The previous day I had caught a ferry from Sape on the island of Sumbawa to Labuan Bajo in Flores. Labuan Bajo was the springboard for trips into Komodo National Park. For the next few days, Komodo National Park would be my playground. First stop on the itinerary was a days hiking in search of dragons.
Komodo Dragons are the largest living lizards in the world. They are the lizard equivalent of a crocodile and are easily identified by their massive size, flat heads, bowed legs and long, thick tails. The origin of their name comes from rumors that dragon-like creatures lived on the Indonesian island of Komodo.
Wayne, a fellow cyclist who is from New Zealand, and I had rented a boat for the day so that we could go chasing dragons and had to meet Myra, who had arranged the boat for us, at 8am so that she could take us to it.
Everything went smoothly and by 8.15 we had pushed off from the quay and we’re motoring out into open water.
Komodos are very rare and are found in the wild only on five islands: the Lesser Sunda Islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang and Gili Dasami — all within Komodo National Park — and the island of Flores, where the Komodo roam freely.
The World Animal Foundation estimates the number of Komodos in the wild to be around 6,000. This population is split among the islands, with 1,500 on Komodo and Rinca, 100 on Gili Motang and around 2,000 on Flores. They are protected within the Komodo National Park. Our destination that morning was Rinca Island which was about an hours boat ride from Labuan Bajo.
The water was like a lake without a ripple on it and so clear.
Both of us were excited as the Komodo Dragons were on our respective bucket lists. The landscape on the islands that the boat was threading its way through looked completely dry and barren with just the off tree dotted here and there. This was completely different to the main island of Flores which was still covered in primary forest.
After an hour or so the boat pulled into a boat jetty on Rinca and we were all set for our hiking adventure.
As the Komodo Dragons are a protected species you can only hike on the island with a guide so the first order of the day was to head to the ranger station to arrange for one of them to come with us. Normally, tourists just spend an hour on Rinca before heading off to do a spot of snorkeling in the crystal clear waters. However, we hadn’t cycled all this way just for an hour with the Komodo Dragons.
As we walked to teh ranger station we passed a fair few deer who were busy clashing antlers and ignored us completely even though we were only stood 5 meters away.
In front of the ranger station was a kind of trophy wall of animals that had been killed and eaten by the Komodo Dragons – buffalo and deer seemed to be the main items on the menu.
We knew that it was 80000 (about 5 GBP) to hire a guide for 2 hours so you would think that for 4 hours it would just be double that. When we walked to the head ranger he said it was 500000 for 4 hours. How they had got that figure I had no idea and we told them so.
There ensued a long of discussion between the rangers where they kept using the words ‘adventure trekking’ and when they came back to us after a few minutes they said the same figure. Wayne and I explained our logic that the price should be 160000, but the head ranger still said that 4 hours was 500000.
By now there was a fairly long queue of other tourists behind waiting to buy tickets and the rangers asked us to step aside so they could serve them. The queue behind was in our way our bargaining chip and so we stayed put. As the line behind us grew we again explained our logic for paying 160000 and the rangers eventually gave in and begrudgingly agreed to our price even though they still insisted that we were doing adventure trekking and so should pay extra.
The great thing about Indonesia is that once a deal is done there is no ‘bad blood’ and everybody is friends again. Our guide for the morning was Emanuel who was a guy in his mid twenties from Flores.
He was pretty excited to be heading off on a long trek instead of the normal 1 or 2 hour tourist route.
Emanuel explained that around the ranger station you are pretty much guaranteed to see Komodo Dragons because they are attracted by the smell of the rangers cooking food. Until recently the rangers used to feed them goats as a kind of tourist attraction but they have now stopped it so that they are truly ‘wild’ animals who have to fend for themselves.
Our first sighting of a Komodo was not the monsters that I was expecting but a very young one who was cooling himself in a mud pool:
Our guide said that Komodo Dragons only need to feed about once a month and said that the main way they catch their prey is to lay in watering holes such as this and then whenever animals come to drink they launch their attack.
The Komodo have a unique way of killing its prey. First, it springs up and knocks the prey over with its huge feet. Then they use their sharp, serrated teeth — which are a lot like a shark’s — to basically shred their prey to death. If their prey escapes, it will die from blood loss or within 24 hours of blood poisoning because the Komodo’s saliva contains around 50 strains of bacteria. The Komodos have fairly good eyesight but its through their fantastic sense of smell that the Komodo Dragons are able to track their ‘victims’ and will find the dead animal and finish its meal.
The young Komodo in front of us looked more like he was enjoying the cool mud than looking for a bite to eat. From the very start the young komodos have a fairly hard life as although their mothers will guard her eggs during incubation when they hatch she doesn’t recognise them as her own and given the chance will eat them.
According to the Smithsonian Zoo at birth, when baby dragons hatch from eggs they are only 30 centimeters long. As soon as they hatch, the young will run away and climb up trees to avoid being eaten by their mother or other Komodos. When they are 4 years old and around 4 feet (1.2 m), the young Komodos will come down and live on the ground. Those that survive can look forward to a long life and a Komodo Dragon can live to more than 30 years.
After watching the youngster for a while it decided it had enough of us and headed off into the woods. We went in search of bigger ones and soon found 4 huge ones lazing about in the shade of a tree. Man, we’re they impressive.
When they were lay down they just stretched out and never moved a muscle. The only thing that moved were their eyes as they followed our every move seemingly ready to lunge if we got too close. The size of their paws were huge and the nails looked like they could inflict a fair amount of damage given the chance.
If they had looked impressive lay down they were down right scary when they got up and walked around. When they get up on their legs you get to see how powerful they are and when he walked it was like a bulldozer coming through.
This was definitely worth the effort and energy that it had taken to cycle over Tambora Volcano a couple of days ago. After taking photos from every angle we headed off on our trek. Rinca island covers an area of nearly 200 km² and we knew that the chances of seeing a Komodo whilst trekking was very remote and set off more in hope than expectation.
The island, like the others we had passed on the boat to get here, was very barren with just the odd group of trees dotted here and there.
There are a couple of fishing villages on the coastline but nothing within the interior of the island. Our first stop on our trek was a phone tower on the hill which overlooks the ranger station. From here we could see that it would be literally like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The guide said that apart from Komodos the maim wildlife that we could see were snakes, deer, monkeys and buffalo. Emanuel said that bird life was scarce as young Komodods and monkeys raid the nests to steal the eggs.
It was now approaching midday and our guide said that the dragons tend to have dual-purpose homes. To stay warm at night, they make or find burrows to nestle down in. During the day the same burrow keeps them cool. The easiest way for them to burrow is under the roots of trees and this is where we would be most likely to find them during the day. This would be our best chance of finding a dragon in the ‘wild’ away from the ranger station.
We had been hiking for a couple of hours and searched a fair few copses without success. It didn’t matter though as just hiking across the deserted island was fantastic. The air was fresh, the views spectacular and the pace good as we threaded our way through the long grasses.
The island was so dry and harsh. Nearly every tree or plant that we passed was covered in huge thorns to protect them from being eaten. The only deep green on the landscape was provided by the palm trees which were dotted here and there.
Emanuel explained that this is what the Indonesian alcohol drink of Arrack is made from. The trees come in male and female versions and the female palm trees grows fruit similar to coconuts while the male ones grow a long thin fruit which looks like a runner beans on steroids.
Arrack, or palm wine, comes in two varieties: the naturally fermented one that’s light in alcohol content, and the head-bashing, distilled version. I have tried both of them and they taste more like paint stripper than alcohol and if you want to get drunk cheaply you can find local varieties throughout Asia.
We were now hiking through a dry river bed when Emanuel spotted something of to out left and doubled back to take a closer look. There sticking out from under a tree was the tail of a Komodo Dragon.
Luckily for us he decided to back out of his hole to see what the commotion was outside. That was when we discovered that we had not stumbled upon one but two dragons under the tree.
Emanuel said that the male looked to be about 17 years old, a mere teenager in dragon terms, and as they were solitary creatures, even though the mating season had finished a couple of months ago, it looked like this pair were having afternoon nooky.
In his four years as a guide on the island of Rinca Emanuel said that he had never seen a pair of dragons in a hole together. You could clearly tell from the excited look on his face how rare what we were seeing really was.
The male didn’t seem remotely bothered by our presence and kind of just sat there watching us whilst we watched him. The female remained under the tree staring out at us but did not come out.
After about 15 minutes we decided to let them get on with what they were doing and headed off to continue our hike.
It was now nearly 1pm and the sun was really beating down. We stopped for 10 minutes to take a break under a tree to eat a banana, drink water and to reflect on he awesome sight that we had just witnessed.
Our route back took us along another river bed and in this these were still isolated mud pools as natural springs ran through this part of the island. In one of the pools were a group of buffalo wallowing in the mud.
We had spoiled them as we rounded he bend but they soon settled down and continues their wallowing.
Emanuel said that this was a favourite spot for the Komodo Dragons to kill the buffalo. They would ‘hide’ in the mud and wait for their opportunity to strike. He said that when they feed they rip the flesh and swallow chunks of meat without chewing it. They can swallow smaller prey, up to the size of a goat, whole. This is because they have flexible jaws and skulls. Apparently, Komodo dragons may try to swallow faster by running and pushing the dead animal in its mouth very hard against a tree.
After swallowing its food, laying around in the sun speeds up digestion which is important if eating a dead animal as the food can rot and poison the dragon. After the Komodo Dragon has finished digesting the meat it vomits the horns, hair, and teeth of the animal it ate. If they could eat a goat whole it was little wonder that the large Komodo’s only had to feed 12 times a year.
It was nice and cool sitting under the trees watching the buffalo have a bath in the mud pools. None of us were in any hurry to leave after hiking round the island in the midday sun, so we just watched the buffalo swishing mud with their tails whilst monkeys scrambled around in the trees behind.
After sitting there for 20 minutes we continued on with our trek and came across a Komodo Dragon nest where females would go to lay their eggs. It was a bit like a rabbit warren but the holes were much bigger. We did not see any Komodos but Emanuel said that as mating season was in August there probably was a female underneath our feet keeping guard over her eggs.
We then joined a path which would take us back to the ranger station and as we came over a hill in front of us was a huge Komodo Dragon bulldozing his way through the trees.
He seemed on a bit of a mission and Emanuel said that he may be going to the nest that we had just passed to try to eat the eggs. We could have followed him to see what happened but decided to let him be and continued our hike back.
On our trek we had seen at least 7 Komodos which was amazing and the highlight for each of us was definitely seeing the couple under the tree. This was an amazing sight and one we were both blessed and privileged to have witnessed.
Here is a video I hot to record our day. As seeing the Komodo Dragons is such a unique experience this video is much longer than the others at 18 minutes:
When we got back to the ranger station we all enjoyed a cold drink before heading back to our boat. The normal day tours would have already headed off snorkeling for the afternoon, but as we had spent the best part of the day hiking we did not have time as it was now after 4pm and we still had a sundown date with a sight nearly as memorable as the Komodo Dragons.
Instead of going snorkeling once were safely on board the boat we set sail for a deserted island where we ate a late lunch and had a swim at the beach.
The boat arrived at the island and set anchor on the beach. After our long hike we dived in for a swim and it was bracing to put it mildly. The island must be next to a deep water channel where the tides rip through and hence the cooler water temperature. This is one reason why the water visibility is so clear near the islands of Komodo and Rinca island as they act like a bottleneck between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This current, which brings nutrients in, is why Komodo waters are so full of fishes and so clear. I would find out how fast the currents pull through first hand when I did a spot of diving in a couple of days time.
Back on our deserted island, after a very pleasant couple of hours lazing around, the boat pulled anchor and headed for a mangrove island on the other side of the bay.
We anchored in front of the mangroves and waited for sunset. What we were waiting for was the nightly food run of the thousands of fruit bats which lived in the mangrove forest in front of us. On queue, as the sun went down, the bats woke and flew over the boat as they headed for the mountains of Flores to feed. At first there was the odd bat overhead then 100’s and a couple of minutes later thousands of them were overhead. If you have never seen a fruit bat they aren’t small and the wingspan can be in excess of 1 meter.
When I got back to dry land I looked up the bats and the ones overhead were Sunda Flying Foxes:
The sight of thousands of bats taking flight was beautiful and reminded me of a World War 2 film where waves of bombers would head off in formation. The black streaky lines in the photo below are bats flying over our heads.
The sun sets fast here and within 10 minutes of twilight is was pitch black and we could no longer see the bats in the sky as they headed north to feed.
Our day was done and we pulled anchor to headed back to Labuan Bajo. In best Indonesian fashion the boat headed back at full speed with no running lights at all on the boat. Little wonder that lots of boats sink around here!!!
The trip back should have taken about 40 minutes but halfway back we hit a storm. The wind was howling and the rain was bouncing off the boat. Wayne and I tried to use the plastic seat cushion covers as shelter as the boat never slowed and it was freezing as the rain pelted down. The skippers mate was now sat on the very front of the boat peering out into the distance and flashing a torch either to the left or right now and again to try and direct the skipper to stay on course.
Then, as fast as the storm arrived it disappeared into the nights sky. We pulled into the harbor freezing cold and very wet. The poor guy who had been sat at the front of the boat giving directions was visibly shaking with cold. Something you don’t often see in the tropics.
The streets in the town were awash with water and we headed to the nearest warung to get some food. By the time we got back to Orange Hotel it was past 8pm.
We had had a great day on the water – saw amazing Komodo Dragons, hiked over a deserted island and seen fruit bats take flight in their thousands. A truly beautiful day.
I was soon heading to bed as I had to be up at 5.30am the next morning as I would be catching another boat out onto the water to do 2 days of kayaking and a spot of diving but more about that in the next update.
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