Happy Birthday To Me…Oh, and Dragons

June 24th, 2017

Somewhere on the Flores Sea, Indonesia

It was my birthday a couple days ago.  A tough one this year – 33 years old, yikes.  I insisted to Kim that she not tell a single other person that it was my birthday, mostly because the thought of 25 strangers – many of whom are likely 10 years or more younger than me – singing me happy birthday would be enough to make me want to jump overboard.  And by overboard, I mean overboard of the 60 foot “yacht” that we are currently sitting on, motoring towards Labuan Bajo.

Today is the last of a four day boat cruise we signed up for, from Lombok to Komodo National Park.  Kim and I had always intended to visit Komodo National Park as part of our travels in Indonesia, but we’d initially planned to fly from Kuta, Bali, to Labuan Bajo and sign up for a trip from there.  But while hanging out on Gili Meno, we discovered these 3 night/4 day boat cruises leaving directly from Lombok.  It seemed like a much more relaxing way to get to Komodo, and avoided more than one trip into Kuta, so we signed up.  It’s been perhaps the best part of our time in Indonesia.

Our little cruise got started three days ago at the port town of Labuan Lombok, on the east coast of the island. Years ago I read Carl Hoffman’s book “The Lunatic Express“, in which he describes his travels on the statistically most dangerous modes of transportation in the world.  I distinctly remember reading the chapter about the slow, overcrowded ferry boats in Indonesia, which apparently sink not quite as frequently as the tide goes out.  So we did our homework and read some reviews before deciding on anything. (Seriously, one TripAdvisor review we read said “don’t do the 4 day Lombok to Komodo tours, because when I did my trip last year our boat sank and we spent four days on a life raft”.) The tour group we finally landed on is celebrating it’s 23rd anniversary this year, so we figured they must be doing something right.  And we’re still afloat with the end of the trip in sight – bonus!

The specs and photos of the boat on the company website described a 20 to 25 metre long vessel, with multiple decks, windows and open space to sit under the sun.  It looked quite comfortable and not unlike some of the private yachts we sometimes see moored in the bay in Tadoussac.  When we arrived at the pier in Labuan Lombok, we were greeted by the run down, shabby-looking Mona Lisa 3. The crew enthusiastically welcomed us aboard, while Kim wondered aloud what happened to Mona Lisa 1 and 2.  I chuckled to myself, realizing that we should have known better than to take the website photos at face value.  But on the bright side, Mona Lisa 3 was in much better shape than the ship behind her which, with the exception of the wheelhouse, was completely underwater. As we headed out of the harbour Kim asked if we had reached our top speed. I suspected we hadn’t, given that most boats go quite slowly when heading out to sea. It was only an hour later, when we were well into open waters and still puttering along at the same speed, that I realized we really were on the slow boat to Komodo.

Not that there is anything wrong with a slow boat.  It’s actually been very relaxing.  Each day the crew prepares our meals, and there has been plenty of food for the 26 backpackers on board.  Every so often we stop in a bay, the crew throws out the anchor, and we all jump in the water with snorkeling gear to explore the beautiful coral and numerous types of fish. And beyond that all we have to do is sit on deck, enjoy the sunshine, read, snooze, and set the timer for when we can open our next Bintang (sadly we ran out of Bintang yesterday evening, despite bringing way more than any of the other passengers).

Given the sweat box that is the sleeping quarters onboard, Kim and I decided after Night 1 that we’d spend the remaining nights sleeping under the stars. Surprisingly we were the only ones who opted to. So after the last stragglers crawled into the oven, we pulled out our mats and blankets onto the open upper deck, curled into our meat sacks (the literal translation of the French word for sleeping bag liner that I’ve been using since Matt and I bought them in Chamonix), and fell asleep watching shooting stars and trying to identify Southern Hemisphere constellations. A novel way to get some rest.

Despite the lack of happy birthday songs and candles to blow out, my birthday was actually a really great day, and likely one of the more unique birthdays that I’ll remember.  It was nice to spend it with just Kim.  After waking up to watch the sunrise, and scarfing down a quick breakfast, we swam ashore to Moyo Island, and wandered into the forest to a series of waterfalls and pools to swim and splash around in. Later we moored again at Satonda Island where we spent time snorkeling and walking on shore to visit a salt water lake.  At Satonda we saw a little group of clown fish (the Nemo ones) darting in and out of an anemone.  So neat and colorful.

Two nights ago, we motored through the night and yesterday morning woke up to flat calm waters inside the boundaries of the incredible Komodo National Park.  After a pit stop at Gili Laba to stretch out the sea legs, we carried on to Manta Point, where we got to “swim with giant manta rays”.  Being in the water in the vicinity of manta rays is probably a more fitting description than swimming with them.

The whole scene was quite comical, and reminded me somewhat of the chaos that often ensues while whale watching on the St. Lawrence.  As we approached the observation zone, where a half a dozen boats were already milling about, the crew started shouting to the other boats to see if any mantas had been spotted.  Shortly after, our guide spotted one and yelled “Go!”, and then 25 of us literally jumped overboard and swam after the manta. Not wanting to get kicked in the face, or have our snorkels ripped off by an overzealous swimmer, Kim and I decided to hang back and swim the other way.  We were rewarded for our decision and for about 30 seconds we were able to swim behind a single, beautiful manta.  I even got Kim in the GoPro frame!  Without flippers we were unable to keep up to the animal and soon it was out of sight.  We swam back to the boat and repeated the whole jumping overboard exercise two or three more times before motoring off for lunch and some swimming at Pink Beach.

Last night we moored in a beautiful bay just off shore of an island (I think it was Komodo Island, but I’d have to look at a map). Someone thought they saw a tiger shark swimming around, so there was no going in the water – even though a couple miles around the corner it was just fine!

Today was the “big” day of the trip – walking through to the forest to hunt Komodo dragons (with our cameras, as the tour brochure states).  The morning included two stops – one on Komodo Island, and a second on Rinca Island.  The islands are two of four islands in the world that the dragons call home.  Beforehand we were cautioned that it is currently mating season, and so actually seeing a dragon might not be all that likely.

Fortunately luck was on our side, and before even walking under the “Welcome to Komodo National Park” sign on Komodo Island, we spotted a dragon along the beach.  The thing could have been mistaken for an oddly-shaped piece of driftwood, because it was lying there doing nothing, but it was close enough to the walkway that it was obviously a dragon.  As the crowd started to grow the dragon rose from its slumber and wandered off into the woods.  Pretty strange looking animal, that moved rather slowly, but can apparently run up to 20 km/h if it wants to.

After an hour-long walk through the forest and savannah, which yielded nothing but a few nice views of the island, we arrived back at the ranger station to see a second dragon snacking next to the ranger shacks.  The second one was a little more active, and the rangers warned us all to stay behind them in case they needed to fend off the dragon with their wooden poles.  What is it with wooden poles to fend off dangerous animals?

Our experience on Rinca Island was similar to Komodo:  a few dragons spotted within 100 feet of the ranger cabins, but none on the jungle walk.  Interestingly, I guess, we witnessed a couple dragons engaging in the early stages of dragon-mating.  According to our guide the whole episode can last up to several hours.  Our boat was leaving soon, and so we didn’t get to witness the whole deed.  What a drag…

After one last swimming stop a little earlier, we are now within sight of Labuan Bajo, the harbour town on Flores Island and the end of our four day trip.  We’re spending a couple nights in Labuan Bajo and then will fly back to Kuta, on Bali.  Hard to believe that our time together is winding down.  In a few sleeps Kim will head home and back to work, and I will fly south, back to winter, to ski the slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand.


Bangkok, Beaches, and Bintangs

June 17, 2017

Amed Coast, Bali

First I traded in my ski boots.  Then I traded in my hiking boots.  And most recently, much to Kim’s delight, I’ve traded in my super practical crocs.  For snorkeling flippers. Or, when we aren’t in the water, bare feet.  Might as well get to work on my summer callous, despite the abbreviated summer that I am now in the middle of.

After saying our goodbyes to a wonderful month in Nepal, we headed south for Indonesia, but not without a not one, but four night stopover in Bangkok.  There was nothing particularly appealing about Bangkok that made us want to visit, but there was no additional cost to adding a stopover on my round the world ticket and Kim’s flight deals were such that BKK is her travel hub for our time together. Plus it’s also where the film Hangover Part 2 is based, so we decided to see if we couldn’t re-enact a few of the scenes.

For our stay in Bangkok we opted for the (swanky?), four-star Royal Bangkok Hotel, complete with roof top pool, in the Chinatown District.  It was a nice place to base ourselves, with a lively Chinese night market (delicious fresh seafood and street dishes), right outside the hotel front door.  It was fun to wander around the neighbourhood and taste some different foods.

Despite our best attempts to avoid one scam or another, we lasted only a half day when a tuk tuk driver approached us outside the Royal Palace.  For about two bucks, he would drive us around to see three different temples, including the giant, standing Buddha.  All we had to do was make one quick pit stop at the tailor shop – with no obligation to buy anything.  It was a win-win!  Of course the pit stop wasn’t that quick and after much hemming and hawing, feigned polite persuasion from the tailors, we walked out of the store having put down a deposit on a tailor made suit for me (navy blue to match my McGill tie) and a winter coat for Kim.  On the one hand I was kicking myself for getting sucked into buying a suit, but on the other I’d been thinking about getting one made while in Bangkok.  As soon as we got back to the hotel we googled the tailor shop and sure enough all sorts of terrible reviews came up.  One guy claimed that he looked “lopsided” when he put his suit on.  Another said they use lousy materials to make everything.  All of the positive reviews seemed made up and fabricated.  We were skeptical.  After two return trips to the tailor for fittings and final touch ups, we were happy (I would say more relieved) to walk out of there with finished products that actually turned out pretty nicely.

For the remainder of our time in Bangkok we stayed out of trouble, for the most part, and enjoyed some of the city sights. We cruised up and down the Chao Phraya River on the local ferry boats, visited several of the city’s famous temples, and checked out the Sky Bar (one of the scenes from Hangover II – fortunately no one got arrested as is the case in the movie). Also, apparently, the highest open air bar in the world.  And likely most expensive cocktails. By our fourth morning in the city we were ready to move on, which is exactly what we did when we boarded our flight to Denpasar, Bali.

The pace of life really seemed to slow down when we arrived in Indonesia, and it hasn’t really changed in the two weeks that we’ve now been here.  After three months of pretty intense skiing, followed by almost a month of trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, I was definitely feeling ready for some serious relaxing.  Our time here has been just that.

The days have revolved heavily around the beaches, which have generally been within a stones throw of our bed.  The beach activities change depending on our mood and location, and have included snorkelling, surfing, walking, sleeping, reading, watching the sunset, or a combination of several of those in no particular order.

And how could I forget the Bintangs?!  Bintang, a cool, refreshing beer, which may also be the unofficial symbol of Indonesia, has been a daily staple.  They come in two sizes (small or large, though we typically only go for the large ones), and taste fantastic after surfing or snorkelling, with grilled fish, or in the morning on one of the inter-island fast boats.  We’ve also used the price of Bintang on the restaurant menus to help choose our evening dinner location (if it’s more than 5 bucks for a large Bintang, we usually move on!)

After landing on Bali we quickly transferred over to Gili Meno, an island just off the west coast of Lombok.  It was a small island, not more than a couple square kilometres, but the five nights we spent there were exactly what we needed to really get in to the island life.  Wonderful reefs, tons of tropical fish, and sea turtles to watch while snorkelling just off-shore; perfect white sand beaches to walk and go swimming, and just far enough away from party-central Gili Trawangan (Meno’s bigger island sibling a little further west).

From Gili Meno, we pulled ourselves together just long enough to get over to Kuta, a small surfing village on the south coast of Lombok.  Each morning there we’d wake up, have our breakfast, and then make our way out to Selong Belanak, a beginner’s surf break a half hour ride west of town.  On our first morning there we met Aldi, one of the local surf pros who set us up with boards, a nice beach umbrella, and offered us a few tips.  The next day he hooked us up with a two-hour lesson and before long we were both hopping up on some small waves.  Despite flailing around far more on a surf board than I do on skis, I can see how the two sports can be similar and addicting.  I’m hooked!

In the evenings in Kuta we would wander into the village and literally choose the fish that we wanted grilled for dinner.  Each day the fisherman would bring in the day’s catch to many of the restaurants, who would then prepare them as part of a delicious meal with rice and veggies.  It has been great tasting so many different types of fish: marlin, red snapper, barracuda, and parrot fish, to name a few.

And now we are back on Bali, in the little village of Jemeluk, on the northeast coast of the island.  It might be our favorite place to date.  The patio door of our hotel room opens right onto the black sand beach and 10 metres into the water there is a healthy reef packed with all kinds of fish. Elderly ladies peddle 7-dollar, hour-long massages (pronounced “massaze” by the ladies), which we have both enjoyed, and the lounge chairs have provided the perfect napping venue.

We even tried our hand at fishing this morning, as part of a pre-sunrise fishing trip with one of the locals.  While having lunch up the beach yesterday, the restaurant host told us his brother could take us out for a couple hours this morning.  So shortly after 5:00 am we stumbled out the door in the pitch dark and waited for our skipper to arrive.  After about 20 minutes he did finally show up, and we piled onto his boat:  basically a deep canoe with long outriggers to prevent the thing from capsizing.  It was actually a quite stable and comfortable ride.

But there were no fish to be found, or caught.  We trolled back and forth under the shadow of Gunung Agung and watched the sun rise over the Bali Sea (a beautiful way to start the day), but not a single fish was hungry for breakfast.  On the way in, right before the skipper rammed his boat onto shore, Kim suggested perhaps we just fish in the reef. It seems to be the only place where the fish actually hang out!

We’ve got a couple more nights here in Jemeluk, and then it will be time to move on once more.  From here we will head back over to Lombok to begin our trip to Komodo National Park, in the eastern part of the country. If we are lucky we’ll get to see the famous Komodo dragons!