Komodo cruise – highs and lows

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

A Komodo cruise in the rainy season includes ecstatic highs as well as some pretty awful moments. Want a holiday you’ll never forget? This could be it.

Komodo: agony and ecstasy

Our guide is doing his best to deal with 52 angry people. But the ship is shambolic.  Who decided not to buy fuel before we left? Why are the loos and the fridge and the wifi not working? Why is everything so dirty? The floor outside my cabin, where the meals are prepared, is constantly slimy with food, and water from the toilets, for which the refilling of the flush buckets with sea water leads to constant flooding from a leaky pipe. There are plenty of cockroaches around, although mercifully none on my tiny cabin.

But we travellers are, in a chaotic and anarchic way, having a great time. This is partly because many people don’t care too much about the programme and are delighted to drink beer and have fun in the sun. Our fellow-passengers, and the crew, are delightful. Plus we are seeing some awesome sights – including fabulous mountains and corals and the world famous Komodo Dragons.

Komodo cruise: Bintang frenzy
Fun in the sun (Photo: LT)

Holidays you remember forever?

A cruise to see the natural wonders of Komodo Island and beyond combines both pleasure and pain. Have you ever noticed that it’s the most extreme holiday experiences that you remember? If so, a rainy season Komodo cruise could be just what you’ve been looking for.

A Komodo Dragon close up
A Komodo Dragon close up (Photo: LT)

Komodo cruise: what is it?

Visiting Bali and Lombok I hear of a magical-sounding Komodo cruise. A “4 days 3 nights” boat ride will transport intrepid travellers from the Gili Islands, or Lombok, to Komodo Island – home of the legendary Komodo dragons. En route, you will visit a mouth-watering variety of other attractions. At Saleh Bay, you can swim with whale sharks. On Padar Island, you climb a mountain at dawn to witness one of the planet’s most spectacular sunrises. The ship will travel the length of West Nusa Tenggara and drop you at Labuan Bajo on East Nusa Tenggara, a little-visited island that stretches as far as Timor-Leste.

A poster for the Komodo cruise
A poster for the Komodo cruise

On-line reviews suggest the tour is simple but thrilling: crude cabins, people sleeping on deck and plain but decent food. Posters advertising the journey talk of gado-gado, fried fish, chicken curry, fried banana, plus a fresh water shower, WiFi, and “life raft and life jacket”. Reviews highlight “long delays embarking” and “wasting the first day waiting for people to arrive”, but are generally ecstatic about the whole thing.

Who could resist?

No Komodo cruise?

Arriving in January on Gili Air, I ask at the countless travel bureaus about booking the Komodo cruise. All say it doesn’t exist. It is the rainy season, they say, the weather is uncertain, no boats are leaving until April. An online review backs this up: “You should NOT ATTEMPT THIS VOYAGE IN THE RAINY SEASON, DECEMBER – MARCH”, it says. Seems clear enough.

Komodo cruise: our ship moored at a lovely beach
Komodo cruise: our ship moored at a lovely beach (Photo: Team Komodo)

Then, as I am passing another travel agency, I hear someone discussing a boat trip leaving in a few days. I zoom in. How is this possible? Might I be ripped off for a non-existent boat? I decide the upside is dominant, and pay a $20 (IDR 300,000) deposit.

That night, a staff member at my guesthouse also tries to sell me tickets on the boat, offering a discount. When I decline, she warns me off it. It is rainy season. The sea may be rough. The government has forbidden it. Another guest, a German yoga devotee who has been coming to the islands for 32 years, tells me this is nonsense – the sea is calmer in the rainy season than in the windy summer, she says.

This is what I want to hear.

Komodo cruise Day 1

On the day I rise at 6 a.m. to be at the dock on Gili Air at 7.20 as per instructions. The travel agent who took my deposit gives me a ticket for the ferry from Gili Air to Lombok – a 15-minute crossing in a traditional long, thin, low boat used mostly by locals. I meet Max and Jan, who are also on the trip. At the beach on Lombok, a guy is shouting “Komodo?” We follow him to a café, where we arrive around 8.00. I eat a banana pancake, having left my guesthouse too early for breakfast.

“Long delays embarking…”

Our little group is amongst the first. Slowly, others arrive. The café does good business. I am invited to pay for the rest of my $220 (IDR 3.3 million) ticket. But they have no credit card facilities: I must pay in cash.  A guy on a Yamaha motorbike takes me the 5 km to the nearest cash-point, in busy traffic.

Travellers gather at the Cempaka Lombok Cafe. A wall poster advertises the Komodo cruise
Travellers assemble at the Cempaka Lombok Cafe (Photo: LT)

We wait and wait. Rumours swirl that we will leave at 10, then 11, then 12. Some people have been told to be ready for 11 or 12 – why were we brought here at 8? More people arrive. Sometime after 1 p.m. a minibus appears, into which a few of us climb with our gear. A larger bus gets delayed. We take a scenic, 90-minute drive, with a couple of stops “for the others to catch up”, eventually arriving at a little port on the north side of the island where the rather decrepit-looking Komodo cruise ship, the Pulau Mas 88, is waiting.

We gather on the dock, admiring the cloud-swathed Mount Rinjani beyond the rice fields. Around 3 p.m., someone appears with lunch. It is polystyrene boxes with a white-bread sandwich of cheese or egg and a box of fruit. Some people complain that their sandwiches contain only mayonnaise. Some fruit boxes have banana, others pineapple, others papaya or a mixture. Ravenous, we wolf it all down.

Boarding takes ages

Boarding is tricky – there is a gap of around 1.5 metres between ship and shore. I leap across, but wiser souls refuse until someone brings a plank. Why did no-one think of this earlier? After several false starts I find my minuscule single cabin, next door to one of the two toilets and the kitchen/cooking area. It is too short for me to lie flat. But it has a tiny window, and a fan that you can train on the bed – perfect. The air conditioning in the two deluxe air-conditioned cabins does not work. The cabins contain no mattresses, sheets or pillows.

Passengers mull how to get on board (Photo: LT)

Boarding takes ages. Supplies keep being delivered. Mattresses arrive, and a box of snorkelling masks. The toilets do not work but can be flushed with a large bucket of sea water and a plastic scoop. A big red machine is winched off the ship – a pump? An engine? I ask the one guy who seems to be doing everything, a friendly and helpful bloke who we shall call G, about sheets. He promises to get me one; an hour later he appears with a bag of sheets for everyone. Brand new life-jackets, still in their wrapping, are carried on board and stowed away somewhere. The complement for our Komodo cruise is 52 passengers.

Komodo cruise: setting off

As the light fades, the ship departs. But it travels immensely slowly; and after about one kilometre, stops dead. People jump in the water for a swim; but there is no ladder, making it hard to board – you have to seize one of the tyres used as tenders, and haul yourself up – quite a feat of strength. I stay on board, puzzled like everyone else as to why we have stopped in this random place, and why there is no ladder.

People try to drink their pre-ordered beers. But the fridge is not working. The drinks are warm. Disaster. Some people drink the warm beers regardless. The rest of us stand around waiting for something to happen and hoping the beers will cool down (they don’t). G tells us that we will stay here to watch the sunset. This is odd; the programme says we should be watching the sunset at “Kanawa Island” – a place, mysteriously, which Google Maps suggests is hundreds of miles away. Hours pass. The entire crew, including G, prepares food in the space by the engine room between the two loos.

Komodo cruise: waiting for the next Bintang
Waiting for dinner (Photo: LT)

At around 21.15, dinner appears – rice, noodles and chicken stew. Several people are furious when the food runs out before they reach the front of the queue. Others are disappointed that there is no vegetarian option. Others rage at the delays. No-one tells us what is happening.

A fuel ship arrives

A supply ship arrives with sacks of ice, which is loaded into the non-functioning freezer. Later, a bigger boat arrives, full of canisters of fuel. We spend an hour pumping it aboard. Some passengers, warm-beer-fuelled, are relaxed; others are passionately angry – a day of the cruise has been wasted. Others ask why is there no ladder to allow them to get out of the water after swimming.

I go to my cabin at around 23.00. The temperature is OK but the noise from the crew outside, who are full of discussion, is deafening and seems to go on all night. The door of the toilet next to my cabin is a stiff, heavy sliding wooden job with no lock or handle. It is hard to open and close – many people complain they cannot open it once inside. People whack it open and shut with a huge clunk at regular intervals. I eventually drift off, waking around 6 a.m.

Komodo Cruise Day 2

The ship has been under way through the night and we awake to find ourselves well down the long thin island, Sumbawa or West Nusa Tenggara, that lies between Lombok and Komodo Island. Banana pancakes are served for breakfast. The boat still seems to be immensely slow.

Eventually we enter the huge bay at Sumbawa where the whale sharks are said to be. Several passengers complain that we are late; it is a well-known fact, they say, that whale sharks can only be seen at 5 a.m. What is the point of coming so late in the day? We motor on for hours through the bay. At around 11 a.m., G calls us all together. He apologises. We are at the whale shark spot, he says, but are too late to see them. Do we want to stay until the following morning, at 5 a.m., to see if they put in an appearance? Or should we have a quick swim at a nearby snorkelling spot, then motor on towards Komodo?

No whale sharks

Many passengers are outraged. First, our Komodo cruise has missed Kanawa Island, wherever it is, and wasted a whole day. Now we have missed the whale sharks. People agree we should hang around in the hope of seeing them in the morning. Emotions bubble over; some people attack G, others defend him. G says that the boat is too slow – there is nothing he can do.

Why is the ship designed like this?

Gradually we get grimier. Most of the time, there is no running water to wash your hands. When water is, occasionally, turned on, the cold-water shower is in fact sea water. We are in and out of the sea and thick with suntan lotion. Two key corridors on the ship are constantly wet and lined with red-hot exhaust pipes from the engine room; as you paddle through what passengers have dubbed “Gasoline Alley”, the smell of fuel is powerful.

Komodo Cruise: kitchen area
Kitchen area: loo top left, my cabin door with the block of wood by it (Photo: Team Komodo)

Everything from banisters to stairs and ourselves is sticky and damp. We long for a warm shower and some soap. I am impressed by the youngsters who have been on travels like this for months. The friendly and numerous crew occupy the rear zone of the boat, smoking or preparing food, smiling warmly as you squeeze past to the toilets. 

Komodo cruise: night-time scene
An evening on the top deck (Photo: LT)

Why, people muse, is the design of our Komodo cruise ship so odd? There are no tables at which to sit; you eat off your lap. Nor is there anywhere comfortable in the shade. Why is there no safety briefing? Where are the life jackets? Why is there no ladder? Why are we too late to see the whale sharks? Having decided to stay 16 hours to see them, a counter-movement argues that they might not appear, and even if they do, we shall then be 24 hours behind schedule and in an impossible rush to make it to Komodo. We set off. First, to make up for the whale sharks, the boat pootles off to a nearby snorkelling spot.

Open water

Lots of people jump in. Impressive coral beds lie nearby. But a powerful current sweeps most of the dozens of swimmers hundreds of metres behind the ship. I try to swim against the stream; it is impossible. Will the ship come and get us? Is anyone paying attention, or in charge? In fact, the ship is moving further away, perhaps to avoid shallow water. I escape the current and manage to swim back to the ship. Clambering on board, via a tyre on a rope, is arduous. Back aboard I find that I am bleeding from several points on my feet where I have gouged them against the rough, steel sides of the ship as I scrabble for traction.

Komodo cruise: Passengers help swimmers to board the ship
Passengers help swimmers to board the ship (Photo: Team Komodo)

Passengers help each other to board. Eventually the last swimmers manage to swim back. Lunch is served: a bit of spicy paste, noodles and rice. The vegetarians are happy. Others say they have had enough of noodles and rice.

As the ship grinds its way back out of the bay, G announces that we will all get three free beers as compensation for the delays. The most upset people denounce this as a travesty – how can a few beers compensate for so many missed attractions? But the majority are delighted to drink the beers, which although not cold are at least no longer warm. At the front of the ship, in the blazing midday sun, younger types play drinking games. After a while, several climb the mast and jump off the moving boat into the sea. We rapidly leave them in our wake.

Luckily the captain spots this, and stops the boat. G points out that this will delay us arriving at Komodo. The swimmers drink more beer. After around an hour, everyone has climbed back on board and we set off again.

Komodo Cruise: who goes on such a crazy trip?

The team on the perfect beach near Komodo
Team Komodo on the perfect beach (Photo: Team Komodo)

The passengers on our Komodo Cruise are a fascinating and entertaining bunch. Many have been travelling for months, taking in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia etc etc. Nationalities include Spaniards, Dutch (lots), Brits; Germans (lots), Turks, Italians, Canadians, Australians, Americans, New Zealanders, Belgians, Argentines and Danes, as well as plenty of people who wisely cross over national divides. Most are under 30, although there are a few older types including me. Nearly everyone is conspicuously friendly and we enjoy many lively discussions as well as exchanging travel tips.

Triangle of Sadness

In addition to G, the crew includes S who also speaks English and does sterling work trying to keep the drinks cold, and under control. The rest of the crew range from a couple of young boys to a grizzled veteran. None speak any English or are conspicuously expert in sailing, cooking, cleaning or anything else. Someone says it’s like “Triangle of Sadness” – without the luxury. How would we do if stranded on an island? We hope we don’t have to find out.

Dinner on Day 2 is noodles and rice, plus a spoonful of vegetables. People point out that the menu for this evening had promised “fish curry and veg curry and chicken curry”. How come we are not eating any fish whatsoever, despite being on the ocean? Why is there no ladder?

Komodo Cruise Day 3

We motor throughout the second night. I try sleeping on the deck, which is surprisingly cool and more comfortable than my cabin, but am driven indoors by a rain shower at 1 a.m. The crew are much quieter but still wake me up preparing breakfast in the early hours (they start at 4 a.m.). Breakfast is banana pancakes again, with thermos flasks of hot water to make lifesaving tea or instant coffee.

Komodo cruise: watching the sea go by
Watching the sea go by (Photo: LT)

We are by now round the back of Komodo Island, home to the National Park and the famous Komodo Dragons. But a fresh problem arises. Despite not staying to see the whale sharks, we are too late to climb the famous hill on Padar Island at dawn, as planned, before heading to Komodo Island. Since we have to do Padar Island and Komodo using our national park tickets for a single day, we can’t do either.  G announces, to general dismay, that we shall instead go to “Manta Point” to snorkel; then visit a beach; then aim to do Padar Island and Komodo Island on the fourth, final day.

The new schedule will mean a late arrival in Labuan Bajo, on Flores Island, at the end of our trip. Disgruntled passengers say that, taking in turn the attractions advertised for our Komodo Cruise, on Day 1 we did not see Kanawa Island. On Day 2 we did not see the whale sharks. On Day 3 we have not seen Komodo, Pink Beach or Padar Island. There is no wifi on board; and the food bears no resemblance to what is on the advertising flyer but is always noodles and rice. Plus, there is no ladder to get in and out of the water.

Things look up

The good news is that the snorkelling at “Manta Point” is spectacular. Almost immediately after jumping into the ocean I see a huge manta ray. Is it 4m across? 3m? Huge, anyhow, and spectacular. Someone points out a shark lying on the bottom. Others see more mantas, and sharks. The water is deep and crystal clear. Loath to get too far from the boat, I climb back on board – they’ve lowered a tyre a bit and I have shoes on, so do not injure myself further, although many people, particularly women, complain that it’s still an ordeal. Why is there no ladder?

About 90% of the swimmers have drifted miles from the ship and are now specks on the horizon. The boat lowers a tender to go and rescue them. There is no attempt to count people in and out – one passenger is asked “is that everyone?” Conversely, many passengers seem relaxed about the risks of drifting off away from the boat, out to sea. Haven’t they seen “Open Water”?

Komodo cruise: rescuing drifting swimmers
The ship’s tender rescues swimmers (Photo: LT)

Komodo cruise: the perfect beach

We motor for several hours to a beach. This is a gorgeous sweep of pink sand, lined with shacks selling coconut juice and beer. Outstanding soft and hard coral formations teem with tropical fish of every kind – including clown fish sheltering cutely in anemones. Everyone sinks into a torpor of deep pleasure, which continues when we return to the boat and view a spectacular sunset, surrounded by mountains and sea. We are due to be up at 4.30 a.m. to climb to the summit of Padar Island to see the sunrise in the morning.

Komodo Cruise: Sunset on Day 3
Sunset on Day 3 (Photo: LT)

Komodo Cruise: Day 4

We duly rise in pitch darkness. I am lucky to be in the first boat, containing about eight people. We splash ashore and set off up a steep flight of stairs in the dark. The mountain is deserted. At the summit about half an hour before the sun rises, we wait for our fellow-passengers to arrive. Because the unloading is slow, some do not reach the island until after sunrise. But for the early ones, the show is spectacular as the sun appears over a splendid array of rugged islands and beaches. A magical moment.

Leigh Turner on Padar Island, Komodo
Dawn on Padar Island (Photo: Team Komodo)

Later arrivals tell us we should have stopped at a “stop” sign we failed to see in the night. The place where we ended up at 5.20 a.m. was a dangerous narrow ridge with precipitous drops on each side, allegedly teeming with deadly “green vipers”. But we see no sign of vipers, no-one falls off the ridge and the views are awesome – a highlight of our Komodo cruise.

We descend amongst boatloads of other tourists arriving on day trips from Labuan Bajo, and re-board the main ship. As usual we have to climb up tyres to get on. Why don’t they have a ladder? We eat our banana pancakes for breakfast (later there will be noodles and rice for lunch) and set off for Komodo National Park.

The heart of the matter: Komodo Dragons

The National Park is spectacular. It’s a big island – about 20 km square – but as soon as you land you see the “dragons” everywhere.

Komodo Dragon
A Komodo Dragon on its nest (Photo: LT)

Many of the giant lizards are adults, more than 2m long but moving rarely and ponderously. Others are juvenile, around 1m long and friskier. We split into groups and do tours of varying length – I join the “long tour” group. We walk through the immensely hot forest searching for more Komodo Dragons and see six or seven more – perhaps twenty including those around the dock. Supposedly we were lucky – the “ranger” tells us visitors the day before saw zero Komodo Dragons.

A Komodo Dragon slumbers by the water's edge
A Komodo Dragon slumbers by the water’s edge (Photo: LT)

Finally we return to the boat for one final stop at pretty Kelor Island for another snorkelling beach, supposedly 30 minutes from Labuan Bajo. We climb the island and drink beer until about six p.m.

At the summit of Kelor Island (Photo: Team Komodo)

Up to this point the final two days of our Komodo Cruise have been feeling pretty good, despite the deteriorating food and general sense of squalor on board. But after leaving Kelor, our slow-moving boat takes hours to reach Labuan Bajo, arriving around nine p.m. At this point we learn, to our horror, that for some reason we will not moor at the dock, but will disembark via the little tender.

Rage sweeps the ship. The first tender, allowing five people to scramble down the tyres on the side of the boat clutching their luggage (why isn’t there a ladder?) leaves at around 21.30 and does not return until nearly 22.00. We calculate that the last of us will leave the boat at about 3 a.m.

Thankfully, at this point common sense intervenes. The ship pulls up its anchor and moors at the main dock. Why did it not do this in the first place? We surge ashore at around 22.30. After tearful farewells between passengers and crew – with whom, in our adversity, we have formed a strong bond – we fan out towards our guest houses.

Komodo Cruise: how was it?

Overall, the Komodo Cruise is one of the most memorable holidays I’ve had in years. Highlights included the beach on Day 3, and Padar Island and Komodo on Day 4. But it’s been a bit gruelling.

The sought-after covered deck sleeping area at the rear of the ship (Photo: Team Komodo)

The day after we have landed and gone our separate ways, I receive a text from one of the friends I have made on board. ‘What a great trip we all had, hey?!’ she writes.

That about sums it up.

What to do next

I’d love to hear your experiences of Komodo cruises – especially if they were spectacularly better than this (or worse – see below). You can comment in the space below – see “Leave a Reply”.

If you’d like to read more of my travel writing, including for the Financial Times and the Boston Globe, click here. Or if you’d like to read one of my thrillers or comedies, click on the strip below.

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Komodo Cruise: Stop Press

Since writing this, I have seen reports and photos suggesting that a sister ship, the Pulau Mas 168, actually ran aground on some coral, days after our Komodo cruise, and had to be abandoned. A couple of photos are below.

Can you spot the difference between the two? Yes. The Komodo cruise ship that got stranded had a ladder.

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14 Responses

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the piece , Leigh. You are certainly a hands-on travel writer. Trying and testing with your own bare hands and feet the niceties of a trip !

    Well done – we enjoyed reading about your Komodo adventure in sleety Vienna !

    Good wishes
    Eudes & Sean

  2. Hello Leigh, you couldn’t describe our trip better than this.. it has been a magnificent and awful adventure, but I’m glad that we did it together!

    1. Thanks Andrea! Loved travelling with you and delighted you enjoyed the story as told! Can’t wait to find out if the ship really did run aground on its next outing…

  3. Amazing read Leigh – felt just like living it all over again!😂 It was a pleasure to enjoy the highs and lows of the trip with such a tirelessly optimistic bunch.

  4. Hi Leigh. A well written piece that accurately describes our experience! Why was there no ladder?

    I just want to record here that it has since been reported that this company crashed/beached their next boat at 3am on the 24th January. The boat had the be evacuated at 8am that day. Dragon Sailing Trif (or Trip – depending on what poster you see) should be avoided. They are not safe or competent to run this trip.

    1. I fear I would hesitate to recommend them….! I don’t know why there wasn’t a ladder. But there was one on the ship that crashed. Could that be significant?

  5. Der Leigh,

    This is an unbelievable story. How you all survived without getting violently ill, without getting lost in the sea or without getting seriously injured is beyond me.

    I am glad I was not one of the passengers:))

    Apart from the incredible experience, your storytelling is very powerful, I not only enjoyed reading your blog, I felt as if I was part of the whole experience..

    Keep it coming…

    All the best,

    Belgin

  6. Lovely tale, Leigh. I’m glad you are travelling once more. There is a lot of world out there to see.

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