, west of Makassar Reef, one can drift snorkel with mantas, hop in the tender, drive up-current and do it again and again. Komodo National Park, its reefs protected by vigilante-like dive operators, is flourishing underwater.
Ashore, on the park’s three larger islands one can spot not only Komodo dragons, but wild deer, boar, macaque monkeys and buffalo.The animals are all protected, and there is an active group of rangers assigned to keeping poachers out. The park encompasses only two local villages, both of which are now fenced to protect the children, chickens and goats from the voracious meat-eating dragons.
We had anchored in the mangrove-lined inlet near Park Headquarters on Rinca (Rin-cha) Island for our three-hour guided hike. We came upon a female dragon that, using a hole begun by a wild forest fowl, was creating a deeper hole in which to lay her clutch of eggs, where they would incubate for nine months. We spotted a lithe juvenile, one of the lucky ones to survive the cannibalistic adults, and a mature dragon intent on running us off his path.
The dragons that had seemed so docile in the cool morning air were now agitated. They raised and lowered themselves on powerful forelegs, surveying their territory with predatory eyes, their forked tongues flickering in and out, tasting the air. We gave them a wide berth, acknowledging their position at the top of the food chain on these wild, Indonesian islands.
When to visit: SE Tradewinds dominate this area from May to October, while winds and rain come from the W and NW from December to March. Calms are common during the transition months of November and April. Currents can be fierce year-round, with some passes experiencing flows of up to 12 knots.
Anchorages: Anchoring can be tricky, as much of the region is either very deep (more than 120 feet) or too shallow, with beautiful, fragile coral. The Park has put in public moorings that are available on a first come first serve basis, but the dive boats tend to grab the best ones early in the day. Andy Scott’s Cruising Guide to Indonesia covers this park fairly well, and more information can be obtained on GoodAnchorage.com.
Charts: Virtually all charts of Indonesia are notoriously inaccurate, and they’re even worse for Komodo National Park, with offsets of over ¼ mile. We’ve found that satellite-derived charts, like .KAP files made from Google Earth, were the best for navigation, as they show reefs, shallows and islands in exactly the correct WGS84 locations given by your GPS. This is true for all of Indonesia, but especially true for the Komodo area.
Provisioning: Labuan Bajo is probably the best stocked town on the coast of southern Indonesia other than Bali and Kupang. Since it caters to the live-aboard dive charter trade, “rare” items such as good cheese and bread can be found. There is even homemade ice cream in an array of exotic flavors.
Indonesian bureaucracy: This has recently gotten much easier and cheaper. The president of Indonesia has just signed a bill which eliminates the Indonesian cruising permit, or “CAIT”, which previously had to be organized and paid for more than 30 days in advance of one’s arrival in Indonesia. The Temporary Import Permit (TIP) has also been eliminated, saving more money and hassles. Citizens of 90 different countries (excluding Australia) can enter for a short visit of 30 days, extendable for another month, or you can get a Social Visa with a sponsor letter, valid for 6 months. Super yachts still need an agent to ease the way for port clearance upon arrival and departure. There is an airport in Labuan Bajo that hosts flights from Bali and Jakarta, as well as neighboring Flores and Timor islands.
National Park fees: There are 2 National Park headquarters, one on the north shore of Rinca, and one on the southeastern bay of Komodo Island, the two largest islands in the park. There is a nominal ship’s fee, (under $20), and a daily per person fee of about $12. Activities such as snorkeling or diving incur other small fees. There is no system for collecting fees for multi-day visits, and most captains pay only for the one day when they visit the park headquarters anchorages. You are still nominally under the fee structure when mooring or anchoring at outer islands but only rarely does a ranger come round, and they will accept fees on outer islands.
Activities: Diving and snorkeling are world-class but there can be fierce currents so you need to time your dives with the tides. There are numerous dive operators in the area. Walks on the five islands that have Komodo Dragons (Komodo, Rinca, Padar, Gili Motang and western Flores) should only be attempted with a guide. Other islands are safe from dragons (but there are venomous snakes) for independent walking.
If you go: While most visitors enter Komodo National Park (KNP) through the gateway cities of Labuan Bajo in the west of Flores or Bima in eastern Sumbawa, the departure point for your trip is actually Denpasar, Bali.
Sue Hacking is a writer based on her 48-foot catamaran Ocelot. She has been sailing the world with her husband and children since December 2001. They have spent the past eight years cruising Indonesia and Southeast Asia. To read more about their travels, visit http://hackingfamily.com. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.