Here be dragons

Gili Laba 1
Gili Laba

Dragons, or other sea monsters, were often depicted on medieval maps to indicate uncharted territory. Hence the phrase, “Here be dragons”. They are a staple part of fantasy fiction, from “The Hobbit” to “Game of Thrones”, but they really do exist. On only four small islands in Indonesia you can find the Komodo dragon, the largest living lizard in the world. I was on a four-day boat trip heading East from Lombok to Flores stopping off to see these dragons en route. I knew it would be no luxury cruise, with no cabins, just a mattress on deck, no showers, no privacy, but the scenery would make up for all the hardships. Or so I hoped.

Rinca 4
Komodos on Rinca Island

The website for Kencana Tours promises a maximum of 20 people on the trip, but there were close to 50 milling around the office in Sengiggi, Lombok, on the day of departure. Not to worry, I thought, as I’d read that they divide large groups up and use two vessels. After waiting around for an hour and a half we finally set off for a 3 hour stiflingly hot bus ride across the island of Lombok to the port on the eastern side. We were not even given a mediocre packed lunch until around 3pm. Surely, things could only get better. Or so I hoped.

Dawn at Gili Laba 2
The First class cabins …

My heart then sank further as I saw that we were all going on the same boat. All 45 of us. Luckily, everyone on the trip was like-minded and laid-back so it made life a lot easier, but things were very cramped. Because of the late departure we didn’t set sail until 4pm and it was dark within a few hours so we didn’t see the bats we were promised as part of the first day’s programme.

Dawn at Gili Laba 3
Dawn at Gili Laba

Darkness falls quickly here once the sun has set. New friends were made easily, especially easy when you’re all sleeping head to toe. We played cards on deck, as the boat cruised through the pitch black night. We anchored at Gili Bola until 2am and then set off again. With the engines now running, I found it almost impossible to sleep. In the rush to claim a mattress spot, I had been very British and reticent and now paid the price, as my place was close to the food area. Some alarmingly large ants seemed more interested in me than the scraps of food.

Komodo 7
Komodo Island

We arrived at Gili Moyo the next morning. This island lies to the north of Sumbawa island. The day was perfectly clear, the weather bright and sunny, the sea a gorgeous deep blue, while jade green hills rose steeply in the interior of the island. We trekked inland to a waterfall and I conquered my fear of heights by climbing up the rocks at the side to the pool at the top. Afterwards we went snorkelling where the colourful fish and coral are really amazing. In the afternoon we continued to Gili Satonda where we swam in a salt lake.

Rinca 3
Komodo dragon on Rinca Island

The second night was spent sailing again and this time the sea was quite rough and so we pitched and tossed the whole night. We disembarked at Gili Laba grateful to be on terra firma again and hiked up a steep hill for breath-taking views of the sea below and Komodo Island, our next destination. On Komodo we finally came face to face with the famous lizards themselves. They are actually a type of monitor lizard, but can grow up to 3 metres in length and can move quite quickly if they fancy you for lunch. They have been known to attack and kill humans. Luckily though, the rangers who accompanied us were well armed with … a pointed stick!

Komodo 5
It’s behind you!

On our last day we visited Rinca island and apart from more of these extraordinary creatures we also saw deer, monkeys, wild pigs and water buffalo. After a last swim and snorkel on the idyllic sandy beach at Gili Kelor, we finally docked at Labuanbajo on the western side of the island of Flores. It was an incredible trip despite the discomforts, taking you to places otherwise inaccessible by land, but I was glad to be back on dry land sleeping peacefully in a bed.

Gili Kelor 1
Snorkelling at Gili Kelor



Rio de Janeiro – a new view

Praia de Ipanema 2
Ipanema Beach with the Morro Dois Irmãos in the distance on the left

What makes a city one of the great cities of the world? For me, it’s a place that, no matter how many times you have been, no matter how well you think you know it, each visit provides a surprise, a new insight or a different perspective. Standing on top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers’ Hill) 533 metres above Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve, I was struck yet again by the beauty of this incredible city.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
View from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular natural setting and even the manmade structures seem to blend and harmonise with the surroundings from this height. Higher than Sugar Loaf, the Morro Dois Irmãos  offers a view that’s hard to beat; Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are all visible on a cloudless sunny day.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 9
Me on the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

The hill is situated at the end of Leblon Beach and is also home to Vidigal favela. You need to go with a guide and so I booked with, a well-established company set up by Ana Lima who was born in Vidigal. For only R$59 (£10) I joined a group of interntional and Brazilian trekkers and we were led by Ana Lima herself and an English-speaking guide.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 1
View of Praia de São Conrado and the Pedra da Gávea

We drove up through Vidigal to the start of the trail. The trek is short (about 1.5 km), but it’s uphill all the way and on a hot day can be tiring. The arrival at the top makes it all worthwhile though and the exhilarating sight in front of you causes you to forget instantly any aching limbs and parched throat.

Vidigal 2
Graffiti in Vidigal

The return journey is also interesting, since at the foot of the trail you are guided back down on foot through the favela itself, which gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals. The views are spectacular, but the signs advising people where to gather in case of flash floods makes you realise that life is not easy here. But the residents we passed were friendly and welcoming and it’s now perfectly safe to walk through if accompanied by a guide.

Vidigal 7
The view from Vidigal

It may seem hard to drag yourself away from the beach on a lovely sunny day, but make an effort and climb this hill. Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are mobbed with tourists, but the Morro Dois Irmãos offers a much less touristy and, in my opinion, better experience.

Vidigal 4
Vidigal stairs