|Given our all-day
trial flying the short distance from Bali to Lombok,
we braced ourselves for the trip from Lombok to Flores,
involving two flights on the Wings subsidiary of Lion Air with a
plane change in Bali. Whether it was a different airline
or better luck, the first flight was a miraculous twenty
the second a mere one hour late.
We spent one night in the fairly rundown port town of Labuan Bajo, Flores, where our main activities were sleuthing down enough C batteries for our dive lights (the ones we finally found turned out to be marginal -- there's nothing like a dim light on a night dive), photographing the sunset, and enjoying an excellent fish dinner. Interestingly, Flores is primarily Christian, chalking up a third religion for our third island (with Hindu Bali and Muslim Lombok).
The next morning we set out for our week-long trip around the islands of Komodo and Rinca on the diving liveaboard Nusa Tara (photo 1). Like the Mt. Rinjani climb, it was a huge success in every respect -- the diving, boat, and crew were all first-rate. Here are some details:
Diving: Having dived in many places considered among the world's best, each additional dive trip has us concerned it can't possibly live up. We have to give it to Ksenia of Dive and Cruise Worldwide, who asked a few questions about where we'd been and what we like in a dive trip, then suggested Komodo. The diving is considered "advanced" due to strong currents, upwellings of cooler water, and variable visibility. It definitely kept us burning the calories, but we were never uncomfortable. And thanks to the currents and upwellings, the underwater life is fantastic. In addition to endless dense, colorful, truly unspoiled reefs, we saw turtles, sharks, rays, and pelagic fish in large numbers. On one magical dive we were in constant company of numerous giant manta rays -- we've done "manta dives" before but this one was a new level of continued interaction. Jennifer's snapshots (photos 2-9) give a sample of the underwater scene; Tim's photographs will be forthcoming. (In a potentially trip-ruining development for Tim, his underwater strobe inexplicably stopped flashing a few days into the diving. Every attempt at repair failed to revive it, until in a desperate move we tried banging it on a wall. Voila!)
Boat: The Nusa Tara is inexpensive for a diving liveaboard (a relative concept, as they tend to be pricey), perhaps because it's smaller than most. But the size worked to our advantage. It has just two small double cabins and one large one. By paying the single supplement for Emily and Tim, we had the entire boat to ourselves, with the kids enjoying unusual privacy for a boat trip, including their own bathrooms -- unheard of! There was a spacious salon for meals and hanging out (photo 10), a shaded upper deck perfect for relaxing and reading (photo 11), and a large, well-designed dive suiting-up area. We loved the boat.
Crew, Service, and Food: We were surprised to discover the Nusa Tara boasting a crew of seven, photo 12. (Last year in Palau we also had a dive liveaboard to ourselves, but it had a crew of two.) Each of the seven had a specific job, and they all did their jobs extremely well: Sidan the boat captain, Tony the engineer, Arnold the trip director and head dive guide, Robert the assistant dive guide, Made ("mah-day") #1 the cook, Ilham the dinghy driver (diving pickups were usually in the dinghy), and last but not least, ever-smiling Made #2 the food server, cabin cleaner, and general gofer. We could hardly lift a finger, with service rivaling a five-star hotel. (Not that we've ever stayed in one, but we can imagine.) We might have felt a bit uncomfortable being waited on to that level, but the crew were obviously enjoying the trip, their jobs, and each other (photo 13). If there was anything to complain about, their English skills were fairly minimal, with even Arnold the trip director just getting by, but we had no problems communicating what was needed. And if there was anything to single out besides the diving, it would have to be the food: Every meal included several different, elaborately-prepared, delicious dishes -- primarily Indonesian with occasional Western thrown in -- which we dug into after those calorie-burning dives.
Dragons: Yes, Komodo is home to the infamous Komodo dragons, and yes we got a close look. We took the standard ranger-led walk on Rinca Island where we saw a number of dragons lounging by the cookhouse and a few in the wild (including a lucky sighting of a baby). However, the remote beach where we anchored for a couple of nights gave us our best opportunities to observe a number of active dragons on several occasions (photo 14), and to photograph them under the watchful protection of our crew (photo 15).
We were certainly sorry when the boat trip came to an end -- we could have happily continued the daily routine quite a bit longer. One effect of being on the boat was true isolation from the rest of the world. We must have been the last to know that Stanford won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 40 years.
We dreaded our last domestic flight, once again on Merpati with its reported single airplane trying to cover all its routes. Maybe we were lucky or maybe they repaired a plane or two -- our flight back to Bali was right on time. This time we stayed overnight in the Kuta area near the airport, which epitomizes cheap Southeast Asia beach destinations: masses of motorbikes, hawkers, massage parlors, pirated DVDs, and sunburned beer-guzzling Westerners. We got ourselves in the right frame of mind, took in the scene, and had yet more excellent food. As a final hurrah, Jennifer and Tim hit the raucous Bali bar scene, mingling with throngs of drunk Australian 20-somethings in deafening nightclubs, and actually enjoying it. Sorry no photos, as unfortunately we forgot to bring a camera.
Our flight home included a six-hour layover in Singapore, so we went into the city and met up with our friend Dave Maier, who's spending a year there on sabbatical. We indulged in a final round of terrific food, enjoyed the architecture of the spanking-new Marina Bay infill development (photo 16), and visited the interesting (and pleasantly climate-controlled) Cloud Forest dome and Flower dome.