Monday, 25 June 2012

Close Encounters

How we spent our first anniversary

The sensation is exhilarating, but tinged with just a little bit of fear. We are whizzing along over a seabed of sand and rubble - a fast current of over 5 knots carrying us across this barren moonscape. An occasional boulder sized head of coral is all that breaks the monotonous terrain, and means that you have to keep one eye on the direction of travel lest you collide with them. You can't help but put your arms out like a pair of wings, and if you didn't have a regulator in your mouth then you would be crying out “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”.

Harriet learning to fly

Then we hear it - the 'tap tap tap' of Ed, the dive leader, indicating that there's something of interest. As we've been prepped, this means it's time to hunker down against the seabed and find something safe to grab onto, as the current swings us round to point us up stream. Beyond Ed I can just make it out. The visibility is very good at about 20 metres, but it is only the vaguest of shapes at first, nothing more than a shadow. Slowly it becomes more defined, gliding towards us a couple of feet off the bottom. Soon we can see its wing tips curling up and straightening as they beat in a slow, graceful motion. By now it's clearly identifiable, although there was never any doubt - they don't call this place Manta Point for nothing.

This first Manta Ray is massive, with a wingspan of maybe 3 metres, and it's heading upstream, oblivious to the current we're fighting. It comes up on our left hand side, only 4 metres away, before banking right and gliding straight through the middle of the group. I'm dumb struck, in absolute awe as I stare into the face of this alien creature.

Close encounters of the Manta kind

A tight feeling in my chest brings me back to reality, I've been holding my breath for the past 30 seconds without realising it. I take a long exhale and check my pressure and depth gauges. When I look back up, the Manta is some distance off to our right, gradually fading back into the blue.

Letting go of our rocks, the current immediately picks us up and we are flying once more. But no sooner has the first manta gone then we hear it again...'tap tap tap'. Finding purchase on another rock, this time there are three shapes. The leader is huge, a beautiful black spaceship. I fumble with my underwater camera and manage to start recording some video. I'm so focused on filming the leader as he passes within a metre of me that I don't see the second ray. He buzzes past only inches above me, and I instinctively duck. I can imagine the pair chuckling to themselves over that one.

We release ourselves once more and glide on. The taps now come thick and fast, no sooner has one Manta disappeared then another is approaching. They seem more than just tolerant of our presence, they are positively inquisitive, and you can sense the intelligence behind that alien face.

Manta 1 on final approach

Ed signals once more, but I can't see the Manta this time. It's only when I'm within 5 metres that I notice the grey shape lying still on the seabed, a 2 metre long white tip reef shark. This guy is a little more shy, stirring himself from his bed, and with a casual flick of his tail he disappears.
By now the current has eased somewhat, and the previously barren floor is populated with soft corals and anemones, swaying like fields of wheat blown by the wind. We come across a turtle, nestled down amongst soft coral pillows. They always appear chilled out creatures, but you can tell this one is particularly languid. We 'tiptoe' past quietly so as not to disturb him.

Sleeping beauty

Our air is starting to get low now, so we make a safety stop at 5 metres, hanging around a large coral boulder and checking out the reef fish. But you can tell that everyone's minds are elsewhere, thinking about the past 40 minutes and the amazing experience we have just had. We surface, and the smiles on everyone's faces tell the story. With the regulators out of our mouths we can finally communicate our excitement. The smiles last all day.

This was the most memorable day of the five we spent on Kanawa, a tiny island off the coast of Flores and on the edge of the Komodo National Park. The island is uninhabited save a dozen simple beach bungalows, although we took the rare opportunity to unpack our tent and camp under a berry tree. Kanawa is fringed by a bleached white sand beach, which gives way to turquoise waters dotted with patches of coral, before dropping off into the dark blue of deep water. We've seen more than our fair share of priceless islands on our travels, but this one might just take first prize.

Desert island castaway on Kanawa

From Kanawa we took a boat over to explore Komodo Island itself, whose jagged savannah covered ridges look like the land that time forgot. And forgotten it must have been, for the Komodo dragon is like something out of pre-historic times. Getting within six foot of one you realise that round here man isn't necessarily at top of the food chain. Although usually placid, occasionally they do attack and kill people, and it's best to stay behind your guide who is armed with a forked stick!

Komodo Dragon basking in the sun following his late lunch

With only a week or so left in Indonesia, we reluctantly had to tear ourselves away from Kanawa, and head to the much busier islands of Lombok and Bali. It's quite a shock to see tourists suddenly outnumbering locals. A few days surfing on the south coast of Lombok was followed by a day up in the hills of the lush interior, before descending to the coast for a last bit of beach time. 

Our final stop in Indonesia is the town of Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. Although the traffic choked streets and constant calls of “Taxi Mister?!” are a little off putting, just a short walk away from the hustle and bustle is the rice field scenery that Bali is famed for. It's very interesting to watch the local Balinese families head off to the temples in smart colourful costumes with wicker baskets of tasty offerings for the Gods. After meeting Muslims in Java and devout Christians in Sulawesi, experiencing a little of the Hindu culture found only in Bali is an interesting way to end our time in this fascinating country.


The sun sets on our time in Indonesia

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