It’s snowing, my hands are cold, but the mug of coffee between them is helping to fight it off. My mind is thousands of miles away to a place I’ve never been. I’m chasing a fish I’ve never caught. I’ve done all the research, watched all the videos, but now it’s time to go. My five bags carrying $10,000 in camera gear, $8,000 in fly fishing rods and reels, and $40 in granola bars are loaded up in my car and I’m headed to the airport from my New York City hotel.
Target Species: Giant Trevally
My adventure is just beginning, but it didn’t start here. It began on a cold, and snowy day in March at the World Fishing and Outdoor Show in Suffern NY. I’m standing in the Perfect Loop Fishing booth, talking to Marcelo and Matias about this incredible adventure halfway around the world. Monkeys, giant manta rays, dragons, snakes, coral reefs, and untouched beaches in the land of Labuan Bajo – The City of Sunset. The cherry on top: the bird eating fish regarded as the hardest fighting on the planet.
This has been no easy process to complete. I’m holding my carnet. A 55 page manifesto of gear, serial numbers, and stamped letters of official approval from the Indonesian Government. I am to present these at my destination. There have been numerous people in my life telling me that I’m crazy to go to Indonesia. That the cartels will kidnap me (us) and that we aren’t welcome there as Americans – that it’s the number 1 highest per capita muslim country in the world. None of which is true, of course.
I grab my photographer JB, aka #camera2, and we board our first flight to South Korea. In 21 hrs we’ll meet Tanner, aka #camera1, my EP Stephen Neslage, and our guest Reynolds Wolf from the Weather Channel. We’re all exhausted, but we’re in Bali, Indonesia and we have been dreaming of this moment for months. Nothing a cup of coffee and a trip to the beach can’t rectify.
Speaking of coffee, this place is Shangri La for people like us who love bold java. I am surrounded by the best coffee of my life at all times. If you’re as adventurous as I am, the Luwak coffee is right up your alley. Roasted from a piece of fruit that is eaten by a Luwak (looks like the worlds largest ferret at about 40lbs). The fruit is digested but the center of it is not, instead it’s pooped out. Collected. Roasted. Ground. Brewed. Drank. Repeated.
The curious side of me wins and I have to try it. It costs about $10 US per cup, which makes it the most expensive thing I will taste in Indonesia. There are rumors in the group that this same coffee costs $100 in Manhattan. I have to admit, it’s the best damn coffee I’ve ever had. Even better than the espresso I drank (a LOT) in Northern Italy. Never thought I’d say that about anything, let alone poop coffee.
On the first two days we visit three of the oldest man-made structures I’ve ever seen. The oldest of which was built in the year 1032ad. Perched on the edge of a giant cliff, hundreds of feet above the bluest water I’ve ever seen, sits the first of three temples I would visit in Bali. The detail and craftsmanship that went into the construction of these buildings is remarkable. When I thought of the tools we have now it it made me wonder how they did this over 1,000 years ago.
There are monkeys everywhere, and they’re not shy. They’re actually quite advanced and have learned how to use tourists to get food. The monkeys sit and watch you, while you watch them. Waiting for you to get comfortable, sitting preferably. Scanning you for easy targets like cellphones, sunglasses, hats, coffee. They walk slowly towards their target, then spring quickly and take something they deem to be of value to the owner. When you try to recover it they’ll establish a price.
We actually watched as one monkey took a flip flop from a woman. She gave the monkey a piece of fruit to get it back. The monkey took the fruit, and inspected it, and waved at the woman instructing her to give him another. When she did he tossed the flip flop back to her and went away. So for future reference: one flip flop will cost you two pieces of dragon fruit.
The Monkey Forest is amazing, and feels like you’re in a rainforest. You’re surrounded by monkeys of all sizes, and if you don’t want to interact with them you should not come here. However, you need to know that they’re wild. And even though these monkeys interact with people on a daily basis they still bite, scratch, scream.
But there are moments you’ll experience, like we did, when they’ll just sit on your lap and relax. And it’s having this happen after you witness them angry, wild, that makes you appreciate it for the miracle that it is. You’re not in a petting zoo.
The best advice I got before leaving was to eat Nasi Gureng. I ate it everyday, sometimes I ate it twice a day. Nasi Gureng is fried rice. Anyone who knows me knows that is my favorite food in the world, and Nasi is the creme de la creme of fried rice. The flavor is incredible and the presentation of your food will blow your mind. When you do the math and realize you’re actually paying about $7US for this plate of heaven it’ll blow your mind.
The passion fruit and dragon fruit here is the best I have ever had in the world. It’s locally grown, and there’s something about the climate that makes it mouthwatering for me to think about sitting here. Don’t try to find the same flavorful experience when you return home. Even the best dragon fruit in the US isn’t nearly as good as the worst in Bali.
The one thing I did miss was pork. Not that I am in any way addicted to ham, because I go days and days without it at home. But when you see bacon in front of you that is NOT made from a pig, it will drive you slightly insane. Also, their panko is very different from ours and MUCH better. I could eat that for days right now.
Maybe the most majestic part of visiting Indonesia is taking the 90 minute prop plane flight to Labuan Bajo and jumping on a boat to see the Komodo Dragons. Of the two places where you can see them we chose Rinca Island over Komodo Island because there are fewer number of tourists. But that doesn’t mean there are fewer numbers of deadly animals.
We docked the boat and began walking down the path with our Ranger. We came around a corner and we were face to face with a water buffalo. Just standing there grazing, less than 15 yards from us, one of the deadliest animals in the world. Our Ranger told us we would be fine as long as we didn’t provoke the animal, but it was incredibly shocking to see that we were that close to something so powerful.
As we continued down the path we reached the Ranger Camp. Rangers on the island work in 10 day shifts. 10 on, 10 off. There are numerous houses, all of them built on piers. Under each house were numerous animals. We saw large deer, cows, we didn’t see the wild horses but we were told about them. There is no hunting permitted on the island, and all the animals there, including the water buffalo, were there for the sole purpose of feeding the dragons.
The first dragon I saw was about 3 feet long and looked like a small alligator. What’s funny about that is the numerous signs we saw that said “Warning Crocodiles”, but in fact they are warning you of the komodos. What wasn’t funny at all was the first time I saw a full grown adult male dragon. It was easily over 15 feet in length, I couldn’t even begin to guess the weight. And the only thing between me and him was my ranger and his stick.
There are no weapons allowed on the island. In fact, guns are illegal to possess in Indonesia and we didn’t see one anywhere while we were there. If there was ever a time in my life I would have felt better to see one, it would’ve been in that moment. Naturally my next thought was that the rangers must all be the most decorated ninja warriors in all of Indonesia. I know, but don’t ruin it for me.
Under the sea
Next we did what many do in Bali: we snorkeled the reefs around many of the islands there. We swam with giant manta rays, sting rays, sea snakes (thankfully we didn’t have any close encounters with these), sharks, dolphins, and millions of fish I couldn’t name. Of everything we saw the mantas were the most impressive. The big ones were the size of cars. 5 meters wide (over 15 feet), and beautiful to see moving in the wide open ocean of Indonesia.
The coral is incredible to see in person. I’ve never actually seen any video footage of it that was able to capture the brilliance of seeing it in person. The color is spectacular. Everyone should see it for themselves. The dead coral is really sharp, so it’s good to be mindful of how deep (or shallow) you are all the time.
Other than the two weeks I spent traveling alone in Australia, I have never encountered a kinder people than I did in Indonesia. Their willingness to help is genuine. The smiles they have are infectious, and beautiful beyond words. In terms of modern day conveniences and luxuries I would have to say this is the poorest people I’ve ever seen. But they are wealthier than us by centuries in their generosity and selflessness.
There may be no better proof of that than to witness what it’s like to drive in Bali. There are virtually no traffic lights, and the few you do encounter are more like “guides”. I never saw one single accident while we were there. It was organized chaos beyond anything I have ever experienced before. People beep at each other, often, but it’s a kind warning to alert other drivers rather than the “get out of my way” that we are accustomed to here in the US. At any given time on one moped you might see a family of 4. Dad driving, mom on the back holding an infant/toddler and a child standing up in between dad’s legs, holding onto the two side mirrors.
Initially this scene terrified us all, and Reynolds I think more than any of us. By the time we left we were adjusted, and it was just a way of life. Looking back I realize that my fear in seeing that was that I couldn’t imagine doing that myself, putting my kids in danger like that. Not because I don’t trust myself, but I don’t trust the other drivers here. That’s the difference. They respect each other more, and have greater respect for life in general.
My biggest bite came in the last 40 minutes of the last day. The swirl and splash that it made looked like someone did a donut just under the surface in a Ferrari. There is no better way to describe a fish that can and will destroy your bait and swim at speeds over 60mph. I can still see that fish. It looked like it was 15 feet long. I fought it for about 3 minutes until it broke me off.
Nothing went wrong in that fight, the fish just won. That’s what made it so beautiful. It came at the end, in the last round of the biggest fight of my life. Total, on the whole trip, we probably lost 40 fish. Part of that is the decision of the captain to use barbless hooks. It gives the fish a chance, it doesn’t harm them as much, and if they do break you off on the coral they can shake the popper and move on. It’s a very honorable way to fight these fish.
Labuan Bajo lived up it’s name every night. The City of Sunset offered the most amazing colors at night I’ve ever seen. A reminder of all the volcanic activity there, I’m sure. But also a reminder that we were in a true paradise. Every single one of us cried when we left. My aunt told me once that I get emotional when I leave places because I know I’ll never again be that same person in that same moment. I knew that then, I knew we would never share that experience together again.
My coffee is cold now. I’ve been daydreaming for too long about Indonesia and forgot to drink it. The snow has stopped for now, but there is more on the way tomorrow. Skies are grey here in NY. My sunburn all but gone and my muscle aches healed. I’m packing for another trip and trying to tell myself it’ll be exciting. But once you drink poop coffee and set the hook on a fish built for speed and performance, it’s hard to comeback.
If you love to fish, see new things you’ll never forget, and meet people you’ll miss forever, you must go to Indonesia.
Wanna catch giant GTs? Check out this article I wrote to make sure you’re prepared for that!
Here are some more images from our trip! To see more before to follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook!