The Dragon and the Deep Blue Sea

10 May 2024 by Business Traveller Middle East
Komodo dragon (Image supplied by USO ext/GettyImages)

Flores and Komodo National Park, in the heart of the Indonesia archipelago, are a nature-lover’s paradise filled with giant lizards, adventure, and stunning marine life.

Komodo National Park, a jewel nestled within Indonesia’s vast archipelago, is a sanctuary where wilderness meets the treasures of the sea. This UNESCO World Heritage site, once a haven for divers and young intrepid travellers, has evolved to become a welcoming paradise for families and luxury-seekers alike, offering an array of experiences that cater to every type of adventurer.

Spanning across the islands of Komodo, Padar, Rinca, and an additional 26 smaller islets, all in close proximity to the larger island of Flores, the park is celebrated as a marine sanctuary. It boasts an unparalleled level of biodiversity and is the habitat of approximately 2,500 Komodo dragons, the largest living lizards on Earth. Established in 1980 to protect the iconic Komodo dragon, the national park has since become a celebrated part of the Coral Triangle, offering snorkelers and divers alike the chance to explore its underwater marvels, including unmatchable coral forests.

Padar island in Komodo National Park in Flores Island, Indonesia (Image supplied by skazzjy/AdobeStock

Labuan Bajo: The Gateway to Wonder

Labuan Bajo, a small town nestled on the western coast of Flores island, serves as the gateway to Komodo National Park. The town’s transformation into a bustling tourist destination is evident from the moment visitors arrive at its quaint airport, greeted by the sight of a gigantic Komodo dragon sculpture hanging from the ceiling in hues of pink and purple.

The drive from the airport to Labuan Bajo’s town centre takes less than five minutes and the town’s main street, Jl. Soekarno Hatta, offers an eclectic mix of dining and lodging options. Diving tour shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, and ice cream parlours hang side out by side in the one-way street. From the small off-the-street Japanese den with plastic plates and amateur drawings on the walls, to the Italian breakfast restaurant with views of the harbour, there is something for everybody. Yet it’s in the evening that the street truly bursts into life, buzzing with energy as day-trippers, divers, and snorkelers return, seeking to unwind with a delicious meal and a refreshing evening beverage.

White and red coral at Pink Sand Beach (Image supplied by Zana Azeredo)

A Marine Paradise Unveiled

Experiencing the unspoiled marine life of Komodo National Park is an adventure that truly unfolds from the deck of a boat. Numerous tour operators based in Labuan Bajo offer day trips that include diving, snorkelling, and terrestrial exploration. Yet for those seeking the quintessence of marine exploration, embarking on a journey aboard a shared divers’ liveaboard, a private yacht, or a traditional wooden Phinisi boat offers an unparalleled experience. Whether opting for a three-, five-, or ten-day voyage, these vessels provide the unique opportunity to reach the reefs at the break of dawn. This timing is ideal, as the morning sunlight pierces the water at just the right angle to reveal the world’s most vibrant coral forests in all their splendour.

A jump in the water can easily include swimming with dolphins, manta rays, and sea turtles. While fish are abundant, spotting large marine life is not the ultimate goal here. Instead, it’s far more likely for one to be mesmerised by the different colours and textures of the coral carpet under the sea, resplendent with one of the largest collections of nudibranchs, colourful in various shades of orange, purple, and blue.

While diving is a highly coveted activity here, the shallow reefs coupled with crystal-clear visibility ensure that snorkelling offers an equally gratifying, if not superior, means of immersing oneself in the underwater wonders.

A day in the ocean might also provide visitors with contact with the local islanders. Approaching in their small canoes, these residents offer unique mementos, such as mother-of-pearl jewellery and intricately-carved wooden replicas of Komodo dragons, allowing guests to take a piece of their memorable experience home.

Komodo dragon (Image supplied by Simona/GettyImages)

Realm of the Dragons

At the heart of Komodo National Park’s allure is the Komodo dragons, Earth’s largest living lizards that roam freely across some of the islands. These colossal reptiles can grow up to three metres in length and weigh as much as 70 kilograms, yet despite their venomous nature, incidents of aggression are rare.

A visit to  Loh Buaya Komodo National Park in Rinca Island provides an unparalleled opportunity to observe these majestic creatures in their natural environment, offering a glimpse into a prehistoric world that has remained largely unchanged for millions of years. Knowledgeable local guides lead small groups of three to 10 visitors, beginning the journey on hundreds of metres of suspended platforms with technical posters and explanatory boards along the way. The path continues to an observatory gazebo, offering chances to encounter the dragons up close along the way. The tour ends at the small yet informative museum showcasing the park’s fauna and flora.

The Loh Buaya visitor centre welcomes guests daily from 6.00 to 18.00, ensuring ample opportunity for exploration and discovery within this ancient natural world.

Komodo National Park (Image supplied by tanarch/AdobeStock)

An Island of Experiences

If you’re in pursuit of breathtaking panoramic vistas, the prime spot for a hike and sunset viewing is Lawa Darat Gili Island. Fondly referred to as Deer Island due to the numerous wild deer residing there — most of which remain indifferent to human presence — it promises an unforgettable experience. The hike to the observation plateau can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on one’s fitness level. The trails are welcoming and accessible, making it a family-friendly adventure suitable even for young children. The islands of the national park are of volcanic origin and the terrain is generally rugged with the climate being one of the driest in Indonesia. For this trek, wearing closed shoes is strongly advised for the utmost comfort and safety.

Another sunset experience unfolds at Bat Island, Pulau Koabe. The silhouettes of dark mountains against the twilight horizon create the perfect backdrop for a breathtaking natural spectacle. Here, thousands of bats, known as Kalong, emerge from the tree canopy of Pulau Koabe, soaring towards Flores Island for their nightly forage. These fruit-eating bats traverse the salmon and ash-blue skies at varying altitudes, offering a mesmerising view. Boats strategically position themselves between the islands, allowing tourists to witness this extraordinary migration for 45 minutes before returning to port.

For those in search of a romantic backdrop, a picnic on the Pink Sand Beach, nestled on the southwest side of Padar Island, presents an idyllic choice. For centuries, the red and white corals surrounding the island have washed ashore, resulting in a stunning stretch of fine pink sand that spans a few hundred metres and is often secluded. It’s advisable to bring along a glass of your preferred beverage, mosquito repellent, and sunscreen for an unforgettable experience.

AYANA Komodo Waecicu Beach resort, Labuan Bajo (Image supplied by Zana Azeredo)

Choosing Your Sanctuary

Accommodations in Labuan Bajo range from the charming comfort of two- and three-star hotels to the lavish indulgence of the AYANA Komodo Waecicu Beach resort, which offers spectacular views and unmatched service just beyond the city centre. Four more five-star resorts are slated to open later in 2024 on the northwest side of Flores, introducing a wealth of new options for discerning tourists.

For adventurers eager to delve deeper into the aquatic wonders, the Splendour yacht offers a cozy and exclusive venue for marine explorations. This yacht, styled after the 1920s yet constructed in 2018, measures 65 feet in length and boasts three double cabins, providing both elegance and comfort. Numerous brokers in Jakarta and Labuan Bajo facilitate the chartering of this and many other yachts.

Indonesian food (Image supplied by Odua Images/AdobeStock)

Sustaining Nature’s Bounty

As the park’s popularity has surged, the commitment to safeguarding its pristine beauty and ecological health has grown stronger. Through targeted conservation efforts, the park continues to be a sanctuary for a diverse array of land and sea creatures, adeptly balancing the demands of tourism with the crucial need for environmental preservation. The variation in national park fees, ranging from US$13 to 250 per person per day during recent years, reflects an effort to both raise funds for conservation and to regulate the influx of visitors, ensuring the park’s sustainability for future generations.

Words by Zana Azeredo

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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