At sea, in search of the Komodo Dragons

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Indonesia
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Since my early teens, courtesy of the infectious enthusiasm for wildlife of David Attenborough (yep Nick I too realised my schoolboy error), I’ve dreamt of seeing the Komodo Dragons. However, my geographical dyslexia prevented from realising that on our travels we would be passing through the very region where these pre-historic looking beasties dwell. My spatial concept of Indonesia was pretty poor and it was only an email from a friend that alerted me to the proximity of these creatures. On Gili T we haggled with the tour operators and booked a fully inclusive (allegedly!) 4 day boat trip from Lombok for a cool 1.4mRp – approx £100 each. We woke bright and early, well not bright because I was too excited to sleep, and met the other happy campers at the jetty on Gili T at 07.45 on Monday 11th April. The adventure had begun.

Day 1 – Gili T to Labhuan Lombok

Day 1 is the dull day. Though it started well with beautiful weather and the realisation that most people on the trip were easy going and good fun, the journey was tedious. We had to take a small boat over to mainland Lombok, then get fleeced by a pony-driven rickshaw to take us to the awaiting bus 1km away. From there it was a long schlep over to the port of Labhuan on the east coast of Lombok. We didn’t arrive until about 3pm and though everyone was in a good mood, we were all amping to get on the boat.

The boat was very basic, about 50ft long and made of wood. There is a small deck and an inner area with a basic wooden ‘table’ below which is the storage berth. There are no windows, it’s an open space with railings to which weather proof sheets are hung to protect from the elements. In the middle of the boat is the captain’s cabin where the navigation takes places. Behind that is a small space for the crew (5 in total) and the cooking area. To the aft (I think that’s rear in sailor-boy speak, though I’m not really that knowledgeable about a sailor’s rear) is a small cubbyhole that consists of a water tank and western toilet. We discovered quickly that the toilet washes directly into the sea, so nobody flushed when the boat was anchored at our swimming and snorkelling spots. Above this is a small sleeping area, like a mini deck. High enough to crawl along, it’s impossible to stand. There are 14 mattresses laid down to allow each passenger to have somewhere to sleep. Each person gets a sheet for the night. It’s basic, very basic. The sleeping area is fully covered with waterproof tarpaulin and you can peer out to sea through small gaps.

The boat left on time but beneath thunderous clouds and torrential rain. We battened down the hatches and had to be content with conversation instead of views.  Visibility was poor and the waves slightly choppy but we sat back under the covers and got to know each other. Our boat was uniquely European and full of interesting people:

  • 4 chilled Swedish lads from Lund, all 20 and taking a 2 month holiday
  • A group of 5 Dutch boys and girls, all mid 20s and but travelling together
  • A Frenchman from the Alps living in Switzerland
  • A lovely German couple from Stuttgart
  • A lovely English girl from Kent who teaches in Saigon
  • A lone-wolf Swedish chap with an at-times unfathomable accent but a good music collection
  • An interesting German chap taking a break from work.

17 sea-hardened shanty loving Lombok pirates led by a merry crew of Indonesia harlequins.

The plan to find a beach and enjoy and afternoon swim was canned due to poor weather. Instead we moored near a small island off the northern coast of Sumbawa and had an early night. There really isn’t much to do on a boat in the middle of the sea.

Day 2 – Coastal Sumbawa

We awoke to the sound of the uncontrollably loud boat engine at 03.00 on Tuesday morning. Some of us tried to rest more, others got up to await sunrise. I stumbled downstairs at 06.00 to discover I had just missed a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. I was gutted and they didn’t return, so I resolved to get up earlier the next morning.

The day was spent sailing along the northern coast of Sumbawa with a few stops enroute. Sumbawa is beautiful. Rugged cliffs sweep along sun-kissed bays and sandy beaches call out to be visited. There are verdant slopes leading up to steep peaks and the odd volcanic cone thrown in for good measure. With the sun beating down on the island, it’s a compelling sight and conversation stopper. As we drifted along, the peak of Gunung Rinjani, the tallest volcano on Lombok, appeared from the mist  in the distance.

Our first stop was at a small inlet where a hidden trail winds its way to a stunning waterfall about 400m inland. The water has carved several small pools at different levels, so you can sit and bathe as the water cascades from above.  It was a great place to take a natural shower after 1 day of constant travelling, licked by a salty wind.

Muni at the Sumbawa waterfall

We then headed for some snorkelling action. The reef was average but some parts were alive and vibrant with a plethora of colourful fish. It was a passable snorkel sight but the most enjoyable part was standing on the boat and gazing at the crystal clear turquoise water. Oh island in the sun…

We then settled in for the long night ahead. The distance between Lombok and Flores is vast for a slow moving boat, so we had to sail through the night, which meant the constant humming of the loud engine below us. On the plus side it drowned out the incredible snoring skills of one of the Swedish lads. However, given my light sleeper syndrome, it meant I had almost no sleep.

Day 3 – Red Beach and Komodo Island

I got up for the sunrise and this time saw dolphins near the boat. Watching an Indonesian sunrise on a boat surrounded by dolphins is an experience worth waiting for. Ironically, having had zero sleep I was in a great mood. Despite being tired and it being before 6am, my surroundings filled me with a sense of calm.

Day 3 was business day for me; it was the first day on the trip when we would hit one of the islands where Komodo Dragons are found. Before that we had two pit stops. The first was to climb a hill on a small island that afforded amazing views over the surrounding archipelago. It was a hard sweaty 20min climb but worth the effort. However, I had managed to scalp the end of my little toe on a sharp piece of wood, so the climb was agony. But I am a hero so I forged on undeterred.

Island bay off Sumbawa

The next stop was Red Beach, a place my friend has told me was great for snorkelling and where he swam with manta rays. The setting is stunning; the island is surrounded by other small, green islands. The beach is beautiful golden sand with a tinge of pink. It arcs around the water in a crescent shape. The water near the shore is peppered with coral reef, amidst which are pockets of sand so you have a lovely mix of salt and pepper. Further out past where the boats anchored is clear turquoise water. It’s a genuine island paradise. The reef is also alive and flourishing in some parts. The colours are better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere on our travels.

We hit Komodo like a gaggle of excited school kids on a field trip. First we had to sit through the ranger briefing about the island and safety tips for encountering the dragons. The Komodo Dragon is a giant monitor lizard that grows up to 3m long and 90kg. It feasts on fauna such as deer and buffalo and its bite contains poison from sceptic jaws. To kill it will bite a sleeping animal, then track behind for up to 4 days until it dies a slow and agonising death. The dragon is equally dangerous to humans and if bitten you have to seek immediate medical attention to prevent blood poisoning. Whilst a sighting is never guaranteed, we opted for the long hike so it was likely that we would encounter the creatures on the walk.

We set off eager to spot some wildlife and didn’t have long to wait. We came around a bend in the path and straight ahead was a large female dragon, relaxing on the path away from the heat of the sun. She turned to glance at us and we were told to be quiet and walk slowly to not disturb her. We got within 4m of her and stared open-mouthed. After about 10mins she got up and ambled off. The dragon walk is quite strange; they kind of waddle from side to side and use their enormous tail for propulsion and balance.

Komodo dragon in Komodo National Park

We followed the trail up a few small hills out to a viewing point where we could see across the bays of Komodo Island. The trail was enjoyable and at the top of the largest hill we saw a smaller female dragon relaxing beneath the shade of a tree. She lazily looked us up and down and then went back to sleep. We returned to the ranger camp and discovered 4 larger male dragons congregated around the huts on the lookout for food. We stopped and watched them for about 20mins, awe struck. We got back to the boat thrilled at the encounter and talked about the experience for a long time. It was a happy crew that went to sleep on Day 3.

However, before we could sleep, our boat was invaded by the Canadians on the other boat on the trip. Fuelled on beer and whisky, they shattered our peace. What had been a chilled evening enjoying the sight of flying foxes overhead and the noise of their chatter in the trees turned into booze fuelled shouting, screaming and far too many “oh that’s so awesome” statements. They swam back to their boat to bring more booze. Finally they left to the screech of, “oh wow the water is so awesome”.

Day 4 – Rinca Island and homeward bound to Flores

I got up even earlier on the last day to soak up the sunrise. I was rewarded with a rainbow effect as deep red gave way to subtle orange and then yellow before the blue sky arose from the depths of slumber. We had the customary dolphin swimming alongside the boat and on each side we were surrounded by bright green hills and sandy beaches. Indonesia is truly special.

Indonesian sunrise Komodo island

We sailed straight to Rinca Island, the other part of the Komodo National Park and the only other place on earth where wild dragons are found. It was a brief 1hr journey and the approach was understated. There is a small wooden jetty behind which sits a basic cabin where the ranger sits. It must be a long day because the boats come in the morning, then it’s siesta time.

After the obligatory safety briefing, we set off with our guides Elvis and Cuba. Yep honestly, why would I make that up? There were 3 dragons lazing near the staff huts, no doubt hussling for food. It’s not a tourist set-up because the people don’t entice the dragons with food. However, komodo dragons are natural scavengers and quite intelligent, so they often track down people and sit around waiting to pounce on scraps of food or perhaps tasty human flesh.

We hiked for 2 hours through open savannah and dense forest scrub. In flip-flops it was a little bit arduous but I battled on regardless. We stopped under some trees by a babbling brook and a buffalo emerged from the forest. It looked at us, gauged we were no threat, and settled down at the water pool to refresh. Every now and then it swung round and showed us its balls. A touch of class on a hot day on Rinca.

The walk was more interesting than Komodo as the island has a slightly more varied topography. The views from the top were incredible though there were no dragons in sight. With only a few minutes of our hike left, we stumbled upon an adolescent male dragon ambling along our path. It was in no hurry so we followed at snail’s pace for about 10mins. Eventually it decided enough was enough and headed into the undergrowth for some privacy.

From Rinca we set sail for our final destination, Labuanbajo on Flores Island. We stopped enroute at a gorgeous beach on a tiny island for a final swim and snorkel session. Alas for me I had picked up an eye infection and had to stay on the boat, soaking myself in the blistering sun. We arrived in Flores around 3pm and headed straight to the Merpati ticket office to sort our return journey to Bali from the Singapore connection on April 20th.

Beach near Flores

The realisation of a dream

So how do I feel having realised a childhood dream? Pretty spectacular actually. I’d be lying if I said there was no element of anti-climax but the past 4 days have been wonderful. We were lucky to have such great company on the boat and our crew really looked after us. But most of all it was incredible to see the Komodo Dragons in the wild, watching us as they sunbathed. These animals have lived on the islands for more than 40m years and their population is constant. Up close and personal, in the words of the Canadians, “they’re awesome”. Except coming from me this is no redundant superlative, it’s fact.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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