Diving into the pit at Cauldron dive site, Komodo Island, Indonesia
The current was ripping past me so fast it felt like I was in an industrial wind tunnel. My mouth was dry and my jaw ached as I took another deep draw of stale tasting, compressed air from the scuba regulator in my mouth. I looked down at my hands. My knuckles were white from exertion. They were holding onto a rock in a slowly losing battle to the thundering current. It seemed a bit wobbly but with sandy bottom on both sides it would have to do. My eyes darted up just in time to see my dive buddy, Joe, careening past me an arms length away. I released one of my hands to snatch his wrist and managed to pull him to the rock I was still clutching. Like two flags rippling in the wind, we hung on, shoulder to shoulder, for a few seconds until our rock anchor slowly began to dislodge from the sandy bottom. To my right our Italian dive master, Matteo, a humorously handsome pirate pin-up, motioned to let go and all three of us allowed the rushing sea to propel us through the coral reef channel like we had been shot out of a canon.
My mouth was dry and my jaw ached as I took another deep draw of stale tasting, compressed air from the scuba regulator in my mouth.
We were sixty feet underwater off the coast of Komodo Island at the Indonesian dive site known as “Cauldron.” The spot owes its namesake to a circular pit divers descend into along the drift dive’s route. An underwater ravine on the far side of the bowl channels the current with such force that it has been dubbed “the shotgun.” Smiling gleefully as I hurtled down shotgun’s barrel I decided it had been aptly named. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the ravine ended and the current, no longer channeled, returned to mild and manageable. As we finned around the back side of a large underwater pinnacle the size of a mansion, the current disappeared entirely. Out of nowhere, we were suddenly surrounded by a school of playful and curious manta rays. The larger ones, with a wingspan of nine feet, commanded awe and respect. Hauntingly graceful, their movement was a cross between a bird flying in super slow motion and a banking fighter jet.
A curious manta ray
Two weeks earlier I had met my old friend Joe at Bali’s Denpasar airport. I cleared customs at 1am and our flight was at 9am so it made little sense to leave. Since I got in a bit before he did, I had found a hole-up spot for us to stretch out and get some sleep before our early morning flight to the neighboring island of Lombok. Moving a few large signs to block off a discrete nook in baggage claim and blowing up my sleeping pad was all I had time to do before Joe came strolling through customs. After a bro hug, I showed him that evening’s accommodations. A fellow backpacker, with a taste for hobo life-hacks he nodded his approval. Without hesitation, he blew up a second sleeping pad and flopped down next to me. The hole-up spot would have been perfect if it weren’t for the fact that it was directly next to a tropical garden display swarming with mosquitoes. After sustaining several itchy bites on our fingers we relocated to a cool, dark conference room whose glass door had been conveniently unlocked. I was out like a light.
Airport hole-up spot (Who sleeps like this?)
After a short puddle-jumper to Lombok we caught a “Grab”, the Southeast Asian Uber, to the southern surf village of Kuta. We checked into Livingroom Hostel, rented two rickety scooters, and hit the local gym, Loka Lombok. Both feeling a bit sleep deprived, we enjoyed a light, local street food dinner and called it an early night. The next morning, we were up with the sun and got a tip to go to the surf spot “Gerupuk” from some good-natured Aussies who were strapping boards to the side of their scooters. We woofed down an oatmeal breakfast, hopped on our scooters, and zipped along the misty, serpentine roads as the sun crested the rocky hills jutting into the ocean. The cool air rushing past my face woke me up, bringing my vision into full focus. Warm morning rays filtered through the tree branches above the road sending shafts of light in all directions. This is a strange sentence but, it was an enchanting moped ride.
Skipping the hostel dorm life but keeping the social interaction, all while saving money is a great backpacker life hack.
Once we got to Gerupuk, we hefted our surfboards into a boat, and were ferried out to the off-shore point break. I managed to catch a few unremarkable waves but since both of us were a bit rusty on a board, most of our time was spent paddling back out after a big set gave us the washing machine treatment. Once we got back to Kuta, the exhaustion of our surf session set in and we retired to some plush bean bags on the hostel’s treetop roof deck under the shade of a jack fruit tree.
Sunrise Surf, Gerupuk Inside, Lombok Island, Indonesia
The next day we moved across the street to Dewi Homestay for 150k rupiah a night, $5 each, for a private room with air conditioning and bathroom. The cute little family running the place were more than happy to let me use their kitchen to prepare my morning coffee and oatmeal. For good vibes and chill communal areas we just had to walk a few feet to one of the many happening hostels. Skipping the hostel dorm life but keeping the social interaction, all while saving money is a great backpacker life hack.
Later that day we set up an overnight hike up Mt. Rinjani and 4-day live-aboard to Komodo and Flores Islands. Feeling accomplished for creating a plan, we bought fresh vegetables and treated ourselves to a healthy street food lunch before a luxurious $6 massage. The next day we headed to northern Lombok and settled into a simple homestay at the base of Mt. Rinjani. The afternoon was spent hiking through the shady rainforest to several thundering waterfalls before heading down into the little one horse town of Utara to grab some local dinner. We felt like celebrities walking through the village. Children came scampering and giggling after us and we were greeted by everyone with a warm “hello!” Even the fire department crew waved at us enthusiastically, so we took pictures with them wearing Fireman helmets. We must have made quite an impression since one of the firemen called Joe several times after we met them even though he doesn’t speak a lick of English.
Normally, I take pride in carrying my own gear and preparing meals on camping trips but since porters and a guide are required, we kicked back in the lap of luxury.
At 7am we shouldered our daypacks and climbed into the bed of a janky, old pick-up truck to the grueling hike’s trailhead. Due to an earthquake and aggressive erosion, the path to the summit was closed but we were still able to reach the crater rim at 2639 meters (8658ft). Mt. Rinjani is an old volcano with a massive crater lake at the top with a smaller, active volcano rising out of the middle. It is a stunning sight but could be crudely compared to a pimple growing out of a larger pimple.
Mt. Rinjani Crater Rim
he seven hour trek began in lush rainforest and slowly gave way to alpine meadows as we gained altitude. The last two hours of the hike was above an ocean of clouds. It felt like looking out of an airplane window. The porters set up the tents and prepared our dinner which we greedily woofed down while gazing out at the sunset. Normally, I take pride in carrying my own gear and preparing meals on camping trips but since porters and a guide are required, we kicked back in the lap of luxury. No point in fighting a good thing. Once the sun disappeared it got chilly. With our sleeping bags wrapped around us, our 9 person hiking group stared up at the brilliant night sky for awhile before bed. When I got up around 2am to take a leak, the moon had set revealing that the sky was blindingly full of stars.
Camping above the clouds
After a banana pancake and tea at sunrise, we allowed gravity lend us a hand as we “skied” down the loose lava rock sections and jogged back down through the forest to the trailhead. It had taken us seven hours to get up and less than two to get back down. When we got to the bottom our legs were wobbly but a stretch and some lunch gave us a second wind to continue our journey to the neighboring island of Gili Air.
Not until we had pushed past several sleazy scam artists at the port trying to up-charge us for a boat to the island, did we find the little shack selling the official tickets. The boat ticket was less than a dollar. Having visited Gili Air six months prior, I already knew the drill. As soon as we got to the little island we rented two bikes and pedaled along the winding dirt roads to Begadang hostel. Since they didn’t have the room we wanted available, we decided to stay next door at a more ritzy spot, Captain Goodtimes. After a less than deep sleep on Mt. Rinjani the cushy accommodations were a godsend.
Captain Goodtimes and dinner with people from Begadang Hostel
An oatmeal breakfast was followed by moving next door to Begadang, where we dropped our bags and hopped on our bikes to get a workout at Holiday Fit gym. Finding the damn place is half the exercise. There will be a little hand painted sign that encouragingly reads, “Holiday Fit - 300 meters” but the next sign you see will be pointing the opposite direction and reads, “Holiday Fit, 500 meters.” After much cursing and stopping to ask directions several times we finally found it. On our rambling gym quest we passed the house of a guy I went spearfishing with the last time I was here, Hanni. He wasn’t home but I left a message with his brothers and at Joe’s recommendation had him take a picture of me on his phone so Hanni would remember me.
Hanni the Spearfishman and that day's catch, an Oriental Sweet Lip
Having worked up an appetite from the gym and an afternoon game of volleyball, we went to grab dinner and dropped in on Hanni again. His wife called into the house for him and he came strolling out with a big, friendly smile. “Hello Ben! Welcome back!” We lined up a successful spearfishing trip the next day and invited a few of our fellow hostel goers to join us in eating a large Oriental Sweet Lip a local restaurant grilled up for us.
Fresh lunch at Begadang Hostel, Gili Air
Before we knew it our time on Gili Air was up and it was back to mainland Lombok to link up with the “Wanua Adventures” live-aboard boat trip. From the port town of Bangsal we were transported in vans to the company’s headquarters in Mataram where three boatloads of young western backpacker types were milling about. We grabbed some local food and pre-ordered beers for the boat before boarding minibuses to the other side of the island where our maritime transportation awaited us.
It wasn’t the Ritz but for three nights it would do the job.
The sleeping accommodation consisted of a covered section of the second deck with 30 simple mats lining the walls. It wasn’t the Ritz but for three nights it would do the job. Joe and I tossed our stuff down on two of the beds to reserve our spots as we motored out of port. Just before sunset, all three boats moored off the coast of a small uninhabited island and began shuttling groups to the island with a dinghy. Around a hundred young travelers from the boats walked up a hill with a beer to watch the sun disappear into the ocean and then retired to a beach bonfire.
Wanua Adventure Tours: 4-day live aboard from Lombok to Komodo/Flores
While we slept, the boat’s captain began covering ground towards Flores. Joe and I decided to try crashing on the sun deck away from the crowded sleeping room, but with no guardrail and heaving seas, we abandoned the idea, allowing reason and an aggravated boat crew member to have the last word. In the morning we did a hike through the jungle to a waterfall, snorkeled, and jumped off the roof. After dinner, we began an uninterrupted 18 hour transit. The wind kicked up long sloping waves that sent the ship’s bow up to the starry night sky and then down precariously close to the shiny dark water below. Although the seas were rough, everyone seemed to sleep well to the rhythmic rocking.
The closure was triggered by an attempt to smuggle 41 Komodo dragons off the island to sell for $30k a piece.
On the third day we saw the dragons on Komodo Island and swam with a few manta rays at manta point. Apparently we caught some luck on our timing since Komodo Island is scheduled to be closed to the public starting in January 2020. The closure was triggered by an attempt to smuggle 41 Komodo dragons off the island to sell for $30k a piece. After observing the lazy, slow moving creatures, I think I’d rather have the 30 grand than a pet Komodo Dragon. That afternoon we visited a pink beach which owes its color to a radiant pink coral whose particles mix with the sand. We snorkeled right off the shore and the biodiversity of the marine life and pristine coral was impressive. I surmised it hadn’t been exposed to high volumes of people yet. Hopefully, carefully regulated eco-tourism will preserve these natural gems.
Night three, our final night aboard the SS Uncomfortable, culminated in a dance party aboard our boat. Dinghies ferried the more adventurous people from other boats to ours for the occasion. Everyone who had pre-ordered more beer than they needed, myself and Joe included, were now on a mission to drink it all. We succeeded. The second deck had large speakers and disco lights set up for the occasion. Dancing ensued but was made more difficult by a drunk 18 year old British kid, Olly. He had mostly kept to himself, hanging out only with his travel buddy during the trip, but really came out of his shell around beer number seven. His uncoordinated, erratic movement looked like a cross between River Dance and Bambi on ice.
The jort life chose me
En route to our final destination the next morning we made a stopover on Rinca island for some more Komodo Dragons and did some swimming at a nearby beach. At this point Joe and I were chomping at the bit to get off that damn boat. It had been fun but land was starting to sound pretty inviting. We arrived on Flores island at the port town of Labuan Bajo, and checked into Gardina Homestay, a humble cluster of bamboo huts overlooking the bay. It was good to have wifi back and take a proper shower. That evening we set up a scuba trip with Somer Dive and had dinner with a German and two dutch girls we had met that day.
Dive master/Pirate Matteo, wood grain dive boat, Joe doing his deep dive cert, Castle Rock, Poke
Running my bare feet along the smooth teak wood deck, I took another sip of my morning coffee as Komodo Island came into view. Joe and I dove Crystal Rock, Castle Rock, and Cauldron aboard an entirely wood grain pirate ship of a boat, made all the more impressive in comparison to our ghetto live-aboard. In addition to a school of mantas we saw white tip reef sharks, pristine coral, and massive schools of fish, including Giant Trevally that I would have given my first born to take a shot at with a speargun. Afterwards, we met up with the dutch girls for dinner and drinks at “Treehouse”, a rustic, multi-tiered hut, with furniture fashioned from old dugout canoes.
A Giant Trevally cruises past. If only I were freediving with my speargun.
To round out his two and a half week trip, we spent Joe’s final day hitting the gym, grabbing delicious tuna poke bowls at Happy Banana Sushi, and getting massages. At first light, Joe and I were already in Lombok’s little airport, where we said goodbye and flew out to the US and Lombok, respectively. With ten days to kill before linking up with my brother, Luke, in the northern Philippines, I checked back into Dewi homestay and dedicated myself to a 5:30am wake up to polish my surfing skills. After six months of “single serving” travel companions, spending time with old friends, both in their adopted countries and ones that come to join me for an adventure, has put the wind back in my sails. Full steam ahead.
The left break at Don Don, Lombok
Lombok's surf is remarkably consistent but can get a bit crowded