Our first stop is at Loh Buaya, a two-hour sail from Labuan Bajo. We’re here to see what everyone comes to Komodo to see, the dragons, of which there about 5,000 living on the islands of Rinca, Komodo, Nuca Kode, and Gili Motang. The world’s largest monitor lizards can weigh up to 90 kilograms and have been clocked running 18 kilometers an hour on their scaly, claw-tipped legs. Yet for all the ferocity one might expect from such prehistoric creatures, we find most of them lounging and listless on the dusty ground below the rangers’ barracks, no doubt trying to beat the heat like the rest of us. Still, they make an impressive sight.
For my money, though, the park’s main attraction is its incredibly rich marine life. I wasn’t a diver on my first visit to Komodo, but that has since changed. So, with an advanced deep-water license in hand, I take the plunge in a narrow channel off Gili Lawa Laut, a small, hilly, and arid-looking island just to the northeast of Komodo proper. It’s almost noon, and the water—warm, clear, sparkling—comes as a welcome relief from the scorching Indonesian sun. The dive site is called the “Shotgun” (a.k.a. the Cauldron), and takes its name from a current that shoots you through an underwater cove. If you’re not careful it can pop you up to the surface in an uncontrolled ascent, a phenomenon I almost experience. As I tumble around in the current, I breeze past a cloud of small trevally, any number of parrot fish, barracudas, a whitetip shark, and even a school of baby manta rays. And that’s just on one dive.
With an early-morning tragedy averted, we climb back on board to find a sumptuous breakfast of mango lassi, buttery French toast, poached eggs, and grilled tomatoes waiting for us in the Salila’s spacious dining room. Snacks and drinks appear frequently during our cruise. From Indonesian dishes to continental cuisine, all of the food can be paired with wine from the boat’s extensive cellar. Not one to drink and dive, I don’t indulge in the vino, but I do find it hard to resist the galley’s fried bananas and muffins. After squeezing myself back into a wet suit and taking a seat in one of the Salila’s Zodiac tenders, we zoom off for Banta Island some 25 kilometers to the west for our final dive of the day.
Whether it’s the sunset between Banta and Sangeang islands, the thousands of fruit bats flying silently overhead from Flores to find food at dusk, the starkly beautiful seascapes, or the coral gardens dotting the reefs below, the Komodo archipelago quickly casts a spell over everyone aboard. It’s just far enough from civilization to forget city life, yet close enough for a long weekend away from Singapore or Jakarta. Still, my five days on the Salila (whose name, in case you’re wondering, is a Sanskrit word for “water”) go by all too quickly, and well before we head back to port, I find myself guiltily wishing for more engine trouble—nothing too serious, just enough to delay our return for a few more hours.
In addition to its April–October cruising season in the waters of Komodo National Park, the Salila offers scheduled sailings among Indonesia’s Maluku islands in October and November, and visits the Raja Ampat archipelago—home to some of the richest and most diverse marine life in the world—for two months beginning in December. Charter rates begin at US$15,000 per night, full board, for a maximum of 20 passengers; cabin-based bookings are also available. Visit Salila Expeditions at salila-indonesia.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Here Be Dragons”)