The lingering smell of frangipani flowers followed me to Flores. The fragrant, peachy, almost fruity smell came from the flower neatly tucked away behind my ear, a gentle reminder of Bali. As the plane landed at Labuan Bajo, I looked outside and sighed—I’m not a ‘nature person’ (as my husband likes to say) but the thought of pink beaches, deeper-than-the-darkest-blue-you-can-imagine waters, ancient lands, and spotting probably the closest connection to mythical dragons had my heart racing, my feet twitching to get off the plane and get going.
Checking into the uber-luxurious AYANA Komodo Resort, I was greeted by views of a clear blue sky and gentle waters from the lobby, as far as the eye could see. Boasting a slightly unconventional design, where the 11 floors descend from the road to the sandy Waecicu Beach on the side of a hill, the resort began welcoming guests since September 2018. Clean, minimal and most importantly, very open, the brand’s latest offering is a treat as every room offers a spectacular view of the ocean and the imposing Kukusan Island.
Famished, I dug into a bajo leaf and fruit salad, and then devoured a whole Labuan Bajo grouper that was lightly fried with soy, chilli and sambal at Rinca, near the poolside. Satiated and sleepy, I fell into a deep slumber in my cosy deluxe suite, dreaming about dragons.
Indonesia comprises a diverse group of islands and Flores is just as unique as the next. Some say Indonesia has about 17,500 islands but I’m told the number is much higher, unofficially. Flores is rather narrow and mountainous, with too many picturesque inlets and bays. The last major island of the lesser Sunda Islands in the east Nusa Tenggara province, the name Flores is derived from the Portuguese word for ‘flowers’ and yet, I only saw bougainvilleas surviving in the area: spots of pink on white walls made for a pretty picture.
Travellers come to Labuan Bajo for many things: the adventurous go diving in one of the world’s most popular diving destinations; photographers come to capture the region’s unique offerings; but most come to see only one thing—the endemic Komodo dragon. So, early next morning, I found myself at the Naga Pier, waiting to board the Lako Cama for a full day of adventure. The captain allowed me to sit above and as the boat began to move over a few rough waves, the salt water hit my face, awakening me. The wind was strong, my hair whiplashed across my face, and yet, I had never felt happier.
A huge mass of land soon came into view. “Padar Island,” the captain pointed. It seemed like a hundred wooden steps leading to what seemed the top. “Easy,” I said to myself, climbing up the steps in open-toe sandals. What I reached wasn’t the top of the island, but the starting point of the trek to the top. After huffing and puffing for 40 minutes, coming close to slipping at the edge and giving up, crossing a happy couple on a wedding shoot at a jagged edge, I reached the top and would have cried with joy at the magnificent view below. Pristine waters, beaches with black, pink and white sands, patches of green on rocky hills, more islands in the distance—the effort with a really unfit body was worth it.
Our next stop was the pink sands of Pantai Merah on Komodo Island. One of the only seven pink beaches in the world, the colour appears so because of red corals that have mixed with the white sand. I walked on the pink, grains of sand under my feet as I looked towards the island. People aren’t allowed after a certain point; they say Komodo dragons roam free. But its best to enjoy on the pink sand and go snorkelling in the light blue waters where schools of fish give you company. A tip: don’t scoop up sand in bottles to take back because you will be stopped at the airport. I saw dozens of pink sand-filled bottles confiscated by security, two days later.
From the Pink Beach, the boat turned and went towards a tiny strip of pink sand, around which the water was clear. But look ahead and a few metres later, the colour turns pitch black, blacker than charcoal because of the sudden drop in depth from the shallow seabed. “You dive?” asked the captain as he anchored. I looked towards the darkness; there were promises of spotting manta rays. After all, we were at the famed Makassar Reef. Honestly, I chickened out. The choppy water wasn’t encouraging and instead, I jumped towards the shallow end and swam up to the pink strip, soaking in the marvel for the second time that day. As I swam back, a boat approached. Two boys pulled out little wooden souvenirs to sell. I smiled and said “no money” and they smiled back, rowing away to another boat anchored nearby. They were nomadic ocean dwellers called the Bajau. They’ve roamed the waters for centuries, living their entire lives on boats, dependent on the sea for survival. However, with climate change and over-fishing, their existence has been threatened and these ‘sea gypsies’ have begun settling in stilt communities or along the coasts. How I wish I had their magical abilities underwater. They are excellent free-divers I was told who can hold their breaths for over five minutes!
I shook my head in disbelief as my boat turned towards Rinca Island, about 40-odd minutes away. Rinca is the attraction everyone wants to visit. Part of the Komodo National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, it’s where tourists make a bee line. Reports of Komodo eggs being stolen and sold in the black market led the government to think of closing the park, at least for some time. The latest news, however, is of a plan where foreign visitors will need to pay a high annual fee and can visit as long as the membership is valid. No matter what the future holds, I was standing at the gateway to see Komodo dragons, the largest monitor lizard in the world. Discovered in 1911, the myth of these lizards revolves around a brother-sister duo. Empu Nado, a village leader, and wife Lea had twins: a human son and a lizard daughter. Over time, the children, once close, grew apart; Si Goreng grew up to be wise and Orah left the world of humans to live with wild dragons. Years passed and one day, the brother almost killed his sister unable to recognise her on a hunt. But their dead mother appeared and asked them to look after each other, and since that day, man and dragon lived together, looking after one another.
There are about 1,00,000 dragons on Rinca. With a guide by my side, I went close to one, at least as close as I was allowed. It seemed surreal. While many relaxed near the structure that was a kitchen, one or two lizards made the effort to walk from one side to the other. “They are not active in the afternoons,” he said, pointing a forked stick towards an empty nest. In June–July, the lizards mate, and after, the gestation period lasts nine months. The eggs are hidden in nests, deep underground, for protection. While the lizards may seem lazy, they are far from it. Growing up to 10 feet, they can eat 80 per cent of their body weight in one sitting, and hunt by biting and maiming its prey. They don’t usually attack humans, but fatalities have been reported in the past. I gazed in trepidation at one close by, its forked tongue hanging out. “No fear, stay behind me,” the guide stated, taking me on a tourist-friendly path.
I didn’t realise my body could hurt that much. There were aches and pains in parts I didn’t know existed. Tanned (rather sunburned), tired and happy, we finally returned to Labuan Bajo. A quick change later, I went down to the Naga Bar at the end of pier. Sipping on a butterfly G&T, I watched the sky changing colours. From blue to orange, then pink and finally a shade of red as the sun set behind Kukusan, the rays radiating like a crown. I sighed and heaved myself off the bar stool. Walking towards Kisik, the property’s seafood restaurant by the beach, I smiled in anticipation of the day’s fresh offerings. I stopped for a second on the pier, looking back towards the open sea. I sighed. I didn’t know when I could return but back I would be. That’s a promise I intend to keep.
There are connecting flights from various Indian cities to Bali. Labuan Bajo is a one-hour flight away. The AYANA Komodo Resort offers 205 well-appointed guestrooms and suites (from $239, excluding taxes). The resort offers several dining options and various activities, including boating, snorkelling and day trips. See ayana.com for more.