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Flores: The Land of Dragons

Over the past five months I have been fortunate enough to work with Lang Tengah Turtle Watch protecting marine turtles on the East coast of Malaysia. Although life on the project was ideal I had to take a break from the turtle life and visit Indonesia for what turned out to be the greatest visa run I have ever done.

I had just under three weeks to explore a country I had never been to before. Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 17,000 islands spanning over 5000km. With an extreme variety of ecosystems, landscapes and cultures it was hard to know where to start. However, having heard stories from my Indonesian aunty who had recently visited the Komodo islands, I decided that this would be my first destination. I was not prepared for how unworldly the fauna and flora of the area would turn out to be!

To explore Komodo and its surrounding islands you must base yourself on the nearest large inhabited island which is the Island of Flores.The Island is famous to paleoanthropologists because a new species of prehistoric man was discovered there,Homo floresiensis, known to the local people as hobbits. This finding reminds us that we haven’t always being the only species of human on earth. From here you can take boat trips and dive boats to explore the surrounding prehistoric islands.

The town of Labuan Bajo is where tourists centre themselves ready for the adventure. This once small port town is quickly developing into an ugly tourist centre with busy roads and packed bars. Not my cup of tea. Fortunately on the ferry to Labuan Bajo I met a local man who told me I could stay at his house just outside of the main tourist area. I was expecting to be taken to a basic Asian wooden house, but when I arrived I couldn’t believe my luck.

The house I had come to stay at was in fact an extremely modern hilltop villa that is being prepared to be opened for holidaymakers. It could be one of the nicest houses I have ever stayed in. With open plan design overlooking the lush blue waters of Flores, you could watch both sunrise and sunset from the sofa. The land extended down to the sea, and with a five minute descent through the typical dry shrub you were on your own private beach. It wasn’t until I entered the water with my snorkel that I realised that this area was actually a feeding ground for over 15 Green Sea Turtles, I hadn’t left the turtle life at all.

My host for the week was extremely kind and let me stay for free whilst also showing me around the local area, and more importantly to the local restaurants were you could get the most delicious local vegetarian food. I spent my first few days exploring the island of Flores itself. The highlight of my exploration was a drive to Cunca Rami, a waterfall about 2 hours away. I took a motorbike to get there and the drive was spectacular through the mountains, past jungle and traditional villages. The waterfall itself was magnificent and my host’s nephew and I were the only people there.

After a few days exploring Flores it was time to get over to the smaller islands to find some animals. Of course the islands of Komodo are most famous for their dragons (Varanus komodoensis) and so I booked a boat tour that took me to the island of Komodo with a few stops along the way. The next day I had to wake up at five am as the boat ride takes several hours to get to the islands. The journey itself was incredible gliding past uninhabited islands covered in brown/green grass with the occasional sparse tree scraping a living on these barren islands. As we past I could see on the small beaches the tracks of nesting mother turtles. Whilst explaining to the other tourists about turtle nesting behaviour, we sailed right past a mother digging her body pit, you could see her boulder like body on the beach as she sprayed sand behind her with her front flippers, an incredible sight for the daytime.

Before we got to the island of Komodo we first stopped off at the nearby island of Padar. Although this island does not host dragons, it do host perhaps the most famous and most magnificent view of all the surrounding islands. With a quick 45 minute climb you can trek to the top of this mountainous island to unveil an amazing view. The island has been contorted and spread out with many small bays leading up to raged peaks. The view was truly sensational.

Next stop was Komodo itself. Due to the fact there are dragons around, you must take a guided tour to explore. This was extremely disappointing as the guides were making facts up that I knew were incorrect and I found that they are actually hanging bags of meat in the trees to attract dragons to where they take tourists on the walk. Despite this, we did see the dragons and they were immense. Unfortunately in the midday heat the dragons are very lethargic, however this does not take away from the majesty of the beast. With dagger like claws and a head bigger than my own it is easy to see way these creatures are named dragons!

The following stop unveiled the secret treasure of these islands, an underwater emporium of alien life.As we headed towards our snorkelling spot you could see spinner dolphins leap out the water like acrobats. Then as you look just below the surface of the water you see colossal black shadows gliding through the blue. I grabbed my snorkel and jumped off the boat before we had chance to anchor, we had found Manta rays. As soon as I entered the water to see clearly what was there, I turned into an excitable child, I was freediving to depths I have never done before just to get a closer look at these majestic giants. I followed one or two mocking the way they swim with my arms. But then I came across a whole feeding train of giants. Around 12 of these 3m large creatures were swimming around in circles gathering tiny plankton in their mouth. This was for certain one of my greatest ever wildlife experiences.

After swimming with them for around 45 minutes the boat came over and picked me up as everyone else was already on the boat. I jumped up and was so tired from freediving for that length of time that I slept the whole journey back, dreaming of what I had just witnessed. The next day I went to book a full day of diving, I knew after that one experince that I had to get back under those waters.

The diving did not disappoint. The first dive took us to a sea mount boasting coral cover close to 100% and the abundance of fish was astounding. There were huge schools of barracuda and for the first time ever I saw a mantis shrimp scuttling around the corals. The second dive was at a spot called Sebayor Kecil. Here we encountered a familiar friend, a turtle along with many different species of Nudibranch (funky sea slugs). The highlight however of this dive was being mesmerized by cuttlefish, they displayed to us by sending bands of darker colour through their body. The cuttlefish were definitely the most alien like creature I have ever seen.

The final dive spot of the day was the one everyone had been waiting for, manta point. We were told that there were tremendous currents here and to be careful, and they were not wrong. As soon as you hit the water you are swept away with your buddy and dive master. We were told if we see manta to grab onto rocks on the sea bed. I didn’t take long to spot one of the giant creatures who was elegantly holding itself in place against the strong currents as cleaning wrasse cleared her of bacteria. We grabbed what rocks we could and slowly grappled towards the manta. The advantage of scuba over free diving in this situation means that you can get right up close to the manta and stay there as you stare into its eyes. Research has shown that manta rays are intelligent and show personality and you can definitely feel that as you stare into the eyes of the animal, you see them and they see you. This day of diving was one of the best things I have ever done.

Having been blown away by the nature surrounding Flores it was time to head to my next destination. I wanted to head to the volcanic island of Lombok. I did not have the money to fly and so I decided to take public transport. The decision lead me to perhaps the longest, most uncomfortable journey I have ever taken…

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