For my second day in Komodo I decided to forgo the comfort of a speedboat and take a traditional wooden fishing boat out to Padar Island and Manta Point, for a ~more authentic experience~. Local boats are the frugal traveler’s ticket to touring Komodo National Park. They are not particularly glamorous – you’ll be sitting on a wooden bench for most of the day, and it takes hours to get anywhere – but you’re rewarded by feeling like a cool, intrepid explorer. This tour definitely felt like more of an adventure than my speedboat tour.
I would not, however, recommend it to anyone who values their life. My boat broke down a half dozen times, we finally made it back to harbour well after dark, and I (literally) almost drowned. I’d read some horror stories about the wooden boats online and ignored them for the sake of adventure, but the internet was right. Take the speedboat.
In case you decide to go anyway – here’s some fast facts. I paid 500,000 IDR (~$35 USD) for a full day tour which included stops at Padar Island, Manta Point, Rinca Island, and Kelor Island. Breakfast, lunch, and hostel pickup/dropoff were included. You can book a local boat from any of the tourist shops in town, or by simply wandering around the harbour and asking around. I booked through my hostel (Ciao Hostel) and while the accommodation itself was great, please don’t book any tours through them. It will be a disaster, and you will hate your life.
Me and about twelve other travelers settled onto our boat at 6 AM sharp, blissfully unaware that we were entering the day from hell. I spent the first couple of hours in total bliss, enjoying the view and the ocean spray as we sped (well, drifted) past rugged island after island. After four hours, with no land in sight, the wind was ramping up and the waves were getting bigger. A fishing boat had sunk the day before, so I knew the ocean did not fuck around here. I nervously scanned the boat and saw a few life jackets, not nearly enough to go around, and tried not to panic. The boat is going to capsize. They will never find ur body. Why couldn’t u have just stayed in bed watching Netflix like a normal person.
Right on cue, the boat broke down. Cool. We drifted aimlessly through the water as the crew shouted at each other. Someone eventually crawled into the ship’s underbelly, dug around with a rag, and cranked a huge lever, at which point the engine came to life while making an awful sputtering sound and spewing huge whorls of dark black smoke. This happened about 800 (okay, ten) times over the course of the day. I made a game of locating other boats on the horizon and guessing how long it would take for them to reach us when we inevitably caught on fire and capsized.
We finally docked at Padar and I slapped on my hiking shoes, only to ungracefully dismount directly into the water. Sopping wet and covered in sand but undeterred, I made my way up to the trailhead to see seemingly infinite stairs set into a huge, rugged mountain. The hike is brief enough (45 minutes to an hour) but it’s steep, and though there are stairs for the beginning of the hike, the remainder is loose dirt and gravel and pretty slippery. Bring good shoes, sunscreen, and plenty of water! I befriended an Aussie who survived the entire trek in a pair of rubber flip-flops, but I have no idea how. Komodo is hot and humid, so you will be drenched in sweat pretty much immediately, and want to die about halfway up.
But you’re rewarded with one of the most spectacular views you’ll ever see. The best photo spot is about 3/4 of the way, but I wanted to conquer the mountain so I went all the way up. I stayed at the top for a while listening to the wind and the rolling waves, and watching boats filter in and out of the harbor. I’d come to Komodo National Park mainly for this view. I’d seen a photo online and promised myself I’d make it there one day, and there I was. Best feeling in the world.
After Padar we headed slowly to Manta Point. Everyone snapped to attention when we saw a sea turtle, and again when some massive shadows appeared below us in the water. We leapt out for maybe five minutes. Some of us did manage to catch one brief, spectacular glimpse of the manta from below the water, but then they were gone. Right afterwards, the crew decided to leave.
Unfortunately for me, the worst swimmer ever, the current at Manta Point is extremely strong. The crew had neglected to tell us this, and they also neglected to maneuver the boat any closer, leaving us to struggle back directly against the current. We’d swim as hard as we could and just… not go anywhere. I’ve never experienced anything like it and it was genuinely frightening.
Lesson learned – the ocean can be unforgiving. Maybe (ok, definitely) it was naïve not to be aware of this beforehand, but I’ll be more careful in the future. FYI, I’ve since learned that Komodo has some of the strongest currents in the world, so be sure you can handle yourself in the water before you get in.
I honestly barely made it back to the boat. I made several pathetic attempts to hoist myself up but eventually had to have two guys literally drag me onto the boat like a tragic, bloated bag of sand. After hauling me onto the boat, one of them kindly and discreetly informed me that one of my boobs was hanging out. Not a successful afternoon for me all around.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the front deck of the boat tanning and chatting to the very cute Aussie I’d befriended on Padar. I was glad to have found someone whose company I legitimately enjoyed, since it was beginning to feel like we were going to be trapped on the boat until we died.
We finally arrived to Rinca to discover that once again our “tour” had no idea what they were doing. Rinca charges an entrance fee (250,000 IDR/~18 USD on weekdays and 350,000/~$25 USD on weekends), which my tour the day before had pre-paid. The company who had arranged the boat today hadn’t even told anyone that the park charged an entrance fee, so many people didn’t have cash, and no one could speak enough Indonesian to resolve anything with the tour center staff.
By this point I was in hysterical laughter. We were hours behind schedule already. We’d spent most of the day drifting around aimlessly and other than our five-minute stop to flail around at Manta Point, the only place we’d seen was Padar Island. I wasn’t confident that our smoke-spewing, slow ass boat could even make it back to Labuan Bajo without bursting into flames.
We eventually found a girl who spoke English and helped us resolve the payment dispute so that we could organize a tour. Today’s tour was, fittingly, a pathetic imitation of my previous visit. Our guide had very little to share about the dragons, and we only saw a couple in the wild. We ended up spending around twenty minutes on the island before being unexpectedly brought back to the entrance, even though we had organized an hour-long tour.
It was probably around 4 pm then and we were still, in theory, supposed to go snorkeling. Everyone was hot, tired, and grouchy. My Aussie friend and I settled back onto the front of the boat as we set off from Rinca and… the engine died again. We lamented not bringing a bag of Goon (Australian boxed wine, the cure to any bad situation). This time the engine stayed dead for a while, just until the sun was setting. Some of us debated hitching a ride on another boat but just then, the engine made a new and even more horrible noise than before, and we were off again.
Sunset over the water in Komodo is pretty much one of the most magical things you can see, and a bonus you usually won’t experience on a day tour. I hung out the side of the boat with my camera, once again getting sprayed in the face with water, and took hundreds of pictures as we slowly made our way back. Every time I thought it couldn’t get any more spectacular, the color would shift, the water would light up, and the whole scene would transform into something new and even more beautiful. As I reviewed my shots I quietly thanked the boat for breaking down so many times and giving me the opportunity to enjoy the literal best sunset ever.
My gratitude was short-lived though. If you can believe it, while the sun was setting, our crew anchored the boat at Kelor Island and motioned to us to get out. They were taking us snorkeling. At dusk. One, it was freezing cold by this point, two, we were already hours late and were going to be back well after dark, and three, we didn’t have a torch so we wouldn’t have been able to see any fish anyway. Fortunately a girl on our boat spoke enough Indonesian to communicate to the crew that we just wanted to get the hale back to Labuan Bajo already.
By some miracle they hadn’t shut off the engine, so we were able to set off back to town straight away without having to endure yet another attempt to start the boat. The harbour was absolutely packed when we got back and there was nowhere to dock (of course), so we ended up playing an elaborate game of Boat Tetris and scraping along the edge of a bunch of other boats to wedge our way in. If you’d like a stupid but accurate visual representation, click here. We were eventually able to climb through a few other boats to get back to the dock, and then we were FREE! I had never been so happy to be on solid ground.
Despite the tour itself being a complete mess, I had a great time. I met a ton of awesome solo travelers, got to see a glimpse into the lives of Labuan Bajo locals, and spent a whole day chilling at sea. Though it was a great adventure and I’m glad I went, I would absolutely never do it again. I met a few other people with horror stories from the local boats, including two girls who were trapped at sea in insane winds and one person who shipwrecked and had to swim to an island to be rescued (lol). Especially if you’re short on time like I was, speedboats are a much more practical (and much safer) way to experience the beauty of Komodo.