Sail on a pirate ship and hang out with 'dragons' at Labuan Bajo, Indonesia

Sunrise at the peak of Padar Island with a view of the three bays. — Photos: SETO KIT YAN/The Star

Who would have thought that I would one day be able to regale friends and family with the tale of how I sailed on a pirate ship into the land of dragons?

When I told my friends that I’d be going to Labuan Bajo, they called it the “trip of a lifetime”, and I was inclined to agree. Sailing on a luxury cruise ship, snorkelling, island-trekking, cave-exploring and stalking Komodo dragons... I did everything that was on the agenda except for dancing with whip-wielding natives.

With more than 17,500 islands, out of which only 6,000 are inhabited, Indonesia seeks to offer some of the best island-hopping experiences to tourists who love lots of sun, sea, and surf.

And with the overcrowding of visitors at some of the other popular tourist spots, like Bali and Jakarta, Labuan Bajo is fast becoming one of Indonesia’s hottest new destinations for holidaymakers who wish to enjoy varied outdoor activities.

On the same day, you can get to hike up a mountain and dive with marine creatures and even get a snapshot with a Komodo dragon. And the most exciting way to do all that is to take a trip on a cruise ship.

Currently, there are no direct flights to Labuan Bajo, so tourists have to take a flight from Bali’s Denpasar airport.

Sailing into the dragon’s lair

After our experience with Sea Safari Cruises, I am convinced that it must be the most comfortable way to explore the islands of Labuan Bajo.

It comprises Indonesia’s largest fleet of luxury Phinisi schooners that are specially equipped for those who are interested in going diving, canoeing, fishing or even leisurely expeditions.

Our entourage spent three days and two nights on board Sea Safari VII. The largest of the four vessels, it has 14 guest cabins and can accommodate a maximum of 28 passengers. Its flamboyant indigo-coloured sails made such a pretty picture against the blue skies and clear waters of Labuan Bajo.

In the mornings, we were treated to an old-fashioned morning call, where the cruise director would come knocking on every door and announce that it was time for breakfast or whatever activity they had planned for us on that day.

There are indoor and outdoor dining areas and passengers can spend time lounging on the sundeck during the day and singing karaoke in an air-conditioned loft at night.

While the ship docked at Kalong Island (Kalong is the Indonesian term for flying fox or fruit bat), we spent our time lounging on the deck while watching thousands of giant bats flying back to their island framed by a beautiful sunset.

The ship’s crew are a talented lot. During the day, they can carve melons into masks, and pumpkins into Komodo dragons. Then at night, they turn into entertainers who sing pop songs while using kitchen utensils as musical instruments.

   Daily exodus of giant fruit bats returning to Kalong Island (Flying Fox Island) at sunset.Daily exodus of giant fruit bats returning to Kalong Island (Flying Fox Island) at sunset.

Entering the dragon’s den

The Komodo dragon is definitely the highlight of the trip, since there is only one place in the world where you can find Komodo dragons living in the wild, and that is the Komodo National Park which was established in 1980 and gazetted a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1991.

The Komodo dragon is actually the world’s largest living lizard. It is estimated that there are 5,000 Komodo dragons in Indonesia.

In March, Indonesian police busted a gang smuggling Komodo dragons and by selling them online illegally. And in April, Indonesian authorities considered banning tourists and closing the park to stop thieves from stealing the endangered reptiles.

Fortunately the park closure did not happen, so my media friends and I managed to get our close encounters with a bunch of Komodo dragons.

When we first set foot on Komodo Island, I thought we had to trek deep into the woods to chance upon the dragon’s den. But the very first Komodo dragon we spotted was leisurely sunbathing on the beach.

Komodo dragons are cold-blooded creatures so they like to get a bit of sun during the day. When we approached it for pictures, it sort of tolerated us for awhile before heading towards a shady bush for privacy from us noisy tourists.

I only managed to brave myself for a snapshot after we met the third Komodo dragon. It was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

Standing behind the resting creature, I started to reach out my hand for the picture. Then suddenly the dragon stood up and swung its head while baring its teeth and sticking out its tongue.

The ranger quickly warned me not to move and I froze on the spot. And the Insta-fabulous moment was captured on camera by a very brave ranger who stood right in front of a moving Komodo dragon.

One thing to note is the national park rangers take care of the Komodo dragons but do not feed them. The Komodo dragons live freely in the wild and have to hunt for their own food. Wildlife in the park includes several species of birds, monkeys, goats, deer, wild boar and insects.

It is not advisable for children to visit and women who are menstruating are reminded to inform the rangers as Komodo dragons are very sensitive to the smell of blood.

Another place to stalk Komodo dragons is Rinca Island (198sq km), which is slightly smaller than Komodo Island (390sq km), making it easier to find the endangered creatures.

Island-trekking at sunrise

We were out so early that it was still dark when we set out on our island-trekking activity. Our ship took us to Padar Island, the third largest island in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, after Komodo Island and Rinca Island.

Nobody lives on the Padar Island, except for wildlife like deer, goats, wild boar and field mice.

To catch the sunrise at the peak, we had to take a speedboat at 4.30am to the island so that we could start climbing up the hill at 5am.

The peak is 238m above sea level, and there are a total of 768 stone steps to climb.

While one should be reasonably fit to hike all the way up to the top, I saw elderly climbers wearing slippers and sandals who could make their way up and down with minimal assistance.

It was a 30-minute hike, with incredibly breathtaking views of the clear waters and a colourful sunrise.

The good news is that there are several pit stops along the way, where you can perch yourself on rocky outcrops to capture impressively scenic views that are largely Instagrammable in every direction.

And while we are at it, I must mention the impressive 4G speed, especially on an island that is only inhabited by a handful of wild animals. So, of course, every one of us was busy updating our social media accounts with snapshots of the lovely sunrise at the peak of Padar Island.

There were bloggers with flowing robes and scarves, posing like superheroes with their capes blowing in the wind. Others even brought props like a laptop, a straw hat and a water bottle so they could pose on a rock to simulate a workaholic on a hilltop getaway.

   Crystal clear waters of Kanawa Island where you can view lovely corals right at the jetty.Crystal clear waters of Kanawa Island where you can view lovely corals right at the jetty.Snorkelling in crystal clear waters

It was my first time snorkelling in the dive sites at Pink Beach and Kanawa Island which are spectacular.

One of my most vivid memories of the trip was a special encounter with a pair of cute little fishes during my initial attempt at snorkelling.

Swimming into a vibrant shoal of blue-and-gold neon damselfish, I spied a pair of baby sergeant major fishes heading towards me. So, I naturally extended my right arm, and received the two in the palm of my hand where they started to spin around in circles like a private welcoming party.

It felt as if I said “Hello”, and they said, “Welcome”. That was such a magical moment for me. I was completely spellbound. The world stood still. And my heart felt full. As the pair of little fish continued their mesmerising dance in the palm of my hand, I suddenly felt like singing Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. Suffice to say, I went snorkelling at every opportunity after that.

To preserve the beautiful coral reefs, tourists are reminded to keep a distance and not touch the live corals while diving or snorkelling.

I would advise full-cover swimwear like what is worn by many of the locals, as those provide protection from the sun and against jellyfish stings while diving or snorkelling. Plus you can safely reduce or avoid excessive use of chemical sun protection which may endanger the sensitive reefs.

Corals grow very slowly and take hundreds or thousands of years to fully develop into coral reefs. And what gives the sands of Pink Beach its sweet salmon hue are the millions of fragments of crushed red coral, specifically the organ pipe coral.

Cave-exploring and folk-dancing

After we disembarked, we paid a visit to a hilltop village and did a bit of cave-exploring as well.

Deep in the caves of Batu Cermin (Mirror Rock), there is a crevice high up in the roof where the sun shines in and the light is reflected off the mirrored fragments onto the surface of the rock wall.

The cave was first discovered by Dutch archaeologist Theodore Verhoven in 1951. By the looks of the peculiar rock formations, it used to be underwater.

Before entering the cave, tourists are given hard hats and advised to switch on the torchlight in their phones. This was helpful as the cave was pitch black and the passages were small and narrow with numerous rocky overhangs and there were bats and insects as well.

The most relaxing activity was at Kampung Cecer in Desa Liang Ndara village, where we enjoyed a warm lunch prepared by the natives, while being treated to folk dance performances such as Tarian Caci (warring dance), Tarian Rangkuk Alu (bamboo dance), Tarian Sanda (communion dance), and Tarian Ako Mawo (rice-planting dance).

And even here where the indigenous tribesmen run around with unshod feet, the 4G speed is most impressive.

All in all a wonderful experience that will be especially fulfilling for the active and outdoorsy tourist who loves a varied itinerary in addition to generous amounts of sun, sea and surf.

The five-day four-night media familiarisation trip was jointly organised by Indonesia Tourism and AirAsia.

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