The dragon cruise
Text: Christophe Migeon
7:30 AM, time to weigh anchor. Literally speaking, alas! We have to give a hand to the two crew members bent over the endless chain of the Tidak apa apa. Thin and supple as leather, their bodies work together like ballet dancers, and have much better results than the 3 or 4 passengers who try to help. With the growling of worn-out metal, the anchor at last deigns to surface, the engine starts roaring and the schooner sets sail, eagerly galloping over the waves, the swell and the wind, like a horse that stayed too long in its stall. Instead of sails, the diving suits flutter in the breeze, as do the towels tied around the rail, the shrouds and stays. “We don’t hoist the sails much, except when running downwind or on a broad reach. The currents in the Sea of Flores are tricky”, says Bertrand Gilart, who bought this 20-meter phinisi five years ago and converted it into a diving – cruising yacht, to explore the fifty or so exciting sites around Komodo and Rinca islands. With her two yard-topped masts, her shrouds and stays akin to a pirate’s ship, her prow sculpted in the shape of a long naga, – the mythical snake whose golden scales are impressive enough to scare away the sea demons-, and her long white bow that elegantly extends the hull, our phinisi looks quite imposing. A captain, two crew members, a purring engine and a pulsating compressor: let the adventure begin, under a sky so blue that is almost too good to be true.
A twisting coast
These elegant, traditionally rigged schooners which constantly sail the labyrinth of the Indonesian seas are all built on the island of Sulawesi, along a 5km beach called Tanah Beru. Built from 50 tons of ironwood, the Tidak apa apa reflects the ancestral know-how of the Konjo sailors, this people who for centuries has provided the best captains and sailors of the archipelago, such as Sudirman the mechanic who also fills the diving cylinders, or Mtuo, the cook. Their faces are the colour of gingerbread, smoked-dry by both the sea and the clove cigarettes, their bodies akin to those of skinny and laconic Hindu gymnosophists. Mtuo comes from Bira, the village in Sulawesi where all the boats are fitted out. Last year he only saw his wife and children twice. Love feeds itself from distance and mystery…happily for the Konjo who have long been used to going far away to sea. “On land there is no work. The only way you can make some money, is to embark on cargo ships, tug boats or tourist boats”, says Mtuo, his face lit by a big smile, “I have worked seven years on a fishing boat for two or three year-long fishing campaigns around the Irian Jaya. At least here, I can go home a few times a year”.
The schooner sails along the twisty coast, a dreary succession of barren hills and unwelcoming, wild lands. These islands obviously have been forgotten by god and man: Komodo and its neighbour Rinca have only 3500 inhabitants and accentuate the strange feeling of dereliction. But one would be wrong to ignore them, with this hasty judgment. Under the water, flattened like an oily pond by the currents, counter-currents and other capricious whirlpools, life pulsates and abounds. In Castle Rock, the shape of a flat cone, there’s a real bustle of fins, fluttering gills and flashes of scales in the electric Indo-Pacific blue. Huge shoals of Orangespine or Bluespine unicornfish dilate and retract in fluid, evolving shapes, move around the space dancing in their own galaxy, obeying their own rules of physics. From time to time a squadron of giant trevallies or wahoos come shooting past like meteorites and disturbs this silent celestial order. Thanks to the setting up of a National Park around Komodo and Rinca, encounters with sharks, -grey bamboo sharks or small silvertip sharks-, are more frequent. Although only the local fishermen are allowed to fish in these waters, sharks should watch their backs considering that a kilo of shark fin costs 2 million rupees –around 160€ – on the market in Flores.
Pinnacles hidden under impressive reefs and underwater cliffs covered with orange and gold soft corals, mineral narrows whose strong currents make you cross swiftly…the dive sites follow one another on the northern and eastern coasts of Komodo, in clear and warm waters, where pelagics are plentiful. Further South, beyond the island of Padar, the atmosphere is very different: low visibility, goose-pimples with the water temperature at 24°C. At first, it doesn’t seem very exciting. But these cold waters coming from the Indian Ocean help the plankton proliferate and generate an impressive biodiversity. An incredible fauna hides in the shadows of the reefs, arrays of nudibranches, frogfishes by the kilo, bevies of peacock-tail shrimps, bulls, baskets of boxer crabs, cowries, holothurians from another world…
Captain Musalim, a kretek* between his lips and an eye on the horizon cluttered with yellow islets and turquoise shallows, helms the Tidak apa apa all along this coastal trip. A former Rasta who got his skipper’s license in 1993, he prefers to be called Marco, in reference to his football idol Marco van Basten. Since then, he has a wife and kids, has shaven his dreadlocks, and lost a front tooth, which gives him a weird crushed fig smile. He’s not impressed by the currents nor by the winter storms, only the thought of the engine breaking down could unsettle him. Entering the bay of Loh Liang, he points his binoculars to a sandy beach made gold by the afternoon sun. “ Look over there! Deers!…” In fact, they are bouncing along the beach with their fawns. Although none of us wish them any harm, we are eager to see an intrepid, ambushed dragon assail Bambi. Alas, probably satiated, our dragons remain hidden under the meager cover of the barren savanna.
The world’s largest carnivorous lizard
We cannot write about Komodo without mentioning the local hero, who for the last hundred years has done much for the archipelago’s reputation and marketing. The Western world heard about Varanus komodoensis in 1911 when a Dutch expedition killed two specimens and brought their skins back to Java. Our hero, who prides himself on being the world’s largest carnivorous lizard, has a preference for cervidae, wild pigs, even buffalo when they are really hungry. A good bite and all it takes is to wait for the dragon saliva’s sixty odd bacteria to do their job. Dragons have been seen waiting two weeks for a buffalo to surrender to septicemia. These audacious reptiles don’t always stick to their diet and sometimes eat a man. One of the first westerners to die was Swiss baron Rudolf von Reding Biberegg, who in 1974 hurt his knee on a hike and was left alone when his guide went for help. All that was left of him was his camera and a shoe. After a quiet period of thirty years, the dragon has killed twice since 2007, and attacked a ranger in his office two years ago, however, he survived. We land at the camp of Loh Buaya on the island of Rinca, hungry for a fight with the “monster”. One of the guides, armed with a long forked wooden stick, warns everyone to stay no less than 5 meters from the dragons. Despite their ridiculously short legs, they are formidable sprinters. Ardys, a Tourism student from Flores, has been hired for the summer holidays. We hope he handles the stick better than his English. The hunt starts on dusty paths in the dried bush dotted with silk-cotton trees and palm trees. Branches cracked…Leaves crumpled…It’s only a couple of megapodes, funny guinea-fowls with orange feet. Further on, we’ll be duped by a wild pig. After an hour, sweat is running down our faces taking away the enthusiasm of the most optimistic among us. But suddenly Ardys raises his hand with the authority of a squadron leader. Here they are at last, five beasts wallowing on the bare and sunny shores of a stream, as menacing as a family of holiday makers digesting their picnic on the beach. We are almost tempted to go and bask in the sun with them. Nearby, buffaloes take a mud bath. Judging by the suspicious look they give their spa friends, it seems it’s not such a good idea after all..
* the famous Indonesian clove cigarette
Nestled in the middle of the small Sunda islands in Indonesia, the Komodo archipelagos shows the austerity of lands that make a little go a long way. A schooner converted into a diving-cruising yacht skims along the shores which are bordered by abandoned savannahs, haunted by strange lizards, and reveals the well-kept secrets of the Sea of Flores.
When to go
The best time is from end of March to November
The phinisi is a local 20-meter schooner that can accommodate 8 divers in four basic “double cabins” fitted out as an open space below deck. A crew of 3 (a captain, a sailor, a cook) assist Bertrand Gilart, the owner and diving manager. For diving, 12m3 Bauer Compressor on board. The coastal waters are warm (27°-28°C), and clear, full of pelagics; in the South they are cooler, (23°-24°C), full of plankton and macro critters. Departures from March to September from Labuan Bajo on Flores. www.komodosailing.com
To see the Komodo dragons
You must land on Loh Buayo or Loh Liang on Komodo. After having paid the entrance fee, a guide armed with a long forked stick will offer you a hike of either 1h30 or 3 hours to go and observe the dragons in their environment. There are good chances to see some on some sites where they go and sunbathe. Entrance fee to the National Park: 15 USD for 1-3 days, 25 USD for 4 to 8 days.