Friday, September 01, 2017

Komodo Dragons - Rinca and Komodo Islands

View of Labuan Bajo Harbor
Although I had a fever last night, I feel considerably better this morning and nibble cautiously on toast and egg. The island view from our hotel is beautiful and the day is full of promise. Alisha is still feeling 100% and our guide Yosep picks us up at our Golo Hilltop hotel for the drive down to the Labuan Bajo harbor. We walk along the crowded and colorful pier to board our simple wooden boat that will take us to Rinca and Komodo Islands. 

Labuan Bajo dock
Motoring to Rinca Island

Alisha and I will be the only passengers on board and we will sleep on mats on the deck. The boat is exactly what I expected and three weather worn men welcome us onboard. Our captain, grins broadly exposing a grin missing half of his teeth. He must be in his mid-60’s but the cook and deck hand are probably only 45. The men spider across the deck on thin and limber legs preparing to push off from the harbor for our trip to the islands. We motor out past islands seemingly floating above the indigo ocean and silhouetted against a cloud scattered blue sky.

Our boat to Rinca and Komodo Islands
The wind in our hair

Docking at the Rinca pier
Rinca boat jam
We arrive at Rinca Island a little before noon and our crew ties up our boat and we walk along the long pier to the ranger station. Both Rinca and Komodo Islands are part of the Komodo National Park and our guide, Yosef requests 6,000 rupiah to register our names and pay for our tickets. We are not quite sure why he insists on doing this for us because 10 years ago, Art, John and I registered on our own so we are a little suspicious that he may be pocketing some of money. Alisha is persistent in requesting the tickets to “put in her scrapbook,” and he reluctantly gives them to her. When we inspect them later and all seems to be on the up and up. 

Rinca Island, Komodo National Park
The gateway to Rinca, part of the Komodo National Park

About Rinca Island

The Rinca ranger station

Lazy Komodo camp dragon
Komodo camp dragon on the prowl
Sleeping Komodo camp dragons

At the ranger station we are assigned a local park guide, armed with a forked stick to lead us through the scrub forest and up to the hill overlooking the bay and islands beyond. Although we see a dozen smaller Komodo Dragons sleeping lazily around the ranger station, it is our hope that we will see an active dragon or two in the brush. Rinca Island is dry forest and Savana and it is noon when we begin our climb to the top of the mountain. I am light headed from whatever bug I have caught, the heat and the exertion. We inhale the remarkable view of the bay and islands beyond but the sun is brutal and we quickly retrace our path down the grassy hill side, returning to the shade of the trees and the ranger station.

Alisha and our park guide, Rinca Island
Marty following our guide

Harbor view from a Rinca hilltop

A group of Indonesian women are gathered by the ranger station watching the lazy dragons sleeping in the midday heat. The women’s attention switches from the dragons to Alisha and me and they orchestrate a photo shoot with us, the strange pale tourists.

Mother and child 
Indonesian Women photo shoot

Lunch is served shortly after we push off from the Rinca dock but I am feeling poorly and rest on the sleeping mats on the deck. Tepid, breaded and friend eggplant, fried tempe and cold fried fish are on the menu and Alisha picks at the unappealing food while I sleep. I wake a couple of hours later as we near our scheduled afternoon snorkeling spot. Alisha tells me that she has spent an uncomfortable afternoon conversing with our guide. He was inappropriately interested in Alisha’s thoughts about affairs outside of marriage; stating that it was his opinion that if the partners didn’t know, having an affair should not be a problem and that couples could still have a happy family life. Alisha firmly states that having an affair would not make for a happy family and tries to steer the conversation elsewhere. Glancing over at me, asleep on the deck, our guide suggests that since her mother is sick, upon our return, he could take her on his motorcycle to the mountains above Labuan Bajo? Alisha, firmly tells him that we take care of each other and stay together at all times. She turns away and focuses on the islands floating weightless on the horizon. 

Lunch onboard our simple boat

A sliver of paraiba colored water
When I wake, I am feeling better and Alisha and I prepare our masks and fins for our snorkeling adventure. A few days ago, when we snorkeled off the islands of Ruing, we wore long sleeved rash guards and modest swimming shorts both in respect for the coral reefs and for the conservative Muslim and Christian cultures. Sunscreen is toxic to the coral reefs. Alisha chooses not to wear her bikini and covers up a in long sleeved rash guard again. We surmise that our guide as well as the three Indonesian boat crew are somewhat disappointed when they realize that Alisha is not going to be donning her bikini for their viewing pleasure. I wear a long sleeved rash guard too, but it is doubtful that our crew is disappointed by my modesty. 

Our snorkeling destination, a crescent white sand beach
Our boat drops anchor some ways off the beach and we slip into the water and swim towards the edge of the reef. I notice immediately that the water here is considerably colder than the water off the protected islands surrounding Ruing but we are soon mesmerized by the coral reef odyssey unfolding beneath us. The corals are further below the surface here and different from those off of Ruing but nevertheless, beautiful. Table top and brain corals abound and the colorful reef fish are plentiful. Because I am not well, I chill quickly and tell Alisha I am swimming to shore, encouraging her to continue her reef exploration a bit longer. She too is cold and we sit together on the sandy sliver of a beach, trying to warm ourselves and watching the other tourists enjoying the late afternoon island paradise. Although, I use the term paradise, I long for the remoteness of more unchartered reefs and am saddened that our human presence is causing such havoc and damage to an environment that was pristine, just a decade ago. I humbly accept that in spite of our refusal to wear sunscreen, that just by being here, Alisha and I are contributing to the degradation of the coral reefs. 

Looking for a cove to anchor for the night
We swim back to our boat, board and struggle to put on dry clothing in the cramped confines of our boat’s bathroom. Warm and dry, we sit and watch the changing of the light as our crew motors towards some remote cove where we will anchor for the night. As Yoseph busies himself with whatever guides must do, Alisha and I talk quietly. Although we don’t actually feel unsafe, we acknowledge that we are alone on a small wooden boat in the middle of an Indonesia archipelago with four Indonesian men. Our three man crew are respectful, but our guide is an arrogant womanizer and we joke about being grateful that we have a machete tucked into Alisha’s suitcase. (For those of you didn’t read our Bene Village post, Alisha purchased a machete to bring home as a souvenir gift for her husband and it is inside Alisha’s suitcase.) On our flight to Indonesia, we watched ‘Snatched’ starring Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer, about a mother’s and daughter’s mis-adventures in Colombia. We sincerely hope that we won’t be starring in a sequel of ‘Snatched’ and need to wield our machete tonight.

This morning, before boarding our wooden boat, we purchased 3 large bottles of Bintang Beer. We open the first and out of courtesy and share it with Joseph before dinner. Yoseph is leaning back on the bench, smoking endless cigarettes and tossing them over the side of the boat and I am ready to snap. He and asks me how his English is, following this question with “because I want to be a good guide and learn from my guests.” I can no longer contain my disgust for his behavior and his arrogance. Between his inappropriate conversation with Alisha earlier and his lack of respect for the environment which is why we are visiting in the first place, I tell him that his English is fine but that tossing cigarettes into the ocean is not. My voice is sharp and I point to a conch shell ashtray underneath the table and tell him that the fish don’t want to smoke and to use the ashtray provided. I can tell I have offended him and surmise that it is not the cultural norm for a woman to criticize a man and I soften my approach and try to explain the importance of taking care of the reefs to preserve them to promote tourism. I silently do the math of 3 crew members plus one guide, all smoking a pack a day and disposing the butts in the ocean. Multiply that times the hundreds of boats each day, just to Komodo and Rinca Islands and the environmental impact is frightening. Dinner is such that I can only pick at it but the beer is refreshing. We open the 2nd bottle and Alisha passes the 3rd large bottle to the crew. They are surprised and delighted and squat on the raised platform near the kitchen, sharing the bottle.

Sunset off of Komodo Island
Shell jewelry boatman

We anchor in a sheltered cove and are happy to see one or two other boats nearby so we don’t feel quite as isolated as we might otherwise. A young man in a small boat pulls up along side hoping to sell us some trinkets but what he has is all made from shells and we don’t want to support the shell market. We ask if he has any carved wood Komodo Dragons but he does not. The young man seems to understand our reluctancy in buying shell necklaces and motors off to another anchored boat hoping for a sale elsewhere. 

Tarping for the night
Alisha's and my sleeping mats
Snuggled down for the night

One of our crew members hangs tarps on the open sides of our boat to shelter us from the night cold. Yoseph passes us two striped flannel sheets, freshly washed and smelling strongly of perfumed detergent.  Alisha and I bundle up in leggings and jackets and we sleep side by side on the two foam mattersss. The simple toilet is at the back of the boat and it is necessary to climb up onto a raised 3 foot portion of the deck and crawl across the platform to reach the toilet. I must make this trip several times during the night and I sleep poorly on the hard deck and thin mattress.

Sunrise off of Komodo Island
Alisha and I wake at dawn to a beautiful sunrise. Our crew serves us a plate of fried bananas and I manage to gag one down. Our plans are to dock at Komodo Island by 6:30 A.M. and to be inside the reserve by 7:00 when the park opens. Yoseph encouraged us to go to Komodo yesterday afternoon, but the guides at Rinca Island told us that the dragons are active only in the early morning or evening. The 600,000 Rupiah entrance fee includes both Rinca and Komodo if you go on the same day but we will need to pay an additional 600,000 Rupiah today. Considering how far we have traveled to see the dragons, the additional $45 seems insignificant so we are going early this morning. We are the first boat to dock at Komodo and the first guests inside the park. We are assigned a park guide with a forked stick for protection from the dragons and we begin our walk through the scrubby forest.

Alisha and Marty under the Komodo National Park Archway

We are the first boat to arrive at Komodo
Komodo Park trails

Our Komodo Island guide
Komodo Dragon trying to free a dead tethered goat

Swallowing the goat whole
Marty and Alisha with very handsome Komodo Dragon

We come to a clearing where a dead goat has been tied and a rather large Komodo Dragon is struggling to free it from the tether and eat it. Eventually the dragon wins and we watch his entire jaw unhinge and he swallows the goat whole and slinks off into the underbrush to digest his feast. Ten year ago, the ‘chumming’ of the dragons was not allowed but our guide tells us that the park now has an agreement with a cruise ship line and that twice a month, a 1000 passenger cruise ship comes to Komodo. The cruise is due to arrive this morning but we have been the fortunate travelers to watch the dragon feast. Because this dragon was baited, I still don’t feel as if we have truly seen one in the wild but a 100 yards further along, a large dragon crosses the trail and we watch it with delight as it shuffles off into the underbrush. One of my favorite photos of the trip is the one below of Alisha photographing the wild Komodo Dragon. How perfect that today she choose to wear her Marty Magic T-shirt!

Alisha, the Marty Magic Photographer

Retreating Komodo Dragon
Although, I know these large lizards can be dangerous, game is plentiful here on the island and I presume they prefer their standard fare of water buffalo and deer over tourists. The trail loops us back and around to the park camp where a dozen smaller dragons sleep lethargically in the shade of the stilt houses. In the hour that we have been dragon watching, the craft venders have set up their souvenir stalls along the pathway to the dock and under the shade of the scruffy trees. I want to buy both my grandchildren, Komodo Dragon carvings and we find two that are nicely carved and similar in size.

The pathway to the craft vendors 
Komodo Island Deer - tasty for the dragons

There are many other small wooden boats now moored at the dock and as we push off, we see the expected 1000 passenger cruise ship in the distance. We are so glad that we made the choice to visit Komodo Island early in the morning and that we actually got to see two dragons in the bush.

The 1000 passenger cruise ship on the horizon.

The 1000 passenger cruise ship heading to the Komodo Dock
Where as I had forgotten completely about my malady during our dragon hike, I am feeling poorly again and Alisha is beginning to feel sick. We are hoping to see manta rays at manta point and Alisha puts on her snorkeling gear in case they are spotted. Yoseph tells me that the current is very strong and that I am too old and I should not try to snorkel. (Our guide is such a diplomatic man.) I question if Alisha is a strong enough swimmer but even though a dozen boats cruise slowly, the crew of each standing at the bow, looking down into the crystal water, no mantas are spotted. I am rather relieved because I am worried about Alisha in the strong current especially when Yoseph tells us that two people recently drowned here.

Returning to Labuan Bajo Harbor, a sliver of paraiba colored water.
When we cruise past Canava island, a snorkeling spot a hour from Labuan Bajo, we defer from stopping. The tide is low and a handful of snorkelers are waist deep in a band of turquoise water that deepens to indigo blue. Our guide Yosep tells us that because the tide is low the snorkeling will not be very good. I’m not sure if he is telling us this to make us feel like we are not missing anything or if he is anxious to get back to the Labuan Bajo harbor. Regardless, we choose to return to shore.

Sunset poolside at the Luwansa Beach Resort Hotel
Alisha is getting worse by the minute and our Luwansa Beach Resort Hotel is close to the harbor. By Flores standards, the hotel is luxurious and we each take much needed showers, and I tuck Alisha into a bed with crisp clean sheets. She is having chills and fever and is very grateful to have a clean, western style bathroom and not find it necessary to crawl on her hands and knees to the toilet throughout the night.  After a shower, I am feeling better and sit in the hotel’s poolside restaurant, order the only mixed drink I have seen in our 10 days on Flores and write. I so wished that Alisha were enjoying the beach side pool and sharing a cocktail with me. Later that evening, Alisha and I return to the restaurant for a bite to eat. She knows she must eat something and this menu has some fairly normal options. She orders a vegetarian pasta which when it arrives is swimming with shellfish and shrimp. Her stomach churns and although we don’t like being difficult tourists, we send her meal back and point to the menu again; pasta with tomato sauce only, no meat. 
Neither of us feel good in the morning and we take it easy, checking our e-mails and face Timing our families until it’s time to head to the airport for our 2 hour domestic flight to Denpasar Bali. 

Ariel view above Flores, Indonesia

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