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Meeting Komodo’s dragons – face to face

Indonesia, an archipelago of multi sized islands draped like a necklace around the equator in Southern Asia and the Indian Ocean. The range of islands follows the “Ring of Fire” volcanic fault in the Earth’s crust. Folk-law has it that Dragons can be found here and this journey is to discover the truth.

Joining Barbara and myself in the search for the Dragons are Barbara’s daughter Shelagh, her husband Matt along with their 10 year old daughter Jasmine and 5 year old son Liam. Matt and Shelagh are international schoolteachers and so we get to visit places we may never have had the chance to do.

Our organized journey started from Bali, a 2-hour flight to Labuan Bajo airport on Flores. What a view we had crossing Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Rinca and into Flores. The Lesser Sunda Islands are an un-spoiled oasis in a crystal clear turquoise sea. The final approach into the airport was quite outstanding, spectacular scenery and clean sparkling waters. What a feast of beauty we were about to witness.

Our tour guides, with transport to take us to Labuan Bajo Harbour to board our boat, met us at the airport. At the harbour our luggage was stowed on board our converted fishing boat, which may not be in the cruise liner class but offers reality and a sense of local ways. There were 3 cabins, a toilet and shower room and an on-deck dining area to watch the beauties of the Indonesian islands slide past. Our crew would prepare the meals on board as we sailed and there was a constant supply of soft drinks along with local beers. There was an upper deck under a tarpaulin shade which at night time would be the crews sleeping area. We were to be catered to but also allowed to feel at one with nature.

Labuan Bajo Harbour was filled with many vessels from small fishing boats to wonderful sailing ships. Flores lies 8.5 degrees south of the equator and being on the water helped to bring down the humidity of the area. The sea was relatively calm with only a small swell as we headed towards Rinca 3 hours sail away. We followed the Flores coastline seeing fishing villages and a well-vegetated landscape with a backdrop of low hills. Our first meal was served whilst we watched the flying fish keep pace with our vessel as they popped in and out of the clear waters.

Rinca has a healthy population of Komodo Dragons and is part of the Komodo National Park. We were to be met at the entrance lodge by our guides for the walk through the Park. Safety is paramount and entry is only allowed with these trained guides. Once our boat had moored we went ashore to meet with two young local men who would accompany us. They carried only thick poles about 6 feet long with a large V end to it. We were assured that these would be sufficient to protect us should the Dragons attack. We were also told to stay close together and not to wander away or separate from the group.

The lodge was on the edge of a small village with the buildings all raised on stilts to about 4 feet above the ground. The guides soon pointed out several Dragons in the shadows under the buildings sheltering from the fierce sun. It was plain that without the stilts the Dragons would probably have sheltered inside the buildings!! Heading inland we searched for our first full sighting of the Komodo Dragons. We continued for about 15 minutes before the guides slowed right down and then pointed out two Dragons about 50 yards away. They were quiet and probably dozing as it was very hot with little shelter. Carefully we passed them by and soon came to an area with a lot more vegetation and tree cover. This was a local water hole and a far more likely site to find Dragons.

Suddenly we saw several huge Water Buffalo both on land and in the water holes. They were a lot bigger than cattle with huge horns. They are very unpredictable animals and so extreme care was called for in order not to spook or scare them. Then, there they were. Several large Komodo Dragons spread around one of the water holes. A fully-grown Dragon can grow to over 3 metres in length and even weighing close to 300lbs are capable of running at well over 25kph. These Dragons certainly seemed to fit those criteria.

We spoke in whispers, trying not to agitate either the Dragons or the Buffaloes. I pointed out to one guide a red splash on the back of a Buffalo in the water. He said that it was highly likely that it had been attacked by a Dragon and bitten. Once bitten it only has a few days before the toxic bacteria in the Dragon’s saliva killed it. This is the way they hunt large creatures. They bite and infect them and then sit around for three days for it to die…then feast on the body. This is why all the Dragons were waiting around the water hole. Nature can seem cruel but it is a survival instinct after all.

After about 10 minutes of observing the scene the guides began to usher us away. They did not want the Dragons to become anxious that we were to “steal” their prey. It was an amazing experience to be so close and in their locale as they hunted. We continued on a circular route back to the village and lodge. The views as we climbed a low hill looking across the straits to Komodo Island were spectacular and a wonderful reminder that the next day we would be on that island.

Bidding goodbye to our guides we boarded our boat for a 90-minute sail to our overnight mooring at Flying Fox Island. We refreshed ourselves with showers and drier clothing after the extremely humid walk on Rinca. The crew brought us drinks and snacks telling us we would eat once we had moored for the night. We were full of the excitement from catching our first sightings of the Dragons out in the wild.

We began seeing large birds as we started to get closer to the island. Soon there were hundreds above our heads. Our crew told us that they were not birds…but huge Bats. The name Flying Fox is the name of fruit eating bats that live on this island and fly to Flores every night at sundown. They feast on the fruits and then return before daybreak the next day. They were almost as large as an Eagle and when we arrived at the island we could see the classic bat shape of their wings as they took off from shore. We had seen many flying as we approached and there were still hundreds just taking off.

Finally we moored in the narrow strip of water between Flying Fox Island and another island. We wanted to swim before it went fully dark but the captain refused and pointed out just how fast the tide was running here. As we looked over the side it appeared as if we were traveling at full speed even though we had moored up. So we settled for eating our meal in the cool evening air and watching the stars start to appear. Within an hour of sunset we watched a huge full moon rise over the island. It started out as a deep golden colour and gradually increased in brilliance. Soon it was bright enough to read by. What a day it had been…and what would the following day bring?

Day 2 started very early, before 5am, as we slipped the moorings and started our trip back to Komodo Island. The sound and the vibration from our engine was enough to penetrate our sleep and soon Barbara and I made our way to the upper deck as the pre-dawn light show began. The stars and moon were still very dominant in the inky black sky but the first indications of the dawn in the east were just beginning to display astern of us. A dark landmass was also visible and we understood this to be Flores mainland. Gradually the sky was lightening as the pre-dawn light washed the night’s darkness away. The soft gentle pastel colours slowly deepened as the rays of sunlight reached up and out from behind Flores. A distant thunderhead, dark and foreboding away from the sun’s path, was tinged with pink and gold as it billowed up changing shape and character. At 6.45 the sun peeped out from beyond Flores and day was finally born.

The Flores Sea was as calm as the proverbial millpond. It was an amazing sight for a body of water that can be so powerful and violent. But as calm as it was we saw quite regularly the maelstrom of the currents within the tidal effects as we passed between the small islands. Deep eddies and swirls formed whirlpools that tugged and twisted even a vessel our size. It was a reminder that the seas are always dangerous and unpredictable. The calmness of the water though meant the wonderful image of the island of Komodo being reflected as we cruised along its coastline. The forested flatlands below the rolling hills, all capped with white clouds and a blue sky – stunningly beautiful.

The moon was just setting behind Rinca as we moved slowly to the dock on Komodo. We were booked on an early trek with the National Park guides and although it was only 8.30am the temperature was already hot. Already we had seen a Dragon moving along the beach with its lopsided gait. As we walked along the wooden dock we could see the fish in the water below us. The shoals seemed to float back and fro as the waters gentle movement guided them around.

Our new guides led us from the reception point and soon we came face to face with our first Dragon. Sheltering under some trees it seemed content to let us watch it from a fairly close position. We had to be aware that Liam stayed within the group as he was, as the guides pointed out, a similar size to the small goats that they regularly fed on. We were able to witness the armour like skin and large claws, not to mention its large teeth, from a distance that seemed a little close for such a ferocious animal. We moved on through the Park seeing monkeys, donkeys and deer. All these would be prey for the Dragons and regularly replenished by the Park authorities. Whilst left to hunt for themselves the “food” was made a little more available than maybe nature intended. But as an endangered species the need to keep them in the eco system was essential.

During our hike of over an hour we encountered several more Dragons, more than we saw on Rinca the previous day. As we finished the tour we climbed the steps into one of the buildings for drinks and a discussion with the guides. Then we realized that there was a Dragon lying under the steps we had climbed up. We had been within a foot or so of it as we stepped on the first step. We all decided to exit the building by a different set of steps.

Back on board the captain told us that we would sail for about 3 hours to an island where the waters would be clear and calm enough to snorkel. We would eat lunch on the way and spend an hour or so swimming and diving before we had the 90-minute sail back to Labuan Bajo Harbour. The sea was certainly more turbulent than the early morning sail but by no means rough. Again the flying fish and more wonderful views accompanied us. There were lots of interesting topics from our time in Komodo to recall during our journey.

Our snorkeling was excellent with a large variety of tropical fish and turtles with interesting shells and smaller marine life closer to shore. A fabulous way to relax after some strenuous and hot hikes. But soon it was time to return to Labuan Bajo Harbour where we would be taken to the Eco Hotel for our final night on the tour. The hotel, set on a beach with a view over the Ocean, was a perfect place to unwind and enjoy a different menu to the seafood that had been the staple diet onboard. The following morning we had time to appreciate the land based beauties within the sumptuous gardens and grounds of the Eco Hotel. Excellent floral displays with butterflies, exotic birds along with a wide range of reptilian life. Soon though it was time to return to the airport for our journey back to Bali.

We did find our “Dragons” and we came face to face with them…but in truth they are really enormous lizards and they don’t breathe fire. But their mouths do contain enough toxic bacteria in their saliva to kill large animals and humans. Extreme caution does need to be taken when near to them in their habitat.

Our tour, organized by was a huge success. Yes, there were a few problems but nothing that wasn’t easily overcome or accepted. Stepping into nature can cause unforeseen or unexpected difficulties but there was nothing that spoiled our time enjoying the joy of witnessing nature in its natural setting.

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