The island of Flores is on the verge of becoming Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot, with its pristine beaches, excellent scuba diving and range of rich and diverse fauna and flora drawing tourists to its shores. The island was named ‘flowers’ by 16th century Portuguese traders, who were astonished by the colourful corals that fringe the island.
A 90-minute flight from Bali, Flores is one of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, east of Komodo Island and west of Lembata Island.
The harbour town of Labuan Bajo holds the key to the wonders of Flores, with 28 restaurants, 16 dive centres, numerous bed and breakfast establishments and several beach resorts offering plenty of choice for accommodation, dining and tours.
The island’s open and friendly population has embraced the arrival of tourists and the opportunities provided. Until recently, exploring this region had been left to backpackers and adventurous travellers, who don’t mind basic amenities. These days, the shiny new purpose-built airport’s sheer size seems to indicate change is around the corner, ready to cope with the anticipated growth. Direct flights from Jakarta and Singapore are expected to commence soon, while the cruise industry has already embraced Flores, with many small luxury cruises including Labuan Bajo in their itineraries.
I had come to Flores to scuba dive, having heard many stories of one of the world’s richest marine environments located within the boundaries of the famed Komodo National Park. The waters here are incredibly abundant with marine life, which varies as you sail from the northern islands’ warm waters to the colder south and includes diverse habitats, such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds, seamounts and steep-walled reefs.
Dive boats depart every morning from Labuan Bajo harbour. Access to the wharf is via the port authority entrance, or a detour through the fish and fruit market – a morning affair that sees the entire town converge on the rather small, tin-roofed pavilions that house this bustling enterprise. Colourful, noisy and aromatic, you can spend many fascinating hours admiring the variety of fruit, flowers and fish on offer. Nearby, positioned along the harbour foreshore, are the famed night markets which serve delicious, inexpensive Indonesian food accompanied by a cold Bintang beer.
COLOURFUL DIVE SITES
At Flores, boat operators offer daily packages of either two or three dives and, with so many dive sites in the area, it’s rare that you’ll ever have to share your location with other groups.
I chose a three-dive option. Our first dive site was at Batu Bolong, a rock island in the strait between Tatawa and Komodo Islands that’s famed for its steep reef walls. Our divemaster anchored on the island’s northern side, as strong currents had made the southern side inaccessible and dangerous. Apparently, it is only during the rare occasion of a slack tide that you can swim entirely around the island. We are warned to stick together and be alert for his signal to turn around and retrace our journey, as venturing too far could put us in danger of being sucked into the strong current.
The dive started at the surface, with colourful corals and thousands of small tropical fish. As we descended into deeper water and swam along the reef wall, we encountered white-tipped reef sharks resting on the ledges, while a huge school of blue-dash fusiliers with distinctive iridescent stripes swirled around us and momentarily blocked out the sunlight. Giant trevally and dogtooth tuna were also in abundance, and we discovered squid and lobster resting in the rocky crags, as well as a grumpy moray eel that charged out of its cave, giving us an impressive display of dental work. We retreated and found a gentle hawksbill turtle, which seemed far more amicable. The conical sponges that thrive here make brilliant cubby houses for parrotfish and shrimp.
With the sun shining and 24°C water temperature, our journey continued to the next dive at Mawan, where giant manta rays converge to be groomed by sucker fish. We dropped over the side and soon discovered that reality can exceed expectation – within minutes, five of these huge creatures appeared from the depths, performing a choreographed dance of grace and beauty. They appeared quite at ease as they glided right up to us for a better look before turning away with startling agility at the last moment, and returning time and time again. I was quite reluctant to return to the boat, however my dive computer was indicating my bottom time at 45 minutes and, with only 70 bar remaining, it was time to slowly ascend.
Back onboard, it was time for lunch – while most of us would never have thought to eat a full meal on a dive day, the delicious aroma of chicken sambal was too good to miss. Afterwards, the only sensible thing to do was nap … which is precisely what our group of eight did as the boat slowly ploughed on to our final dive destination for the day.
We arrive mid-afternoon at Sebayur Kecil, which is a north-west reef dropping to 40m. This dive site is testimony to the destruction brought about by dynamite fishing in previous decades which, while now banned, had indiscriminately slaughtered marine life and destroyed large swathes of reef.
As you drop down, the first view is one of bleached and broken coral – a truly gut-wrenching vista but, as with most disasters, Mother Nature is resilient and forgiving. Descending to 18m, the scene changes to one of spectacular new corals and an impressive array of marine life, including giant trevally, coral grouper, blue-spotted stingrays and the very distinctive banded pipefish with brilliant yellow and red stripes. As we continued, we came across a black ball of motion swirling close to the sandy bottom – hundreds of juvenile catfish had congregated to feed and were scouring the sand with their protruding barbels to locate food.
LAND OF THE DRAGONS
This isolated location has many other attractions to enjoy beyond scuba diving. There’s the natural hidden beauty that defines this region – volcanoes, waterfalls, lush valleys, crater lakes and, of course, the famous Komodo dragon, which inhabits the nearby Komodo and Rinca Islands.
To increase our chances of sighting the dragons and to avoid the intense heat, we ventured to Komodo Island early in the morning for the four-hour trek across the island. We were met by our guide, Carlton, who carried only a sturdy forked stick to ward off any attacks by the local reptiles.
Growing to 2m in length, Komodo dragons are surprisingly quick, capable of moving at 18km/h and using the element of surprise to ambush their prey … such as a very nervous deer we spotted among the trees. We also came across a huge female guarding her nesting site – she had dug four holes and laid her eggs in only one of them, to confuse any potential egg thief. I couldn’t imagine what animal would be crazy enough to take her on, until our guide divulged that her main enemies are the males of the species – if they are hungry enough, eggs and offspring are on the menu, which is why juvenile Komodo dragons spend the first four years living in the tree tops.
Continuing on, we had the extraordinary luck to see a male lumbering along on his way to a water source. We stealthily followed and witnessed him drinking … until he clearly picked up our scent and Carlton decided it was time to move on.
On Flores, you can hire a motorbike and set off for a couple of days to explore the eastern towns of Maumere and Ende.
Maumere is one of the largest towns on Flores and the stepping stone to spectacular Mount Kelimutu, with its three tri-coloured lakes. It’s also the cultural hub of ikat weaving.
Ende is renowned for its spectacular coastal position that’s framed by the tall mountain peaks of Gunung Meja and Gunung Iya, and fringed by black sand beaches and, after the wet season, spectacular waterfalls and jade-coloured rice terraces.
You can also visit the traditional villages of Bena or Wae Rebo, which welcomes visitors for overnight stays, or trek to Liang Bua Cave, where the skeletal remains of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the ‘hobbit’ man, were discovered in 2003.
If all this seems to overtax your muscles, you’ll find health spas in Labuan Bajo that offer everything from facials to body massages. Or if chilling with a cocktail is more your style, then one of the small bars in town overlooking the harbour at sunset is the perfect way to end a perfect day.
So, if you’re looking for a special destination that’s not far from Bali, but a world away from its bustle, where the diving is superb, the island unspoilt and the people welcoming, consider going to Flores.