The wonderful thing about Indonesia is the sheer size of the place, you could spend months there and still have thousands of places that you’ve not seen. 18,307 to be precise, as that’s how many islands make up the giant archipelago. Yes, Bali is amazing, but there is SO much more to Indonesia and that’s exactly what we discovered in the beautiful island of Flores.
An hours flight east from Denpasar lies the port town Labuan Bajo – acting as the landing spot to the island Flores and a gateway to adventure, with nearby islands Komodo and Rinca just sitting off shore. Labuan Bajo (or Bajo as it’s commonly referred to) sits on a steep hill overlooking the harbour, the town itself is slightly ramshackled and rickety but that’s what gives it its unique charm. The main strip, Jl Soekarno Hatta, is lined with hostels, bars, cafes and travel agents galore, as well as being packed with zooming scooters balancing whole families and dogs that’ll chase you from one side of town to the other. However the town has this incredible laidback ease about it, which in true Indonesian style allows days to melt into weeks, so be careful you don’t get stuck here (like we did) as the journey east into the rest of Flores is supposed to be pretty amazing too.
We spent most of our waking hours underwater, as the diving in this area is like something from a dream and one of the main reasons we made the trip. Strong currents lure in huge pelagic fish and on any given day you are likely to spot pods of dolphins, schooling reef sharks, manta rays and mola-mola (sunfish), not to mention the thousands of colourful fish and coral beds that look like rainbow gardens. Within a few hours of arriving in Bajo we had already booked into our first full day of diving with Divers Paradise Komodo. We shopped around a bit before we settled on this joint but found these guys were the friendliest, as well as being the best value for money in town. Keen to see as many ocean giants as possible we were pretty happy to discover that we could choose our sites with our instructors and picked the following locations: Castle Rock, The Cauldron and Tatawa Besar. Sure enough we saw reef sharks as soon as we got to the bottom but the real jaw dropper for me was the ridiculous number of fish. We were completely surrounded! At some points you couldn’t tell which way was up because everywhere you looked were dense schools of huge tropical fish, whirlwinding and weaving their way around you as if you were right in the middle of some sort of fish frenzy …in a good way. The other highlights of our dives here were spotting half the cast of Finding Nemo gathered together at once (it’s as if they knew…) and being rocketed around by the strong currents known as ‘Shotgun Alley’ – not for the fainthearted. Shout out to the amazing instructors at Divers Paradise for giving us such an unforgettable day!
Another absolute MUST while in Labuan Bajo is a day tour to get up close and personal with the legendary Komodo dragons. All the travel agents along the main strip offer similar tour packages, so we made our choice based on the friendliest smile and the nicest looking boat (which seemed like logical criteria at the time) and settled with Christian’s tours – look for a smiley man in a very small wooden hut squished next to Le Pirate. In our three months of exploring Indonesia I’d say this was our favourite day by far and I still get amazed when I think back on it. We started off extremely early and caught the sunrise while sailing to our first destination: Padar Island. Surrounded by bright turquoise sea, this is a bizarrely formed island with several white sandy crescent shaped bays and a steep crest of mountain that runs through the middle. Being slightly miffed at the thought of hiking up this steep hill first thing in the morning meant that most of this walk was spent staring at my feet, so it was only once I got to the top that I took in the breathtaking panoramic views of this incredible place, which made the trek so worthwhile.
The next stop on our journey was Komodo Island, which was recently featured on Planet Earth 2 and if David Attenborough thinks it’s worth a visit, then that says it all. Everything about this place seems prehistoric, from the rusty red volcanic hills and jagged coastline to the gargantuan dragon like beasts that wander freely. Both Rinca and Komodo islands are the only natural home to these giants, so it really is a rare experience to come so close to them. The guides of the National Park will take you on a walking tour around the island in search of them, but the easiest way to find them is to head to the restaurant on the island as they linger outside in packs waiting for scraps of food to be tossed from the kitchen windows. Although they look slow they are pretty deadly and tourists have been seriously attacked while on these tours, so I’d recommend sticking as close to your guide as possible! Clearly used to the photographic demands of tourists, our guide encouraged us to create a great (and pretty cheesy) photo of us ‘stroking’ the lizard below. In reality we were a few metres behind him and that was definitely close enough for me.
After our scaley encounter we headed to Pink Beach (Pantai Merah) for some R&R. The sand gets its colour from red coral off-shore that breaks off and mixes in with the white sand, creating a beautifully soft pink coastline with a backdrop of green hills, blue skies and crystal clear turquoise seas. Last of all on our day tour was a stop somewhere in the middle of the dark blue ocean to search for some manta rays. I was pretty sceptical that we’d find them as we were literally in the middle of nowhere, but as soon as we got our snorkels on and jumped in the water, we were surrounded! These guys are HUGE and have massive gaping mouths that gave me a bit of a fright at first, (especially when they’re coming right at you) but once we got accustomed to their mind blowing size we spent ages swimming alongside them, trying to keep up. As if the day wasn’t good enough, we then sailed back to Bajo at sunset while a pod of dolphins raced alongside the boat.
A trip to an Indonesian town isn’t complete without some sort of waterfall chasing, so on our last day in Bajo we drove an hour out of town (through torrential rain, which was an experience in itself) to Cunca Wulang Canyon. The canyon is about an hour’s walk deep into the rainforest which you need a local guide to take you on. As you approach the canyon the walk becomes a little trickier, having to balance across make-shift bamboo bridges suspended over rapids and rock climb up cliff faces, this is a bit tricky if you’re malcoordinated like me. But, as always once you get to the end the journey is well worth it, with views of striking waterfalls, fresh-water pools and flowing rivers, which are great to kick back and relax in. After a LOT of coaxing and examples of ‘look how easy it is to back flip off cliffs’ from my more adventurous other half, I finally jumped off the cliff and into the canyon. Wahoo!
My final tip to having an unreal time in this beautiful snicket of the planet is to go out and explore. The most memorable days we had were when we packed the scooter up with snorkels, water and snacks (always remember the snacks) and drove off in search of something different. One day we saw a bright green island in the sea from off-shore and were determined to somehow get to it. After weaving through some jungley back streets and a few wrong turns, we managed to navigate our way to an empty beach just opposite the island, so parked up our scooter and swam across. We had the island completely to ourselves and it was crazy beautiful so we spent the day snorkelling with fishes, following monkeys, exploring caves and eating our snacks. Obviously.
Also worth checking out:
Bajo fish market – for the freshest, fishiest and most delicious delicacies in town
Paradise Bar – located just off the strip this bar is an unreal spot for sunset
Bajo Taco – if you’re craving some Mexican goodness
Warung Mama – for cheap and cheerful local grub
Le Pirate – great feeds, amazing accommodation and an even better rooftop pool