Discovering the beauty of Indonesia in good company

The moment we told Loes and Simon that we would go on a world trip, they were enthusiastic and wanted to meet up along the way. When Indonesia came into our planning, it was immediately decided that we would be meeting there. Loes lived in Indonesia for some time during her studies, so she has a lot of inside info and places she wanted to revisit. Since we really wanted to obtain our PADI diver licenses, Loes suggested meeting up in Bunaken, a marine national park in the north of Sulawesi where she obtained her license.
That’s why after spending a fantastic time at the Togean Islands in Central Sulawesi, we found ourselves again in the city of Manado to meet Loes and Simon and to take the public boat to the island of Bunaken. When our go-jek dropped us off, we immediately saw two people standing out of the Indonesian crowd, a tall guy with blonde curls next to a tall girl with brown hair. It was very nice seeing familiar faces again and after a kopi susu, we could embark. As always in Indonesia, a boat only leaves when it is full with people, food, motorcycles, water bottles, etc. Only if the boat was barely able to float anymore, it was time to leave. 40’ and a short walk to the Living Colors diving resort later, we were drinking a cold beer and giving and receiving an update of the last months. As always when we hang around together it was super relaxed. The fact that Loes selected and brought a nice bottle of wine for dinner, made it even better!

The next day it was time for our first diving class. Simon, Suus and I were going for our PADI open water license while Loes was joining for the refresher course. With a healthy dose of nerves we began the course with Petra, our Finnish instructor. Learning all about the equipment, all the checks and breathing through a regulator, were part of the first course. All went fine, but one thing that was shocking, was the amount of garbage and plastic that was floating around. The distance to Manado is only 16 km, so the effect of the expansion of the city is clearly visible. According to Loes, it was not as bad when she was here a couple of years ago. Really awful for a protected marine park! Unfortunately Suus had taken over my cold that I was struggling with during our time at the Togeans. When we wanted to go a little deeper for our second course, she was not able to equalize her inner ears. This is necessary, because the increase in pressure under water is uncomfortable and can harm your inner ears. Equalizing every couple of meters makes sure that no pressure difference can build up and no damage will be done to your hearing or balance. Normally slow and steady does the trick, but the cold really made it impossible for Suus to continue. This meant snorkeling time for her while we did the course. During this first dive we saw our first turtles. A very special moment to see these giant animals move gracefully through the water! Despite the plastic at the surface, the reef beneath the surface was beautiful.

Petra ensured Suus that she could try to join the next day and advised to take some decongestant pills and get enough sleep. Suus took the advice, but was lying awake most of the night thinking about how to equalize. The next morning her cold did not get better, so a nervous Suus went in for the second day of classes. Even before trying the decent, it was clear from the panicky look in her eyes that it was not going to be a success. Clearly it was a wise decision to not go through with it and enjoy the reef while snorkeling. Loes had decided to join her and let the boys take their second lesson. But before we could go, Simon noticed that there was a weight belt on the bottom. A quick check learned us that it was his own weight belt. With only two of us, the class went faster than expected so we could do some exploring of the area around. Sleeping under a big rock, was a small white tip reef shark and we could see the anemone fishes fiercely protecting their anemone against us. Pretty cool stuff! The decision to stop the course was clearly a big relieve for Suus since she could now relax and snorkel over the pretty reef. After a short break, we then went out for an open water dive with the training of some skills. Really awesome to watch the busy life on top and in between the corals and feel a small part of this underwater world. Relieved with Suus’ smart decision to quit and tired of the courses we went to sleep to be ready for our last day of courses.

While Suus and Loes were snorkeling, Simon and I jumped in for some more skills. Again, Simon noticed something on the bottom. Maybe a weight belt? Yes, you can guess who lost his weight belt…again. 😀
Between the two dives, we learned how to navigate and had to proof that we were able to stay afloat without any buoyancy gear for ten minutes. Initially, this seemed like a walk in the park, but a current was picking up, making staying next to the boat a challenge (and even impossible) for me. Simon is like a fish in the water and didn’t have any trouble though. But this current announced that our last dive of the course would be a sort of a drift dive. In this kind of dive, you jump in at a certain spot and let the current pull/push you along. Sounds/This is very easy, but you have to stay calm and relaxed. Petra, Simon and I descended and were pushed along the reef with a pretty high speed. Swimming against the current was impossible so just float and try to enjoy the view. Fish and turtles moved around like the current was almost non-existent. After only 25’, our oxygen bottles more or less reached the agreed limit for an ascend, so we had a short but interesting last dive! Suus and Loes experienced the same current and were swept at high speed over the top of the reef, not ideal to watch the sea life, but definitely a good swimming exercise.

That evening we celebrated our licenses with a couple of beers, but were also sad to have to leave Living colors and Loes and Simon for now. They would be going to Java, while we would be heading to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, the gateway to Komodo National Park. Originally, we would be meeting again at Bali, but due to the threat of the eruption of Volcano Agung, we decided to meet again on Lombok instead.

Three flights and a night in Makassar later, we arrived in Labuan Bajo. This town is the most common starting point for trips to the Komodo national park. Its most famous residents are of course the Komodo dragons, but the underwater world is probably even more impressive. We decided to combine both. The town itself is nothing special with a Main Street with all the bars, restaurants and tour companies. We stayed at the Komodo dragon dive hostel, which gave us the impression of entering a hostel somewhere in France. Almost everyone was talking in French. A strange sensation in Indonesia. Since I was keen to dive in the National park, I asked if they organized dive trips, but more info than the price was too much. Apparently they were not interested in our money, so we went around town to look for a reputable company to take us. I would dive and Suus would join and do some snorkeling. We ended up going with Divine diving. Friendly people with a clear explanation of the dives, good gear and small groups of all experience levels. Sounded perfect to me!
In the meanwhile, we checked a couple of the restaurants and found an Italian place that served delicious and healthy breakfast and perfect pasta in the evening. The perfect preparation for the next day of diving. The boat would take us to three dive sites. The first one was a sandy slope with some corals, a good way for the dive masters to learn how we behaved in the water. The second one was definitely the highlight and was called “Batu Bolong” and was a coral pinnacle with the most colorful and richest corals we have seen anywhere. This in turn attracts fish, so you didn’t know where to look first. For Suus this was also a beautiful spot for snorkeling. She even saw big tuna, very rare while snorkeling and we both came close to a venomous sea snake! Certainly one of the most beautiful underwater places we have seen. Lastly, we did a drift dive to a manta cleaning station. The finish for the dive would be a sandy slope where manta rays often hang out to be cleaned by smaller fish. Unfortunately there were no manta rays that day. But we saw mobula rays from a distance, maybe an even rarer sight! After these three dives, it was time to head back and chill on the deck of the boat. Everyone was comparing stories and pictures they had taken. Great vibe and fun day. That deserves a good Italian meal, don’t you think?

To visit the Komodo dragons and other typical sights of the park, there are tens of tour operators offering trips. Most include a visit to Padar island, Komodo island with a guided walking tour to see the dragons, a visit to one of the pink beaches and a stop at Manta point to look for Mantas and, when they are there, snorkel among the rays. This is a full day program because the islands are between 45’ and and hour and a half away by boat from Labuan Bajo and in between islands, you often have to go for another 45’. It reminds you how huge the Komodo NP really is! Unfortunately this means rise really early to leave.  The tour offered the usual stops, plus extra snorkeling at Kanawa island. In addition, they have a fast boat, which means that you have more time to visit the sites and less time on the boat. Since you always get what you paid for, they are also just a little more expensive than the slower options. The trip itself was great. After an hour or so, we arrived at Padar, where you climb to the highest point of the island to have a beautiful panorama. Even at 8 a.m. temperatures began to rise and we began to sweat. On the top of the island, we suddenly heard Flemish. We started talking with Jeroen and Elise and apparently they are from Ghent. Very funny that the only Flemish people we met so far were from Ghent. They were super nice and we exchanged our favorite places in Ghent for their go-to places. After Padar, we got to see the dragons! Komodo dragons are giant lizards and can only be found on a couple of islands in this national park. A couple of interesting facts:

– Their bite is not venomous, but is almost always fatal because of the infections resulting from the wound. Sometimes, this can take a while so they are known to stalk the prey that they’ve bitten for days until they die from the infection.

– They can run 30 km/h in a straight line. If they come for you, zigzagging is the way to not get caught.

As a protection, three guys with long sticks joined us on the tour on the island. We immediately saw a couple of dragons chilling under a guard house. After ten minutes of walking, there was a very big male who was enjoying the sun. It gave a photo opportunity and tourists stood a couple meters behind him while a guard took the pictures. Not really our cup of tea! Things got interesting though when another male came from the bushes. In the short fight that followed , we got an idea of how powerful these dragons actually are. Impressive!

Next up was a visit of a small sandy island with pink sand. The color is a result of the presence of red corals, which break into tiny pieces and are washed ashore. In combination with the pearly white sand, this gives a nice pink color. A short swim in the perfect blue waters was needed to reach the beach and was a nice refresher after the sweaty excursion between the dragons. After a lunch, a fifteen minute boat ride took us to Manta point. A cleaning station for manta rays, if it’s the season. We were right after the season, so they gave us a 50/50 chance of seeing them. We were unlucky, but they let us snorkel following the current, hoping to see something. (A couple days later, someone made a drone movie showing hundreds of rays at this spot, just a matter of being lucky) Before going back to Labuan Bajo, we stopped for snorkeling at Kanawa island. Apparently, the resort here was very beautiful, but due to a lack of maintenance, all is left are shabby huts along the beach, but with the price of a nice resort. The reef was ok, but had clearly seen better days. Still a refreshing last stop of the tour.

Around the NP, there are a lot of small islands. On of these islands is Seraya. Via Airbnb, Suus had found a gem of a resort that is located here, called The Seraya. A lot above our budget if you add the Airbnb fee, but with Suus tracking down a direct route of booking, just slightly over budget. For that money, we got a fantastic bungalow on the hill and breakfast and dinner in the amazing bamboo manta ray! As a free bonus, the reef in front of the resort is beautiful, with black and white tip reef sharks and plenty of fish to stop you from going out of the water. Sounded perfect to us! In the morning, we got picked up by the manager, Will, in Labuan Bajo for an hour boat ride to Seraya. A little wind made for a slightly bumpy ride, but when we arrived we were immediately taken by the relaxed vibe. Needless to say that we didn’t do anything else than sleeping, eating, snorkeling and chilling on the beach: perfect! The next days, the wind got stronger and so did the current. We were told that this phenomenon introduced the changing of the seasons. As a result, the boat to and from Labuan Bajo was not going. The neighboring (more expensive) resort’s desalination machine broke and they were short on fresh water, because the only way to supply is over the sea. We were lucky with a big enough supply, but that’s also life on an idyllic remote paradise! When we had to say our goodbyes, luckily the sea was calmer and soon we were at the airport. Ready to spend more time with Loes and Simon on Lombok!

While we were enjoying Flores, Loes and Simon revisited and discovered Java. Originally, we would meet up again on the east coast of Bali. But because of the threat of the eruption of Gunung Agung, we decided to go to Mangksit on the west coast of Lombok. (Still pretty close to Agung actually) We found a relaxed guesthouse with 5 bungalows with a swimming pool close to the sea called Teras Lombok bungalows. The perfect base for exploring the area. We celebrated being reunited by having dinner at the fancy resort at the opposite side of the street. we had delicious (but expensive) home-made pasta! The next day, we were going to rent scooters to explore the coast to the north. This was a first for Suus and me, so we were glad with the calm reassurance of motormouse Simon. On a perfect asphalt road, we discovered hidden beaches, had fresh coconuts and enjoyed sunset with a smoking Agung in the background on our way back. What a perfect way to see an island like this! Certainly something to repeat.

The next day, we booked a tour to explore the north and central areas of the island. Our driver first showed us a haunted house. A villa with a fantastic ocean view that was never finished after the owner committed suicide. Next, we went to the main “attraction” of the day: a series of waterfalls with a small lake to swim at the bottom. A short walk through the jungle brought us to the waterfall, but surely we were not alone there. Twenty or thirty people were already there taking photos and jumping into the water. If Simon sees water, he has to swim in it, so after 2’ he was swimming in the lake. Soon after I followed and we got a feeling of the power of the waterfall when we came a little too close. Nothing too scary, but you could for sure feel the current pulling you down and towards the fall. Loes was not really happy with our endeavors, so we stayed clear from the waterfall from that point on. After this refreshing stop, we visited a traditional village in the mountains and then started our way back to Mangksit. Our driver wanted to show us some typical street food on the way back: martabak. A kind of pancake that can either be filled with a mix of vegetables or a sweet type with chocolate sauce, peanuts and sweetened milk, a true calorie bomb. Both are extremely good and we told our driver that we love street food. Next, he took us to try all of his favorite food stalls. We tried pregnant tofu, and all kinds of fried doughs with coconut, banana or other fillings. Needless to say that we didn’t need dinner after all those snacks. We took a Bintang beer at the poolside and enjoyed the evening together.

One of our shared passions is food, so our time together wouldn’t be complete without a cooking class. We rented scooters again to get to the class. Each of us got appointed to make one typical Indonesian dish. Loes made corn fritters, Simon made a chicken curry, Suus made fish steamed in banana leaf and I was in charge of chicken satay. Under the supervision of Dewi, the four of us created really tasty dishes! We had a great lunch and learned a couple new tricks. On our way back to the guesthouse, the plan was to have a coffee and cake before going to the beach. This changed when we saw a place for massages next to the coffee bar. A cheap, relaxing massage and scrub is always a good idea, so one hour later, the four of us were all relaxed and had the skin as soft as a baby!To end this relaxing food-centered day, we decided to go and have dinner at the resort again and celebrate our last evening together with a good bottle of wine and tasty pasta dishes. A great end of the day!

The next morning, we said goodbye to Loes and Simon and headed to Kuala Lumpur, the short break of Indonesia that we needed to renew our free visa for another 30 exciting days in Indonesia. So while it was sad to say goodbye to our good friends, we also had a lot to look forward to in the next weeks!

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