Visiting Flores and the adjacent Komodo National Park has been on Kristin's and my wishlist for a long time. Needless to say, we were pretty excited when we arrived in Flores a few days before Christmas. Just a few minutes off the airplane, we got our first glimpse of Labuan Bajo.
We had no trouble finding a reasonably priced hotel, or joining a group tour for Rinca Island the following day. In fact, it took a lot less time and effort than we imagined! We settled in before enjoying a leisurely afternoon stroll around the town and visiting a local church. Friendly locals greeted us everywhere as we looped around most of the town before enjoying the sunset over the harbor. With a full day ahead on the boat, we decided to have an early night.
We were up bright and early for breakfast before meeting up with our tour group at 7 AM. After a short discussion of the day's plan and fitting some snorkel gear, our group of 8 made the short walk down to the harbor. The sleepy harbor from the night before was now in full swing as boat crews prepare for various different trips from diving and snorkeling to trekking and sightseeing. Our boat was all ready to go when we arrived.
The boat chugged along slowly towards our first stop, Rinca Island. Kristin and I had opted to make the trip to Rinca in lieu of Komodo Island since we had heard Rinca had better wildlife viewing opportunities during day trips. Plus, Kristin wasn't terribly interested in the longer boat ride or hiking involved with visiting the larger Komodo Island.
Our boat crew was a group of smiling teenage boys. I didn't realize until maybe a half an hour into the trip that the older gentleman gearing up the boat when we arrived had gotten off! Fortunately, they knew what they were doing and the ride to Rinca was awesome. The ocean was sheet glass and the sky was brilliantly clear as we followed the pristine coastline, interrupted intermittently by small fishing villages. Ominous clouds loomed over Komodo Island, but blue skies still greeted us when we reached Rinca a few hours later. The park rangers greeted us at the dock and escorted us to the office for registration and issuing of park permits.
Ranger Dino joined our group as our guide. He was friendly, entertaining, and well informed about the park and its inhabitants. He gave our group a quick safety briefing, mainly focused on not getting too close to Komodo Dragons or underestimating their quickness, before giving us a choice between taking the short, medium, or long trail. Our group agreed on the medium trail and we were on our way. By this time, the sun was well into the sky and it was very hot. We passed the rangers' quarters, where a group of four dragons lazily slept in the shade under the kitchen hut.
Dino told us these were more likely than not the only Komodo Dragons we were going to see. He was happily proven wrong about 15 minutes later when we confronted a dragon coming towards us along the path. Dino told me spotting wildlife on Rinca isn't an easy task, particularly on day trips, but we did come across a group of water buffaloes and a pack of deer. The trail looped back to the ranger camp after an hour and a half, where we all rested in the shade before making our way back to the dock.
Lunch was served as soon as we boarded the boat. It was nothing special, just some basic nasi bungkus. I was distracted while touring the island and didn't notice the weather had become rather overcast. Most tourists visit Komodo National Park during dry season, but Kristin and I had opted for the middle of rainy season. The sticky heat transitioned quickly into a cool downpour as we made our way to Kanawa Island.
The small island of Kanawa is home to a resort and rumored to have good snorkeling. Water conditions were murky after the heavy rain, which made for an unimpressive dive but it was nice to be in the water. Soon enough, it was time to head back to Labuan Bajo and celebrate a great day with dinner at Mediterraneo.
Kristin and I set off early Christmas morning from Labuan Bajo. As we drove east towards Ruteng, the
Christmas spirit was certainly in the air. The small two-lane road was mostly empty, but the several churches we passed were so full that some parishioners were forced to listen from outside. As we ascended into the cool mountain air, we finally reached a small sign marking the turnoff to our destination: Cunca Wulang.
Cunca Wulang is slowly attracting more tourists. It's a nice change of pace from most visitors primary activities centered around boating, diving, and snorkeling. Locals estimate that around 100 tourists a month make the thirty kilometer journey from Labuan Bajo, which traverses several small villages before ascending into the lush green mountains. Viewpoints along the way provide breathtaking views of the Flores Sea and Komodo National Park.
Kristin and I were a bit confused when we arrived in the tiny village of Wersawe. It seemed deserted, but we found one young local who directed us down a path to the waterfall. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that this was not the right path for rainy season visits. After a very difficult 15 minutes on the muddy trail, we decided to turn around. As we emerged back in Wersawe, an elderly local seemed to be waiting at the trailhead. He told us he was in charge of the local guides and happy to help us visit Cunca Wulang. Moral of the story: make sure and find a guide when you arrive!
A younger guide soon arrived and introduced himself as Andree. The three of us set off through the small village, passing curious locals smiling, waving, and greeting us 'Selamat Natal' (Merry Christmas). It wasn't long before the homes and rice paddies were behind us and the descent into the canyon began.
As we quickly came to find out, wet season is not the best time to visit Cunca Wulang. The clay-based soils are very slippery when wet, and it had been raining pretty heavily every night for the past couple weeks according to Andree. Kristin and I quickly regretted having only our sandals for the 1-hour trek, but live and learn.
We reached the riverbank under a light drizzle. The tropical rainforest cover was beautiful, and the lower temperature was refreshing. We crossed a small tributary and reached the rock bridge. Our guide told us that the river was at capacity and the usual easy river crossing was now dissected by two meter wide rapids. We decided not to risk it, but I hadn't come all the way down to not make the celebratory rock jump near the waterfall!
I continued a little further upstream into the opening of the large pool made from the waterfall and made the quick swim to the other side against the current. The water was refreshingly cold. The jump was a bit daunting, but not because of the 5-meter free fall. There was really no telling how deep the cloudy water was below.
As I floated back down the river, the rain really started coming down. Andree suggested we wait out the rain in a small bale nearby. We waited ten minutes before deciding the rain wasn't stopping. With the help of the rain, the trail somehow got even more muddy and slippery. In fact, the trail itself turned into a small stream in itself!
The three of us were all tired and drenched in water by the time we reached the village once again. Andree took us to his family's home for some coffee. We sat on the floor in the small house, which was very full of friendly family members. We spent some time chatting with them before carrying on our way. Despite the rain and poor trekking conditions, Kristin and I were both very happy we made the journey.
We were pretty exhausted by the time we returned from Cunca Wulang, so it took some convincing for Kristin to agree on a snorkeling trip the following morning. There are a dozen or so scuba dive operators in Labuan Bajo, and most tourists interested in snorkeling just tag along with a dive group. While this can be cost-effective, it may not be the best experience since dive sites are not often good for snorkeling. Fortunately, Flores Komodo Expedition was able to offer us an awesome deal for a private snorkeling tour.
Captain Rizky met us at the harbor bright and early. We set off towards empty blue ocean, the opposite direction than all the other boats heading out that morning. He told us we would be spending only half our time inside Komodo National Park, which I found a bit disappointing until 30 minutes later when we arrived at the small, empty Pulau (island) Sabolo. Fringed by a shallow shelf of active coral reef, this island was perfect snorkeling conditions for less experienced snorkelers or those who feel uncomfortable in deeper waters. Just 40 meters off shore, the shelf disappeared and the ocean dropped off dramatically into the Flores Sea. The best of both worlds, and stunning sea life. Rizky was off to a good start.
Our next stop was an even smaller island named Pulau Anita. Higher tides put most of the island underwater, but lower tides reveal beautiful powdery white sand beaches. The views were amazing, but the snorkeling wasn't terribly special. I think Rizky stopped her primarily to harvest sea snails, which supplemented our lunch before we continued on to Pulau Seraya Besar. This island is home to a large beachfront resort, complete with a long pier for docking boats. Nevertheless, the water was empty and the resort seemed the same except for a few staff. The section of the island we snorkeled was huge, offering up diverse coral and sea life. As I explored the reef, I saw Rizky eyeing something from the boat. I swam over to find a massive clam (see photo above), which he asked me to retrieve. It must have weighed 7-8 kilograms!
Our final stop was Pulau Bidadari. Maybe It was a message from Rizky that Kristin and I had made the right choice. This island is a popular spot for diving trips as it sits a short 15-minute boat ride from Labuan Bajo. We pulled ashore next to several other boats and the water was full of swimmers. Kristin and I smiled as we waded in the crystal clear water and talked about how fortunate we were to have been snorkeling alone all day.