You know the one where the GIANT lizard hunts down a water buffalo for days and then viciously attacks it? Well, we wanted to see what one of those lizards looked like in real life. Already in Bali, we were a short flight+boat ride away from one of the last remaining places in the world to see them..Komodo National Park. And we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
The Island of Flores.
Flying from Bali you can get a direct flight to Flores. Once on the big island, you have to start making decisions. Many of which we were uninformed to make after our spur of the moment decision to visit the island.
You have three main options for accessing the park but all of them start with a little stopover in the town of Labuan Bajo. Labuan Bajo is a quaint little fishing town on the coast of Flores. About 5 minutes from the airport you’ll find yourself overlooking a beautiful harbor filled with fishing boats resembling pirate ships. These are for the well prepared or luxury traveler. Not us little people with nothing booked in advance and on a strict budget.
While we’re on the subject, accommodation is few and far between here. Do yourself a favor and book in advance. I rarely suggest this in Asia, but we caught a taxi to a remote area of town in hopes of snagging a room at a nice hotel and somehow they were sold out! (Suspicious, considering I didn’t see a single other tourist until we got to the water) That left us walking up a dirt roadway in the pouring rain (of course) for a few miles with our packs in search of a taxi or hostel. I highly recommend staying as close to the water as possible for the views and convenience.
Time to set sail.
The only way to Komodo National Park is by boat to one of the three uninhabited islands, Komodo, Padar, or Rinca. Wander around the main strip and you’ll find tons of locals looking to fill spots on their boat for the next morning. You’ll be able to choose a day trip to one of the islands or a couple of days on one of the nicer boats. This kind of excursion doesn’t come cheap. The private chartered fast boats can cost hundreds of dollars but for a regular group-tour expect to spend around 100 dollars/person to reach Komodo Island. This price doesn’t include the cost of entrance to the park and a boat docking fee that they charge each individual person (Luckily this is only an extra 5-10 dollars total). Haggle to get the best price.
Boats leave early in the morning because of the time it takes to reach the islands so it’s best to book the night before. Well if you want on a fancy boat it’s best to book much before that but hey, we just wanted to get there.
Getting to Rinca.
We opted for a day trip to Rinca the closest of the three islands. This still takes around 3 hours each way by boat so prepare for a looong day of the most relaxing boat ride of your life. Just kidding.
We went with the most basic budget travel route. We found a guy with a boat who said his son would take us right then. Our boat was a small motorized wooden canoe-like boat sailed captained by a kid who couldn’t have been older than 15. We shared this bumpy, LOUD (I think the motor may have been close to exploding) ride with only 2 other travelers. The plan was to ride to the island, explore the park and see the dragons, then hit some snorkeling spots on the way back and eat our pre-packed lunches.
The Land of Dragons
Arriving on the island was a little surreal. You are greeted at the waterfront by a guide who takes you on a walking tour of the island. Signs proclaiming “No swimming, watch for Crocodiles” kept us away from the shores and monkey’s skurried into the treeline immediately.
I thought we would have to really search for the dragons. But they ended up finding us.
The dragons snuck up on us. We were searching the grasses for any sight of them as we walked past snacking wildebeest and wild boars. Turns out this whole time they had been slinking behind us. For something so large I didn’t expect them to be quite so sneaky. The dragons preferred lounging out in the sun and by mid-day were very still and sleepy. Komodo Dragons feed once every three months and spend the rest of their time lounging and digesting their massive meal.
Some of the dragons reached 6 or 7 feet long and just in our short hike we saw at least 20.
This excursion was worth every penny. But I can’t help but wonder what the other more remote islands offer. Rinca was barren. Very little vegetation, short hiking trails, no inhabitants, but a few other tourist ships docked nearby.
Getting back to Labuan Bajo
Getting back to the boat we were served our packed lunches. I will preface this by saying that I was so hungry I could have pretty much eaten anything. Breakfast had been a quick pile of fruit 6 hours before. Our driver pulled out a pile of chicken and rice that had been waiting on the boat for us all day. All 6 hours that we had been driving and exploring and it had likely been cooked long before we loaded the boat this morning.
I ate it. And I didn’t get food poisoning so hey, maybe they’re doing something right. But if you’re a picky eater maybe bring some snacks of your own.
On the ride home, we stopped twice at islands perfect for snorkeling. With the help of our leftover lunch were able to lure all the prettiest fish into a swarm around us.
At one point in our journey the boat, low on gas, began to sputter. The driver quickly came to the rescue gas tank in one hand and lit cigarette in the other and began to fuel up our still running motor. It truly is miraculous that we made it back in one piece.
Activities we Missed.
We didn’t make it to everything on our trip. No planning and limited resources got the best of us and short on time we couldn’t do everything we wanted to. Here are some things that we would have added had we had the opportunity.
Make it to the Pink Beach on Komodo Island.
This means you have to book a multi-day tour to Komodo island the furthest island out from Flores, but it will be completely worth it.
The beach gets its pink color from microscopic organisms called Foraminifera. They go through life cycles so make sure you visit during a time they will be thriving and the beach will truly be PINK. (April-June, Sept-Oct are your best options)
Stop at Padar Island for some iconic sunset views.
The sunsets here are unbelievable over the water. This island also has some incredibly scenic hikes that take you high enough to get an aerial view of the park.
Snorkel or Scuba Dive with Manta Rays.
This comes included in many of the multi-day tours and is on my bucket list for sure.
All of these things can be booked with a multi-day tour on one of the larger ships from Labuan Bajo harbor. Or if you have all the time (and money) in the world on your hands…You can set sail straight from Bali. Chartering a sailboat and having your own guided tour of any island you please would be the ideal way to explore Indonesia, but the time it takes to sail from Bali to Komodo turn most people away.
Overall, we set out to see the dragons and we most definitely did. Another Planet Earth inspired adventure ticked off our neverending bucket list.