The more remote islands of Indonesia had always been on my travel bucket list but eluded me for many years because there were no cruise ships plying the vast expanse of these islands. In recent years there was a legitimate concern of piracy on the waters surrounding certain areas of Indonesia, and these personal safety concerns likely explains the scarcity of cruise ships in the region. Then, one day before we were about to book a privately guided trip to Mongolia, I stumbled upon a National Geographic/Lindblad expedition cruise titled “Indonesia Odyssey: Bali to the Great Barrier Reef”. While I expect my travel to esoteric destinations to continue for many years to come, I told my wife that if we had only one trip to choose from for the remainder of our lives, this was it. After reading the day to day itinerary, we immediately signed on for the trip—and in jumping to the conclusion of this article, it did not disappoint! In fact, this journey through Indonesia definitely ranks as one of our top trips ever.
We started our trip in Bali where we spent four glorious full days seeing magnificent temples, rice fields and traditional dances with a very knowledgeable, well-organized private guide with a passion for his island. We then boarded the National Geographic Orion, a luxurious, state-of-the-art expedition ship where we slept comfortably and ate delicious food served by the experienced staff.
Cruising from Bali, our first destination was Sumbawa Island. The island is volcanic, as are most of the islands we visited in Indonesia. We disembarked at Badas, a small port which lies at the foot of a large volcano that exploded in 1815. We climbed into small buses that carried us into the interior dry hills of the island to the village of Pamulung. As soon as we arrived, we encountered the friendly, welcoming nature of the people. In a small courtyard, we saw a demonstration of the traditional method of making rice flour, pounded by hand in large wooden pestles. We also saw weaving and beautiful textiles for sale for which this island is deservedly famous. We observed a simulated but very colorful wedding procession. We then took a bus to another location which was one of the highlights of the trip—traditional buffalo racing. Each rider stands on a thin stick platform attached to the yoke of a pair of buffalo and races down a long muddy pool and tries to knock down a figurine placed in the mud at far end of the pool/pond.
On the way back to the ship, we stopped at a 1940s Dutch administrator’s home—which had been made into a museum displaying many beautiful articles of Indonesian culture from the past century--and a beautiful wooden sultan’s palace from the late 1800s (barren of furniture but very interesting exterior and interior architecture). Later in the day, for those interested there was an introduction to expedition photography. Since the ship was a joint venture between Lindblad and National Geographic, there were several National Geographic photographers on board who, during the course of the voyage, would hold photography workshops.
The next day we visited Komodo National Park on Rinca Island and did a two hour roundtrip hike of 1&1/2 miles. We viewed many Komodo dragons. They are the largest species of lizard. They can grow to an average length of 6 to 10 feet and weigh over 150 pounds. Although Komodo dragons eat mostly decaying flesh of dead animals, they will also hunt and eat live birds and mammals. We took photos of these rare creatures with great caution as the park rangers instructed us to keep our distance as they can reach speeds in excess of 12 miles per hour. Komodo dragons have been known to occasionally attack and kill humans with their poisonous venom. We spotted the dragons in several locations and they reminded me of the creatures that roamed the earth during the dinosaur age. During our hike, we also came across the Timor deer and wild buffalo.
In the afternoon, Zodiacs went ashore for snorkeling at Pink Beach on Komodo Island. In these pristine waters, we saw many colorful tropical fish and beautiful corals. Upon our return to the ship, we also did a glass bottom boat tour where we saw a giant hawksbill turtle and large green sea turtle swimming under the glass, as well as numerous fish.
Our next destination was Larantuka, the capital city of the island of Flores. It is somewhat surprising to find this bustling town located in one of the less-developed regions of Indonesia. The settlement developed as a Portuguese colony in the 16th century, and was established here in order to control the valuable trade in sandalwood. Today, even though it was under Dutch control for more than two centuries after the Portuguese first settled, it still retains a distinct Portuguese flavor with both its language and the Catholic religion. Many of the “old people” still speak Portuguese, but this is being lost with the younger generation, as everything official is now written and spoken in Bahasa Indonesi.
We visited the village of Mudakeputu where we were welcomed by the village elders and led in a traditional procession ceremony to the center of the village. Here, speeches were made and we were officially greeted by some rather fierce-looking warriors and their womenfolk who were dressed in resplendent woven ikat attire. Ikat is a dyeing technique resulting in an “Impressionistic” pattern to the textile and is unique to this region. After several local dances and chanting, they set up several interesting demonstrations to show us life on the island. They demonstrated how they process corn into chips and cornmeal and their weaving techniques for the famous ikat cloth. We made a short stop to visit the local market and the Catholic Cathedral which was a gift from the Dutch to the Catholic residents. It was rebuilt in 1992 after an earthquake.