The Indonesian island where you can see real dragons

I’ve met some dragons in my time — one particularly bloodless PE teacher springs to mind — but a four-legged one? Not until this moment on Komodo, where an enormous lizard-like creature is giving me a stare that could torch a forest in seconds. Drool ribbons from its slack mouth, a forked tongue flicks between machete-sharp teeth and I’m left feeling as vulnerable as a solitary canapé.

These “dragons” can only be found on Komodo, Rinca and Flores, and our dawn and dusk visits to dusty Komodo and Rinca bring eight sightings. Luckily we’ve also avoided the crowds at these stops, the only tourist-heavy ones we make on our 480-nautical-mile cruise around the more remote Indonesian islands.

During a talk the previous evening aboard the traditional wooden pinisi ship Ombak Putih, we learnt of the dragons’ less-appealing traits: the tail swish that can knock a man flying; a dubious fondness for post-coital cannibalism; and, when things get tough, a predilection for scoffing their kids or digging human remains out of graves.

Goodness, they suit their sobriquet. Yet this trip through East Nusa Tenggara province brings many other first-time encounters — at least for me. We regularly see spinner dolphins twirling like so many souped-up fairground rides above the waves; gargantuan fruit bats too, swishing in their thousands through a star-freckled dusk.

At times sea eagles hover above pristine corals and flying fish skip over foam-flecked waves — and in this Book of Genesis world where nature runs riot and 21st-century concerns dwindle to blissful irrelevance, there’s even a volcano that obligingly belches flames into a Quink-blue sky.

The island has many komodo dragons

This “Remote Ring of Fire — East of Komodo” voyage is a new addition to SeaTrek’s Indonesian portfolio. Alongside those wondrous sightings are equally fascinating visits to small islands such as Adonara, Lembata and Solor, where animist and tribal rituals coexist with Catholic churches and elaborate mosques.

It’s a lot to absorb over ten days, and getting here — with three flight changes — is arduous to say the least. Yet offset against the more vanilla options of Bali, Lombok or the Gili Islands, the remoteness of the region has unimpeachable appeal.

Yes, we occasionally see other tourist boats, but they are rare sightings and mostly we have coastlines to ourselves. Often we drop anchor in glassily calm waters encircled by volcanic islands where an underwater world of dazzling, colourful reefs unravels below.

Ten of the best small-ship cruises
10 of the best Mekong cruises for an unforgettable adventure
Ten river cruises for adventurous travellers

Ombak Putih is an extraordinary vessel. Following the model of Unesco-recognised traditional Indonesian cargo ships, this 42-metre gaff-rigged ketch is entirely handcrafted from ironwood and incorporates a prow as exaggeratedly pointy as a marlin. There’s room on board for 24 guests, though we number just 14 — a sociable mix of New Zealanders, Germans and me. The age range is fiftysomething to eighty-plus, and I shall not forget the sight of one redoubtable octogenarian swimming around the boat every morning, even in choppy seas.

Looking after us is a staff of 14 cheery Indonesians, headed by excellent tour leaders Arie and Nita. And the food that emerges from a tiny galley is remarkably tasty and healthy: vegetable omelettes for breakfast; Indonesian buffets at lunch and dinner that incorporate just-caught fish, stir-fries, imaginative salads and noodles, then puddings and fresh fruit.

The cruise passes through east Nusa Tenggara

It helps if you’re accustomed to the whole boat-lifestyle thing, and by that I mean sleeping in cramped quarters. Though there are open areas for sunloungers and, if the mood takes you, opportunities to sleep on deck, the cabins are small. I find mine, tucked beneath that prow, almost impossibly claustrophobic. So narrow is the distance between upper and lower bunks that simply turning over in bed my head regularly hits the wooden surround above. One rough night, when the wind roars and waves slam against the hull, I sit up suddenly and get a black eye. Quibbles from a long-term insomniac, perhaps, but worth bearing in mind.

Consider too that, at £5,110pp, this is a costly trip — park fees and docking charges notwithstanding — and on top of that initial price you need to factor in airfares and some hefty gratuities: £24 to £40 a day for the crew and £80 to £120 total for tour leaders. That said, you do get wish-list brilliance on a daily basis.

After our rough night at sea we wake off Alor Island to the calm, wide bay at Sika, the turquoise clarity of the water uncovering grassy shallows. This is the natural habitat of the extraordinary dugong, which at up to three metres long and 400kg resembles a manatee with a cetacean-style, fluke-shaped tail.

Our Rib putters to a halt. “We think this one has been alone for some time,” Arie says, and within minutes the sea ripples and a pale brown shape swishes alongside. And, oh my, this dugong is indeed lonesome — its flippers wrap around the Rib’s rubber flanks as it tries, and inevitably fails, to mate with our boat. “Oh look! He’s giving us a cuddle!” one of the elderly ladies cries. I’m not alone in feeling grateful that we’re not snorkelling.

That comes later, when we ferry over to far-flung Komba Island, with smoke billowing from its ochre-tinted summit. The surrounding reefs are ravishingly beautiful; indeed our snorkel sessions seem to accumulate in brilliance, uncovering a rainbow world of healthy corals populated by anemones, fish and teal-toned sea stars, then droves of parrotfish, iridescent fusiliers and dinky red cardinals.

The Ombak Putih in the Komodo National Park


That night we anchor at Ile Ape, the dark sky studded with stars and the southern cross clearly demarcated. Beneath us the water boils with sparks of light from unseen bioluminescent creatures; above, Ile Ape glows a fiery orange against the night sky — silence settles as words are rendered redundant in the face of such beauty.

Our village visits are just as memorable. At Takpala on Alor and Watublapi on Flores we are greeted by villagers in handwoven sarongs and feathered headdresses. I become mesmerised by their tribal dances: the slow repetition of rhythms, hands young and old linked in a supportive chain, then dusty feet rising and falling in time to the beat of a drum.

Before any ceremonial dance there is “hospitality”, and Arie has warned us that refusal is impolite. We’re not talking herbal tea, here; instead there’s a hand-rolled cigarette, a glass of shockingly strong raki and a lump of betel nut. Goodness, the betel nut is disgusting — you’re encouraged to chew it with the occasional dab of lime powder then spit the ensuing orange-tinted saliva onto the ground. It is also mildly hallucinogenic, as I discover when my heart quickens, the air seemingly grows hazy and sudden giggles overcome me. Villagers — even the children — chomp betel nut continuously; it rots the teeth and we witness many mouths stained brilliant orange, with blackened stumps where there should be pearly whites.

As with other villages in this region, Watublapi is famed for its fine ikat textiles. From growing and gathering cotton to spinning, creating natural dyes then weaving on a handloom, these are truly admirable pieces. Take plenty of rupiah with you — I treasure my runner, woven in soft blues and oranges and purchased for about £15, but the larger pieces I simply hadn’t enough cash with me to buy.

Traditional weaving of Ikat fabrics in the village of Watublapi


Tourism has only mildly touched these villages. More workaday than Watublapi are Atawatung on Lembata and Nangamese on Flores.

At the former, kids are keen to show off the rock painting from the last millennium, and there’s no fanfare museum display here — instead this painted man with huge jazz hands and exaggerated genitals rests on a platform next to a corner-shop shack. Elsewhere, a squatting woman deseeds a pile of tamarind pods and black smoke billows from a backyard distillery where the local firewater, aptly-named “sopi”, is funneled through bamboo poles into plastic bottles.

I am trailed by three girls — Johanna, Abril and Eya — who delight in repeating my name and later shout their farewells with cheery waves. In the harbour cow entrails curdle beneath the water’s surface — the remnants of an Eid-al-Adha sacrifice.

Eid is also in full swing at Nangamese, where a calf is being slaughtered and a marquee hastily erected for the ensuing feast, our visit also coinciding with the community’s circumcision ceremony.

Rubbish festoons the main drag in Nangamese and the hot air vibrates with the dyspeptic crow of cockerels. Boys whizz around on scooters, catcalling to friends — and yes, it’s a world away from the normal holiday allure of Indonesia. But therein lies the appeal of this voyage: the rural face of this country is one I will never forget.
Louise Roddon was a guest of Kraken Travel which has nine nights’ full board from £5,110pp on the Remote Ring of Fire — East of Komodo cruise, including a night in a hotel pre-cruise, departing on June 14 ( Fly to Alor via Bali

Become a subscriber and, along with unlimited digital access to The Times and The Sunday Times, you can enjoy a collection of travel offers and competitions curated by our trusted travel partners, especially for Times+ members

Sign up for our Times Travel newsletter and follow us on Instagram and X

Source link