The End of Asia! (Part 1)

Our days in Asia were slowly but surely running out whilst up ahead, Australia beckoned. Ahead of us lay a thrilling a volcano-lined road that threaded the island of Flores to reach the small port of Larantuka. From there a twice weekly ferry ran to Kupang in West Timor, where we could ride overland to reach Dili, capital of East Timor and ship the bikes on to Oz; alternatively we could backtrack all the way to Bali to find a shipper there. For several weeks we had been gathering quotes from various agencies and to be honest none of them looked either attractive or reliable. SDV offered the most logical choice; a container ship direct from Dili to Darwin supposedly taking only three days. Yet four riders who we’d met at HU had waited over 5-weeks for their bikes and faced horrible frustrations and delays, topped with escalating charges, throughout the entire process so we saw nothing there to recommend their services. We also obtained a reasonable quote from a company in Bali but an online search revealed more dissatisfied customers with costs eventually doubling the quotation price. To be honest, we didn’t really want to backtrack either. Our bikes are once again showing signs of wear and tear from the ride through Indonesia, with rear tyres now shot and needing immediate replacement in Australia. That left us with ANL. They sail the triangular Darwin-DiliSingapore route, which takes a little longer than the more direct route but they came with several good overlander recommendations and it meant we could continue on to explore the two islands of Flores and Timor and, of course, reach the end of Asia!

In Labuan Bajo, the comfie Surya hotel proved to be one of those nodal points in travel where you meet, mingle and part with friends old and new. We bade farewell to Tom and Phil, who were headed back west and met up with Thomas Brandt, a young German rider from Rostock, also headed west on his KTM 690 and Jason Kind, a stubbled, bean-pole of an English cyclist from Hastings who had covered a lot of the same ground as us using pedal power.   We have met quite a few cyclists and find a lot in common with them as fellow travellers; like us they carry a little self-sufficient world on two wheels and are fully exposed to the elements with the added encumbrance of powering their journey using their own legs, yielding a journey travelled at a much slower speed but with the advantage that they will see so much more. It’s not a mode of transport I would personally consider for the same reason I’ll never model dresses on a catwalk; I just don’t have the legs for it…

The ride through the island of Flores proved to be simply spectacular. The road from Labuan Bajo climbed up and into a mountainous hinterland, a sinuous slash of sexy tarmac that occasionally dropped into plains of rice-fields before coiling off once more into highland territory rendered breathtakingly beautiful by blasts of bamboo forest. We stopped at a little Warung (local café / food vendor) for some lunch, in the seaside town of Borong, where we met Jason pedaling along, enjoying a stretch of straight and level road. It had taken him four-days to cycle what we covered that morning and his legs were feeling it.

Our target for the day was the mountain town of Bawang and the ride just got better and better as we left coastal plains and climbed high into cloud forested mountains. Now and again the cloud would drift apart, offering sneaky-peaks of nearby volcanoes or treetop terrain running all the way to crystal blue waters back at the coast. We were both feeling fairly cold by the time we pulled into town to find our preferred hotel fully booked and a couple of alternatives asking lofty prices for mediocre accommodation. We were rescued by the Hotel Korina where we met Brian, Brad and Shorty, a trio of Aussies from Tasmania touring the island on rented motorcycles who became first date beer-buddies and then a bunch of good friends after a few lively evenings in the bar.

The landscape had definitely been changing as we rode east through Indonesia. I started reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago.’ Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, co-publishing papers on the subject with Darwin. Wallace had travelled previously in the Amazon but famously made a number of startling observations about the bio-geographic diversity in the Malay Archipelago where he travelled between 1854 and 1862, including the definition of what became known as the Wallace Line. This line identifies and associates the wildlife and plants on the island of Bali and everything west of there with Asiatic origins, whilst everything on the island of Lombok and onwards east has a pronounced Australian origin. It is quite fantastic as the two islands are only 22-miles apart and it was the bird life that gave him his first clues to the delineation. In Bali he found species of woodpecker, kingfisher and pheasant, birds that are endemic to Asia from India to Indonesia all the way east to Bali and Borneo, while across the Lombok Strait he suddenly found himself in the world of the cockatoo and the eucalyptus. Amazingly the birds have failed to migrate across this short stretch of water loosely suggesting that the islands down to Bali were previously connected to the Asiatic landmass and therefore populated by flora and fauna from that point of origin, whereas the lands to the east of Lombok have obvious associations with Australia.

The traditional village of Bena, a short ride from Bawang, felt like neither Asia nor Australia. The road fooled around the base of the pointy-coned volcano of Inerie that provided an otherworldly backdrop to the morning.   The twisting single-track ribbon took us on through more majestic cathedrals of bamboo and by the time we arrived at the village our bodies were fully sated with joyous endorphins that can only be delivered by slowly riding a motorcycle through a stunning landscape. We abandoned the bikes at a small carpark and walked the short trail into Bena itself. That location, with the ever present backdrop of Inerie, one moment all skirted by cloud, the next all lifted to reveal its splendorous peak, reminded us we were right up against an active volcano, a smoking gun capable of instant obliteration. We mooched through the tall thatched-roof village houses, sited around an elongated common of dirt all ringed by a dry-stone wall. In the centre henges of tall burial stones stood, somewhat Neolithic in appearance and here and there marked with the sign of the cross; folks on Flores are predominantly Christian. It was still early in the morning and there was an air of peace and tranquility about the place. A few women fretted at their looms making scarves and wraps for tourists. The detailing on the wooden house frames showed images of horses and boats and here there horned animal skulls adorned the façade. It all felt a bit weird, as we seemed to be so far from plains or sea in this Conan-Doyle-Lost-World-complete-with-smouldering-volcano-on-your-doorstep. Or maybe we had drifted on to a stage set from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, a place inhabited surely by the Riders of the Rohan, but again that incongruity with never a harness nor horse in sight. Whatever; it was magical.

Another day, another ride… More cloud forest dropped us into the high mountains and Moni, where we hoped to visit Kelimutu National Park and its three-cratered volcano. We got absolutely drenched on the last few miles into Moni itself as the hide-and-seek game we’d played with the rain that morning finally ended in defeat as the heavens opened on a mud-drenched road. “Nearly there so hardly worth stopping to don the wetsuits” proved to be the wrong tactic for todays play with the weather and we looked like we’d dressed in blotting paper as we pulled into the Sylvestre homestay. The weather really socked in for the next day with the main street outside looking more navigable by boat than bike so we settled in for a soggy siege and hoped the weather would clear to allow us access to the mountain. Our plight was alleviated somewhat by Sylvestres, which proved to be a little haven for sleeps complemented by brilliant eats at the nearby Mopi’s restaurant.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful and the corrugated roofs over the town were jewelled silver from the rain of yesterday as we set off on the two bikes to ascend Kelimutu. We had been warned that the first mile or two were slathered in mud from a recent landslide. It proved to be as bad as it sounded with heavy earth-moving machinery on site to try and clear the way, although this seemed to principally involve spreading the mud everywhere. With our worn rear tyres, this was not fun although they did hold better than anticipated and we were soon through and riding high on the mountain albeit with one eye on the weather as bands of low cloud suggested more rain was not so far away. At the summit we were rewarded after a brief hike with cloud-shrouded views of the three craters. Each lake is a different colour, the reason for which is unknown; the acid-filled lakes are inert and dead and the only plausible explanation seems to be that the chemistry of each lake changes from time to time resulting in colour changes. Two of the lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Youth) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and were reported as being green and red respectively. Today both appeared as slightly differing shades of turquoise. The third lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of the Old People) was supposed to be blue but had assumed a horrid dark brown colour. Local legend has it that the spirits of the recently deceased travel to the lakes and are greeted by gatekeepers who judge and consign them to one of the lakes depending on their age and how well they behaved when alive with all the baddies sent to the Bewitched lake. I really hoped I did not perish on the mountain today; by the end of our visit, my spirit was totally confused by which lake was which and what colour they were supposed to be.

We left the rains and Moni for a ride to the north coast of the island, spending a few days in one last decent hotel in Maumere, marking time for a few days until the Friday boat on to Timor. A final ride took us to Larantuka where we checked in to the Lestori hotel, basic and clean but one of the noisiest places we’ve stayed on the entire trip. Bass undertones and horrid treble screeches emanated from a nearby karaoke that ran all night and was still going strong at 6am. To this cacophony add one rooster, staked to a pole just outside our door who cock-a-doodle-doo’d the whole night through, a pet/cage bird with a sort of piercing wolf-whistle and to cap it all the guys in the room next door were up a 4am taking a slosh in a bucket shower and vociferously clearing their throats in a rasping noise that sounded like a heavy box being dragged across a wooden floor.

We made our way bleary-eyed to the ferry where we crashed out on the upper deck as she finally set sail an hour late at 1pm. It was the weekend before the end of Ramadan and a time when Moslems all over the world head for home to celebrate Eid. Consequently the boat was packed and we’d been advised to grab a bunk below decks before the ship left harbour. This was ill advice as the bunks were all stacked together and the compartment more resembled some horrid slave-ship with bodies crammed into every nook, space and cranny, totally devoid of any idea of personal space. We camped out on the upper deck, happy for some open space and a healthy jollop of fresh air to relish the spectacular views of Flores as it sank slowly under the horizon in our wake. Mid-way, Dolphins and flying fish frolicked around our vessel as she plodded across the vast ocean to take us safely if somewhat late into Timor and the end of Asia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 1 – Flores

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Way of the Dragon!

“Here!!!… Here!!!… Here!!!…. Go!!! Go!!! Go!!!” the skipper of the Nurwati yelled, jabbing manically towards the sea with an outthrust boney finger, urging us all overboard quickly…   Perched on the prow of the boat, where for the past ten minutes he had been scanning the seabed for something, he had clearly now located his target… “That’s a lot of exclamation marks” I thought as I shuffled across the deck on my butt like an up ended clown in flippers struggling to get my mask on. Then, over the side and into a world of deepest blue… A sudden moment of disorientation as I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel… I shivered slightly at the cooling effect of the sea on sun-warmed skin. Adjusting my vision I looked down to see what all the fuss was about and “what the…!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation marks floated off to the surface like tiny air bubbles, expletives quickly drowned as I beheld something the size of a billiard table wafting across the carpet of coral below: a Manta Ray, maybe 2-metres across, moving slowly and with grace right beneath our fins. Our trip to the Komodo Islands had once again proven to be rich pickings for wildlife encounters and there would be many more to come…

The Nurwati was hewn from local timbers and painted bright white with a deck of minty-mouthwash green. She was long and narrow in the beam with a clackety-clack engine mounted below deck, just aft of amidships. Slatted benches ran along both sides of the deck with a small serving table in the middle, from which some very tasty repasts would be served. She had a rudimentary upper deck too for sunbathing with an awning at the rear providing a bit of shade. An icebox full of beer and some good company and we were all set for a good time. Setting out from Labuan Bajo early in the morning, it took a few hours to putt-putt our way to the island of Rinca, first stop on our Komodo tour. Sitting on the boat I pondered the previous days that brought here us from Horizons Unlimited in Sumbawa

An easy day’s ride took us to the little town of Bima towards the eastern end of Sumbawa on beautiful empty roads through this majestic island. Along the way we picked up our old buddy Phil Stubbs and later met Tom Curtis (of postie-bike fame) at the hotel in Bima, all of us headed for Flores with Komodo in our sights. This eastern end of the islands was reminiscent of the Western Isles at home with vast landscapes of sea, mountain, rolling marshland and staggering skies, all of it deserted and amazing biking country. Next morning we rode on to Sape where we would catch the 8-hour ferry to Flores, next island in the chain. We dumped the bikes at the hotel and took a stroll along the narrow causeway of a town. There is a lot of, what I guess would be considered, poverty in this part of Indonesia. Far removed from any city life and influence, people are living from hand to mouth by subsistence farming or fishing. There was a lot of squalor in Sape with many people living on top of their own refuse as there is just no infrastructure to remove it. The rubbish and litter is so incongruous with the beautiful location but folk seemed mostly happy and were, without exception, very friendly and eager to engage in a chat.

Maritime activity was everywhere from fishing nets laid out to dry to large-scale boat construction on slipways between houses laid out in a herringbone configuration along the causeway. Stopping to nosey at a small crew working on a large vessel we were eagerly invited onboard to check out the construction. We picked our way through a timber yard, where the raw material for the boat was stored and out onto a flimsy jetty to clamber aboard the hulk. Her keel of around 70-feet in length, had been laid on some stone pilings and work had commenced installing the cross beams and building the hull outwards on each side. The guys were forming the wooden parts by hand with a chainsaw, electric planer and more basic mallet and chisel. A lot of the parts were pinned together with stout wooden dowels and metal tie bars were used for the crucial load bearing parts. There was a total absence of drawings or plans and it seemed like the entire project was being executed according to the shipwright’s eye. Later we boarded a more complete vessel in the process of having her cabins and accommodations finished using the same processes; everything constructed and finished by hand to create a sea-going vessel of some beauty.

An eight-hour RO-RO ferry crossing deposited us in Flores, where the small town of Labuan Bajo proved to be a delightful stop-off to organise our trip to Komodo. The place is like a pirate hideaway; dirty, dusty, yet full of energy with narrow streets winding and spilling up the hillsides around the harbour. We battled our way through rush-hour motos and mini-vans to reach the Surya Hotel, our home for the next week or so. Supping a beer at the rooftop bar of the Bajo Taco, a great Mexican eatery that became our local haunt, a splendid view ran away over red-rusted rooftops down to the bay where a myriad of small vessels were anchored against a backdrop of jeweled islands set in a sapphire sea emphasizing the notion that this was indeed some Indonesian Tortuga. Maybe a pirate crew would be just the thing considering our next quest was to set out to see some dragons…

Komodo Dragons are to be found (unsurprisingly) in Komodo National Park, a raft of some twenty-six small islets clustered around the three larger isles of Padar, Rinca and Komodo itself.  The surrounding waters contain some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth hence encounters with Manta Rays and a paint-box full of tropical fish was guaranteed. The park is located in the Sape Strait, the channel of sea between Flores and Sumbawa that we had already crossed on the ferry to get here. The strait is also a junction of the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The seabeds of the two oceans vary in height by several hundred metres so the flow of waters from the north to south during tidal exchanges creates some of the strongest currents in the world making these potentially dangerous waters for any small boat.

We arranged a two-day cruise aboard the aforementioned vessel, the Nurwati, with its crew of three, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English but made up for this in copious quantities of smiles and good food for the duration. We coasted along the isle of Rinca and turned into a small inlet where we disembarked for our first dragon encounter. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, at around three metres in length and weighing in at over 70 kg. Unknown to the West and science until 1912 they are known locally by the natives as Ora, which means “land crocodile”. Komodos are an ambush predator, basically lounging around looking dim and docile until some unsuspecting beast (or person) wanders up too close. Then they can sprint with vicious rapidity and are equipped with a fine set of teeth and claws to rend any prey in proper dragon style. Our guides informed us how they can take down deer and even huge Water Buffalo as they don’t need a quick or clean kill. It was believed that their bite was laden with a cocktail of deadly bacteria such that even if the prey escaped it would soon die from the poisoning effects of the saliva in the wound. However it has recently been discovered that the dragons actually possess true venom glands in the lower jaw that inject an anti-coagulating poison that causes tissue damage and slow paralysis resulting in an excruciating death. Even if you get away after being bitten, they just wait till you die from your wounds and then move in for a feast. Easy-peasy given that they can detect carrion at ranges of up to two miles and can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.

Almost immediately on entering the park visitor centre on Rinca we saw our first dragons. They were certainly big but didn’t seem all that menacing and I got the impression that they were loitering around the bins to see what leftovers they could scavenge. Our visitor group was protected by a couple of park guides armed with cleft sticks; apparently the beasts are easily deterred by a rap on the head but to be honest it wasn’t something I wanted to put to the test. You see they do take people! In the past forty years over thirty people have been bitten with five recorded deaths. A few weeks before we visited a Singaporean tourist made the headlines when he was savaged by a dragon. He had been so intent on photographing one docile beast that he failed to register another animal that sneaked round behind him and he was badly bitten on the leg. Luckily it was a smaller dragon and he was evacuated to hospital in Labuan Bajo where they were able to save the leg.

Our visit continued as we set off for the island of Komodo itself on a voyage rounding Padar island. It’s funny but the islands themselves were draconiform in appearance, resembling green-backed monsters with folds in the landscape looking like overlapping scale and plate and here and there a headland that rose out of the water like some giant sleeping head. On Komodo the best encounter came on a short hike to Sulphurea Hill when we found our progress blocked by a beast on the trail. I greeted the dragon with an appropriate ‘My! What big claws you have!” He was enormous but again looked dozy and none too threatening. The guides made ready with their sticks as we clambered around the monster, giving him as wide a berth as possible and then stopped to get some photos. He sat there unmoving with a somewhat disconcerting Mona Lisa smile. Beady black eyes flickered with base intelligence, assuredly observing everything that was going on. Like the Mona Lisa I was certain his gaze followed me as I changed position to get a better shot. I watched him watching me and then it dawned on me… In our group I was the oldest male. I had a dodgy leg that also made me the slowest of the bunch in any event involving flight. I figured the dragon had clocked all this and given the opportunity would cut me out of the herd for dinner… Then it dawned on me… I was… I was prey!!!

We slept on deck that evening on thin mattresses after another sumptuous dinner. Never mind it was the same menu as lunch, it was all eagerly woofed after our day on the islands. But Komodo held one final and very special treat for us before the day was through. Overhead, squadrons of Flying Foxes were setting out for the night on a flypast across the bay where we were anchored.   There were literally hundreds of them flying in perfect formation, wave upon wave like ghostly squadrons of night bombers, all chirping and squeaking as they flew to nocturnal feeding grounds elsewhere on the isles on the soft whoosh of leathery wings. It was a special moment and one we will treasure for the rest of our days; we came here to see dragons and now were entreated to a performance by yet more marvelous and mystical creatures.

The second day of our Komodo tour started with a short but utterly spectacular hike along the dragon-back spine of Padar Island. The island is made up from several overlapping craters that have eroded to form an assemblage of serenely beautiful bays fringed with golden sands that run down to lapis-lazulian seas giving the impression of the crash-site of a huge butterfly on the ocean. The hilltops are dusted in khaki scrub grasslands and everywhere the horizon is a smash and dash hash-up of Komodo Islands. Later, snorkeling with Neptune’s treasure-box of tropical fish and of course that Manta Ray encounter, which ended in a ballet performance by five of the beasts. It’s hard to gasp with a snorkel stuffed in your gob but we somehow managed!

So that was Komodo… a place that will linger in our hearts and memories as one of the highlights of this life. On our Pan-American trip we had the good fortune to visit Galapagos and gasp at the treasures of another wildlife paradise. We thought then that such an experience could not possibly be equaled… it couldn’t possibly, could it?… until today… here… now… in Komodo.

One for your bucket list!

The gallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Way of the Dragon!