Words, words, words. There are a lot in this post, but a video half way down too.
Where did we leave off.. ah yes we were in Sipadan. So to get to Komodo National Park located off the island of Flores we had to fly back to Kota Kinabalu then to Bali and then onto the newly opened airport of Labuan Bajo. We ended up doing this over three days as when we were booking the flights, Rinjani volcano on Lombok was showering that area with ash which closed all the airports around there, so we only booked flights as far as Bali in case we needed to go by boat. Then once the volcano had settled we only had an option of a flight the following day. Three flights in 3 days was exhausting and by the end we were very sick of airports. The only upshot was we got to catch up on laundry in KK.
When we arrived into Bali we had booked a nearby hotel but the taxi touts were a nightmare and would not let us leave even saying we had to get a taxi out of the airport as there was no way to walk (a blatant lie that we ignored). So annoying! While we were here we did catch sight of the departures queue, it was out the door and almost filled the shopping area outside departures. As it was close to Christmas we figured they had upped their security procedures but no that day they had a bomb threat, or rather an idiot did something stupid by bringing a dog toy shaped like a bomb onto a plane. *facepalm*
So a quick sleep in Bali and back to the airport, luckily the queue was back to normal and shortly after we were on our Wings Air flight to Labuan Bajo, gateway to the Komodo National Park. The flight there was pretty cool and we got our first glimpse of this end of Indonesia (Lombok and Sumbawa), from the air you can really see the volcanic nature of the islands especially Sumbawa- it looked like someone had bunched up a mix of brown and green silk, like when you are buying a few metres off a roll of fabric (for those not into such things, it looked pretty cool).
Labuan Bajo airport was brand new, so new that there was a guy in the gents toilets bolting the sinks to the wall (they had their priorities right though they finished the ladies first). Previously the only ways of getting to Labuan Bajo were by boat/ferry from Lombok or Sumbawa (West Nusa Tenggara) or fly into Ende or Maumere and travel across the island.
We arrived into a rain shower, grabbed our bags and decided to walk the “short” walk into town, trying to avoid the touts as much as possible. As we walked off a guy got chatting to Gav about a possible boat trip, next thing an Aussie pulled up in a pickup offering us a lift- yes! He was with the other chap and they had a tour going out the following day, but it was snorkeling, when we said we were here for the diving they gave us a flyer for a place called Manta Rhei and dropped us in the centre of the town.
After how clean Malaysia was (with the exception of Semporna) the dirt streets strewn with rubbish took a few seconds to re-adjust to and we went looking for a place to stay. Option one was the Gardenia, they didn’t have any of their cheap rooms left so we moved on up the street (some awful rooms here) and were stopped by a guy called Kornelius who pulled up on his moped- we had seen him on Trip Advisor and had got good reviews, he paid for a Bemo (bus taxi), we ended up staying there. It was ok a collection of rooms he built at the bottom of his garden, huge room but like most budget accommodation it had a cold shower (it is so hot there that the cold is actually is quite nice). The was also no wifi (a rarity in Flores still). The room did have a tin roof so it was like a sauna during the day plus we had a few roaches stroll in under the gap in the door-Gav dealt with those, they are about the only insect I can’t deal with at this stage!
So our plan for Flores was to go diving and get the boat back to Lombok-which called in at the islands so you could see the Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat. I thought we could also go across land by moped too but Gav wasn’t keen. Labuan Bajo was hot and dry but Flores was actually in rainy season and it was quite mountainous, and with yet more sketchy or non-existent internet our ability to get information was limited. So we decided to think about it and talk to other travelers to see what others were doing. We also had the option of a tour or by bus/shared car.
There was a couple staying next door to us when we arrived-Katarine and Dherry (I think?), Belgian and a conservation guide in North Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). We got chatting and they also recommended Manta Rhei and also told us about the trip they did cross country to Kelimutu (a famous three coloured lake volcano near Ende) by bike but of course he spoke Bahasa (most people in Flores do not speak any English) so they would have a different experience to non native speakers. I spent most of the time talking to Dherry and he warned us that the local mosque was loud, very loud. Most of Flores is Catholic but Labuan Bajo was mostly settled by Muslims from Sulawesi. We heard it a few times through the day and it didn’t seem to bad, until the following morning when we were woken by it at 4 am. We did not sleep very well there.
So job one was to recover as we were quite tired from all the flights but between the heat and being woken in the middle of the night that did not go quite to plan. Job two was to update the blog but you already know that didn’t happen here from my post-Could the connectivity get any worse. So after two days of lounging about, getting the lay of the land, grazing on fruit and hunting the best places to get wifi and eat we got off our arses and headed down to Manta Rhei.
We opted for 9 dives over 3 days- I wasn’t sure if my ears could cope with this but they are really great shop and super flexible so we ended up doing one day and since they don’t dive on Sunday we got a day off and then two days to finish us up.
The price was reasonable at 3,600,000 Rp ($265/£183) (but each day had an additional 175000 Rp ($12/£8.87) national park fee, the price went up this year from a 3 day pass for about 50,000 Rp ($3.67/£2.50))- they are taking the piss a bit now with 10 fold increase overnight. Yes I know that it is still not very expensive given what we are paying for diving but even still our poor budget was being destroyed! In addition they also gave us free accommodation as we were diving for more than 2 days but it was not available until the morning after our first diving day.
So the following morning we arrived at shop at 7 am, once everyone was there it was a quick walk to the boat, where we were escorted by Puffer, the shop dog. Lovely big boat consisting of a lounge area downstairs with free tea/coffee and an upper deck covered with mattresses and giant beanbags- very luxurious in comparison to our previous dive boats. We had a breakfast of bananas and doughnuts, set up our gear, and relaxed on the upper deck with a coffee for the two hour sail out to the National Park, where we watched a pod of dolphins swim past and then fish leaping out of the water. Awesome!
Our divemaster was a local guy named Willy, he was quite the character, with bleach tipped dreds, full of jokes and he ended up being our divemaster for all three days. The first dive site was Mawan a nice partial drift dive, quite relaxing saw a giant Manta Ray, it was like the size of a car! Huge! Also saw some other cool stuff but it was all about the Manta Ray on that dive. As the water was cooler here we were in full wetsuits with booties rather than the shorties this took a bit to get used to, plus even with extra weight by the end I really struggled to stay down. By the end here I was on 5kg of weight compared with 3 kg with shorties. Gav only needed one more weight in comparison.
The next dive was one of the top dive sites in the park, Batu Bolong, known for having strong currents.
Gorgeous amount of fish but really strong current under the water, in fact there was flailing involved at one point and I got caught in a pincer move between Gav and a Belgian guy and nearly lost my mask, plus it was exhausting. The crew weren’t expecting such strong currents but it was just after the new moon which does influence them greatly. It was a good learning experience but I hope I don’t encounter that again, it was very difficult to avoid the coral at points. We saw some massive turtles, sharks, and a huge tuna and Napoleon Wrasses. Some lovely stuff but the shortest dive we have had in quite a while (<40 mins). Poor Gav ran out of air and ended up using my spare regulator to do the safety stop at the end.
The final dive (after an unbelievably delicious lunch) was at Waenilu a macro or muck dive. This was our first one of these and it was so much fun. You basically look for cool tiny things in soft coral and sand, very relaxing too as you don’t move so much. Even though you don’t see the big impressive stuff like sharks and turtles I really enjoyed this one, there is so much to see if you just take the time to look for it so it was a nice contrast to the other dives, especially after Batu Bolong.
After the last dive it was time for cake and fruit then back to the harbour, with dinner at the restaurant near the guesthouse and called home (the length of time between calls was getting ridiculous due to the poor internet since West Malaysia so it was overdue).
The following day we moved to the homestay and met some of our new housemates-Jeff and Dani who invited us out for dinner. I met them and some other folks from the dive shop for a drink (the coconut was all I could afford on the menu), Gav fancied just chilling out for the evening at home. It was here I heard something rather disturbing about the shop dog Puffer, he had shown up at the shop when they first opened and they look after him and he sleeps outside the shop at night. To dog lovers he is an absolutely gorgeous dog, really friendly with a cheeky chappy personality, however he is, to use the words of one of the Divemaster students “a complete asshole” to those that don’t like him. In fact a number of months ago in retaliation for something, he was attacked one night outside the shop, pinned down and had most of his penis cut off. The following morning the guys in the shop discovered what happened. It has to be one of the most horrific, torturous not to mention mutilating act I have ever heard happen. Truly shocking. He stopped sleeping at the shop after that and instead going home with the Divemaster student.
The next day out on the boat again, the dive sites for the day were Crystal Rock, Golden Passage and Tatuwa. I was quite worried about Crystal Rock, Luc (who we met at Sipadan) was unable to descend fast enough so I worried I would be the same. The nature of the site is that it contains two sea mounts set in a strong current, you descend just before the first sea mount and then should land in the middle between the two. All the interesting stuff is before the second sea mount but if you can’t get down in time, you basically miss the dive site. Often you have to do it by negative entry (so you jump in and descend immediately rather than have a few moments at the surface to adjust your gear). Bennie, the owner of the dive shop, had assured me that they would assess the site when we arrived and if it looked ok then I could try it. In the end it was fine and although the current was strongish we managed a decent dive- saw some sharks and an eagle ray and a shark sucker fish amongst the oodles of fish down there.
The second site of Golden Passage was awesome, a super relaxing drift dive where we saw loads of fish but nothing out of the ordinary but one of my favourite dives in Komodo. The finals site of Tatuwa was another drift dive and on this one we saw a mantis shrimp for the first time- their awesomeness has been summed up by The Oatmeal.
That evening after a quick shower we headed back to the shop for drinks with all the folks we dived with, We arrived down to find everyone out in the street outside the shop. We assumed that there was something on but no, there had been an altercation between Puffer and a local drunk who tried to attack him, no bites or anything but he did stand his ground or so I heard. After that for his own protection he was kept on a long lead in the shop and the shop owners took over taking him home. As it was the guys last day there, they were all out for the night- we were wrecked and still diving the following morning so we got dinner with them and then said our goodbyes before hitting the hay to prepare for day three.
Our last day diving in the park we went to Sebayur Kecil, Pengah Kecil and Manta Point. The first site of each day Gav has had off from filming and this particular dive was one we really wished we had brought it as we saw loads of cool stuff- my first cuttlefish (so cool- see this video from YouTube), a Leopard Flouder, parasitic isopods (Gav spotted these which only we saw so we had to ID using the on board reference books), some tiny yellow box fish (size of oxo cubes, adorable) an we had a rather impressive dance from a Helmut Gunard. I also saw a medium sized lobster but by the time Gav got to us he had retreated back into his hole in the rocks.
Dive 2 at Pengah Kecil, was a funny one with a weird current down a sea wall and then over a coral bed. Our divemaster Willy really wanted to show us a pgymy seahorse and eventually he found one which Gav saw but I was having issues dropping down fast to see it (blasted ears) so by the time I did they were all heading back up. I did however spot our second mantis shrimp which Gav got a cool video of and also a banded sea snake. Literally as we got out of the water after this dive the National Park rangers showed up, guns and video the whole shebang to make sure we were all registered and paid up…not the most pleasant of experiences but we all cleared out of the way and let the crew handle it.
I think the guys at Manta Rhei saved the best till last though. Our final dive site was Manta Point. It was wall to wall Manta Rays, no joke! The current was insane and when you saw them you had to drop and try grab onto something. Best roller coaster ever!
We had such a great time with them, amazing food, great crew, all we had to do was dive and enjoy ourselves. Perfect!
Other than the horrible stuff we heard about the dog, we had such a great time diving with the Manta Rhei team that we decided Indonesia (or rather Flores) was actually pretty great and we had decided to hire a car to see a bit more of Flores as from talking to folk it seemed the less stressful option due to the road conditions and rainfall. Unfortunately though you can’t hire a car in Flores, only one with a driver. Now when you walk down the street in Labuan Bajo, you get approached by loads of local guys wanting to take you anywhere in a taxi or preferably a longer trip. Gav had come across a recommendation of a guy based Maumere (right across the other side of the island) Teddy Aimbal, he was very highly rated so we figured this would be a good option. After diving we had allowed a day to recover and then we had arranged for him to collect us. We also moved to the Gardenia Hotel (the one we had tried first) into their cheapest rooms. Only drawback was that the taxi guys congregated at the bottom of the steps down from it so we were hounded by touts every time we stepped outside. We only planned to be there two nights so not so bad.
So Gav had organised the itinerary with him and we were due to be picked up the following morning after our day off. Then it all went weird. Gav got a call from him asking to meet up to discuss the plan. Seemed a bit odd as it had already been agreed and shortly afterwards he met us under the parasolled tables in the reception of the hotel. But he was not alone. He had another guy with him, Jimmy, a guy with a massive afro and headphones that probably would require surgical removal. He was to be our driver and did not want to sit with us. We were both a bit unnearved by this so I tried to draw the guy into conversation without much success. So Teddy was here to collect money for fuel, as the petrol stations often have massive queues (this actually turned out to be true). And often you do pay a deposit of half but this is usually on the day you leave, hmm. Ok so we agreed to pay for petrol and as we didn’t have the cash on us, we had to go to the ATM, they offered to drive us. I was still riding on trust here but when we got into the car, Gav noticed that the petrol tank was full, warning bells were ringing. I couldn’t see this from where I was sitting. We arrived at the bank and we went to the machine and Gav (keeping quiet at this stage) pretended to use his card and press cancel each time. He told me his card wasn’t working (as I am crap at lying he didn’t want me to look spooked), we got back in the car and told him we would need to ring the bank. Of course our Indonesia phone was also out of credit. He was annoyed but tried to hide it when we told him what had happened and agreed we could pay tomorrow.
When we got back to the hotel, Gav revealed what had happened. Yep we were both very spooked and both not getting good vibes from Jimmy so we decided we would need to get out of this.
In an added twist, that morning Gav had gone to collect the laundry (next to where we had been staying at the Manta Rhei) homestay, it was quite far away so he got a taxi. The driver was Ricardo, Gav bargained him down for the trip up (he later tried his luck and asked for it anyway), the washing was not finished so Gav did end up giving him a bit extra for waiting. While they were waiting Gav mentioned what we planned to do and he instantly offered to do it for less and gave Gav his number. He was highly amused by this when he got back. However later that day, after the meeting with Teddy we met up with him, the price dropped again as the first tour apparently came with food and drink (we are not sure if this would have been honoured or not). So we decided to go with him and cancel Teddy. We could sneak out by the back exit of out hotel at the top of the hill.
Then it turned nasty. We called Teddy and had to lie and say we had changed our mind and were going to get the boat to Lombok to meet friends in Bali for Christmas. Yes a bit crappy but honestly we were so uneasy and didn’t want to go with Jimmy (who we didn’t even know spoke English so he was literally a driver only). He started having a go at us and threatening us, told us if we went with anyone else the following day we would regret it.
At this time we were at the ATM getting cash to pay Ricardo for the tour and we hot footed it back to the hotel. We were now effectively trapped. The taxi drivers all knew each other so our movements were most likely being monitored. We decided to head for Lombok, by any means necessary I wanted to go out and get credit (to call Ricardo and let him know it was off) as I could easily change my appearance but Gav didn’t want to risk it. Yeah we were bricking it.
Long story short, we couldn’t find a cheap way out to Lombok (other than the bus and boat option, which would be insanely long) so we decided to wait for the 4 day cruise and at least we would get to see the dragons. The following day however Ricardo found us and we told him what the story was, he said we could still go only (as it was so close to Christmas) we maybe should fly from Ende and not come back to Labuan Bajo (the last day of the tour was basically just driving). He assured us we were not going to get attacked or anything and that Mr Teddy was leaving the following day (he had another group doing a cruise). As previously arranged we would sneak out the back exit to avoid prying eyes….
For comparison Teddy was charging 4,800,000 RP ($355/£245) but this included drinks and food apparently
With Ricardo it was 4,000,000 ($296/£204) no drinks or snacks (they would not add up to £40 though) his number is +62 813 391 65 300