I always get most excited about travel when I’m forced to fly via a smallish turboprop, the kind of airplane voted most likely to Fall Burning Out Of The Sky for the past 50-odd-years-running. They are wobbly, shake about when a particularly large person gets on, an offer little to nothing in the way of beverage service — but if you’re forced to use a turboprop, you’re probably going somewhere interesting.
Such is the case with Labuan Bajo, a fishing village on the long and rather snakey-looking island of Flores smack-dab in the curious heart of Wallacea, where Southeast Asia’s distinctive tropical ecology suddenly gives way to older and odder forms, separate from the Australian and Asian continent shelves — likely due to a strait of deep water that made it hard for most species to wind their way here.
Wallacea is named after George Russel Wallace, the self-deprecating and malarial zoologist who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin did (or perhaps before, depending on who you ask).
I’ve always liked Wallace and his clear, surprisingly readable zoological writing — I am re-reading his Fauna and Ecology of Malaku (The Moluccas) or The Malay Archipelago, a classic that has stood up rather well to the test of time. Here is Wallace being entirely overcome by the species of butterfly pictured below — which, as you look at the Wallace’s Golden Birdwing (Ornithoptera croesus), becomes a sentiment that’s rather more understandable.
“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”
Which is Wallace for you. As an aspirant naturalist child, I understood this sentiment pretty well myself, and always wanted to visit the weird tropical islands where he’d made his discoveries — the immediate allure of flesh-eating monitor lizards providing another piece of the puzzle.
And that is why I decided to visit Flores above all other Indonesian islands, at least for my first time in this part of the world. I already feel I have made a good choice, and much thanks is due again to my friend Robert Delfs, who connected me with the good folks behind the DiveKomodo dive shop.
It’s nice to arrive in a curious Indonesian fishing town and to have friends there within a matter of hours. Labuan Bajo has a little main drag with dive shops, some boutiques, and some beach-shack style restaurants — as well as a profusion of nice looking Italian restaurants, which apparently can be explained by a rather sudden recent influx of Italian expatriates. This does mean you can get a pretty good Sicilian pizza after you return from being menaced by a wild Komodo dragon, another eccentric ode to the wonders of globalization.
Indonesia has already grown on me. It feels kinder and gentler to me at the moment than Cambodia, perhaps facilitated by the fact that I am entirely skipping Jakarta and Java this time around. People seem genuinely friendly, violent crime here in LBJ is downright unheard of, and you are able to take long walks at night, as long as you remembered to bring a torch along with you.
Bemos, the Indonesian vans that are used as a source of cheap public transportation, are painted with technicolor skulls and epithets to LOVE AND DEATH, while the trucks that roll by from the center of the island are plastered with images of sultry white women in bone-breaking poses.
I walked by a local soccer team and watched Red desperately attempt to fend off Blue for a while, kicking up red dust. Half the town appeared to have turned out for the pre-sundown game.
There’s no beach proper in Labuan Bajo, but a sandy strip along the water, and a cement walking path a bit overgrown with weeds used by couples, tourists, and families airing out their elderly. There are many dilapidated boats, and if you book a dive tour here, you may want to make sure you are not going out on one of them.
Speaking of, I’m going to try scuba diving for the first time tomorrow. I hear there will be cuttlefish.