I leant into the sea breeze as the island of Rinca loomed closer. We’d been sailing for two hours under the bright empty horizon that cupped this part of the South Pacific Ocean, the Flores Sea. Encrusted in dry savannah, Rinca rose out of the water abruptly, like a gnarled and ancient creature, watching us approaching intruders with unblinking reptilian eyes. That the landscape felt anachronistic was apposite, for so were its inhabitants: dragons.
Komodo dragons are in fact a kind of overgrown monitor lizard that evolved from other reptiles of the Varanus genus some 4 million years ago. They can reach lengths of 10 feet and weigh up to 90 kilograms. For short bursts, they can run at speeds of 24 kilometres an hour, and are champion swimmers. Female dragons are even capable of virgin births (in 2005 and 2006, two females at London and Chester zoos laid viable eggs despite having had no contact with male komodos).
Considered to be the most intelligent reptiles on the planet, they are carnivorous and cannibalistic — komodo babies spend their early years on top of trees to avoid being eaten by adults. They have snaking, forked tongues that they use to smell prey, and their mouths are full of lethal bacteria that reside in the crevices of their knife-sharp, inch-long teeth. Komodos can eat 80 per cent of their body weight at one sitting. And while their regular diet consists of pigs, deer, snakes and water buffalo, they occasionally snack on tourists as well.
Understandably, I was a tad nervous as I stepped out of the boat and onto Rinca’s landing dock. It was only 10 in the morning but already the sun was brutal in its assault. A short walk away at the island’s reception area I met with the ranger who was to be my guide and protector during this expedition. He looked 15 years old and was armed with a forked stick that appeared barely adequate to fend off a house lizard. “Stay behind me,” the youngster, who came from the local village, instructed solemnly.
We set off on the shortest of the three treks on offer; an hour-long saunter through largely forested terrain. The longer options involved scorching uphill climbing across treeless expanses, the very thought of which induced electrolyte withdrawal.
All lodgings on the island were constructed on stilts to keep the heavy dragons from clambering in. The height didn’t serve as a deterrent for babies though. The little ones could shimmy up tree trunks faster than a dehydrated tourist could scream “DRAGON!”, as I was just about to discover first hand.
As we walked past the hut that served as the camp’s kitchen, loud clacking sounds emanated from its dim interior and suddenly a small komodo flew off the balcony, chased by a stick-banging ranger. The youngster landed a foot away from where we stood and was headed for a collision course with me as it hurried to get away.
I screeched most ingloriously and scampered for shelter behind a tree, only to notice that two adult komodos had been sitting under the kitchen hut the entire time. By now the baby had made itself scarce. The grown-ups, however, did not look pleased at having had their siesta disturbed.
One of the scaly leviathans fixed me with the kind of malevolent look that could turn even the sturdiest of hearts to stone. But my guide was nonchalant and offered to take a picture of me with the komodos in the backdrop. The idea of turning my back on these creatures seemed distinctly insane, and I passed.
In the end it was just as well we’d spotted these kitchen komodos, as the walk through the park resulted in no sightings. The most exciting wildlife we came across was a spider. I consoled myself with the thought that it was an unusually large spider.
Back at the camp reception a troop of monkeys came cavorting out of the trees and fanned out across the open grassland. The two komodos who were still recumbent under the kitchen hut turned their menacing gaze away from the tourists and towards the simians. After a few tense moments they lost interest and went back to contemplating the humans. It was time to leave.
Back on the boat the captain and his assistant had conjured up an enormous feast of local delicacies: grilled aubergine, fried chicken, spicy rice and a salad. Leonardus Nyoman, shining light of Flores Exotic Travel Agency, and my chaperone for the entire tour, was at his didactic best, pulling out a notebook and reciting important facts.
Komodo National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, was located in the central-eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago and consisted of three major volcanic islands — Rinca, Komodo, and Padar — he informed me. “According to my latest information,” Leonardus continued, “there are 2,406 komodos on Rinca, 2,842 on Komodo and 81 on Gili Motang.” In all, the komodo population is estimated at around 5,500, all of it geographically restricted to this small part of Indonesia.
Exhausted with all the note-taking I spent the afternoon stopping off at deserted islands and snorkelling amongst gardens of coral reef in translucent waters that helped me comprehend the answer to a question that had always bothered me: why were there so many words for the colour blue? As I dried off on a strip of white-sand beach I looked out onto the immensity of the ocean and played a game of spotting blues. I managed azure, turquoise, cerulean, cyan and even a strip or two of powder blue.
That evening we docked just off a village on the island of Komodo. Even though it was literarily lights out at 10pm, with the engine switched off, I preferred a bit of water between the dragons and me. In 2007, an eight-year-old boy was killed on Komodo Island when a dragon lunged at him as he relieved himself behind a bush. More recently, in 2009, a ranger on Rinca had been bitten at his desk by a dragon that had managed to clamber up into the office shack unnoticed. The ranger survived, but it took 55 stitches and six months for him to recover.
A tourist had not been attacked for decades, but every other person I met on the trip narrated the story of a Swiss (or German depending on whom you talked to) walker who had disappeared while trekking solo on Komodo Island sometime in the late-1980s. No trace of said gentleman — except for his spectacles and binoculars — was ever found, the storytellers claimed, with somewhat unseemly glee.
It was widely believed that dragon bites were deadly because of the numerous strains (upwards of 50) of bacteria present in their mouths. Recent research has refuted this belief. Earnest herpetologists now asserted that in fact a komodo’s mouth was quite clean, and that it was venom that caused the deaths by causing a steep decline in the victim’s blood pressure and sending it into shock. Yet another theory hypothesised that komodo saliva contained an anti-coagulant so that prey bled out from the bites. The important conclusion to be drawn from this, from my point of view, was that one should avoid getting bitten at all costs.
An hour or so before bedtime I sat out on the deck watching the twinkling lights of the village, when I felt, rather than heard, something large slither out of the black depths of the water and into the boat. More inglorious screaming later I found myself face-to-face with a scruffy five-year-old, holding out tiny replicas of the dragons, fashioned out of what looked like motorbike tyres. The enterprising kid had paddled up silently in a rowboat and was now demanding an astronomical sum for his wares. I bought two out of sheer relief.
At night football-sized stars hung low in the sky. Despite being a lover of creature comforts I managed to doze intermittently, lulled by the soft breeze. The sun rose early, at five, washing the horizon in pink and orange. Two hours later we were at the Komodo Island’s official landing dock, and off on yet another trek. My ranger this time round seemed more interested in showing me cellphone selfies of himself hugging assorted comely Western tourists, than dragons. But, being up and about so early had its advantages.
Halfway through our walk we spotted an adult female some distance down a hill, perfectly camouflaged against a komodo-coloured boulder. We scrambled a few feet closer at which point the ranger announced that she was probably guarding a clutch of eggs. I decided it was a good time to return to camp.
That afternoon our boat pulled up at the Pink Beach, one of the Komodo region’s most popular beaches. Red coral smashed into the sand gave it a pinkish shimmer. The water was so clear you could dispense with snorkelling and peer at neon fish from the boat deck itself. The only false, and surreal, note was the other boat anchored next to ours, out of which loud Kishore Kumar songs emanated. I jumped into the water seeking aural solitude, but ‘Mere Samne Wali Khidki Mein’ refracted into distortion continued to follow me around as I cavorted with the fish.
Fortunately, the four-hour journey back to Labuan Bajo, the closest airport to the Komodo National Park, was a slice of picture-perfect quiet. The ocean’s expanse spread out in its patchwork of blue, punctuated only by the occasional hump-backed island. At some point I spotted an eagle soaring among the wispy clouds. But then I fell asleep, tired out by the early start and hot sun. When I woke up we were about to arrive and I couldn’t be sure if I’d dreamt it all.
There are no direct flights from India to Indonesia. It’s best to fly via Singapore or Malaysia to Jakarta. There are several daily flights from Jakarta to Labuan Bajo in Flores, the closest airport to the Komodo National Park. Garuda Airlines has the best safety record among the domestic airlines. Flights always stop over in Bali first, and cost approximately $400. The flight time from Jakarta to Labuan Bajo is approximately 2.5 hours. All tour operators and hotels in Labuan Bajo run overnight boat trips to Rinca and Komodo islands.
Where to stay
Tourist infrastructure in Flores is underdeveloped and the choice of good hotels is limited. At the top end is the luxurious Plataran Resort (from $230 doubles; plataran. com/area/komodo-resort), which can organise day trips to the Komodo National Park without the need to stay overnight. More modest, but clean options include the Puri Sari (from $75 doubles; purisarihotel.com), a recently renovated four-star hotel and Golo Hilltop (from $50 doubles; golohilltop.com), a boutique-style hotel run by two Dutch women and very popular with younger travellers. For divers, Komodo Resort Diving Club (komodoresort.com) is a good choice.
What to see & do
Visit the Komodo National Park and go trekking to spot the dragons in the wild. Go diving or snorkelling among world-class corals reefs. Swift currents attract an abundance of manta rays, sharks, turtles, sea snakes, more than 1,000 species of fish, and at least 14 species of whales and dolphins. There are numerous dive operators in Labuan Bajo. Blue Marlin is recommended (bluemerlinkomodo.com).Have at least one meal at the Italian-run Mediterraneo in Labuan Bajo, for delicious wood-fired pizzas (mediterraneoinn.com). Flores Exotic Tours (floresexotictours.com) has good English-speaking guides and can arrange bespoke packages. Ask for Leonardus Nyoman.