Named Flowers by 16th century Portuguese colonists, who were amazed by the island’s lush and fragrant forests, the island of Flores is today a traveller’s dream. Over 600 kilometres in length, situated in the heart of Indonesia’s infamous ‘ring of fire’, it is a spectacular land of tower volcanoes, verdant forest and a thousand perfect white sand beaches. Settled as it was by the Portuguese, it is also predominantly Catholic.
Staying at a gorgeous hotel, right on the beach, we spent our first day out on a little speed boat, zipping across the turquoise sea to an isolated bay where we snorkelled for a couple of hours.
I am a diver and love the sensation of disappearing beneath the waves to immerse oneself in that very different underwater world. But busy as I have been these last few years, I have not donned an aqualung for nearly a decade. But the great thing is, here there really is no need. Unlike in much of the tropics, where these days the coral is bleached and dead, here in the Java Sea it’s a mass of vibrant colour and lies only a few feet beneath the surface.
I have forgotten the names of many of the fish we saw, but I do know there were angle fish, parrot fish, trumpet fish, clown fish and a giant napoleon fish, seemingly gnawing angrily on a piece of coral. Swimming on the edge of a ledge, off which the sea fell away into a deep indigo-blue abyss, we also noticed a shoal of translucent tuna glide silently by, and for a while we followed a large turtle. It made me want to dive again.
From here we moved on to an island where we trekked to an underground cave, boasting stalagmites and stalactites and a small lake in which we swam. Following this we had an amazing lunch on a deserted beach before returning to our hotel
But the reason most travellers come to the tip of western Flores is not for snorkelling, or even diving – good as it is – it’s to visit a more famous island nearby; Komodo and the mythical dragons that live there.
From afar Komodo Island rises out of the Lintah Straights as an unspoilt land of mystery, a real-life Jurassic Park, if you will. Travelling after the rains, the whole island was a beautiful emerald green, climbing beyond the sea and narrow beaches, passed mangrove and vaulting palms to ascend into rolling mountains covered by thick forest.
Having docked and entered the national park we immediately had our first encounter. Lying in the shade next to the small ‘visitor centre’, seemingly playing dead, was a 25-year-old male.
Deep grey tiled skin, with yellow eyes and wide grin, he did eventually raise himself from his slumber, yawn and climb onto his five-clawed feet.
Having surveyed the scene for a moment or two, flicked his enormous tongue to catch a few insects, he wandered off with surprising grace past a watering hole where he stopped for a drink and then disappeared into the foliage.
In all, we were lucky enough to watch him at close quarters for around 20 minutes. Sometimes you can see them when going for a guided trek on the island or when they’re striding along the beach. Here they truly do look like dinosaurs in a land that time forgot.
The Komodo dragons are in fact giant monitor lizards and can grow to be three metres in length and weigh over 100kgs. As well as insects, they feed on deer and wild boar – both of which we saw wandering through the undergrowth – and unusually there are three times as many males to females.
No one knows why the Komodo dragons live here and nowhere else; some say they are the source of the Chinese dragon myth. It’s easy to see why.
Having had a picnic lunch on pink beach – so called as a fine layer of red coral powder covers the white sand – and more snorkelling on Komodo’s glittering coral reef, we journeyed back as the sun was setting.