Five days, six strangers, three crew, one boat, a few dragons, a dingy, a couple of manta rays and one enormous national park; possibly Indonesia’s most famous.
Where? The UNESCO recognised Komodo National Park in Flores aboard Le Pirate Explorer for a week long adventure at sea (and also one night on a relatively deserted island).
Let’s get sailing (side note – there were no sails)…
Ohhh, that sweet, meditative boat life, absolutely delightful!
Before this adventure began boats for me were to be stepped off or rolled backwards from as a means to scuba dive into the underwater world, perhaps as a way to explore a hidden island OR as a cheaper, more interesting alternative to a plane. Never (apart from one overnight trip, on wobbly bunk beds, in the depths of a huge ferry crossing the North Sea to Belgium) have I ‘lived’ on a boat. but live I did and it was an absolute thrill!
Le Pirate, a cool brand founded by Fredo Taffin and Louka Taffin and hugely popular with the usual millennial/gen Z relationship influencer crowd (you know the couples with their trademark Instagram shots – tanned, slim, posing balanced on the edge of things). They’ve created quite simple, small but beautiful hotels, beach clubs, boats and boatels in Indonesia; one of which I boarded to explore Komodo National Park in Flores (their clever, postcard perfect Instagram marketing definitely reeled me in).
Taking one of their Le Pirate Explorers is a popular way to explore this tropical region which is home to the fearsome komodo dragons as well as vast, strikingly rugged landscape alongside pristine, turquoise ocean full of untouched coral and currents renowned for their strength and challenging behaviour.
As a solo traveller taking a Le Pirate ‘cruise’ seemed one of the easiest ways to find people to share a boat with; if I’d been travelling with friends my first thought would have been to just hire my own boat, haggle the price and choose the route (apparently this is quite simple and a common thing to do for people arriving in Labuan Bajo, the starting point for most Komodo trips).
A cabin on Le Pirate Explorer (although it’s more like an elevated two-person tent) cost around 100 euros per day (Nov 2019) which included all food and drink (not alcohol), so if there are two of you sharing it’s a pretty great deal (of course a lot more expensive than life on land in Indonesia).
A desire to explore as much of this region as possible meant that the longest trip and subsequently biggest boat you could book with Le Pirate would be my choice for the week; this ensured I could travel the furthest distance and be in places where other day or single night trips couldn’t get to.
On board Le Pirate Explorer there were four cabins and one bathroom between seven of us (I saved everyone one extra person on board as I travelled solo, you are welcome, ha). The bathroom had a shower and a sink powered by foot pumps; the shower was powerful enough that hair washing was actually possible, you’ve just got to keep that foot moving! (To see live action footage of my foot using this foot pump, wow – I know, and videos from every aspect of this trip, click here.)
The incredibly friendly but equally quite shy crew (a captain, a cook and an overall boss – I don’t know how else to name this role, he was called Emilio and he was in charge of everything and everyone), slept in bunk-beds in the captain’s control room. Each day began not long after sunrise when the boat’s engine would start, the silence would disappear and we’d begin motoring through the sea to our next location. A mini briefing would be given after each breakfast, Emilio would let us know the rough plan for the day.
There was just the right amount of activities (mainly snorkelling & island exploring) combined with relaxation time (mainly reading, napping, chatting, sunbathing & a bit of drinking) aboard the boat as it sailed through spectacular ocean (that was choppy in sections) and around Komodo’s uninhabited green, mountainous landscapes.
Five days and no meal was ever repeated, not even at breakfast, this was a fantastic surprise. The portions were huge and we were all pretty impressed with the quality considering the small size of the open air kitchen at the back of the boat and the tiny fridge. Importantly, there was also a seemingly unlimited supply of biscuits, tea and coffee throughout the day and into the evening, the Europeans were happy (I still class myself as European despite Brexit)!
As a shy solo traveller, sharing a boat with six strangers was the only thing that made me nervous before the trip, but right now a feeling of happiness combined with relief comes to mind as I remember our group of lovely, kind, friendly people (two Dutch friends, one Dutch couple and two fellow Brits who lived separately in New Zealand and Germany). An interesting, intelligent and amusing group that all got on and got to know each other relatively well considering how long we spent lazing (napping) next to each other on neighbouring beanbags.
This perhaps made the trip even more fantastic too, a mix of people that was just right. Also as a grieving human whose dad had died a few months earlier, the laughter and quick friendship shared throughout this trip created a huge sense of relief and some happiness in my mind, even just for these five days it felt wonderful, like a much needed, long, deep, calm breath. I will be forever thankful to them for this. (I never actually shared on the boat that dad had recently died, I would’ve if it had someone naturally come up but it didn’t really and I was still at the point where I’d maybe only said it out loud to one stranger, so it was still hard to verbalise.) This was a great lesson on the impact simply being kind and friendly can have on someone because you never know what they might being going through behind their eyes.
On some days we dragged ourselves off the bean bags and squeezed into a very small boat to explore another piece of paradise.
One such place was Pink Beach, which I believe there are a few of within the national park and this particular one was wondrous! Our boat was the only vehicle around, no person or other noise anywhere, just the ever so slight sound of the seas’ lapping waves .
We explored at our own leisure, walking its length (really long), swimming (floating), taking photos… a magnificent experience.
Tiny fragments of red coral mixed with the white sand produce the pink effect, just beautiful!
Despite wearing factor 50 UVA/UVB sun protection at all times and a hat most of the time you cannot escape the sun’s rays on this trip, it’s an incredibly hot and sun filled adventure. Our boat was a boat of seven sun burnt souls!
Land! What is this???
On one of the mornings later on in the week, the engine started rumbling just before sunrise to make sure we got to a nearby viewpoint in time for sunrise. The plan was to watch the sunrise from a well-known spot at the top of a short, steep trail on Padar Island (you’ll know the place when you see the photos below).
The light before sunrise behind the hills was simply astonishing, one of the most magical and without a doubt memorable moments of this whole experience. It was truly emotional just watching the light glow with increased intensity from all sides of my cabin, varying shades of orange and red, in absolute silence before the engine roared into life and then we moved through the sea. Lying in my pajamas, sleep mask pushed up on to my forehead, a soft breeze flowing, watching the changing landscapes was goose-bump inducing for it’s magic.
Seven pairs of newly wobbly sea legs made their way slowly up the paved steps, behind us an incredible view of neighbouring beaches developing, on turning around at the top, despite seeing this photo repeated on Instagram, it was still unbelievable!
Just two of us, myself being one, continued the hike off the paved trail to the actual top, this is definitely worth doing; the view keeps on improving, the sunrise crowd reduces and if you’re like me, you’re not happy unless you’ve made it to the very peak of a hill. Just keep on going!
Everyone was quite sleepy but energised after finally experiencing this famous and well loved Komodo viewpoint. After a leisurely stroll back down, we returned to our boat for breakfast, a lot of coffee and then a few more naps.
Squashed into our tiny dingy the boss of our lovely boat, Emilio, took us to Banana Island. Are multiple adjectives needed to describe its beauty? I think not, although I’ll still give you some after the photos initiate the conversation…
We hopped out of our dingy, open mouthed in awe at the colours and surrounding shallow sea. We wandered randomly in different directions, in complete disbelief, taking photos, finding the sudden deep blue drop offs, and then just basically lying down in a giant, incredibly beautiful warm bath!
There’s no shade here though, ouch!!
There was never any pressure to get moving or do a lot on this trip which I appreciated, life rarely gives you the opportunity to stop and disconnect, but in these surroundings, in this temperature with no WiFi and one shared electricity charging cable (which was rarely on) there was really no other option but to just pause and it was truly fabulous.
At Banana Bath – sorry Island, one other mini dingy appeared from a much more luxurious yacht while we were lazing in the comforting, salty sea, maybe five people joined in total, not a busy place at all. We laid down here for a while, this incredible place was definitely the definition of peaceful, atruly deserted island life – fantastic.
People from all over the world travel here not just for the tropical island life but to see a number of creatures which call this national park home, not just the infamous land based dragons (more of those later), but also the manta rays; known for their ginormous size and the challenging, tempestuous currents they can be found within.
OK, let me set the scene, a few days before joining Le Pirate Explorer I’d decided to go diving in Komodo. My mind was desperate to get back under the sea and after a few weeks of really fantastic diving around Bali (read more here – diving with deer around Menjangan Island) it had to be done, more pages of my log book needed to be filled!
First time seeing manta rays right? Well, I’d been lucky enough to dive before the deer with about fifteen manta ways at Manta Point located off the east coast of Bali around the island of Nusa Penida. (I went diving with Blue Corner and would highly recommend, see Instagram photos here, manta mayhem.) Consequently, I didn’t think too much about diving with them again in Komodo (so spoilt), yes it would be great but I’d already done it so surely it couldn’t get better?
Was I wrong? My fingers are shouting Y E S, Y E S, Y E S into the keyboard.
Diving in Komodo is something else entirely (I went with Dive Komodo who were excellent), it’s like going on a voyage into the unknown; huge ships, you sail for hours to reach a dive site, you’re out from 7am-4pm at least and the currents are really strong.
Diving with manta rays in Komodo National Park is often done by drift diving because of the crazy currents, digging your hook into the sandy bottom and then clinging on to the attached rope for dear life as the current tries to drag you in the opposite direction – to see what I mean click here to view some footage which I posted on Instagram. The mantas are so much bigger in Komodo than the ones I saw in Nusa Penida, actual underwater space ships. This experience was utterly thrilling, MAGNIFICENT.
ANYWAY, back to Le Pirate – so you can snorkel with manta too from the boat and our crew had been keeping their eyes peeled for a few days when suddenly there’s loud shouts of:
GET IN THE WATER – MANTA!
Everyone scrambles, fins grabbed, mask, snorkel attached and just like that you’ve splashed off the boat’s steps, into really choppy sea and your face to face with a giant manta right on the surface, check out my video of this very moment here. Thank you boat crew! Couldn’t believe it, as soon as I dipped my face under it was right there, amazing!
Thank you Flores for the most exhilarating experience scuba diving AND snorkelling with manta rays, unforgettable.
The next Komodo creature must be the dragons, right? Wrong, it’s the Flying Foxes. The what? Bats, again absolutely enormous (is anything in Komodo small?) and hundreds, well thousands of them – too many to count.
Quite a bit of research had gone in to choosing Le Pirate and even actually settling on Komodo as there’s such a huge amount of Indonesia I want to explore. Somehow I’d completely missed reading about the Sunda flying foxes, my fellow boat team all seemed to know about them and were eagerly awaiting the night we would venture at sunset to the location where you can guarantee the departure of these megabats (actual term).
Leading up to sunset our boat waited amongst many others, this was the only really busy point of the entire week, but each vessel was well spread out so you didn’t disturb anyone – socially distant distances if you will!! The cleverly curated Le Pirate playlist seemed to match the slow, calm movement of the sea as the sky developed; beer in hand, a slight lump in my throat and a glisten in my eyes from the emotion experiences like this create.
Dad always comes to mind in these moments, his hand holding a sunset beer by the sea, his watch would be left in a drawer the moment the holiday started, replaced instead by a suntan as he relaxed away from work. I will forever wish there were more sunsets for him.
A surge of bats suddenly filled every inch of the sky, from a distant they’re tiny, but as they quickly reach our boat you realise they are absolutely huge, quite creepy! An absolutely astonishing experience!
Each boat gets a few minutes right at the front, near the trees where the bats keep appearing from, a seemingly never-ending stream, what a performance! Eventually Emilio checks we’re happy to move on and let another boat get the front spot. Our faces are glowing and touched by the rare magic this sunset and a few hundred megabats have created.
It’s Komodo! Come on, where are the dragons?
We viewed a few of the world’s largest lizard on Rinca Island (according to UNESCO there are over 5000 and they’re endemic to this region, incredible). Unfortunately, the set up here initially is very touristy, there are a few staging areas for photographs with the dragons as the park rangers use food and sticks to keep them in line for a photo op, definitely not desirable and doesn’t make you feel like you’ve viewing these creatures naturally in the wild. We quickly ventured past this and shuck our heads at the request for poses. Instead we began walking one of the few trails that take you throughout the dusty, rugged and very hilly landscape of one of Komodo’s most visited islands. The scenery was stunning and the further from the entrance the more it feels like an episode of Lost. At the highest point you can spot the glistening ocean again, which appears calm, hiding its true self. The trail produced plenty of tall palm trees and rolling hills, glorious but definitely hot and sweaty work.
The prehistoric Komodo dragons were definitely intriguing to witness, their skin was like a really old, well used rubber tire with eyes that looked inquisitive in a psychopathic way, their long, skinny tongue darting at everything in their path. Yet, they weren’t as impressive as the earlier manta rays and they had nothing on the flying fox experience, in my opinion, I think i’d just assumed they would be so much bigger. Yes, they did appear quite intimidating as they seemed to become intrigued by the smell of wandering tourists. We were lucky (I think… although we were all a little sceptical of the guide and the possibility of his backpack holding enticing food) to witness a dragon along the trail and outside its photo studio .
Once back on the boat a jump in the ocean was an urgent requirement put to our boss Emilo, we needed the relief offered by cold, salty sea to hot, sweaty skin.
The captain accepted our request and quite amusingly just dropped anchor in the middle of an empty patch of deep ocean, with choppy waves and Komodo’s notorious currents raging! We’d expected a quick stop in shallow, calm sea like at Banana Island or Pink Beach but no, this would be a dip where your legs had to keep kicking to stay even remotely close to the boat, delightfully refreshing though with much laughter too, don’t let go Jack!
Before we were going to (shockingly) spend an evening on land we completed our one millionth (ok not quite, but it was like we lived in the sea and it was glorious) tropical snorkelling experience at Baby Shark Island (this may or may not be the correct name but there were lots of baby shark in the shallows here and that’s why we visited).
Hours were spent swimming, floating and lying in the turquoise, clear waters around here, investigating the coral just at the edge of the drop off and keeping our goggles peeled for baby sharks. (Side note – it seems impossible to read, never mind say, ‘baby shark’ without the annoying tune coming to mind, gaah quite irritating.)
A few baby sharks were spotted and followed, it was pretty easy to even spot them from just standing in the shallows, never mind while swimming! I did get a slight fright when a much larger black tip swam in quickly from the darker depths, I’m much more comfortable with sharks when weighted underneath the sea in scuba gear rather than surface snorkelling!
The best coral for snorkelling was actually located quite close to Labuan Bajo, it was our first stop on day one, the waters around a private island (which I have a photo of, see below, but sadly not the name). Spotless, sparkling coral in all the colours, the only challenge was the current, you couldn’t stop to take it all in as it thrust you at high speed! We were dropped at one side of the island and very quickly collected at the other, the currents in the national park are lethal!
The sea was our home second only to our trusty, wooden boat with bose speakers. Snorkelling gear was provided, not near the quality of the speakers sadly, but it did the job.
A week spent salty and sun-kissed – splendid.
So, a night on Le Pirate Island (yep, they have an island too) was to be our home for a night which we did not want to be the final one. Excitement filled the boat at the thought of actually ordering food and more importantly COCKTAILS! What would it be like to sleep on land again? Wobbly.
Oh, my heart broke slightly packing up my little cabin/elevated tent. Sleeping here had actually been great and I’m usually a bad sleeper but the soft rocking of the sea with the gentle swish of its waves was hypnotizing. Sleep came instantly each night, even the night it was windy, too windy for camping (this was not the case for everyone on board it must be said).
Reading, chatting, sunbathing… just simply thinking while sprawled out on a beanbag, watching days float peacefully into nights, either over the boat’s open netting or on part of the deck was absolutely fabulous.
If you need to chill out get yourself on a comfortable boat, in the sunshine and relax as the day slowly meanders beautifully into sunset.
Le Pirate Island is just as excellently designed and set up as the boat. Each pair gained an actual open air, two-storey cabin for the night which was gorgeous. As we came off the Explorer trip we took pride of place filling the front row of cabins (the general tourist population can book a cabin on the island, they take the back row, there’s only ten). Another steep ladder to climb! Happy to say we all made it through the entire week with no ladder calamities!
A large, also open air single-sex bathroom with ACTUAL SHOWERS AND NO FOOT PUMPS greeted us as well, yes please! Quite weird seeing yourself in a huge mirror after a week with just a tiny one, definitely tan-tastic.
A single, steep hill dominates this island, so inevitably what did I want to do? Climb it at sunset (although swimming and cocktails first)!
The afternoon we arrived we did what we had done all week but this time from a sandy land, we swam and snorkelled around all the coral, as well as lazed and napped on the assortment of cozy beach beds and deck chairs.
A bell announced the daily 3pm commencement of two cocktail hours, very amusing, and we all eagerly leapt to the bar for some tasty, definitely alcoholic cocktails. This bar found itself struggling with the common challenge of bars around the world – a solo member of staff making an endless order of cocktails. So, they were not quick, but who needs speed in these surroundings? Just wished I’d travelled with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s!
The climb up to the island’s peak by myself was a therapeutic, sweaty delight! As per usual as a solo woman I got a few ‘you’re not going up there alone are you/ some-one go with her/should you walk there solo’ etc. all said with kindness I’m sure, but I’m also quite sure the same panic and questioning would not be put to a solo hiking man!
As I strode up the uneven trail to the top, with not a single soul anywhere nearby I blasted my music while singing loud and proud! Tears definitely joined all the sweat on my cheeks. I’ve always got emotional in the few pinch yourself moments in life, but with my dad no longer walking this Earth, tears arrive in times like these much more frequently.
He would have been in awe of this walk, he wouldn’t even have waited until sunset like me, he’d have been up this hill as soon as he stepped off the boat and then back again (probably with a beer in his backpack) for sunset. I’ll never accept that he isn’t here to share in these moments, it might sound weird, although maybe not if you’re a parent but he was my biggest fan, the person that was truly interested in every inch of what I was up to. No longer receiving his eager replies and comments on photographs or over the phone is ridiculously tough, my throat hurts even thinking about this through the keyboard.
I’m happy though, in this moment, at the top of this hill, tears fall because dad doesn’t know anything about this and he never will, but for myself at sunset during this hill scramble I am happy. I am lucky that I can live a life as good and as adventurous as this one, I feel strong and positive to be able to do so much by myself.
After running into the sea following a quick and even hotter descent, the evening rolled into cocktails, a Vietnamese BBQ (that was weird), a few beers and then a semi-drunken, slightly dangerous climb up our new, narrow ladders until sunrise for the final morning of such a wonderful week, grateful beyond words, even all these words!!
Have I subsequently researched jobs on boats because I want to live on a boat? Yes, yes I have.
Any realistic possibilities? Well, it looks like i’m going to have to base myself in Florida (if there’s ever a Covid 19 vaccine) and get some boating (is that what they’re called?) qualifications first. So, 2021 anyone?
There you have it, for one week WiFi was swapped for water and now I’m looking to buy a boat!
- For the Instagram story which captured this incredible week aboard Le Pirate Explorer, click here.
- To read more about the overland adventure in Flores which followed this boat trip (from Labuan Bajo to Maumere) click here.
- For diving with deer off Menjangan Island in Bali, click here.
- If you’re living life after loss or you’re connected in some way to a life changing cancer diagnosis, I’ve written a few posts under the ingenious heading (that’s sarcastic) Crying in my Coffee. I don’t have any answers which solve the never ending grief experience (who does?!), but perhaps you’ll find something in my words or maybe not. I take a lot of comfort from reading (and listening to) all that the huge online grief community produces, so I’m just adding a very minor thing to the conversation, which in itself helps me too.