Komodo National Park, Indonesia

This is our last blog entry in our Indonesia series. To read our Indonesia travel journal from the start, click here

Komodo is famed for two things. Firstly, its terrifying and disgusting giant komodo dragons, who have such delightful habits as eating their young, and carrying around bacteria in their phlegm which poisons their prey and decays their own gums. Oh, and they have a third eye hidden in their head. Coooool! The other thing Komodo Park is famous for is its impressive underwater life which puts it – many agree – on par with diving in Papua or Borneo. During our time in Komodo we sampled both and were so impressed by the latter that we even cancelled our diving in Borneo, unable to see how diving could get any better!

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But, first things first, to the gruelling act of actually getting there. Komodo is East of Bali and can be accessed fairly easily (if unsafely!) on liveaboard boats that stop at various points along Flores before reaching Labuanbajo. However, we were travelling from further North-East so we chanced it with a 24-hour ferry from Makassar, which ended up being more of a 30-hour prison, with rubber mattresses, no windows or light, and locals smoking 24/7 around us, interspersed with the shrieks of babies and fighting cocks! NICE. We pretty much chain-listened to podcasts to get through the hell!

Prior to this, we spent a couple of nights in bustling Makassar – a heaving, hectic place – to make sure we could book ourselves onto the ferry. In this time, we ate and slept a lot (exhausted from night buses and illness!) but also met the wonderful Rifal, who was living in Makassar but born in Malaysian Borneo, and he was kind enough to take us for a tour around the town’s fort and give us lots of great tips about Borneo. We also went for lunch with his friend Tahir and were introduced to a new delicious meal including fried noodles, which was great!

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Labuanbajo itself reminded us of Bali, as it’s pretty over-run by tourists and has inflated prices and pretty average food, but it was really just a place to base ourselves whilst getting out in the nature. On our first day in town we tried to book ourselves onto a short boat tour but found most of them had left (they only run every few days) and we wouldn’t be able to make our diving booking in Borneo without buying an expensive flight (eek!) but we decided to swallow the cost, so we could see everything in our time in Labuanbajo – both the Komodos and the incredible diving, specifically diving with manta rays!

After a bit of shopping around, we booked ourselves onto some diving for the next day, using the best sites recommended to us by buddies in the Togean Islands as our basis for choosing, and it was honestly the best diving day we had in all of our travels! Fun, chatty dive buddies; great, professional dive masters with full briefings; tasty food and coffee, and then the sea-life itself. Wow!

Our first site was Siaba Basar, which we’d decided to snorkel rather than dive to save some dollar, and it was just stunning. Bright interesting fish species, beautiful coral, weird fish eggs, and star fish dotting the sand. We even saw a black-beaked eagle ray from above, and followed its path for a while before it swam away. We honestly could’ve stayed all day!

Our next site was Manta Point, which I was most excited about. Even during our briefing we could see the mantas coming to the surface and big black masses swirling around below. The current was super strong, even on descent, and we had to grab onto a rope anchor then swim hard to stay together, cross-currents trying to drag us away in various directions. Once we’d reached a good spot to wait for the mantas, we all struggled to hold onto our dive masters, or their small rope anchors, so we didn’t get swept off into the open sea. One lady in our group even grabbed hold of a sea urchin in her struggle to find something stable to hold onto!

After a few seconds, we were graced with about five beautiful huge manta rays (about the size of a small car!) swimming above us, with their wings flapping gracefully in rhythm, so elegant and beautiful! It was truly awe-inspiring. The rest of the dive repeated this pattern, with several more large groups of mantas passing us every so often, flying over our heads and around us, effortlessly majestic in their fluid movements. As an added bonus, we also saw some really cool cuttlefish, turtles and huge wrasse at the end of the dive.

Our last stop was equally breathtaking – Batubalong – probably the prettiest dive we’ve done. The site just burst with clouds of stunning colourful fish, like a huge swirling rainbow, around stunning untouched corals. We saw huge shoals of neon red fish, glowing blue fish, box fish, tuna, wrasse, puffers, lionfish, crabs and even two huge white-tipped reef sharks chilling on the coral, and Sam got up close and personal with one of them for a video! It was pretty thrilling seeing a shark so close up, as they’re normally swimming away from divers. We enjoyed a stunning boat journey home through the ochre arid mountains and stunning clear blue water.

Next, we embarked on a 2 day/1 night tour to see the Komodo dragons and check out some other spots around the National Park. On the whole the tour was great: we saw some beautiful spots and – of course – the dragons themselves, but unfortunately as is quite common in places like this, they screwed up our schedule and we missed the chance to snorkel with the mantas (we were dying to see them again!) but ho hum! We got some money back after some tantrum-throwing, so all good 🙂

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Our tour boat was tiny, just us and two Indonesian guys (one of whom was the guilty party for changing our schedule!) but, luckily, they spoke good English which meant we could communicate with our skipper as he only spoke Indonesian! He was also about 16 years old :-/ Despite this, he did a great job of driving the boat and also cooked us some incredible food (some of the best in Indonesia!) so I can’t complain.

On our first day we visited Rinca Island and had our first encounters with the disgusting and scary Komodo dragons, with a great tour guide who taught us about their behaviour, and framed some fab photo ops with us and the huge beasts. Luckily it was boiling hot so they were mainly sleeping, but we did see them running pretty fast at each other which was quite unnerving (they can easily eat people!) We took a short trek into the bush, where we found a baby komodo hiding out, and then – rather dramatically – a cobra tried to attack our guide, and he had to fight it off with a stick! Brave guide!

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We then took a two-hour journey to Komodo where we saw yet more dragons, including two huge beasts that were circling each other for a fight on the beach! We were instructed to stay back as our guide – armed with a huge stick – managed to contain the area where they were fighting, snarling at each other with their gross bacteria-filled venom dripping down their jaws. Eew!

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After some fabulous snorkelling at ‘Pink Beach’ (featuring – you guessed it – pink coral formations, and some incredible rare fish species), we drove the boat to Padma Island where we ate our dinner on the boat and slept on the boat under millions of stars, moored in a little bay, awaiting the next day’s sunrise for some trekking up to the lookout. The next morning, the sunrise hike up to the lookout didn’t disappoint – with a view over three different bays, which was pretty stunning (despite the millions of tourists jostling for space for selfies!)

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Finally we did one last snorkelling spot – voted one of South East Asia’s finest – Kanawo Island – which was pretty good, but not amazing. It was clear that the area has been subject to dynamite fishing, with huge swaths of sand breaking up the coral formations. Despite this, we still saw several spotted rays and other rays that we couldn’t identify, along with plenty of fish.

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Sadly we missed our last scheduled stop, Manta Point, due to one of our fellow tour buddies having to catch a flight and bribing the skipper to come back early (!!) but we still felt we’d got a ton out of our tour, and were happy to walk away with a hefty discount (after much “discussion” with the fiery Indonesian tour guys!!)

After an evening of cocktails on our balcony, reflecting on our great few days, we took a flight back to Bali for a brief boozy evening, then onwards to Malaysian Borneo!

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Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Tana Toraja is a beautiful and fascinating place, known for its gory and dramatic animist traditions, chiefly hosting multi-day funerals that involve brutal animal slaughters, and cost so much that the dead is sometimes kept preserved in the house for months while the family raises funds. There are also elaborate burial sites, where coffins are accompanied by wooden/wax effigies of the deceased known as ‘tau tau’. And that’s without mentioning the baby graves and traditional boat-shaped ‘tonkien’ houses! It’s quite a unique place, unlike any other, and even now I’m itching to get back.

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Unfortunately for us, we were both quite poorly in our time there, so we got off to a slow start. I was bed-ridden with a flu for the first day there, then once I’d recovered I became nurse to Sam who developed a dreadful (and quite serious!) infection on his foot (we think from a coral cut) that meant he couldn’t even walk to go to the bathroom until he’d had two full days on antibiotics.

Consequently, as all the sites are accessed by trekking (or riding a scooter, which we’d already ruled out in Thailand!) we had to squeeze a lot of sites into a small amount of time, and looking back we could’ve spent a bit longer here, as Malaysian Borneo was pretty pants, but hey ho!

We’d teamed up with fun Danish couple Laura and Theis and spent a delirious 20 hours travelling to Tana Toraja with them on the the notoriously hard route that involves a boat then lots of winding around bad roads through the night, and we were bonded by Celine Dion singalongs and a shared love of high-calorie snack food.

We attended a funeral together in Tana Toraja, which was a pretty fascinating affair. We knew it was going to be pretty unique when, as we disembarked from our ‘bemo’ (shared 4×4, the local transport) we were led down a small path and could already see pigs being slaughtered and their hair being burnt off with blow torches, fresh meat hanging in trees and lying on the ground cooking in giant sticks of bamboo. There were no other tourists there, and it was a pretty small affair, due to the deceased being a fairly low-class older lady, so they’d rushed the funeral through so the village didn’t expect a huge party.

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We were welcomed in warmly by the host family, all dressed in black but beaming with smiles and incredibly grateful to receive our gift – a carton of cigarettes – which we’d sorted with the help of our local guide. We were plied with lots of food, from snacks to the local dish of herby bamboo-cooked pork. One of the older ladies, beautiful and sweet, even offered us betel nut, which I tried. A mix of red betel nut plant and powdered snail, the mix fizzed and exploded with sourness in my mouth, and stained my teeth red for the rest of the day! It was pretty fun though, and the family seemed to like that I’d tried it.

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We shook hands with the whole family and spoke English with the younger family members, taking breaks to ask our guide about the local customs, and we even got to see the last pig being slaughtered close-up: a gory experience, as they stab the pig in the throat until they bleed out, which was pretty horrific to watch towards the end! The animists actually have great respect for the animals, and see this sacrifice as aiding the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife, but it’s easy to forget this when confronted with the brutal end of life!

The family were even hospitable enough to let us see the deceased’s body, which was a surreal experience, as we were led into the house – and the grandma’s room – by giggling grandchildren. Seeing a dead body for the first time in real life was bizarre. We paid our respects then got the hell out of there!

We were also given quite a lot of palm wine and cigarettes from the family and village, as well as lots of kopi, so we had fun cheers-ing the family and chatting away with our guide. We feasted on the traditional funeral food – fresh pork cooked with herbs in bamboo tube, served with rice and veggies. It’s pretty expensive (relatively!) to eat this in touristy restaurants so we were chuffed to be trying it in authentic surroundings with local people.

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Out guide pointed out the heads of the village sitting by the ‘rice storage’ – a central part of the traditional Tonkien houses. After a while things started winding down, and as it wasn’t a huge funeral there wasn’t a buffalo to be slaughtered (apparently a white buffalo costs the same as a new house!) so we headed back.

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We also managed a day of trekking in our time there, with Sam and I exploring the local area via bemos and on foot. We had a great day, walking through rice terraces and farms, with local kids shouting ‘HELLO!’ at us, discovering hidden gems of burial caves and stunning views. Firstly we visited Tampangallo, trekking around ancient Tonkien houses grouped together into little hamlets, past baby graves hanging in trees, and eventually to the burial ground itself.

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We almost missed Tampangallo as it’s pretty hidden away, but once inside, we were really awestruck by the madness of hanging coffins, skulls, and tau tau (the wooden effigies) scattered around the cave. Morbid and uplifting in equal measures, the smiling, primitive wooden tau tau (who’s clothes are regularly changed to preserve the dignity of the spirit) stare out over the coffins, protecting the spirits that live inside.

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After trekking back to town, we took another bemo North to Batutumonga, which is famed for having the best views in the area, but as luck would have it – after sitting in traffic for nearly an hour, crawling up the rice terraces – we arrived, and a HUGE rainshower came down almost simultaneously! The whole vista clouded over as we frantically tried to find some affordable accommodation. We’d been recommended one place, which had once been a homestay, but had obviously been converted, and was now super spenny! However, it did have the advantage of being a collection of TONKIEN HUTS!

So after some fighting, stressed out by the expense, and some negotiation with the hostel lady, we settled down to a night sleeping in the absolute darkness of our Tonkien hut. We awoke for sunrise – absolutely stunning over the wide arc of rice terraces dotted with traditional huts and lakes. We waited for the sun to rise, and after giving up hope of catching a bemo (we were pretty far out of town!) we started trekking down the terraces, taking in stunning view after stunning view.

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Locals passed us on buses and cars, honking and shouting hello, until eventually we were picked up by a super friendly bunch of young students who gave us a lift to our destination – a local bull fight! We’d been tipped off about the big bull fight by a local, and it was really an experience! Within the first ten minutes we’d nearly been hit by a bull bucking his way out of the arena, fully branded by his local team logo, and surrounded by jacketed team supporters.

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We watched the fight for an hour or so, as bull pairings had at each other, but they were stopped from ever really hurting each other – instead using horn-locking as proof of success. After an hour in the extreme heat we were boiling so hot-footed it back to town on a bemo, where we fit in once last burial grave – Londa – which holds the most modern, lifelife waxwork tau tau, jutting out from a shelf of coffins, alongside the obligatory skulls and bones from older coffins.

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Now raining again, we trekked back to our hostel for a treat of local Torajan coffee from Toraja’s verdant hills (DELICIOUS!) and waited for our night bus to Sulawesi’s capital Makassar, jumping-off point to the fantastic Komodo National Park!

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One note on Tana Toraja: although it feels like somewhat of a hidden gem currently, it’s becoming more touristy every year, so if you like the sound of it, I’d recommend going in the next few years as it’s already starting to feel a little strained by tourism. I’d definitely recommend going and I plan to go back as soon as I can to Sulawesi as it has so much to offer and was by far our favourite part of Indonesia. Now, onwards and upwards, to Komodo!