Hang around in Bali long enough and you’ll meet some old timer who’ll tell you that the island is spoilt and crowded, but back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was paradise.
What is paradise, anyway? All the paradises have been lost – at least that’s what I thought.
I was there for only a day (admittedly a very long day) but I think I’ve found somewhere that deserves to be described as paradise. It’s the Komodo national park in Indonesia.
We’ve come to West Flores, a group of islands west of Bali, known for its marine life and diving.
Although it’s somewhat remote, the area is becoming more visitor-friendly. It’s a short hop from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo, where charter boats depart for the national park. Hotels are also springing up in the area.
There is plenty to see around the islands and it can all be packed into a day trip, although I would recommend at least one overnight stay on a boat for a more relaxed pace.
Yet despite the fact visitor numbers are ballooning, the national park still feels like a far-flung piece of paradise. It is also the only place in the world where you can see a Komodo dragon in the wild.
At 3am, the clerk at our hotel in Labuan Bajo gives us a wake-up call, and we board the boat about 4am. The boat sleeps four below and has large mattresses on the deck, which sleeps around six. The temperature at night is warm enough not to require any blankets, so we promptly find a mattress on the top deck and fall back asleep.
When we wake up a couple of hours later, the sun is rising and we are sailing through the Komodo national park.
All around us are islands with small coves surrounded by almost vertiginous, extremely green mountains. I try to recall where I have seen such landscapes before: the Aran Islands, the Lake District, the Scottish highlands, the south island of New Zealand? All dramatic, cold places that one doesn’t normally associate with Indonesia.
We don’t know whether to look left or right – there is so much natural beauty, and much of it is surreal. There are some mountainous islands that are arid and brown, but their neighbour could have outcrops of trees and be technicolour green, with a pink beach. It’s a visual feast – an Instagram orgy – and that’s before we meet the island’s resident Komodo dragons.
The waters here are warm and still, and there are riches below for those interested in snorkelling or diving. But first we must trek.
The park includes three major islands, Komodo, Rinca and Padar, and is dotted with smaller islands. About 2,000 people live in the park as permanent residents, mostly making their living from fishing.
About 30 kilometres from port, we pull into Padar Island. There is a track that will lead us to a spectacular view of the bays from a summit. Each bay is unique, each with different coloured sand of charcoal and white.
Padar itself also looks surreal, like something from a film set. The terrain is a bright green and has peaks that look like whipped cream. The only eyesore is a pile of trash including plastic drinking bottles that has built up on the side of one of the beaches. It’s early but the sun is hot and beating down. Don’t even think of attempting to climb to the summit of Padar without sunscreen, a hat and water (but take your bottle back home with you).
The climb takes between 30 and 45 minutes on a pebbly path. It is fine going up and the view is utterly breathtaking. Going down is a bit tricky though. A couple of Indonesian men offer to hold my hands at various steep bits, and I agree, after tripping on loose stones and then literally falling several metres down the mountain. Some people have photos to remind them of the island – I have grazes on my hands and the backs of my arms.
After sweating up a storm on the Padar climb, the idea of snorkelling is extremely appealing. After a short trip on the boat, we dock off a pink sand beach, called Pink Beach.
The colour of the shoreline could best be described as blush – its unusual colour a result of crushed red coral mixed with sand. There’s a path to the top of the island, and the promise of more spectacular views there, but in the midday sun, we don’t spend too much time exposed.
Pink Beach is a popular place: there’s a cruise ship nearby and about 40 people in snorkels swimming around in small clusters. The water is clear and relatively shallow, making it a good place for snorkelling beginners – and thankfully the plentiful, bright coral looks to be in good health. The fish are plentiful and species in the area include false pipefish, pygmy seahorses, ocean sunfish, blue-ringed octopus, manta rays, eagle rays, clown frogfish and sea sponges.
Take a photo of the sand as you leave – it’s most spectacular and glows at its pinkest, at the sun’s last light – but don’t be tempted to take any of it away. The shells and sand of the Komodo Park are protected.
The Komodo dragons
While the view of the islands from Padar is the best I’ve seen in Indonesia, and sailing in from port at dawn felt like being transported onto the set of Lord of the Rings, most people come to the park to see the Komodo dragons.
The largest living species of lizard, the Komodo dragons can weigh up to 70kg and stand three metres tall.
While there are about 3,000 dragons around the marine park, the best chance of seeing them is at the island especially set aside for them – Komodo.
There are five options of getting to Komodo National Park, including a five-hour walk around the island or an hour-long trek.
After disembarking, our group decides to head straight into the park.
After about 15 minutes of following guides into the park, we see our first cluster of dragons. The park staff are armed with sticks – which doesn’t seem like enough in case of a Komodo dragon attack.
A few years ago a Komodo dragon almost severed Sharon Stone’s husband Phil Bronstein’s toe when he walked into a zoo enclosure, barefoot. And a couple of weeks after our visit, a Singaporean tourist was mauled after taking a photo of what he thought were ‘lifeless’ dragons in the park. He required 43 stitches to his foot.
With their fearsome reputation in mind, I stay well back. At first sight, they do appear ‘lifeless’ – like large seals wearing crocodile skin. When they move, they crawl on their bellies and then suddenly rear up sphinx-like, sticking out their forked tongues and making a distinctive hissing sound.
There are five of the dragons in the group. They are grouped around each other, occasionally standing up, walking a few steps and hissing. The guides stand near us with massive sticks, which they will use to beat the dragons back in the event that they come near us.
Our guide Rasal tells us that he has only had to use the sticks twice, but warns us not to get too close.
The park itself is lovely, dappled and full of interesting trees and plants. The path is flat and smooth – it’s not difficult to traverse and is suitable for children. Visitors pay an entrance fee and are accompanied by a park guide.
After snorkelling, hiking and seeing the dragons, as well as enjoying a delicious lunch and cooked breakfast on the boat, we’re sleepy and sated, and it is time to return to port.
It takes about five hours to get back. It is a long slow ride but watching the sun set over the mountains is as beautiful an end to the day as the beginning.