By James Griffin
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Labuhanbajo to Loh Buaya demands at least two hours at sea, and the cacophony can frighten away sea life. Don’t forget your novel to pass the time. The simplest way to arrange a local boat is to ask your hotel to arrange it for you a day or two ahead. Prices are negotiable; don’t hesitate to bargain.
If you prefer the more affluent liveaboards, those need to be booked several months in advance and can be done so through several touring companies; but I can personally recommend Dive Komodo and their newly renovated Seven Seas.
This custom built scuba diving ship hosts up to 16 passengers and a full-service crew. The Seven Seas was designed with luxury in mind: air conditioned rooms, western toilets, plush beds, laundry service, comfortable scenic spots to the lounge from, and expert guides to the area. You can contact the owner/operator at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting divekomodo.com.
The Flores Sea separates the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean. The intertwining currents attract plenty of plankton, large fish, and thrilling predators.
Several popular stops, including Dead Man’s Rock and Angel Rock, were not even visible until we submerged. These rising boulders rest only one meter below the surface at low tide, allowing the sun to nurture algae, coral, and other plant life at the bottom of the food chain.
The number of fishes and variety of coral in this region put the Flores Sea in my top five places to snorkel and scuba dive. Our diving guide, Daniel with Dive Komodo, knew each stop intimately. Even the snorkelers on our boat received clear briefings as to the currents, sighting expectations, depth of specific species, and dangers to avoid.
Water visibility can vary from day to day, but don’t forget your underwater camera; your friends won’t believe some of the species you see.
For diving day trips from Labuhanbajo, Dive Komodo and Komodo Tours offer full gear and English-speaking guided tours at reasonable rates. Advanced booking of a few weeks is usually required for multi-day trips.
The Golo Hilltop hotel provides small, rough, but adequate split bungalows for $7 per night with fan or $15 per night with AC; all rooms have hot water showers. They have a small dining area that can make a good Western or Indonesian breakfast and decent evening meals. The Paradise Bar is within walking distance and has virtually the same menu as the hotel since they are owned by the same couple; in addition, the bar promises an outstanding sunset view over the Flores Sea.
The Eco-Lodge sits inland a few kilometers and boasts a colonial style structure. The rooms are comfortably furnished in modern Indonesian style with AC and hot water for $55 to $70 per night. The restaurant can handle most appetites with little difficulty. Vacancies disappear quickly during high season, so book early.
Best time to travel is March to May, after the rainy season, but before tourists crowd the bookings.
Flights to Labuhanbajo are best taken from Denpasar, Bali (DPS) via GT Air or Merpati Air. The cost in April 2006 was Rp. 707.800 (about USD 80) per person one-way. These Denpasar-Labuhanbajo flights come and go four times per week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
International flights to Denpasar are cheapest from February to May and September to November (avoiding Idul Fitri, the finale to the Muslim fasting month). Most major Pacific Rim hubs (e.g., Sydney, Singapore, Taipei) have direct flights to Bali.
Lastly, be sure not to book domestic air travel in Indonesia on an Indonesian red-letter day. The airlines are known to cancel a flight without any prior notice and with little to no compensation. Visit expat.or.id for red-letter dates and other calendar considerations.
James Griffin teaches English at an international school in Central Java, Indonesia, where school breaks are far more adventurous than in his native Arkansas, USA.
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