Labuan Bajo & Komodo National Park
Published by Asahi, Japan, 2023
Things are changing quickly in Labuan Bajo, on the Indonesian island of Flores. A new airport terminal and marina opened in 2022, while a crop of luxury resorts are springing up outside the town. This once quiet fishing village is anticipating big things.
The Indonesian government chose Labuan Bajo (Badjo, as it’s known locally) as one of several tourism development spots. And while the town offers some stunning harbor views and excellent diving opportunities in the surrounding seas, its main draw is its proximity to Komodo National Park — home, of course, to the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon.
That’s why I’m here, at least. After taking in the town, with its waterfront promenade and vaguely South Pacific feel, I arrange a boat tour for the following day. There’s no shortage of travel agencies to choose from, but going by Google reviews, I opt for D’Tour Komodo Travel, who operates out of the Loccal Collection Hotel. Then, after a night of broken sleep (it was a mistake perhaps, to book a hotel beside a mosque), I stagger down to the lobby, where a minibus is waiting to collect me.
For all the optimism on display, recent concerns among locals have marred the mood. Park entrance fees were set to rise dramatically this year, from $25 (about 3,251 yen) per person to $250, with authorities justifying the price hike to prevent over-tourism and fund conservation. However, presumably following protests, the government has backed down — for now at least.
Hike or no hike, the views are well worth the cost, however, and as the speedboat skips out across the bay, I stare in wonder at the arid, rugged islands, their tops sprinkled with sugar palms. We pass pinisi schooners — tradi- tional sailing vessels that nowadays function as “liveaboard” diving boats. Only the odd plastic bottle bobbing on the waves mars the spectacle
My fellow tourists are all Indonesian, mostly from Java. Our English-speaking guide, Sandy, informs me that before the pandemic most tourists were foreigners. These days, domestic tourists make up the majority.
We begin the tour at Padar island. An uninhabited rock blanketed in savanna, it is the most recent of the islands to be opened to the public. While there are no Komodo dragons to be found here anymore, the views of the bay from the island’s summit more than compensate — although the ascent proves too daunting for some members of our group.
Then, after an energetic start, we hop over to Pantai Merah, or “Pink Beach,” on Komodo island. The beach is indeed pink, owing to the secretions of microscopic organisms called Foraminifera. It makes an excellent spot for selfies, and one young woman from our tour has miraculously changed her wardrobe — presumably to give some variety to her Instagram feed.
“Local tourists love taking selfies,” Sandy tells me. “So many selfies,” he adds, a touch wearily.
Lunch is taken on board the boat, as we cross the bay to what promises to be the high point of the tour: a face-to-face encounter with the world’s largest extant species of lizard.
Our guide here — a young ranger — tempers our expectations. He hasn’t seen a dragon in two days, he tells us. Yet as he says this, I spot one ambling along in the background and I suspect he isn’t being entirely truthful.
In fact, we encounter three dragons, all within a hundred meters of one another, each of them lounging in the shade of the forest floor. Our guide assures me they’re not sleeping but lying in wait for prey. I have to wonder, though, if they usually wait with their eyes closed.
Despite their fearsome reputation — their bite is poisonous and an adult Komodo dragon can outrun a man — our guide crouches within a couple of feet of one, while everyone queues up behind it for a photo. Tourists may be a vital contributor to the local economy, but I wonder whether the Komodo dragons here might prefer seeing a few less.
Leaving the dragons in peace, we take the boat out for a spot of snorkeling. It’s my first time to use a snorkel, and after a few pointers from Sandy and a practice run in shallow waters, I leap overboard into the sea.
Gazing at the seafloor opens up a whole new perspective on the world, and along with corals and small, darting fish, I spot a manta ray flapping languidly above the seabed. I count myself lucky, but later a German tourist tells me they encountered 20 mantas on their tour. I’m sea-green with envy.
We’re supposed to end the day with some R & R at tiny Kanawa island, but the skies have clouded over and a storm is brewing. Instead, we warm ourselves with cups of instant coffee before heading back to Labuan Bajo, our boat bouncing along on choppy seas.
The skies have cleared by the time we reach port. Bidding farewell to Sandy and my fellow sightseers, I end my day at the night bazaar with some grilled fish and a large bottle of Bintang beer, watching as the sun drops into the Flores Sea.
Despite a little sunburn on my shoulders, it’s been a great trip. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, you might even say. I just hope the authorities will continue to defer an entrance fee hike — otherwise it may have to stay that way.