For the first stop of my first ever solo trip, I thought it would be a good idea to ship myself to a remote Indonesian island to see some giant, poisonous, prehistoric lizards. Upon descending into Komodo Airport, as my tiny propeller plane wildly shook back and forth from strong gusts of wind amid the literal screams of my fellow passengers, I wondered if perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew.
Terrifying landing aside, Komodo was an absolute dream, and by far my favorite travel destination to date. “Komodo National Park” is actually a sprawling series of islands in the Flores region of Indonesia. To get there, you take a 90-minute flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo – a small fishing town which is slowly becoming a tourist hub – and catch a boat to the islands from there. There’s a few main spots in Komodo National Park that are considered must-sees – Komodo Island, Rinca Island, Padar Island, Pink Beach, and Manta Point.
Many companies in the area offer day tours or overnight trips, which you can book in advance via phone/email, or in person by wandering into one of the many tourist shops in town. Pretty much every tour departs between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, so definitely fly in the night before.
I’d decided my first solo trip should also be my first hostel experience and I booked Ciao Hostel solely for its insane view of Labuan Bajo harbour (that photo below was taken from my room!). I picked a co-ed dorm and of course found myself rooming with five dudes. Three were from Switzerland, traveling together, and a super fun and interesting group, so when they all went to a bar for the night and invited me I… declined, took a bunch of codeine, and passed out at 9 pm. Baby steps. (SIDE NOTE: Drugs are illegal in Indonesia, but I was not aware that this also extends to things like codeine which are over-the-counter in Australia but require a prescription elsewhere! Leave your pills at home!!)
My tour to Komodo Island, Pink Beach, and Padar Island was canceled due to strong winds, so I spent my first evening researching something else to do and chatting to a very cute Dutch guy in my room who was also inexplicably in bed at 9pm. I ended up booking a speedboat tour to Rinca Island, Menjerite Island, and Kelor Island through Komodo Tour Center. Their Google reviews were good, the price was right, and they accepted credit cards (my dumb ass still had not gotten cash). I was quoted 1,000,000 IDR but ended up paying 700,000 – about $50 USD – which is pretty standard for a speedboat tour since they’re faster than the traditional wooden boats. They were also one of the few companies willing to take a solo traveler – everyone else I spoke to had a 2-person minimum or outrageously inflated prices for a single person.
The boat was clean, safe, and fast. We got to Rinca Island in about an hour and a half – it takes about double that in one of the traditional wooden boats. Rinca Island is also home to the komodo dragons, and though I’ve heard that Komodo Island is better because the dragons are in a more natural environment, I thought Rinca was awesome.
When you go on a tour, your guide will carry a funny-looking Y-shaped stick. It looks like (and is) an absolutely pathetic defense against a dragon. Apparently, the stick’s purpose is to pin the dragon’s neck, immobilizing it long enough for the tour group to run away. That’s all. Your best defense against a komodo dragon if it wants to eat you is… hold it at bay with a stick. Awesome. They told us this at the BEGINNING of the tour and I once again began to wonder if satiating my thirst for adventure was really worth being mauled and/or devoured by a modern day dinosaur.
We spent about an hour walking around the island and saw 6 or 7 dragons in the wild – some lounging, some walking, and two females guarding their nests, which was pretty cool. At the end of the tour is a kitchen area where a lot of dragons congregate because they can smell meat. There were a good ten or so dragons lounging there, and even though it wasn’t as exciting to see them just chilling next to a building, this was one of my favorite parts of the tour because these dragons were absolutely massive. The ones I saw in the wild were big, but these were huge. A very real reminder that I was in the company of some cool, but legitimately dangerous, lizards. According to Google, a fully-grown male dragon is around 150 pounds, which seems about right because those things looked like they could eat me for a snack.
Komodo dragons don’t give any warning that they’re about to attack, of course, because that would make it too easy to escape. One of the dragons actually did start moving aggressively towards us at one point, the guard did trap it with his ridiculous stick, and we did all run away (lol). The dragons are fast. They lull you into a false sense of security by lazing around in the sun, but they can run up to 13 mph. They can also eat up to 80 percent of their body weight in one sitting, and if that wasn’t enough, they’re also venomous. Their bite can take down a fully-grown water buffalo in a matter of days. I was proud to have escaped the island unscathed.
After Rinca we headed to Menjerite Island for some snorkeling, and I got my first taste of the absolutely insane diversity of marine life in Indonesia. I’d been snorkeling a few times in Australia (though I haven’t been to the Great Barrier Reef yet) and this was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The water was sparkling and absolutely crystal clear and the moment I got underwater there was a whole sea of brilliant corals, huge starfish, and endless fish in every size, shape, and color. The water was absolutely teeming with marine life and everywhere I looked there was something new. I don’t have a lot of experience snorkeling (terrible swimmer, afraid of water, etc) so I was pretty giddy afterwards – I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t have an underwater camera so unfortunately didn’t get any snaps here, but I’ll definitely be investing in one for my next trip.
We closed out the day with a trip to Kelor Island for more snorkeling. There’s a hike you can do on the island that’s supposed to have a lovely view of the beach, but even while hungry for adventure I have my limits, and I was feeling tired of Doing Things. I elected to stay on the beach, tan, and sip on a coconut, and about half the people from my boat decided to join me. We all ate lunch on the beach and lounged around for another hour or so, got a bit more snorkeling in, then headed back to town.
My first tour really couldn’t have gone better – the speedboat was a lovely and practical way to enjoy the beauty of the Flores area. But I didn’t feel like I was really getting an authentic experience (I tried to word this in a non-pretentious way but failed. I’m sorry). I decided to book a local fishing boat to Padar Island and Manta Point for the following day, and holy fuck did that turn out to be an experience. By experience, I mean the boat broke down half a dozen times, I almost drowned at one point, and we returned to harbor two hours late, well after sunset. I made some friends, got some incredible sunset shots, and had a fun time anyway, but I definitely wouldn’t do it again. If you’re headed to Komodo I highly recommend booking an organized tour and not just winging it with a local boat because although it made for some good stories (stay tuned lol) it was a largely frustrating and stressful experience.
My travel adventure is just beginning, but so far Komodo National Park is hands down the best place I’ve been. Its natural beauty is just staggering. Next week I’ll be posting all my shots from my day trip to Padar Island – the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and the main reason that I came to Komodo!