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

 

Some Favourite Boat Trips

River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo
River trip to the Indonesian border in Borneo

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote, “The journey not the arrival matters.” He’d obviously never been on a long-haul flight with Iberia or TAP. Or had to deal with security at JFK. But when it comes to boats, I couldn’t agree with him more. Like trekking, it’s a great way of leaving road traffic behind and travelling much more lesiurely. It also gives you an insight into the life of local people who often depend on the waterways for their very livelihood.

Shooting the raids in Borneo
Shooting the raids in Borneo
Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River

I’ve been down the Amazon and the Nile, the Mekong and the Ganges, the Rhine and the Thames, but last year I finally got to ride down the great rivers of Malaysian Borneo. I stayed at a lodge on the River Kinabatangan where several boat rides were included each day, at dawn and dusk. It’s the longest river in the state of Sabah, but, sadly, much of the jungle is being destroyed and replanted with palm trees, endangering a lot of the wildlife. However, I was lucky enough to see not only pygmy elephants, but also some orang-utans in the wild.

Pygmy Elephants
Pygmy Elephants
Wild Orang-utans
Wild Orang-utans

I also went on a fabulous if pricey eco-tourist project called Orou Sapulot whose owners work closely with local people to make them see that tourism can be a much better and longer-lasting way of making money than selling their land to timber and palm oil companies. We went on a thrilling journey complete with unexpected rapids-shooting right to the border with Indonesia. There was not much wildlife to see, but the verdant jungle, which rises up from the chocolate-brown river, was pristine.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

On the same trip I also visited the small town of Sengkang in Sulawesi, Indonesia. There’s nothing much to do there except take a boat trip on the Danau Tempe, a beautiful lake with fishermen’s floating reed houses and surrounded by wetlands. There are no organised trips, you just have to find a boatman and haggle a price. I was the only tourist that evening and I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen.

Sunset on Danau Tempe
Sunset on Danau Tempe

Staying on a house-boat in Kerala is a popular activity for many, but, if you’re on a budget, you can also just hire a local guy to show you round the Backwaters. It’s not as peaceful as you might expect (this is India!), but the glimpses you get into local life are fascinating. For example, you can see the Chinese fishing nets that have been used for centuries.

The Backwaters
The Backwaters
Chinese Fishing Nets
Chinese Fishing Nets

In the north of Uganda lie Murchison Falls, While not the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, the sight of the Nile River squeezing through a narrow gorge is superb and the boat trip there takes you past plenty of wildlife, from African eagles to hippopotamuses. It was also used as a location for “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

Hippopotamus
Hippopotamus

Sadly, a lot of classic boat trips are becoming a thing of the past like many great train journeys. Transportation needs to be quicker in today’s demand for speed and Chinese dam projects are threatening the sustainability and lives of villages along the Mekong for example. But boat trips are something I always seek out. It’s an essential part of “slow travel”.

Murchison Falls
Murchison Falls
Falls1
Murchison Falls