Sam Ballard goes in search of the carnivorous Komodo Dragon on a 10-day expedition and discovers exotic islands and oceans of headspace – despite a tsunami warning and earthquake
As we sail slowly past volcanoes gently puffing out clouds of smoke and pods of dolphins that swim right up to the sides of our ship – not to mention the mysterious tropical islands where giant, carnivorous lizards roam free – it’s hard not to get carried away and think of ourselves as modern day explorers.
After all, this is expedition cruising around the beautiful islands of Indonesia – and it’s like no other trip around.
Our 10-day voyage will see us call at a whole host of exotic destinations that I have never heard of – from Sumba to Moyo – and one or two that I have, such as Bali and Komodo, home of the infamous Komodo Dragon, the largest lizard in the world. A venomous cannibal that has been known to kill tourists… We’ll also be visiting islands that, despite being part of one of the richest countries in Asia, are a figurative million miles away from the metropolitan capital, Jakarta.
Our vessel for the voyage is the magnificent Star Clipper; a 2,298 ton, 360 feet clipper, which is more compact than most European river boats – and, with a capacity of 170 passengers and 74 crew, is even more intimate. The biggest feature on the Star Clipper, however – and the main reason why the other 96 passengers on board booked this cruise – is the four masts and 16 sails that tower above us on deck.
In total, the vast swathes of material cover about 36,000 square feet – and there is nothing quite like watching them unfurl and catch the wind. The vessel’s crew, clad in their sailor whites, and watched over by the captain, work the mile upon mile of rope as we depart each day on the most romantic of sailaways. There’s no choreographed dances or wild flag waving here. The open bridge policy and nature of the ship means that the working hands become all the entertainment you need. This is a strictly classy affair.
Our first scheduled call of the cruise is at Gili Kondo – an uninhabited island just off the coast of Lombok. However, after sailing tantalisingly close to the desert island, we are told that the sea is too choppy for us to tender across – the wind is almost blowing a gale, too. It is also at around this time that we are told that the neighbouring island of Lombok has suffered the first in a series of devastating earthquakes that will go on to leave hundreds of people dead. There is also the possibility of tsunamis.
It is testament to the ship’s crew that they managed to professionally handle the situation and the numerous questions posed by the passengers. Don’t worry, we were reassured, the tsunami warning has now passed. Unfortunately, no, we are not equipped, or in a position to offer help to survivors – we would be getting in the way of the rescue operation. However, the onboard diving instructor, who lives in Lombok, is able to take donations such as clothes, medicine and money back with her when the
As a result of the earthquake, we would be rerouted accordingly and the captain would keep us informed during our trip.
Luckily we were still able to call at an island I had been looking forward to seeing more than any other: Komodo. The massive dragons are native to the island and excursions are taken on foot through the forest. Our guide would be armed with just a stick – which makes the whole thing a lot more exciting.
Touted as the last remaining Jurassic Park, the dragons, which can grow up to three metres long, are found scattered on hillsides and throughout the thick vegetation. We split up into smaller groups and set off – every now and again hearing a flurry of activity as one group manages to spot one of the monsters. Over two hours we spot five dragons, which is pretty respectable considering the fact that it’s mating season, a time when female Komodo dragons sensibly go into hiding.
During the afternoon we lounge on the incredible Pink Beach – so called because of the tiny grains of red coral that have mixed with the sand over the centuries. The on board team gets out the water sports gear – which can be used for free – and we go out and snorkel to cool off in the sea.
Back on the ship it proves very easy to slip into the routine of life on board.
If the idea of spending hours on end with your book and a sun lounger makes you feel giddy then this is the sailing for you. Tons of headspace and a total lack of distractions make Star Clipper a floating paradise – away from all the casinos, West End shows and other trappings of modern luxury.
There are entertainment options – especially on sea days – but they’re virtually limited to mast climbing, lessons on reading sea charts and port talks. The onboard entertainment starts and ends with the musician, who plays passengers in to dinner on the grand piano and sets up a keyboard in the outside Tropical Bar for guests who want an after-dinner drink. One of the greatest joys is lowering yourself on to the bowsprit – the netting around the jib boom at the front of the ship – that acts like a hammock. Here you can sit and watch the sunset while levitating above the sea. Magical.
In the following days we call at Sumba, Sumbawa and Satonda – all calls for which we need to make a “wet landing” (tender in a zodiac before jumping into the sea and wading on to the beach). In both Sumba and Sumbawa, local children follow us around with cries of “Hey Mister” and chat away happily. In Sumbawa we watch as men build huge wooden ships by hand while teams race home-made catamarans to the delights of whooping crowds. In Moyo, we trek through a forest dense with monkeys to check out a waterfall that Princess Diana once visited.
In Bali, we call at Lovina Beach. Despite it being on the less developed northern tip of the island, the difference between it and our other ports of call is staggering. We decamp to a delicious vegetarian restaurant for lunch and plug into the wi-fi for the first time in more than a week. In Probolinggo – a call we made instead of Lombok – on the island of Java, we jump into a tuk-tuk and take a tour of the city – visiting a market packed full of spices as well as fruit and vegetables. We also pop into a mall – at the insistence of our drivers – that is garish in comparison, with dangdut music blaring loudly.
One of our final stops, at Gili Sudak, is called off because of the earthquake. Instead of an alternative port of call, the captain announces that there will be a sea day. It’s a bit of a disappointment although under the circumstances, understandable. However, the mood lifts when it is revealed that the gangway is to be lowered and guests given the opportunity to swim in the middle of the sea – all is forgotten. I’m later told that the water was 700 metres deep.
Speaking to our fellow passengers, many of whom are repeat customers, it’s a fundamental love of sailing that has made them book this voyage with Star Clippers. They would never book a “typical cruise” they say, this is just different.
After a few days on board, it’s hard to disagree with them. This cruise was like nothing I’ve ever done – and it was all the better for it.