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A kaleidoscope called Komodo

Author: Dr. Debanshu “Doc” Bhaduri, PADI Master Scuba Diver (MSD –1805AE0715)

Of shrinking planes, tiny airports and fantastic folk

One makes the mistake, living in India that Indonesia is just another Asian tiger next door; like Thailand or Malaysia. Perhaps that’s true... if you are flying to Jakarta. But divers go to Bali. And the more adventurous ones go to Komodo. That gets you within spitting distance of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia is a surprisingly ‘poor’ country. But only in monetary terms. The people are surreally enchanting and gentle. Soft spoken and laughing. You hardly ever get to hear a voice raised in anger here. People don’t honk when standing in traffic queues. What a change.

Absolute “Komodo Cowboys”

We landed at Komodo airport from Ngurah Rai airport, Bali in the scorching heat of the late morning sun. I love that the definition of an airport can be expanded from a multi terminal sophisticated behemoth to a tin shed with a single tarmac. Komodo is closer to the latter in description. The tiny planes which ferry us there allow only 10 kg check in baggage; so if you are a fully equipped diver, be prepared to shell out the Rufias. One gets used to being jostled at the single baggage carousel by islanders and surfers (it’s a top surfing destination). And then one will get into a minivan to travel across the hump of a verdant volcanic hill to reach Sumbawa, west Komodo, passing sleepy villages and paddy fields. You turn a corner and a serpentine road leads to that little Eden called Kalimaya.

Bamboo luxury. An invasive rooster. The ocean at last.

What makes the Kalimaya Beach resort unique is its complete isolation; it is practically the only dive resort in that area of Komodo. It has an incredible house reef, the exploration of which (if you are a macro person) can easily encompass an entire dive vacation, such is the plethora of life around the various bommies (submerged offshore reefs). I recall Alex, Kunal and I spending at least two dive hours around just five such bommies, looking for an elusive leafy scorpion fish! But more about underwater vistas later. The on stilt air conditioned huts are fabulous and their en suite, open-to-sky bathrooms are insane. Equally insane is a voyeuristic black rooster who would land in the open loo and ogle the family jewels with undisguised interest. What is it with roosters and divers? (Anyone who hasn’t heard of the Bastard of Bangaram is missing a legendary story).

Lush & healthy reefs abound at Komodo’s pristine dive sites

We sat every night in the open dining room, with one side sliding into an infinity pool which in turn fades into the bay. At Kalimaya, they talk of pods of whales crossing the bay in the clear moonlight, moaning and blowing not more than 500 meters away. Perhaps you can start to fathom now what I am desperately trying to describe. But then, language and words are limited compared to the magnificence nature can unfold.

Diving with Dragons

Wallacea. That magical zone of incredible biodiversity which includes Sumbawa and Komodo. Towards Sundaland, west of the Wallace line, fauna akin to East Asia. Towards Australia, east of the line, everything changing to Oceanic species. Imagine a wonder water world where you get to see both; yet with an invisible boundary line drawn so that species on each side of the line turn back at it into their respective zones! Essentially, a deep water channel which formed when the continental shelves separated, this line separates fauna into Asian or Oceanic dominance. Komodo lies smack dab in the mind boggling Coral triangle, also known as the Amazon of the oceans. Covering just 1.6% of the planet’s oceanic area, it has 76% of all known coral species in the world. As a habitat for 52% of Indo-Pacific reef fishes and 37% of the world's reef fishes, it encompasses the highest diversity of coral fauna in the world. So if you want to see life in the ocean, there is no place in the world as pristine as Komodo. There are a few caveats, however.

Macro delights: Nudi Branchs make Komodo an underwater photog’s paradise

The waters here are really not for novice divers. You have to have decent skills, especially good buoyancy control, experience in drift diving and a calm head in case of a crisis. For sure, the dragons here are not all quadruped. The waters can be rather capricious and unforgiving. Komodo is a place which typifies anything impossibly beautiful but dangerous. Diver casualties can and do happen. But safe diving practices, following the instructions of locally experienced dive leaders, and knowing your own limitations can make this a heady combination of adrenaline and serenity, nature at its savage and enchanting best, and safe enough. Not a rookie diver destination for sure, but my humble experience would suggest a minimum requirement of an Advanced Open Water Certification with 50 dives, some of which include strong current confrontations. Let me illustrate with a scenario. This is not to intimidate anyone, but my brief does not mandate pulling punches. Before the reader jumps to any conclusions, let me state that these dives I rank as some of the best in my limited diving career.

Primordial S**t aka “Dude, where are my shorts?”

After sussing how everyone was diving, a few of us were considered fit enough to attempt the “Canyon” aka “Dude, where are my shorts?”, one of the most challenging dive sites in Komodo. Considering the difficulty level, we were honoured with the legendary Stuart, Aussie (of South African origins) manager and senior most dive leader of Kalimaya deigning to lead the dive.

We stopped in the middle of the open choppy blue, and Stu simply said, “This is it.” I looked around for the dive site, but it was my close friend and awesome dive buddy Kunal Khaladkar aka KK who saw it first. Then he uttered those immortal words, “this is some primordial s**t, dude.” I turned and followed his line of sight and my blood ran cold.

In the middle of nowhere, with waves crashing over them, stood two jagged, rocky outcroppings. Like watery sentinels to Hade’s world. The gap between these two rocks was what we had to target. The truth was that it was all just one rocky sea mount, with a deep and narrow channel in the middle.

The Canyon.

Dive brief was simple. Negative entry to 25 meters. Grab one of the two large boulders guarding the entrance. Sink fast or the rip current will drag you into the blue. Time your entry into the canyon. One at a time. The brief I now abandon to describe the dive itself. We descended as planned; KK, Alex and I, the tail team. We spotted trouble straight away. An advanced diver, who hadn’t dived in a while, was panicking and Francois, one of the French dive leaders was trying to calm him down at the entrance. But this meant we had minimal access to the boulders. I could feel the tug of the fierce current. Fortunately, Francois got the diver sorted out and we followed the two into the canyon; KK, I and Alex, in that order. No scope for buddy business here. We entered straight into massive magic. And magical hell.

Deep, dark blue. Walls (studded with sea urchins and scorpion fish) within painful scraping distance on both sides. Look up and you realise that you are practically in an overhead environment; the walls come closer and closer till they are almost meeting at the top, leaving just a sliver of light to slide through. The visibility gets murkier and I realise there is no heading up top if you get into trouble. No evidence of the end of the canyon so one has to be calm and breathe slowly and evenly, conserving air, with neutral buoyancy and trim being non-negotiable. And then there was the surge.

The canyon essentially acted as a funnel for the ocean on both sides of the sea mount. Thus the most vicious, Columbus like (remember the nausea inducing pendulum like amusement ride?) surge I have ever experienced. Incredible! Five meters forward, seven meters back. Sometimes you feel you are going nowhere. And you start wondering about your air supply. And all the time, the walls are getting narrower and narrower (until a diver with a pro camera rig had to twist sideways to scrape though).

“Doc” Bhaduri and his buddies “hooked” onto the reef

So here we were. Swimming in line. Swinging on our personal gigantic pendulum. Locked into our own personal space. Breathing our personal air in a stentorian manner. With as much modicum of control as our mind zen, technical ability & our experience would allow. As for me; how can one explain being s**t scared, supremely exalted and grimly determined at the same time?

Finally, end of the passage of intimidation. Come up to a huge boulder and ascend steeply to five meters, fighting the surge, madly deflating and trying not to get slammed at the same time. Enter a quasi-lagoon. Ascend too fast, and you are likely to be smashed to a pulp against the rocks. Don’t hit the bottom; it’s cluttered with scorpion fish and urchins. Perfect buoyancy is the key.

The canyon hadn’t finished with us. As I looked into the open ocean, I saw Stuart and his buddy literally getting swept away as they left the lagoon. There is a perennially strong current at the mouth of this mini lagoon. And here we come to the legend behind the name , “dude, where are my shorts?”. Seems there is an Italian divemaster called Nico who was one of the pioneers of this site. As he ascended out of the canyon for the first time, the current caught him. The ocean liked his loose Bermudas, and claimed it for its own. It took Nico sometime to realise he was starkers and then he asked his now famous question.

An experience unforgotten. A dive of a life time. I did not even mention the black tips resting on the bottom of the canyon. I won’t describe the de facto standards of 25-30 meter visibility, the frog fish, the sea snakes and other fantastic flora and fauna which are in abundance here; suffice it to say that they are unmatched.

The Dragons Emerge

Life stopped evolving here a million years ago. Or so it seems. And a throwback to prehistory stalks the barren wastes of the island of Komodo; relentless, merciless & exceedingly cunning. The Komodo Dragon.

The Komodo Dragon

It is true that the dragons have not evolved; perhaps they have had no reason to do so. The size of a squat horse, body armour just inferior to that of a rhinoceros. Weapons – pretty much the entire body. Razors sharp rows of powerful, long teeth; a venomous bite because of the innumerable pathogens it harbours in its maw, and a death grip which its jaws will not relinquish, unless it tears flesh and bones off or is killed itself. A tail which it wields like a weapon; beating and whipping its prey with stunning, even lethal blows. And claws. Grip and slash daggers in all it’s appendages. A fearsome killing machine indeed. Lazy during the day, but when on the hunt, especially at night, can move as fast as an equine. We were allowed to see the dragons only from off shore. On the island, only rangers are allowed to stay.

There are so many anecdotes I could narrate. Amazing food, tranquil evenings, great company, a jetty under the stars and over the reef. But one needs to discover this paradise on one’s own.

Lest I forget, difficult destinations are made smooth and superb when you have a fantastic team to handhold you and keep you comfortable. Seemant and Siddharth and Scuba India are so professional that you never get to know the efficient engine which is working behind the scene. And all this with a smile…mostly.

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