Month: July 2014

Dragonquest

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It took only five minutes for this guy to show up after we’d arrived on his island. Amazingly that turned out to be the least dangerous part of our trip.

Some quick geography: Komodo National Park – as you may have guessed from its leading title – is where you will find Komodo dragons. They live on a few islands within the designated area of the park (the green):

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Currently there is no place for tourists to stay on any of them, which is why many people fly into Labuan Bajo on Flores island- a growing hub where tourists can sleep and eat (Red “A” above). Here’s a shot of the harbour from the place we stayed:

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Interestingly, Komodo dragons can also be found in a few pockets on Flores, however, for whatever reason (small numbers maybe?) they are not for tourists’ cameras.

As a launching point into Komodo National Park, many of the tour operators in Labuan Bajo opt to go to Rinca island to view the dragons. Mainly this is because it’s closer than Komodo island – about 1.5hrs versus 2hrs+ and apparently also better for sightings.

But to see them, you have to get there. And this is how we were going to do it:

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From that angle, it looks like a quaint little fishing boat that may stir romantic visions of the little engine that could. However, from the angle of sitting on its deck, I can vouch it very nearly couldn’t.

It was a sold out tour. Great news for the operator, however, for us, the tourists, it became a perilous seesaw of concern, which began with our chairs. There were 11 of us, and 8 chairs. Three people hopped on top of the engine hold to lie down, while the rest of us took our place on deck.

Now you might imagine how lucky we were to have a seat. And, you would be right, had they not been tiny lawn chairs made of such low grade plastic they could only bear the bum and weight of a small garden gnome. The other possibility is that the engineers had intended them to be objet d’arts, not meant for people to sit on.

When I did, the four legs splayed out like a baby deer slipping on ice. As the chair buckled, I had to adjust my weight on it to get the legs up again to a normal point. At first I thought I was the problem, then hearing another guy on board declare: “Aaaahhh!”, and seeing him do the same thing, I was convinced if I lifted the chair I’d find the name: “MATTELL” stamped on it.

I wanted to look under the seat to see where they were made, but that was the other problem: everyone’s knees were touching everyone else’s and a slight adjustment in weight might crunch the legs down again.

I summed it up as a mislaid shipment of Barbie chairs, and hoped for better things to come.

But they didn’t – at least for the duration of our boat trip there. Another quirk of the ship was that it rocked back and forth without any help from a wave. Rose and I were sitting next to each other, and as the boat tilted backwards, our chairs slid until they hit the wood frame of the boat with a sound: SHHHTTT (which, coincidentally, sounded a lot like the word we were repeating in our mind).

Now the same thing the other way: we go forward and have to hang on to the side so that we don’t slide into the two people facing us.

As we picked up speed, the rhythm did as well going back and forth: SHHHHTT. SHHTTT.

I looked over at a pair of other tourists across from us and noticed, after every bump, one guy would put his hat over his face in a mix of fear and anger, while his friend joked with me:

“After this, the dragons will be pussycats”.

I felt a little more resigned, partly because the other problem was that there were no life vests for anyone. If we went over, we had to swim for it, and I was genuinely prepared, just hoping we’d fall out near enough an island that we didn’t have to swim too much.

I asked Rose: “If this goes down, do you think they’ll count us as dragon fatalities”.

And so it went. We bobbed and weaved our way along – thankfully without a wave in sight, and approached the dragon’s lair:

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After arriving at the visitor center within five minutes, we spotted one that snuck out from under the building next door (same one as very top pic).

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Our guide motioned us to step back, which I was happy to do – because I’d filled my head with Komodo dragon facts before visiting and knew they were incredibly fast plus their saliva was an issue. The popular finding was that their saliva was septic, which meant if they bit you it wouldn’t heal easily. However, this was being debated by some scientists who now think the saliva may be venomous.

Either way it’s bad. And, they are willing to give it a try – a group of divers who got lost in a current here in 2008, washed up on Rinca island, and for three days, fought off dragons as they approached until they were found by a rescue team.

Plus, there was another story of a tourist who wandered off by himself, and that was that. Whether this is meant to scare tourists to stay close to their tour guide, who knows – but it wasn’t something I was going to test.

However, for our stroll, they had plenty of their main food sources on hand that are also island residents like deer:

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And monkeys, Water buffalo:

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Plus each other:

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We were told this guy is getting old, and weaker, and will invariably end up in another dragon’s stomach. The same goes for their own kin. We spotted this one at the beginning of our trek:

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And, it was explained that dragons have no maternal instincts. Once they give birth, the baby is on their own to fend for itself, and if it’s not fending well enough – it’s open game for Mum to snack away.

It was hyper-Darwinism. Ayn Rand would have loved it here.

Me, not as much. The more we walked, the more it sunk in why there aren’t any tourist spots here – the place is blighted. Not merely from a smaller version of a Tyrannosaurus Rex scampering around or three highly venomous snakes, including a spitting cobra, waiting to emerge at night to hunt, but even the palm trees aren’t inviting spots to sit below and daydream:

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And, amazingly, even these hardy, daggered palms are no match for another tree, which we spotted a few times along our trek that had wrapped itself around a palm as a parasite, slowly killing it.

Now factor in the heat, sand under your feet with these towering trees overlooking your path:

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And, I preferred my chances on our rocking boat.

Interestingly, Komodo Island, was used as the basis for Skull island in the film King Kong. While we were on Rinca nearby, its topography and wildlife I think is fairly similar.

As the story goes, a wealthy New York adventurer in 1920s was commissioned by the Bronx Zoo to retrieve live samples of Komodo dragons. He went by ship, detailing his journey and the strange wildlife he saw – brought back two live dragons for the zoo (which unfortunately, but not surprisingly died shortly after), and wrote a script which he later tried to sell.

He was friends with the director of King Kong who used his story as the basis for King Kong. The director added “King”, which the New Yorker had used in his story by referring to the dragons as: “King Komodos”. Plus for the story itself of someone going to a remote island to retrieve a whispered about species, the director swapped out Komodo dragons for a mongo ape including using ” Ko” from “Komodo” to use as “Kong”. Anyhow, a little tidbit that added an undertone of strangeness to our walk.

We didn’t spot any more dragons on our walk – which seemed preordained as our guide instructed us point blank: “Take all your photos here. We might not see any dragons later on.”, as we found this guy lolling about, in front of the kitchen only a few minutes after spotting the other one at the visitor center.

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In any case, it was our first introduction to Komodo (we dived the following the day). Interestingly, in retrospect, its tough, unforgiving nature on land turned out to be foreshadowing for what we would also find below the water (see last post).

Next stop, our next Indonesian island – Lombok, directly East of Bali. With no flights from Labuan Bajo we had only one option: Ferry + Bus + Bus + Ferry + Bus + Taxi = What time is it?

Talk soon

 

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KO’d by Komodo

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About 25 minutes into our dive, it occurred to me that I might die.

Rose and I were in the strongest current we’ve ever dived. We had been swimming upstream for what felt like 10 minutes, and we’d only moved forward about two feet.

My muscles were burning, I was sucking air as if I was running uphill on a treadmill, and noticed I only had 50 PSI left in my tank. This is the magic number at which divemasters assemble their divers to begin a safety stop (waiting three minutes at five meters to decompress), before ascending to the surface.

We were only three quarters through our dive, and at the rate I was sucking air, I was worried I’d be through it in the next five minutes.

I glanced over to Rose and she didn’t seem to be doing much better. She was struggling to move ahead, and now put her hand out to our divemaster for help.

We were swimming towards a reef, and had the open ocean behind us. If we couldn’t hold our position, we’d be whisked backwards, out of reach of the reef, into the blue where we’d be by ourselves, far off from our boat pickup spot.

With that idea turning over in my head, matched with the knowledge that other divers had been lost in the currents around Komodo National Park, and seeing Rose in trouble, I first got angry: “What the hell were we doing here? Goddamit this is ridiculous. Why did we ever get into this when we’d read these currents were strong? “.

I saw the divemaster take Rose by the hand and drag her to a rock on the sea floor, which she mimed her to hang on to.

“Shit. I don’t think I have enough strength to swim over to that rock”, I thought, recognizing it was about twenty feet away, and, for the past minute, I hadn’t made any forward progress against the unseen hurricane-like current flowing headlong over me.

My anger turned to panic. My breath quickened. I was sucking in air at twice my normal rate, which meant the time left on my air tank (that I earlier posited at around 5 minutes) would now be cut even further.

Of course, realizing this underwater only added to my fear, making the situation worse, which then gave me something more to panic about. It was a productive time. If it were an equation, it would look a little like this:

I’m running out of strength + running out of air + Rose is in trouble + how am I going to get to that rock? = PANIC

My legs now were getting weak and my jaw, which had, until now forced my teeth around my regulator with crazy glue like strength, also started to go slack.

I now started swallowing water.

At this point, something new occurred to me. Here it is in equation form:

I’m running out of strength + running out of air + Rose is in trouble + how am I going to get to that rock + swallowing water = DEATH

Our divemaster, who had secured Rose onto a rock, looked back at me and I mimed the underwater signal, which I’m sure no divemaster wants to see – two hands around my throat to say I was out of air.

This wasn’t true, of course. I still had air, but I couldn’t summon the strength to get to it. Instead I was sucking in water – plus my mask had started to leak. Regardless, it was a game of semantics, and I got my panic across.

In the few seconds it took her to swim over, I had to fight every impulse in me that said to “Get out of the water. Surface!” and ditch the dive completely. I could do this – but it was a gamble. If I didn’t give myself a chance to decompress, and flew to the surface, I was worried I’d get “the bends” and be trading in one bad situation for another.

Although choking underwater didn’t feel like a great alternative, I stayed put long enough until our divemaster swam over, gave me her secondary regulator to breathe from and pulled me over to the rock Rose was hanging onto for our safety stop.

While her regulator helped, it was only a half-measure because I still had trouble finding the strength to bite down hard enough to keep water from getting past the regulator and then swallowing it.

I had a moment on the rock with our divemaster, doing my best underwater mimickry to explain my breaths were half-air, half-gulps of water. She encouraged me to calm down – solid advice, I thought – and I did my best to slow down my breathing. It worked for a while, as we hung on to the rock – but I was still swallowing water and it was a horrible feeling that I wanted to get away from.

Realizing the constraints we were under – i.e. going to the surface without a proper safety stop could be a problem – I looked at her through my mask and gave her the sign to surface, which she replied to at first with a sign of patience. Again, solid advice – but I was panicked, and kept signalling the surface sign. “Can we go up NOW?”, like a kid in the backseat of his parents car, asking: “Are we close NOW?”, “How about NOW?”.

After my constant nagging, we eventually surfaced, and I promptly broke the waves, burped and returned the sea I’d swallowed.

I was alive.

After a brief celebration, it turned out to be a small comfort. I had a chat with our divemaster, and I agreed that it was the right decision: we were going to dive again in an hour.

In truth it was the last thing I wanted to do, I would rather have stayed above the water, on board sipping hot tea with a towel around myself, soaking in some sun ala:

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But, I knew, like the proverbial saying: “Get right back on a horse” – it made sense.

And, it made the difference. I was glad we got back in – because our remaining dives there were really amazing. The underwater life is so incredibly rich, it’s incredible to see.

We had nine dives in total. On our last one, we went to a spot which the majority of divemasters on board claim as their favourite – we saw an unbelievable amount of creatures, all in one place: Sea turtles and rays the size of living room carpets, white and black tip reef sharks, giant trevally bigger than the biggest size flatscreen tv, massive groupers, schools of tuna + mackerel, and barracuda. Sorry, no underwater camera, but this is the prime spot from above:

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It was like the ocean had assembled a dream team for us to see. I know for divers, what’s considered “the best’ is subjective – but for both of us, it did the trick.

Of everything we saw, the strangest and most interesting was a moray eel. Old hat on most reefs where they’re ubiquitous. But this eel was out of its cave, on a hunt for food and was 10 feet long, 3 feet wide, giving it the appearance of what early sailors must have thought were sea serpents. It was flapping its body in the current like a flag, and as we passed it by, I looked behind for a last look and it bolted off in a flash, moving quickly and slithering its way back behind another reef for cover, where I could see it’s full length. It was creepy and amazing, looking a bit like a dragon in a fantasy film.

Of course, Komodo is popular for another kind of dragon, which I’ll get to in a coming post. As for our diving, my panicked, water gulping, life flashing before my eyes, what the hell are we doing here dive wouldn’t be in vain. We passed our Advanced Open Water certificate – which essentially means, we’re “qualified” to dive in harder conditions

Given our struggle, I felt we’d earned it, and while it maybe wasn’t inspiring us to rush off to the next autobahn current – it felt reassuring that we did it in Komodo, where we learned first hand and from plenty of of other more experienced divers, that the currents are some of the toughest in the world. I think we were equal parts relieved as we were happy:

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Until next time, on dry land, where we met Komodo’s namesake face to face, staring it in the eye as it fiercely, ferociously…napped.

Talk soon

 

Manta & Sun rays

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My right hand has started to go numb. My right elbow is throbbing, and Rose has just said: “It’s a right. Turn right up ahead!”.

At this moment, the only thing going right is the weather. We’re in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the East coast of Bali that like much of the mainland, is blessed with great views.

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However, once you’ve tired of the blue sky and surf, and turn your gaze to the road, you realize it’s also blessed with a lot of potholes. Not a few. Not a smattering. Hives. Colonies. There’s more holes than there is an actual road, and we haven’t got a moon buggy to drive over them.

Right now, Rose and I are busy careening over every single one on a scooter. I’m turning my wrist to reduce our speed at the same time as clamping down on the brakes to make sure we slow down enough that we don’t bite our tongues as we pitch into each crater.

I’m sure it’s an easy enough task if you’re local. But I haven’t driven a scooter in a while, and I’m nervous. Rose is on the back, and I’m not used to steering and braking with an extra person. I’m tense and my knuckles have turned white from the crocodile bite grip I’ve got on the handlebars. In turn, this has put too much pressure on my hand so that I can no longer feel it, while it’s also sending pain up my arm where it’s now reverberating in my elbow.

It’s a fine old day in paradise, which could only be worse if we were lost.

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And, wouldn’t you know it.

We’d asked our B&B where we could find a particular dive shop, which is the reason we’re here – to go diving. She’d pointed down the street to the left of the place, and said these simple, innocent words:

“It’s just down there”.

Now two hours have nearly passed, and we’ve been everywhere across the island. Really, everywhere. We’ve driven the entire length and perimeter, but we’ve yet to find “there”.

The greatest thing going for us is that we’re on an island. So, we both reason, and keep telling each other “we’re going to find it sooner or later”.

We were right, of course. We found it. Not sooner though. Much later. About another half hour more, after we’d thrown up our hands (one hand for me) and were on our way back to our B&B to ask the woman who gave us directions if she might be able to be a little bit more specific.

And, there it was, in plain letters, what we”d been searching for: Lembongan Dive Center.

Right. Next. Door. To. Our. B&B.

I estimated we drove by it at about, oh, the 6 second mark of our soon to be 2.5hr journey. Maybe I’m exaggerating: probably, more the 5 second mark.

After this, I thought Rose and I could star in the following public service announcement to help promote tourism:

“Do you have trouble with instructions? Find everyday conversations incredibly complex? Do you pull a door when the sign says push and you can’t help push when it’s time to pull?

Hey. We understand. Don’t get down on yourself. There’s a whole world out there you can explore. Book your ticket to travel today!”

Merci, thank you, Terima Kasih. I think it’s important to embrace one’s talents.

Thankfully we found the dive shop the next day, even early enough to get our dive gear on, and headed out in search of manta rays.

Amazingly, the water was as choppy as the road. There were huge swells, as the boat ran up over a wave, then came smacking down on the other side before rolling up another one to land smack dab again.

Rose and I each have our own travel weaknesses. Mine are planes. I had a panic attack flying in one nearly 15 years ago, and I’ve been fighting the impulse since – convincing myself it’s the safest form of travel, blah, blah (the statistical angle), you know being rational, while trying to beat down the irrational nutcase who pops out mid-flight to say things like: “You think that person sitting over there stowed a bomb on board?” or “What are the odds of hitting another plane in mid-air?” or ” That mechanical groan sounds like the wing might fall off” or after a bit of turbulence, in a similar cackle to Axl Rose from Welcome to the Jungle: “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!”.

Rose’s problem are boats. She’s had a long, violent history in their bathrooms, on deck, and leaning overboard. So, to pick up diving as a hobby might seem a little masochistic. But Rose, if you’ve come to know her at all, is very methodical, and here she was no different. She puts a firm system in place to counteract her swells inside. As I might hang tight to an armrest on a plane (keeping it aloft in my mind), Rose stares laser-like at the horizon, never to have her gaze interrupted. Even if I wheeled out a plate of pancakes with Devon cream and raspberries, she wouldn’t see them.

The side effect of this rigorous exercise is that she also takes a vow of silence. So intent is she on taming the sea inside her stomach to ensure nothing passes her lips, that she also includes words in the embargo.

In the early stages of the boat trip out, Rose and I got chatting with people on board, asking about their stay, where they’ve dived and so on. Then, as if on a dime, when the swells started and we smacked down – Rose turned away from the group, and entered her silent meditation as we all kept talking. So, to someone who doesn’t know her approach, it might have seemed as if someone had said something so supremely offensive that she now refused to speak to them.

But her silence wouldn’t last. Like someone who’s hypnotized until the magician says a special word to bring them back to lucidity, someone on deck said: “mantas!”, and Rose bolted out of her trance with a smile on her face.

Just to our right off the ship, were two 4 metre long mantas, swimming right near the surface. It was amazing to see – but as I was still staring, people were scrambling to put on their wetsuits and gear. “Right. We’re here to see them underwater”, and cluing in I got dressed up.

We dropped backwards off the boat, and as I turned around a manta was swimming right towards me with its wings and mouth spread wide:

“HOLY SHIT”, I nearly spat out my regulator.

Eventually, we settled into our dive and for the last 15 minutes we all sat around 20 meters deep and watched five massive mantas twirling around above us near the surface, eating food, and swooping around.

I was laughing underwater, I couldn’t believe we had this luck. Afterwards, Rose didn’t lose her grin for the entire ride back – and something remarkable happened – as we smacked down on top of another wave.

She spoke. She gushed. She couldn’t stop saying: “YESS! Did you see them flip?”

Could mantas cure sea-sickness? We’d test the theory at our next stop in Komodo where we once again suited up for diving.

But before that, I’d have a huge test. And, I barely earned a D+.

Talk soon

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