“Here!!!… Here!!!… Here!!!…. Go!!! Go!!! Go!!!” the skipper of the Nurwati yelled, jabbing manically towards the sea with an outthrust boney finger, urging us all overboard quickly… Perched on the prow of the boat, where for the past ten minutes he had been scanning the seabed for something, he had clearly now located his target… “That’s a lot of exclamation marks” I thought as I shuffled across the deck on my butt like an up ended clown in flippers struggling to get my mask on. Then, over the side and into a world of deepest blue… A sudden moment of disorientation as I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel… I shivered slightly at the cooling effect of the sea on sun-warmed skin. Adjusting my vision I looked down to see what all the fuss was about and “what the…!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation marks floated off to the surface like tiny air bubbles, expletives quickly drowned as I beheld something the size of a billiard table wafting across the carpet of coral below: a Manta Ray, maybe 2-metres across, moving slowly and with grace right beneath our fins. Our trip to the Komodo Islands had once again proven to be rich pickings for wildlife encounters and there would be many more to come…
The Nurwati was hewn from local timbers and painted bright white with a deck of minty-mouthwash green. She was long and narrow in the beam with a clackety-clack engine mounted below deck, just aft of amidships. Slatted benches ran along both sides of the deck with a small serving table in the middle, from which some very tasty repasts would be served. She had a rudimentary upper deck too for sunbathing with an awning at the rear providing a bit of shade. An icebox full of beer and some good company and we were all set for a good time. Setting out from Labuan Bajo early in the morning, it took a few hours to putt-putt our way to the island of Rinca, first stop on our Komodo tour. Sitting on the boat I pondered the previous days that brought here us from Horizons Unlimited in Sumbawa…
An easy day’s ride took us to the little town of Bima towards the eastern end of Sumbawa on beautiful empty roads through this majestic island. Along the way we picked up our old buddy Phil Stubbs and later met Tom Curtis (of postie-bike fame) at the hotel in Bima, all of us headed for Flores with Komodo in our sights. This eastern end of the islands was reminiscent of the Western Isles at home with vast landscapes of sea, mountain, rolling marshland and staggering skies, all of it deserted and amazing biking country. Next morning we rode on to Sape where we would catch the 8-hour ferry to Flores, next island in the chain. We dumped the bikes at the hotel and took a stroll along the narrow causeway of a town. There is a lot of, what I guess would be considered, poverty in this part of Indonesia. Far removed from any city life and influence, people are living from hand to mouth by subsistence farming or fishing. There was a lot of squalor in Sape with many people living on top of their own refuse as there is just no infrastructure to remove it. The rubbish and litter is so incongruous with the beautiful location but folk seemed mostly happy and were, without exception, very friendly and eager to engage in a chat.
Maritime activity was everywhere from fishing nets laid out to dry to large-scale boat construction on slipways between houses laid out in a herringbone configuration along the causeway. Stopping to nosey at a small crew working on a large vessel we were eagerly invited onboard to check out the construction. We picked our way through a timber yard, where the raw material for the boat was stored and out onto a flimsy jetty to clamber aboard the hulk. Her keel of around 70-feet in length, had been laid on some stone pilings and work had commenced installing the cross beams and building the hull outwards on each side. The guys were forming the wooden parts by hand with a chainsaw, electric planer and more basic mallet and chisel. A lot of the parts were pinned together with stout wooden dowels and metal tie bars were used for the crucial load bearing parts. There was a total absence of drawings or plans and it seemed like the entire project was being executed according to the shipwright’s eye. Later we boarded a more complete vessel in the process of having her cabins and accommodations finished using the same processes; everything constructed and finished by hand to create a sea-going vessel of some beauty.
An eight-hour RO-RO ferry crossing deposited us in Flores, where the small town of Labuan Bajo proved to be a delightful stop-off to organise our trip to Komodo. The place is like a pirate hideaway; dirty, dusty, yet full of energy with narrow streets winding and spilling up the hillsides around the harbour. We battled our way through rush-hour motos and mini-vans to reach the Surya Hotel, our home for the next week or so. Supping a beer at the rooftop bar of the Bajo Taco, a great Mexican eatery that became our local haunt, a splendid view ran away over red-rusted rooftops down to the bay where a myriad of small vessels were anchored against a backdrop of jeweled islands set in a sapphire sea emphasizing the notion that this was indeed some Indonesian Tortuga. Maybe a pirate crew would be just the thing considering our next quest was to set out to see some dragons…
Komodo Dragons are to be found (unsurprisingly) in Komodo National Park, a raft of some twenty-six small islets clustered around the three larger isles of Padar, Rinca and Komodo itself. The surrounding waters contain some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth hence encounters with Manta Rays and a paint-box full of tropical fish was guaranteed. The park is located in the Sape Strait, the channel of sea between Flores and Sumbawa that we had already crossed on the ferry to get here. The strait is also a junction of the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The seabeds of the two oceans vary in height by several hundred metres so the flow of waters from the north to south during tidal exchanges creates some of the strongest currents in the world making these potentially dangerous waters for any small boat.
We arranged a two-day cruise aboard the aforementioned vessel, the Nurwati, with its crew of three, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English but made up for this in copious quantities of smiles and good food for the duration. We coasted along the isle of Rinca and turned into a small inlet where we disembarked for our first dragon encounter. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, at around three metres in length and weighing in at over 70 kg. Unknown to the West and science until 1912 they are known locally by the natives as Ora, which means “land crocodile”. Komodos are an ambush predator, basically lounging around looking dim and docile until some unsuspecting beast (or person) wanders up too close. Then they can sprint with vicious rapidity and are equipped with a fine set of teeth and claws to rend any prey in proper dragon style. Our guides informed us how they can take down deer and even huge Water Buffalo as they don’t need a quick or clean kill. It was believed that their bite was laden with a cocktail of deadly bacteria such that even if the prey escaped it would soon die from the poisoning effects of the saliva in the wound. However it has recently been discovered that the dragons actually possess true venom glands in the lower jaw that inject an anti-coagulating poison that causes tissue damage and slow paralysis resulting in an excruciating death. Even if you get away after being bitten, they just wait till you die from your wounds and then move in for a feast. Easy-peasy given that they can detect carrion at ranges of up to two miles and can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.
Almost immediately on entering the park visitor centre on Rinca we saw our first dragons. They were certainly big but didn’t seem all that menacing and I got the impression that they were loitering around the bins to see what leftovers they could scavenge. Our visitor group was protected by a couple of park guides armed with cleft sticks; apparently the beasts are easily deterred by a rap on the head but to be honest it wasn’t something I wanted to put to the test. You see they do take people! In the past forty years over thirty people have been bitten with five recorded deaths. A few weeks before we visited a Singaporean tourist made the headlines when he was savaged by a dragon. He had been so intent on photographing one docile beast that he failed to register another animal that sneaked round behind him and he was badly bitten on the leg. Luckily it was a smaller dragon and he was evacuated to hospital in Labuan Bajo where they were able to save the leg.
Our visit continued as we set off for the island of Komodo itself on a voyage rounding Padar island. It’s funny but the islands themselves were draconiform in appearance, resembling green-backed monsters with folds in the landscape looking like overlapping scale and plate and here and there a headland that rose out of the water like some giant sleeping head. On Komodo the best encounter came on a short hike to Sulphurea Hill when we found our progress blocked by a beast on the trail. I greeted the dragon with an appropriate ‘My! What big claws you have!” He was enormous but again looked dozy and none too threatening. The guides made ready with their sticks as we clambered around the monster, giving him as wide a berth as possible and then stopped to get some photos. He sat there unmoving with a somewhat disconcerting Mona Lisa smile. Beady black eyes flickered with base intelligence, assuredly observing everything that was going on. Like the Mona Lisa I was certain his gaze followed me as I changed position to get a better shot. I watched him watching me and then it dawned on me… In our group I was the oldest male. I had a dodgy leg that also made me the slowest of the bunch in any event involving flight. I figured the dragon had clocked all this and given the opportunity would cut me out of the herd for dinner… Then it dawned on me… I was… I was prey!!!
We slept on deck that evening on thin mattresses after another sumptuous dinner. Never mind it was the same menu as lunch, it was all eagerly woofed after our day on the islands. But Komodo held one final and very special treat for us before the day was through. Overhead, squadrons of Flying Foxes were setting out for the night on a flypast across the bay where we were anchored. There were literally hundreds of them flying in perfect formation, wave upon wave like ghostly squadrons of night bombers, all chirping and squeaking as they flew to nocturnal feeding grounds elsewhere on the isles on the soft whoosh of leathery wings. It was a special moment and one we will treasure for the rest of our days; we came here to see dragons and now were entreated to a performance by yet more marvelous and mystical creatures.
The second day of our Komodo tour started with a short but utterly spectacular hike along the dragon-back spine of Padar Island. The island is made up from several overlapping craters that have eroded to form an assemblage of serenely beautiful bays fringed with golden sands that run down to lapis-lazulian seas giving the impression of the crash-site of a huge butterfly on the ocean. The hilltops are dusted in khaki scrub grasslands and everywhere the horizon is a smash and dash hash-up of Komodo Islands. Later, snorkeling with Neptune’s treasure-box of tropical fish and of course that Manta Ray encounter, which ended in a ballet performance by five of the beasts. It’s hard to gasp with a snorkel stuffed in your gob but we somehow managed!
So that was Komodo… a place that will linger in our hearts and memories as one of the highlights of this life. On our Pan-American trip we had the good fortune to visit Galapagos and gasp at the treasures of another wildlife paradise. We thought then that such an experience could not possibly be equaled… it couldn’t possibly, could it?… until today… here… now… in Komodo.
One for your bucket list!
The gallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Way of the Dragon!