04/16/2014 - 04/21/2014
Gili Laba viewpoint
Getting from point A to B in Indonesia can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. As a tourist there are always an abundance of English speaking men offering private direct transport to your destination of choice, always at very inflated tourist prices. It's easy and convenient, so there is certainly value there, but also not really our style. We prefer to see for ourselves exactly how locals travel, and in doing so we expect local prices. Sometimes that means gearing up for a fight. Information about local transport options is notoriously bad. Riddled with misinformation, language misunderstandings, exaggerated prices and often blatant lies, it certainly presents a challenge. The important thing is to remember to keep a smile on your face and understand that this is what life is like in this part of the world. And "tawar minawar", or " always bargain"! This was our attitude upon arriving at the bus terminal in Mataram, the capital of Lombok to organize transport to Labuanbajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park. As soon as we arrived a man approached us with a clipboard with a list of destinations, the prices of which were obviously inflated. We responded offering an equally unreasonable price on the low end. After a few minutes we decided we had better shop around a bit, which meant we walked around the bus terminal with this guy following close on our heels shouting to any other potential ticket vender not to give us a lower price. It finally took 45 minutes and us walking all the way back to our motorbikes and starting the engines until he finally met our price, still probably higher than the real local price. But now we're all set, we knocked the starting price almost in half and tomorrow afternoon we'd begin our 30 hour jaunt to Labuanbajo, taking two city buses to a long distance bus to a ferry to a bus to a minivan to another ferry to get there, all included in our newly negotiated price of $22.50 each. Phew!
Waiting for the bus, watching a game of chess
As it turned out, our efforts paid off. We met a group of three young English speaking local tourists from Jakarta who invited us to join them in a boat they planned to organize for a long day trip to Komodo Island, with hiking and dragon spotting as well as a visit to the famed pink sand beach there and its equally famed snorkeling. We also visited Gili Laba, a tiny uninhabited island with spectacular hilltop views and more snorkeling. The five of us based ourselves on Kanawa Island, which consists of a single resort with bungalows, bales (little beach-side huts), or camping available. There is also a hilltop for sunset/sunrise views, large beaches with soft sand and calm, clear water, and a large coral reef with great snorkeling. We had booked two nights in a bale, but decided to extend our time there and spent the third night in our tent, the first time so far it's paid off to be traveling with our camping gear. The first night, our friends recruited a few more people to share the cost of our day trip for the next morning, and by the time we set of at 5:00am, we were nine, two German guys and two tourists from Sumatra joining the group.
The day was beautiful, with clear skies and calm seas, and the boat was more comfortable than we expected. The two man crew had even set up coffee and tea, with some fruits and bread as well. We enjoyed the long ride to our first stop, getting to know our new companions and practicing Indonesian vocabulary that our friends were very happy to help us learn. We arrived at Gili Laba at about 8:30, the day already becoming quite hot. The island is small and uninhabited, but there is a walking trail leading uphill. We set off immediately and a climb of about 45 minutes landed us at the top, including some very steep, overgrown trail segments. It was hot and sweaty but the views were spectacular - a myriad of green rolling hills rising out of bays speckled with light blue and turquoise shallows, extending to the deeper blue of vast seas as far as the eye can see. We lingered as long as the heat allowed until the allure of cooling off while snorkeling over pristine coral reef became too much. The reefs near Komodo National Park are some of the best protected in the world, and we were awed by a rich variety of coral and sea life. After taking in our fill of brightly colored schools of fish, sea urchins, anemones with their accompanying clown fish, giant clams, starfish, the occasional shark, sting ray or turtle, and an overwhelming variety of coral, we boarded the boat to head to Komodo Island in hopes of seeing Komodo dragons. We were not disappointed, and saw four very large dragons during a two hour guided hike. We topped off our day with more snorkeling and some relaxation time at a popular pink sand beach nearby, and more fantastic coral just off shore. All in all a wonderful day, and at a fraction of the normal cost thanks to our savvy Indonesian friends. All that was left was the boat ride home. Yet as we gazed toward the horizon, we could see the deep darkening storm clouds inching closer, and for some reason the boat is vibrating violently, with heavy currents against us. Is this a bad omen? Should we be worried? I'm sure our two man crew has done this before and there is nothing to worry about, right?
Wrong. Thick clouds blocking out any trace of moonlight, night fell a pitch black, and rain started pouring down, with lightening inching closer on the horizon. To add to our woes, those violent vibrations we felt were due to one of the boat's propellers having broken, and the remaining needing to run at full bore to cut through the increasingly strong current. It was at this point we found out that the boat had no light for nighttime travel, no life jackets, and no radio. Slightly unsettling to say the least. If the remaining propeller cut out, we would be dead in the water in a storm in the dark. After an hour or so it became clear that we were lost, without a light to be seen indicating another boat or port. As our crew powered ahead, blind, we gathered the most crucial of our belongings, making preparations for what to do if we go overboard, and debating whether it would be better to float in the ocean til morning, or swim to shore, invisible in the darkness, risking the rocky shoreline and hungry giant dragons. Ok so maybe we were being overdramatic. The storm never picked up in strength as we feared, the seas were calm, and we had cell phones with reception. Our crew finally admitted defeat, turned the boat around, and found another boat that allowed us to attach ourselves alongside and spend the night. They even gave us a hot meal, mats to sleep on and blankets. All's well that ends well. The next morning we set out at dawn, accompanied by the Muslim call to prayer, and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and excellent scenery, arriving back to Kanawa Island around 10:30am.
After one more excellent day on the Island, relaxing, snorkeling, and watching the sunset sitting on bean bags, cold beers in hand, we headed back to Labuanbajo. The next day we would retrace our steps to go to Bali, but we still have a half day here on Flores. What to do? We took a page out of our Indonesian friends' playbook, and chartered a boat on our own for a sunset cruise to Kalong Island, home to tens of thousands of giant fruit bats who take to the skies en mass every night at dusk. We spent the afternoon wandering around the city, recruiting other tourists to share the cost, and ended up with a group of six for what became an excellent half day trip. The bats, known locally as "flying foxes," were every bit as impressive as we'd hoped, filling the sky, the sunset and island hills beautiful in the background. We returned with just enough time for a visit to Labuanbajo's night market, with its long line of food stalls serving up local staples like fried rice or noodles, Bakso (meatball noodle soup), Martabak (fried thin dough layered with egg, meat and green onions with hot sauce on the side), and Mike's favorite, fresh red snapper from the daily catch, grilled or fried with a sweet soy/teriyaki type sauce brushed on for good measure. Just the way to end a great day.
One of many videos we took of the bats
Port of Sape
Our hangout spot for the 6 hour ferry
Labuanbajo mosque at sunset. Flores is a mainly Protestant Island, but there is a lot of religious freedom here. It was cool to hear the call to prayer from this mosque, then hallelujah sung from the church across the street.
Our seaside 'bale'
Our bale at sunset
The crew after climbing Kanawa
Google Earth image of Kanawa, though the island was completely green while we were there. We snorkeled to where the reef drops off to the deep blue, endless ocean, and it was ominous, creepy, and so cool. How can the fish not be scared!?
Dinnertime on Kanawa
We found Jack Sparrow's ship!
Mike atop Gili Laba
Jetty at Kanawa
This is not from an underwater camera, this is just how clear the water is
Bats!! They were so big and so graceful, flying like birds rather than frenetic fluttering rats. They could even glide through the air, which I didn't think bats could do.