Komodo National Park, famous for bacteria breathing dragons and coral reef that blossoms like grandma’s front garden, is located halfway across the Indonesian archipelago. We sailed over 1000 miles to get here from Australia and during that two-month voyage, I’ve rendezvoused with whale sharks, manta rays, tribal chiefs, local mafia, turtles, asylum seekers, dolphins, monkeys and flocks of flying fish, but today is the day I can tick dragon off of my bohemian bucket list.
These prehistoric, 200-pound beasts eat their offspring, can swim between islands and inject deadly venom into their prey which usually includes wild buffalo, deer and in rare cases, humans. The females are reptilian feminists having the ability to self-fertilize when males are scarce or inadequate.
Having been hunted to extinction on all but five of Indonesia’s 18,307 islands, the Komodos pull millions of tourists each year and tomorrow, it’s my turn.
Most nights, when the wind is gentle, and Asia’s humidity doesn’t send me to my airconditioned cabin, I bring a pillow and blanket to the top deck and fall asleep counting stars. Tonight, I turn my ear towards land listening for a dragons snarl or a wild boar’s squeal, but the only sounds are creaks and clangs from the boat rocking in the wind.
I’m woken by the sun roasting my cheek and the fresh layer of mosquito-bites that have settled with the dew. Before my morning ritual of anti-itch cream and SPF 50, I grab the bedside-binoculars. This is dragon country. Surely, there will be at least one beast snagging some morning heat on shore. A lone monkey, however, is the only rustle. As I focus in on its scurry across the white sand, it halts and stares at me. Here, vigilance is survival.
I head down to the galley where the boat’s cook is laying out breakfast on the kitchen island. Outside, the deckhand is setting the table that looks over a blue backyard . As I peel my soft-boiled egg, the anchor clunks, the engine rumbles, and we are off.
I head upstairs to take one more look at the crusty orange mountains and say good morning to the captain who stands at the wheel drinking a cup of coffee and plotting our path to Komodo island. In an hour, the baked island and placid ocean will change. It always does, and I must keep reminding myself to breach it in before moving on. Most days I wake up to a place I know I will never come back to.
The panorama changes dailing and keeping track, appreciating it all, is impossible, but if I don’t take the minute to walk upstairs before school starts, today’s beuty will be usurped by tomorrows, that is fragmented by day after until the voyage becomes just a feeling, a sense of overwhelming splendor that can’t be focused in on or explained and therefore, can’t be appreciated by others.
In an hour, the arid island could be replaced by dense jungle, a bush fire laced hilside, a stilted village or a lone coconut tree shooting up from a sandy beach. Most days, I mumble, wow, that’s gorgeous, then keep walking along the deck without stopping to commit the site to my gratitude bank.
But today, I try to latch onto every detail. To my left, stray shrubs interrupt a desert island that’s inhospitable to anything that doesn’t boast thorns or a forked tongue. Ahead, an island grows from the horizon, too distant to tell if anything more than warped plastic bottles and shards of glass colour the shore. Open ocean steams to my right. There is no horizion, just a white haze floating between blues. A turtle pokes its head up, gulping air and surveying us as we skirt the reef’s edge. There is no fear in his black eyes, just curiosity.
This will end, this journey is not ordinary. I must keep standing here, clutching the rail, staring at the turtle for as long as it stares at me. But downstairs, there are kids to teach, a pot of coffee to brew, emails to check, and my journal from yesterday to write. I leave the turtle and head to the printer to check if the day’s lesson plan is spitting out.
Halfway through teaching first period, school is halted for a pod of dolphins dancing in the wake of our bow. The kids and I race to the boom nets and watch the dolphins spiral and breach underneath us. In boat school, dolphins, whales, and white-faced seasickness are the only phenomenons that postpone the class. Today’s dragon spotting is part of the biology lesson where flora and fauna adaptations will be photographed and written about in soiled field notebooks.
As the fourth period is about to start, we round the headland into a glass bay sprinkled with tourist boats and edged by white sand that leads to volcanic mountains. I grab a cushion and head to the boom nets. School is now an excursion. A fishing boat captained by a shirtless man putters towards us. He waves madly, his smile brighter than the string of pearls clutched in his hand.
“Mooring?” he yells over his grumbling boat.
Our captain scans the shoreline, calculating the distance between the mooring site the local points to and the National Park’s ranger-station, the pick-up point for our dragon guide.
“Ok,” says Captain Jack, maneuvering the Catamaran to glide behind the 10-ft., waterlogged canoe. Its engine, strapped on with rope, sprays our glossy hull in soot as we are led to a steel-drum mooring. Four more shipwrecks motor up to our stern before we’ve even latched onto the mooring ball. Before the engines are cut, our back steps are a market place scattered with wood carvings, abalone bowls, pearls, exotic shells, and dragon-tooth necklaces.
“I want 700,000. How much you want to pay?” says a man thrusting an abalone topped jewelry box into my hands.
I spend 20 minutes and 1.2 million rupiah on four pearl bracelets, a tooth and talon necklace, and a hibiscus-wood carving, the carving traded for a pair of Nike shorts. Without bargaining, the collectibles would have been double the price and half as fun. Soccer balls, brand name clothing, and snorkeling equipment can be traded for wood carvings the size of a toddler or even a pet monkey trained to bring you Bintang. Echo, the mellowest of the salesmen, throws in a taxi to shore driven by his ten-year-old on nephew.
Knees to chest, crammed under the boat’s canopy, I grip the frame as we dip and weave through the waves. We crunch onto the coral shore, and I scan the beach for dragons. The only activity, however, is crabs scuttling down sandy holes and lines of tourists spilling onto the nearby jetty from the boats that depart daily from Labuan Bajo and Bali.
Our first stop is the ranger station, a raised wooden house packed with people seeking a protector to walk them through the island. The cheery receptionist promises at least two dragon sightings our 40-minute stroll through the coastal woodlands and assigns us Dima, our ranger. A burly man, holster on hip, scars climbing his arms and a handshake that crushes fingers is nowhere to be seen. But, Dima, our 5’2 barefoot Indonesian guide waves us over and points his slingshot-tipped walking stick along a sandy track. So, we head into the dry coastal woods protected by a man who wouldn’t pass the height restrictions for Disney land rollercoasters.
Dima picks up a white chunk and pushes it toward my face.
“Dragon dung,” he says, cracking it apart.
“It’s white,” really white.
“Bones and hooves,” he says.
I laugh, but when he doesn’t, I scan the bushes and path ahead.
The woods grow fierce the deeper we venture. Parasitic orchards hang from tamarind trees, and fans of white mushrooms cling to rotting logs. Deer limp through the brush, fur scraggly and antlers splintered or missing. Vines climb while Jurassic Park ferns, a reminder that organisms here survived meteor strikes, ice ages, and volcanic winters. What lives here has evolved to survive, preying on human-stupidity and the dregs left behind from a dragon’s dinner. But the brutality of the island is only spotted if you’re looking for it, hoping for it. The reality is, trash is snagged on, and the seashore is as colored by more bottle tops than seashells. But, any paradise has its parasite, and for Komodo, it’s humans.
Dima leads us off the path, and I spot Stupidity crouching beside a comatose Komodo, selfie stick raised, the weapon of choice for hashtag-hungry humans. The dragon blinks and eyes her like an upside-down lollypop, tongue tasting tourist on the wind. She steps back, crunching a plastic bottle and the dragon doesn’t flinch. She is replaced by a balding man who squats down, head in his phone, scrolling through filters as the dragon blinks in boredom. Once he snaps the photo, a guide waves him away, and a teenage boy crouches down into a pose of surprises, fear, and confustion. #woops#comoflagedkomodo#dontworrymom.
This is no untouched preserve where survival of the fittest plays out like a David Attenborough special. It’s a tourist attraction advertised in the back pages of your local newspaper and by whiteboard brandishing men on the potholed streets of Labuan Bajo.
If you are looking for the #beargrills holiday, you’ll have to arrive illegally and forgo the guide. If deviance is in your nature, just pay a local fisherman 500,000 Rupia to drop you off on a south-east facing beach on rough-and-tumble Rinca. There, you can brave the sand-landing and surrounding forest without an adventure-restricting guide. Spot horses galloping over wind ravaged hills, monkeys fighting in the mangroves, turtles lazing in the shallows and a welcome party of dragons traipsing along untouched white sand to greet you. Warning, this is not a recommendation, just an illegal option that I don’t advise, but is available to the recklessly brave.
If you opt for the unguided experience, mind the vipers, boar tusks, wild buffaloes and spiders, but while you are squinting through the dry woodlands, be sure to look under your feet. Dragons blend in with the volcanic soil waiting for ignorant pray to wander past. Just like in the movies, the killer strikes the idiot first. The one spinning around, phone raised to the clouds in search of service so they can upload #dragonhunting to Snapchat.
Another tip, if you see a baseball pitcher’s mound, walk backward slowly. A three-meter dragon is roosting, and you don’t want to be the fleshy carcass saved for the hatchlings.
On Komodo Island’s well-trodden trails, however, domesticated dragons lounge in a semi-comatose state waiting for food to wander by. Stray deli meats and potato chips are now a primary food source for these 40,000-year-old reptiles. Life is still wild, but you are more likely to contract Malaria or get harpooned by a wild buffalo than eaten by the islands Apex Predator. That’s not to say, don’t be vigilant. The path-side waterhole that attracts deer and wild boars also attracts the scaly beasts. So, while you’re marveling at four-pronged antlers and tusks that scrape the ground, the dragon is staring at your backside. This advice is not to scare, but to entice the curious and educate the careless.
As long as you don’t fall asleep under a coconut tree, step onto the beach unguided and unprotected or blunder through the brush looking into your phone, you’re safe. On the off-chance a gang of dragons lick the air in unison scheduling an all-you-can-eat lunch date with you, don’t wait for death to scurry over. If you’re fit, run. Their top speed is only 12 mph. Alternatively, if you can climb, a tree is your raft. Only baby dragons can scuttle up behind you. If neither tree nor flee are options, death by dragon will be your obituary tagline.
As a kid who grew up in rural australia, I survived deadly spiders, octopuses, snakes, sharks, cassowary, seashells and dirt roads at night. Survival of the fittest is a thing for us aussies and because I was nurtured on fauna’s ferocity, I came to Komodo Island tuned into survival.
Once bitten, you must, if possible, wrap and immobilize the wound. Dragon venom thins the blood, decreases blood pressure, and sends you into shock. Dragons are not one-hit wonders, preferring a round-house of bites with their 60 teeth and multiple venom glands.
The stories of swarms of bacteria festering in their mouth is a myth started by an American biologist in the late 60’s. I guess that year America’s research grants went to lunar landings, not reptilian toxicology. In 2009, it was discovered that dragons have no more bacteria than a lion or stray dog, but the myth is still believed by Komodo’s park rangers who are trained to amputate the nibbled limb with the machete strapped at their waste at all times. So, if bitten, not only should you run away from the dragon lurking in the bushes waiting until you bleed to death, you should also run from the machete-wielding ranger you pay for protection.
Even if you have the taj-mahal of health insurance covering ambulance rides, infectious disease management, rehab, and prosthetics, there is little chance you will get to the artificial limb stage of recovery. A health facility with sterile scalpels, in-date pain killers, and lice-free beds doesn’t exist on neighboring islands. So, I suggest you take the rangers machete, hobble to the shore, sit on a log of driftwood, and enjoy the high from low blood pressure. Slice the top off of your coconut and raise that selfie stick to the sky. An Indonesian sunset, drink in hand, is not a bad way to end your holiday. There might even be a dragon photobombing from the bushes.