While most of Indonesia’s visitors head for Bali, I was instead visiting two of its lesser-known areas – the national parks of Tanjung Puting and Komodo – and some of their famous wildlife.
With a country made up of more than 17,000 islands spread over 5,000km, there’s no avoiding having to take internal flights to get between destinations. A good idea is to use Bali as your base, spending a few days there before exploring some of the more remote areas.
We headed to Kalimantan first, the Indonesian half of Borneo, flying in to Pangkalan Bun. From here, we boarded a klotok (traditional riverboat) and headed up the Sekonyer River into Tanjung Puting National Park in the hope of spotting its most protected inhabitant, the orang-utan.
Borneo and Sumatra are the only two places in the world where you can see them in the wild, and Tanjung Puting is home to one of the biggest populations.
There are three feeding platforms along the river, set deep in the rainforest and built so that researchers can monitor rehabilitated animals. It’s at these points that tourists can catch sight of the great apes as they emerge from the trees to stock up on bananas.
We all stood silently transfixed as several mothers with clinging babies enjoyed their snacks. Observing their mannerisms, it’s easy to see why orang-utan means “man of the forest” in Indonesian – they even share 97 per cent of their DNA with humans.
Sailing peacefully back down the river, we also spotted gibbons, noisy proboscis monkeys and a host of exotic bird life.
We crammed this into one day, but to fully explore the river it’s recommended to spend two or three days on board, sleeping on the covered deck.
The klotoks are basic but have all you need, including a cook who’ll whip up simple but tasty meals of fresh fish, noodles and rice.
When it was time for dinner we dropped anchor under a tree lit up by fireflies, then afterwards drifted back to port, lying on deck and gazing up at the stars, savouring this incredible experience.
After a quick stopover in Bali, we were in the air again to our next destination, the small fishing town of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, and the gateway to the Komodo National Park, to see real-life dragons. Spend a day exploring the town itself, full of waterside bars, ancient caves and beautiful harbour views.
One of the best meals I ate all week was at the Kampung Ujung local fish market, where we messily tucked into plates of fresh crab and grilled fish for about 100,000 rupiah (sounds extortionate but it’s only about £6). For a more refined experience, head to Atlantis Beach Club to watch the sun go down, cocktail in hand.
Early the next morning we hit the water in a wooden sail boat to explore the outlying islands. Like Tanjung Puting, we did this in a day, but a couple of nights spent out on the water will really make the most of these stunning sites.
First we stopped off at Padar Island where a steep, sweaty hike to the top rewarded us with the most incredible view of three bays curving into the land, each with different coloured sand (white, black and pale pink, created by tiny particles of red coral mixed in with the sand).
If you’re lucky you might spot a Komodo dragon on Padar, but your best chances are on their namesake island nearby.
As many as 1,300 of the giant lizards live on Komodo, often found basking by the water hole or outside the rangers’ kitchens where they’re drawn to the smells.
The ones we spotted seemed rather docile, but the two rangers escorting us armed with large sticks left us in no doubt that the 10ft-long, prehistoric-looking creatures were not to be messed with.
To finish off the day – and our week – we dropped anchor at another pink beach on Rinca Island to snorkel above some of the world’s best coral reefs. It was the perfect way to end a trip full of natural wonders.