This is what happens when you go on an off-the-grid trip and the camera is the only toy they have around.
Next time maybe we should bring a few more things to do…
Our trip to Flores didn’t end with komodos and sharks. Instead, we packed up from our island paradise early in the morning and caught the shuttle boat back to the main island, where we were scheduled to meet up with our next adventure team!
I arranged a three-day “crater lake camping tour” with a local company who made it easy for us by arranging everything from transport to food to tents, plus we had great fun with our tour guide and driver.
They picked us up at the marina in their awesome vintage land rover. We piled into the cab, along with provisions, packs and a foursome of live ducks they were taking up to the campsite – I assumed for dinner, and I was not wholly displeased about that – but they were for a little menagerie the company was starting up at their campsite. Roast duck was off the menu. Up we went, climbing the winding mountain roads away from the dry coast and into the cloud forest at the heart of the island. The roads were steep, but luckily they were freshly paved, making the ride a bit easier. Not easy enough, though… about half an hour up the road, the Land Rover started running too hot, and when smoke started billowing out of the hood it was clear we weren’t going any higher. We pulled over and leaped out as smoke filled the cab, and I was pretty sure the whole thing was about to burst into flames. Luckily the rad purged and put out the fire, but not before the wiring was completely destroyed.
So there we were, on the side of the road with a menagerie of hot, tired kids and hot, tired ducks, and no obvious way to continue up or go back down. At least we had a whole truck full of outdoor gear. We set up camp on the shoulder, played some cards, ate some chips, drank some beer, and watched trucks and buses pass us on the highway. The commuter buses are colorful and open-air like South American camionetas, but instead of being filled with people and chickens, they are filled with people and sound systems blasting dance pop music. We dubbed them “party buses”. In the end, we didn’t have to ride the party bus back to town (I can’t decide if I’m sad about this or not), since the Land Rover replacement truck rescued us an hour so later. This one was just an extended cab pickup, which meant 7 people couldn’t all fit. So I crammed a kid on my lap and our tour guide ended up on the pile of packs in the truck bed. Mostly settled in, we continued our climb up the side of the mountain and then dipped back down toward the crater lake that would be our home for the next few days.
We arrived at the campsite in mid afternoon and spent a few hours relaxing while they set up camp. The site was a clearing in the forest, sloping down toward the water, with a bamboo gazebo for meals and a toilet curtained off in the roots of an old fallen tree. I’d say it was pretty much fantastic. Oh except that a bunch of ugly cicadas had shed their skins recently, leaving giant discarded bug skins all over the place, which then got stuck to all our stuff. But I guess you can’t win ’em all.
That afternoon we took it easy, went for a swim in the sulphuric crater water (filled with dragonfly larvae, it was gross), and hammocked away the day. Evening fell, and we stayed up late playing cards, stumbled to bed in velvety darkness and slept in tents under the stars – the sounds of the jungle a soft lullaby around us.
…Until morning, when the loudest, most annoying birds and monkeys apparently wake up before the sun and like to share their raucous eating or fighting or copulating or whatever it is that annoying jungle creatures do at the crack of dawn. So we were up early. Seriously, I could still see stars.
Having such an early start to the day, we decided to go on a couple of little trips around the area, with the promise of waterfalls, forest hiking, coconut villages, hot springs, and beautiful views. B wasn’t feeling too great and decided to hang back to test out the forest potty for the day – and he had adventures of his own while we gone. More about that later.
Meanwhile, C and I set off with the kids, destination: hiking to and swimming in a nearby waterfall. We drove for about half an hour and stopped in a little village to park the car. Now, we were basically in the middle of nowhere in the jungle of a remote island. And our pair of blonde-hair, blue-eyed kids was just too much for the villagers to handle – they surrounded us, chattering and cooing and trying to touch, calling the kids ‘angels’ and ‘so beautiful’. All with good intentions, but it was just too much for the kids to handle. LittleB lost it and hid behind the truck for a time, while J clung to my legs like a panicked sloth. We shuffled them off toward the hiking trail, and I did my best to explain to them how “we are visiting these peoples’ land and property, and as their guests we must be gracious and accepting of their culture and behavior…” etc. Not sure it helped very much. But thankfully the villagers only followed us down the path for about 15 minutes or so until we managed to leave them behind.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that we have some issues with J being the tripping & whining master of the household, so hiking is not always the easiest thing with her. And it wasn’t a perfectly smooth trail by any means, with rocks and leaves and hidden roots and holes. But we made it relatively unscathed other than one or two slips. Miracle! And then there we were: waterfall!
It wasn’t a huge waterfall, but it was nicely positioned and the rocks were streaked with beautiful blue and orange hues. After some coaxing, we got the kids into the water. It was… pretty cold. Actually, more like gasping cold. But it was refreshing after our hike, and who wouldn’t take the opportunity to swim in a waterfall in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago? We probably only got one or two parasites, no big deal. So we swam over to the falls, and under them, and through them. J was too grossed out by the little bit of fuzzy algae on the rocks to pay attention to the waterfall, but the rest of us enjoyed it thoroughly.
Soon we headed back, managing to avoid any major bodily harm on the way, snuck out past the villagers and arrived back at camp.
Apparently while we were gone, B had spent most of his time sitting in the gazebo and playing solitaire with a deck of cards. Then a guy showed up. Just a local villager guy. He didn’t speak English, and B’s Indonesian is primitive, so the guy managed to gesture that he wanted to play cards with B. Weird. B was gesturing kind of like, no no, I’m sick, go away… Guy hung around anyway. Ate some gross crackers we left on the table. Watched B play cards. Finally wandered off. CAME BACK. But this time with about 50 other villagers, all of whom were super excited to see the white man-giant in their neighborhood. And they proceeded to queue up to shake B’s hand and introduce themselves one-by-one. So Instead of a quiet afternoon, B had to run the gauntlet of the most uncomfortable receiving line ever.
Next up? Coconuts, hot springs, and MORE waterfalls!
After we left Komodo Island, the boat stopped at a few choice snorkeling spots. The first was “Manta Point”, where we would be able to swim with manta rays. C and I hopped out and floated around for a while. But it was a bust, no mantas. The next spot was a sheltered rock-face, but surrounded on either side with brutal currents: only B got to go on this one. And he was lucky! The group saw at least two turtles, and B followed one of them around, filming it NatGeo-style.
We made it back to island in time for a lovely dinner on the beach, under some glowing lanterns and the soft light of sunset.
We also spent our last day on the island snorkeling. C and I went out in the early morning, hoping to see all the underwater creatures starting their day – but we should have checked the tide report first, because the day was on its way toward an incredibly low tide, and all of the coral beds were already beginning to peek out of water’s surface. We still managed to get into the water at a deeper point from the dock, and spent about half an hour circling the coral’s edge around the base of the island. It was a busy morning for the ocean creatures after all, and we saw all sorts of fish. Here are my taxonomically accurate descriptions: long skinny fish, big-eyed red ones, ‘Scar’ from Finding Nemo, shiny tiny blue ones, flat silver ones, plus a few lionfish!
Later that morning, we settled on the beach so the kids could play, and I took LittleB for his first-ever snorkel around a shallow lagoon. It was getting warm, but we still saw quite a few little coral feeders. Snorkeling with kids is all fun and games until someone forgets how to float (him), or doesn’t remember how to breathe in a snorkel (him), or freaks out and steps on the coral (him). Luckily there was no great damage to either kid or wildlife.
Next up, B decided to go out on his own a bit further from shore. While he was away, I spent the time playing ‘rock or coral’ with the kids, where you grab a big piece of sediment from the shallow water and try to guess if it’s – you guessed it – ‘rock’ or ‘coral’. It’s about as fun as it sounds. Then we played ‘the tiniest shell of them all’, where you try to find – you guessed it again! – the ‘tiniest shell of them all’. I won, hands down. Meanwhile, as it turned out, B’s trip was lucky again. He stumbled onto a huge reef shark basking in the water, and again, followed it around NatGeo-style (hoping it wouldn’t get aggressive and chomp him. Actually, we’re pretty sure he was safe, reef sharks just eat little fish. Maybe I should confirm that…. yep, just back from Wikipedia, where apparently what he saw was a very large bamboo shark, and “They are sluggish fish, feeding off bottom dwelling invertebrates and smaller fish.” Phew!).
We spent the rest of the lazy afternoon swinging in the hammocks by the shore.
That evening the tide came back in, so C and I ventured out again. This time, we were treated to a colorful scene of fish and coral beds as far as we could see. The late sun was angling through the surface, with a warm glow. This trip definitely felt the most like ‘Finding Nemo’ – you know, because that’s where basically all of my ocean knowledge comes from. But we did see some neat things, bright purple coral, an octopus, and even a (presumably venomous) sea snake! (Ok, ok, checking…. well, apparently we probably saw a banded sea krait, that IS venemous but not aggressive toward divers. Phew!)
That evening, we ate on the beach next to another glorious sunset, and sat up late watching our friendly house gecko eat giant cicadas. Good times. Tomorrow we would be heading back to the mainland for a few days of camping! See you there.
The main reason we went to Flores was to visit Komodo island, which was much closer to our resort than the mainland (one of the reasons we stayed there). So the first day, we booked a day trip that took us about 2.5 hours by boat to Komodo for a hike around the island, with some stops planned at a few good snorkeling sites on the way back to the resort.
The boat ride was smooth but long – especially for the little excited people we had with us. At first, they were both heartbroken that I wouldn’t let them ride on the roof of the boat with some of the adventurous adults on our tour, but they settled down on the main deck and we passed the time playing “the movie game” – where someone thinks of a movie character and the rest of us have to guess who it is by asking yes or no questions. LittleB is a master at this game, and J is pretty good, although I have a feeling that she just waits until you guess someone she likes and says that’s who it is without having had to think of someone herself. It’s a very subversive way of playing. In fact, now that I think about it, she basically makes us do all the work but gets to be in the game. Sneaky!
Anyway, we spent the rest of the time watching the islands and ocean go by. Flores is so dry, the land we could see was painted in scorched browns and reds. They were the kinds of deserted islands that a pirate would ditch you on and you would die immediately because there wouldn’t be a single scrap of food or drop of water. It looked just like the kind of place you might expect to see dinosaurs, and I admit I broke out into the Jurassic Park theme song more than once. Soon we arrived at Komodo, and it was much the same, only bigger. And very, very hot.
The island offered three walking tours, and our tour group decided on the medium, 2-km hike. As it turned out, we couldn’t have taken the longer 4-km tour even if we wanted to, because it was so hot, the park rangers themselves wouldn’t go that far. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk very long before we saw our first dragon! And luckily, it was so hot, he wasn’t doing very much. Mostly he just lay in the shade and tried to ignore us as we all milled around at a cautious distance. At one point, he stood up and ambled about 3 meters to another bit of shade and lay down again – but you would have thought we were all seeing our baby taking his first steps, with all the excited giggling, gasps and furious photo taking. “Ohmigod he’s walking!” “Quick, move out of the way!” “Aw, look at his little feet!” etc. etc.
Here’s a video of our second dragon, a lady dragon walking very slowly through the woods:
After the rangers cajoled us all into taking close-up shots with the once again stationary dragon, we moved along on our way. Did I mention how hot it was? I would guess it was probably about 45 celsius, no breeze, blaring hot noon sun, burning hot volcanic sand, and only scrubby trees without much shade. Needless to say, the kids were pretty whiny. The only thing keeping LittleB going was the hope of seeing all the dragon poop in the forest (we took pictures of it), while J spent most of the time complaining about just about everything. But they still did the whole walk, even up a huge hill and down through a rocky pathway, and I was proud of them.
In the end, we managed to see 4 dragons in all, though the last one we saw, lying in the shade at the side of the toilet hut, seemed more like a lazy pet than a wild, fierce beast.
At the end of the walk, we spent a few minutes resting at the entrance, trying our best to avoid buying overpriced kick knacks, all mostly in the shape of komodo dragons. C succumbed and bought a fridge magnet.
Soon we hopped back on the boat, hot and sweaty and ready for a swim with some manta rays – next stop!
Earlier this month, my friend C came to visit from Canada. We’ve been best friends for almost 30 years (!!), and although we haven’t lived in the same city for quite some time, we’ve always been close. Having her visit made me feel whole again.
In celebration of her visit, we decided to tour Nusa Tenggara Timur – where you’ll find the islands of Flores and Komodo. It was top of our Indonesia bucket list – because who doesn’t want to see komodo dragons in their natural habitat??
On our way to Flores, we had the terrible inconvenience of a two-night stopover in Bali. We had a hard time enjoying ourselves in our Balinese villa, with our own swimming pool and billiards table, minutes away from shopping, restaurants and the beach. Since we only had one full day there, we focused on the essentials: fill the fridge with beer, walk on the beach, eat gelato, buy a colorful handicraft skeleton, have epic swimming and billiards games, stuff ourselves with mexican food, watch strange reality tv and asian music videos in the middle of the night. All check!
The flight to Flores was only a quick hop, in a propellor plane, which made LittleB happy. Me, not so much. Flying in Indonesia is probably the bounciest experience ever – I’ve heard it’s a training area for pilots because the conditions are so terrible: unstable tropical weather, volcano updrafts, strong crosswinds, questionable airport infrastructure. You just can’t learn as well anywhere more difficult, I guess! Doesn’t make me feel any better. Anyway, we landed safely in Labuan Bajo that afternoon, arriving at their crisp, new airport (literally only a few weeks old) just outside of town. It was basically an empty room with a hole in the wall for the luggage to come through (right beside the people door we just walked through). I think it would have been easier to just let us get our luggage off the plane ourselves.
From the airport, we caught a cab down to the harbor to charter a boat. Our destination was an island resort about halfway between Flores and Komodo island, where we booked in for a few days of touring and snorkeling. To get to the resort, you can take their daily shuttle boat, but we had missed it. The cabbie was trying to get us to rent his friend’s “fast” boat for almost double the price, but luckily we’re not new to this game and were not easily convinced. The boat we did get was… well, good enough. I figure it was mostly made out of scavenged pieces of garbage and other people’s boats. It probably would have shaken apart if the weather was bad, or if the 15-year-old captain was more inexperienced. Thankfully we were enjoying a calm afternoon with glorious golden sunshine and a light breeze cool on the air.
We arrived at our island within an hour, just in time to settle in before sunset. The resort is an “eco” resort, travel-speak for “limited amenities” – but we were happy enough to rough it for a few days. Water was rationed, but who needs showers when the whole ocean is your bathtub? And there was plenty of beer to go around. We stayed in the family bungalow – basically a bamboo hut with two mattresses, and was probably also made out of garbage and other people’s boats. Should I remind you that there were 5 of us on this trip? Luckily C was generous enough to share the “ladies” mattress with me and J – we claimed the top bunk, a loft area hanging out over the bungalow deck, and the boys took the main level.
That night we lounged away the evening, sitting around a bonfire on the beach and watching the stars wink into view. We could have stayed there all night, but we had big plans for a trip to Komodo the next day. Also, the power turned off at 10, so we did too.