“Let’s make some friends,” I whispered to Jason while floating on my 7’8″ board.
We’d caught a private local boat and were surfing off the coast of Grupyk on Lombok Bali’s shore. But the feeling was different from other surf spots we’d frequented. As people bobbed around waiting for their ideal wave to roll in, they chatted and smiled and got to know each other; this was quite a contrast to the typical, dont-steal-my-wave surfer attitude.
Soon we were bonding with four guys who had met each other in the Gili islands and who had come to Lombok to learn to surf. Blase the American, Ollie the South African, Rodrigo the Brazilian, and Nick the New Zealander became fast friends, so we invited them to join us for an après-surf at Ashtari, a beautiful “natural foods” restaurant overlooking the bay.
Over tempeh and veggie fritters we discovered we were all searching for the same thing: a trip to Flores to see the magnificent Komodo Dragon. This scaly, prehistoric-looking creature only exists in a tiny patch of the world’s quilt and is known for its carnivorous routine, including taking down monkeys, deer and even whole buffalo with just one venomous chomp.
After researching mediocre tourist boat packages and knowing it wasn’t how we wanted to spend 1,300,000 rupiah each, Nick Middleton, who became known as “Magicton,” pulled a trick from his bag: a friend with a sailboat who would wait for us off the coast of Flores. The pal would sail with us for five days and go all the way to see the dragons!
When realizing the capacity of the adventure ahead, Ollie, who we decided resembled a rock star version of Michael Bolton, declared our group name to be “Bolttin’ Hardcore” and we bolted to Sengigi harbor to start our journey. After picking up an English couple, Ben and Dani, and Ollie’s friend Caity, there were now 8 of us. Lots of bonding time ensued from bemo taxi to overnight bus to freight ship to local bus (where the boys rode on the roof) and ended with an 8 hour barge ride.
Soot-stained and stuffed to the max on processed snacks, we arrived 28 hours later on the island of Flores in the town of Labuan Bajo.
This village is just on the fringe of becoming a tourist destination, not quite developed for backpackers. Four Western style restaurants and a few bars and inns sweep all of the business, but it’s a sure bet that the community will explode in the next few years with the demand from divers, sailors and Komodo Dragon seekers. In fact, in the few days we stayed there we saw bits of transformation. The gravel road was being paved and sidewalks and stairs were being built upon the steep ledges overlooking the harbor. Although we usually limit ourselves to local cuisine, it was a treat to find a Philly cheese steak on one menu, an Italian restaurant serving wood-fired pizzas and a bakery with homemade whole grain bread instead of the white, thinly sliced styrofoam that is a staple in Indonesia. The rice and Ramen noodle dishes were getting old and we decided it was time to cheat.
After our Western palettes had been satisfied, our captain arrived. To say Ignacio, aka “Iggy,” arrived is an understatement since he seemed to appear, shoeless, out of breath, carrying a clear, snap-top box holding a mess of rupiah bills and his cell phone. Iggy spoke quickly with a staccato Italian accent, introducing himself with a grin. It was as if he were a solar panel, very tan and fully charged from years of living in the sun.
Working out the plan over bottles of Italian wine and chocolate liqueur, we decided on “The Dream of the Blue Dragon” cruise, a route which would loop us through the aqua waters of nearby islands and make a scheduled stop at Rinca to see the Komodo Dragons in action. Plenty of commotion occurred to collect food and necessities for the boat but we finally boarded around noon the following day. After a quick introduction to “Wanderer 5,” the famous 42 foot kauri wood sailboat, Captain Iggy sailed us to a small island, which we later claimed as “Bolttin’ Island.” On the way, we read books and magazines that had been published about this special vessel and its previous renown owners.
The next five days involved learning a few tips about sailing, dancing on the deck to the captain’s international music, sleeping under the stars and feasting on delicious meals, made with an Italian flare, of course.
We also learned about the unpredictability that a sailor faces at sea. When we finally arrived at Rinca to see the Komodo Dragons, we curiously stuffed five of us with bags into the inflatable dingy to drive ashore, but the engine of the tiny boat stopped and we had to paddle back to The Wanderer 5. While Iggy worked on the motor, four of us created a hilarious scene of paddling the motor-less dingy across Rinca’s dragon-infested waters. Blase and I used the thin wooden oars and Jason and Nick kicked behind the boat with flippers, supposedly acting as human propellers although Blase and I still feel they were dragging! Upon our arrival to the long dock, we parked between large tourist ships and yachts. The guys were just unbuckling their fins on the pier when the guards, following protocol, asked for our boat’s registration and paperwork! We had to point out the dingy among giggles and they nodded jovially, letting us pass without the official information.
We had journeyed for days to be here, the home of the notorious Komodo Dragon. We planned and organized and even arrived on this remote island despite the motor failure. Our local guide led us quietly around the bend and there they were, lying around. Their gigantic, clawed hands rested motionless upon the dirt and their eyes moved slowly, as if they were storing up energy for their next hunt. And that was it. We’d come all this way to watch scaly beasts mope around outside of cabins and smell (by extending their long, pointed tongues) the scent of chicken cooking inside.
When we got back to the sailboat, we reported to the captain that the Komodos were lazy. He smiled and shook his head. With gin and tonics in hand, we watched the sun slip over Rinca, telling gut-busting stories about our most embarrassing moments. In the belly of the boat, we dined on a classic puttanesca, a fresh pasta with anchovies and capers, and a large loaf of Italian bread with olive oil dipping sauce. Finally, we snuggled into our blankets on the top deck and were rocked to sleep by the wind and waves. Although we’d come to see the dragons, we realized that in many cases, unforeseen moments and the new friends are what end up being the most memorable part of traveling.
Cheers to you, Bolttin’ Hardcore, for being even cooler than those lethargic dragons. May we have many more adventures together!