Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: there's no such thing as risk-free travel

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay recalls an eventful – and scary – voyage in the Flores Sea © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

There but for the grace of God go I, as the proverb says. That’s what went through my head when I read about the travellers recently shipwrecked in Indonesia. According to reports, their boat foundered on a reef in rough seas in the middle of the night, forcing some passengers into a lifeboat, and others to swim for hours before local fishermen found and hauled them to safety.

The story instantly transported me back to May 2011, the climactic night of my own nerve-shredding experience of the popular route between Lombok and Flores by way of Komodo, home of the ‘dragons’ made famous by countless wildlife programmes.

My wife and I vacillated for days before committing to the five-day, four-night trip after stumbling on a report by Adventurous Kate, a travel blogger who had also survived a shipwreck on the route just a few weeks before we were due to depart.

An eerie forerunner

In an eerie forerunner of last week’s incident, Kate’s boat hit rocks during a night sail, forcing everyone aboard – including a Danish couple with a 10-month-old baby – to abandon ship, jump into the heaving Flores Sea, and swim for the nearest island.

It’s easy to lose perspective when you hear of something like this happening to fellow travellers; her ordeal sounded, and no doubt was, terrifying, and it made us think long and hard about whether we wanted to undertake the same trip with the same company.

After weighing all the available evidence against our time and budget, though – and discounting alternative ways to reach Komodo (neither Indonesian airlines nor the region’s inter-island ferries had a particularly reassuring safety record) – our desire to see the dragons outweighed our misgivings.

We concluded that the chances of a repeat seemed slim, if not negligible, and the company in question, Perama, were a professional outfit by most accounts (including Lonely Planet’s at the time, although the advice on our Thorn Tree forum spanned the full spectrum of opinion, and continues to do so).

A Komodo dragon in Komodo National Park, Flores, East Nusa Tenggara © Ali Trisno Pranoto / Getty Images Komodo dragons are spectacular in any circumstances, but this trip to their lair provided excessive drama © Ali Trisno Pranoto / Getty Images

Thunder and lightning

The well-organised trip – an island-hopping odyssey along the north coast of West Nusa Tenggara – turned out to be a highlight of our travels: it’s a bewitching part of the world, and tracking those fabled reptiles through the scrub of Komodo and Rinca is an experience I’ll savour to my dying day.

But late on the fourth and final night of our voyage, the weather took a turn for the worse: the wind rose inexorably, thunderclaps exploded overhead to heart-stopping effect, and threatening trees of lightning sprouted from the horizon toward which we sailed.

Sitting high in the water, the traditional phinisi boat began to list in a two-metre swell, causing me, my wife and the others lying on pallets on the canvas-covered upper deck to slide back and forth across the floor, slipping ever nearer to the railing, beyond which lay a plunge to the foaming water.

Praying for dawn

An hour earlier, the captain, a young man in his 20s, had reassured us there was no real danger; but in the teeth of the storm his crew congregated around the helm, and we were left alone to lash our backpacks together, note the location of the nearest life jacket, hold hands, and – it is no exaggeration to say – pray for dawn.

After several hours of this, the tumult died away as quickly as it had begun. We rose from our makeshift beds, zombie-like, and approached the railing with a sway in our step. A rising sun revealed a world reborn, and we sailed into Kayangan Harbor as salmon-pink light spread across the becalmed water, wondering whether it had happened at all.

It was scary. But the thing is, even with hindsight, and in the light of this latest incident, I think we’d still take the trip. All travel involves a degree of risk. Every traveller should sift the facts, consult the best advice, and identify their own level of tolerance before making a decision. Assuming that responsibility is one of the reasons travel is a surefire way to learn a bit more about yourself.