“I guess I’m done being afraid.” This thought struck me as I boarded a tiny boat with 8 guests, two guides and two boatmen. We had arrived in Labuan Bajo the day before. This small town on Flores Island in Indonesia, has seen the fast influx of backpackers heading either to sea or to the jungle. It reminds me of the “ports of call” depicted in pirate movies. Booze, women, fishnets. Smell of garbage and gasoline. Unpaved roads with deep ruts cut by monsoon rains. A rugged frontier town ready to make a buck. Remote. Rough.
But today, as we head out to sea toward a group of isolated islands between Flores and Salawesi, “remote” takes on a whole new meaning. There is nothing but sky, water and hundreds of unpopulated islands.
Time for our safety briefing. Simple. “Life jackets in the back. Follow the captain’s orders,” explains our guide, Mikel. The captain grins, takes a drag on his Lucky Strike, and salutes us. And we’re off. Adventure on the high seas!
Today we are snorkeling our way toward our campsite. We see a Dugong off the bow. These giant sea cows are much like a Manatee. Paul, our “guide in training” says we are very lucky. He is disappointed that he missed it. And then the turtles! The joke is that every time I use the head, a turtle will be spotted. I missed seeing three of them this way. But there were plenty more of them. Along with the dolphins, porpoise and sailfish. And then the giant turtle we spotted while snorkeling. Easily a meter long. One friend saw a shark. Me? Not so lucky.
Arrive at our campsite as the sun is setting. Little open air bungalows with mosquito netting. Solar powered lights. Dinner at the canteen and planning for day two.
Komodo Island for the infamous Dragons. Apparently, these creatures were hunted almost to extinction. Then, the government banned all people from the island for four years and now it is a national park. You can only visit with a park pass and must have a guide with you.
Our guide is bravely armed with a big stick. Oh good. That will do it. Our first encounter is with some VERY old Dragons that have the pensioner responsibility of entertaining the tourists. A stick was more than enough protection from these old geezers! Still, they are amazing creatures.
We head back to the boat for more snorkeling and this time diving.
I’ve seen pictures of Manta Rays, and have never really thought much about them. So when I jumped into the water and found myself next to a five meter wide gentle giant, my mind was blown! Indescribable. We did a short “drift” dive and found ourselves underneath the Mantas. Then we snorkeled and watched them from above. Swimming in schools of 3 to 10, we saw them in their feeding “station” and their “cleaning” station. Everyone on board, including the captain, jumped in to experience this incredible moment.
And then suddenly it was our last day. A lovely hike on Rinca Island produced a wild Komodo. OK, I was worried that the stick wouldn’t cut it. We also saw a baby – just a little guy at 4 feet long. More snorkeling. And a long, leisurely sunset cruise back to Labuan Bajo. Not a single light on the dozens of islands we pass.
The solitude is broken when we head into the crowded port well after dark. We “raft” up and haul our bags across three boats just to reach the dock. We say our goodbyes and move on.
I feel incredibly grateful to have these adventures. Maybe I could become a pirate? I’m not afraid.