We arrived in the thriving city of Labuan Bajo for one of the highlight moments of the trip so far, visiting the famous Komodo National Park on the western edge of Flores. For most of my life growing up I had heard of this place and its namesake Dragons, the gigantic lizards of unbelievable size that seemed the stuff of story books and myths. Of course these expectations are embellished as only childrens’ fancy can be, but even knowing that did not diminish my excitement as we rounded the point and saw the magnificent national park laid out across the bay from us.
Labuan Bajo sits in a wide open bay along a hillside facing west, and from it you can see the major islands of the park (Komodo and Rinca) across the water. Our anchorage was one the easy, wide-open sandy bottoms that have been so rare in Indonesia and afforded us both easy access to a wonderful beachside resort (who graciously allowed us to use their pool for the price of a few beers) and phenomenal sunsets every night. The town itself is a bustling center of tourism; planes land regularly and tourists from every corner of the globe from backpackers to superyachting millionaires arrive to take advantage of the sights and world-class diving. Local shops offer hand-carved dragons and other artwork, and several different styles of restaurant (even Tex-Mex!) can be found. After a few days of lounging poolside, some quick provisioning trips, and a day spent butchering half a pig and lots of fresh beef ribs, we decided it was time to do what we came to do, see the dragons. We decided to hire out a boat with a few friends of ours (from Por Dos and Exit Strategy) to take us into the park quickly for a day, to the island of Rinca (pronounced Rin-CHa) where the majority of the giant monitor lizards reside.
Leaving at 7:30 that morning our first real treat was the early sunshine boat ride into the blue waters of Komodo National Park, a journey to Rinca of about 14 nautical miles. The climate is arid, and the landscape of black volcanic stone crested with yellow-gold grass and green-capped palms is unlike anywhere else in the world. The deep blue waters around these islands are peppered with bright turquoise reefs and swirling currents where manta rays and sharks reside much to divers’ joy. Ospreys, hawks, and white-bellied sea eagles soar and wheel with frigate birds on the thermals from the midday heat. Its easy to see why this beautiful place is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Arriving at Rinca, we disembark on a wooden dock to signs warning us of crocodiles in the water and a hilariously serious sign proclaiming “Don’t feed the animals!” Monkeys chittered to the side of our short walk to the Ranger station, and deer could be seen lounging in the shade nearby as well. At the ranger station, we saw very quickly a small dragon just wandering around, perhaps three to four feet in length and completely unphased by the gawking tourists all around. We arranged our park permits, procured a guide to take us on a short hike, and off we went.
A bare few hundred yards walking through the scraggly trees brought us already to a grouping of five or so dragons lounging in the sun. I was shocked at how quickly we found them, the guide quickly explained that while the rangers have a presence on the island this is “the home of the dragon, not us” and they try very hard to have a minimal impact on restricting their habitat. Three of the dragons were full grown, monstrous reptiles about 10 feet in length and (according to the guide) about 20 years old. Other smaller dragons roamed around in the brush nearby, much more active than their larger friends. They are altogether astonishing in their size and their apparent laziness, but watching their deliberate and sinuous movements shows the deadly power of these apex predators. Between taking a ton of pictures and keeping my jaw off the ground, I managed to hear some of the information about them that the guide was providing:
- Komodo Dragons can live up to 50 years old.
- Large dragons can be longer than 10 feet in length and weigh well over 50kg.
- They are born in clutches of about 30 eggs, guarded by the mother who lays them in a big burrow. About 30% of the eggs hatch.
- Baby dragons are mostly tree-dwelling, surviving on insects and small prey while they mature.
- Eggs and baby dragons are preyed upon by snakes, birds of prey, and mature dragons.
- Adult dragons have no natural predators but themselves; they are cannibalistic.
- They can run in bursts of up to 20km/h.
- Their bite is deadly, but the mechanism of this whether bacterial or venomous is still debated.
- They swallow meals whole or in large chunks, like snakes, and regurgitate the bones and cartilage. Sometimes they only eat as frequently as once a month.
- They can smell prey from over 4 miles away, tasting the air with their forked tongue.
After the lesson and the initial awe over the creatures, the guide took us up to the top of a hill where we could see the waters of Komodo National Park spread out beneath us in blazing sunshine. After the hike we returned to our boat and left Rinca more than thrilled with having seen these rare and unbelievable animals.
The rest of the day was spent hopping from one idyllic beach resort to the next for snorkeling, swimming, and a few beers. After we had exhausted ourselves, and given our fantastic tour operators a well-deserved round of applause, we were dropped back at Huck in time for dinner and another beautiful sunset. So far, Labuan Bajo and the Komodo National Park has been one of the highlights of Indonesia, and I would recommend anyone to come, visit, stay awhile and see the dragons if you are ever offered the chance. Now, we set sail for the tourist centers of Lombok and Bali, which will be adventures of a different sort with their thriving surf and party cultures and beautiful rice fields and beaches.