Entering the lair of the dragons to answer the call of a tropical adventure in Indonesia

Entering the lair of the dragons to answer the call of a tropical adventure in Indonesia
Swimming with turtles. (Photo: Paul Lipschitz)

Flying into Flores Island, we had two clear missions in mind: enter the lair of the dragons, and disappear beneath the shimmering surface of tropical waters teeming with sharks, manta rays, turtles and other sea life. A trip to this magnificent southeast Asian archipelago is nothing short of finding paradise.

Flying into Komodo Airport at Labuan Bajo, Flores Island, with two clear missions in mind: enter the lair of the dragons; and disappear beneath the shimmering surface of tropical waters teeming with sea life.

Packed with the promise of adventure, fins and goggles, it was a short plane ride from Bali over crystal blue ocean scattered with rugged islands encircled by coral reefs and anticipation was at fever pitch.

An overnight stay at the harbour’s edge in Labuan Bajo, gateway to Komodo National Park, was a nonstop echoing medley of the mosque’s very frequent, very loud call to prayer, boat horns, loudspeakers booming Friday night party music and the odd goat bleating. Vibrant, colourful Indonesian boats bobbing down below glowed from sunset to sunrise, a glimpse of the excitement that lay ahead.

Luck was on my side. Let’s just say I know a guy who knows a guy … who owns a boat, running trips into Komodo National Park and surrounding islands. The boat, Rutas Indonesia, is built in the pure local Phinisi style, as most of our fellow boat community drifting from island to island throughout the week were.

Luxury yachts occasionally loomed on the horizon. One, an enormous dark-grey James Bond villain-style boat, felt like a jarring mistake in the wild, natural environment. Much like the deep scars of destruction from boats illegally anchoring in the otherwise extraordinary, supernatural coral reefs.

The coral reef beneath. (Photo: Paul Lipschitz)

Phinisi boats at sunset. (Photo: Marushka Stipinoich)

The view of Labuan Bajo harbour from Selini on the Hill. (Photo: Marushka Stipinoich)

My diving companions, armed with underwater cameras, captured glimpses of the endless wonder and moments to carry with us for a lifetime. This allowed me the luxury to savour the bliss of free diving – to be completely present, calm, and be carried by the (often very strong) currents to marvel at the mysterious underwater landscape for as long as my breath would hold.

The knowledgeable skiff-boat drivers dropped us into one glorious dive site after another, watching us fly along with fish, sharks, manta rays and turtles, and ferrying tired swimmers back to yet another freshly prepared local meal on board before the next dive.

Day three and we found ourselves cruising through the dry, rounded landscapes covered in savannah vegetation and into Komodo National Park.

Undeniably, the Jurassic Park theme song would not be more suitable in this scenario. Armed with the knowledge that the 150kg carnivorous Komodo dragon has shark-like teeth, vicious claws and venom that kills within hours of a bite, we set off down the dusty trail with a naturalist guide – and a forked stick as our defence.

A naturalist guide in Komodo National Park. (Photo: Marushka Stipinoich)

Marvellous sights greet divers at the coral reefs. (Photo: Paul Lipschitz)

A Komodo dragon. (Photo: Marushka Stipinoich)

The humid, sticky air was abuzz with bird­life, squealing wild boars shot through the thickets and timid Timor rusa deer merged with the shadows, hoping to survive another day safe from the jaws of the Komodo.

The hint of peril – heightened by the murmurings of “the tourist who wandered off alone never to return…” – was soon overshadowed by bitter disappointment at no dragon sightings, despite a long and ardent search. It was breeding season, evidently a particularly difficult time to find them.

Undeterred, we motored up and down the darkening shoreline until excited locals waved us back to the beach … and there lay our dragon. We sat in silence on the sand, a forked stick’s length away, quietly mesmerised by this creature from another time.

Victorious, we headed back to toast our wondrous sightings on the deck one last Indonesian evening. Adventure called, and we had answered. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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