Indonesia - Komodo and Rinca Islands
The Indonesian archipelago offers some of the most stunning vistas the world has to offer, and much of it can only be explored by yacht – Komodo Island, home to a dragon that may have been the inspiration for the Chinese dragon, is one of the best for natural exploration.
Indonesia is the world’s largest island archipelago. The 17,000 islands of Indonesia stretch in a vast crescent, 5200 kilometres long, in a sweep from Sumatra in the Indian Ocean to Halmahera in the Pacific Ocean. The number and scope of the islands that make up Indonesia almost defies comprehension – if you started visiting Indonesian islands tomorrow at a rate of one island each day, it would take you until the year 2056 to get to them all.
Much of this island chain was formed by ancient volcanoes along a subduction zone on the boundary of the Eurasian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. Today, the Indonesian landscape is dominated by over 400 volcanoes, of which approximately 130 are presently active. There are, literally, thousands of Indonesian islands that typify the perfect uninhabited “castaway island” of popular imagination. Tranquil blue ocean, white sandy beaches fringed by palms, backed by tropical jungle with a gigantic mountain or volcano reaching to the clouds behind – these are the sights of much of the archipelago.
The first sailors of Indonesia
With consistent winds year round, Indonesia has a long and illustrious history of sailing. As early as the first century, Indonesian outrigger sailing canoes were using the monsoon winds to trade with the ancient sea ports along the coasts of India, China and east Africa. From these distant ports came cotton, silks, ivory and ceramics while Indonesia’s early exports were the legendary spices: mace, cloves, nutmeg and pepper.
These simple but highly effective sailing canoes were the forebears of the Polynesian sailing canoes that carried the Austronesian-speaking people of Southeast Asia eastward through the Indonesia archipelago and onwards into the Pacific to become the modern day Polynesians and Melanesians. These canoes also ventured westward into the Indian Ocean to populate islands as far afield as Madagascar. Today nearly all of the Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores fishing fleets still use outrigger sailing canoes, the basic design of which has hardly changed in thousands of years.
The first European sailors in these waters were the Portuguese, who followed in the steps of Magellan’s circumnavigation. They came to these waters seeking the legendary “Spice Islands”. The financial success of Magellan’s voyage and huge profits from spices sold on European markets ultimately led to the colonisation of Indonesia – first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch.
Today, the benign climate, superb sailing conditions, more than 10,000 uninhabited islands and the gradually emerging political stability of the area give Indonesia enormous potential for yachting tourism in the future. A great attraction of this vast area is that many of the Indonesian islands are simply unreachable without a private yacht. If you want to experience the best of this varied and amazing country, there’s almost no better way than by yacht.
Contrary to popular imagination, the islands of Indonesia are not all of the same climate. Indonesia covers an area the size of the Mediterranean basin, which means that there are many different climates, soils and terrains. This has, in turn, given rise to an astonishing richness of plant and animal life that is second only to that found in the Amazonian rainforest.
With influences from both Asia and Australia, many uniquely Indonesian species evolved in isolated island environments, which gives rise to individual wonders such as found at Komodo Island – there are in fact many spectacular species in Indonesia that are found nowhere else on the planet. These include the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran & Borneo Orangutans, Sulawesi Tree Kangaroos and the Komodo Dragon (a giant carnivorous lizard). In fact, around 40 percent of the mammals found in Indonesia can only be found in this island-nation.
This is to say nothing of the indigenous plants that visitors will find. There are over 40,000 different flowering plants in Indonesia, one of which, the Rafflesia, is the world’s largest. In addition to nearly 3000 species of orchids and 60 species of carnivorous plants, there are the herbs that brought the traders and explorers
Plants are similarly well represented in Indonesia with over 40,000 different species of flowering plants including the world’s largest flower (Rafflesia), nearly 3000 species of orchids and over 60 species of carnivorous plants! Nutmeg, mace, cloves and pepper all originated in Indonesia.
Surfers, whether very experienced or just keen to start, will get plenty out of a trip to Indonesia. Indeed, one of the world’s top spots for surfing is well-known resort island-province Bali. But that hasn’t stopped surfers venturing further and further out to the rest of the archipelago. And for good reason – the next landmass south of Indonesia, in particular the Nusa Tenggara stretch of islands, of which Komodo is a part, is Antartica.
From June to September each year, huge winter storms thousands of miles away in the Southern Ocean generate enormous swells that move north, breaking on Indonesia’s south and west facing shorelines, thousands of miles away. This large swell arrives from almost the opposite direction to the prevailing wind, creating magnificent conditions for surfing. The Mentawai islands, Sumatra and the Nusa Tenggara islands of Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa are now famous for their great surfing. Further afield, Doa, Raidjua and Halura are less well known islands that offer world class surfing. As with everywhere else in Indonesia, arriving by yacht allows you to get to places that others can only dream of.
While many countries and yachting destinations use the tired cliché of “the best diving in the world” in their tourist literature, Indonesia can reasonably lay claim to this title. The “Raja Ampat” National Park in West Papua is considered by Conservation International as having the highest marine diversity on the planet and this view is also supported by National Geographic magazine. Komodo, Sulawesi, Alor, Wetar and the Banda islands are equally spectacular for underwater explorers. Indonesia’s diving potential has hardly been scratched – there are thousands of offshore reefs, volcanoes, pinnacles and seamounts that have never been dived before. Even experienced divers will find themselves excitedly paging through reference books trying to figure out what they have just seen underwater.
Komodo and Rinca Islands
In the Sape Strait that separates the huge islands of Sumbawa and Flores lies the spectacular Komodo National Park. This huge 2200-square kilometers of marine park encompassing 30 islands is one of the oldest National Parks in Southeast Asia dating from a protection order by the Rajah of Bima in 1922. Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Access to the Komodo National Park is via two airports: Labuan Bajo on Flores island and Bima on Sumbawa island. These two airports have domestic flight connections to the international airports at Bali and Lombok.
The majority of tourists arriving in Labuan Bajo are backpackers who take budget boat trips to see Komodo National Park. These boats all kindly follow a well-worn tourist trail to the Komodo Park Headquarters and back. The main features of these tours are other tourists and people trying to sell you wooden carvings of Komodo Dragons.
The moment you leave this tourist trail by yacht, you are left with vast expanses of magnificent natural wonderland to explore without ever seeing other tourists. The park is exceptionally well managed and monitored. There are occasional visits by park rangers to collect visiting fees and check for illegal poaching. The rangers are very friendly and knowledgeable about the park and the environment.
Heading south from Labuan Bajo on the east coast of Flores, the west coast of Rinca Island is predominately high cliffs, riven with deeply indented fjord-like bays. These provide perfectly protected anchorages in all conditions. Outside of the bays, the current runs at fearsome rates, creating standing waves and whirlpools.
The bays are protected by soaring rocky headlands riddled with caves. Inside the bays are hundreds of tiny white sand beaches, backed by dry grasslands with fan palms and pandanus rattling in the dry breeze. Overhead an eagle soars looking for fish while on the be
aches, Komodo Dragons, wild boar, Macaque monkeys and Timor deer are frequent visitors in the early mornings and the evenings.
One of the best ways of viewing the wildlife in this area is kayaking, which lets guests glide along quietly and unnoticed along the edge of a beach that may play host to a myriad of wildlife dramas. There is also superb walking in the area – a guide is mandatory as Komodo Dragons are large, voracious predators. You frequently feel as if you have been dropped into a Jurassic Park film set.
At the southern end of Rinca island lies an ancient, flooded volcanic crater that is open to the ocean with the island of Nusa Kode at its centre. Entry to this crater is dramatic with 400-metre high cliffs close at hand on both sides. This is a superb area with a perfectly protected anchorage off the front of a white sand beach frequented by HUGE Komodo Dragons – we have seen several of ten-foot in length here. This is another superb area for walking and kayaking. Nusa Kode also has exceptional diving and snorkeling with crystal clear waters and huge numbers of rays – in one dive at Nusa Kode we saw more than 100 blue spotted rays, a large fantailed ray, eight manta rays and an eagle ray.
Sailing west with the prevailing winds, our next stop is Pulau Padar. There are a number of idyllic anchorages around this island which has some of the most magnificent white beaches in the National Park. Pulau Padar has particularly good “wall diving” with sheer rock walls falling to immense depths along the shoreline. Drift dives along the coast of Pulau Padar are like exciting roller coaster rides as you are swept past stunning underwater scenery by the strong currents.
Another great downwind sail brings you to the southern end of Komodo Island. This part of Komodo is wild and primeval with large swell and enormous rock pinnacles both above and below water. In the middle of the bay is a chain of rocks that is frequented by manta rays, eagle rays and black tip reef sharks. For the more adventurous (and experienced) divers the more offshore rock pinnacles in this area offer the opportunity to get up close and personal with large oceanic sharks.
This southern part of Komodo has bizarre changes in water temperature as the warm waters of the Flores Sea pour south through the Sape Strait and mix with icy upwellings from the depths of the Indian Ocean. These upwellings which originate in Antarctica provide an endless supply of plankton and nutrients to the waters surrounding Komodo. This in turn supports the profusion of marine life in this area.
We then sail north along the west coast of Komodo Island heading for the Labuan Dokoh peninsula. While this is outside of the Komodo National Park, this peninsula is largely unpopulated except for the occasional visiting fishing boat. It is difficult to see why as this headland has around 50 white sand beaches fringed with pristine coral reefs and azure blue waters. The peninsula of Labuan Dokoh is covered with a dry mountain grass that makes walking easy and rewarding with magnificent views across Sape Strait to Komodo and Rinca in the distance.
There are few places on Earth left that are exceptionally beautiful and untouched. Komodo and Rinca Island constitute one such place. And because their best spots are unreachable by car, plane or even on foot, you are left with one of the finest yachting destinations on the planet.
All visitors to Indonesia require tourist visas. The nationals of 63 countries are granted 30 day visas on arrival. All other nationalities need to apply in advance to an Indonesian Embassy or Consulate.
All yachts wishing to visit Indonesia must have a cruising permit issued by the Indonesian Government. This cruising permit must list all the islands and major ports that you intend to visit in Indonesia. Like any other country, with the correct paperwork and permissions, checking into Indonesia is straightforward and hassle free.
Yacht Support Agencies:
At the moment, there is one major yacht support agency based in Indonesia that specialises in yachts over 25 metres called Indo Yacht Support. The principals are all former large yacht captains in the Mediterranean, and have been working hard from their base in Bali to encourage the big boats to make Indonesia a stop, as well as making it easy for yacht captains to do so.
Asia Pacific Superyachts specialises in yacht support throughout Southeast Asia, with offices and representatives in Hong Kong and Singapore. They have catered for several large yacht visits in the region, and have representatives
Both of these agencies can arrange the necessary paperwork for a cruising yacht visit to Indonesia.
Charter yachts tend to follow the Monsoons, making the Indonesian archipelago their home during the summer months and the Andaman Sea to the northeast their base in the winter. S/Y Asia, the charter yacht of author Paul Johnson, is available for charters in Indonesia and Komodo Island from June to October.
Other chartering operations tend to be of the Phinisi variety, such as Silolona and Raja Laut. These also tend to operate in Indonesian waters during the summer monsoon season.
The best time to visit Indonesia is during the dry season, from June to October. This is the Southern hemisphere winter, although the temperature at sea level only varies slightly on either side of a 28ºC median throughout the year. During this period, the Southeast Trade winds are well established, with dry winds that blow at 15 knots overnight and early morning, peaking at 20 to 25 knots in the late afternoon. There is a strong regional variation is climate in Indonesia – in general the further south and east you go, the drier it is.
Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines provide direct flights to Jakarta and Bali, while local airlines can provide transport to further reaches of the island. Private aviation firms such as MetroJet and Tag Aviation out of Hong Kong, and MyJet Asia out of Singapore, can fly exclusive charter parties to Lombok (closer than Bali) to join with their yacht for a cruise to Komodo, or to Labuanbajo on Flores Island, which is a popular jumping off point for private charters to Komodo National Park. Bali is also a popular start point, though it will require a couple of extra days cruising time to Komodo.