05.09.2012 - 06.09.2012
It was just the four of us and our ranger, no other tourists in sight at all. No other boats were docked up at the pier either. This was a good sign as big groups of stomping tourists can scare away wildlife. We were only walking for about five minutes before we heard a rustle in some trees; we instinctively spun, cameras trained like guns, and looked for what lurked close by. It was a friendly deer, scratching its horns against a tree. The deer seemed unaware of us for a few moments. Then his gaze shot up and stared at us, for the usual ten seconds of fight or flight decision making. An instant later there was another rustle and it was gone – flight was the chosen option.
I’ve heard that a lot of people, who are very familiar with deer, detest them, describing them as parasite-bearing pests. These seem to be people who live in places where deer come into their back gardens and be a general nuisance etc. On the other hand, other people, including ourselves, still find them cute, gentle, and generally a little like Bambi.
No less than five minutes later we approached a bit of a clearing. We could see around four deer in the trees at the far end of the clearing. I then heard a whisper that very much sounded like “a dragon, a dragon”. Not knowing who muttered the whisper, we all huddled together without a word to try and see what the whisperer had seen. Then there it was. A long dark monster-sized lizard led in the shade at the edge of the clearing. It was totally flat on the ground, arms and legs lazily down by its sides… almost as if doing the ‘plank’. Led by the ranger we ventured closer, now around fifteen metres away. We saw another dragon to the left, slightly further away than the first. This dragon was again resting in some shade. Being coldblooded animals they do lie out in the sun, but when the heat is too much they take to the shade.
We got closer still. Once closer we could see that the dragon’s body was led in a kind of bendy wave, almost like a snake or what you would imagine them to swim like.
The closer dragon raised his head to see who these approaching figures were, but he didn’t seem too concerned. With this being a national park and the dragons being protected as an endangered species (as well as being the uncontested top predator on the island) he didn’t have any fear of us. We, on the other hand had a very healthy fear of him. They can apparently run very fast in short bursts. These guys did look very lazy though. They kept an eye on us but never showed any sign of getting up. I went around to the side to get a little closer for a photograph, big stick in hand. It was hard to guess the length of the two dragons as they were led in this wave pose, shortening their length, but I’d guess they were both around the 7 foot mark.
The two dragons didn’t look as scary as we imagined; being led flat on the ground they still looked long, but not necessarily very tall and threatening. This soon changed however when our guide decided to hook his stick under one of the dragon’s tails. Maybe he thought we wanted some action and better photographs. We kind of did, but only if it was natural; this teasing and provoking of the animal wasn’t what we would have chosen.
What was shown to us though, was the animal’s quick reactions and strength. With a loud crack and lift of dust and soil, the dragon’s tail swung and whipped the stick to the side. The guide did it again and the dragon swung again, this time standing up and moving further away. He was irritated, but not enough to make a fight out of it. Once he was stood up we could see the powerful legs and thick veiny body. We saw how threatening he looked. He had a slow, moody swaying walk, and with his long tongue flicking out; it looked very calculated and sinister.
We stayed in this area for around ten minutes in total before moving on. Some people don’t get to see any dragon’s here if they’re unfortunate so we were very happy to see two early on in our walk. As we turned I saw a deer dart across the walking trail and effortlessly jump over a huge fallen tree. We walked along the trail, spotting small lizards, cockatoos, and some amazing flowers. Our guide spotted many birds that we never even managed to see.
The trail eventually led upward and we stopped for a breather and photo-opp at the top of a hill. There was no shade up here and the sun was mercilessly firing photons at our poor white skin. Up close a lot of the plants and trees were brown and looked starved for water, but the elevated scenic views revealed a landscape full of healthy green.
The trail led down again; we spotted several more nervous deer in the foliage and a huge bees nest high up in a tree. The reaction to the bees nest was an all-around mutual, “oh wow cool… okay now let’s move on!”
We were on flat ground and near the ocean again, walking toward some buildings. We thought this was the end of the walk but as we approached a collection of wooden buildings we saw a small horde of dragons around one particular cabin. The word horde may imply that they were all stood up in battle formation, but just as their cousins at the beginning of our walk, they were all lazing around, some in the sun and others in the shade of the building. As we closed in with our eyes focused on the horde, we almost stepped on another dragon that we hadn’t seen. We probably wouldn’t have actually stepped on it, being as big as it was, rather kicked and fallen over it. Luckily we all noticed at the same time only a few feet away from the dozing lizard. Its dull coloured scaly skin had camouflaged itself against the soil.
This particular cabin that was surrounded by dragons was the kitchen for the people who lived and worked here. We asked if the dragons were fed by people, but we were told no. We were told that they used to feed the dragons up until the mid-nineties, but since then they haven’t fed them. I would be tempted not to believe the guy, as the dragons were evidently gathered here hoping for something. The other side to the argument would be the online reports that I’d read of other travellers that have come to the island; I’d not read that there were always dragons gathered at the kitchen, some people having seen very few dragons on their whole walk. It could either just be the smell of food that continually attracts them, or that the guide was fibbing and they do feed them.
We managed to get close to the dragons in a relatively safe way, by walking up the few steps onto the raised porch of the cabin. Some of these dragons were huge. While we were in front of the cabin taking photos, the dragon behind us that we almost tripped over got up and walked toward the cabin, walking right past us. He would have walked within about five feet of us had we not put a bit more space in between us. We stood still and watched the slow, calculated walk; his big sharp claws scuffing the floor and dragging behind with each step. There was something mesmerizing about the way they moved… and again, something very sinister. It’s when they walk that their long forked tongues slowly flick out to smell the surrounding area; their tongues alone are as big as some snakes. It all makes the dragon look as if it’s always thinking, and planning something.
We saw a few dragons walking around like this, only to collapse again to rest. The slumbering dragons. A few looked with impatience at another when they walked over them or collapsed clumsily half on them. At one point a dragon, seemingly unprovoked, stood up and marched toward myself and the guide. The pace was twice as quick as we’d seen them move up till this point. I moved a few paces backward and knelt down to take a photo. I felt safe with the guide next to me. His big stick (no jokes) was forked at the end to stop, or slow down, an animal by the neck. If a few dragons came toward us in some planned assault however, I would have been out of there.
At one point a small curious black bore came from the trees to investigate the area. His little tail wagged as he frequently stopped to look at us and the dragons. He got surprisingly close to the dragons, which looked up in half interest but took no action. Like lions and other such animals, when they are full, they can be seen standing right next to a potential meal without the potential meal having to flee. The bore wandered around sniffing happily for a few minutes and then trotted off back to the trees. As with the islands themselves, I’m projecting certain human-like qualities onto the animals – or to use a fancy word, employing anthropomorphism – I’m aware that this isn’t strictly the truth, but it makes for better storytelling.
We checked the time and realised our time was up and we needed to get back to our boat. We’d seen seven Komodo dragons in total, a very impressive number compared to several reports that I’d read, and so much more than we were expecting to see.
Back on the boat we ate some snacks and headed towards where we would be sleeping for the night. We witnessed a nice sunset on the way and came to a stop in the midst of many other boats out in the open water. There were huge flying foxes (bats) high up in the air that eventually settled themselves in some mangroves on a nearby island. As we ate our dinner we heard a little unfamiliar voice from nowhere. With the sun now gone, it was pitch black all around the boat, unable to see even the water. The voice was a man in a small canoe at the side of our boat. He was selling beers and souvenirs. This gave us all a chuckle; he left without a sale though.
It was time for bed. The sleep was pretty tough; with the rocking of the boat, and each bed being slightly narrower than a single size (for two of us), and Álvaro snoring his head off. Still, it’s better than a lot of these tours that have you sleep out on the deck.
It was around 5am when the boat started chugging again. We all tried to stubbornly keep ourselves asleep a little while longer, but by 6 we were all up and on the deck.
After some breakfast we all got prepared for Rinca Island. We arrived nice and early before any other tourists, and maybe more importantly, before the midday heat. I was majorly burned from the day before. In fact I was the most burnt that I’ve ever been. I had used sun cream, but obviously not enough; the walking, the swimming, and the fact that being in a small boat made the sun’s rays inescapable, all added up to what looked like second degree burns.
The set up was basically the same as before, we got our guide, complete with big stick, and he showed us a map of the trails. Our new guide seemed to be more informative and professional. I doubted that we would see him poke anything with the stick. We left the lodge and after a two minute walk we came to a huge clearing. In front of us was a big stone entrance with a massive stone Komodo dragon on each side. It felt very Jurassic Park. The immediate land around us was mostly barren, with trees and hills in the distance.
We followed the guide for around a minute before seeing our first dragons. Under the shade of a nearby tree there was a big flat dragon and a smaller one that was slowly walking around sniffing the air with its tongue. The smaller one looked around three feet long, and must just be big enough to hang around with the bigger guys. When the dragons are first born they take to the treetops and stay there until they are big enough to avoid being eaten by the bigger boys, who are too heavy to climb.
Our walk started on the other side of where the locals live and so we came across another horde of dragons near a kitchen building. These guys were more active than on Komodo Island, although most were still sprawled out flat on the ground. We snapped some photos and headed out on our walk; we were keen to see more in their natural environment, rather than sleeping outside a kitchen.
On to the proper forest trail, we saw plenty of small monkeys misbehaving, sometimes stopping to look at us, as if they’d been caught being naughty. Around ten minutes into the walk we saw a huge hole in the ground to our left, and it was guarded by a massive dragon. The guide informed us that this female was guarding her nest of eggs. The dragon’s lair. Apparently the female would stay here for months guarding her eggs, mostly from other dragons, and sometimes digging other holes to confuse others. We were far enough away not to stir the protective mother and so we walked past without any trouble.
Our guide stopped and showed us several species of bird and general flora. We came to a tree that had several large skulls leaned against it. These were deer skulls and the result of hungry dragons. Our walk led us to the side of a stream and we followed it for a while. Half way down the stream we saw an enormous water buffalo having a bath. Only his head and top part of his body were visible out of the water. We were only around ten feet away from him but he seemed unbothered, although he never took eyes off us. His head was surrounded by a swarm of flies and every now and then he would dunk his head in the water to try and get rid of the annoyance. It was around 11am now and the heat was taking its toll on us, and the wildlife. We were envious of the buffalo’s cool bath. After a few minutes the buffalo leaned on his side and showed us his underbelly. He just looked at us with his limbs raised, as if he wanted us to tickle him.
This scene with the buffalo in the stream reminded me of a David Attenborough documentary I once saw on the dragons – that had a very good chance of being filmed here considering the small number of places they are found – and they filmed a dragon attack a buffalo in a stream. The giant lizard lunged at it and tore into the buffalo’s back leg. The buffalo towered above the dragon but the dragon had a plan. Once he had sneakily slashed its leg open he played the waiting game. The bacteria-filled saliva from the dragon slowly infected the buffalo’s wound. The buffalo lasted weeks, but the dragon never lost sight of it, always within metres of it. Eventually the infection had spread throughout the buffalo and he collapsed, becoming a very large meal for several dragons.
The walk so far was better than the Komodo equivalent; the forest felt more untouched and like we were really in the dragon’s wild habitat. This was given the winning moment when our guide pointed to something to our left through some trees. We stopped and strained to look through the branches. We could see mounds of soil being thrown up from inside a big hole. A moment later a dragon’s head popped up, looked around and then looked at us. Just seeing the extended neck and head in view, it looked so much like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. I was living out my boyhood dream as close as I ever could. The dragon studied us for a minute or so and then went back to its business of digging a nest. We couldn’t get any closer and from our angle all we could see was the soil being thrown out, so we moved on.
Our walk came to an end back where we started at the cabins surrounded by lazy dragons. The area was now full of tourists snapping photos. We felt like these ‘show dragons’ were beneath us now we had seen some in their natural territory. As we walked back towards the pier we saw group after group of tourists; some having around fifteen people in. We were glad that we’d had such a small group. The tiny wooden pier looked hilarious now, completely surrounded by around fifteen boats. We made sure to thank our captain for getting us here early.
We had one last stop before arriving back to Labuan Bajo; a small idyllic island with white sand and crystal clear water. The other three snorkelled for twenty minutes – I opted out of this one. Between my tender burnt skin and my prior ocean experience, I didn’t fancy taking any chances. The fragility of my English body was all too evident; what I needed was lots of after-sun and some solid ground.
With everyone back aboard we headed back for the mainland and eventually a flight back to Bali. The trip had been a success. We’d seen 18 dragons in total, plus a whole manner of other wildlife; way more than we had hoped for. It was our first taste of some truly exotic wildlife in Asia, and hopefully not our last.