“Oh, no,” muttered our guide, Paul, when three Komodo dragons raised their heads to look directly at us. They sampled the air with their tongues, smelling to see if we were meat, mineral or vegetable. Confirming the potential for a meal, they began to lumber toward us. Paul, all 5’4” nervous inches of him, and his forked stick, were all that protected us from these deadly reptiles that had recently attacked another ranger, a water buffalo, and had pretty much eradicated the island of wild horses.
“Do they know what your stick is?” I asked. “I mean, will it keep them away?” The stick, which all the rangers carry, can discourage a casually inquisitive dragon we learned. But if it is intent on attacking, about all you can really do is run fast and climb a tree.
Paul first learned about Komodo Dragons when he was a boy living in a village on Flores Island. By the time he’d completed his ranger training and had worked for a couple of years as a guide on Rinca, where several rangers were attacked last year, it became clear to him that the dragons were unpredictable and dangerous. Perhaps it was time for a career change! “My parents don’t even know this is my job,” he told us. “They think I work in a restaurant.”
I’d been excited about visiting Komodo National Park since we first started planning our trip through Indonesia. What I hadn’t realized was that this UNESCO World Heritage site also offers a stunning mix of savannah, jungle and sandy beaches which range from white to pink to black. All this and its clear blue water and vibrant coral makes it one of the most dramatic landscapes in all of the archipelago. The park also offers a myriad of fantastic anchorages and Rinca, where we’d gone ashore to see the dragons, was just the first.
We came across our first dragon before we even learned Paul’s name. It was resting, under a tree, in the afternoon heat just off the path that ran between the dock (where Paul met us) and the ranger station. It was bigger but less menacing than expected. “That’s a young male,” Paul told us. It was still well under its potential length of three meters and weight of 100 kg. But our 13-year-old daughter, Maia kindly pointed out that “its bite contains toxic bacteria and a protein that stops your blood from clotting.”
Despite Paul’s obvious fear of the dragons, he was upbeat about our trek. He sent us into the ranger station to buy our stack of tickets (one for our boat, three for the park, three for conservation, one for the trek, one for the camera. Then we headed through the camp where the rangers lived and where the dragons like to hang out, just in case food magically falls from the kitchen above them. While we watched, some food did fall and the dragons woke up. Sounding like a Darth Vader fan club, they huffed and argued over the scrappy little snacks and then began flicking their forked yellow tongues out at us.
“Maybe you’d like to hike now,” Paul suggested as he herded us away from the approaching dragons. Assuming the dragon drama was a bit of ranger theatrics, I barely glanced back as we headed off along the trail. A few minutes later we spotted a distressed water buffalo laying in a puddle. As we got close up, Paul pointed out where a dragon had wounded it and explained it would die soon.
Maia, who had been reading about Komodos for home schooling, explained that the dragons have an efficient way of killing large prey. Rather than fighting to death, they let bacteria from the wound do the work for them. Peering back toward the camp, checking for menacing shapes, I started to understand why Paul was so spooked by the dragons. Puff, they aren’t.
After passing a second healthier buffalo, we came across a female Komodo guarding her nest—the babies would hatch and then head up into the trees where they’d hide for a few years. Then we started the upward climb to take in the view. At the top of the next crest, I stopped to bandage a blister. Paul lost his relaxed look and peered at my foot anxiously, “Is there blood?” he asked. “These creatures could smell blood up to five kilometers away” he quietly explained to my husband Evan. Assured that my foot wouldn’t bring out the dragons, Paul went back to showing us around and was thrilled when we caught sight of one of the last remaining wild horses on the island.
Looping back down the hill, we encountered a pair of buffalo-less hooves on the trail. Dragons will eat every part of an animal; bones, hair and all but apparently their digestive system draws a line at feet. With another blister forming, I couldn’t help but hope that their foot aversion applied to humans as well, or at least that those hooves were a sign that the local dragons were currently all well-fed. An adult one only eats about once a month but it was clear, as I hobbled along, that if it was looking to pick one of us, it would pick me.
After surviving our dragon encounter, we were happy that our next anchorage, on the southern end of Komodo, had fuzzier and friendlier looking wildlife. Timor deer were eating the seaweed that was exposed at low tide along a cliff base, while a wild boar foraged on the beach. Even the water offered an impressive array of creatures—with every dive or snorkel bringing us close to a wide range of gorgeous corals as well as clown fish, napoleon wrasse and even turtles.
On our way back to Labaun Bajo to reprovision, we stopped in Lehokgingo on Rinca with the hope of seeing one last dragon. There we were rewarded when a small one, the kind our guide Paul had called, “just out of the trees” made its way along the beach to eat a turtle carcass.
After watching it for a while, and realizing it had no interest in us, I made my way up the beach, following its small tracks to get a photo with the dragon in the foreground and our boat in the background. After snapping a few pictures, I looked around and noticed much bigger dragon tracks just behind me, leading away from the beach. “Oh, no!” I muttered as I nervously scanned the brush then scurried back to our dinghy.