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In Search of a Real-Life Dinosaur: Part 2

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

This sleepy town is the sort of place that would be the perfect setting for a Graham Greene novel. Right off the tourist track, it resembles many of the small agriculture-based tropical townships one finds in the Caribbean, South America, parts of Africa and the Pacific.

A photograph of the town in the l930's and one taken today would show little change. Horse-drawn carriages, mostly with bright decorations replace taxis as the main form of public and commercial transportation. People are friendly and the atmosphere is laid-back. The breeze is as warm as the smiles of the inhabitants, and nothing ever happens in a hurry.

As we drove into town Captain Herman told us something about the Perintis. The ship's name is Indonesian for "Discoverer" or "Explorer," and the vessel was built in Indonesia to a German design for an international consortium that was going to operate this ship in Asia for a period, after which it was to have been transferred to the Mediterranean.

While the ship could handle all conditions, the company who owned it couldn't -- and foundered. The ship changed hands, to be finally bought and operated by Kupu Kupu Barong Resort. A sturdy vessel indeed, the Perintis also had cabins that were extraordinarily large for a sailing yacht and, equally unusual and luxurious for this type of vessel, were air-conditioned and fitted with freshwater showers from the ship’s own de-salinization plant. Add a crew of twelve delightfully cheery and competent Indonesians that included a chef who, trained at Kupu Kupu, conjured up delicious meals daily, and it became clear that the Perintis was by far the best way to explore these off-the-beaten-track islands.

On the way from the airport to the harbor, we stopped at the Sultan's Palace, a somewhat imposing building the contents of which sadly did not live up to our expectations. Under Dutch pre-war rules the Sultan, who reigned over this area, was quite powerful by local standards, but he was far from significant internationally, with very few possessions worth displaying. His trappings of power were modest indeed, as was the Museum's budget and the number of people who visited here. However, we should not have expected more from such a tiny sultanate, and were soon back in our minibus, heading for the wharf.

The boats here were typical inter-islanders of unpretentious size and carried basic cargo. As we arrived, one ship was unloading steel concrete-reinforcement rods, with these precariously balanced on a single hawser in a way that would give any insurance assessor an instant coronary. As we watched, the bundle of rods was being lowered on to a donkey-cart. The unfortunate animal hitched to it appeared to have little chance of survival. Would it be cut in half by the bundle of steel rods accidentally being dropped on to it, or would it suffer a heart attack from trying to move what looked like seven or eight times its normal load?

Such scenes are common in this part of the world, and usually end in a near-miraculous achievement of the original objective. However, we did not stay around to watch. Instead we headed for the inflatable Zodiac that was waiting at the end of the pier. Moored some five hundred yards from the pier was a picture-book-pretty white-and-timber-colored boat. It was the Perintis.

As we climbed up the ladder, smiling Indonesian crew members greeted us with cold fruit drinks, taking us to our spacious cabin. Shortly thereafter we headed out to the harbor. Our adventure had begun.

The Perintis, though large for a sailing ship, is a small, intimate vessel, and once we had completed our basic unpacking, we headed for the deck. A swell was coming up, due to the conflicting direction of the tide and wind. The original plan had been to sail across to Flores and visit the Batu Cerman Caves, but since our great desire to see the Dragons we asked Captain Herman if we could spend more time snorkeling and visiting the National Park. Agreeing, he headed towards the Island of Komodo just as the sun was setting over the many islands we were passing.

Dinner was on the deck -- a brilliant idea as we could enjoy the balmy breeze, the magical island views and the atmosphere that one only gets in the tropics. The meal was delicious. Our chef had certainly learned well from his "minders" at Kupu Kupu Barong, and prepared dishes that offered a wide selection of European and Balinese flavors. The sea air can make one quite hungry, and with the high-standard of dishes served, and the good Australian wines and Indonesian beer, plates were soon squeaky clean.

We told stories of places we had visited, Paul and Shelagh recalled many of their traveling experiences, but all were fascinated by the stories that Captain Herman Hasle told about life in this part of the world, as remote from Europe in lifestyle as geographically. And getting to sleep was far from difficult. It had been a long time since any of us had been cradle-rocked to sleep, and the ocean did a great job in this regard.

The next morning we anchored in the lee of a small island, one of the three thousand that make up Indonesia. We landed on the island, walked on the beach, swam and returned to the Perintis for lunch. Mid-afternoon it was time to go snorkeling and look at the coral.

Having previously visited Australia's Great Barrier Reef, we thought nothing could equal this, so we did not expect anything to match the fabulous reefs that extend right down the coast of Queensland. We were wrong! The snorkeling here was quite fantasmagorical!

Our Captain had chosen a tiny volcanic outcrop around which to experience the Indonesian version of super-snorkeling. The steps were lowered to the water-level, we boarded our Zodiac inflatable, and headed for the underwater halo of reef that surrounded the tiny island. Two of the Indonesian crewmen from the Perintis were sent to swim along with us as "minders" while another took the Zodiac back to the boat to pick up the Captain and those who, fitted out with full diving gear, had decided to explore the reef below us from underwater levels.

And what a reef! Teeming with every conceivable shape and color of coral, every inch of the water seemed to have its own resident fish. If anybody has never snorkeled, be they seven or seventy years old, my advice is "do it." Anyone who believes that there's no such thing as a supreme being of any sort may change their minds when they snorkel here. It's hard to believe that such beauty can be accidental.

The corals themselves were not only of different colors, but also of a vast variety of shapes and textures. Brain-coral, so called because in shape it looks exactly like a human brain, was tightly formed and rock hard. Staghorn coral that mimics antlers in appearance ranged from bright, almost luminescent yellow to purple-blue. Large coral structures looked like giant shiitake mushrooms. And others looked like pitted boulders. Then there were the soft corals, swaying gently in the current as it flowed and ebbed. Nature had indeed painted this scene with a broad brush and made it exquisite. But this was only the backdrop. The foreground focus was on the fish.

There were small ones and large ones, thin ones and fat ones, long ones that looked like long sticks and others that seemed to always want to stand on their heads. There were brightly iridescent blue fish that seemed to glow like neon and others, looking like flat 4-inch circles of purest yellow with pointed mouths at one end, little tails at the other that had a black dot on their side to make predators that these were eyes that would miss nothing.

As we snorkeled we could occasionally see the divers making their way some 40 or 50 feet below us, swimming along the almost vertical edge of the coral cliff-face. Occasionally a small shark would glide past, and we would be glad that these were harmless to man. Stingrays, looking for all the world like they were flapping their "wings," and looking like something from an outer galaxy smoothly propelled themselves around the island. Here we were alone with nature --- and loving it.

Now the Zodiac was coming over to stay close to us. We had been swimming around this out-crop which, for a large part of its circumference, protected us from much of the current. But now we had come to the end of the shelter, and the water was starting to flow so fast that the fish were all facing one way and swimming hard just to stand still. Fortunately we were all good swimmers and needed no assistance. But it was a good feeling to know that the Zodiac was right there "just in case."

And then, another fifty yards further along the fierce current stopped as fast as it had started and tranquility returned. We continued swimming and looking -- for me there is no more beautiful sight -- until the Zodiac came up and told us that our time was up and that we would have to return to the Perintis. Another candle-lit deckside dinner and another hour's story-telling later it was again time to "turn in." Tomorrow we would arrive in Komodo.

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