Nothing ever looks like the brochure, everyone should know that by now, and in Indonesia, the land of fleecing tourists, this rule stands the firmest. Waiting in front of the Versace, a twin-engine wooden eyesore, I at least commend the irony in the choice of name. It looked nothing like the regal, antiquated vessel showcased in the sun-weathered brochure at the ramshackle wooden palette stand doubling as a coconut stall. At this point I can no longer be even remotely surprised by being short-changed at every possible opportunity here. But I was desperate to see some dinosaurs, and the promise of seeing Komodo dragons in their 'natural' environment after a five-day boat trip through Indonesia, I didn't care how I was getting there.
News had trickled through of an earthquake far off the coast of Lombok, postponing the voyage another day. So another night on Gili Meno it was, one of the three idyllic islands off the coast of Lombok, primarily serving as a respite from Bali. The trip would hug the coastline of southern Indonesia, the Greater Sunda Islands, heading east over five days across West Nusa Tenggara, Sumbawa, Bima before Komodo National Park and ending in Flores.
Eight other passengers eagerly awaited boarding with me. It was hard not to feel envious of the other group boarding the much nicer boat on the adjacent jetty; The Good Vibes, adorned with beautifully crafted wooden panels, the top deck complete with hammocks, we didn't even have a top deck. If I learned anything from Titanic is that those on the lower decks had the most fun, until everyone drowned anyway, so I took solace in that. The usual menagerie of tourists; German, Scandinavian and British, all armed with GoPros and Bintang singlets, boarded the ship.
The captain, shirtless and toothless, didn't speak a word of English, and never smiled. I took this as a good sign, all good captains are steely faced and miserable. If my job was to ferry backpackers and tourists all day and night, I would be too. Two other Indonesians make up the crew for the Versace; an all-smiles entertainer who went by the name Marley and the chef, Gordon; a portly gentleman who I owe a great debt to; for cooking the best rice, and also completely putting me off rice.
The first day sailing was paradise; freshly caught fish and rice for lunch, the sun high and the wind gentle. We stopped for the night at a sheltered cove between Panjang and Saringi Island, just off the coast of Pernang. Dinner time and it was more freshly caught fish and rice, with Marley showing us why he was called Marley, regaling us with a heartwarming rendition of Redemption Song on his battered acoustic guitar. Watching the sunrise dip below lush greenery of seemingly empty islands made you feel you were thousands of miles away from civilisation. It was precisely at this moment I realised the sailing life really was for me. Then the storm hit.
Mid-morning, having been for a morning snorkel, everyone was relaxing on the deck when the chop started. Having dealt with at least a handful of boat rides in my life, this was nothing. Remembering my training by staring at the horizon, I figured I could ride this out. But I was the first to go. The chop worsened, the wind picked up. Hurling my guts out over the side, I would have felt ashamed if I didn't feel like I was going to die, I immediately retreated to the sleeping quarters with the room of foam mattresses. Things did not improve, eyes squeezed shut I could hear the retching of others and one by one, everyone conceded defeat and sought the comforts of lying down.
The earthquake had sent waves far and wide, and things only got worse with the storm. Seasickness hit me hard, and would not let up. The only thing that helped was to sleep, it no longer mattered what time it was or if I was even tired, I just had to sleep. Nobody else moved from their lump of foam either. Marley would call up to announce food was ready, nobody could eat. All sense of time was lost, and for bathroom trips, it also meant guaranteed throwing up. The long and daunting walk to the rear of the boat involved walking past the engine room, the nauseous fumes of the diesel did nothing but further assist in vacating what was left of my stomach.
The one distraction I had when I physically could not sleep was held on my phone, useless at sea with no signal, holding a distraction in the form of one surf film; Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La. Unable to move too much for fear of hurling over my neighbour, if insomnia took over I would turn to the dreams of surfing, a welcome distraction to the chaos of the boat and the real world. One line would seep into my subconscious, becoming a calming yet frustrating mantra; "hot dog dreams". The film had a section where Dion Agius and co head to Iceland in search of waves and with an endless diet of just hot dogs to feast upon, provoked hot dog dreams. For me, it was the far away dream of eating the simple pleasure of hot dogs on stable land that helped soothe my agony. For the next day or so, my life would solely revolve around sleeping, throwing up, watching Strange Rumblings and dreaming of processed meat. And then it came, calmness.
Waking up to a blue sky and for the first time in what felt like weeks, a still boat. One by one we all stirred from our debilitating slumber, ventured to the deck and all was well. The storm had hit us pretty bad, one of the engines failed which slowed us even further. Breakfast, or lunch, nobody really knew at this point, was served; fish and rice. Dry heaving for the past night meant my stomach needed something. With calm waters here on out, a small island was approaching, uninhabited and thick jungle, it looked like paradise.
Moods were jubilant, cheers and cries of sheer joy were released as we all jumped off the boat into clear, cool water. Nothing had ever felt sweeter. Bobbing on the surface in a daze made me appreciative of all the small things, I will never take simply feeling okay for granted again. Stepping foot on land was equally as invigorating. The high spirits continued as we took shade under palm trees at the edge of dense jungle. Rumours of tigers still occupying these parts were passed around mockingly, although nobody was truly comfortable in fully dismissing these claims.
We were still another day from Komodo Island and at this point, Redemption Song was growing old, turns out that was the only song Marley had in his repertoire. As we were all enjoying a few Bintangs on the deck, Marley rushed over in a frenzy. Telling us to grab our snorkels and dive overboard, I just assumed we were sinking. Looking over the port side, a huge black mass was heading straight towards the boat. Still not even sure what we were jumping into, one by one we all leapt into the abyss like obedient lemmings. Hanging onto the rigging with one foot on the railing, I saw what was moving below the surface; a huge squadron (correct term) of manta rays. Jumping in without somehow dropkicking one, I was surrounded, wingspans of over two metres, all silently drifting past us, not a care in the world.
Komodo Island finally loomed into view, its lush highlands and dramatic cliffs evoked Jurassic Park, knowing massive lizards lived there also helped to set the scene. Chugging slowly into the sheltered bay, we joined several other boats moored in the crystal clear waters. Spotting Good Vibes already docked, no doubt they glided peacefully through the storm.
Stepping through the gates of the national park, warning signs about the dangers of Komodo Dragons were everywhere. Meeting up with our two guides, both armed with hefty sticks, we ventured into the bush. Not even 50 yards down the trail when we saw the first one. Witnessing one of the dragons up close stirred a primal reaction to seeing a reptile of almost three metres in length, weighing close to 70kg. It paid no attention to us as it was halfway through its meal of deer it had previously stalked and killed. Its huge talons clawing at its prey, a monstrous jaw clamping down, tearing off fur and meat. Stories were told of tourists being attacked and killed, but the good news was that there were only five reported fatalities in a 40 year period, not bad going, the sticks must work.
After a day exploring both Komodo and Rinca, we set sail one last time. The Komodo Islands disappeared in a blue haze behind us. Versace finally pulled into Flores and the coastal town of Lebuan Bajo, the diving mecca of Indonesia. The last stop on our voyage. The number of dive boats and operators was vast, hotels and Westerners aplenty, we were well and truly back to civilisation. Saying our goodbyes to Marley and the crew, we dispersed our separate ways, all quietly content at stepping foot on stable land once again after what felt like weeks out at sea. Good Vibes was unloading, passengers were crying and hugging each other, selfie sticks clattering together, friends for life no doubt. I went to find some hot dogs.