A waterborne adventure among the islands of Komodo National Park turns up spectacular marine life, giant lizards, and the ne plus ultra of liveaboard luxury in Indonesia
The first time I visited eastern Indonesia’s Komodo National Park was in 2007. I was there to survey the attempts of an environmental NGO assigned to help develop and protect the 1,214 square kilometers of marine waters that are home to some of the best diving in the world, not to mention the world’s largest lizard. Visitor stations were to be built and proper toilets installed as part of an overall program to make the main islands of Rinca and Komodo—where many of the Komodo dragons live—more hospitable to tourists. Big plans were also being made to beef up patrols of the waters, where dynamite fishing was rampant despite the area’s protected status.
Since then the park has been voted, along with Korea’s Jeju Island and Halong Bay in Vietnam, one of the world’s “new seven wonders of nature,” a distinction that has little significance save for the extra publicity. The NGO, however, is long gone, reportedly because of difficulties working with the local government. And that’s too bad, because the corporations are coming, as is all too evident in the giant Komodo statue with a Telkomsel logo that now greets visitors to Loh Buaya on Rinca Island. Property prices in the area are also soaring as developers continue moving east away from the traditional tourism strongholds of Bali and Lombok.
Which is to say, you should visit as soon as you can. Plans to attract more cruise ships are afoot, and flights to Labuan Bajo, the park gateway on the neighboring island of Flores, are being added every year. Labuan Bajo, too, is changing quickly, though not necessarily for the worse: the old port town now boasts two Italian restaurants and a charming beachside Spanish place with cabanas and a big swimming pool called Atlantis, where San Sebastián native Mikel Albaran Valle presents tapas and paella that rival anything found in Jakarta or Bali, maybe even the Basque country.
I learn about this because the cruise boat I’m meant to be joining, the Salila, is having transmission problems, marooning me and six fellow passengers in Labuan Bajo for the night. Such are the vagaries of travel. But this is the only glitch in an otherwise seamless five-day expedition in Komodo National Park, aboard a vessel that, with its top-deck hot tub, iMac-equipped library, and 10 bright, spacious teak-floored cabins, is more private yacht than liveaboard dive boat. “You won’t find this level of luxury on any other Indonesian boat,” says Ron Luhur, a friend who’s accompanied me from Jakarta. Ron is a self-confessed Aman junkie with a taste for the finer things, so his is high praise indeed.
Built in Japan in 1991 as a naval training vessel, the Salila—all 707 steely tons of her— may lack the graceful profile of a phinisi, the traditional wooden schooners that dominate Indonesia’s burgeoning cruise industry. But thanks to her extensive refit and an amiable crew of 20, she’s now akin to a floating hotel, one that cuts through the water so smoothly that sometimes you can forget that you’re not on dry land. “We’re 56 meters long and double the weight of a large phinisi,” explains cruise director Emi Vizhanyo. “You might not even wake up if we get into rough seas.”