Exploring Indonesia's Komodo National Park
Author: Michael Harden
Photography: James Geer
On our last morning on board Amandira we get dolphins. A pod of them surfaces alongside the yacht, under full, glorious sail for the first time in our five-day journey. With Moyo Island as a jungle backdrop, a clear sky and eight huge sails taut in the breeze, it's a scene so perfect it feels enchanted. Or set up. Given the level of attention to detail on Amandira in the course of our cruise, it's easy to imagine a dimly lit secret control room where someone murmurs into a microphone: "Deploy the dolphins. Repeat, deploy the dolphins."
As the dolphins leap from the water, the crew clap and whistle to attract their attention and keep them swimming with us. Dolphins are a sign of good luck, they tell us. Surrounded by this kind of scenery and the staggering biodiversity of Indonesia's Komodo National Park, though, we don't need dolphins to remind us about luck.
We first laid eyes on Amandira when we were whisked by dinghy to its anchorage in Labuan Bajo harbour on the island of Flores, just over an hour's flight east of Bali. It's love at first sight. The yacht is a sleek 52-metre work of art, handcrafted by Konjo boatbuilders in Sulawesi from teak and the dense native kayu ulin timber. Amandira's distinctive shape - it curves upwards at bow and stern - echoes the traditional phinisi boats that have transported spice, food and timber across the Indonesian archipelago for hundreds of years. With its twin masts and blackpainted hull it has the look of a sexy pirate ship, but with crew dressed in white polo shirts lining the deck and waving.
Launched in 2015, Amandira is a floating outpost of the Aman resort group and bears all the hallmarks of its famously understated approach to luxury. Since opening its first resort on Phuket in 1988, Aman has forged a distinctive high-end style on five continents: discreet, serene, spacious lodgings and private-audience experiences in astonishing, often remote locations.
A dinghy ferries supplies from Amandira.
This is the full Aman treatment on land and sea, the cruise bookended by stays at one of its two Bali retreats and at a tented hideaway on remote Moyo Island in Indonesia's West Nusa Tenggara province. Just over an hour after arrival at Denpasar Airport we're delivered in air-conditioned comfort to Amandari, on the outskirts of Ubud. The resort sits at the end of a long, unmarked driveway fringed by thick greenery - an entrance like a hushed drumroll. Amandari's version of a lobby is a low-slung pavilion - thatch roofed, marble floored, sparsely elegant. The only sounds are a quiet welcome from staff, the gentle splash of water and the calls of frogs and geckos. The sense of time slowing is almost physical.
Modelled on a Balinese village, Amandari has 30 standalone suites, hidden behind walls of lichenencrusted stone and linked by paths winding through lush gardens. Behind those walls is a liberating sense of space in teak and marble, with a sunken bath outside and a terrace overlooking rice paddies. There's a handwritten welcome note and no TV (but cracking WiFi and a gamelan-loaded iPod). I have an almost overwhelming desire to hole up here doing little more than feel the tension leave my shoulders.
The saltwater pool at Amandari resort, on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali.
But we have a boat to catch. So the next morning, after a yoga class and breakfast in the open-sided dining room overlooking a saltwater pool, its curved edge echoing the surrounding terraced rice paddies, we're on our way back to Denpasar for the flight to Flores, cool towels and snack boxes in hand.
Komodo Airport is the gateway to Komodo National Park, an increasingly popular attraction that draws 60,000-plus tourists a year. The airport is a curious mix of rustic and futuristic: kids play on the jungle-fringed single runway flanked by an imposing space-age-style terminal. Inside it's a little chaotic, at least until the crew from Planet Aman arrive, all ironed shorts, efficiency and dazzling white polos and caps.
The sun is setting as we pull alongside the yacht. Labuan Bajo harbour is bathed in a cinematic golden light. Six of us step onto the yacht's film-ready foredeck, accept chilled fruit cocktails and slices of warm banana bread, and meet the 13-strong crew led by Inge (there are no surnames here), a tall, blonde Belgian dive master and our cruise director.
The spa at Amanwana.
The boat is just as beautiful close up as it is from a distance. The foredeck, where we'll spend most of our time aboard, mixes pared-back luxury - a long central table and upholstered benches under a canvas awning, a couple of daybeds scattered with cushions - and the trappings of active seafaring: coils of rope, masses of rigging and diving tanks lining both sides of the deck, a reminder of the main reason travellers venture to Komodo National Park.
Off the foredeck is a lounge-dining room with flatscreen TV and a help-yourself bar that no one gets a chance to approach because of the discreet presence of Doni, the wryly witty head waiter. Over snacks and maps, Inge briefs us on our mission: five days of cruising to some of the best and most remote dive sites, beaches and islands in Komodo National Park, followed by two nights at the tented Amanwana hideaway on Moyo Island.
Komodo National Park is considered among the best diving destinations in the world. Covering more than 1,800 square kilometres in the area between the provinces of East and West Nusa Tenggara, the park spans three main islands - Komodo, Rinca and Padar - and 26 smaller ones, roughly at the centre of the 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago.
A suite at Amanwana.
The park was established in 1980 to conserve the habitat of the Komodo dragon, but the goal soon expanded to protect the region's incredible diversity of terrestrial and marine life. In 1986 Komodo National Park was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO and fishing was banned in many parts. Now divers and snorkellers flock here to see its coral reefs and more than a thousand species of fish and marine dwellers, from dugongs and barracuda to manta rays and sharks. And on land, of course, there are the monstrous stars of the show, the Komodo dragons.
Among the greatest luxuries aboard Amandira is its freeform itinerary, an exercise in joining the dots of a handful of destinations. Each trip is an exclusive hire for one party, so there are no strangers and no rigid plans. The point, says Inge, is "to make your own adventure - you decide what you want to do and the crew will make it happen". Stay on board for a deckside massage. Try wakeboarding in a deserted bay. Dive, snorkel, paddleboard or kayak. Create the first footprints on a different beach every morning.
Moyo Island's tented hideaway, Amanwana.
There are five guest cabins on Amandira: three spacious rooms with king beds, and two smaller rooms each with bunk beds, all with bathrooms, polished teak floors and air-con. The pick of them is the master cabin, with 270-degree views of passing jungles and beaches from the bed or the shaded daybed outside. Like the two king cabins below deck, the master has a small lounge area, writing desk and generous bathroom with a double basin, large walk-in shower and separate toilet.
The first night we dine under the stars and a swelling moon, the boat gently rocking at anchor, ropes creaking. On the menu is seared tuna with avocado salsa, roast chicken with thyme, lemon and roast potatoes, and banana parfait with praline ice-cream. It's not a meal closely connected to its surroundings but, as we learn, the galley's culinary range is broad. Sure, there are burgers (fish and beef), pasta, eggs Benedict and brownies, but we also tuck into nasi goreng, soto ayam, Indonesian and Malaysian curries, Thai salads, Vietnamese rice-paper rolls, banana fritters and coconut sorbet. The menu, like the itinerary, is always negotiable.
The jackhammer report of the anchor being raised heralds breakfast on the move, our freshly squeezed juice, coffee, poached eggs, fresh pastries and chicken congee served against the backdrop of sage-green islands, their peaks hazy in the humidity. We're heading for the island of Tatawa Besar and our first taste of the life aquatic.
The snorkelling is magnificent, aided by warmth and the immaculate clarity of the water. Sunshine casts rippling beams across a garden of multi-hued corals of every shape and size stretching out in every direction, accessorised by a colour wheel of fish, enormous anemones and sea fans large enough to throw shadows across the sandy floor.
To really understand what attracts thousands to Komodo National Park each year, however, you need to dive. And the Amandira crew can make this happen, even for those who've never attempted scuba-diving before.
Snorkelling off Tatawa Besar Island.
Divemaster Inge is qualified to help new divers gain PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification. She takes novices, like me, through training and safety exercises and then stays reassuringly close during the dives, quelling nerves, guiding us around fragile coral, drawing attention to marine life that our untrained eyes would otherwise miss.
We dive four times in five days. It's incredible for those of us who have never dived before, the sense of wonder turbocharged by the sense of the new. We find Nemo and hundreds of other exuberantly coloured fish - box, lion, butterfly, clown and redtoothed triggerfish among them - and we swim with sea turtles. We watch giant moray eels peeking from crevices and cuttlefish changing colour from red to mottled pink; we marvel at undulating garden eels, plate-sized stingrays and spiny painted lobsters tiptoeing over white sand.
Preparing for a barbecue on Wainilu Island.
This is diving the Aman way, so the underwater sessions are usually followed by beachside sessions. After the crew relieves us of diving gear, we're ferried to a beach deserted but for a handful of meticulously aligned umbrellas shading daybeds stacked with towels. Cool drinks, snacks, sunscreen and insect repellent are waiting for us. If we need anything else, Amandira is briefed by walkie-talkie and a dinghy peels off from the yacht, racing to the beach with the required brownies or music or sun hat.
Each deserted beach is different. On Padar Island, a sculptural tower of dark rock covered with jungle and fringed by white sand, we spend an afternoon lounging under umbrellas, snorkelling, kayaking and paddleboarding with chilled Bintangs, tangerine juice, salty snacks and fresh fruit.
Then there's a tiny drop of a white-sand island in the middle of Makassar Reef. The dinghy drops us here after we've snorkelled with a school of manta rays, and we stretch out on loungers shaded by umbrellas in the middle of the sea.
The master cabin on Amandira.
The most elaborate castaway moment is a beach barbecue on Wainilu, a small island off the coast of one of Komodo's largest, Rinca, where we'll go trekking the next day in search of dragons. It's almost dark by the time we reach the beach. A trail of kerosene lanterns leads us to an enormous boulder set with hundreds of candles illuminating a fully dressed dining table. We dine on steak and lobster, grilled prawns and corn on the cob, and toast our good fortune with Italian vermentino. The crew bring out guitars and bongoes and there's singing and dancing on the beach. Later, by the water's edge, we release enormous hot-air paper lanterns and watch them rise to pinpoints in a starry sky.
Next day we find the dragons. Our guide - young, thin and armed only with a long forked stick - meets us at the dock at Rinca and leads us across a raised timber walkway into the park where dragons roam free among the tourists. It's not long before we see our first Komodo, a hefty two-metre male tearing into a decaying deer hanging from a tree. It's repulsive and mesmerising at the same time, particularly with the breeze blowing the stench of the ripe carcass our way. The sound of teeth on flesh is clearly audible. When another, smaller Komodo lumbers up behind us, tongue flickering, we're quick to follow orders, scuttling out of the way and laughing nervously as the guide, brandishing his stick, jokes that he hasn't lost anybody - yet.
We trek on in the humidity past dragon nesting and breeding sites, spotting macaques and Timor deer, then climb to the open savannah at the top of Rinca where we get cooling breezes and clear wide views of the Flores Sea. It's studded with dark green islands and a surprising number of diving and fishing boats at anchor, the distinctive dark shape of Amandira easy to spot among them.
The knockout view, though, materialises at dawn the next day, after a dinghy ride in the dark to a beach on Padar and a half-hour torch-lit clamber up a shale-slippery hillside.
As the sky begins to lighten we're served breakfast - chilled watermelon and orange juice, salmon toasted sandwiches and fresh fruit - and then stand, awestruck, as the landscape reveals itself. From our vantage point we look down on a narrow peninsula with three parabola-shaped beaches carved into it and surrounded by a scatter of islands in a sea gilded by the rising sun. As if on cue, Amandira sails into view, tiny in the bay below.
Island on Makassar Reef.
That moment is as memorable as our final morning on board, when we stand on deck, the wind in our hair, sails swelling above us, with that pod of quicksilver dolphins weaving below
Leaving Amandira and its crew is surprisingly emotional, particularly when they break into a farewell song as we step onto a dinghy and head for land. Moyo Island, a nature reserve, is home to about a thousand people in several villages, and the site of Amanwana, a luxury camp on the island's best beach. It's a castaway fantasy, Aman-style, which means barefoot luxury, rum and fresh lime cocktails at the beachside bar at sunset and the promise of tropical island adventures.
Stretched out along that dazzling white beach or set back further into the jungle are 20 tents whose canvas roofs billow in the breeze, though they're also air-conditioned, with hardwood floors, netted king beds, writing desks, sofas and big bathrooms.
Amandira crew taking down the sails.
There are massages in the secluded stonewalled spa, open to the elements and shaded by fig and tamarind trees. And there's lobster and snapper caught this morning or imported wagyu, cooked over the dining room's central wood-fired grill and served alongside a fine gado gado or fried squid with a fiery sambal.
The best thing for those fresh from Amandira (or her smaller sister yacht Amanikan, also based at Amanwana) is that there are more adventures on land - great diving and hiking, and a final marvellous moment at a waterfall called Mata Jitu.
Mata Jitu waterfall on Moyo Island.
At the village of Labuan Aji, a short boat ride from Amanwana, we take an open-topped 1960s Jeep along a steep semi-paved path into dense jungle near the centre of the island. We walk the last bit. Shafts of sunlight penetrate the thick canopy here and there, misty in the humidity. And suddenly we're upon Mata Jitu, a series of heavenly terraced limestone pools and waterfalls.
The water is clear and sweet. The day, perfect. The serenity, absolute. And right then, all is right with the world.
Aman has two expedition yachts in Indonesia: the 52-metre Amandira with five guest cabins, sleeping a maximum of 10 guests; and the 32-metre Amanikan, sleeping a maximum of six guests. Both are available for exclusive hire only, for customised itineraries in Komodo National Park, and in the Raja Ampat archipelago to the north-west of West Papua.
"The Komodo Expedition" on Amandira, which includes five nights on board and two nights at Amanwana, the group's tented resort on Moyo Island, costs from $70,570. On Amanikan, it costs from $50,150.
"The Raja Ampat Expedition" runs for five to seven nights. It costs from $14,590 per night on Amandira and from $11,560 per night on Amanikan.
These fares include transfers from regional airports to the yachts, accommodation, all activities (except PADI diving certification courses), national park fees, meals and nonalcoholic drinks. They also include taxes and service charges totalling 21 per cent. aman.com