Eastern Indonesia – sailing to the Komodo Islands and beyond
Ampersand's South East Asia specialist, Mark Wright, has recently returned from a two and a half week research trip to Indonesia. Here he recommends his favourite sail boats for visiting the Komodo Islands and the untouched eastern islands beyond...
Komodo Island and Silolona sail boat
One of my favourite moments from my trip was spotting the Komodo dragon. Upon arriving at Komodo Island, within no time you can see Komodo dragons lounging in the sun. There were only four of us there at the time and we managed to spot a Komodo dragon going in for a kill of a little injured deer. When you see nature in action like that it is not something you can intrude on; you can only spectate and be in awe of it. Before coming, I had an image in my head that the dragons would be caged or that it would be a bit like a circus but apart from the ranger’s headquarters it is completely natural. There are actually four islands which the dragon inhabit, two of which you can visit – Komodo Island and Rinca Island. I was extremely impressed with how everything ran on both islands.
* Top tip: Make sure you go there at the right time! It’s a very small island with a small jetty and occasionally giant cruise ships arrive, along with about 800 people who literally flood the island. We know when these ships cruise here and can advise when to go to avoid them. If they are not there, it’s going to be a maximum of maybe 30 or 40 people on the island with people walking with different guides in different areas, so you don’t bump into each other.
There are three ways to see the Komodo dragons...
1. Day boat trips: I stayed at Labuan Bajo, a town on the island of Flores, and took the day boat trip to Komodo Island. It was a really relaxing two hour boat journey but the downside is the hotels on Labuan Bajo are not of a very high quality. It is a nice enough town with good food, but it is more of a backpackers spot and the hotels are 4 star at best. The beaches are not lounging beaches; you are literally there as a launch pad to get to the Komodo dragon.
2. Small liveaboard boats: Sleep on a small vessel for 1 or 2 nights – something like the Ikan Terbang, which is one of the boats I inspected. It has a cosy sailor’s feel, with everyone sleeping down below deck in a space without wall partitions. It is ideal for families – a couple with two young kids, or just for a couple who could hire the whole boat out. This is affordable and you’d have the entire ship as well as the privacy of the downstairs quarters all to yourselves. Enjoy fresh seafood barbecue dinners and giant buffet lunches, and whilst you’re cruising to and from the Komodo Island you can relax on the top of the boat. Instead of returning to a below par hotel you can sleep out on the deck under the stars in the middle of the ocean. You can go scuba diving but these smaller boats are ideal for snorkelling. There are untouched islands and islets scattered everywhere and you can ask the captain to find a little secluded beach with a hidden cove to have a romantic picnic on the beach. Simply pick an island that’s uninhabited – small enough to probably walk around in 3 hours – and camp there for the day and go snorkelling off the shore. The ideal Robinson Crusoe experience!
3. Bigger luxury vessels: The more luxurious option is to sail on one of the bigger ships like Tiger Blue, Silolona, Si Datu Bua (Silolona’s slightly smaller sister ship), or the Alila Purnama, which has just recently launched. There are other options but those four are the vessels we would recommend. These boats are more expensive but you really do get what you’re paying for. They are ideal for a big group of friends, whether it’s 4 couples or two big families, and everything is included. For divers it’s a dream: if you want to do six dives in a day it doesn’t cost any more than doing two dives – some people might do five dives in a day and two night dives. These vessels do not just sail around the Komodo Islands but also further east to Raja Ampat and further north to Sulawesi. The great thing about these boats is you get to explore places that you just simply cannot do via land, experiencing unique cultures – even gaining special access to visit remote tribes in Papua New Guinea – whilst enjoying the height of luxury.
A cabin on Silolona
My personal favourite would have to be Silolona. It is everything that these old Indonesian phinisi boats should be – the perfect balance between luxury and traditional aspects to the crafting, furnishings and service. Though I didn’t actually see the Alila Purnama in person, from what I hear it is also an extremely high level of luxury, while Tiger Blue is more aimed at the rustic-luxe family traveller; both are great for their target audience but for me the Silolona encompasses everything. When I visited for lunch I was only on board for an hour and they hadn’t had a guest for three days, but they put on a whole show for me: all 17 members of staff were hanging like pirates off the rigging waving at me from afar and once on board they put on a ceremony chanting to the goddess of Silolona. Already in the short time I was there I felt like I was part of their family. It is extremely expensive, but if you can afford it, a journey on Silolona would be truly amazing.