Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Island of Your Own

An Island of Your Own


Saturday, March 25, 2007, 11:42 AM Local Time

Flores The bay to the front of my simple cottage is a magical place.

With my feet up on the cottage’s railing, a daybreak coffee in my hand, a dark blue, perhaps an azure, belt spills across the bay marking the boundary to the deep waters.

The sun climbing above the shadowy humps of the Pulau Seraya Besar Island in the sea before me, reddens the sky with its morning arrogance.

On my side of the azure border, the calm waters are a blue so pale that it could be considered to be tan or even white. On the belt’s further side, the waters seemingly continue on forever, their blueness incrementally increasing in power. Each shade represents a different wet world.

With the tide in, my first morning on the island, I slip on my flippers, don my mask and snorkel and sit in the water. I tilt forward, lay flat on my belly and begin to pull my way, one handful of sand at a time, through the knee-deep water. The water is very clear and the soft bottom is less than an arm’s length away. A few sandy, nearly translucent, fish dart out of my path as I float on my way above them.

Five meters seaward, I come to a sea grass bed. Here I begin to see more marine life. Crabs crab their way through the thick dancing fronds. Their poppy black eyes dart and blink with panic as my pink bulk form floats overhead. These are small crabs, less than the diameter of a Malang apple and are in no danger of making it onto my dinner plate.

Red starfish, large, stiff, five pointed things with black nodules running down the crest of each arm, likewise make their home in this grass bed. They too, I swim over the top of. They remain stoic, fortified with the nonchalant character for which they are famous.

The starfish and crab are not alone. An expanse of sea urchins lay just towards the end of the sea grass. There must be hundreds of them in each grouping of the spiny animals. Their black spines are a marvelous defense. Each creature possesses more than a hundred of the ten-centimeter long barbs. In the angles where the spines meet on their rounded bodies are red spheres that may be light sensors, primitive eyes of some sort.

I carefully paddled my way past these thorny challenges and into the world of where the true wonders begin, the coral garden. To use the tired cliché that a snorkeling above a coral reef is like looking at an aquarium is a bit like saying that meeting an alien is the same as watching ET.

A coral reef does not have one true bottom. It is made up of layers and shelves and outcroppings, all homes and shelters and hunting grounds to creatures doing what creatures do in any biological niche. Fighting, breeding, hiding, stalking, and feeding are all on display below.

Colorful anemones expand and contract and sway to and fro like heavy flowers in a breeze pulling microscopic nutrients from the atmosphere. From between the anemones’ poisoned tentacles dash about, seeming to play, are families of clownfish. Here in the bay, the first family I spy is a trio of skunk clownfish, named for the white strip painted down their tops from head to tail. The largest of the three shoots from the safety of their home nipping at my fingers as I wave goodbye.

The nearby underwater grasslands fading to become a distant memory, I begin to spot giant clams of all sizes dotting the landscape. They come striped in black and a variety of bright colors, blue, violet, purple, red, orange, green. When I bend at the waist and kick my flippers to swim down to them, they exhale huge gusts of water through their breathing tubes and clam up tight, their meaty tender inners safely hidden from me.

On the far side of the reef I spot a series of parrotfish. These brightly colored fish are easy to spot. They are flat-bodied and round. The line I see are grazing, heads down, at the rocky reef underneath me and defecating clouds of sandy powdery remains.

Just to the right of the clownfish I swim over two triggerfish. A couple. These aggressive fish are the bullies of the reef. Growing to nearly a meter in length, they are very territorial and do not hesitate to attack intruders. This is bad news since they have sharp teeth. Similar sized to the parrot fish, they are more diamond shaped. Carefully I make sure that I do not pass directly over there two.

I swim parallel to the shore, patrolling the border that demarcates the deep from the shallow. Other guests of the islands have mentioned sea snakes and sharks. I have not seen either. But I do see many large barrel sponges, their openings large enough to take a rest within. I dive down to one particularly large barrel sponge, its supporting ribs as thick and corded as a weight lifter’s wrist, to find, to my surprise, a lion fish in full bloom.

This turns out not to be the only lion fish I come across this day. On the swim back to shore I come upon another lion fish hovering, motionless, over a bump of coral. Its fins spread wide, supported by a rack of poisonous ribs. Its heavy slung jaw was lowered and ready for any unsuspecting fish to swim by. It was the perfect ambush predator.

I swim a circular route, giving the lion fish’s poisonous fins a wide berth and made it back over the grass bed and onto the beach and walk up to my cottage.

I traveled to Pulau Seraya Kecil from the Flores’ westernmost port of Labuan Bajo. To the East of the Wallace Line it is markedly drier, browner, and more dead in appearance than Bali, Java, and Sumatra are.

Labuan Bajo is just an hour’s flight from Bali and Pulau Seraya Kecil is but an hour’s boat journey from there. It is also possible to travel to Flores overland. I made it in four days by bus and ferry from Jakarta.

There is only the one ten-cottaged resort on the island for guests to stay at. A night with a free breakfast is Rp 100,000 and the boat ride to the island is free. The downside is that electricity is generator-powered and available only a few hours nightly. That is long enough to recharge cell phones and cameras and pump fresh water into bathroom basins, but not long enough to have a climate-controlled sleep. Nonetheless, the island is popular with those travelers who have made it to Flores.

Chris, a tourist from Switzerland and frequent caller to Bali, is a first time visitor to Pulau Seraya Kecil. He says, “I didn’t know what to expect. But I have extended my stay from two days now to seven so far.”

“The location is great, with a super beach, no noise, very relaxed, no disturbances. I’ve got all I need here.”

The resort is operated by the Gardena Hotel of Labuan Bajo. There is one restaurant on the island which is also the snorkeling gear center, front desk, and library. It opens during set times and is ran by a small staff.

Paulus, the manager, has worked here for four years. He is also the boat captain that carries guests to the island from Gardena. His wife is the cook.

“I like the solitude,” the 32-year-old manager says. “The guests are great. From them, I’ve learned some Italian, German, and English.”

In addition to the guests, Paulus is fond of turtles. He visits fish markets on the mainland and purchases any turtle eggs he finds for Rp 1,000 per egg. “I love turtles,” he says. “I don’t want the fishermen to sell the eggs for eating.”

He says that after bringing the eggs to the island they require up to sixty days to hatch. He then keeps the hatchlings in washing containers in the back of the restaurant, feeding to them bits of fish and changing their seawater daily until they are large enough to safely release into the ocean.

He says that he has recently freed 60 baby turtles and only has a few to show me. He brings out two who are immediate hits with the small gathering of guests in the restaurants. Cameras pop out and the hard-shelled infants are immortalized in photos that will surely be shown in photos across Europe. Then they are put back in a bucket in order to fatten up further.

Pulau Seraya Kecil is a small island, much smaller that its sister island Pulau Seraya Besar. It consists of ten hills with none being taller than 200 meters. To the South, behind the resort, over a hill and across a saddle sits a fishing village of 50 families.

Being arid and lacking fresh water, there is no farming and as one walks the hills one will be met with grazing goats, the odd deer, leafless trees and many blocks of crumbling red rock overlooking grand seascapes. Though hot, dry, and barren it is a fine chuck of land to explore and possesses fantastic spots from which to shoot remarkable photos.

The island is also a fantastic place from which to explore Komodo or Rinca, the two main dragon visiting islands. Boats are easy to chartered through the restaurant and more inexpensive than those rented from Labuan Bajo.

For those looking for a real weekend getaway or for those already traveling to see to dragons or those traipsing further east along the drips and drops of our archipelago Pulau Seraya Kecil is worth a visit.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post’s Weekender Magazine, June 2007.

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