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The weird world of the Komodo dragon

I have been lucky to be around animals that have taught me valuable lessons about life. My dogs have taught me to jump for joy, drink plenty of water, and love unconditionally. Cats have taught me that cuddling leads to purring and other good things and a slow, mellow bath is worth its weight in gold. Penguins in Antarctica shout forth lessons about fortitude as they trudge up hills, carrying pebbles to build nests and show off their prized rocks to entice others to become their mates. If another penguin steals the cherished stone, the penguin simply shrugs his shoulders, meanders down the hill for another pebble, and begins the journey and quest again. And then there’s the Komodo Dragons. I had the rare opportunity of visiting them at Komodo National Park and Rinca Island in Flores, Indonesia. Definitely, they taught me. They gave me much to ponder in their embracing of wildness of their far-off place and age.

I had been in Bali for nearly two weeks and Lombok for another week. My friends had departed for their homes, but I was determined that if I travelled this far from home, I wanted to extend the trip and fly to Flores as well. It was a great decision. Flying from Lombok, with a stopover in Denpasar, was easy to arrange and economical on Wings Air. I could also book a few day boat trip from Bali or from Lombok, but the flight proved to be the perfect choice – less time at sea and more activities in and around Flores. Cheaper, too. I stayed at Sylvia Hotel in Flores, a bit away from the main town of Labuan Bajo. The hotel shuttled me into town in the morning, and I went excursion shopping for a trip to find Dragons. Most tourist offices hailed the virtue of one day outings via boat to Rinca. Some went so far as to guarantee Dragon sightings or money back. Komodo National Park is further away, and the tour operators were generally more hesitant about selling trips to it, claiming less chance of a sighting.

Komodo dragon, FloresMuch to my good fortune, I stumbled into the small office Pt. Ficko Cahaya Komodo. Mr. Ficko introduced me to his wife, his son, and about twenty of his cousins. He puffed on one cigarette after another, showed me photos of his new deluxe boat, and told me that he had a few spots open for deck accommodations for a two day, one night trip to both Komodo National Park and Rinca. We would snorkel at three sites the first day out, including one where we would swim with manta rays. The second day we would visit Komodo National Park early in the morning, then Rinca, and end the trip with more snorkeling. I booked the trip for the following morning. Aboard the boat, I joined 14 others: visitors from Europe, from India, from New Zealand, and from Jakarta. I was the sole person from the United States. The deck proved great for sleeping for six of us. The mattresses were comfy, the blankets and sheets clean and soft, and thousands of stars kissed the evening sky. Others had cabins, though they all agreed that if they had to do it again, they would have saved some money and opted for the deck. The five crew members tended to our every desire, giving us plenty of fried bananas, rice and noodles to assure us that we had not left Indonesia.

While in Bali, I had enjoyed snorkeling near Lovina. And in the Gili Islands, we had the awesome experience of swimming and snorkeling with turtles. Nonetheless, the snorkeling in Flores surpassed both Bali and Lombok. Fish encircled us at every site, and about a dozen manta rays came within a few feet of us at one spot. Crystal clear water, warmed to just the perfect temperature, was the norm. Life was good, even before our landing to spot Komodo Dragons.

Early morning of our second day we landed at Komodo Island. We disembarked, paid our park entry fees, and met our naturalist guides who warned us that we were not in a zoo. In other words, we might see a Dragon or two; we might not. I began the walk alongside the guide and a family from Belgium (mom, dad, and three young children returning home after a work stint in Mumbai.) We hadn’t begun our trek for ten minutes when we spotted a Komodo tearing apart a wild boar, eating its every morsel. Here, was my first lesson from Mr. Komodo about table manners. He was the biggest slob I had ever seen, completely engulfed in his own private banquet. When hunting, he relies on camouflage and patience. He lies in wait for the passing prey of wild pigs, goats, deer, horses, and water buffalo. They will even eat their offspring and every so often a monkey or a human. When a victim ambles by, the dragon springs, using its powerful legs, sharp claws and serrated, shark-like teeth to eviscerate its prey. Komodo Dragon, Flores, IndonesiaAnimals that escape the Komodo’s jaws will only briefly be lucky. Dragon saliva teems with over 50 strains of bacteria. Within 24 hours, the stricken creature usually dies of blood poisoning. Dragons calmly follow an escapee for miles as the bacteria takes effect, using their keen sense of smell to hone in on the corpse. A dragon can eat 80 percent of its body weight of more than 300 pounds in a single feeding, never shares a meal with another, and then go for weeks before another kill. My mind raced back to an African safari I took a few years ago where wild dogs chased a hyena to its kill. In contrast to the Komodo dragons, the wild dogs seemed civilized. At least they shared and did not devour their own. I stood spellbound, watching the dragon. He taught me everything not to do for mealtime etiquette.

Dragons do not hurry up their meal intake. They hold the carcass down with their forelegs. They tear off large chunks of flesh, swallowing the chunks whole. The contents of the prey’s stomach and intestines are typically rejected. Gushy red saliva exudes, lubricating the food, but making the swallowing a long process of generally 15-20 minutes for finishing off a goat. After digestion, the Komodo Dragon regurgitates a mass of horns, hair, and teeth. These are covered in malodorous mucus. Once done, it rubs its face in dirt or on bushes to rid itself of the mucus. I stood amazed to learn that there are a few people who actually wish to purchase a Komodo dragon, illegally, via e bay or Google. To put it mildly, Komodo Dragons do not belong at one’s kitchen table. They epitomize wildness.

We continued our walk for another two hours, coming across a massive Komodo Dragon lounging on a rock. He stretched out to nearly 9 feet and probably could tip the scale at 300 pounds. A deep gully laid behind him so the naturalist positioned us for a photo shoot, as if we were patting the head of a pet dog in marked approval of an accomplished trick. Other smaller dragons ran along the shoreline. We stood on raised platforms, watching their antics, thinking of them as children at recess. On Rinca we saw about a dozen others, all smaller ones though. Komodo Island had spoiled us and shot us back into a surreal land and time.

Bonnie Lynn, Flores, IndonesiaKomodo dragons have thrived in the harsh climate and conditions of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands for millions of years. Probably, their numbers are between 3,000 and 5,000, though a dearth of egg-laying females, poaching, human encroachment, and natural diseases has driven the species to endangered status. I learned to respect them for their wildness, their harshness, their brute ugliness. From visiting them I found little as to traits to incorporate into my own desired behavior. I’ll stick to dogs, cats, and penguins for that. The Komodo Dragons are too prehistoric-like for bestowing lessons about virtues. But that is precisely their appeal. Visiting them is transplanting oneself back to pre-historic times. Scrutinizing the largest living lizard in the world leaves one in awe, leaves one almost trance-like. Lessons of sociology they do not offer. But lessons of wonder remain with me yet and probably will for my lifetime. Real and surreal: that’s the Komodo Dragon.

Komodo Dragon, Flores, Indonesia

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