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The quest for unique travel experiences

10 Sep 2013

photo by Sean Cousins

You’ve got a decision to make. 

You’ve started to think about your next holiday and you’ve come to a fork in the road.  Are you going to seek out real adventure in a new frontier? Are you taking 'time out' from your regular life not simply to have a break, but also to try to experience the world with fresh eyes?  Or are you planning to travel with children, and determined to resist the easy option and find a place that isn’t dominated by theme parks and a tiresome quest for bargain-priced consumer goods?  Lots of us face questions like these; but such experiences are hard to find and expensive to get to, right?  Well, maybe not...

photo by Sean Cousins

For Australians getting to Bali is relatively cheap – particularly from the West Coast.  But it’s not a destination on the radar of those looking for something a bit different.  Don’t get me wrong, much of Bali is still glorious and unique, but you aren’t going to find real adventure there. Nonetheless, adventure is not far away.  Fly east to the beautiful island of Flores (a little over an hour from Denpasar) and you’ll suddenly feel more like a traveller, less like a tourist.  You're sure to feel the difference as soon as you step foot in Labuan Bajo, a quirky little town with just enough tourist infrastructure to make the transition from spoiled Westerner to intrepid traveller a smooth one (there’s a hilltop ‘gringo’ bar with sunset views, a small supermarket and an ATM). Labuan Bajo is seeking to market itself as the gateway to the Komodo National Park (more of which later) and it must be said that the place is changing quickly. There's a handsome new airport terminal building is currently being built, that will rob the place of some of it’s rustic charm, but the town itself – clinging as it does to a narrow strip of flat land on the edge of the vast volcanic island – retains, for now, a frontier town feeling.  The main strip is a jumble of dive shops, hokey tourist traps and warungs - you’ll almost certainly see other travellers here - but once you are out on the water – or you head inland to explore the beautiful island – the feeling of splendid isolation from the trappings of tourism soon returns. 

photo by Sean Cousins 

The Komodo National Park was created in 1980, ostensibly to provide a habitat for the critically endangered Komodo Dragons, but the many deserted islands, and waters brimming with tropical fish and coral are a paradise for those looking for out of the way places to explore. The park is a relatively small 1700 sq kms but it isn’t hard to find isolation here.  In part because most people who come here come to do one of two things; join a tour to see the Komodo Dragons on Rinca and Komodo Islands, or dive the diverse waters of the park.  These waters are absolutely on the radar for dive enthusiasts, but because they are relatively difficult to get to they are anything but overcrowded.  Some argue this is the best diving in the world.  I wouldn’t know about that, but I can tell you it has amazing visibility and diversity of coral and marine life. Whether you're into encountering large schools of pelagic fish (tuna, trevally and barracuda), sharks (mostly curious little reef sharks and hammerheads), macro-marine life (like rare nudibranchs, pygmy sea horses, orangutan crabs and tiny frog fish) or, one of my favourite marine experiences, barrel-rolling Manta Rays at the well-named Manta Alley; it’s all here within a days boat ride from LB.

If you are travelling with kids you could do a lot worse than spend a week exploring the National Park by boat (more about how to get yourself a boat later).

Step ashore on deserted islands, take in the beautiful sunsets, snorkel some of the thousands of coral reefs, which are thick with tropical fish, and visiting the big lizards, with a name that seems to have been created by a marketing team, the Komodo dragons.  You’ll find a guide at the ranger’s station near the dock on Rinca.  It’s very much a ‘tourist’ experience but, like guided wildlife experiences the world over, you’ll be bombarded with fascinating factoids and get a terrific up-close encounter with the dragons.  If the kids have watched Steve Irwin’s encounter with Komodo dragons they’ll likely be terrified (look it up on YouTube; it’s hilarious in it’s hysterical overstatement of the danger involved).  But truly, tracking Komodo dragons is to scary wildlife encounters what parasailing is to extreme sports.  I mean the guides carry forked sticks for your protection. That’s not going to suffice for a Kodiak Bear or a Rhino.  That being said, someone gets bitten almost every year and there have been instances where the poisonous bites have caused death in the past. 

If you are really lucky you might see a komodo dragon stealthily stalking a water buffalo blithely wallowing in a muddy water hole, unaware that he is dinner for the world’s largest lizard.

So what’s the best way to get a boat and explore the park?  No Roads Expeditions are the only operator in the National Park who can offer the unique experience of sea kayaking between the islands and camping on beautiful beaches with a support boat to transport you on the longer legs and get you to Rinca.  And I can’t imagine a better way to explore the park.  Yep, it’s ‘glamping’ but fear not, it isn’t overly glamorous or overly expensive.  The No Roads kayaks are well maintained and ideal for the benign sea conditions.  The support boat – a converted fishing vessel in the traditional Phinisi style is well adapted to the environment with a rooftop sundeck with bean bags and hammocks.  All meals are prepared on board.  It’s a lot of fun.  Spend the morning paddling between islands.  Rejoin the boat to be greeted with lunch and cold Bintang (BYO from Labuan Bajo). The afternoon can be spent snorkelling along reefs teaming with small tropical fish, the odd shark, lots of turtles – you get the picture? I was lucky enough to see a Dugong one afternoon. The one day I didn’t take a camera! Meanwhile your tent is being set up on a deserted beach, each night a different location, always with a stunning view of crystalline waters and distant islands.  Four or five days in this routine is very easy to get used to.  But eventually you’ll be looking for something different.

For the second week you’ve got two options.   Go diving or go inland.

No Roads recommend Bajo Dive (PADI certified) who have operated here since 1991.  They are a reputable company, and competitively priced, but there are other operators in LB, so do your own research and find a company that suits you.