All the buses to Ruteng were booked by people going on the hajj to Mecca, but there was a passenger truck going at 6 am so we took that. It was very cramped and uncomfortable but the trip only took five hours and so we were in Ruteng by about 1 pm. We got the truck to drop us at the Asia Wisata, a hotel that had been recommended to us [wrongly as it turned out!], and once we were settled in there we all walked into the town centre for a meal and a look around.
The market was the usual collection of clothes, fruit, vegetables and assorted meats for sale, and then we walked up towards the imposing church standing against a backdrop of mist-shrouded hills at the western end of town. Dub disappeared to find a telephone office and that left Linda, Thierry and me to explore the church. The front of the church was composed of two Dutch-style belfries with the main door set into the wall between them. Inside it was cool and quiet and similar in style to any Catholic church the world over: it was simply built from rough-sawn materials and in a somewhat dilapidated and unused state.
Back at the Asia Wisata, we all sat around on the upstairs balcony drinking arak and talking while we waited for our evening meal to be cooked. When it finally turned up it was swimming in grease and not much of it got eaten.
Wednesday 20th of May the isle of dragons. After breakfast we all went ashore and waited at the Ranger Station has large numbers of tourists began arriving. By the time one of the rangers began his (obviously learnt verbatim from a book) speech they were over 70 people present and we set off to walk the 2 km to the feeding site, accompanied by several stick-wielding rangers and one unfortunate goat.
About 200 m from the feeding enclosure, a huge Komodo erupted from the undergrowth and began lumbering after the guard holding the goat. People are scampering in all directions for the protection of the enclosure and several more dragons appeared, lumbering menacingly after us and causing panic amongst many of the tourists.
The creatures were quite threatening to look at, with long claws on powerful legs, a wildly swinging tail, flicking tongue and dark, evil eyes. The protective enclosure consisted of a ramshackle fence of wire netting and bamboo and several lizards attempted to get it and had to be beaten back by the laxidasical guards who were preparing to relax with cigarettes, their day’s work done.
One side of the enclosure ran along the top of a steep bank with a dry stream bed at the foot and the dragons were gathered waiting for the goat to be thrown down. The goat was slaughtered discreetly away from view – although several tourists watched with morbid fascination – and then the carcass was thrown to the waiting lizards.
What followed was quite shocking and primaeval. The goat disappeared into a squirming mass of grey leathery skin, flashing teeth and slashing claws. It was disembowelled in less than 10 seconds, the viscera gobble down by blood-stained jaws, and the creatures tore the carcass apart, fighting over pieces of meat and bone. The head was ripped off and swallowed whole by a monstrous dragon and within two minutes nothing remained apart from several pieces of bone being contested by several Komodo dragons.
I shot off a whole roll of film while that awesome display of primaeval savagery went on. I also noticed through the viewfinder as I panned across the crowd that many people were leaning on the fence which in places was only held up by a few dry pieces of dirt. If it had given way, anybody who was unfortunate enough to have tumbled into that pit amongst the dragons would’ve been dead in seconds.
Back on the boat we set sail for Sabulo Island, where once again there was no coral, but we swam and played water polo for an hour or so then headed back to the mainland. At Labuhan Bajo harbour, we unloaded our gear and paid the captain. We tipped the crew 5000 rupiahs each and that seem to please them no end.
Dan, Dub, Linda and I stopped for a fish satay at a small warung on the way back to the Chez Felix and that evening, after most welcome freshwater mandi, we all sat round discussing the trip. It was definitely worth it!
As we drank our early morning coffee at 6 am, the flocks of fruit bats were returning from Flores: croaking to each other as they approached their island home and descended into the trees.
When the sun was up, we set sail out across the bay towards Komodo. The water was the same evil texture as it had been on the day that the boat “Komodo” was sucked beneath its glassy surface and we were all a bit apprehensive as we crossed the stretch of water north of the Three Rocks where once again a deadly rip current was running and small whirlpools pockmarked the green, oily water. We arrived at Red Beach at 9:30 and everyone went snorkelling over some more beautiful coral teeming with fish. It was quite a strong swell there, however, and Dan, Dub and I found it more fun to lie in the pounding surf and see who could stay in the same spot on hands and knees for the longest.
Back on the boat, we ate another meal of rice, noodles and veggies then headed out into the bay to Komodo Island – where the captain went ashore for some reason – then to a small island nearby where there was no coral, no beach and nothing to do…so we made the crew take us back to Red Beach. We spent all afternoon there snorkelling, playing frisbee and exploring. We spent the night anchored off Komodo Island.
We were all up for breakfast at 4:30 am and we are down at the waterside by 5:30. The boat turned up and we ferried ourselves and our gear out to it in a dugout canoe. The harbour was still peaceful at that hour with only a few small boats on the sea as we chugged out of the bay and across a smooth stretch of water to a small island where the crew moored the boat on a white beach. We all disembarked and walked along the shore then inland across the rocky ground to a promontory where we could look out across the ocean: blue and calm, and dotted with steep islands. We all split up and went separate ways to explore and I followed the beach back to the boat where Dan and I proceeded to frolic in the beautiful, cool, clear water by running down the beach and crashing and headlong into the waves and playing catch with a coconut.
The crew served a coffee and it was then that we noticed the clouds of small colourful fish around the boat. I put on a mask and snorkel and then discovered for the first time the amazing spectacle of coral. Once I’d mastered the correct way to breathe – something which, until now, I’ve never been able to do – it was amazingly easy to just float above the coral and peer down at the pageant below.
And what a pageant it was. Corals in shapes and colours of such variety that the sense of sight would barely comprehend; delicate branches, solid, bulbous, swaying in the current, rooted to the bottom and amongst it all the fish. They made the colours of the rainbow look pale insipid compared to the array of colours of the fish: such blues I’ve never seen or imagined; such crimsons, purples, hues of green and gold and grey.
We snorkelled for an hour or so then put to sea again and ate a delicious meal of fish, rice and vegetables. At Rinca Island, we went ashore and a guy took us for a walk up into the hills where wild horses snorted at us from the shade and the sun beat down on the landscape of dry hills dotted with palm trees and patches of dry scrubby bush. It was far too hot for walking around trying to spot animals, and apart from the horses and a Komodo dragon near the Ranger Station, we saw nothing on our walk.
Back at the boat, we sailed out amongst a maze of islands with the sun beginning to dip towards the sea which shone like glass. We anchored for the night offshore from a small mangrove-covered island and the crew set about preparing an evening meal while we drink cocktails of arak and orange squash. As the sun set the western sky aflame and tinted the eastern sky with violet and indigo, thousands upon thousands of fruit bats took flight from amongst the forest on the island and flew silently eastward towards Flores. The stream of huge winged creatures continued until well after dark and the orange moon, full and languorous, rose behind the shadowed outline of the mainland.
East of the sun west of the moon we slept comfortably beneath a blanket of stars, lulled by the gentle sway of the ocean.
We hung around in Labuhan Bajo and spent a part of the day organising the boat that would take all of us out to Komodo and to explore some of the snorkelling beaches around the bay. The deal we worked out was for nine of us to hire the boat for three days at a cost of R250,000 including food, entry fees, snorkels and masks, and guides. We would provide our own drinking water.
The ferry bound for Flores left from the small fishing village of Pelabuhan Sape and we all caught dokkas (small motorized carts) down to the harbour from the town centre in Sape. Pelabuhan Sape was a tranquil collection of stilt houses with a backdrop of still water and hazy hills. We boarded the ferry, which had a very small area of seats and it was crowded with Indonesians and a good number of tourists as well.
The water across which we travelled was very strange. It was flat and calm and the water was the colour of obsidian with the same sheen and textures. Upwellings boiled to the surface and whirlpools contorted the water where currents rippled and roiled between patches of millpond calm water.
About 2:30 pm as we set a course through a maze of dry, steep hills, Thierry saw a small boat capsize. Our ferry turned about and steamed over to where 20 or so people with clinging, terrified, to the upturned hull of the boat. The ferry nosed against the boat and the survivors were brought on board. Several were resuscitated by a German woman who was a nurse. A small child was dead and two others were almost so.
Apparently, the boat was capsized by a whirlpool and one person had been sucked down. It was not the first time a boat had sunk in that area, which was known as Three Rocks after three pinnacles of rock protruding from the sea nearby and around which a fierce rip current was running.
About an hour later, after we had dropped some people off at Komodo Island, we sailed back past the Three Rocks where the current was so strong that the engines of the ferry could only hold it in one position for several minutes before slowly inching forward out of the rip.
There was no trace of the capsized boat…
We arrived and Labuhan Bajo at 8:30 pm and made our way wearily up to the Losman Shea Felix where we met two other guys from the ferry: Dub, who was from Holland, and Dan, a New Yorker.
FOOTNOTE: We will meet Dan again in New York in 1994 when we set off on our next set of adventures. But that is another story…
From Bima, we went to Sape where we met up with the first four of the people who would eventually make up our group who would spend days in the waters around Komodo island. Sean and Trisha were from England, and Thierry and Ed were from Belgium and Holland respectively. Thierry, we had already met on the climb of Batur on Bali and we also had with us a Canadian girl called Michelle who we had met on the bus over from Lombok.
At 6 am we went down for an early morning swim in the funky surf which was so warm that the sand across which it was breaking was noticeably warm. We breakfasted expensively: our 11,500 rupiah room didn’t include breakfast but did include walls so thin that every conversation in the hotel could be heard. There was a man selling T-shirts outside the restaurant and I swapped my Simple Minds Streetfighting Years T-shirt for a LOMBOK PRIMITIVE one.
In the town of Ampenan, after a short cheap Bimo ride, we found the Hotel Sabir where a mouldy, insect-infested room was only R5,000 including breakfast and was, therefore, a much better value than the Senggigi Beach Resort. We passed the day somehow and arranged a bus ride to Bima, on Sumbawa Island for the following day.
We caught the 8 am ferry across to Lombok. As the vessel sailed away from Bali, the mighty cone of Ganung Agung rows above the land and the sea, with only the sky taller than its menacing grey and ochre flanks and broken summit, from which the island of Bali itself at issued over the dark and violent millennia.
The hazy coast of Bali was dotted with smaller cones: some perfectly symmetrical, others truncated and jagged, but each one subservient to the giant Agung, a king and his princes, a demon and his attendants.
The crossing of the mirror-flat channel took four hours and we docked on the green island of Lombok: it too a product of volcanoes and savage upheavals. A couple of tourist bus rides took us out to Senggigi Beach, which was horrendously expensive and I won’t waste paper describing it, save for a brief description of the sea.
The beach at Sengiggi was of coarsely-ground lava and coral sloping steeply down to the water. The steepness of the beach caused the swells to surge in and out in such a manner as I’ve never seen before. The water would rise two or 3 metres every time a wave came in, and when a breaker crashed onto the beach it sent shockwaves up through the sand which could be felt even while sitting in one of the bars 30 m back from the water.