Opinion: there’s no such thing as risk-free travel

Dawn breaks after a traumatic final night at sea for James Kay and his wife in Indonesia, the scene of a recent shipwreck. Image by James Kay / Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet editor James Kay recalls his own drama at sea after a tourist boat sinks in Indonesia.

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.

Dawn breaks after a traumatic final night at sea for James Kay and his wife in Indonesia, the scene of a recent shipwreck. Image by James Kay / Lonely Planet

The story instantly transported me back to May 2011, the climactic night of my own rather 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.

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).

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 remembering 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 …read more


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