33 Hours From Bali to Flores

A quick geography lesson (because we certainly needed one before we started traveling around Indonesia):

Flores, just one in a long chain of volcanic islands.

Flores, just one in a long chain of volcanic islands.

Indonesia is composed of 17,000 islands. We were on the island of Bali and decided to head east to the island of Flores to meet Zev’s cousin, Mackenzie, who was on Flores doing research and planned to spend a long weekend on a boat tour around the Komodo islands.

Our first glimpse of the boat.

Our first glimpse of the boat.

The Tilongkabila, coming in to port in Labuanbajo, Flores.

The Tilongkabila, coming in to port in Labuanbajo, Flores.

We decided to forgo the $280 flight from Bali to Flores and instead invested in a first class cabin on the government ferry for $100, meals included. It was to be a 33 hour journey on the Tilongkabila, which was built in 1995 and age-wise falls in the middle of the fleet of Pelni operated boats, neither the oldest nor the newest of the 22 (?) boat fleet. We had no idea what to expect other than a day and a half from departure to arrival. Some of our expat friends told us we were crazy, others thought it would almost certainly make for a good story. So we readied our cameras and charged up our kindles for the long trip. The Lonely Planet suggested we bring sufficient food and water for the whole trip, so we loaded up on peanut butter, ramen noodles, and as many big bottles of water as we could carry without looking like alarmists.

Omnomnom.

A snack stand at the port in Benoa harbor, Bali.

Shopping for snacks before we get on the boat.

Shopping for snacks before we get on the boat. Would this be our last chance for food??

This is my skeptical face. It's not easy to ride a motorbike with a huge backpack and take photos at the same time.

This is my skeptical face. It’s not easy to ride a motorbike with a huge backpack and take photos at the same time.

Our day began with confusion. We arrived at the designated port only to be directed to a different area. Conveniently, the port authorities could offer us a lift to this new dock for the low price of $1 each, which we haggled down to 50 cents. With my luggage on my back, I was gripping my knees for dear life so I didn’t simply fly off the back of the bike. Finally at the right dock, the scene in front of us was one of pure chaos. Porters carrying boxes loaded with god-knows-what, hawkers selling all sorts of snacks and a million flavors of instant noodle, and people, so many people.

The cabin. It was a great hideout from the flurry of activity on the deck of the ship.

Our cabin. It was a great hideout from the flurry of activity on the deck of the ship.

Once we shoved our way onboard, we were led to our cabin which consisted of two beds, a window, a fan, a bathroom, and reading lights. A perfect setup to do nothing and relax. And that is what we proceeded to do for the next day and a half. Meals on the ship were served 3 times a day, a uninspiring routine of rice, fried chicken, and soupy vegetables in broth. The regular mealtimes may not have provided much in the way of sustenance, but they helped to mark the passage of time and provide a source of entertainment as we chatted with our fellow 1st and 2nd class passengers.

Twice on our journey we stopped in port to unload and load passengers and cargo. The crowds at each stop were overwhelming and the frantic crush to get onboard was equal parts amusing and terrifying with people climbing up the sides of the rickety gangplank to be the first on the deck.

In Bima, the crush to get onboard verged on insanity.

In Bima, the crush to get onboard verged on insanity.

We also loaded up local produce and unloaded vital supplies to the islands. Many of these ports rely on the arrival of the Pelni boats to supply basic necessities.

At the stop in Bima, Surabaya, we loaded up on the famous local onions.

At the stop in Bima, Surabaya, we loaded up on the famous local onions.

Between stops, we entertained ourselves by practicing our Bahasa Indonesia with the other passengers. We were interested to hear where the other passengers were going and what they did back home. Many people on the boat worked on the island of Bali and were heading home for Ramadan.

One of our lovely boatmates, truly delightful conversationalists.

One of our lovely boatmates. Our topics of conversation were somewhat limited by my vocabulary…

After many naps and a few books finished, we arrived in Labuanbajo on the island of Flores. It was dark by the time we finally arrived, but with the help of the overhead floodlights on the dock we could make out the shape of countless bodies pushing and shoving to get on the boat. Zev and I were overwhelmed and could barely make it through the tightly packed crowd. With the help of some very intimidating police officers, a path was cleared for passengers to disembark. We slowly shuffled through the port area and walked down the dusty main road to our hotel. After a hot shower and a quick bite to eat, we collapsed in bed and stayed there for the next 3 days. We were both suffering from a combination of malaise and stomach complaints. Avoiding the oppressive heat in Labuanbajo, we laid low until it was time to get on another much smaller boat to see the Komodo dragons.

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The sunsets in Labuanbajo were captivating. Up next, Komodo dragons, amazing snorkeling, and breathtaking dive spots!