The home of the legendary Komodo Dragon – the largest lizard species alive on earth – offers a thrilling backdrop to a stunning creature
It sat motionless under the broiling Indonesian sun. Two metres and 100kg of malevolence wrapped in loose, leathery skin, from the tip of a tail so mighty it could knock a buffalo off its feet, to a mouth that dripped with fetid, bacteria-filled saliva.
The Komodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard. It’s also a creature of legend, looking, as it does, a lot like the planet’s last dinosaur left stranded in a small pocket of islands in the Indian Ocean. Stories abound of the dragons’ attacks on those who have visited their isolated home over the years.
In truth, attacks are rare, but their gargantuan proportions and formidable appearance have given them a somewhat fearsome reputation.
Yet here we were, in the heart of the dragon’s lair on Komodo Island, studying it up close, well within radius of that thrashing tail. Only the creature’s complete lack of movement, as if rendered in concrete, had tempted us to edge so close.
The juxtaposition of this beast with its beautiful surroundings couldn’t have been more marked. A cockatoo swooped beneath the forest canopy, a flash of white against green. A nervous deer observed us at a distance through the undergrowth, its face framed by foliage, while the searing tropical sun dappled the forest floor and shimmered on the surface of the sea. There’s no doubt about it: scaly residents aside, Komodo Island is a small slice of heaven.
Known as ora in the local language, Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) live on just five islands in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, to the west of Flores (with about 50 said to be living on Flores itself). The two largest of these islands, Komodo and Rinca, together form Komodo National Park.
The dragons, which are actually relatives of the smaller and more benign monitor lizard, are said to have lived here for at least a million years. However, it wasn’t until 1910 that the first Dutch expedition sailed to the island, caught and skinned two dragons and published the first description of them.
The dragon’s reputation as one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet is not entirely undeserved. Its method of hunting, for example, seems both sneaky and cruel: despite boasting an impressive collection of weapons – from teeth to talons and tail – the dragon usually avoids a direct fight, preferring instead to lay in the long grass and bite any prey that stumbles past. Rather than moving in for the kill immediately, the dragon is happy to wait a few days while the bacteria in its saliva contaminates the wound; it patiently bides its time until the victim succumbs to the infection and is too weak to offer any resistance. It then moves in to feed.
To access Komodo National Park you need to charter a boat from one of the nearby islands (the public ferry between Sumbawa and Flores no longer stops at Komodo village). This is not as difficult as it sounds.
There are a few options: commercial boat trips to Komodo are available from the tourist hotspots of Lombok and Bali; from Lombok the trip takes four days. However, most people arrange their trip to the park from the humming seaside port of Labuanbajo, on the neighbouring island of Flores. A huddle of rusty tin roofs nestling at the foot of steep, verdant hills, this port town retains a lazy, ramshackle charm; the men still sail out every day to harvest the waters while their wives sell their catch on the dusty main street.
The boat owners here are used to renting out their craft, crew and services to visitors. Nevertheless, it pays to shop around and ask other travellers for recommendations. Also, make sure you know what is included in the price (eg food, water, beer) and what islands will be visited on the itinerary. Try to muster together a group of travellers – this will make the trip cheaper and more fun. Check, too, on the seaworthiness of the boat: the waters around Komodo are among the most turbulent in Indonesia.
The island of Rinca is just two hours from Labuanbajo, and is the more popular isle because it can be visited as a day trip. Komodo is further away; at least a two-day tour from Labuanbajo is required, which should include a day trip to some of the other, uninhabited islands that fleck the waters around Komodo.
Once on either Komodo or Rinca, pay your entrance fee at the office. A park ranger will then take you on a tour. A short two-hour stroll around Rinca should enable you to see deer, pig, macaque and buffalo – all suitable dishes to set before a dragon – as well as a few of the ora themselves, a couple of which hang out by the rangers’ huts looking for scraps.
Note, Komodo is more forested than Rinca and wildlife is generally a little harder to spot, though you can still see deer and a few dragons.
Damianus, Guide in Komodo National Park
The best time to be on Rinca is the early morning. The daytrippers from Labuanbajo have yet to arrive (they tend to turn up about midday), and the dragons are at their most active. By the time the tourists arrive the sun is high in the sky and the dragons, while easy enough to spot, tend to doze.
If you can stay on one of the islands – there is accommodation by the park offices on both Komodo and Rinca – then you can explore each island more thoroughly. On Komodo you can even take a multi-day trek to the highest point on the island, and if you’re lucky you may even encounter the megapode, a rare bird, like a turkey.
You can also visit Komodo village, the only settlement of any size within the park, largely made up of former inmates of the prison that used to stand here.
It is, of course, important that you stick close to your guide when walking around either island. He knows the best places to find dragons and other creatures – and is also there to protect you from any attacks by dragons. We all study the nature in the park, too, and know a lot about it.
Translated by Henry Stedman
1. Hike Komodo
Guided walks to see the dragons are a must, but don’t ignore the trek up Gunung Ara, the highest point on Komodo Island. Though you’re unlikely to see dragons on this walk, the 360-degree views from the mountain-top are amazing, and eagle-eyed guides will be able to point out a wealth of flora and fauna en route, including cockatoos and megapodes. It’s a hot slog – set off early, take plenty of water and wear sturdy shoes. The walk takes about 3.5 hours. Try the Poreng Valley walk for a better chance of spotting dragons.
2. Enjoy the nightlife
Don’t miss Komodo’s mass-migration spectacle. After a long day of dragon watching and swimming over gorgeous coral reefs, your boat will pull up off Komodo Island and the crew will begin to prepare your food. It is then, as the sun dips behind the bulk of Komodo to the west, that a stream of hundreds of flying foxes soar lazily on their way to a neighbouring island to feast on its flora. It is quite a sight. Ensure that your captain knows where to dock to see the action.
3. Plunge further
The waters around Komodo are rich in marine life –including manta rays, sharks, whales and turtles. They’re also turbulent – as discovered by a group of divers (including three Brits) who washed up on Rinca in June having been swept off course. Snorkellers should stick to recommended areas (Pantai Merah is good), while divers will need experience for most sites. For more information contact Divine Diving in Labuanbajo.
4. Feel abandoned
Komodo and its surrounding area resembles a Jackson Pollock painting: the aquamarine water is dotted and flecked with tiny splashes of green. Nearly all of these islands, atolls and outcrops are uninhabited and many boast their own reefs and strips of lonely, sandy shore. Hire a boat from Labuanbajo harbour (or ask at your hotel) to take you to a deserted isle and play out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies.
5. Overnight on Rinca
To beat the crowds, stay overnight on Rinca. This enables you to take an extended tour around the island, plus you’ll have the place all to yourself – bar the odd ranger – once the tourist boats have departed. Rise early the next morning and you’re more likely to see dragons before they retreat into the shade at midday. Simple, stilted wooden cabins sit adjacent to the ranger station; these cost around US$5 (£2.50) a night. Bring some food (there’s little on offer) and a mosquito net. It is also possible to stay in huts at Komodo’s ranger station.
When to go
Komodo and Rinca can be visited year-round. May to October is the driest time, while July to August is the busiest.
From Bali, local airlines such as Merpati and the recommended Trans Nusa fly to Labuanbajo on Flores for around Rp1.5 million (£83) return. Unfortunately, buying a ticket on one of these Indonesian airlines is difficult as none take online reservations. Nevertheless, visit outside of high summer and you should have little trouble buying a flight once in Indonesia. From Labuanbajo boats can be hired to take you out to Komodo and Rinca.
Cost of travel
From Labuanbajo, a two-day trip around Komodo costs about US$150 (£75) for the boat (maximum six people), including food and water. There are also regular tourist boat trips from Bali and Lombok, though these only run if there are enough passengers. Fees for Komodo National Park are extra and total around US$15 (£9). On these multi-day trips it’s normal to sleep on the boat, though there is also basic accommodation on both the islands (around US$5/£2.50 per person) at the ranger stations.
Indonesia is one of the cheapest destinations in Asia – budget travellers could survive on £10 a day. Touristy areas such as Bali will be pricier, but the Nusa Tenggara group of islands, to which Komodo belongs, tends to be cheaper.
Health & safety
Typhoid, hepatitis A and tetanus vaccinations are all advised for Indonesia, and taking malaria prophylactics is essential – ask your GP. Dragons rarely attack humans but do not wander off paths or explore without a guide.
1. When negotiating with the boat owners or travel agents, don’t forget to ask if water
is included in the price. You may also want to bring some beer along.
2. If you have your own snorkelling gear, don’t forget to tell the boat owner this when negotiating – it will save you the cost of hiring this equipment.
3. The park entrance fee is valid for both Komodo and Rinca, so don’t be conned into paying twice.
4. After a long day’s walk around the park, it’s too easy to drift off to sleep on the boat – but keep your eyes peeled for flying fish, dolphins and other creatures of the sea, as well as sea eagles soaring above on the lookout for prey.
5. Other travellers are the best source of info when it comes to finding a good boat to hire, so be sure to ask the other guests at your hotel for their recommendations.
6. Ask your boat captain to look after your valuables while you’re trekking around the islands, or keep them at the rangers’ office for safe keeping.