The Archipelago Journal: Labuan Bajo
The Portuguese explorers fell in love with Labuan Bajo, the Cape of Flowers, more than three centuries ago. Now the town – described by Lonely Planet as ‘Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot’ – has become a springboard to adventure for modern-day travellers.
Words and photography by Mark Eveleigh
When you first arrive on the western tip of Flores, you are instantly assailed by the splash of colours and tropical scents that inspired those early explorers to name this place ‘Cape of Flowers’.
From its birth as a sleepy little Bajau Laut (Sea Gypsy) fishing village, Labuan Bajo – literally ‘The Bajau anchorage’ – has grown to the point where it is one of the tourist boomtowns of Indonesia. However, most modern-day travellers use the town primarily as a springboard for a road trip into the highlands or as the launch pad for boat trips into Komodo National Park.
The lair of the legendary Komodo dragons lies just four hours southwest from here, and there is an entire fleet of vessels available to carry visitors on explorations right through the tangle of what might be the most evocatively alluring archipelago on the planet.
Some of the most luxurious traditional sailing ships in the world spend part of their year based in Labuan Bajo, and their elegant forms add an unmistakeable air of romance to any view of the bay. But cruising in Komodo need not be the reserve only of luxury travellers and, for those on a budget, the fleet of local boats offers what must be one of the world’s most affordable private cruises. It’s possible to hire a simple boat complete with skipper and mate (with food, water, fuel and snorkelling equipment included) for around US$100 per day. You sleep on the deck, eat meals cooked in the onboard galley and explore the archipelago at will. Take time to track down an experienced skipper who knows the unpredictable currents and treacherous reefs intimately, and do your best to ensure that the boat is well equipped and reliable.
While Labuan Bajo has often been considered just a gateway to this world of adventure, increasing numbers of travellers are discovering that the town itself has enough of interest to keep them occupied without having to move on. This friendly little town is small enough so that a gentle stroll from one end of the main street to the other takes less than half an hour. Where once dining options were limited to a few simple warungs (local eateries), there are now established restaurants all through the coastal part of town serving excellent fresh fish and perfectly prepared local vegetables. One of the must-try local specialities is ikan kuah sunu (deliciously refreshing sour fish soup) and Flores-style shrimp steamboat.
The night market also has stalls selling delicious fresh fish and rice (from about IDR30,000), and the morning market – with groaning tables loaded with vibrant reef fish and baskets crammed with an amazing selection of fresh fruit and vegetables – is the perfect place to get an insight into life as it has been lived here for centuries.
The road climbs steeply as it runs inland from Labuan Bajo, through ranked plantations and orchards and rioting tangles of forest where you have the feeling you can actually hear the vegetation growing. The volcanic island lies supine, like a brooding dragon with its back arched in great scaly ridges. The highlands of Flores, with the cooling trade-winds that take some of the power out of the tropical sun, have become known as some of the best trekking areas in the country. Areas like Bajawa (with its traditional villages) and the colourful crater-lake landscapes of Kelimutu have served to convince many tourists to bypass Komodo in favour of trekking trips through little-known highland valleys. Many continue on overland expeditions eastwards along the legendary 666 kms of the grandly named Trans-Flores Highway to the beautiful Maumere region, and even across the length of the island to Larantuka with its rich Portuguese heritage.
You might arrive on the western shore of Flores with plans to continue travelling onwards but, like many, you might find yourself seduced by Labuan Bajo because this charming little town is more than just a departure point. It is a destination in its own right. Resist the temptation to move on too soon, and you are sure to see that even in these days of tourist boom there is still something timelessly romantic about Labuan Bajo. Out in the bay, a fleet of noble tall ships still pirouette at anchor on the swirling tide and little timber fishing boats jostle at their moorings near the old fish market.
Times might be changing for Labuan Bajo, but standing on the hillside looking down into the tangle of islands that lie offshore, it is easy to imagine that the view has changed little in the three centuries since buccaneer William Dampier anchored his man-o-war in these waters. The air of adventure is still very much alive and well in the Cape of Flowers.
Denpasar to Labuan Bajo
Flight Time 1 hour 25 minutes
Frequency 63 ﬂights per week
From Colours March 2016
5 Senses – Touch
FEEL THE FEAR
Feel the spine-tingling tension of a walk among dragons. Komodo dragons – Indonesia’s great super-predator – are giant lizards that are known as highly aggressive animals. Bear in mind, though, that they are equipped with lightning attack speeds, toxic saliva (although the jury is still out on whether thisis venom or merely bacteria), jaws powerful enough to crunch buffalo bones and a complete fearlessness whenit comes to attacking large animals. While Komodo Island is more famous, nearby Rinca Island offers wilder trekking opportunities. Park fees and guide hire now cost around US$20 per person.