Enter the dragon…..and other Komodo dragon cliches
Way back in 1997, before blogs like this existed and I was excited at having my first ever e-mail address in my first year at uni, I read a book (made of real paper) called ‘The Song of the Dodo’ by a bloke called David Quammen. At the time I was a bright-eyed young zoology student filled with dreams of future adventures in tropical jungles with savage beasts and the book was suitably inspiring in this area.
In it, Quammen discusses the extinction crisis facing the world then and now from the perspective of rare animals living on remote islands. He talks to scientists in the field from Mauritius to Hawaii, from the Galapagos to Madagascar about their weird and wonderful study subjects, combining popular science with travel writing and telling 18-year-old-me all the places I would want to visit in the future.
One such place was the island of Komodo.
Now, if I say ‘Komodo’ – what do you think of?
No, not ‘kimono’, as this computer keeps thinking I must be talking about.
Did you say “dragons!”
I hope so. So yes, Quammen went to Komodo to see real, live giant lizards in the wild in Indonesia, seemingly like something out of Jurassic Park. He trekked in the dragon-infested jungle. He watched the monstrous reptiles devour a goat. He had a near-miss with one in the gloomy forest. And I sat in my student halls in Sheffield and lapped it all up…knowing I was destined, as a future zoological researcher and probably as a sort of biologist version of Indiana Jones, to follow in such footsteps – courageously plunging headlong into the unknown in the pursuit of data at any cost….
….fast forward 20 years to 2017 and I found myself working as an English teacher.
Things never do go as you initially envisage. But on the plus side, here I am living in Bangkok, just up the road from Indonesia (okay, it’s quite a long road). Then along comes Thai New Year, giving Kate and me a week to play with.
But where to go?
We finally decided it was time to chase the dragon*, and booked flights to Bali and on to Flores to put us within a boat ride of the big lizards.
*Apologies in advance, but these clichéd phrases are going to keep cropping up.
So why are Komodo dragons interesting?
Well, they’re the world’s biggest lizard (yup, crocodiles aren’t lizards). Komodos are a species of monitor lizard, if that means anything to you, and they can grow to 15 feet long and several hundred pounds in weight.
Plus they’re rare. They’re only found in a limited number of places in Indonesia, including the island of Rinca, a small area on the island of Flores and, obviously, their favourite spot – the island of Komodo.
And of course, as any viewer of Animal Planet will tell you – they’re savage, ferocious and determined killing machines. Just like sharks and pitbull terriers and Humboldt squids (apparently…(??) …I saw a ‘documentary’ on this once…). Just do a YouTube search for ‘Komodo dragon’ and experience the horror…
However, legend rarely lives up to reality and animals are generally just doing their thing, which is rarely single-mindedly trying to maul humans (see our previous experience with great white sharks in South Africa). Having said that, Komodos can be dangerous to people. But how dangerous?
Well, there are several recorded attacks.
For example, in 2007 a child was killed and in 2009 a local guide met the same fate when he fell from a tree in the vicinity of two hungry dragons while collecting apples.
In a bizarre tale of survival, a group of stranded divers washed up on a remote beach in 2008 and spent the night holding off a group of dragons by throwing stones and swinging weighted belts. No one was hurt, fortunately.
There’s also a memorial on Komodo to a guy called Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg who disappeared on the island in 1974 and was presumed eaten. Gruesomely, all searchers found were his camera and its torn strap.
However, perhaps the strangest tale of dragon-attack involves a foot injury and a barefoot ex-husband of Sharon Stone in the LA Zoo Komodo enclosure. Look it up.
But generally, dragons content themselves with eating the local fauna of wild pigs and deer or anything else they can grab.
They’re big and often sluggish and their lives involve mostly lying around in the shade…and then occasionally leaping out of that shade to surprise a passing pig or tourist. They’re not long distance runners, but are capable of sudden bursts of speed and giving nasty bites.
Isn’t there something weird about their bite?
For a long time, there was this idea that Komodos subdued their prey in a very weird way – basically by having a dirty mouth. The theory went that their gobs were loaded with a disgustingly high level of bacteria. So high, that when they chomped on their morsel of choice (e.g. a nice little piggy), even if it initially escaped, it would later collapse from its infected wounds and the bad-breathed (dragon breath?) dragon would then be able to follow it and finish it off.
This seemed a bit suspect to many biologists. Given that sepsis would take some time to set in, how would the bitey dragon be able to keep up with its prey and wait it out? Maybe the sickly pig would wander off and another dragon would eat it, depriving the hunter of its quarry? How’s that a good way to get your dinner?
Well, it turns out it was just sort of a made-up story that persisted by word of mouth. Maybe someone just looked at their drooly faces and though ‘Eeeew!’. Or maybe someone got bitten and did get an infection and made the link, but didn’t realise they might have got the same infection from a dog bite.
Anyway, whatever the story, researchers in 2013 wrote off the idea by analysing the microbial inhabitants of the dragon mouth. They found that dragons’ weren’t as icky as previously thought and that they actually carried the same amount and range of bacteria as most big carnivores. This is a result of eating live animals nose-to-tail, but it appears they don’t carry some lethal biological weapon between their teeth. Add to this evidence the basic argument that it’s an illogical way to hunt and the ‘dirty mouth’ theory was discarded as a bizarre method of hunting.
However, they probably still have terrible breath. I mean, I’m just guessing. I didn’t get that close for a sniff. Because…
….isn’t there something else about their bite?
Well, yes. In 2005 some scientists found evidence that dragons are venomous. Not many lizards are, and certainly, it seems less likely in big predators like Komodos because you just don’t usually need venom when you’re massive. But researchers located a potential venom gland in the mouth and found that the secretions from this gland stopped blood clotting, lowered blood pressure and caused muscle paralysis. Not like a bite from a cobra, but enough when coupled with a gaping wound from the bite to send a victim into shock and make them easier to munch. This sounds a much better way to get your dinner than biting it, giving it a nasty dose of lurgy and then waiting for it to die in a few days’ time so you can eat the rest.
I’m just saying, if I had the choice I’d be venomous instead of refraining from brushing my teeth to culture an infective mouth. Wouldn’t you? Have you not even thought about it? Tsk…
But wait one minute. They’re dragons! Isn’t there something ELSE about their mouths??
They don’t breathe fire.
Now I’ve outlined Komodo dragons as fearsome lizards, I can get round to imparting our courageous expedition to visit them…
Bangkok to Bali to Flores
So we flew from Bangkok to Bali and caught a connecting flight to Flores. After flying low in a small prop plane over desert islands and deep blue sea we touched down in a tiny airport flanked by palm trees. In the arrivals hall, which was not much larger than a bus stop, there were model Komodo dragons to greet us and we plodded outside to be picked up by a minibus. We were driven to a guesthouse called Green Prundi which was basically over the road from the airport and probably easily walkable. But the pick-up was free.
From there, after checking in, we wandered over the hill and down into the small coastal town of Labuan Bajo. Though the person on reception told us we’d need transport, we decided the walk would be good after travelling and it was fine if a little hot. Took about 30 minutes. Not to be done at night though due to the lack of lights and the fact you can get any passing motorist to ferry you around for a few quid.
Labuan Bajo – booming lizard town
Labuan Bajo is a small coastal town with, seemingly, more sea-going vessels than people. There are tiny rowing boats and big wooden canoe-type things with engines and also huge rusty ferries lining the docks and in the bay. The town itself is a bit of a ramshackle cluster of buildings along a few streets looking out at the sea. It’s a great place to wander around with a balance between a tourist strip (doesn’t Lonely Planet always call this ‘The Main Strip’?) with bars, restaurants and a plethora of tour agents, and the ‘real’ side of town with schools and mosques and homes. The areas intermingle to a large extent as the place covers quite a small area and down at one end of the shore there’s a great outdoor area where tourists and locals alike seem to go in the evening for fresh grilled seafood.
On our first day, we arrived in town late afternoon and headed for the tourist agents dotted along the ‘Main Strip’ to ask about the island trips on offer…
Daytrips – dragonning, snorkelling and swimming
Before you book a trip to the islands around Labuan Bajo do a bit of shopping around. It struck us that everyone was friendly and happy to give information and there was a distinct lack of pressurised selling. We visited several places to ask what the deals were before choosing one and each time we said ‘Well thanks for the info, we’ll decide and might be back later’ the reply was more or less ‘Okay. No problem. Have a nice day.’
Generally speaking, there are several trip types to choose from, but most of them are the same offered from each agent with only slight variation in price. So we spoke to a few people, went for a few Bintangs watching the sunset, and then chose a place to book some trips.
We chose the following day to go to Rinca – the closest island to Flores for dragon viewing. The trip was a full day, including lunch, and stops off at several snorkelling and swimming spots aboard a small wooden boat. Now, these trips can involve a big bunch of people and if few people go they are more expensive, but interestingly, you’re told this when you book. We were told we were the only people going the next day, but if anyone else joined we’d be refunded some of our money.
So bright and early the next day we took off for Rinca in our little boat. Turns out we had it to ourselves. Just me, Kate, an English speaking guide and the 2 man crew – the type of which we’ve seen so many times in tropical Asia. This consists of the older bloke who drives and the younger bloke who clambers around the boat a lot.
The sea was calm and we whooshed along to Rinca and our first encounter with old nasty mouth…
Into the dragon’s lair 1: Rinca
We moored by a jetty at the island and climbed aboard with our guide from the tour agency and met our dragon guide from a group who were gathered around the docks. He introduced himself and led us to the main office across a walkway under an arch composed of 2 Komodo dragon statues standing on their hind legs. I was thinking “Jurassic Park!!” as we went in…
Inside we paid for our entrance to the park, wrote down our names in the visitor book, then set off into the brush with the nature guide at the front, carrying a long stick to fend off the velociraptors…I mean Komodo dragons, if need be.
We actually stumbled across some not long after leaving the office as they seemed to congregate nearby (possibly for scraps of food)….and there it was.
My first Komodo dragon in the flesh. Venomous. Brutal. Ferocious. Cold-blooded man-eater.
It didn’t move. It just lay there with its eyes shut, trying to pretend we weren’t there.
Was it alive?
An eye finally flicked open at one point…and then closed again.
What followed was a very hot hike around a very beautiful island with very little evidence of dragons. We did, however, find a dragon nest! A huge mountainous pile of earth where the eggs are laid. But no mother or eggs evident. Daenerys Targaryen was also sadly lacking.
It was when we got back to the office we found a gang…a mob…a flock …a flight of dragons (??).Right there under the kitchen block, they were lounging together and one big one got up and wandered around hissing at us and darting its tongue just like we wanted to see. This was more like it. One of them was very big and it looked suitably prehistoric.
But pretty soon it was time for some postcards and a Coke and quick hop to some amazing snorkelling spots.
Into the dragon’s lair 2: Komodo
Komodo is further away than Rinca and a trip by wooden boat takes 4 hours. This seemed a long time after our trip of that day as I already had an achy back from sitting on the wooden seats. So we thought we’d treat ourselves and go on the more expensive speedboat option. We were told this involved a 30-seater boat with an air conditioned cabin, but the trip to Komodo was only about 1.5 hours. So we went for it. Little did we know that apparently, not many people wanted to visit that day…
It turns out nobody did and at the time the company – Alba Cruises – was running a policy that they would go to Komodo every day, no matter how many people had signed up for the trip. The previous day there were 24 tourists on board…and the day Kate and I went there were 2. Me and her.
Me, Kate, a guide and about 5 members of crew on a massive speedboat. We felt quite decadent and figured other people we passed who were crammed into small wooden boats probably thought so too.
“Look at those two! They’ve hired a whole ship for themselves! Bloody lottery winners…”
But we got to Komodo in no time and enjoyed the sunrise from the stern of the boat without anyone getting in our viewfinders.
No people, more dragons
The other advantage of having our own speedboat and guide was that when we arrived on the island we’d beat most other tourists there. We wandered down the long concrete jetty to the beach and again checked in at the park office, just past the eateries and people selling carved Komodo dragon statues.
Another day, another guide, another long reptile-repelling stick, and off we went into the forest passing a few lounging lizards on the way. But this trip proved more eventful…
As we wandered down the trail – guide at the front, Kate in the middle and me bringing up the rear (first to be eaten?) – there was a Komodo dragon right in front of us. This one wasn’t sluggish. It was up on 4 legs and scampering down the path away from us. As we walked behind it, it occasionally stopped and turned its head towards us before continuing on. We were literally chasing the dragon (okay, okay, I used that already..). eventually, it turned off into the brush and vanished. Maybe an 8-foot long lizard just vanished.
Then we arrived at a muddy watering hole in the shade of the forest. Around the dirty patch of earth were 3 huge dragons. Legs splayed out and heads resting on the ground. Much bigger than those on Rinca, waiting by the water for some complacent animal to come for a drink. These guys were more alert too. Occasionally one would raise its head and look at us and despite the guide’s assurances, we weren’t sure if we were going to see one of those bursts of speed we’d read about and a quick chomp at one of our legs.
Take a look at the pictures the guide took. See how Kate looks a little uncomfortable? That’s because the guide was on that side of the dragon with his stick and we were on the other side with 2 more dragons a few metres from us on either side. And we had to take our eyes off them to look at the camera. It’s hard to convey how menacing a Komodo dragon can be in the middle of a jungle when it just raises its head to look at you.
But they walk too. At one point the guide asked if we wanted to see them walk. He proceeded to throw stones into the waterhole and wave sticks around.
Three big emotionless lizard heads rose up.
You know when the T. rex in Jurassic Park gets attracted by movement? That. Two of them stood and started walking towards the guide while he smiled and kept waving vegetation at them.
We were off to the side and they were standing up and there were trees behind us. It was then you kinda wonder what you’d do if one turned around and ran at you. Probably after you stepped on a dry stick or sneezed in true Hollywood fashion.
After taking many a photo we went off through the forest and our guide pointed out lots of other animals in the trees all around us. Kate snapped bird pictures, but we encountered no more dragons until we came out onto the beach.
Mind the dragon – some are obvious some not so
As we came out of the forest and approached the beach and the buildings near the office, we passed a wooden residence house for the guides. Despite the excitement of the jungle trek, it seems we could have found several huge dragons right here in plain sight. While our guide chatted with a guy on the steps of the raised wooden building a 9 footer pottered around a few metres away, tongue darting as he/she considered some nervous looking pigs nearby. What could be more normal, right? They’re clearly just blatantly obvious and in the open.
Well not all so obvious.
Kate saw a bird in a tree on the grass just before the beach. She pointed it out up above and started walking towards it, eyes away from the ground. The area was really open by the beach with a few trees and short grass and the odd washed-up tree trunk on the shore…
I figured she’d noticed, but wasn’t sure and when she got within 15 feet or so of it I pointed it out –
“You haven’t seen the dragon then?”
There at the foot of the tree was a large Komodo dragon lying completely still and silent like a piece of driftwood.
You know ambush predators just sit and wait for prey to wander into them? It seems Komodos are pretty good at this.
People, people everywhere
As we returned to the main arrival area of the island we realised everyone on the slower boats had now turned up and the place was teeming with people. Cameras at the ready. Last provisions of Coca-cola being slurped. Komodo dragon statues being studied.
Seemed we’d caught the island at its best time as we headed off down the jetty to our private speedboat for several more stops for as long as we liked at beaches and snorkelling points on the way back to Labuan Bajo.
Time for a few cold Bintangs to toast the Komodo adventure – 20 years in the making.
A couple of weeks after we went to Komodo another attack took place on a Singaporean tourist who was allegedly alone snapping pictures when a Komodo dragon suddenly lurched out of the bush and took a chunk out his leg. The attack wasn’t sustained and he limped back to a village for help, but not without getting a nasty reminder not to think of these big lizards as a) easy to spot or b) slow and sluggish.
If you go to Komodo stick with your guide.
Inspired to visit the Komodo dragons? Check out our post on How to visit Komodo National Park.
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