A private tour around Komodo National Park for under satu juta Rupiah, or roughly 103 USD, roundtrip from Bali can be done – if it must. A lucky promo at Rp.174,000, or 17 USD, and I was off to a good start.
Arriving at Labuan Bajo airport, I popped in my ear buds. It was Flores; I would be expected. Drowned-out offers for transportation and accommodation followed me downhill for two kilometers into the beat, central three-way of downtown Labuan Bajo.
For Rp.70,000, or 7 USD a day, I hired a Honda Vario – two wheels to get around any foreseeable tourist traps. The road sloped down to the harbor, and I dodged a few offers for boats to Komodo Island.
After taking a closer look at a free map of the national park, I pinned one unexplored option: Kampung Worloka. Closer by 30 kilometers to the islands of Komodo, the little fishing village could probably use some business. Despite the advice of the Labuan Bajo guides who warned me of wild komodo in the area, adding that the road is impassable, hey I’m a curious kid.
The route dwindled from two-lane pavement to deer trails, broad rivers, boulders – a mud-caked buffalo camouflaged as one – and finally, rustic paths carved as if by a long dangling tail. Though village-after-village, I followed another motorcyclist; the houses gradually rose up onto stilts as we distanced the larger kampung. In one desa, I stopped to buy water; for the first time in months, I paid the local price. Getting anything but inflated prices felt like robbery, so I threw in some kerupuk and a soda.
Men striding slowly around the sandy street were all wearing bibs, bibs that looked like aprons that looked like plaid dresses, swaying down to their ankles. One young face explained that his cloth, called simply baju kemeja, should be worn by a man after showering – though evidently it could stay on for the rest of the day.
Through farmers’ fields and over hills, passed tens of “hello Mister!” peeping out from the dirt-floor shade under homes, the road back to nature then disappeared in wiry brush and rushing water. Hesitantly, I left my scoot at the wooden shack of Pak Ali – just a man who had been sitting sifting rice with his children, wife, and many chickens. We exchanged numbers, and I began the five-kilometer trek in alone.
On an arid, treeless hill in west Flores, the horizon a shattered jaw of mountains, no visible path was to be found, but a breeze was helping keep my cool. Spotting the bamboo rooftop of an outpost, I rejoined the trail there, reassured by human voices in the gnarled trees. Mobiles to the sky, signal searching on a faded hill, four Worlokans approached, speaking the local dialect. I greeted them in Bahasa Indonesia. Fluidly, we descended a twisting footpath on the narrow bank of a slope – a rugged, spiraling staircase. Wind in trees and breaking waves sounded together with murmurs of children playing soccer and the Azan Maghrib call to prayer. Between wiry trees the village peer, Rinca Island, and the entire, isolated Muslim settlement on stilts was vivid and inviting.
Sustenance that night was limited to indomie rebus telur ceplok, instant noodles with carrots and egg, sweet coffee and cookies on a wooden bench worn smooth, resting outside of the village’s only store. Fresh from showering, men in sarong came from the Mosques and women budged into the circle, the usual Q&A commencing. Feeling grimy, I excused myself, stepping carefully around cats and rabbits on my way to shower, returning later to find tens of families gathered around the shop. Being the only place with a generator, games of chess and dominoes went on in front; the main focus was not the invasive and inapt Sinetron soap opera about the love affairs and extravagance of fictional Jakartan suburbanites.
After the generator died, the warung’s proprietor hung a butane lantern from a crossbeam. She set out a mattress where I slept surrounded by Kopi ABC, packets of shampoo, Indomie, DJ Sam Soe, kerupuk, keripik, kacang, oreos, razors, and spiralling Baygon.
After sunrise, I bought Fisherman Pak Bardi some breakfast, and then he led me down the peer to his boat, outboard engine over-shoulder. The trunk of a single tree comprised the entire, oil-soaked vessel – as wide as my shoulders and roughly five meters long. Bardi reused yellowing water bottles to transport gasoline into the outboard, spilling left and right while puffing a kretek cigarette. With a few tough pulls of the starter, blue smoke and a sound like a jackhammer, we pushed off towards Pulau Rinca at sunrise.
Boatloads of Germans were taking up the dock, but Pak Bardi and I squeezed in between their fat hulls. My weary greeting to these other tourists was not even acknowledged. At that early hour, the komodo dragons, salivating poisonously, were more personable.
Obliged to hire a local guide carrying a forked stick kayu cabang used to distance the buaya darat ‘land alligators’, we did the well-treaded loop of sun-baked Pulau Rinca, spotting over twenty large dragons, nesting, sleeping, and eating scraps. The island, though not as renown as Komodo Island, features the same animals, is not as far, and not yet as touristic.
Bardi produced some blue smoke and we glided for a few hours over the turquoise currents that mixed between islands – all the way to Pulau Kalong. Opposite this mangrove island was a beach where we anchored and waited for sunset. The gentle fisherman spoke deferentially, retelling the simple rituals of fishing life and controversies in the area involving a man who patrollers shot and killed for fishing with dynamite in the national park.
After pruning and relaxing, drawing lizards in the sand, I took a large piece of bamboo and, with Bardi trying to intervene, pushed the boat once around the island. Returning back where we began, the sunset was at its deepest, and a few kalong flapped out of the mangroves. Within minutes, the vivid sunset was set in behind the wings of these giant fruit bats. This spectacle – not the giant, lazing dragons – was assurance: it was worth it, now.
That night, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the family on the wooden boards of their warung. Bardi came to visit in the morning, offering to guide me up to see the mysterious batu meja stone tables found on the top of a hill overlooking the village. A few hours of climbing in Floresian heat and the stone tables were seen as separate from all the hype. More intriguing, however, was the fisherman’s story of archaeologists from Palembang, Sumatra, who had come and excavated there. According to Bardi, they had hired some locals, removing bones and possessions from a gravesite, but of what the crew paid the Mayor, no money made it into the hands of the Worlokans. As we made our way back to the village, Bardi told me he knew of many more burial sites. Though they’d been requesting a metal detector for a few years, no one had expressed interest. He asked if I would be interested in returning with one to dig with him. I didn’t say it sounded like the most exciting proposition in a long time.
After settling up with Bardi and the store owners, a group lead me five kilometers back to Pak Ali’s, where I was pleased to see my bike again. Before returning to Labuan Bajo to pitch a tent on a beach and catch a morning flight back to Bali, I told my brother I hoped to return. Bardi walked off down a sandy footpath towards his parent’s farm to give them a cut of his pay. It seemed we were both glad I’d spontaneously chosen Worloka.