Insider tips on exploring the Komodo Islands

Three Komodo dragons up close

Three Komodo dragons sunbake at the waterhole. Each is three-meters-long with prehistoric claws, beady eyes and scaly skin, which looks like woven metal armor. It feels like I’ve done a Dr Who and dropped into a dinosaur convention. Our diminutive guide is armed with nothing but a pronged stick.

One heaves itself up and lurches towards me, so close I can hear its guttural hiss. A foot-long pink forked tongue darts in and out of its mouth. Meanwhile, saliva is drooling from the other two. Even DreamWorks couldn’t have come up with scarier looking creatures. Suddenly, my walk in the Komodo Islands National Park doesn’t feel like…well…a walk in the park anymore.

Found only on four volcanic islands that rise Jurassic-park-like from the sea in Eastern Indonesia, the world’s largest lizard has sixty teeth and a mouth full of nasty bacteria. All the more easy to kill you and swallow you whole. The white stuff in their poo is actually pulverised bones.

Stunningly beautiful Komodo Islands

The stunningly beautiful and deserted Komodo IslandsI first learned about the Komodo Islands because of the dragons. But I’d also heard whispers about romantic two-masted sailing boats and dozens of dramatic deserted islets, all except four thankfully dragon-free. Rimmed with creamy sand beaches, they are dotted across an aquamarine sea literally bulging with marine life.

Labuan Bajo

The jumping-off point for adventures in the Komodos as well as the caves, waterfalls and lakes of Western Flores is the buzzy little port town of Labuan Bajo. It used to be difficult to get here but now Garuda Indonesia has made Labuan Bajo the first stop on its new Explore route. A fleet of new planes services LB’s brand-new Jetsons’-like airport.

Rimmed with jungle and offering panoramic views of an island-strewn harbor, Labuan Bajo is jostling with dive shops and traditional markets, cafes and shanty shacks, new and old. It feels like South-east Asia’s next adventure hub on the cusp of mainstream discovery. A few years ago there were just a handful of dive shops. Today there are 26, which says something about how the world is discovering the richness and diversity of what is under the sea in these parts.

Labuan Bajo is a bustling little port on the west of the island of Flores

I hear Italian, German, French, English, and Scottish accents on Labuan Bajo’s main strip, where young local men give rides on the back of their motorbikes. Curiously, not many Aussies have discovered this new hot spot. Maybe it’s because Hindu Bali is so popular and they think, erroneously, the rest of Indonesia will not be as conducive to good times.

The Italians are here in force, thanks to the GFC and a love of diving. In addition to dive resorts offshore, they’ve opened a gaggle of eateries, the best of which is the rooftop Made in Italy restaurant. Here we feast on Florentine chef Marco Bettini’s sublime thin-crust pizza and home-made pasta with local seafood and home-grown vegies. He even has a boat where you can have a romantic Italian meal while savouring Labuan Bajo’s fiery sunsets.

There’s Casa Selini, a Greek island-inspired cafe with adjoining boutique, run by Greek fashion designer Marilena Mataki who recently decamped from Bali, and Bajo Bakery, run by an enterprising Swiss couple.

Casa Sellini in Labuan Bajo

The best places for local fare are the harbor-side night markets where you can dine under the stars on fresh snapper and bream grilled over coconut coals and served with wok-fried greens, sambal, and cold Bintang beer. For something a little more upmarket, check out the airy Treetops restaurant and bar.

Great diving sites

We go for a day-trip with Bajo Dive Club, the first dive shop in Labuan Bajo, started in 1993 by German Frank Winkler. They also offer three and five-day live-aboard trips to special spots like Batu Bolong, Manta Alley, Castle Rock, and Crystal Bommie where you are likely to see reef sharks, manta rays, moray eels, schooling barracuda, gorgonian fans, octopus and a fabulous array of soft and hard coral.

Phinisi sailing trip around the Komodo Islands

The Plataran phinisi is a restored two-masted Indonesian sailing boatWe decide to splurge and enjoy a day trip to Komodo Island on the luxury Plataran phinisi, a traditional Indonesian two-masted sailing boat.

The 25-foot navy-blue-hulled yacht is beautifully crafted in teak and, when fully rigged with its seven blue sails, cuts quite a figure skimming the turquoise waters. We pass sea gypsy villages and the occasional fishing or day-tripping long boat but mostly it’s just a dreamy waterscape punctuated with long white sandy beaches backed by soaring hills.

Along the way, we stop to snorkel around famous Pink Beach inside Komodo National Park, where we see green turtles, lion fish, and lots of anemones.

Pink Beach is famous in the Komodo Islands

On board, we enjoy a spectacular feast of grilled fresh fish, salads, fried tempeh and tropical fruit.

 

Komodo Dragons

As we make our grand approach to Komodo Island I remember that the fictitious volcanic island in the original King Kong movie was inspired by American millionaire Douglas Burden’s 1932 expedition to the Komodos with the American Museum of Natural History. In technicolour before my eyes was what he described as “a vast mass of torn and splintered mountains…With its fantastic sky line, its sentinel palms, its volcanic chimneys bared to the stars, it was a fitting abode for the great saurian we had come so far to seek.”

The landscape certainly adds to the drama of our visit while cockatoos and butterflies, firebirds and cicadas offer an evocative sound track. We learn how female dragons (which can produce babies without mating) lay their eggs in megapod bird nests as a sort of decoy so that adult dragons don’t eat them and that young dragons live up in trees to avoid being devoured by their parents. Here even the everyday is macabre.

In all, it’s an utterly fascinating, if rather surreal, sojourn on an island that has long captured the world’s imagination and now has me in its thrall.

A resting Komodo dragon

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Komodo Island

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Komodo Island -8.510403, 119.755096

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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