Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia.
Get a taste of this spectacularly located, bustling fishing village on the western edge of Flores, overlooking the islands of Komodo National Park.
Twenty-one years ago, a girlfriend and I spent a month island hopping easterly across Nusa Tenggara, taking the public ferries and rickety busses across the stunning landscapes of Bali, Lombok, and Sumbawa. During those long, languid days, we practised our Indonesian with phrasebooks, played card games with fellow passengers and made some life-long friendships with other wide-eyed travellers.
It was on the edge of Sumbawa that we decided to take a trip on a rickety fishing boat to the tiny island of Komodo. Back then there was only a little fishing village gathered around the gleaming white dome of the local mosque, and the accommodation facilities for tourists was limited to a small cluster of wooden huts on stilts, a basic warung tucked under the roof of a communal bale and the ominous company of roaming Komodo dragons. A group of about ten of us were effectively marooned on the island for a couple of nights, and we bonded over warm beer, card games, Oreos and french fries, which the poor cook was constantly churning out on the one wok burner available in the kitchen. After our stay on Komodo, we chartered a fishing boat from nearby Labuan Bajo and visited a little outlying island with white sands and turquoise waters and a picnic lunch which was stolen by marauding monkeys. A lifetime of memories and connections happened all because my friend and I made the snap decision on a jetty in Sumbawa to visit the magical island of dragons.
Back then, Labuan Bajo was a collection of boats and buildings around a magnificent harbour. Two decades later, with an entourage of friends and our children, I revisited with only four days to spare rather than four weeks! Travel is much easier with the new airport, for a start. At the end of 2015, President Joko Widodo inaugurated the new modern terminal at the airport. The larger terminal can accommodate 1.5 million passengers per year compared with the capacity of the old terminal of around 150,000 passengers per annum. We flew in on a Thursday; on our approach from the airport down to the harbour, I recognised the shape of the coastline and the islands jutting out of the Sape Strait and into the Flores Sea.
The town of Labuan Bajo itself though has changed dramatically, having expanded into a hub for fishing boats, tourism operators and local government offices. Visitors are mainly here as a base for the Komodo National Park and the spectacular scuba diving sites. The road for the main area is a one- way loop lined with warungs, dive shops, travel agencies, and some higher-end restaurants, bars and cafes. Clusters of cosy homestays with fabulous views are etched into the hills rising from the harbour. On the beachside there are many little alleyways steeply stepping down to the coast and then a walking path to soak in the panoramic vistas of the smaller islands. There is an industrious bustle in the town, for as well as the foreign visitors, there has been a mass influx of local newcomers to find work in the tourist trade of this rapidly growing town.
Komodo National Park was founded in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon-the world’s largest lizard. The park comprises a coastal section of western Flores, the three larger islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca, and 26 smaller islands which are volcanic in origin with altitudes up to 735 metres. The terrain is generally dry and rugged and the climate is one of the hottest and driest of Indonesia. In 1991 the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and committed to preserving many other land and marine species as well as the infamous dragons.
On our four-day visit, our Thursday was used for settling into our high-rise hotel on the southern end of the town and discovering some excellent cafes and restaurants along the dusty roads. On Friday morning at 8am we met our guide and charter boat at the harbour and buzzed in our speed boat straight out to Rinca Island, which is touted as being the best place see Komodo dragons up close. The arid, mangrove-fringed entrance had a little research centre and some walking trails. The pictures of us up close to the Komodo dragon are a photography trick that all the guides know- we were actually about 3 metres away from the majestic creature. It was important not to get too close- not only can they climb trees and run quickly (almost as fast as humans), they can also swim to catch their prey. Komodo dragons are entirely carnivorous and can eat up to 80% of their body weight. They slowly kill their prey before going in for the final kill- the dragons excrete venom through mouth ducts when biting into the flesh of their prey. Although their victims might initially get away, the venom slowly and painfully paralyses them. If that is not scary enough, Komodo Dragons are also parthenogenetic, meaning they are able to have virgin births, and they are also known to eat their young. Certainly a species to stay a safe distance from!
Next stop was Padar Island, famous for the view of pink (from the coral particles), white and grey beaches. No one lives permanently but is bustling with visitors and guides. It was a hot trek up to the lookout and very popular but totally worth it. Lots of Instagrammers make the effort to come up to the peak and I am glad they do- it was very dry on our visit so we got brown landscape so thanks to them I can easily go online to see what it looks like when it is lush and green.
Then onto the largest of the three islands of the Komodo National Park; Komodo Island itself. It has changed a lot since 1998 and now has a very well-made concrete pier and some government offices. The restaurant that once fed us against all odds has been expanded and is a bit posher now, and the little huts that we stayed in have all been knocked down.
Dragons roam even the areas with visitors wandering around, and we were able to see them minding their own business and I suspect showing off a little, too! By this time the trekking had gotten us a little hot and bothered, as the temperatures in the middle of the day even in September can be oppressive for visitors. Our guide took us snorkelling on a pink beach off one of the many islands and then later in the afternoon was our greatest treat of all- as we were meandering across the sea bobbing with other little passenger boats, he suddenly told us to jump off for a special surprise. He had seen that we were being circled by two very friendly and cheeky Manta rays, and as we dived in with our snorkelling gear, we weaved in and around one another and they playfully showed us their tummies and twirled around.
The ride home was equally spectacular- the golden afternoon sunlight highlighted the contours of the rounded hills of the many islands, and the sunset from the beach at our hotel was stunning.
The next day we took a day trip to see a different part of the island and were treated with some wonderful views of the heavily vegetated hills and the ocean. On the way we saw tableaus of everyday life in western Flores- candlenuts drying in the sun on plastic tarps, a vanilla bean vine, cashew and jackfruit trees, and sweet potato and cassava plants. We parked outside school to look at some other interesting foilage and were greeted with giggling children, a happy wandering puppy and a gracious teacher who stopped to have a chat with us. They were leaving the school grounds to walk down to the local church. Flores is approximately 85 % Christian and 15% Muslim, as back in the spice trading and colonial days, the area was claimed by the Portuguese.
Our next and final stop was Batu Cermin cave complex, located east of Labuan Bajo harbour around four kilometres from the town’s centre. Meaning Mirror Rock Cave in Indonesian, the effect comes about when sunshine comes in through a hole in the tunnel and then bounces on the stone and crystal walls which reflect small lights to other areas inside the cave like a mirror. The surrounding forest is inhabited by long-tailed monkeys and features the umbrella rock, which before the missionary religions arrived, was revered as a religious site. A geological explanation is that it was created when a volcano erupted, and the big rock just happened to land on top of the small rocks. The Bamboo forest on the way to the complex had a very peaceful autumn feel about it with the palette of brown, yellow and orange leaves carpeting the soft ground. The roar of jet engines betrayed its location- adjacent to this peaceful, wooded oasis is the airport!
Our last day was a swim in the hotel pool before heading back to the airport. Our long weekend in Labuan Bajo was a magical mystery tour of coloured beaches, Komodo Dragons, Manta Rays, hiking, snorkelling, swimming and exploring natural rock formations. We all look forward to returning and next time make the time to wind our way from Labuan Bajo to the many other attractions Flores has to offer.
This article was published in the magazine The Voice of Flores– check it out here.