Right when we get into a leaky wooden canoe with strangers and get to the point where we’re proud of ourselves for being able to rough it in very basic accommodations, someone else comes by to prove us wrong. In this case, one day after arriving at Yangkawe Bungalows on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat and still trying to adjust to not having plumbing, refrigeration or 24-hour electricity, an energetic older French couple came swooping in by longboat from another homestay an hour away. It was their fourteenth time in Indonesia, their third month in Papua, and this would be their seventh homestay in the area. They also spoke Indonesian fluently. Seriously.
They were also a godsend. We are. Such. Lucky. Bastards. As described in our previous post, we hadn’t had the foresight to do any research prior to arriving in Raja Ampat, and the Lonely Planet guidebook was useless. So very long story short, we ended up at this homestay* and spent the first day by ourselves snorkeling around the cove, building a sand castle and wondering where we should go and how long we should stay at this homestay.
When Eva and Ante arrived, we latched onto them like leeches and siphoned them for information. They were incredibly generous in sharing their extensive knowledge with us, and they pretty much planned out the rest of our stay for us among these islands. We also extended our stay at the homestay by one more night because we just weren’t ready to say goodbye.
We spent the majority of our waking hours with this globetrotting couple. Every morning, we started a leisurely, sunny day over breakfast of freshly-baked cakes and instant Indonesian sludge (coffee). This was followed by a snorkel in the vicinity with a couple of family members from the homestay making sure we weren’t going to drown ourselves. Lunch was fish, rice and vegetables. Dinner was the same, except small crabs would scuttle over our feet for scraps as we ate. Hey, I’ll take crabs over cockroaches any day. Even though the main ingredients were always the same, Mary tried to change it up for us with preparation methods.
When we weren’t dealing with cockroaches and bed bugs we explored the underwater world around Kanawa Island. I don’t want to brag, but I’m like a professional snorkeler now. Is there a snorkeling competition for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? I should start training because I could easily win gold.
One thing I really wanted to do while traveling in SEA was to find a nice beach bungalow where I could unload my backpack and relax for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I had visions of gently swaying hammocks, empty stretches of soft-sand beach, and swimming with exotic sea creatures that we’ve only seen on Animal Planet. When I found out that such a place existed near our next stop I immediately made plans to park my ass on one of their hammocks.
Kanawa Bungalows is the only accommodation available on Kanawa Island and the reviews sounded fine by us. Basic accommodations for about $40 USD per night. Trying to make reservations over email wasn’t very easy so we headed to their office when we arrived in Labuan Bajo. We reserved for three days even though we had to be moved each morning due to other bookings. It would be annoying, but we’d make it work since we really wanted to be on the beach rather than at the harbor and having to take a boat out each day to snorkel.
The next day we got on the transfer boat with about ten other tourists and less than an hour later we were walking down the long, picture-perfect jetty towards Kanawa Island. We checked in at the front desk and a porter brought our bags over to Bungalow 15. We scanned the room, checked the mattress, admired the view from our porch, then got changed and headed back down the jetty to jump in the crystal clear water.
Within minutes of sticking our heads underwater we saw lion fish, clown fish, cuttle fish, and a gazillion other sea creatures. It was awesome. We thought snorkeling off the beach in Koh Tao, Thailand was fantastic, but Kanawa made the snorkeling there look like a child’s hobby aquarium. After exploring a bit longer we headed back to the restaurant to get lunch. Unfortunately, they only serve lunch until 2pm and it was now 3pm. That sucked since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and the only food we had were brownies that we smuggled in from Labuan Bajo. So, we had brownies for lunch. Let me recap this day so far: A scenic boat ride to a private island with a beautiful beach and spectacular snorkeling within a few hundred feet of our bungalow and then brownies for lunch. Yep, life is good.
You can’t go to Komodo National Park in Flores and not see Komodo dragons. And we saw them, but it looks like I deleted the photos off of my memory card so I don’t have any proof. Looks like you’ll just have to believe me. N and I heard that Rinca Island was less touristy than Komodo Island, so we shelled out 300,000 rupiah each to go on a group tour of the island with Christian’s Tours in Labuan Bajo. We weren’t given a whole lot of information from the tour office as to what to bring or how to prepare. We were just told to show up at a certain time and that the boatman would speak English.
The next morning, we walked to the tour office down the street from our hotel. There were four French tourists and a Spanish couple going with us, and we all walked down to the harbor to get on the boat for the two-hour ride to Rinca. The boat we were instructed to board was a tiny old thing with benches facing each other along the sides. The boatman spoke no English. He communicated via hand gestures and that’s how we found out he was 70 and has been manning a boat for 40 years. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was this particular boat he’s been on for the past four decades.
The eight of us sat there for two hours in near silence as we sputtered along past small islands. By the time we arrived on Rinca, the sun was high in the sky and it was hot. We didn’t really know where we were supposed to go so we started walking down a winding path towards what we assumed was the entrance to the park. A guide was leading a pack of French tourists back from their tour, so he waved goodbye to them, turned around and introduced himself as our guide.
Mahmed carried a long stick with a forked tip for keeping the large lizards at bay. The land here was arid and relatively flat, and we walked down a concrete path towards the ticket booth. Mahmed pointed to the base of a small tree, where a juvenile male dragon lay in the shade. His legs were all splayed out comically and he slowly lifted his head to look at us as we stopped at a “safe distance” — whatever that means because these reptiles are fast — to stare and snap photos.
Mahmed explained that the dragons are most active in the early morning when it’s cooler and they’re hungry. By the late morning, they grow lethargic from the heat and the food in their bellies and lie still for the remainder of the day. It was clear we would be watching dragons nap all afternoon. Read more…
Snorkeling and diving in Komodo National Park is supposed to be excellent and that’s pretty much what we came for so N and I signed up for a day trip with a dive operator, popped our motion sickness pills and headed off early one morning on a big wooden double-decker boat with eight adults, three kids and a baby. We were immediately off to a good start as the boat got snagged on the anchor rope of another boat, and one of the staff had to go diving underneath to untangle us. So we sat there inhaling the acrid fumes from the boat’s engine and about fifteen minutes later we were off for real.
We met Kirsty and Emily, a British lesbian couple, who were the first British travelers we’ve gotten to know during our travels over the past year and a half. We shared travel tales and we realized that these 20-something kids were much more hardcore than us. For example, instead of going to Bukit Lawang on the Banana Pancake Trail which most people follow, they went to some remote remote area in Sumatra to see orangutans. While we were being carried up and down the mountain like royalty in a touristy area practically Justin Bieber-style because we can’t handle anything, they went on a more authentic experience by taking a tour on some rickety boat whose engine died halfway through on their way back. They were only saved by a passing boat which saw their captain waving a pole with a life jacket attached to the end of it. While we (I) would’ve spent the rest of our travel money extracting myself from that situation — via helicopter, G7, speedboat, or inflatable raft — and flown back to Tokyo in a traumatized daze, they kept calm and carried on (I had to use that somewhere in this post cuz you know, they’re Brits).
Besides them there were two quiet German guys who were snorkeling too, and a young globe-trotting Swiss family with a billion children (well, four). They were a hot mess even with two of the dive school’s staff on the boat to watch over the chirrens, and I wondered how they managed to travel around the world with their brood in tow. The kids immediately started tearing into bags of crackers and cookies, which they proceeded to stuff their faces with, spewing cookie crumbs and partially-masticated crackers all over the blankets laid out on the deck where we all sat. Not like a few crumbs here and there, but like a thin layer of them coating the floor. The parents didn’t seem to care, scooting all over the crumbs to talk to us and the German boys. My OCD was going out of control.
We got to our first snorkel/dive spot and N and I donned our masks and fins and watched scuba divers struggling awkwardly into their suits and equipment. Scuba diving reminds me of skiing but worse. There’s so much prep work needed before you actually go out and enjoy yourself. At least with skiing, you don’t have all these potentially life-saving computers and gear hanging off of you.