We were dragon hunting, on a mission to see Komodo dragons. I knew this could be dangerous, but I didn’t know the dangers would start before we’d even left our hotel. Our balcony had a commanding view of the port in this sleepy Nusa Tenggara town. The price for that bird’s eye perspective was a treacherous walk down a slippery path to the pier. Calling it a goat trail would be an exaggeration. Goats would have turned around and went back to bed.
The town of Labuanbajo lies on the western end of Flores, Indonesia. It is the usual jumping off point for excursions to Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. So intertwined is its economy with its neighboring island that the airport in Labuanbajo is named Komodo Airport. I had brought my sons to this remote part of Indonesia to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine, to see Komodo dragons in the wild. But first there was a three-hour boat ride to endure.
It was 5:30 in the morning when our guide came to fetch us. We followed Misel out into the darkness and down the long winding trail. This is the part in the horror movie where the family is never seen again, I thought to myself. After what seemed like an hour but was only five minutes, we reached the main street which was wide and well-lit by comparison. We had the street to ourselves as we crossed it and walked out onto the docks.
Misel introduced us to Odin, the owner of the long boat that we were taking to Komodo island. A few salaams were exchanged and money changed hands. Odin sized up our small dragon hunting party and disappeared down the dock. He reappeared with fins and snorkels in our sizes as we stepped onto the boat and met our crew of two. They greet us warmly and moved around the boat finishing preparations. As we sat at a table near the bow, their movements indicated that this once-in-a-lifetime trip for us was routine for them. The sun was just coming up behind us as our boat slipped out of the harbor.
But first, manta rays
Komodo National Park comprises not just the island and its fierce dragons but the waters around it as well. The park sprawls over 600 square miles and includes more than two dozen islands and some of the richest marine diversity on Earth. A standard trip to the park includes a stop at Komodo or Rinca island to see Komodo dragons as well as several snorkeling or beach stops. Frequently, visitors will arrange a two-day trip and sleep overnight on their boat.
We ate breakfast – bread that we had bought in town the night before and bananas from the boat. The steady puttering of the boat’s motor caused Labuanbajo to gradually recede on the horizon. The sun steadily rose in its place. We took turns napping on the roof of the boat’s cabin, shaded by an awning a few inches above us. I woke from dozing to find that we were at our first stop, Manta Point.
Makassar Point, more popularly known as Manta Point, is known for the manta rays that swim there. It’s a popular stop on the Komodo tour, but there are only a few boats in view when we drifted into the area. Our captain stood on the bow scanning the waters below, signaling his first mate to throttle the engine back at the appropriate time.
The current is strong at Manta Point so we didn’t cast an anchor. Instead, we held a rope strung along the side of the boat and drifted slowly as we watched the mantas below. We could clearly see the ocean floor 30 feet below us, as well as the huge rays winging their way past us. The water is quiet except for the constant crackling of shrimp.
Indonesia banned fishing for manta rays in 2014, creating the largest manta ray sanctuary in the world. Our boat had a rope on the side that we just hung on as he slowly motored around the area. We saw a turtle and lots of tropical fish as well.
One of the best parts about Komodo National park is the size. At over 2,000 square kilometers, it never feels crowded. There were a few other boats in our area but it still felt very private.
Snorkeling at Pink Beach
After about an hour of snorkeling, we motored down to Pink Beach. The sand is pink because it’s composed of crushed coral and the remains of foraminifera, tiny pink marine organisms. There was a massive yacht parked in the distance, so big that it had an interior dock for “toys.” We anchored about 100 meters off shore. Instantly, two smaller junks pulled alongside with locals trying to sell stuff to us. Wooden Komodo dragons, abalone shell bowls, cheap fabric hats. They also offered to shuttle us to the beach (for a price, of course). I was a bit nervous about leaving all of our stuff on board but our crew assured me that it would be fine. We swam to the beach across beautiful corral. We saw a neon blue anemone and clam shells as big as your head. A few minutes later a larger boat pulled in and the junks abandoned our boat for a chance to make a sale.
We spent an hour on the beach and in the water. Back on board, the locals tried to make one last sale before we departed. We ate lunch on the way to Koh Liang, a tremendous spread prepared by our crew. Fish, Tofu, mee goreng, rice, veggies. There was enough food for eight people.
Komodo National Park
We tied up at Koh Liang and walked to the ranger station. There are fees to enter the park. Lots of fees. A fee for entering the National park, which includes the water around the island. A fee to enter Komodo island itself. A fee to hire a guide, which is mandatory. A fee for bringing a camera. A conservation fee. All told, it was 940,000 rupiah ($70 US) for the four of us.
There are three treks you can take, short, medium and long. Our boat captain had already told our guide that we only had time for the short one. It would last about an hour. We started down the path of crushed coral to the beach. The massive dragons were all laid out in the afternoon shade. Our guide explained that they’re more active in the morning. Standing three feet from a seven-foot monitor lizard, I was happy to catch them being lazy. A few yards away, a deer laid in the grass resting. Even though deer are the main source of food for the dragons, they only eat about once a month. I guess the deer thought he could risk it. Two more dragons lay under a porch next to the kitchen. We walked along the trail to a watering hole in the jungle made by the rangers. Along the way, our guide pointed out native birds and plants. He pointed out custard apples, tamarind, and palm trees. We startled a few boar piglets as we came around the bend. Suddenly, a few feet off the trail we saw another dragon. It stared at us with uncaring eyes. Its mouth opened to smell us. They can smell prey up to 7 kilometers away. There are over 127 kinds of birds on Komodo. There are over 2,000 dragons, outnumbering the 1,700 people who live on the island. Two more deer were getting a drink at the watering hole. They were oblivious to the dragon we saw a few yards earlier.
We came to a fork in the trail. Our guide explained that one path led to a souvenir shop while the other led back to the boat. I admired the fact that he gave us the option. Most museums make it impossible to leave without passing through the gift shop. We opted to check out the souvenirs anyway. We bought a hat and a wooden Komodo for the kids. A t-shirt for me and one for my father-in-law. Ellyn bought three abalone shell bowls; one for her mom and two for herself. When the locals discovered that I spoke Indonesian, they quickly switched to the local dialect.
Back on the boat, we started the three-hour journey back to Flores. Our ever-hospitable captain gave us cut pineapple and crackers as snacks. I think a longer trek would have bored the kids. On the way back, we had a pod of dolphins chasing our boat. Motoring toward Flores, time has an elastic quality. Each island you pass seems to never get closer until suddenly you pass it.
One of the best parts of travel with kids is opening their eyes to the world around them. When my sons talked about the latest movie trailer they watched on Youtube, I pointed out that the kids we saw back on Flores have probably never seen a movie in the theater. Their idea of going to the big city is to travel to Labuanbajo.
If you go to see Komodo dragons
Fly into Komodo Airport (LBJ), usually from Bali although Garuda Air does fly direct from Jakarta.
Stay at Bayview Gardens Hotel. It’s built into the side of the hill overlooking the bay. This means you’re going to climb stairs but the reward is terrific views of the bay from every room. The hotel staff can arrange a tour to Komodo for you. Alternatively, you can find look for other hotels on Agoda.