By Jacqueline Lang and Peter Rigby
The ship’s bell rings. Like school kids racing to recess, we tear out of our cabin, and spring on to the tender whisking us out to a snorkelling hotspot.
Soon we’re kicking away in the Komodo Sea, gliding over reefs teeming with multi-coloured tropical fish.
We’re in a remote part of eastern Indonesia; our new home, the Ombak Putih, a glorious 12-cabin wooden schooner built in the traditional pinisi-style.
For seven days, we’re island hopping with 18 passengers and 13 crew, exploring parts of the Indonesian archipelago most tourists never get to see.
And as a bonus, this particular expedition has a marvelous culinary theme. On board is famed Bali-based restaurateur, author and foodie Janet De Neefe, leading Indonesian chef Rahung Nasution, and acclaimed Australian food and travel photographer Petrina Tinslay.
The tour is run by SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, a company established 25 years ago which runs exotic boating expeditions in the region throughout the year.
Starting from the isle of Flores, we’re slowly working our way west to Bali, stopping to explore reefs, islands villages and cultures along the way.
Here’s what we did:
We’ve flown into Labuan Bajo, the ancient seaside village at the west end of Flores, where the Ombak Putih (the name means White Wave) awaits.
Before we set sail, we’re treated to a traditional dance ceremony, the Caci, in the highlands east of Labuan Bajo. We set off in vans up the winding mountain road to the village of Melo.
Inexplicably, Pete is chosen as our group ambassador to liaise with the village chieftain, Papa Joseph, an elderly fellow with betel-nut-stained teeth and a gentle, wise face, resplendent in traditional ceremonial costume. In his hut, the good Papa offers Pete a couple of cuppas of arak, the potent traditional palm wine, served in a coconut shells, plus a wad of betel nut. Then it’s time to watch other men flog the conkers out of each other with whips and shields.
On an exhilerating betel and arak high, boosted by strong Flores coffee, Pete soon flings himself into the action, leaping about in the ankle-battering, clattering bamboo rod dance and swaying to tribal rhythms like a squiffy spitting cobra with the local revellers.
Then it’s back down to Labuan Bajo for a pre-voyage lunch (the first of many on this extraordinary culinary odyssey) at Italian restaurant Mediterraneo, overlooking the picturesque harbour, dotted with craft from across the island chain.
Over a seafood feast, our tour guide, Jennifer, outlines what’s in store. It’s a chance to check out the other passengers, hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, Indonesia and Italy. At first, everyone is a litte shy. But not for long!
We head down to the jetty, climbing aboard two tenders, and zipping out to the schooner. And what a majestic craft she is! Built in Sulawesi, she has 12 comfortable cabins (some with bunks, some double beds; each with their own ensuite bathroom), three large deck areas and a central salon. We’re greeted warmly by the Indonesian captain and crew.
As we motor out of the harbour, refreshing fruit drinks in hand, we’re surrounded by small islands, some not much more than a craggy rock, others with little maritime villages. The terrain looks very similar to the coastal regions of Australia’s wild Kimberley.
“Bajo means sea gypsies – hence Labuan Bajo,” Jennifer explains.
Two hours later, once we’ve dropped anchor off the island of Kalong, we leap into the welcoming tropical waters for a late afternoon dip. Delightful! And no sharks or venomous critters to worry about. We’re back on deck in time to feast our eyes on one of the natural wonders of the area, a nightly ritual of sorts. As the evening sky turns a vivid gold and crimson, we watch thousands of flying foxes rise from the mangroves and soar overhead, aiming for nearby Rinca island to feed. It’s breathtaking.
Next, we tuck into a fine feast. Curried fish, chicken, fern shoots salad, and green tea cakes are just some of the memorable dishes. The meal has been supervised by Janet, a dynamo we’ve admired for years.
The Bali-based chef, business-woman and mum of four is the founder of the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, the Ubud Food Festival, and the Casa Luna Cooking school, among many other ventures. On this particular SeaTrek trip, her role is twofold: to oversee the meals, prepared by the ship’s talented Indonesian staff, and to teach us about the preparation of some of her favourite regional dishes.
Janet then introduces us to Rahung, a fascinating and friendly fellow sporting distinctive facial tattoos (which wouldn’t work on everybody, but they do look great on his handsome dial) and Petrina Tinslay, one of the world’s most celebrated food photographers. Fresh from Bali, where she was a guest speaker at the Ubud Food Festival, she’s here to regale us with her pics, anecdotes, and useful tips for budding snappers.
With an eventful day behind us we all head off to our cabins for our first night out on the sea.
We’re up on deck early for our buffet brekky, then it’s time to leap into the tender and chug ashore to the Komodo dragon-infested Rinca Island.
These enormous ancient lizards (related to Australia’s smaller monitor lizards) grew to their present size due to being isolated by rising sea levels on the Komodo Islands. This fascinating case of species gigantism has made them top predator on the islands on which they exist.They are found nowhere else on the planet and are protected by the Indonesian government.
Roughly 5700 dragons inhabit the Komodo islands, and about half of them are on this isle, living off wild boar, buffalo, deer, and whatever they can sink their toxic fangs into. Even the odd human has ended up on the Komodo menu.
Here are some fun facts about Komodos:
They are not afraid of you and they can run at 20 miles an hour. They have a deadly venom. They eat their children. They can smell you from more than 10 kilometres away. The males have two penises.
If no males are on hand, the females are capable of reproducing alone: it just means all her babies will be males. She’ll then kill and eat them all except for the one she will then mate with!
But Komodos aren’t the only critters to be wary of in this part of the world. Twelve kinds of snakes, including vipers, kraits and cobras, live here too. As do saltwater crocs.
As we alight at the mangrove-studded bay, Loh Buaya (Bay Of The Crocs) there’s a greeting sign, “Beware of the crocodiles.” Yet another critter to watch out for! There was one spotted swimming here just two months ago.
We’re greeted by four tour guides and our group divvied up into those wishing to take the short, medium or long route.
As we’re about to set off on the path, we’re confronted by our first Kimodo; a two metre male, lumbering towards us, its long tongue flicking in the air. This is no backyard gecko. We edge a little closer to our guide, who fearlessly waves his forked stick towards the ancient reptile. It looks underwhelmed, but nevertheless veers off to the port side, seeking less bothersome morsels.
For the next two hours we trek through semi-arid scrubby bushland, spotting deer, monkeys, beautiful small birds, a guinea fowl, and yes, dragons aplenty.
“Stand back!” warns our guide as one charges toward us.
Half way along a ridge we spot a pair of rubber thongs below a dry river bed. “The drgaons must have got this person,” quips our guide. As we continue, we eventually spot the man, bare-footed, returning to collect his footwear, seemingly unaware that a three metre Komodo is on his scent, following at a brisk pace. We’re unsure of the outcome, but the fellow looked fairly athletic – you’ve got to be in these parts.
Our scenic walk takes us up a steep hill where can glimpse the Ombak Putih and distant islands.
Back at the ranger station the dragons have gathered en masse, about 12 hanging around the tiny settlement, lured by the kitchen’s smells.
As we ready to leave, we see one last Rinca dragon peering fixedly at us from undergrowth near the jetty – perhaps planning a last minute ambush just when the tourists think they can relax?
We’re helped back on to the boat by staff, proffering frangipani-scented towels and delicious watermelon juices.
As the boat steams on towards Rinca’s neighbouring island, Komodo, we’re treated to a cooking class by Janet and Rahung.
They show us many of the herbs and spices from across the archipelago that define Indonesian cooking.
Needless to say, another hearty buffet luncheon follows.
That afternoon we move west to Pink Beach (Pantai Merah), one of the better known snorkeling beaches in the Komodo Sea.
We’re soon underwater again, marvelling at the myriad of fish. It’s not surprising this fine spot is so popular with Komodo visitors; the diving and snorkelling is splendid and the coral starts just a few metres off the beach.
When we wade to shore, upon removing our masks, we find ourselves swamped with a tsunami of vendors sporting pearls, carved komodo dragons and other joys.
It’s a jolt to the system to juxtapose from meditative snorkeller to negotiator within seconds. But we manage!
The people here are are clearly quite poor, but have a sparkle in their eye as they proudly hold up beautiful strands of local pearls available for around ten bucks. And though we can’t speak much of each other’s language, we certainly understand each other when it comes to haggling!
Back on the boat, we recline on deck as our trusty skipper propels the boat west towards Komodo Island proper. Thankfully, the boat is large enough so if you’re not feeling sociable, there’s always a corner in which to curl up with a book in peace. But we’re fast getting to know our fellow passengers, and our regular meal-times are becoming increasingly riotous as we share experiences of our journey.
After dinner, Petrina screens some of her great pics from her travels – and challenges us to a nightly photo contest, based on each day’s adventures.
We then head out to deck for a fine buffet prepared by Rahung, which includes one of his specialties, beef rendang. Then the entire crew emerge with musical instruments to warmly serenade us.
We ask a fellow passenger, Peter from Sydney, what he loves most about the trip so far. The snorkelling, the dragons, the feasts, the island-hopping? “Just boat living; it’s a fine thing,” he beams.
The second half of our wonderful Indonesian voyage from Flores to Bali is in the next issue of The Starfish.
Thanks to SeaTrek Sailing Adventures: http://seatrekbali.com
Starfish Photographs: Peter Rigby