After our huge welcome meal at Made in Italy, we were ready for business. First item on the agenda – extend visas. So off we headed to the bustling harbour in the dinghy. We had read that there was a pier connected to Philemon’s Seafood Restaurant that could be used by visiting dinghies. The whereabouts of this pier was impossible to find, as there are boats everywhere – lines and lines of wooden fishing boats tied up to the main concrete pier, or to each other; smaller speedboats coming and going, loading and unloading fuel and passengers; huge ferries parked alongside; big wooden phinisi boats, some under construction; and a working dock with containers stacked high. And into this bustle, we had to find a spot to leave our insignificant little dinghy.
Luckily Marco is so gregarious, and it didn’t take long before he’d organised to tie up alongside one of the wooden fishing boats. The guys on the boat were really helpful – helped us climb aboard, took our bags, and helped us off the front of their boat onto the dock. The latter was a little precarious, as you basically have to pull the mooring lines to get the bow as close to the pier as possible, then quickly jump across before the boat moves away – all on a thin little tip of boat that’s 3m above the water, due to their curved shape. I had lots of hands helping me though – these guys are very chivalrous.
Once we were on land, we needed to get to Immigration, which is a little way out of town. We thought of hiring a taxi, but the more common mode of transport is on a motorbike-taxi (called an “ojek”) – and it’s a lot cooler too. There are lots of ojeks near the harbour, and Marco arranged with 2 of them to take us. One parent, one child and one ojek-driver per motorbike – off we went. It was a great way to see the town. I felt totally safe, as people drive slowly and use their hooters to warn of their approach. We arrived at Immigration 15 minutes later, cooled by the breeze and quite amused by the big karaoke party (with awful singing) going on at the government offices next door.
The Immigration offices are great – big and spacious, with ample seating, and even little mints and bottled water. There were very few people, and we were helped by a very friendly, efficient lady. She told us we needed a sponsor (which we hadn’t needed when we first applied for the visa). No problem, our friendly ojek-driver (Alfonsius) was happy to oblige. We filled in the necessary forms, Marco and Alfonsius went off to make some photocopies and buy the required stamps, and we submitted everything within an hour.
After all that morning activity, we were in need of lunch – and we were keen to sample some of Labuan Bajo’s other restaurants. I had read about Warung Mama – a local style eatery for the “discerning budget traveller”. That sounded good! It was better than good – the food was excellent, and such a great vibe, right in the middle of town, one storey up and overlooking the bustling Jalan Soekarno Hatta main street. We enjoyed rendang (beef curry in coconut milk), fried chicken, various types of rice, kangkung (water spinach), roast potatoes, marinated eggplant and fresh beans – for about $4 each.
Feeling suitable satiated, it was time to explore the town. Labuan Bajo is full of activity, but still feels relaxed and has a real holiday vibe to it. There are a lot of tourists around, and many restaurants and businesses set up to cater to this, but it’s still a totally Indonesian town, and the people are friendly and generally not jaded. Although Flores is predominantly Christian, there are many muslims in Labuan Bajo, and we spotted 2 mosques – a bright green one right near the harbour. We wandered down the main street, dodging motorbikes, mobile food carts, gutters, and sudden drop-offs leading to underground laundries or hardware shops. There are a number of wonderful ATMs – wonderful, because they are in these little airconditioned cubicles, so are a great place to stop in the heat of the day. We also managed to buy some provisions and top-up our internet.
Marco was keen to buy some diving equipment – mainly to use if the anchor ever gets stuck, or there is a problem under the boat. We visited a number of dive shops to see if we could buy any, and ended up chatting about their daily trips out to the reef. Being in such a world-class diving spot, we thought it would be great to introduce the boys to scuba diving – and after some discussion we organised to go the following day with CNDive. The boys couldn’t believe it – what a surprise to come out of the blue!
CNDive is run by the legend of Komodo diving – Condo Subagyo, an Indonesian who discovered many of the reefs in the Komodo National Park. The employees are all Indonesian, which is apparently unique, as most other dive operators in Komodo are run by foreigners. We felt pleased that the money spent would go to local people, and were all looking forward to the day out.
It was an awesome day of scuba diving. Marco has dived numerous times, but I had only dived once before (20 years ago) and it was of course new to the boys. We were very happy with the attention and care that was devoted to the boys, as they each had an instructor with them at all times. I don’t want to steal their thunder, so won’t say much more about it – but watch for their blog posts which are coming shortly.
We spent just over a week in Labuan Bajo. We had to return to Immigration to have our photos and fingerprints taken, and Marco could then go that same afternoon to fetch our passports with the new visa stamp. All quite easy and straightforward. We started finding a rhythm and way of doing things – we made friends with a couple of boat owners who we tied our dinghy up to, we called on Alfonsius whenever we needed to get somewhere a little further away.
We also found some great spots to eat. Marco and one of the boys would often jump into the dinghy at 5pm to grab “di bungkus” (takeaways) from Warung Mama, or we’d head into town to try somewhere new (Mediterrano, with it’s cool beanbags and tables made from recycled wooden boats, or La Cucina with it’s great view over the harbour). Café In Hit had amazing chocolate milkshakes with whipped cream – what a treat! Bajo Bakery had yummy banana muffins and cheesecake. We celebrated our 15-year wedding anniversary at Made In Italy, and enjoyed more wonderful pizza and pasta.
The main downside of Labuan Bajo must be the litter. We were really saddened to see the amount of litter floating in the water around us as the tide receded, especially near the harbour. It seems that many people see the sea as their rubbish bin. There was also a lot of litter on the land, at beautiful viewpoints and along the road. On the upside, there are many people that feel strongly about this and have put programs in place that aim to clean up areas, educate people and change habits. It’s a big job, but really necessary for the future of tourism and to preserve the beautiful nature here.
The pavements are pretty shocking in Labuan Bajo, and you really have to watch where you’re going. I looked up for an instant and fell into a hole, twisting my ankle and banging my knee quite badly. Lots of ice and compression bandaging seemed to do the trick, and I was ok to hobble around after a couple days.
I also battled to find a good fruit and vegetable market. There were a couple of stalls and shops along the main road, but no big “pasar” like the amazing one in Nemberala. We did find some good supermarkets though that had the all-important Nutella, peanut butter, butter – and even pasta and tomato tins!
Despite a couple of negatives, we all LOVED our time here. It was a welcome bit of pampering and fattening up after living in remote places for 2 months, and the energy and buzz of the place is so good. We found the people to be warm and friendly, and always happy to help out and give of their time. I will remember the beautiful bay surrounded by islands, elegant phinisi boats anchored around us, being woken at 4am by the very loud muezzin, spectacular scuba diving with my boys, great food, cruising down the main street on the back of a motorbike and adventurous climbing on and off wooden fishing boats at the bustling harbour. Every place has it’s “rubbish” – in some it’s physical and more visible, and in others its hidden and subliminal, but if you look for the good things and put time into them, there is treasure to be found.