As another hot day gets underway on the ring of fire, I step onto the deck to feel the first blessed rays of the equatorial sun.
“There’s no better way to start the day than on the deck of a boat,” says a voice at my shoulder.
As the owner of what has been described as the most luxurious sailing vessel ever to have been built in Indonesia, American businessman Mark Robba knows what he’s talking about better than most.
The Indonesian crew – a mix of the most experienced sailors from 5 islands – have been up since before first light. They’ve already weighed anchor and Dunia Baru’s elegant bow is slicing forward across a reef that is flecked with diamonds from the early sun.
It’s a couple of days since we set sail from Bali and there’s still a long way to go before we make our final destination in Flores. But Dunia Baru has a state-of-the-art modern superyacht engine room that seems at odds with the traditional lines of her hardwood hull and, even with an unfavourable wind, we are making good time across Sumbawa’s north shore. The 51m ship has become an Indonesian icon since she made her maiden voyage in 2013. She was built by Sulawesi shipwrights in Kalimantan and no expense was spared when the sumptuous interiors were fitted out by the best carpenters in Bali.
“I want the boat to be more than just the best ever built in Indonesia,” Robba repeated to his team during the seven-year construction period. “I want it to be numbers one, two and three.”
We are still eating breakfast at the long aft-deck dining table when a crew-member comes down from the bridge to tell us that they have sighted Satonda Island dead ahead. We have already heard about this fascinating little island so all the guests onboard scramble for swimming gear, trekking shoes and cameras and we pile into one of the 3 auxiliary ribs. A ‘landing party’ from the crew also jump overboard to paddle kayaks and paddle-boards to the little ribbon of sand at the base of Satonda’s jungle-clad volcanic cone.
Like all of the islands here Satonda is an obvious product of the ring of fire. Like an emerald jewel, the entire centre of the island is a crater lake that visiting fishermen from nearby islands claim to be bottomless. It is only a short walk over the rim of the ancient volcano to a little lost world where we hauled the kayaks and SUPs into the water. It is an eerie sensation to dip our paddles into the mirror-like surface of the lake, drifting slowly to the distant shore were macaques and langurs squabble in a pristine forest that is normally completely inaccessible to human visitors.
By the time we are gathered back in Dunia Baru’s galley for a lunch prepared by the boat’s chefs, we are cruising past the wild north-eastern coast of Sumbawa. Despite being three times the size of Bali, Sumbawa is almost completely unknown to tourists. The jagged hills rise, like the scaly back of a dragon, out of a deceptively calm sea. If Sumbawa is the sleeping dragon then little Sangeang Island, our next stop this morning, is the rocky pillow from which her snores emanate.
“It’s one of the eeriest places I’ve ever dived,” dive instructor Ramon Estrada tells me as we pile snorkeling equipment into one of the ribs. Mexican adventure diver Estrada has dived in some of the most exciting places in the world but claims that there are few places on the planet that can compare with the diversity of Indonesia’s coral triangle.
“But diving off Sangeang is something completely different. Just wait and see!” he teases.
An hour later I am swimming across what must be one of the thinnest sections of the earth’s crust towards a stream of diamond-like bubbles that rise from the shadowy volcanic seabed. The water is hot when I push my hand tentatively into the vent that leads straight into the smoldering belly of our planet.
Emerging out of the water onto the black-sand beach I find the tracks of monkeys, deer, jungle pigs and wild buffalo. We could not have the slightest idea yet but within 2 weeks uninhabited Sangeang island would literally blow her top, sending an ash cloud into the stratosphere that would change flight plans across much of South East Asia and Australia…and leaving me with the uneasy feeling – like a small boy in a china shop – that I had inadvertently flipped some subtle subterranean switch. (Dunia Baru was cruising just a few miles to the west when Sangeang blew and, while there was no danger, her crew and the lucky guests onboard were able to witness one of the most dramatic exhibitions of volcanic power in recent history.)
The next few days merged idyllically into one other as our skipper charted a course through the tangled isles and swirling currents of the Komodo archipelago. When the wind was right we skipped under full sail between the inter-island waterways with dolphins riding our bow waves. We dived in a rip-current channel that carried us along like a conveyor-belt while the dark shadows of giant manta rays wafted below us. At night the tropical sea would put on spectacular displays of phosphorescent plankton that rivaled even the great dome of stars overhead. We would dive overboard in the darkness, and watched as thousands of otherworldly submarine sparks flickered off the ends of our fingers.
Occasionally we made landfall at deserted islands that enticed us, wandering away to sunbathe in complete seclusion or to explore mysterious hills and virgin beaches that are rarely blemished by human footprints.
We charted a course past the mysterious hillsides of Komodo – the land that experts believe may have inspired the Chinese legends of dragons and driven fear into the hearts of European explorers. ‘Here be Dragons’ they wrote fearfully on their charts.
They might have been completely right, but after a dramatic week sailing these waters I’d come to the conclusion that there is so much more here than just dragons.
Trekking among the unpredictable dragons of Rinca Island remains one of Indonesia’s greatest wildlife experiences. While the dragons of larger Komodo Island are relatively docile by comparison, naturalists believe that a taste for hunting wild horses and even buffalo have turned Rinca’s dragons into uniquely fearless and aggressive super-predators. Moreover the population density of dragons on Rinca is almost double that of the more famous island…so you at any point you’re likely to be considerably closer to a dragon than you might imagine.
The natural harbour of Labuan Bajo might have changed little since buccaneer William Dampier anchored his man-o-war in these waters in 1699 but in recent years the town itself has been booming. Lonely Planet recently described Labuan Bajo as ‘Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot’ and more bars, quality hotels and excellent seafood restaurants seem to be opening every week. Most visitors use Labuan Bajo only as a jump-off point for dragon-trekking and driving trips but it is the perfect base for expeditions into Flores’s spectacular volcanic landscapes.