The morning’s silence was broken by unrelenting squeaks, penetrating the wooden walls of our cabin. It sounded like hundreds of rats, or birds, I was not sure. I got up from my bed, took my camera and went to the deck upstairs. The sound became louder and clearer, coming from the direction of where the Flying Fox Island was.
But the island was empty last night, I thought.
With my zoom lens I inspected the source of the commotion over the mangroves on the island. Large black animals with shades of brown – around the same size of an adult cat – hanging upside down from the higher branches of the trees. Apparently the flying foxes had returned to the island while we were sleeping the night before.
Moments after the sun rose from the east, our boat began moving towards Rinca’s sister after which the notorious dragons were named: Komodo Island. Crisp wind and clear skies provided a promising and uplifting start to the day. Soon enough we arrived at Loh Liang, the main point of entrance to Komodo where big and small boats anchored, and hopped through nearby boats to reach the pier, much larger than the one at Rinca.
“This pier was built to accommodate the increasing number of cruise ships visiting the island. 14 of them each year,” Gonzales told us. However it appeared to me that the water was too shallow for any cruise ship to even come closer to the pier, let alone dock at it. But one thing for sure, the island’s popularity has soared in recent years, especially after it was elected as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2011. Hence the increasing number of international visitors.
As we walked down the pier to the island I noticed a thin layer of grey fine sand-like material covering some parts of the concrete wharf. “It’s the ash from Mount Sangeang,” Gonzales explained. The volcano erupted two weeks prior to our visit to Flores, forcing the temporary closure of the Komodo National Park and disrupting flights around north of Australia.
We were greeted by a young ranger holding a wooden stick with a Y-shaped end, compulsary for every ranger in the national park as a protective tool in case of an attack from a Komodo dragon. He was even shorter and skinnier than me, but he knew the island better than we did. Plus, we didn’t have any other options anyway.
He introduced himself and told us that he came from Labuan Bajo, like many rangers in the national park did.
“At this time of the year Komodo dragons are hard to find. It’s their mating season, so they tend to hide in the forests,” he explained. “But did you see any at Rinca?” he asked and seemed a little relieved when we said yes. “Some tourists, they complained for not being able to see the dragons,” he added.
We walked through dense shrubs and tall trees, a stark contrast to Rinca’s dry and sparsely vegetated landscape.
“The locals are used to seeing Komodo dragons chasing goats around their village. But when the goats managed to escape, that’s when they became worried because the hungry dragons would chase after them instead,” the ranger recounted and added, “In 2007 an eight-year-old child in a village on this island was killed by a Komodo dragon.”
After walking a few minutes we arrived at an open space surrounded by dead palm trees standing still with all the fronds had already fallen to the ground.
“This is where baby Komodo dragons hide and live to stay away from adult dragons, and even from their own parents. But up there they are an easy prey for the eagles. That’s why they dig holes in the soft dead palm trunks.”
We continued walking deeper into the forest with signs reminding visitors to stay in group scattered all along the trails. “You see over there… there is a megapode behind those trees,” he pointed out to a medium-sized bird walking on the forest floor.
“They dig holes in the ground and lay their eggs inside the holes. Then they cover them with soil,” he told us. “When the holes are no longer in use, the dragons use them to lay their own eggs. They usually dig up to seven holes nearby to trick other adult dragons and prevent them from eating their eggs. But sometimes the mother goes after her own babies after the eggs hatch.”
As we kept walking in the forest our guide occasionally spotted some exotic birds and plants, including a beautiful green imperial pigeon and plants from the genus Cycas, some of the oldest plants on the planet, hence the nickname ‘a living fossil’. But we hadn’t had any sighting on the dragons yet.
At an intersection we turned left and climbed a hill often frequented by Komodo dragons, especially in the afternoon to bathe in the sun, when suddenly our guide noticed a trail on the ground. “A dragon was here recently, this are the traces of its tail,” he claimed while moving his finger along the trail for us to see.
The hill was called Sulphurea Hill, after Cacatua sulphurea – yellow-crested cockatoo – an Australasian bird often spotted flying around the hill. As our guide was explaining about the bird, a flock of cockatoos was sighted at the far right of the hill, too far for my camera to capture. Meanwhile behind us Loh Liang was clearly visible with a number of boats berthing at the shallow waters.
After making sure there was no dragon in sight, we continued walking to our last hope for seeing the dragons on the island: the park ranger station. The forest was very quiet and appeared to be very peaceful, but we remained vigilant for there might be dragons lurking from the woods.
At the ranger station a little less than a dozen of deers roamed the beach, walking in pairs or alone. Food was clearly in abundance, but all the dragons were interested in was mating, leaving the deer grazing and frolicking in peace.
We ended up not seeing any single dragon on the island, although fortunately we did see some on the neighboring island of Rinca the day before. Soon enough we walked back to the pier, past a small souvenir market where we actually met some dragons, albeit made from wood. As we continued walking Gonzales then told us our next destination: Manta Point.
If you’re not a strong swimmer, you’d better not to swim at Manta Point. Those were the words Dino said to us while we were on our way to Labuan Bajo two days earlier.
It didn’t take long for me to understand why he said what he said as the currents became very strong and the waves were quite big as soon as we left the sheltered water around Komodo Island towards the open sea. Despite the rough water – which looked like Japanese painting for me – we were presented with a picturesque view of an endless turquoise ribbon on the horizon, bordering the cerulean sea with a barren island. But that also meant we were nearing Manta Point.
“Get ready quickly!” Gonzales said to both of us.
While I was changing into my swim shorts downstairs I was swayed back and forth and sidewards, thanks to the very choppy water. Then I started to feel what I least wanted to feel on a boat: severe seasickness. It happened so fast and at the click of a finger I felt the urgent need to vomit. But I had no time to pay attention to what my stomach was desperately telling me, and moments later I was already sitting on the prow, ready to jump into the water.
“Come on, jump into the water!” Gonzales sounded uneasy, probably because time was so precious in sighting a manta.
Then I jumped into the water, made a loud splash and soon I was completely submerged. Not only did Manta Point have strong currents, but it was also quite deep. The corals underneath all looked blue as the sun light couldn’t penetrate deep enough into the water to reveal their true colors. I tried to breathe normally through my snorkeling gear and not think of the rough water or the relatively deep sea. I let everything go and all of sudden I felt a sense of peace and tranquility. No upset stomach, no erratic kicking into the water like I did near Pink Beach the day before.
Nevertheless I glued my eyes on Gonzales, this time he left his swimfins on the boat. He scanned the sea floor carefully, then swam to another point and scanned the area again. He did that more in more than three different spots until suddenly he made a signal with his two fingers, pointing into the depths. I looked down to a point right beneath him and there it was. A manta ray was sighted.
Gliding elegantly above the sea floor, the medium-sized phantom of the ocean flapped its dark wings unhurriedly. James and I took a moment of silence, our eyes were fixated to the beautiful creature until it slowly disappeared in the darkness of the blue sea. Truly a sight to behold and a moment to remember.
This part of Indonesia is known for its rich marine biodiversity, thanks to the strong currents from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, creating what scientifically known as the Indonesian Throughflow moving at 15 Sv or 15 million cubic meters per second carrying nutrients along with it, allowing sea corals, colorful fish and everything else to proliferate. The throughflow is so powerful that without it the world would have rotated faster, and we wouldn’t have had 24 hours a day as we do now.
We had seen how the throughflow blessed the waters near Pink Beach with the most beautiful underwater life, but that day after spotting our first ever manta we moved to another island just outside the national park: Kanawa Island.
Slowly the small island emerged from the horizon, the water looked much calmer and friendlier than at Manta Point. This time, free of an upset stomach, I was more than ready to spend a long time marveling at the underwater wonder of yet another tropical paradise in the west of Flores.
James and I then swam away from the boat to move closer to the beach, over a deep blue sea where nothing was visible beneath us, only darkness. A few minutes later we reached the shallow water, full of colorful coral reefs teeming with beautiful fish. Pufferfish, rainbow parrotfish, blue starfish and many other fish with vibrant colors and different sizes and shapes were playing around the coral reefs, undisturbed by our presence.
Closer to the beach, James was captivated by the plethora of horned sea stars – also affectionately called chocochip sea star – for their bright orange color with dark ‘chocochips’. “It’s a sign of a healthy sea,” he said.
While he was observing them closely, a white – almost silvery – fish with a sleek body and a black-tipped fin dashed in front of me like an arrow moving in the water. The fin was probably the most recognizable part of the fish and its family. A shark just swam before my eyes.
The blacktip shark, however, is not known for attacking humans, unlike its much bigger cousins: the great white, tiger and bull sharks. Meanwhile James spotted another fish which looked less harmful but actually caused more injuries to humans than the blacktip shark: a needlefish.
We could have spent the whole day just looking at those beautiful and sometimes otherworldly underwater creatures, but our boat crew needed to be back to Labuan Bajo in the afternoon, the place where we ended our overland trip on Flores and started the two-day boat excursion. It was truly a privilege and very humbling to be able to see those amazing and almost magical creatures up close, the ones that I had only seen on television and magazines before.
But any incredible journey has an end, and there was no better way to end our unforgettable trip than watching the sun slowly set over the hilly islets off the coast of Labuan Bajo. From the beautiful craftsmanship of the women at Sikka to the unique culture of Ngadanese villages, from the whimsical colored-lakes of Kelimutu to the vast rice terraces carved on the undulating hills of Manggarai, from the unique blue pebbles of Ende to the breathtaking natural wonders of the Komodo National Park, Flores was an island which not only satisfied our senses, but also provided us with experiences to treasure for a lifetime.