I grew up in a nautical family. My forebears were forever off sailing Royal Navy square-riggers ‘round Cape Horn or running merchant ships up and down the coast of Africa. No surprise then that I’d happily spend childhood hours poring over maps of the world, charting where I’d sail off to if I ever decided to pack my bags and run away to sea. The only disappointment in these exotic daydreams was that I could never find that legendary area on the map marked with those intoxicatingly dangerous three words: Here Be Dragons.
Now, at last, I’ve found the spot…
Fair enough, these may not be serpentine giants carving though the water to devour hapless sailors, but in a land better known for palm trees and backpacking paradise, the dragons of Indonesia’s Komodo Island are fearsome enough.
They are just one of the many varied attractions of this island nation. Bali has for years got the lion’s (or dragon’s?) share of the tourism limelight, offering budget paradise in places like Kuta Beach and Legian where the drinks flow freely (and cheaply) and backpackers come from across the globe to chill out on some of the world’s best beaches. The 2002 and 2005 bombings by Islamic militants took some of the shine off Bali’s gleaming reputation though, and adventurous tourists are now starting to look at some of the other attractions on offer on the 17 000-odd islands that make up Indonesia.
The Komodo Islands off the east coast of Sumbawa are far and away the most exhilarating… I mean, where else in the world can you visit a tropical island inhabited by two-metre-long razor-toothed lizards that prowl a landscape of extinct volcanoes to hunt prey that they eat alive and kicking? Found nowhere else on earth, hanging out with Varanus komodoensis might sound more like an episode of ‘Lost’ than a holiday getaway, but a visit to the Komodo National Park is rapidly becoming one of the must-do activities for visitors looking for something a little more exhilarating than crawling through the bars of Bali.
If a death-defying visit to Komodo (and neighbouring Rinca, which also boasts the reptilian residents) sounds like your cup of tea, then the province of Kalimantan will also be right up your adrenalin-charged alley.
Occupying the largest slice of the rough-and-tumble island of Borneo (the rest is shared by Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei), Kalimantan offers over half-a-million square kilometres of impenetrable jungle to explore. With little infrastructure and torrential rains which often wash away roads and ground planes for days on end, the rivers are the highways of this remote island. Developed tourist destinations are few and far between, but tales of cruising up twisting rivers enshrouded by rainforest and nights spent in ancient longhouses are sure to earn you a free drink or two when you make it back to civilisation. With the equator running right through it there are no real seasons in Kalimantan, but your best bet is to visit from April to July when you’ll get the best mix between the wet and dry (although that’s relative) seasons.
To the east of Kalimantan lies the spidery island of Sulawesi, although when the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century they (as colonists tend to do) bastardised the name into ‘Celebes’, which is what the island is also sometimes known as.
Regardless of what you call it Sulawesi is a great place to combine a bit of adventure with some well-earned holiday R&R… especially if you love the ocean. Thanks to its spidery outline – think of a slightly misshapen ‘K’ stretching over close on a thousand kilometres – you’re never far from the sea in Sulawesi and the island is home to some of the best beaches Indonesia has to offer.
Makassar, which is also known as Ujung Pandang, is the capital of the island and is likely to be your first port of call. The city is rich in history thanks to its indigenous population and years of colonisation by the Dutch and Portuguese and is well worth exploring for a day or two.
Although these European powers took control of the ports and trade routes, the island’s mountainous interior frustrated efforts to colonise further inland, and has left many of the island’s ethnic groups as distinct as they were centuries ago. Travelling on the precipitous roads into the mountains, the soaring heights of Tanah Toraja is the island’s most popular attraction, offering stunning scenery, unusual architecture and fascinating cultural festivals. The highland Torajans’ macabre burial rituals are a popular attraction!
If all that sounds a little too offbeat your best bet is to head north – the island is well-covered by public buses, or you can skip the long journey with a quick flight – for the northern city of Manado. Sulawesi’s second city is the main jumping-off point for Pulau Bunaken – widely regarded as one of Indonesia’s top dive destinations. The idyllic Togian Islands, which are a little more off the beaten track, are also a popular option for water-lovers. As it’s not far from Kalimantan, your best bet is to visit in April so as to avoid the arrival of rain in December, and Europeans in June to September.
Avoiding the crowds is tricky in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island. With many people though come many cultures, and the ethnic Javanese in the south offer a fascinating look into the history of the region. The ancient capital of Yogyakarta is a popular destination, and boasts a cultural centre offering daily performances of traditional arts, along with courses in the batik handicraft the area is known for. The massive Buddhist temple of Borobudur is well worth a visit, as is the Hindu complex of Prambanan.
Unless you’re keen on culture, it is however the dramatic central spine of extinct and very-much-active volcanoes which draws many visitors to Java. The mesmerising coloured lakes of the Dieng Plateau are another big attraction, as is a sunrise climb to the summit of Gunung Bromo. If you’ve got time to spare, it’s also well worth visiting the most famous – and destructive – volcano the world has ever known, Krakatau, off the west coast of Java. Merak, also in the west, is the hopping off point for the 90-minute ferry ride to Sumatra; Indonesia’s second largest island.
It’s the untamed wilderness of Sumatra that attracts many visitors here, with volcanoes, mountains and beautiful lakes – especially Lake Toba, Southeast Asia's largest lake and the spiritual home of the unique Batak people – offering a wonderful alternative to the palm trees and powder sands. Sumatra is also home to a vast array of wildlife, with elephants, tigers, tapirs and even the rare Sumatran rhinoceros spotted on organised safaris within protected reserves. If wildlife is your thing, then the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre at Bukit Lawang near the town of Medan should be top of your to-do list. In fact, about the only place you won’t want to visit in Sumatra is the far-northern Aceh province. Devastated by the 2004 tsunami and wracked by internal violence, it’s a place best avoided by tourists.
And perhaps that’s the contrast that draws so many visitors to Indonesia. There is human suffering and high culture here, social strife alongside peaceful Buddhist temples, idyllic beaches fringing islands with violent volcanoes, gentle orang-utans breathing the same air as vicious dragons. Ah yes, if there’s one thing that you simply can’t miss in Indonesia… it’s those dragons.
» This article originally appeared in 'Travel' magazine