Finally, that fateful day arrived when we would get to venture in to Komodo Dragon territory. I had slept on the low ground of the main deck of the ship again the night before just to be sure that I didn’t get sick again. We weren’t moving but still – don’t count your eggs 'til they’re hatched. Komodo National Park opened at 7:30am and the dragons were said to be most active during the early morning. We were told to be up by 7am in order to have breakfast and get ready to venture into the park, so naturally everybody woke up at 5:45am. I woke up to people’s feet tromping by my face. From my position I on the floor I could tell that there was a beautiful sunrise happening so, annoyed, I got my camera out and snapped a few pictures, still half asleep. Then I went back to bed until the last possible minute, still attempting to catch up on sleep from the previous 2 nights. Here are the photos I took from that sunrise.
On our agenda that day were Komodo Island and Rinca Island. Those are 2 of the 4 main islands that compose Komodo National Park and they are the only 2 islands that are open to the public. So why are the Komodo Dragons such a big deal?
Komodo Dragons: Modern Dinosaurs
Komodo Dragons are essentially living fossils. Their species was once commonplace all across the surrounding islands and Australia (or at least that is what fossil records from 3.7 million years ago would suggest) but they are now extinct save for a very small part of Indonesia. They can grow to be 3 meters in length (almost 10 feet!) and can run as fast as a dog. They are predators, at the top of their food chain. Their bite is quite venomous and they known to attack humans relatively regularly. Komodo Dragons are also virtually blind, primarily relying on their other 4 senses to get by in life. This means that (among other things) they have a hell of a nose. In fact, they can smell blood from miles away. They phoned me before we embarked on the trip to ask if anybody in my group had any open wounds. I think perhaps the most entertaining part of this whole thing is that women can’t enter the park if they are on their period. Lolz.
Anyway, yes, they attack humans. The antidote for their venom however is not available in Komodo National Park. If somebody is bitten they must take the 2-ish hour boat ride back to Labuan Bajo (the nearest city on the island of Flores). Apparently though, they sometimes do not have enough of the antidote to save Komodo bite victims in Labuan Bajo and they then need to be air-evacuated to Bali in order to check into an actual hospital. You’d think that this would be an easy problem to solve. This is literally the only place in the world were the antidote to Komodo venom would be needed (apart from certain zoos I suppose). Why in God’s name wouldn’t they just keep it in the park?? Or at the very least in Labuan Bajo? If the victims aren’t already dead by the time they arrive in Bali, they don’t have much time left.
So that’s all cool. Luckily our park rangers had methods of dealing with Komodo attacks. That method was to hit them with a big stick. Great! Now all my fears are gone. This stick had a split end that looked like it was meant to hold back a dragon by the throat. The park rangers claimed to have to use them more than once per week. You know what? Whatever. Let’s just do this.
We paid about 260,000 IDR (26 USD) in various fees and needless bureaucracy in order to enter the park. Once in the park we split into groups of 5. There were about 20 of us in total so there were 4 groups. The rangers led us through the small paths park and a tortuously slow pace stopping to identify every piece of vegetation that we passed on our way, as if they were the reason we had endured all the craziness chronicled in my previous 3 posts. No – I came here to see some Dragons so stop making me sniff leaves you found on the ground and let’s get to it!
Anyway... putting my momentary frustrations aside let me tell you about this place and skip ahead to the good stuff. Entering Komodo National Park feels a lot of like the beginning of Jurassic Park. Indeed, if there is a real-life Jurassic Park anywhere on earth, this is undoubtedly it. From the small paths that wind through the park you can see an awful lot of dead vegetation eerily strewn about, oftentimes composed of palm leaves and fallen trees that seem to be much bigger than you’d think to be normal. It was as if I had been shrunk down slightly so that everything I was seeing was a bit bigger than seemed correct. To make matters more bizarre, no matter where on the island we wandered, the maddening buzzing of a fly was never completely out of earshot. It was as if there was a decomposing corpse of some huge animal covered in a swarm of flying insects next to you at all times. These flies, when they would buzz a little too close to me, revealed themselves also to be unsettlingly large.
Perhaps 30 minutes into our trek we came to a clearing where there was a dead goat hanging from a tree. The goat was missing its 2 front legs and on open expanses of meat left from where its legs had been detached were entire civilizations of flies. The park rangers had hung this poor animal up to attract dragons to the tourist areas. And this was where we saw our first dragon. It was lumbering through the forest on its way to somewhere and was pretty ambivalent towards us as we rushed to take pictures of us. We saw one more dragon on our trip just basking in the sun and another bored looking dragon near the beach on our way back down but that was it for Komodo Island.
All things considered, I felt pretty let down. I came all this way to watch an overgrown lizard sleep? Sitting on a park bench with one of the quieter park rangers near the resting place of the 3rd dragon we had seen, I turned to him as our group got up to leave.
“Hey man, can you, like, make one of them move?” I asked, motioning to my camera.
“Maybe I can… if you… give me something…” He replied in a quiet, nonchalant voice.
“….you mean if I pay you you’ll make it move?” I asked, a bit taken aback.
The ranger gave a leading shrug
“Okay, how much?” I asked.
“That is up to you my friend,” replied the ranger.
I took a look at what I had in my wallet.
“How about 25,000 Rupiah?” (that’s about 2.50 USD)
“Ok” he said sticking out his bottom lip with a shrug.
He motioned for me to stay put as our group walked back towards the dock. Once they were safely past the point of noticing us he promptly got up and led me farther down the beach. Almost immediately I saw another large dragon basking in the grass. The rangers had clearly noticed him earlier but couldn’t be bothered to show him to our group.
The ranger picked up a couple small rocks and chucked them at the dragon. They hit the ground nearby, provoking a small dust cloud to blow into the face of this dragon. It’s eyes opened suddenly. It quickly stood up on its feet. As it did I heard the leaves move in the bushes nearby. A small deer looked up, nervous. The Komodo took a step forward and the deer started to run. It was exactly like the beginning of the National Geographic footage you see of Cheetahs taking down Gazelles on the African savannah. My heart rate elevated as I heard the pounding of hooves and watched the Komodo begin to move. “Oh my God. I am about to get the best footage EVER…” I thought to myself.
But nope. The Komodo walked towards us instead of the fleeing deer. The park ranger pounded his Komodo stick on the ground and dragged it in front of him as he walked backwards away from the creature. The dragon flicked its tongue, stopping occasionally to recalculate its route.
Then I heard a movement behind me. I turned to see another Komodo Dragon walking towards us from the opposite direction. “Okay… maybe this is the time to start worrying…” I thought to myself. The ranger took a 90 degree turn and I stayed close to him, trying to continue to take pictures as I moved. Here's some of what I got:
Just then a member of one of the other groups appeared. They just wanted to see what was going on but the ranger scolded them and ordered them to go back to their assigned ranger. He was actually a total dick but I couldn’t help but giggle. I was in some exclusive company apparently.
But as the Komodos closed in on us I grew wary. I thanked the ranger for exploiting the animals he was there to protect for the sake of my pictures and we walked back to the docks together.
Our next stop was Rinca Island—a 2 hour boat trip away from Komodo. Everybody I knew who had made this trip agreed that Rinca was the better island and now that I’ve been there, I agree.
The entrance to the park was much more ominous. We arrived at a small dock surrounded by mangrove trees like a Louisiana swamp. The entrance to the park was decorated with animal skeletons. When we arrived at the ranger station we found a whole family of giant Komodo Dragons relaxing in the shade. We had seen 3x the amount of Komodo Dragons on Rinca as we had on Komodo in the first 2 minutes.
We had to pay a much, much smaller fee (only a few cents) to enter the park on Rinca but on our entire trip, we didn’t see any dragons save for the ones we had seen when we first entered. Rinca as an island though was much more beautiful and interesting than Komodo was. Here are some pictures:
Advice On Traveling To Komodo + Rinca Island
- Unless you have the loose cash, ethical constitution and stupidity to bribe a park ranger to provoke the dragons into giving you a ‘show’... like I did, you’re better off skipping Komodo and going straight to Rinca. It’s much cheaper and you will see more Komodo Dragons.
- Do not go by boat. If you’ve been reading my posts you know that I’ve obviously become biased on this matter due to my traumatic voyage over. Still though, for whatever it's worth, I would recommend that you fly straight to Labuan Bajo and go from there. You can find plane tickets for about 50 USD (one way) with Lion Air. Once you are there it is easy to hire a boat.
- The Komodo Dragons alone do not merit a trip to this remote region. The best part for me was the diving. And that was something that I would definitely come back for. It was amazing. If you missed that post here it is: http://petersbigadventure.com/2015/03/04/day-3-on-the-boat-peter-swims-with-manta-rays/