I have lost count of them after a while. Identifying them is even harder. I thought I saw the Gillis, Lombok and Nusa Lembongan but I could be wrong. My map-reading skills and sense of direction are something I am not quite proud of. Indonesia is an archipelago nation comprising approximately 17,508 islands and we are currently flying over some, a fragment of what the country is blessed with. Some islands are enormous enough to house villages, vegetation and various facets of life. Some are tiny and uninhabited. Some have alluring appeal, fallen straight out of a postcard. Some are cliquish and close-knit encircling one another while some stand alone, outcast and possibly bored. Such is life even for the islands, I guess.
After an hour flight from Bali, I find myself in a noisy arrival hall slightly bigger than my house. There’s no baggage carousel. Workers manually offload each and every luggage from the plane and personally deliver them to passengers. The new airport building, a somewhat futuristic structure, is almost completed. A few more runways are also in the works as the city prepares to welcome more tourism in the future. Labuan Bajo, once a sleepy fishing town, is now a base, a starting point for visitors who come to explore the region, most notably Rinca and the famous Komodo Island. Located at the western end of its mother island Flores, Labuan Bajo is rapidly growing, dotted with 3 to 4 stars hotels, a number of international restaurants, services and numerous developments in the works.
15 minutes fast boat ride from a hectic jetty takes us to Saraya Kacil, a neighbouring island. Our friends own a piece of land on which they intend to build a beachfront hotel. So far, there are only a few budget bungalows next to their land, ready for business yet unoccupied. A man, possibly the minder of the property, sits smoking away sluggishly. A guard dog is tethered to a palm tree aggressively barking at us. Is he delighted to see a human presence apart from his cruel owner or rather asking us to set him free?
Turquoise water glistens under the warm morning sun. Pristine white sandy beach in front me is so inviting that I permit myself a first dip. There’s nothing but a set of small green slopes poking out of the blue ocean. The sound of gentle waves crashing to the shore is melodic to the ears. Especially now that I hear nothing else but that. It’s no fluke why some people may compare this atmosphere to that of heaven. It’s pure, peaceful and perfect to get pensive.
Clearly none of these small islands have electricity. Including this second one we visit called, Kanawa. Our boat driver drops us off at the pier, about 100 meters long wooden structure, which connects to the island. In the extended gazebo attached to the pier, a couple is relishing their time alone. The man is doing flips impressing his woman, jumping in and out of water. They say hi but when they realise that we are here to stay, they kindly leave us in peace. Or did we just drive them out of their peace?
Already in my swimming gear, no time for hesitation, I jump right into the crystal clear water. It’s not very deep yet I can’t reach the white-sand bottom. Various schools of fish are participating in an underwater parade. A large Barracuda dramatically leaps in a distance. This is truly a natural aquarium and I am swimming in it. The quality of the water here is beyond compare. Even those who aren’t that water-friendly would mind floating here all day.
We shove our pre-packed lunch down with a bottle of Marlborough pinot noir. From the pier ass I walk towards the lodging, I notice 7 small sharks swimming in the shallow water. Sharks! Such majestic creatures that swim in graceful manner. But if I had known earlier that these were in that very water I would not have jumped in. Even when my friend assures me that they don’t bite, it’s still shark nevertheless and I am forever traumatised by the Jaws movies.
A handful of tourists are enjoying their day in the sun. The stereo is blasting one of Sean Paul’s dancehall anthems creating a Caribbean kind of atmosphere. Two little boys build castles on the beach while their mum is catching up on some reading on her Kindle. There’s no 3G signal but I believe not many would mind not being able to update their Facebook status. At least for a few days.
Our next hop, Sabayur Island has a killer panorama and a stylish resort operated by an Italian family. Antonello, a sweet burly man, who’s still half naked in his wet suit, as he has just returned from a dive trip, comes to chat with us. What an enviable lifestyle he’s got! He gets to live and go to work here!
“I do love going back to Italy sometimes but then I start missing this”, he enthuses.
Komodo resort (www.komodoresort.com) offers world-class reef diving services and high-end accommodation: a perfect place to rejuvenate and unwind. Two comfy lounge chairs shielded by a large parasol are laid out in front of each luxury shack. Friendly staff at the restaurant, a stunning bamboo and thatch structure, are ready to whip out a cocktail or a few while one luxuriates gazing out at the ocean. I guess it’s time for another drink!
I must have nodded off on the boat for about 20 minutes. When I get a nudge from my friend, our boat has arrived at the Komodo Island, renowned for its residents, the Komodo dragons. These ferocious beasts are the largest living species of lizard that can grow up to 3 meters and weigh up to 70 kilograms. They are carnivorous and certainly venomous.
It doesn’t take long. We come across one dragon right behind the rangers’ office. Like the tourists, she as well is soaking up the sun, occasionally swinging her tail from side to side. On a bamboo stand nearby, the skulls of the animals that fell victim to the dragons are on display. The skulls of goats, deer and a water buffalo but no human, thankfully.
“Humans don’t have horns. That’s why”, jokes our ranger implying that if they do eat human, nothing would be left behind. The ranger, a 30-something year old, works ten days a month on the island and goes back to Flores where he resides. Still unmarried, he explains, because he not only needs to save up money to marry but also has to cover the bride’s brother’s marriage expenses. “Strange tradition”, he sulks.
He takes us through a grassy route into the wood and later shows us the nest of Komodos. There are at least 10 holes in the ground but only one of them is used for laying eggs. The others are to fool enemies such as wild boars and eagles. Nearby in the bush lies a gigantic dragon, lounging lazily. We learn from our guide that these dragons only eat once a month. The rangers have found a body of a dead deer yesterday morning. The speculation is that this dragon must have feasted on the deer meat and is currently on rest mode. There are more than 2000 dragons on the island (almost double the human population). I find it interesting that these unruly beasts despite their menace, are well conserved and even iconized in the region. The Komodo national park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991 and receives up to 45,000 visitors annually, which certainly feeds its economy.
On our return to the boat, we walk past a small house on stilts. Three Komodos are sleeping underneath. The men on the porch are enjoying a chat while their two young kids play nearby, clearly unfazed. “We always have to be on alert. Before we sleep, we always check around the house. Close the doors and windows. Also when we go out, we must keep a stick to shoo the dragons”, explains our guide. “Four people were attacked last year but they all survived”, he continues. Men and Dragons, I am thoroughly intrigued by their coexistence. Even when they don’t always respect each other’s space, they certainly must keep a distance.