Komodo National Park: Home of the Legendary Dragon

The legendary Komodo Dragon - photos by James Griffin
An adolescent dragon honors his guests with a sideways glance before disappearing into the foliage on Rinca Island. Photos by James Griffin

By James Griffin

A sign on Rinca Island welcomes visitors.
A sign on Rinca Island welcomes visitors.

“One bite can kill,” the park guide tells us before my wife and I and two friends venture into the forest in search of this dinosaur-like monster. The Komodo Dragon has been made famous by stories of devoured children, missing tourists, and a ferocious bite.

This creature is the primary motivation for the four of us making the arduous trip to the Indonesian island of Flores. The beast’s mythical build, appearance, and reputation make visiting the Komodo Dragon a pilgrimage to the past.

Islands of the Dragons

The Komodo Dragon is found on only two islands in the world – Komodo and Rinca (reen-cha) – which sits just west of Flores and three islands east of Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Their listing as an endangered species and their homogeneous habitat perpetuate the mystery surrounding them.

Komodo Island, the namesake of the dragon, has a park center at Loh Liang with maps, groomed trails, and several small wooden buildings for registering tourists, selling trinkets, and housing staff.

During our three-hour tour, we saw several “babi hutan” or forest pigs, a water buffalo cooling itself in a water slough, birds of paradise, rare orchids, colorful lizards, and deer.

Three Komodo snacks (Mike, Heather, and Mona) meander up the path on Komodo Island.
Three Komodo snacks (Mike, Heather, and Mona) meander up the path on Komodo Island.

The first dragon we saw was walking away from us up the cut path near the park center. His awkwardly lumbering torso and wagging limbs initially made us laugh. However, when he decided to leave the path for the jungle’s undergrowth, his vanishing act caused a sudden awareness of our own vulnerability.

Dragons’ hide is a naturally superior camouflage making sightings difficult, and their hunting of lesser prey merely a matter of laying in wait. Flip-flops and bare legs are not recommended for the faint of heart.

Rinca Island

Rinca Island is smaller than Komodo, although sightings of the pre historic look-alikes are much more frequent. Access to Rinca, like Komodo, is by boat only. The dock on the northern coast at Loh Buaya is the most common entrance.

From the dock, a 15-minute hike through desert-like terrain leads to the sparse park facilities where a welcome sign informs visitors that the purchase of their entrance ticket includes life insurance by Aetna. This comforting fact is quickly followed by a compulsory brief education on the life and habitat of the dragons at the park’s ranger center.

On our venture immediately off the Loh Buaya jetty two dragons lay sunning themselves. Our boat captain calmly encouraged us to walk quickly past the dragons while he held them at bay with a forked walking stick.

We smiled nervously. Compared to a venomous bite and razor sharp teeth, we had a twig and bare legs: the sheep fending off the wolf with a stick. Thankfully the blazing tropical sun demands that these three-meter, cold-blooded beasts spend most of their day resting.

Hiking both Komodo and Rinca is an adventure in itself. The trails are clear cut only so far as the ranger stations. Beyond that, the common paths are more akin to game trails of North America: narrow and unrefined.

Tall grass and dense brush border the path across most of the park. Wearing shorts and hiking sandals, we constantly wondered what might lie a half meter off the path ahead.

Our stick-wielding guide was constantly reassuring us that he could more than handle any dragon that might consider us for a mid-day snack. We were never quite convinced and smiled politely as he reminded us of the park’s insurance policy.

Eko, our boat captain’s son, plays in the wind on board a “klotok” during our two-day trip.
Eko, our boat captain’s son, plays in the wind on board a “klotok” during our two-day trip

The islands’ scenery and other species of flora and fauna complete the dragons’ lair. Keep your camera ready at all times. The smaller animals are skittish and are therefore seen for no more than a few seconds. The dragons, on the other hand, often gladly pose in motionless prostration.

Komodo Comforts and Costs

Base camp to visit the dragons is most commonly found at Labuhanbajo on the northwestern corner of the oblong Flores island. This tiny town is home to some 20,000 Indonesians whose major income depends on fishing and tourism.

Visitors can only reach Komodo National Park by chartered boat. Boat charters can vary from converted fishing boats – for around Rp. 1,000,000 (about USD 100) for two days – to custom built liveaboards for considerably more.

A baby Komodo Dragon exits the nest to explore the island.
A baby Komodo Dragon exits the nest to explore the island.

If you can stand roughing it for a night or two the local boats are adequate, albeit somewhat noisy. The outboard motors rattle the seas and reverberate off each passing island as they take you slowly from port to port.