It was time to head north. Up until now we’d been exploring the southern Indonesian islands, situated at around 10 degrees south. We now needed to head north and west, closer to 8 degrees south of the equator, before the predominant winds started changing. We left Raijua in the afternoon so that we’d be away from land by the time night fell, and were planning to get to Waingapu on Sumba island by the next afternoon. It was to be our first night sail in a while – and first without our trusty crew to help with night watches.
It was a beautiful calm evening, with a gentle breeze pushing us along. The boys did their first “watch” together until 10pm, when Marco took over and pushed through until 4am. I got the sunrise shift, which was beautiful. We arrived at Waingapu a little ahead of schedule, and checked out the anchorage. The anchorage area was really small and tight, and surrounded by big working ships, ferries coming and going, and shallow reefs. The anchorage was also pretty deep (20m), which meant we should let out a lot of chain – which really wasn’t possible due to the limited space. A “helpful” guy paddled back and forth behind us in his canoe, trying to point out the best anchorage – but we really didn’t feel happy about it. In the end we decided to continue sailing through the night, with the aim of reaching the south of Rinca island by morning.
Marco was pretty tired after his long shift the previous night, so I did the 7-11pm watch, as well as from 4am onwards. It was initially quite rolly and windy, but calmed down after a while. There were some strange lights out in the ocean during my night watch – quite disconcerting as it’s so hard to judge distance and direction when it’s dark, especially if the boats don’t have port or starboard lights. The morning watch was so beautiful. As the light gradually dawned, I could make out the huge dramatic cliffs and peaks of Rinca island rising up ahead of us, as well as on numerous other islands dotted around nearby in the Komodo National Park. This landscape was totally different to the islands we’d come from. Volcano country – how exciting! The sea was like glass, and the sunrise magical.
My only concern was trying to ensure we didn’t collide with the 2 ferries that were speeding towards us. I worked out that if our speed and their speed were to remain constant, we’d cross the path of the first ferry with 5 minutes to spare. Seemed a little tight to me, so I changed course – which put us closer to the path of the other ferry. It was a little nerve-wracking, so I woke Marco up and he radioed the first ferry to confirm his intentions. In the end they passed on either side of us.
With that “ordeal” (for me, at least) over, we could all enjoy the beautiful sail into our first anchorage in the Komodo National Park. We were reminded of Chapman’s Peak as we entered the channel, with rugged cliffs plunging into the sea right next to us. There are a number of reefs and submerged rocks along the way, but thanks to our cruising guide and Google Earth KAP files, we were able to navigate without a problem, and dropped anchor at a place called “Lehok Uwada Dasami”, in a passage between Rinca Island and the smaller Nusa Kode. The mountains rising ahead of us in the bay reminded us so much of the view from Kirstenbosch Gardens, with rocky cliffs near the summit, and dense vegetation in the gorges.
The Komodo National Park is a world famous diving playground, with pristine coral and abundant marine life. It consists of numerous islands bounded by Flores in the east, and Sumbawa in the west, with beautiful white (or sometimes pink) beaches. It is also home to Komodo Dragons – 3m long lizards, that have a poisonous bite.
As we dropped anchor, I spotted what I thought was a Komodo Dragon on the beach. We immediately lowered the dinghy and headed off for some wildlife viewing. We weren’t disappointed! The beach was full of dragon-spoor, and we saw a number of them lazily walking along the beach, with their awkward wide-legged gait, and constantly dabbing the ground with their long forked white tongues. I must admit that I find them quite revolting – but I am not fond of lizards, snakes and reptiles in general (turtles excluded). They were quite fascinating, but I definitely don’t want to go near one, or have one drop out of a tree on top of me!
What did disappoint us was the pollution! The beach was littered with plastic bottles, packets, tubs, shoes and all sorts of debris along the high tide mark. It was so sad to see the primeval Komodo dragons picking their way through rubbish, and the beautiful trees with a carpet of litter underneath. It all arrives there in the sea, as no-one lives near the anchorage, and the visitors are relatively few. That being said, the sea was generally free of litter – except for certain patches as the tide came in. We really felt that the National Park authorities needed to send in some beach clean-up teams, but then again, the rubbish would just keep coming, and it’s more the mindset that needs to change. We spent the day resting, catching up on sleep, SUPing, snorkelling, dragon viewing – and making water.
The next morning we set sail for Labuan Bajo on the west coast of Flores – the gateway to the Komodo islands, and the place where we could extend our visas. The currents between the Komodo islands can be fierce, as a lot of water drains through here. Marco got some good local knowledge from the skipper of a nearby phinisi boat, and we headed north, aiming to get to the narrowest section (between Rinca and Padar island) at slack tide. We sped along between the islands, with a gentle breeze but strong current, and crossed the narrow section in good time. I’m glad we were there at slack tide rather than when the tide was at its strongest, as the water was swirling and churning, with whirlpools in places!
Once passed Rinca island, it got HOT! The wind died, the sun baked – and we realised that we’d left the cooler, more moderate part of Indonesia behind us. It was such an enjoyable cruise – the sea was flat and bright turquoise, and we were surrounded by islands as far as the eye could see, with a couple of gorgeous wooden phinisi boats dotted around.
We arrived in Labuan Bajo that afternoon. What a bustling bay – full of big wooden phinisi boats, fishing boats, dive boats, and the odd ferry and passenger liner. I couldn’t stop admiring the phinisi boats. They look like grand ladies of the sea – their lines are so artistic and graceful, the wood looks rich and lovingly polished, and each is painted and decked out in a different colour scheme. Apparently many are owned by foreigners and run as liveaboard dive-charters. We cruised around the anchorage for a while, admiring the boats and figuring out where best to drop anchor. In the end we picked a place quite far out, away from the major thoroughfare, right behind a huge immaculate phinisi (that the boys dubbed “super-nisi”).
Labuan Bajo is known to have great restaurants – something we were VERY excited about. We had been eating so healthily on the boat – mainly stir-fries with veges, rice, noodles, fish, eggs and tempeh – no cream, no chocolate, very little sugar (apart from Marco and his daily Coke). We needed some fattening up! In Rote we had already heard about a restaurant called “Made in Italy”, run by an Italian who has his own permaculture farm, and uses only the freshest produce from his farm in his food. As luck would have it, we were anchored right near the restaurant – and we agreed that we were obviously meant to eat there that first night. We were not disappointed! The pizzas were light and crispy, the braescola smoky and tender, the tiramisu rich and decadent, and the atmosphere classy yet relaxed. We left feeling totally stuffed and happy. If this was what Labuan Bajo was like, then we were in for a good time!