Stalking Dragons in Komodo

People have aversions to one type of animal or another. A good friend refuses to visit Australia for fear of poisonous spiders; another is petrified of dogs and still another went to such extremes as banning barbecues and other forms of outdoor eating to avoid encountering bears at her Lake of the Woods cabin. My particular dislike is reptiles. I refuse to touch a snake, am fearful of crocodiles and not enamoured of frogs since being introduced to the venomous strawberry dart frog in Costa Rica,

I make two exceptions. Turtles and tortoises are benign stately creature that invoke feelings of gentleness and peace, not terror. Then there are lizards. By all accounts, they should be on my Avoid At All Costs list, but for some unfathomable reason, I like them. Give me an iguana park, such as in Guayaquil, Ecuador and I am a happy camper, plopping grapes onto their darting 6 inch long tongues and watching them snap back into their mouths. Or geckos, whose presence deters the far more frightening cockroach and reduces the mosquito population.

Thus, I could not forego the opportunity to see the granddaddy of all lizards, the Komodo dragon. Measuring over 3 metres, weighing up to 150 kilos and capable of running at speeds of up to 20 mph, Komodo dragons are mammoth carnivores. Their numbers, however, are slim. There are only between 3,000 and 5,000 in the wild, congregating on a half dozen Indonesian islands including Flores, Rinca, Komodo and Padar, all 450 kilometres from Bali.

Getting there was a challenge. I took an hour and a half flight from Bali to Flores, enjoying the spectacular scenery below of  hundreds of Indonesian islands ranging from jungle terrain to grass covered mountains, over inhabited islands with rice paddies and fishing fleets hugging the coast to barren volcanic outcrops.

Flores is touting itself as the new Bali, with a population of only 200,000 and the laid back feel that Bali may have had 40 or 50 years ago. Its newish airport, in the city of Labuan Bajo, is aptly called Bandara Komodo and a giant mural of a Komodo dragon greeted me as I stepped off the plane.

After checking into my hotel (with AC, good bathroom, WIFI, pool and ocean view room), I set out for the main town to arrange a tour to Komodo. Labuan Bajo feels small. Although there are asphalt roads and I encountered at least one traffic light, most of the “downtown” lines the harbour, where tour agencies and dive schools dominate the main street. I arranged for a tour to Komodo along with 5 other stops, aboard a fast boat for the next day.

I met my other tour mates in the car doing the hotel pick-ups: a Venuezalan working in Singapore who had worked for two years in London at the University of Western Ontario, a lady from Latvia who, when asked, told everyone she was from Europe because no one had heard of Latvia, and a couple from Singapore, the fellow was working in Jakarta and was fluent in Indonesian. We also met our two guides, Katherine and Sari, neither of whom looked over 18, and our boat captain and his assistant, both chain smokers in their early 20’s. We embarked on our boat, Wonderful Komodo, which had seating for 12, all outdoors except for a small covered cabin which offered minimal protection due to a smashed window, and no bathroom facilities. To provide seating, the crew threw the life vests onto the roof, never to be seen again.

After an hour motoring amongst the islands, we arrived at our first destination, the island of Padar, one of 3 larger ones (and 26 smaller ones) that makes up the Komodo National Park. The Park is dedicated to preserving the Komodo dragon, whose survival is in doubt due to villagers killing the dragons’ natural food (deer and pigs) and environmental pressures like fires. Tourism is viewed as a possible saviour – the fees and employment brought by the tourist trade provides strong incentives for the Indonesians living on the islands to work to preserve the animals rather than kill them.

We disembarked at Padar, paid the park entrance fee and climbed up one of its many hills to enjoy breathtaking views:

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Another 30 minutes by boat and we approached Komodo, where, to my chagrin,  a cruise ship was moored in the harbour. I shouldn’t have been surprised – this ship had been the subject of an episode of Mighty Ships and the stop at Komodo was one of the highlights. Still, after all the challenges I had faced to arrive at Komodo, I felt a little cheated to see the ship there, It certainly detracted from the remoteness of the place.

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Cruise ship off of Komodo Island

As we approached the park office, our luck with the weather ran out. We had been one step ahead of ominous rain clouds all morning, but they caught up with us and opened with a flood of water. We took cover under the tarpaulin shielding the eating area, but after a while there was 6 inches of water underfoot and we were all sitting high on benches in a vain attempt to keep our feet dry. Our guides gave us a choice – wait out the rain (it could be a very long time), or don rain jackets and go visit the dragons. We chose the latter.

As required, we paid the ranger fee and met our ranger who told us the rules. “The dragons are dangerous”, he explained. “Stay on the paths, in a group and if approached by one, let me handle it.” He carried a yellow wooden two pronged pitchfork, which would be used to tame a dragon if it came near. “The dragons have a third eye on the top of their head and if the stick was placed there, it disorients the dragons.” With that, we started along a path towards a watering hole where dragons often congregated.

Sure enough, a dragon was laying there. Eight or 9 feet long, its eyes followed us as we moved around, occasionally lifting its head, but never its body. The ranger knew this one well; he said it was an older one (he could tell by its weight, or lack thereof) and that it was unlikely to attack. With that, he directed each of us to go around and behind the dragon (what happened to staying with him in a group?) while he expertly took pictures of us with the dragon. Despite our ranger’s assurance that this dragon would not hurt us, its powerful arms were intimidating. If we were in a foot race, I have no doubt who would win:

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Me and the dragon

Over the course of the next hour, we came across 3 more dragons, all near watering holes and none standing, They lay still for hours on end, completely camouflaged with the surrounding ground, until an unsuspecting deer comes for a drink, then they pounce. They secrete a poisonous venom, along with biting their prey with strong, sharp teeth. They have been known to kill humans. The younger ones, under 7 or 8 years old, climb trees and spend their formative years there, to avoid being cannibalized by their parents, staying on the ground only once they become too heavy to climb.

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Komodo dragons lying in wait

The rest of the day was spent snorkeling, walking on pretty pink beaches and searching (unsuccessfully) for mantra rays in the water. But I didn’t care. I had come to see the dragons and they did not disappoint.

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