Practical insights from our search for Komodo Dragons
Read this before you go on your own journey sailing in search for dragons
From the highway on the hill, the view of Labuan Bajo’s newly-built roofs, crane-filled port and the stretch of pristine blue waters and green islands, gives the place a feeling of momentum. The colours are so vibrant in the morning sun that it is hard to keep my eyes open.
The town of Labuan Bajo
Driving into the city, it is clear that Labuan Bajo is a fishing village that seems to just recently woken up to the fact that it is sitting on top of a national treasure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Komodo National Park. And as it stretches its sleepy limbs, it is slowly beginning to expand to accommodate all the eager visitors. The city’s main road is bustling with activity – bricks are being laid to build sidewalks, new dive shops and hotels are popping up and restaurants are expanding.
Turning into town, I headed for my hotel. I had arranged to stay at Komodo Dragon Dive, a colourful hostel and dive shop run by a meticulous Frenchman by the name of William. William opened up his shop just a little over a year ago, but has already done quite well in a town that is still starved for decent accommodation. The white walls, accented with colourful details and a pool in the middle of the property, give it a cheeky Miami vibe.
Outside its boundaries, it can be quite difficult to find a comfortable place to stay. Some of the other places that we would recommend in Labuan Bajo are:
- Bajo Nature Backpackers
- Eco Tree O’tel
- La Cecile Hotel and Café
Surely, this will change soon as more and more places are being built.
But I didn’t come to Labuan Bajo to look for fancy accommodation. I was here to find the best way to see Komodo National Park. And that means finding a guide.
The hunt for a good guide
As per my usual approach to finding guides, I set down the dusty streets. And although there was a lot of construction going on all around, the small tour shops were not put off and were clamouring for attention.
Every few meters, there would be someone shouting to book a tour with them. They all offered the same value proposition: the best price, the best boat. I approached a few and enquired about the prices. At first they seemed unrelenting, but after a little while they caved, especially when I began walking away.
For an overnight boat trip to Komodo, prices ranged from IDR 700,00 to 1,500,000 (USD 50-100). A little later that night, I came to find out that despite any difference in price – all visitors who were booking their trip off the street were being sent to the same boat –as the shops were all pooling their customers via a mutual WhatsApp group. So it really didn’t matter who you chose.
The next day, it was confirmed as I, along with dozen strangers, piled into the same crummy boat, packed together like sardines on the roof of the boat for the night and enjoyed the company of the mute crew who could not understand a word of English. It’s not a bad way to go for a backpacker!
If you are going to go this route, my recommendation is to keep bargaining and come late in the evening, the night before the trip, when the desperation to make sales is peaking.
Encountering the Dragons
But no matter the discomfort, it is hard to be anything but in a good mood when the views around you are stunning.
As the boat moved away from shore, the rolling hills of the islands blending with the undulating blue waters were hypnotic. After sitting transfixed in a daze for hours, it seemed a bother when the boat finally stopped and we had to get out for a hike on Rinca Island.
From the entrance, Komodo National Park seemed a bit barren. There were muddy puddles on each side of the boardwalk and no sign of the dragons.
We went past the guest reception cottage and after a few minutes walk, we were by the guard houses where we came upon the strange locals. There they were – lazily splayed out, exhibiting just a slight awareness that there was a group of about 15 highly intrigued humans surrounding them.
Our guides told us to keep a cautious distance of about 8 metres. Of course selfies had to be taken so the eight meters may have dwindled to one or two. These usually speedy dragons (Komodos can run up to 20km/h) looked mollified. We had a sneaking suspicion that they have been fed by their human guardians. There was a bit of excitement when two of the larger males got into a bit of a spat and tussled around. But that too soon ended.
Leaving the dragons to sunbathe, we went for a hike around the island. The heavily forested trail does not present many challenges, just a few small hills here and there. And although our guide was carrying a very big stick to ward off any hungry dragons, we only came across one fairly small one on the trail. It scampered off before we got too close.
The clearest blue waters
Delighted to have seen the beasts live, we were ready to cool off in the sea breeze. As we pressed ahead and away from Rinca, one of the crewmembers stood at the bow for a while looking down into the waters. After some time he started yelling “mantas, mantas!” and jumped into the water. We soon followed. Just having snorkelling equipment on and a few metres in we could see the majestic mantas flapping their wings.
Some of the other must stops in the National Park are as follows:
Padar Island: This is the famed volcanic island appearing in all the Instagram photos. Here you can go for a brief (although steep) trek to the top of green mountain slopes for some stunning views of the surrounds.
Kawang Island: This island has a pristine, turquoise beach which is ideal for lounging about with a book and snorkelling.
Kalong Island: This is the place where most boats come to park for the night. It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset and to catch the flying fox show, as hundreds of bats leave their cave on the island for a night-time feast.
And a note on Komodo Island itself: we actually found it to be a bit disappointing. We didn’t see any dragons and the guides there were very eager to get rid of us. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was the end of the day and they were looking forward to go home, but we found that their manner was very brusque, unlike the very helpful guides of Rinca. This of course can be made better if you go with your own guide when you hire a private trip.
As an aside, a private boat trip has other advantages, such as more comfortable accommodation (see picture below) - including private rooms with double, twin or bunk beds. The rooms are equipped with ACs or fans. The crew will typically speak English and at a minimum the guide does and is able to provide more context to the treks on the islands.
After spending the night near Kalong Island (although somehow missing the grand exodus of the bats!), hiking in Padar Island and swimming and snorkeling near Pink Beach, a bit burned, our phones and cameras heavier with a few more hundred photos, we headed back to Labuan Bajo. As we reached the port and the sight of the rusted shipping containers and dusty streets came into view we sighed deeply that the encounter with the magical dragon islands had come to an end too soon.
Labuan Bajo is not so bad! I actually quite like this dusty little town! It has the energy of potential and I like the community around it! The dive shops, most of which are in an association, keep very good safety standards (but also fix the prices!). There’s a good mix of local and foreign owned diving centers with instructors speaking many European languages (many Dutch, German and French!) as well as Bahasa Indonesia in addition to English.
There are also a few good spots for food. Try the night market! The seafood selection is wide and super fresh! Also stop by the Catur'z Kopi Club, run by a very friendly Serbian nomad by the name of Zana. The coffee is wonderful (if you are travelling in Indonesia for a while you will appreciate this - as surprisingly for a major coffee exporter, most of the local coffee is not very tasty!).
Afterword: This story was written by Lina, Co-founder of Seek Sophie, who went around Komodo looking for the best boat expeditions. She was a bit disappointed by the group trips but would highly recommend those who are looking to see Komodo on a budget. In order to get the most out of the islands though, she believes it's much better to get on a private trip with guides who are more inclined to show you the best of the islands.