After 2 days of bus-riding, me staring out the side window and thinking of my happy place as we barrel around the hairpin highway, with women puking in the back, and the pigs strapped to the roof like luggage squeeling with every bump, we finally pulled in to dirty, hot, dusty Labuanbajo.  Uh, this is what I changed my flight for?  I paid 50 cents to have a stinky old minibus take me down to the waterfront.  I walked along to the "best place in town" according to the good ol’ bible (that would be my lonely planet).  It looks like a bomb hit it.  Strike 3 for LP, it has not done me any good since I got to Flores.  By the way, don’t get me started on the Lonely Planet.  Yeah, its got the glossy pictures and maps, and is chock full of more info than a phone book, but if you want good opinions and actual background on a place I’ll take Let’s Go, Moon, or Rough Guides.  Anything but the damn planet, bland as white bread.
Sorry…..back to L-Bajo.  The experiences in Flores taught me to use the guidebook as a reference, but when it comes to a place its best to get there and have a look around before getting a room.  I ended up staying at this place that had barely 2 lines in the guidebook but had great views of the harbor, shade, and a cool breeze.  Nice.  It was already a world away form the dirty street below.  Before I could even check in I met another guy from Sweden who had also just arrived…he asked if I dove and I said yeah, that’s one of the things I wanted to check out.  So he said he met some Aussie guys who could take us out that afternoon and all day tomorrow if I liked.  Now, I still had my backpack strapped on and hadn’t even said hi to the receptionist, and now I’m going to go scuba diving in an hour?  But something told me to do it, so I sat down with the Aussie guys at their table, and said sign me up.  Sweet…I dropped my bag off in my room, grabbed some swim trunks, and headed off with the Aussies and swede to the dive boat.
I hadn’t been off the bus for 2 hours and I was already on a boat to a reef.  I love getting on boats…its such a nice change from the hot mainland, there’s always a cool breeze, and the scenery around Indo is usually pretty spectacular.  This place was tops.  Between Komodo off to the west, and the west tip of Flores lies a whole archipelago of little islands, sandy beaches, and coral reefs.  A strong tidal current sweeps through the area making it a classic setup for diving.  The place we hit that afternoon was really good, a little seamount with just a little current to push you along.  The soft corals weren’t as spectacular as Waiara, but it was still a great living reef, something that is getting too rare these days.  The tons of fishies, nudi-branches, turtles, and double-heads made it a great dive.  I was excited for tomorrow.
After a great feed at Gardena, my losmen, it was off to sleep.  Or so I thought.  At 8pm, the mosque loudspeakers switched on and let loose the prayers.  I had forgotten that I was in a Muslim country when I was inland, but apparently the muslims had got their feet into the coastal areas.  I expected maybe a half-hour of sing-songing on the squawk box, but as it dragged on and on and on, I was starting to get really annoyed.  I need to sleep for a big day of diving tomorrow!  What the f-!  Finally, after putting on my headphones to drown it out, the blabbing stopped around midnight.  I learned later that the local mosque was putting on a prayer-singing competition, hence the variety of voices that where similar in quality to the "greatest misses" segments everyone loves on American Idol.  Awful.
Next day was just top-notch from beginning to end.  We had a great morning dive at a remote island halfway to Komodo, again a great reef and a little current.  I felt really good, and we motored off to the "highlight" dive of the day at Batu Balong.  OK…I need to slow down here and walk you through this one.  We are getting pretty close to this rock sticking up out of the ocean when our guide says "Look!  Check out the whirlpool!"  What?!  I look overboard and there’s this whirlpool swirling around off to port.  Then we see some more ahead.  Pretty cool, I mention to our dive master this would be gnarly spot to dive.  He laughs and says this is the spot.  Did he forget that I was a novice with only about 20 dives?  I reminded him and he said no worries, stay close and if you get caught in a current don’t panic.  Then he gave me a safety balloon to inflate in case the current swept me away.  And he related the story of the rich American who got caught by a down-current here and disappeared in a 200 m canyon.  Gulp.  I just shup the hell up and listened intently as he described the dive for us.  The swede wasn’t too concerned, but he was a master diver and all.  I guess I was in good hands if something happened.  We motored right up to the rock to jump in, where there’s a slack eddy from the tidal flow ripping around the rock and causing the currents and whirlpools.  After descending, the guide takes us through a chimney down to about 30 m.  As we come out of the chimney, all I can think is "holy f-ing fish, batman!"  Its awesome!  There are more fish than I have ever seen before in my life, schools of everything you can think of in all directions, they are like colored clouds swarming around.  Below we see some big reef sharks, maybe 2 meters, patrolling the deep.  Big turtles are gliding around out a bit further, enjoying the currents.  The water is quite a bit colder and there’s a bit less visibility, from the turbulence I imagine.  We spend the next 30 minutes cruising to the rim of a deep canyon, then exploring bottomless walls of coral.  You name it, we saw it.  Lionfish, scorpionfish, weird frogfish, freaky anglers, puffers, moray eels, and enough nemo’s to rival my own big family.  A massive potato cod grouper hung out in the distance like a camouflage submarine.  We came up a bit close to the whirlpools and kicked our way back to the boat.  As we got in, the swede was saying it was one of his favorite dives, and he’d had 100’s.  I couldn’t argue.
Next, we motored over a bit to a sandy shelf about 6 meters deep.  The dive master was standing near the bow looking intently in the water.  Then he shouted at us to get our snorkel gear and jump in.  What?!  We did as told as he told us he’d seen some mantas.  Awesome baby!!  I’d never seen a manta in the ocean before.  We jumped in, but it was a bit murky and I couldn’t see nuttin. The swede and I were kicking around furiously looking for the beasties.  Then I noticed part of the bottom seemed to be moving.  I kicked over some more and sure enough it was a massive manta, cruising below.  I couldn’t believe it.  I came up and shouted, and together we swam over to it.  Now, in my book the manta ray is maybe the freakiest thing in the ocean.  Its just plain alien.  It looks kinda like a Salvador Dali flying saucer, cruising around the bottom with its massive maw open, straining for plankton.  It took a liking to us and circled us from below.  We agreed it was easily 3 m wide, a big mutha.  I took a big breath and tried to dive down to it…but as I got close it looked up at me with its big mouth wide open and seemed to say, "easy buddy, I could swallow ya by accident".  Sa-weeet.
After climbing back aboard we motored our way back to Rinca island, which along with Komodo are the 2 big islands in the area that have the legendary dragons.  As we went onshore we weren’t disappointed, we had two fellas greet us at the dock.  They apparently loved the fishy harbor smell.  After the guides beat them back with a stick, we walked to the visitor center, which had a few more dudes lounging in the shade.  It was pretty hot out at the time, and the dragons didn’t like it.  Apparently they are pretty sleepy except for morning and evening.  Too bad for us.  But it was still cool to see a big 3 m long bull staring over at us from the shade.  He was big and mean, and solid muscle.  They aren’t as evil looking as crocodiles maybe, but they make up for it muscle.  The arms and legs are thick, and their lack of a neck makes em look like they are ready for the WWF or the sumo championship of reptiles.  Our guide told us just two days ago an American (doh!) almost got eaten when he got too close and shoved his camera in the bull’s face.  It woke up and jumped at the guy…everyone was screaming and crapping their pants.  If the guide hadn’t hit the dragon with a stick in the nick of time it would’ve taken a hunk out of the American’s hiney.  I wouldn’t have felt any pity for him.  Then there was the story of the guide who fell asleep in the cafeteria and woke up to find a dragon munching her arm.  The bacteria in their mouths is so lethal, she’s still in a Singapore hospital trying to survive 5 months later.
We toured around the island but its a disappointment really.  The stopped the tourist feedings a few year ago, and now wild dragon spottings are really rare.  Apparently they used to feed the dragons a goat every day at lunchtime…I was bumming.  Now that would’ve been pretty gnarly!  I guess the other good time is in the fall when the bulls go at it fighting for chicks.
We motored back to LBajo that night to a spectacular sunset over the islands (see pics).  I spent the next couple days chilling at a perfect little island called Seraya with a white sand beach, palm trees, coral reef, and absolutely nothing to do.  It was perfect and much needed.  But too soon I was up early and off to the airport to Java…I was thinking as the boat came back to harbor that this little unplanned side trip to Flores had turned out to be pretty darn good.  Maybe I’d have to do a few more unplanned side trips in the future…