Last week we had the opportunity to explore Komodo National Park, a small chain of islands off of Flores Island in the East Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia. We set out from Labuan Bajo on Sophie and motored two hours to Komodo Island where we anchored in 60 feet of mud a few hundred yards from the park entrance. We had purchased park and snorkeling passes in Labuan Bajo, but on site at Komodo and Rinca, there is also a modest local tax and ranger fee for the guide who will accompany you and protect you in case of an attack. Our Komodo guide spoke excellent English and we were surprised to learn that dragons were just a couple hundred meters from the ranger station. I had envisioned a long mountain trek with the promise of catching only a glimpse of one or two if we were lucky, but they were all around the camp. My heart started pounding as we walked down the path.
These dragons are big! We were all pretty scared as we approached the first one. It looked like it was sleeping, but our guide explained that was part of its “camouflage” and that it was alert, just waiting for prey to wander by (that includes us). He encouraged us to approach it from behind for some photos. The kids were incredibly brave as we crept closer. Note, our guide crawled a few feet closer when he took the photo of me than I did for this shot of him with the kids.
After this first encounter, we continued along the camp path towards a bunch of dragons hanging out near the kitchen. The guide says they don’t feed the dragons, but we suspect they taste some scraps. Jamie and our guide wielded forked walking sticks for protection in case one of them attacked. Luckily they never had to use them.
The dragon tongue is remarkable, like a long, flat, forked stick of chewing gum. At one point, this one stuck its tongue out repeatedly and then looked in our direction. Our guide said it was a sign of aggression and moved us out in a hurry. The kids are studying food chains in Sophie School science right now, and we couldn’t have asked for a better hands on lab. Dragons eat deer, pigs, monkeys, water buffalo, wild horses, other Komodo dragons, and of course they are known to bite people.
Here are a few other things we saw on our tour:
There are about 2,500 dragons on Komodo Island and another 2,400 on Rinca Island, which means they outnumber humans by about three to one. Dragons have been known to walk into houses and climb up through open windows, so people have to lock up as a precaution. On Rinca our guide explained that dragons have climbed up the side wall of the guest cabins and can make it through windows that begin seven feet above the ground. Despite all of this, neither guide has ever seen a dragon kill and eat its prey. Apparently they typically eat first thing in the morning, if at all. They just sit and wait for an animal to walk by and then attack. They aren’t venomous, but sport 60 types of bacteria in their mouths, one potentially lethal. The Komodo Island group reminded us of the landscape in New Zealand. If it weren’t for the thousands of carnivorous dragons about, sheep would love the lush green hillsides.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we started with a family snorkel at Pink Beach on Komodo Island. The reef at Pink Beach had some of the best fish we’ve seen anywhere in Indonesia, but I didn’t bring my underwater camera with me. Every once in a while it’s fun to just enjoy the experience. After lunch we motored over to Rinca Island, the other home of Komodo Dragons, and dropped a hook in 50 feet of mud near the park entrance.
After we paid the head ranger, “Uncle,” and had a quick safety debrief with our guide, we set off on a short trek that promised the best chance for seeing a dragon. We were not disappointed. Like Komodo Island, a handful of dragons hang out near the camp kitchen. Although it’s not quite the same as bumping into one way out on a trail, we couldn’t help being impressed and fearful of the hungry dragons. We also learned that the rangers spray aggressive dragons with red paint so they can keep an extra close eye on their behavior. Our guide said they only do this after a dragon has tried to bite a human. We kept our distance from the big red painted one in the back of the group.
The aggressive one also looked the most sedate, better at waiting for prey to get close before making a move.
If staring at you and sticking a tongue out is a sign of aggression, we saw plenty among the group by the kitchen.
We carefully circled around them to start our hike up the hill. Our first stop was a dragon nest where the females lay eggs once a year, then wait for a couple months for the rainy season which brings a layer of mud to cover the eggs. Although this sounds like a protective parental instinct, it turns out the biggest danger to newly hatched dragons is the mother herself, who will eat any she catches. Up on the ridge, we stopped to take in the view and catch our breath.
All of a sudden, we spied a dragon in the bushes near the trail. I thought it was a small one at first, but as it moved realized it was as large as the other adults we had seen in the camp.
Our guide kept his stick handy to make sure it didn’t come any closer to us, and we were quite relieved when it turned up the path instead of heading straight towards us. It’s surreal to be out in the wild with these creatures.
I figured our dragon sighting was finished at this point, but as we climbed the trail back down to the camp we spotted another dragon directly in our path.
We passed the kitchen on our way back and watched some commotion as something small fell out a window. Our Rinca guide was more forthcoming about the lax scrap feeding policy by the kitchen.
As we headed back to the boat, we came across a few more dragons. The first was a baby komodo dragon that scurried up a tree as soon as we got close.
It was quite a relief to see a dragon that couldn’t and wouldn’t try to kill us after all the fully grown ones. Baby dragons live for up to three years in trees to keep away from adult dragons. We also spotted a young adult who our guide said was too small to attack us. We didn’t get too close, but were a lot more relaxed around this guy than the previous encounters.
The kids had fun sketching the dragons and taking notes for school. They are both writing reports on Komodo dragons and Hazel made this painting.
Feeling completely satisfied with our Komodo dragon adventure, we said farewell to our guide and the park.
After two days of dragons, we were all ready for some quality beach time. We stopped at a little uninhabited island halfway between Labuan Bajo and Komodo fringed by soft pink sand and turquoise water.
We couldn’t have picked a more perfect day.
The kids played on shore while Jamie and I snorkeled. We have been so fortunate to experience the abundance and variety of sea life in Indonesia. Our underwater highlight here was a group of lionfish.
For our last night, we anchored at Labuan Bajo and enjoyed a relaxed dinner at the Mediterraneo Restaurant, sharing fondue, crème brulee, tiramisu and chocolate carpaccio for dessert. Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are?