We booked two separate flights on different airlines to get from Manado, North Sulawesi to Labuan Bajo, Flores; we had a reasonably long 2 1/2 hour stopover in Bali. We came to find out that we had to pay an extra departure tax of $8 by taking different airlines and it also meant a long walk from the arrival terminal to the departure terminal. It also resulted in a hair-raising wait for our luggage. Our first flight was slightly delayed, though, not so much to cause concern. After we arrived in Bali, the baggage claim area was small — only 3 carousels – but somewhat confusing since the flights that the baggage came from were not posted. There were just paper signs at the carousel indicating the airline associated with the flights. The first batch of luggage from Manado came on to the carousel quickly, and then we waited…..and waited and waited. Now we were watching the clock nervously since we still had to go through security again and check in for the flight to Flores. After almost 30 minutes we were still waiting for our luggage with about 1/2 of the other passengers so I decided to go over to the lost luggage desk to see what was up. There were about 5 female employees ‘working’ the lost luggage desk, one of which was eating her lunch while the others stood around talking to each other. I asked who spoke English and then gave my story while presenting my luggage claim tickets. They called the manager over who had to take the ticket to another office. Just after he took the ticket, I heard the luggage had arrived on the carousel. I took the ticket back and we grabbed out bags. We had to hustle, and fast! It was almost 1/2 hour to flight departure. We scooted out of the arrival terminal and, with both big backpacks stacked on my back, we wound our way through corridor after corridor for the surprisingly long walk to the departure terminal. Fortunately (or maybe not) security is somewhat lax. We breezed through security and found the check-in desk had no line. We checked our bags, got our boarding passes and got on another line to pay our departure tax; then back through security number 2 racing our way to the gate. The next flight was running late, as well. It was a weird mixture of feeling relief and exasperation. Once again, information about the pending flight was sparse. We finally boarded the turbo-prop Merpati Airline plane. I overheard some Americans talking nervously about getting on to their first non-jet powered airplane. It was another first for us, too, since the approximately 100-passenger capacity plane had a foul, moldy odor.
The terminal at Labuan Bajo consisted of two small buildings but right behind it was the construction of a new, modern terminal that would be used to accommodate larger numbers of passengers. They were expanding the airport so it could accommodate jets and perhaps international flights. Luggage collection was done by a handler passing the bags over a bench separating the outside from inside of a building.
Labuan Bajo is a fast growing tourist town. Just 3 years ago the paved asphalt main street was packed gravel.
Along with the usual bevy of tourist agencies, restaurants and hotels, there were several scuba diving centers from which to choose. The area features some of the best diving in the world due to the confluence of the warm Pacific waters flowing south and the cooler Indian Ocean flowing north creating a plankton-rich diverse marine environment. And because of the difference in heights of the oceans it causes some of the world’s fastest and most dangerous currents. Nearby, Rinca and Komodo Islands sit, respectively, 1.5 to 2 hours away by boat. They are part of the Komodo National Park and the only place in the world (save a couple of other local islands) to find the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest lizard.
Gone were the real local restaurants of Manado where we could get terrific meals for under $5 for two, but the upside were some very good Italian restaurants with excellent food. We were very surprised to find excellent thin crust pizza and great tasting fresh pasta, albeit at relatively high prices. (A basic margarita, cheese and tomato sauce pizza goes for about $6.)
Our first couple of days in Flores were filled with rain. Some locals said the season had changed early this year. On top of the foul weather, Cindy started developing stomach problems which put a damper on our activities. It lasted a few days and I finally prevailed upon her to go to the local hospital. She saw a doctor within 5 minutes, urinalysis completed in one hour, given antibiotics upon exit, and all for about $5.50!
I scheduled a three-dive scuba trip with an outfit called Paradise Komodo Divers. We haven’t met many other Americans on our trip, but while waiting in their office, I met one of the other divers who lives in Cindy’s sister’s town in Long Island. He and his Australian girlfriend are also on a round-the-world (diving) trip.
The dive trip with Paradise Komodo turned out to be a disaster. It took an hour to start the boat engines which died again after 15 minutes out of port. After getting up and running back to port I went looking for the dive center owner 3 times that day eventually catching up with him at 5pm. He didn’t have cash for a refund then but did make good by having my money delivered to my hotel that night. It was such a disappointment since I was so looking forward to diving in the area. This was my last chance since we were going to fly out in two days.
Once again, I scoured the dive centers in town to find an operator but checking the reviews more carefully before signing up. I found the Komodo Dive Center who were scheduled to go to the premier dive sites for a full day of 3 dives. The currents are notoriously strong and dangerous but we hit it around slack tide which diminished the currents’ strength. Still, the strategy on two of the dives were to descend to depth against the current and then hang on to a rock to avoid getting swept away and enjoy the show. It didn’t disappoint and may have ranked as the top 3 best dives I’d ever been on. It featured some of the largest undersea creatures I’d seen including 6-7 White Tip Reef sharks, a 2+ meter Grey Reef Shark, a giant Napoleon Wrasse, several large groupers, a spotted eagle ray, several schools of large fish, a devil scorpion fish and spectacularly colored pristine coral.
We scheduled a boat excursion the next day to visit Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons followed by stops at a couple of snorkeling spots. On Rinca, they require that everyone hire a guide. And for good reason. The Komodo Dragons are huge, scary creatures and have killed a couple of locals over recent years including a couple of guides. Our guide, Aris, was born and bred on Rinca. He was very vigilant and wary the entire tour. Komodo Dragons are stealth hunters who wait for their prey to pass and then attack.
They are even able to stand up on hind legs which must be quite an awesome and fearful sight; they grow up to 10 feet long. If the attack itself doesn’t inflict a fatality, the bite delivers a potent mixture of deadly bacteria that eventually kills the prey. Buffalo can take a week or two to succumb before becoming a happy meal to several dragons. From a distance, the dragons look a lot like logs on the forest floor. I’m not easily unnerved but Cindy and I were pretty uneasy while walking through the forest trails. The guide was armed only with the standard issue fork-ended wood stick.
After Rinca, we headed for some snorkeling. No else had signed up for the tour so we had the boat to ourselves.
We flew out of Labuan Bajo airport the next day, back through Bali to Lombok Island and the tourist town of Sengiggi. This time we flew the same airline for both flights avoiding exit taxes and dealing with luggage transfers. As we went through Bali airport I passed the lost luggage desk which was now manned by only two people but had a crowd of about 15-20 customers with luggage issues.
We stayed in Sengiggi two nights before heading to our final big stop in Indonesia: Gili Air.
We got taken for ride by an agent in Sengiggi who sold us a bus/boat combo to Gili Air telling us the boat was a ‘shuttle’ boat vs the cheaper, but more crowded public boat. The bus/van was fine but when we got to the harbor at Bangsal it turned out we had tickets for an overcrowded public ferry. We refused to get on it, choosing to wait for the next one which almost an hour later, packed with cargo and just as crowded. They are supposed to limit the number of passengers to 20 but Cindy stopped counting at 40.
Ahhhh. Gili Air. Just the name sounds really cool. And it is. The only modes of transportation are boat, walking, bicycles and horse-drawn buggy or cidomo. No cars, no motorbikes, just laid back peace and quiet and an easy place to find that deserted beach that looks like no one else has ever been to.
We were able to snorkel right off the shore.
And bike right on the beach.
And walk down quiet lanes.
Until time to say goodbye to our Indonesian adventure.