Is this the family adventure of a lifetime?

Review of Explore’s Family Indonesian Highlights tour

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

The string of islands that stretch away east of Java are perhaps best known as home to the world’s biggest lizard, the deadly Komodo Dragon. This vicious creature, which grows to 3 metres in length and has been known to attack and kill humans unprovoked, may be the closest thing on Earth to a living dinosaur. Perfect, then, as the centrepiece of a new tour of Indonesia targeted at teenagers.

The tour operator, Explore, has a reputation for ramping up the excitement levels on its family adventure holidays, so when it touted the two-week trip as the “family adventure of a lifetime”, this was a claim worth taking seriously.

And such is the outrageous natural beauty of the region – and its fascinating patchwork of human cultures – that for my money the dragons barely scraped into the top five highlights.

I joined the tour with my 14-year-old daughter Helena at the lively Balinese resort of Seminyak where we met the rest of the group – six adults and five teenagers – and our cheerful, loquacious guide, Sylvia, who hailed from the island of Timor.

We flew next morning to Flores, which forms the spine of the trip, a thickly-forested mountainous island of soaring volcanic peaks and black sand beaches. In contrast to Bali, Flores sees few tourists and its people are predominately Roman Catholic, converted by the Portuguese.

From the sleepy town of Ende, our tour bus climbed up a road as narrow and twisting as a ribbon noodle, passing terraces of red rice, coffee beans drying in the sun and cocoa trees laden with plump fruit.

We stayed overnight – surprised by the cold – at an attractive eco-lodge near the village of Moni and set our alarm clocks for 3.40am. Next morning, we hiked in darkness to the peak of Mount Kelimutu where we sat and waited as first light pushed away the velvety night sky and, finally at 6am, a vivid pink sun erupted over the horizon. Around us emerged the three crater lakes of an extinct volcano, each with a distinct colour that changes as the layers of rock slowly erode in the water. On our visit: pale milky blue, deep aquamarine and sinister black.

It was the most beautiful and dramatic sunrise I’ve ever experienced.

After breakfast at the lodge we found the morning market at Moni, which started at 4am, still buzzing. Traders from nearby villages, mostly elderly women with betel-stained mouths, were selling vegetables, chillies, dried fish and shallots.

It was a long drive that day, broken by lunch at an idyllic spot called Bluestone Beach where we ate snapper barbecued over coconut shells with water spinach, tofu and rice. The pebbles on the beach were indeed blue, a pale shade of turquoise. Back on the road, we climbed again into the cool of the mountains, through bamboo forests, past cashew and candlenut trees.

After a night in the town of Bajawa, we drove higher into the cordillera, seemingly encircled by volcanic cones. According to our guide, Florian, there are 64 active volcanoes in Indonesia, 14 of which are on the small island of Flores. We were inside the Ring of Fire.

Florian led us on a hike to discover eucalyptus trees, giant bamboo and white-flowered coffee trees. He showed us round his family’s village where each home has its own spirit house and ancestors are buried in the garden, sometimes directly outside the front door.

Our next overnight stop was a remote tribal village called Belaraghi where we would be welcomed by the people of the Ngada tribe. The road to the village was too steep for our coach so we transferred to the back of a truck which spluttered up the slope in first gear.

The villagers were waiting for us, in full ceremonial dress. When the truck pulled up, they broke out into song and dance, the men brandishing swords, the women turning in circles and waving handkerchiefs. A small band played insistent percussive music, while the children stared at us, wide-eyed. It was a charming welcome.

The village consisted of two rows of thatched A-frame houses, about 16 in total, either side of a grassy slope encircled by forest. We were each billeted to a different house and made faltering attempts to communicate with our hosts, which mostly consisted of smiles and hand gestures. Our hosts were Maria, the mother, and Mama Renee, the matriarch and grandmother. It appeared they had given up their beds for us and were sleeping in the kitchen at the back of the hut.

The only concession to modernity was the solar panel attached to the roof of each house, donated by the government two years previously after a series of fires started by kerosene lamps. As the sun set over the trees, we were given coffee and cake then watched – squeamishly – as the villagers sacrificed a pig in our honour.

We slept surprisingly well and emerged to find a breakfast laid out of vegetables, tofu, rice, bananas and coffee. We waved our goodbyes and drove west past more forests, more volcanoes, ate a picnic lunch on a beach, swam in the crashing surf and eventually arrived in the town of Ruteng. We stayed overnight in a convent-turned-guest house: clean simple rooms surrounded by neat gardens and, at dusk, the lovely sound of a sung mass.

Next day we visited the food market in Ruteng and bought mangos, tempe and king chillies. Everywhere we turned, people smiled and stopped us to practise their English and take selfies. When I travelled in Asia 20 years ago I often felt a pang of guilt at taking photos of people who would never see them. Now the tables were delightfully turned: everyone had their own camera and we were the main attraction.

Another long drive followed to reach Labuan Bajo a low-key fishing port that is fast transitioning into a resort for backpackers and divers, and a jumping off point for cruises to Komodo National Park. After watching a spectacular pink-and-purple sunset, and dragging the children out of the swimming pool, we drove into town for dinner and cocktails at a funky French-run restaurant called Le Pirate.

Next morning we boarded a small private boat for a three-day cruise of Komodo National Park. Within two hours we were snorkelling over pristine reefs teeming with fish and the kids were doing somersaults off the top deck. From a tiny kitchen, the crew knocked up an impressive choice of delicious fresh food.

On a walking tour of Rinca Island we spotted several of the huge deadly dragons. Sprawled in the sun, they eyed us lazily, occasionally flicking their forked tongues. It is said they can smell blood up to five miles away – we were told not to wear open sandals in case we grazed a foot on the rough dry undergrowth. Despite their size, the dragons are fast runners.

The next two days passed in a dreamy haze of natural wonders. We slept on the deck and watched the moon set and the sun rise. We played cards under a full moon and ate freshly-caught fish. At dusk we moored beside the tiny island of Kalong and watched as millions of flying foxes emerged from mangrove swamps and flapped across the darkening sky to feed on fruit trees on Flores.

We hiked to the peak of Padar Island under a scorching morning sun and gazed down at beaches of three different colours: white, black and pink. We saw more dragons on a walking tour of Komodo Island along with deer and water buffalo, and spent a couple of hours on the Instagram-perfect Makassar Reef, a spit of pink sand surrounded by crystal-clear waters.

It’s impossible to pick a single highlight, but nothing topped our visit to Manta Point where we leapt into the warm sea and swam within touching distance of two huge manta rays. It was one of those spine-tingling experiences. No photos of that one, only memories.

How to do it

The 14-day tour Family Indonesian Highlights begins on 3 August and 17 August 2019 with prices from £2,395 for adults and £2,035 for children, including flights. The full tour includes several days on the island of Lombok. Our visit fell soon after a major earthquake on Lombok, so instead we spent the rest of the trip exploring Bali. For more details contact Explore or phone 01252 883 174. See its full range of family adventure holidays.