Even though it’s the only town at the western end of Flores and a major ferry port, you can tell as soon as you arrive in Labuan Bajo that it’s not going to be a vibrant, buzzing kind of place. The airport may have a brand new, futuristic terminal building, but it’s virtually empty – the short runway won’t accommodate anything much bigger than the twin-prop ATR-72 on which we arrived, and at the moment there are only 4 places you can fly to.
The town consists of one main road running west and south along the edge of a promontory, and a diagonal road inland to complete the triangle and enable the one way system to work. A few minor lanes criss-cross in between.
Driving along this road enables you to see all that there is to see in Labuan Bajo, which is not much. Half a dozen small supermarkets, a couple of banks, a post office, a few mosques and churches, a military barracks, small shops selling clothes or schoolbags, convenience stores, and a few hardware shops are all the services available to the town’s 1800 residents. Along the northern facing shore is a line of food stalls (empty during the day), with a covered fish and vegetable market occupying poll position at the point where the road turns sharply south. Behind the main road are schools and a clinic or two, but if you want a college or a hospital you’ll need to go to Ruteng, 5 hours away by a tortuous road. Or fly somewhere, if you can possibly afford it.
The west facing harbour has a quay that can take cargo boats and the vehicle ferries that ply the strait that separates Flores from Sumbawa – it’s 8 hours to Sape. Occasionally a Pelni ferry arrives from Bali or Makassar, but these journeys take a day or two. It’s always busy, and people trying to board one of the coastal tramps might have to clamber across another boat to get to theirs. Some boats stay for days as their cargo is laboriously offloaded into small trucks – anything larger would not cope with Flores’s roads, so all shipping containers have to be emptied and filled here.
The approach to the quay is crammed with wooden boats that can carry up to a dozen or so passengers seated along wooden benches under a simple roof, or they can carry small amounts of cargo to the offshore islands and coastal villages. Smaller fishing boats are anchored by the muddy foreshore further along.
The town may be dreary and shabby, but the view from it is stunning – a vista of small, steep green and brown islands studding a blue, blue sea under a blue, blue sky as far as the eye can sea. Traditional Indonesian pinisi sailing ships bob in the bay. To sit sipping an ice cold beer as the setting sun drops behind an island, and the scene changes from blue to orange and purple and finally black, when the stars appear – it’s unforgettable.
Labuan Bajo would probably be typical of many small Indonesian coastal towns if it wasn’t for two things – diving and dragons.
Even along LB’s northern shore, home to a few fishing boats, the water is clear. Flying in, you can see the coral reefs fringing the islands, pale turquoise patches against the azure deep. So alongside the main road are a dozen or more agencies offering dives and diving courses, day trips and live-aboards. The evocative names of the dive sites became familiar even to me as a non-diver – Crystal Rock, The Cauldron, Manta Alley.
The other reason to visit Labuan Bajo is, of course, the Komodo dragon, confined to 2 islands in the strait, Komodo and Rinca, and a few isolated places on Flores’s western edge. So agents also offer boat trips to see the dragons, with a little snorkelling thrown in. That’s what we were there for.