Having a date when we have to be back in the UK means we have a lot of places to go in a set period of time, and, after spending 10 days in Bali (longer than anticipated, but worth it), we had to choose where else in Indonesia we’d like to go and lose the rest. After going back and forth between spending time on Java – where we’d be doing more trekking – or spending time on Flores – where we’d be more near the water – we settled on Flores for the simple fact that it’s the only place in the world to see real dragons. Well, Komodo dragons, but still. That decided, we booked a flight from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo and agreed to find a boat tour once we were there.
It was relatively easy and cheap to get there, and as Denpasar is an international airport there were tons of options for our outbound flight. We used Traveloka to book our flight to Labuan Bajo, with an outgoing flight to Singapore, and ended up paying about Rp 3.5 million, or roughly $325 AUD for both our tickets. The flight itself is only about 50 minutes from Bali and we arrived in Labuan Bajo around 11:30 am, giving us plenty of time to find our accommodation and book a boat tour for the next day.
We’d read a lot online about Labuan Bajo being very small (it is), and very basic (some of it is), but it’s clear that there is a lot of money being invested within the town as tourism there grows. There is a new hospital in town, the airport has recently been rebuilt, and there are many new buildings (including a Starbucks) being built along the seafront and harbour as well. The main draw to come here is Komodo National Park to see the Komodo Dragons, as well as scuba diving and snorkeling, with many different options on tours to do this. For the moment, most things in Labuan Bajo are pretty cheap, but this could change as it becomes more commercial over time. That being said, be wary of some of the options, as there can be a huge discrepancy in the quality of accommodation with very little difference in prices. It is hot, and it is very humid, and my recommendation would be to find somewhere that has A/C, otherwise, like us, you’ll end up losing half your body weight in sweat and getting very little sleep. Our last 2 nights in Labuan Bajo were much more enjoyable with A/C and a much nicer and cleaner room, and we only paid about $3.
Much like accommodation, there is a huge variety of boat tours to choose from as well, depending on what you’re looking for. We tried to book online a head of time; however, we found that it was mostly chartered and private boat tours listed, and unless you have a massive group (everyone pays less) or you have a huge budget to spend, everything was way more than we were willing to pay. I’ve said before that Richard is more of a planning, book-ahead type of person, whilst I’m more of a ‘lets not book and see what happens’ type of person (causing him endless amounts of stress, I’m sure), but he did agree this time to try it, on the basis that we could always book something online last minute if we really needed to.
After ditching our bags at the hostel, we headed down the main street (there is literally only one street) to see what we could find. Armed with a top price point in our head and the knowledge that we could say no to anything, we proceeded to the first shop we came to, and then spent the next 3 hours going into almost every single shop of the hundreds on the road (I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it did feel like that at the time).
We quickly learnt to spot which ones were going to be well out of our price range, and narrowed it down to the ones that were offering group tours that we could join rather than a private boat. As it’s November, it’s low season for them, which meant that we weren’t able to find a 3 day / 2 night option for a tour (unless we wanted to go private), but we were left with various options for 1 night / 2 day group tours. After speaking to a number of different people and getting pretty much the exact spiel from all of them, it was explained to us that during the low season everyone sells the same boat in order to fill it up, as there generally isn’t enough people for more than one tour a day. After realizing that the past 2 hours had slightly been in vain as we were talking to different people about the same trip, we stopped for lunch and to decide which shop owner we liked the best so we could go book our tickets through them.
Most of the sellers sell out of little shacks at the side of the road, and they do look a little sketchy. We had to trust that they weren’t trying to scam us, but it helped that they stayed in contact via Whatsapp as well as not asking for payment until we were at the boat the next day. Our tour took us to Rincha and Komodo Islands to trek to see the dragons, Komodo Pink Beach to snorkel, Padar Island to trek to the top for incredible views, snorkeling with Manta Rays at Manta point, and snorkeling the reef at Kanawa Island. It was Rp 900 000 (about $90 AUD) pp and included:
- 2 days / 1 night on the boat
- Lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch and drinking water
- Snorkeling equipment (mask, snorkel, and fins)
- Bed/bedding on the boat
- Tea and coffee
On top of this we had to pay park fees and for guides at the different islands:
- Entrance to Rincha and Komodo Islands – 305 000 pp
- Guide on Komodo: 20 000 pp
- Entrance to Padar: 180 000 pp
- Entrance to Kanawa: 10 000 pp
Which came to Rp 515 000 extra pp. All in all we paid Rp 1 415 000 pp, or roughly $141 AUD pp for the entire 2 days. Although a lot of people on our boat were upset with the extra costs and felt it was too expensive, both Rich and I agreed that it was great value for money and worth it for the experience. Our only complaint was that none of the people selling the tours (and I mean not one out of the dozen that we spoke to) was clear about the extra costs. Everyone said there would be extra costs to pay once there as it’s a national park – which is fair – but we got quoted any where from 20 000 extra pp to 350 000 extra pp, which is a significant difference to the 515 000 extra pp it actually turned out to be. Considering it’s meant to be set prices within the park, everyone should be clear on what you’ll pay, but I have my doubts that the prices are actually set and wouldn’t be surprised if they change them based on the day, month, season etc.
Cost aside, the entire 2 days has jumped it’s way into the top 3 best things we’ve done thus far (number 1 still being our climb up Kilimanjaro), and I know I would have been more than happy cruising around the islands for longer than 2 days. My advice, as least in the low season, is to book a night or 2 of accommodation ahead of time and get in early enough in the day to wander around and suss out your tour options. If you’re flexible on time, you will have zero problems booking a tour for the next day (or 2 days time). Your biggest issue will be deciding which one you want and how long you want to go for (definitely 2 nights if you can).
After a few hours on the boat, our first stop was Rinca Island to see some Komodo Dragons. You walk from the boat to the main gate, where you pay and pick up a guide. There are 3 options for a hike – easy, medium, and hard – all varying lengths to walk. Our tour did the medium hike, and we were on the island for about an hour and a half. The guides we had were very knowledgeable, and gave us information on the dragon’s as well as life on Rinca. Interesting fact: Komodo Dragon’s live in trees for the first 4-6 years of their lives, as full grown dragons (even the mother) will eat the little ones.
Pink Beach was our first and only snorkel of the day. It was probably the least interesting bit of the trip, although it was still nice to get into the water for a bit. I didn’t take many pictures here, although we did get some video with the gopro, which I’ll eventually post with some highlights from the entire trip.
To finish the afternoon, we landed on Komodo Island, also to do a bit of a hike to see some more dragons. The dragons on Komodo tend to be bigger than the ones on Rinca, and there are also various length hikes you can do with guides. As it was later in the afternoon already, we did the shortest hike (it really only took about 30 minutes round trip) to the watering hole, which is where they can be most active. Luckily for us, there were a couple dragons there who were actively hunting, although they tend to freeze once big groups come close. Our guides were really great, and they were loving doing a bit of a photo shoot for people and directing them where to stand/kneel to get a good picture. Interesting fact number two: Komodo Dragons were names after the island, rather then the island being names after the dragons!
Sunset and sunrise
Back on the boat, we followed the coast of Komodo for about 30 minutes till we got to the spot where we were going to anchor for the night. It was just starting to get dark, and we got there in time to see the sunset. We spent the night on the boat and woke up as the sun was just starting to come up. Well worth getting up early just for that!
After watching the sunrise and breakfast, we anchored off of Padar Island so that we could hike to the top before it got too hot in the day. This was a slightly more difficult hike, being pretty steep with steps for a lot of it, and it probably took us about 45 minutes to get to the top. But once there the views were breathtaking!
Manta point is a a deep channel located between two islands in Komodo National Park. It can only be accessed by boat and it attracts dozens of Manta Rays who come here to feed and be cleaned. Unfortunately, in our haste to get out of the boat to see these amazing creatures (they swim fast), we forgot to grab the gopro, and have no photos or footage of our swim. Although we’d swum with Rays in Australia, it was so much better here as the water was crystal clear and calm, and for a time we were the only people there. At one point Rich and I were floating along the surface and we looked down to 3 Manta Rays swimming directly under us – if I’d reached down, I would have been able to touch them.
I’d read a lot about Kanawa Island when we were researching Labuan Bajo, as it’s famed for being one of the best places to dive in the world, so I was really excited to be able to go and do some snorkeling there. It did not disappoint! It was the best snorkeling experience we’ve had, and so diverse in such a small area. Again, we took a lot of video footage with the gopro, which will be posted at some point with the highlights of our trip.