Anyone who has experienced a brief stop in Labuan Bajo before making their way across the remoter reaches of the Komodo National Park, should be forgiven for the flicker of doubt they might have felt as their vehicle wound through dusty roads and shabby shops.
Where, might they wonder was the tropical paradise that entranced the naturalist William D. Burden and inspired the movie King Kong?
When we woke up the next morning, the sun had just risen and we were sailing deep through the UNESCO-protected marine park. It was hard to know where to look. All around us were islands with small, perfect coves surrounded by steep, verdant mountains.
Serendipitously, we visited Komodo when it was at its best, between the short rainy season from January to March and before the dry season from July to December when the scenery slowly turns from lush green to deep dusty brown.
We tried to recall where we had seen such dramatic landscape before: the Scottish Highlands maybe or even the South Islands of New Zealand.
Then someone cried out that the scenery was too surreal to be of this earth and cinematic comparisons were more appropriate. Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Jurassic Park. It could be all of them, depending on where your gaze settled.
To the left it was the Shires, with rolling green hills and moss green meadows and then to the right, the shimmering ocean which changed colour from sapphire to azure could be the Narrow Sea.
While it looked beautifully still and calm, the waters around the Nusa Tenggara archipelago are among the most unpredictable and dangerous in the tropics. This is the area where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, creating a menacing combination of tidal races and whirlpools. This meant plans shift and change to the whims of the sea, the Captain and guests.
The original plan on day one was to sail to Komodo Island, home to the legendary komodo dragon and popular Pink Beach. However, the Captain said this journey was now impossible because of strong currents. He must have noticed our disappointment: “Don’t worry. I’ll bring you to another even more secluded pink beach and instead of dragons, we can hunt for manta rays.”
So after three hours of sailing, we arrived at the castaway-perfect Mawan Island, fringed with pink sand thanks to the abundance of red corals. We spent the next two hours lounged on a slim crescent of beach, chilled drinks in hand, watching the beautiful scenery under a row of umbrellas – a temporary private beach club erected by the crew.
As we snorkelled in crystal clear, shallow water we were blown away by the hundreds of colourful and shimmering fish racing around as well as huge blue starfish, sea turtles and slippery eels close enough to touch.
Later that day, we dropped anchor at a reef known as Manta Point. While not easy to find in the wild, Manta Point is one of few pockets in the world where manta rays come to get their skin, gills and teeth groomed at ‘cleaning stations’. Swimming up close to mantas was on top of our bucket list, so we were comforted to know that they were harmless despite their wingspans measuring several metres.
As we bobbed our heads in the water, we had no idea what to expect. Then the first manta glided past us. We were immediately struck by how graceful and gentle it seemed. Slowly others began to swim around us until we were surrounded by seven massive mantas that swooped and dived majestically in a group. We were tempted to touch the mysterious creatures every time one swam centimetres away from us but we were warned not to because their skin has a protective coating that can be worn away with human touch.
Our plan was to end our day taking a sunset hike to the top of Padar Island but we had arrived too late and it had gotten dark. So the next morning just before sunrise and still half asleep we tried our luck again. When we landed we couldn’t stop pinching ourselves. The island, carpeted in wild yellow flowers and bright green savannah grassland, looked spectacular.
As the first orange hued rays of sun illuminated the island, we were presented with a stunning panoramic view of three turquoise bays fringed with pearly white and charcoal black sand. We took hundreds of photos with our camera phones but none did the scenery justice. Within half an hour, hikers with selfie sticks and drones descended on us and we knew it was time to leave.
What better way to come down to earth than to meet the Park’s most famous local resident, the komodo dragon – the largest living lizard on earth and a ferocious, prehistoric predator.
While 3,000 dragons live on two islands at the Park, Komodo and Rinca, the Captain suggested we explore the latter as its smaller size meant we had a better chance of seeing them in the wild.
Our ranger, who looked about 15 years old, took particular relish in explaining that an untreated dragon bite was deadly and there had been several fatal attacks.
All that stood between us and death was his two-pronged stick which hardly seemed adequate to fend off a cat, never mind bloodthirsty dragons. He informed us: “If you want we can spot some dragons lying in the shade underneath a building nearby.” We were about to nod vigorously when he added, “That’s cheating though.”
So forced by shame, we grudgingly agreed to take the 1-hour medium trail to hunt for dragons.
For the first half an hour, we only saw water buffaloes, some animal skulls – leftover chow – and traces of dragon poo.
Obviously we were out of luck.
Just as we decided to simply enjoy the walk, our ranger suddenly instructed us not to move. There underneath a tamarind tree lay a huge female komodo dragon, about two metres in length. It seemed docile until we decided to crouch behind it to take a photo.
Instantly, it swivelled its massive head and stared menacingly at us.
For a moment we hesitated but photo opportunity trumped terror and we quickly snapped some pictures before scurrying away.
It seemed the Reptile God was smiling on us as we saw two more dragons in quick succession, one under a fallen tree trunk and one on a dried river bank. When we passed another group who said they hadn’t seen any in the wild, we were feeling quite smug.
Later on deck sipping our guava juice, the Captain announced that he had a surprise for us: “Now that you’ve seen life on land and beneath the sea, it’s time for the sky”.
Intrigued, we sailed for two hours to the small island of Kalong which was surrounded by dense mangrove instead of sand. During the day, millions of bats would hang on these mangrove trees to rest and sleep but at sunset they would fly to the other islands to feed.
Boats from all corners of the Park would surround Kalong just before dusk and wait patiently for hundreds of thousands of bats to fly overhead as soon as the sun went down. It was an amazing sight, especially against the pinkish gold sunset.
In the morning we had time for just one more excursion before sailing back to Labuan Bajo. The Captain suggested Kelor, a pretty little hilly island with a long white sandy beach jutting out on one side.
Perhaps because Kelor was only one hour away from Labuan Bajo, it was the least pristine of the islands we stopped at. Empty Indomie packets and plastic bottles were carelessly thrown on the ground and most of the corals near the beach were dead.
While the view from the hill was stunning we were disappointed that this littered island would be our last stop.
However, Komodo still had one more magical experience to give us.
Out of nowhere, a pod of ten dolphins suddenly swam close to the shore. They circled us a few times, flipping and leaping in the air before splashing by a nearby group scared them off.
The journey back to civilisation was predictably sad. We doubted that a trip like this could ever be repeated anywhere else – and thought, as we sailed further and further away from these 29 surreal islands, that was exactly as it should be.