Adventure Indonesia

Face to Face with Dragons at Komodo

Kelor Island in Komodo National Park

I got a shock when I spotted my first Komodo Dragon. Actually, it wasn’t just one dragon, it was four of them all at once, lying next to each other in the shade next to a building. With their greyish skin and perfectly still position, they were well camouflaged on the greyish dirt. Welcome to Komodo Island and Komodo National Park, home to dragons!

Note: The author was a guest of the Indonesia Ministry of Tourism.

Komodo Island

So how Scary are Komodo Dragons?

Komodo Dragon

Komodo dragons well camouflaged on the dirt on Komodo Island

The Komodo Dragons looked far less fearsome than I had expected, as they were just lying perfectly still in the shade, except for when another one slowly clambered out to join them from under the floor of the building. Nearby were Timor Deer and wild boars, both prey of the lizards, but the reptiles looked far too slow to catch the fleet footed animals.

But looks can be deceiving. The Komodo Dragons didn’t look that big, but adults can grow up to 3m long and weigh around 70kg. They only need to feast once per month, after which they slowly digest their prey and conserve energy through barely moving. Most of the time they catch their prey through stealth, springing onto a beast that has walked up unawares to the dragons. And they can manage sprints of 20km/hr, plus swim faster than a human in water for short distances.

Human Killers and Cannibals!

Komodo Dragon

It’s the fight of the fittest for scraps from the kitchen

Many of their prey are killed by the bacteria-infested saliva that they leave on victims after biting them. The dragons can be patient and wait for animals to be killed this way, if at first they don’t succeed in eating them whole. Their bite is what killed their most recent human victim, a child from a village on Komodo Island, who died in 2005. But there are also stories of a tourist being taken whole back in the 1970s. He fell behind his group (in which all visitors are reminded to remain). When he was missed and searched for, only his camera and sunglasses could be found.

The Komodo Dragon is also not above cannibalism, particularly feasting on its young. After seeing dragons on Komodo Island, the next day we visit nearby Rinca Island. It’s the second of two islands where the dragons are viewable by visitors. (A third and fourth smaller islands are off limits.) On Rinca Island a large group of dragons were hanging out next to the kitchen building, waiting to snap up any scraps that came their way. The few young in the area were at a wary distant. They often climb and live in trees to keep away from the fearsome adults. Generally they live a solitary existence, except for when a tempting kitchen is involved.

Our Live Aboard Experience

Our live-aboard boat

Our live-aboard boat from Kakaban Trips

It’s possible to visit Komodo and Rinca Island on a day trip from Labuan Bajo, at the western end of the island of Flores and not far from the Komodo Airport. But it’s far better to do an overnight trip, like my group experienced. The trip out to Komodo Island from the port at Labuan Bajo alone takes 4 hours. Our live-aboard trip was run by Kakaban Trips, who took us out on a grand three-story motorised wooden boat, able to sleep up to 13 guests. Below deck were most of the cabins, small like those typically found on a yacht. Up above were multiple shady decks with tables and benches for eatings meals, chilling at or working at laptops. Plus there were two basic bathrooms, the captain’s cabin and crew’s quarters. Not to mention plenty of spots to soak up the sunshine and surrounding vistas.

Lunch on the boat

Lunch on board the boat

A big surprise was that while the kitchen at the rear of the boat was small and basic, the meals served on board were extremely tasty and generous in size. They were some of the best we ate in Indonesia. Typical dishes included freshly-caught fish, local-style salt-and-pepper calamari, tofu and tempah cooked various ways (for the vegetarians and vegans on board), and platters of fresh fruit. At the main dining area was a chest fridge, perfect for storing the stash of beer we bought at a local mini-market in Labuan Bajo, plus a large supply of water.

Sunset and Sunrise at Komodo

Sunrise near Komodo Island

Enjoying the sunrise near Komodo Island

Staying overnight on the boat was a very relaxing experience, particularly with the calm, often mirror-like waters of the Komodo National Park. At the end of the day as the sky darkened and the sun set over the water, we slowly motored to our sheltered anchoring point for dinner with bats flying overhead. It was tempting to sleep out on deck the whole night, until there was a brief tropical downpour that changed my mind. Luckily I woke up the next morning with the dawn, so did not miss out on a beautifully pink and magical sunrise. Nor the manta rays that were briefly visible on the surface of the calm waters. Unfortunately though they were moving too quick to be more than briefly visible as we donned masks and snorkel gears and attempted to join them.

Exploring the Underwater Life

Coral gardens off Pink Beach, Komodo Island

Underwater coral gardens off Pink Beach, Komodo Island

Not that manta rays are the only underwater creatures to be found when cruising the Komodo National Park. One of the welcome surprises of our trip (and properly able to be appreciated on an overnight trip) was the underwater life. While the islands in the park tend to be dry and almost barren, particularly when visited just before the start of the rainy season as we did, under water there are lush gardens of coral. Not far from the jetty and visitor facilities on Komodo Island is Pink Beach. Its named for the pinkness of its sand, which has now unfortunately faded. It’s far more worthwhile to spend your snorkelling off shore, viewing the rich variety of coral and small tropical fish. An extra treat was the green turtle that my group managed to spot, swimming leisurely through the balmy water, as we trailed behind it.

The other snorkelling highlight occurred after leaving Rinca Island the next day. We stopped to snorkel around a small island that lay not far off it. In the shallow waters that surrounded it were parrot fish, butterfly fish, sea urchins and two different types of clown fish, one pale and another the gorgeous orange and white stripes like Nemo, hiding in the waving tentacles of anemones. We even spotted a moray eel not far away, which looked small but was eager to bare its large fangs towards us.

Clown fish from near Rinca Island

A shy clown fish near Rinca Island

And farewell to Komodo

Anchored up at Kelor Island

Anchored up at Kelor Island – please don’t let this end!

Afterwards, it was unfortunately time to start heading back to Labuan Bajo, where we would end our boat trip. But luckily on the way we had one final stop at Kelor Island. A tiny speck of an island, its ringed with a pretty ribbon of white sand and shallow turquoise water, before the water suddenly drops off into a deep shade of sapphire blue. The boat anchored right next to the beach and we swam ashore to sit in the shallow water and enjoy a final swim, before we headed back to civilisation and a long shower at our hotel.

Note: The author was a guest of the Indonesia Ministry of Tourism.

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