Bounty of Komodo
Komodo National Park is one of those notoriously famous places in the world. The television programming created stars out of the giant monitor lizards. And rightfully so, they are a special creature, the result of the idiosyncrasies of island biodiversity and how evolution works in isolation. The lizards are a remnant of a much larger population and closely related to the goannas of Australia. What draws us to visit their island home is multifaceted. And the nature programs also make Komodo seem like an exotic, hard-to-get-to faraway place. From my recent experience, that is all not quite the case.
Komodo: surprisingly accessible
The resident population of Komodo Dragons live mostly on Komodo Island, Rinca Island, and sporadically on the larger Flores Island; their habitat is encompassed by the Komodo National Park which has the UNESCO designation. Logistically getting to these places was once a major challenge. Recently the tourism boom has brought infrastructure to the area.
I joined my girlfriend Chelsie and her father Harley a few days previous on Lombok where Chelsie had just finished a course on the Indonesian Language. With Chelsie’s useful knowledge of the native tongue, we traveled to Bali to use their airport. Direct flights from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo (the gateway airport to Komodo National Park) run daily and are fairly cheap..
Arriving at Labuan Bajo to a gleaming new, compact terminal we snagged our bags and walked to grab transit to town. The airport is just a short distance to the once sleeping fishing village. The tourism boon has arrived in full force in Labuan Bajo. There is a plethora of accommodation, tourism outlets, dive shops, and restaurants.
We arrived in late January, the beginning of the rainy season; thus the low point of tourism. Negotiating for an overnight boat journey (based on some thoughtful recommendations from dear friends of mine) proved to be flexible and affordable at 3,000,000 rupiah for 3 people for a 2-day trip.
31 January 2017: Day 1
During the morning we boarded our vessel by clamouring through a few other vessels, and off we chugged, westwardly. Part of the package deal was many snorkelling stops along the way. I was unaware that the UNESCO designation for Komodo Island extended to the marine ecosystems. The waters are apparently some of the richest in the hemisphere!
Heads under water
The snorkelling proved to be half of the adventure. Despite my novice mistakes of managing to snap two mask straps nearly back-to-back; and choosing a snorkel that happened to have a hole in its tube. Once my head was underwater I was astounded. The anemones were flowing back and forth with the current. Amongst the myriad of colours of stationary coral animals where the fishes of all types; going about their fishy business. Occasionally a sea turtle would appear: gliding along to crannies in the coral and rock and using its front flippers to pull out its feed. The biodiversity of the underwater world there was astounding; like a cosmopolitain marine city.
Our snorkelling proved to me the main activity of the trip. We would noisily chug along passed islands of all sizes and shapes. The only consistent feature among each island was the rich hue of green that graced each one. Visiting during the wet season does have some perks. The land is graced with precipitation and that moisture fills the chloroplasts of the plants. The green of the many islands contrasts well with the turquoise of the ocean. Apparently during the dry season, the ocean is clearer but it is contrasted by brown grass beyond its growing season.
Below blue, above us black and grey
Further, the Komodo area is a busy tourist destination during the drier season. Throughout our journey from Labuan Bajo to Komodo Island, we saw the same other half dozen boats; rather than many dozens of others during the dry season. In addition the rapid changes in weather add to the contrasts of the place. Dark clouds sweep in; rain pelts and thunder grumbles, and I think, “yes, the wonders of nature!”
Feeling euphoric on our way to anchor in a large bay at Komodo, our guide spots dolphins. We chug within just a few metres of the cetaceans, and I consider jumping in with them, only to be discouraged by the guide’s continuing thoughts, “many dolphins here…and many shark.” Nevermind.
We anchor in calm waters next to our fellow tourists in their respective boats. Smiles and waves between us confirm a mutual elation amongst the bulé (Indonesian for foreigner).
Some enterprising Komodo locals paddle up to us to sell some touristy wares. Harley and I eye two Bintang beers and pay an inflated price for the brews. Sensing a time to party, one of the crew switches the one bulb to a spinning faux disco ball.
We are surprised by a feast, Indonesian-style. Goodness gracious, the crew sure knew how to prepare hearty tasty meals. Their fishing skills from the stern matched their cooking abilities. Contently we sip the Bintangs and watch as the flying foxes disperse from the mangrove island overhead and flap toward the bounty of the surrounding green of Komodo Island.
1 February 2017: day 2
no Komodo dragon, no problem
Drizzling rain awakened us on board at dusk. The crew quickly pulled in the anchor and off we puttered to the Komodo dock. We were the first ones there at about 7:00am! We strolled from the pier to shore to find absolutely no activity besides the sounds of cicadas and intermittent song of tropical avians. I felt immediately it to be a special place and decided, dragon or not, this was one of the best places I’ve ever visited.
Our guide appeared out of the woodworks. He was born and bread on Komodo Island itself and was apparent straight-away that he had a deep personal connection with the land. Harley, Chelsie, and myself had this pleasant and soft-spoken guide to ourselves during the rainy morning.
He was keen to find a dragon for us; but the three of us were plenty happy to soak in the sights and sounds of a special place. Humbling to hear sounds and view sights of a functioning endemic ecosystem. Something about those places arise an innate feeling of happiness in us humans. The morning was wet, and, for a reptile, quite chilly. I didn’t expect to come across any of the famous residents, and would be just content with that. The land is their habitat, not a zoo, and they have a choice to remain burrowed and unbothered by pestering humans.
Luckily, as we strolled the 4 kilometre “long hike,” the rain eased. This was a good indicator of increased activity for reptiles. There were miniature deer and wild pigs galore, and cockatoos elusively present in the treetops but no large monitor lizards, yet.
Overall the jungle gave off sensations of abundance and was fragrant in so many ways: the smell of fresh rain and decaying organic matter blended into quite a concoction. Upon reaching the top of a hill with a clear view of the jungle, I received that blessed gift of euphoria that only immersion into nature can cause.
The images below capture only a snippet of the abundant Komodo Island:
Heaps of dragons
Serendipitously, just as I accepted that the Komodo Dragons would stay hidden; we all came across one sun-charging itself right on the path! The creature was unconcerned with the presence of a few humans. Our guide, also an adept photographer, captured a fairly embarrassing image below of me and a Komodo Dragon making eye-contact.
Leaving the solitary reptile to warm up, we continued our walk on a well-trodden path down and back toward the island’s shore entrance. En route we smelled the stench of rotting flesh, and subsequently saw a walking corpse: a miniature deer crossed our path with a huge gash on its rear flank. “Dragon bite,” our guide stated. The septic saliva of the Komodo Dragon is what slowly kills their prey. Within a few days the poor soul would be dead and the patient reptiles would have an orgy of a feast. Nature’s process can often seem cruel, especially in this particular process of allowing for so much suffering of individual creatures.
The rain subsided completely by the time we reached the shore and the main rendezvous area of the park. Once there we spotted a throng of dragons. At least five had gathered in one area, moving very little. A handful of other tourists were snapping photos and gawking in awe. However I felt a little wary of the creatures after seeing what one bite can produce. I also found it odd that a nearby herd of mini deer did not seem too frightened of their proximity to the gaggle of dragons. Ignorance is bliss sometimes, I guess.
Overall I was happy to have seen the creatures while not among a gaggle of other tourists during the busier season. I felt it to be an intimate experience, as the ecosystem of Komodo Island superficially seemed to be well-functioning.The UNESCO heritage site was certainly a proper designation. My expectations were totally exceeded, since normally I am skeptical about places that are heavily marketed.
I felt that during the busier dry season, the entire atmosphere of the place, from Labuan Bajo to Komodo Island would be different. For a true sense of adventure and peace, I believe that we, by chance, timed our visit perfectly and I would not have hoped for any better.
Like many other places on the planet I have had the pleasure of setting foot, I hope to return to the area to explore more of its natural wonder and bounty in the future.
Thank you to David Attenborough for the original impetus for the visit; also many thanks for the recommendations from Guillame Emaresi, Jeremy Smith, and Isabelle Rawding!