Labuan Bajo, Indonesia: Dragons & Manta Rays
Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
76Trip End Feb 06, 2014
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Landing in Bali we had a quick turnaround to our next flight back from whence we came and a little further on to Labuan Bajo, Flores. Turns out there was no need to rush as the flight was delayed for 1 1/2 hours. Catching up on internet, finding a KFC equivalent and chatting with the English couple and their kids the time passed soon enough. Once in the air it was a good flight cruising over the islands of Indo.
Landing in Labuan Bajo ("LB") we jumped in a bemo and drove the 1.5km into the centre of town to Bajo Beach Hotel. A simple place located not on a beach but smack bang in the middle of town. Grotty bathroom with toilet bowl to double as a sink and twin beds with slightly suspicious sheets but otherwise all good, plus the man who ran it seemed a nice lad.
The town itself is a ramshackle place of tin roofs perched around a harbour and edging up a hill. One main street loaded with bars, restaurants and dive shops.
Main reason for coming to LB? It's the gateway to Komodo National Park. Land of the dragons and sea of the manta rays. Finding a nice dive shop, Drivers Paradise Komodo, run by a German and Italian guy, we booked in for a three dive package the next day.
We found a nice bar called 'Lounge' which had a sky bar overlooking the town and live music at night. Across the way was Mediterraneos, a split level Italian joint with tables on one and beanbags the other. Right across from there was the rival 'Made in Italy' which dicked all over Mediterraneos food and had by far the best pizza in town. Up a little bit was another gorgeous little cafe which served French Toast for breakfast and was decked out in a beachy vintage style. Further still was Tree Top, a three tier wooden building overlooking the harbour. It was here the Dutchies suffered yet another defeat against us in pool. Better luck next time kids. Oh and so did Sam who suffered a 4-2 defeat against me. Proof that my misspent youth does indeed come in handy at times.
Waking up at 0630 to go diving was a struggle but so worth it. The boat was great - all dive equipment set up and good to go at the front and a shaded deck up top with mattresses to lay on. With just nine paying customers on board, the four of us, a Canadian couple and three German guys there was plenty of room to spread out.
The first dive was ok but nothing spectacular. Second one was at Manta Point and WOW amazing. Spotting two a few metres away from the boat we hauled our kit on and jumped in as quickly as we could. Turns out there was no need to rush as we stumbled on a spot where four of them were hanging out so we stayed there for a whole 50 minutes watching them. With their mouths wide open they would glide through the water inhaling plankton as they went.
After we had been there for a while they began to get a little more curious. Fixing us with their inquisative eyes they'd loop around, inching closer and closer as they went. On more than one occasion I was laying on the rocky bottom and it glided past my head no more than a couple of inches. Had I wanted I could have easily reached my hand up and trailed my fingers down it's belly.
Seeing them interact with each other was like watching two graceful giants dance a waltz. Up to the surface they would fly then down they would swoop. Gliding over each other with wings in perfect sync. Really really beautiful and by far the best thing I have ever seen scuba diving. I was so mesmerised I swiped my arm across something and got stung. Turns out it was a stinging hydroid, nothing deadly but two weeks later I still have the welt.
With air running low we eventually moved on but were greeted but another couple along the way, and another and another. How many we saw in total I've no idea - 12 perhaps. Four was the most we saw together. Back on the boat everyone was on a high. Even one of the Germans, who only snorkelled, saw six.
Thinking there was no way the third dive could top that we were mistaken. Batu Bolong, ranked 26th best dive site in the world according to CNN. A pinnacle of rock marred by washing machine currents on either side of a north and south wall stretching deep into the ocean. Talk about a rainbow of colour under the sea. Dazzling corals, mind blowing number of fish, some HUGE, a shark in the distance, three turtles and at the end of the dive another three manta rays. Cool!! Running low on air both Sam and I were given the emergency reg of an instructor so that we could extend our dive time. When I had run most of his air out I switched to the Canadian girls which kept me down on the dive for about 1 hr 15 minutes. Not bad when we went to 30m.
It was when I was attached to the instructor that we saw the mantas. He kinda looked at me and I was like "hell yeah" so off into the deep blue we went to follow them. So cool. Sam and the Dutchies were gutted when we surfaced with beaming smiles bragging about it.
Marc and Maaike did another three dives the following day whilst we hired a motorbike and searched for a beach. Down the coast to the left of the town was pretty gross. With rubbish strewn everywhere we decided not to stop. Heading back into town we skipped across to the other side which was much nicer. Down a dirt road we walked up to a view point. Spotting a hotel with beach side swimming pool we decided to try our luck so drove down there to ask if we could use the pool if we ordered drinks. The staff couldn't care less so off we went to laze in the pool for an hour.
Meeting Marc and Maaike back in town after their dives we had planned to booked on for another two dives and Rinca trip the next day but were sorely disappointed to find out it was already fully booked. We were all very annoyed to only find it out after they had taken the money off Marc and Maaike for their spot. Had we known we all would have looked elsewhere. Doh.
We ended up booking a trip to Rinca plus snorkelling through our guy at the hotel. Meet here at 0630 he said. So the alarm goes off at 0600 and bleary eyed we walk into reception. Waiting, waiting. Around the corner comes the man "You want breakfast?" he asks. "No we don't want breakfast. You said we go at 0630". "Oh no no. Breakfast 0630, leave at 0700". "For f**k sake. Bridge I'm going back to bed" was my response as I stormed off.
Creeping in to wake an angry bear the morning went from bad to worse when Sam told me the boat was cancelled due to high seas. Once again "For f**k sake". Leaving me to calm down Sam went off in search of another operator. Finding one we grabbed our stuff and walked over only to be told "Sorry, captain says he won't go. Too rough". With our park fee set to expire and plans to move on the next day we really had left seeing the dragons to the last minute. Walking down to the harbour we found a fishman willing to take us out on his boat for IDR 700,000 (A$70). Expensive yes but it was our only option. Climbing aboard the wooden boat we sat drifting in the harbour whilst the man tried to crank the motor. After a few failed attempts it spluttered to life and we headed out to sea.
The trip to Rinca was fine but the swell had definitely picked up. Pulling onto the island we were greeted by a ranger/guide and led to headquarters. After paying a fee for this and a fee for that we walked towards the kitchen hut where two lazy dragons were dozing under the rafters. Up a little bit laying in the grass was another, walking in the distance another, coming down the hill a smaller one we were told was about two. By the end of it there were seven laying under the kitchen. They were huge! In the same breath as being told they don't feed them he asked if we wanted to see them be given some food. Sure. We climbed up onto a little balcony as he threw over some raw fish which sent them all grappling over each other to get to it. Not a chance in hell I'd like to be in the middle of that.
We were told a park ranger and one of the cooks had been bitten last February. Usually fatal they've now got some vaccine against it so they both lived. He also said that he usually has one of them charge him at least once a day. Great, let's go hiking!
Walking through a patch of forrest we came across one digging out a bird's nest in search of eggs. As it dug the bird kicked sand back into the hole in a vain attempt to save her eggs. Nothing was found whilst we were there but it was very interesting to watch.
From there we hiked up to a panorama view point which was nice and then back to headquarters where we bumped into Marc and Maaike who had just finished their hike. Back on our boat we were meant to stop off at an island to go snorkelling but with waves bashing the boat and thrashing it about like a toy ship we decided to head straight back.
With it being our last night with Marc and Maaike we headed out for a final dinner at Made in Italy. Discussing the days events we were pleased we hadn't gone on their trip. Marc's first words were "I almost died". Turns out they went back to Batu Bolong, the one with washing machine currents at each end, made even stronger by big swells. One of the instructors and customer got stuck in it and swept 1km out to sea. Whilst waiting for the boat to pick them up Marc got sucked under and almost drowned as he couldn't find his reg. A French guy got dragged across the coral and came out all bloody and bruised. Total chaos by the sounds of it. Definitely would have been the end of my diving career had it happened to me.
Sinking back a few hard earned brewskies we cheers to new found friends, vowing to stay in touch and catch up in Australia as they're moving to Sydney.
Bemo: Hotel La Ira, Bima to Bima Airport IDR 100,000 (A$10) per car
Flight: Bima - Bali - Labuan Bajo IDR 1.4m (A$130)
Bemo: Labuan Bajo Airport to Bajo Beach Hotel IDR 50,000 (A$5) per car