Like many visitors to this World Heritage-listed cluster of Indonesian islands between Flores and Sumbawa, I’d been lured by the prospect of seeing one of earth’s last remaining dinosaurs – the Komodo dragon. But for many, diving is the drawcard, with strong currents the perfect tonic for providing nutrient-rich waters harbouring abundant marine life.
Words and images by Mark Daffey
“Indonesia is the best place in the world for diving,” says French dive instructor Cedric Lesenchal, whose resumé lists the Red and Andaman Seas, and dive sites off the coasts of Spain, Africa and Malaysia among the many places around the world where he’s donned an aqualung to explore underwater. “Nothing beats this part of Indonesia; even your Great Barrier Reef. The variety, the water clarity, the remoteness – I don’t want to live anywhere else,” he says.
The ‘part’ of Indonesia he’s referring to are the islands in and around the Banda Sea, from the coral reefs inside the Komodo National Park in the south, where we went, to the south-east Sulawesi coastline further north, and over to Raja Ampat, an archipelago of some 1,500 islands off the north-west tip of West Papua. All are located within the Coral Triangle, an area housing 76 per cent of the world’s coral species, and 37 per cent of the world’s fish species, despite spanning just 1.6 per cent of the world’s oceans. Thousands of islands of varying dimensions – many uninhabited – are scattered within this region, and it is here where the Prana by Atzaro, a new hand-built 55-metre-long ironwood and teak twin-masted yacht, crafted in the style of an Indonesian phinisi by boutique hotel brand Atzaro, is based. “Everyone is watching us,” says Prana by Atzaro’s Mauritian cruise director, Andy Brusselmans.
As well they should be. In a market flooded with rudimentary putt-putts popular with backpackers who are willing to eat rice and fruit and sleep on deck for AU$50 a night, Prana by Atzaro has taken the area’s luxury cruise sector to a whole new level.
Up to 18 guests can be accommodated in nine stylishly appointed ensuite cabins across four decks, with an equal number of crew members – spa therapists and yoga teachers included – catering to their whims. On still evenings crew members set up an open-air cinema, where sundowners are served beneath star-studded skies, as millions of fruit bats wake from their daytime slumbers to feed. And the food – a succulent fusion of Asian and Western cuisine, prepared by the yacht’s passionate Chilean chef Bruno Noerr Pimentel using local ingredients – is oh-so mouth-watering.
Our four-day itinerary is concentrated around the Komodo National Park’s 29 islands and countless coral reefs. From our departure port of Labuan Bajo in Western Flores, our first night’s anchorage is off Sebayur Kecil Island, where we have our first underwater exploration. Some dive, others snorkel with moray eels, black-tip reef sharks and blue-spotted rays, among the many marine species seen.
Over the next few days our skipper Andi Buhar, who hails from a long line of seafarers from the island of Sulawesi, drops anchor close to manta ray cleaning stations and off beaches teeming with reef life. The Komodo National Park website details 42 dive sites within its boundaries, but we also swim off tidal sand spits that could be plastered across billboards advertising idyllic tropical getaways. We paddle on kayaks and stand-up paddleboards across limpid bays. On Padar Island, we hike up a precarious ridgeline for sunset views over splintered limestone promontories interspersed with sweeping bays.
That same evening, we hoe down a tasty barbecue dinner on a torch-lit beach that’s otherwise deserted. In between times, it’s all about enjoying the comforts of the yacht. On this voyage, guests have come from New York, London and Milan. Wallowing in the region’s tepid waters or escaping work commitments to laze on the yacht’s sun deck appeal to some, as of course does the diving and snorkelling, but, without hesitating for a moment, all were prepared to jump on a plane and fly halfway around the world for the opportunity to see Komodo dragons in the wild.
From once roaming across parts of Australia and the Indonesian archipelago, the dragons are now found on just four islands – Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Nusa Kode. Numbers have dwindled to roughly 3,000 in the Komodo National Park, caused by rising sea levels, Indonesia’s rampant population expansion and poaching of the dragon’s main prey, the Timor deer. To see these prehistoric beasts, most visitors assemble outside the ranger’s office on Komodo Island each day. But Prana by Atzaro has taken a different tack, navigating away from the crowds to an uninhabited island off the southern point of Rinca Island.
In Nusa Kode’s Horseshoe Bay, palm-like pandanus and fig trees fringe an empty beach at the foot of a jungled slope. From a distance, we spot three dragons prowling along the water’s edge. As we approach the beach in our tenders, a further three dragons emerge from the bushes.
“The sound of the engines attracts them. They think they are going to be fed,” says Brusselmans, suggesting some onlookers do exactly that. Initially, we patrol the shoreline from a distance. Eventually, though, our tender driver inches closer. The dragons mill along the shoreline, keeping an eye on us, until one – a 100kg male – eases into the water and swims out to us, swishing its tail from side to side. Our driver pulls back, prompting the cold-blooded dragon to return to shore.
“It won’t come in again,” says Lesenchal. “The water is too cold for them. They never swim more than once.”
While the dragons continue to monitor our movements, as long as we keep our distance they remain mostly immobile, conserving energy for when it’s needed for hunting. Dragons can go without meals for weeks on end, and it’s believed they can survive on just 12 meals each year. With a grain-fed pork belly lunch that’s been slow-cooked for 12 hours and marinated using 22 ingredients waiting for us back on the Prana by Atzaro, that’s hard for us to imagine.
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