There be dragons

Issue 7 - 2017
By Mark Eveleigh · Images Mark Eveleigh, National Geographic Creative, Gallery Stock

With more than 17,000 islands – home to iconic wildlife, active volcanoes and the richest marine habitat on earth – Indonesia offers a wealth of experiences for travellers. We salute the land of Bali, Borneo, Krakatoa and, of course, Komodo

Issue 7 - 2017
By Mark Eveleigh · Images Mark Eveleigh, National Geographic Creative, Gallery Stock

With more than 17,000 islands – home to iconic wildlife, active volcanoes and the richest marine habitat on earth – Indonesia offers a wealth of experiences for travellers. We salute the land of Bali, Borneo, Krakatoa and, of course, Komodo

A traditional timber schooner skips under full sail beneath the cone of a smouldering volcano. Dolphins leap on the bow wave as a distant chain of islands rises over the eastern horizon, heralding our arrival in the land of dragons. Leaning against the rearing bow, I think once again how the Indonesian landscape is often so picture-perfect that I could imagine I’ve wandered into some carefully choreographed movie set encompassing all the adventure of the Far East. The world’s biggest island nation is often more dramatic than fiction.

“We don’t need tales of Jurassic Park to see a reptile-dominated world,” says Sir David Attenborough of the Komodo Islands. “It’s all here.”

As with so much of this immense country, even the tiny Komodo Archipelago can’t be summed up in such simple terms. Sure, Komodo dragons are a major draw, but this area falls within the Coral Triangle (the richest marine habitat in the world) and coincides with the dramatic Ring of Fire landscapes to form the sort of backdrop that even Hollywood couldn’t dream up.

“I’ve sailed around Komodo more times than I can count and it’s different every time,” says Sébastien Pierre, one of Komodo’s most experienced dive-guides. “For a diver, this part of the Coral Triangle is one of the most exciting places on the planet. But even if you don’t dive, for anyone with an interest in wildlife and a love of pure adventure, this region is hard to


Early morning yoga overlooking a dramatic river gorge at Uma Ubud


This is my own seventh trip to Komodo and I’m delighted that this time, the 300-mile voyage eastwards from Bali has given me a chance to see still more of Indonesia’s lesser-known islands. Komodo has become one of the premier destinations in a country that, with the exception of the island paradise of Bali, remains largely unknown to travellers.

I’ve been based in Bali for the last five years and know the island well enough to realise that, even there, you don’t have to go far off the beaten track to be convinced that the “Island of the Gods” is one of the most beautiful places in the world. My home lies out in the peaceful west, but I frequently travel back to Ubud, long considered the artistic and spiritual heartland of Bali. This thriving town has built a reputation as one of the world capitals of yoga and alternative healthy living. Ubud also has some of the world’s finest hotels set in a natural landscape which in many places has remained utterly unspoiled, and where tumbling rivers still cascade off the slopes of the seven volcanoes that hover on a green skyline. Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, nestles within a bend in the banks of the Ayung River, where enchanting views across the valley to the rippled terraces of ancient paddy fields offer an insight into a way of life that has changed little in centuries.

While Bali is known as perhaps the most idyllic spot on the planet to combine wonderful beach holidays with experiencing a unique Hindu culture, visitors are drawn to Java for its historic cities, temples and landscapes. Despite being the most populous island in the world, Java (the world’s 13th biggest island) offers a wonderful sense of adventure that feels natural in a dramatic landscape with no fewer than 45 active volcanoes. Mount Bromo is perhaps the best-known (along with notorious Krakatoa, west of Java) and is the backdrop to travels throughout most of East Java.


A short drive from Indonesia’s cultural capital at Yogyakarta, Borobudur is a wonderfully enchanting temple complex. Built around AD 850, it was already an ancient mystery when the first European explorers arrived, and sunrise on the upper terrace known as the “Sea of Immortality” remains one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had in a lifetime of travel through more than 60 countries.

I was once asked where I’d pick if I could only travel in one country for the rest of my life. Indonesia struck me as the perfect place to cheat such a restriction. “I’d choose Indonesia,” I replied. “Among those 17,508 diverse islands, I could travel for a lifetime without seeing the same thing twice.” Indonesia would surely be a prime contender for the title of “world’s least explored country”. To anyone with a spark of adventurous spirit, it’s thrilling to think that, even today, nobody knows exactly how many islands there are within its vast territory. The 17,508 figure, from an official 1996 “guesstimate”, is widely quoted, but other official estimates range from 13,466 (verified by UN and CIA) to 18,307. The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries is currently making the first serious official count and we might soon have a real figure.

If you were to island-hop in a direct line along the length of the archipelago from the tip of Sumatra to the border of Papua New Guinea – a distance of almost 6,000km – you would have covered the equivalent of a drive from London to Khartoum or from Los Angeles to Bogota. The sheer scale of this country defies generalisation, but all too often it is summed up in the press simply as “the world’s biggest Muslim nation”. While this is true, it overlooks the incredible cultural diversity of a country where you find entire islands that are predominantly Christian or Hindu or where the major religions are simply overlays for fascinating animist and ancestral religions. It took me a long time to realise that by peering through the spiritual mosquito-netting gauze that was thrown over these communities by missionaries, I would often uncover intriguing ancient beliefs and traditions.

Even among Indonesia’s most mysterious islands, Sumba, near the southern edge of the archipelago, stands out as an enigma. This is a land of legendary warrior tribes – considered more or less untameable by the Dutch colonials – where colourful local cultures still include ritual horse-back spear-battles and megalithic tomb-building reminiscent of the pyramid cultures of the pharaohs. Occasionally, even in the remotest Indonesian wildernesses, you find a world-class hotel like Nihi Sumba Island (regularly voted the world’s best resort), which offers the ultimate in barefoot beach luxury with a chance to experience the colourful culture of an island that stands out as outlandish, even within the perpetually astounding diversity of these islands.


I’ve been lucky to experience much of the variety of wilderness Indonesia: tracking tigers in remote Sumatra and orangutans in Borneo; climbing volcanoes in SulawesiKrakatoa and the Maluku Islands; sailing around SumbawaFlores and Komodo. The one guaranteed defining factor among all these trips has been the natural hospitality and charm of Indonesians of all ethnic groups and religions. This has been fortunate since only a few islands have world-class luxury accommodation and the only available accommodation has often been a sleeping mat on the floor of a tribal hut or a hammock strung in a jungle clearing.

The Indonesian phinisi has been nominated for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status, representing as it does an historic ship-building tradition, and these vessels could be vital to the future of tourism here. Around 6,000 Indonesian islands remain uninhabited and these vessels are pioneering routes to islands that have rarely – if ever – seen a visitor. During the northern winter, many of Indonesia’s growing fleet of luxury phinisi cruise Raja Ampat – described by Condé Nast Traveller as “the world’s most beautiful islands” – off the coast of New Guinea Island. But for most of the year they’re based at the port of Labuan Bajo, access point for the Komodo Islands. Crushed between the crumpled volcanic sheets of Sumbawa and Flores, these islands represent a launching pad to worlds you might never have imagined possible.

On this latest return trip to Komodo we spent several days cruising the dragon-infested valleys and hills of Komodo, Rinca and Padar Islands. We sipped champagne at sunset under the eerie silhouettes of giant fruit bats and at breakfast-time, watched a whale blowing glassy shards into the dawn air. Even in the remotest anchorages, we dined on succulent imported steak beneath an endless canopy of stars, with the Southern Cross hanging like a kite on the horizon. All too soon it was time to set sail once again for port. And as we anchored for the last night off the shore of Flores, I was thinking once again that it wouldn’t be such a terrible curse if I could only travel in this one country for the rest of my life.

Scott Dunn offers holidays to Indonesia from £3,200pp including flights. Contact the Asia team on 020 8682 5070;


Monkey Forest Temple, Ubud



Begawan Giri Estate, Ubud



Tukad Unda Dam, Bali



Start by spending a few days exploring Bali’s heartland, Ubud – the bohemian centre of Indonesian arts and crafts. Stay at Uma Ubud, a collection of pool villas overlooking the dramatic river gorge, with inspiring views along the valley to the cloud-capped volcanoes beyond. Take a trip to Amankila for a day’s surfing. Next, it’s a short flight to Flores in Komodo National Park, just east of Bali. Here you can board the Alexa, a private luxury vessel for two. Spend three nights cruising Komodo National Park in private luxury, scuba diving at Manta Point, trekking in search of Komodo dragons on Pink Beach and relaxing with a treatment by a Talika Spa therapist. After the cruise, fly from Labuan Bajo, on to the remote island of Sumba and the stunning eco-property, Nihi Sumba Island. There are just ten rustic bungalows here offering uninterrupted sea views of the idyllic, deserted beach. The adventurous will find plenty to do including diving, surfing and horse-riding. Be sure to trek through the national park to the Blue Waterfall, which descends to the stunning Blue Lagoon. Finish the trip by flying back to Bali for some well-earned rest at the beach. Choose Belmond Jimbaran Puri, a charming and friendly resort on one of the island’s best beaches, just 15 minutes from the airport.

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