Komodo National Park – Here Be Dragons…

In 2007, a Komodo dragon killed an eight-year-old boy.  This was the first fatal attack on a human by one of the giant lizards in 33 years. “The Komodo bit him on his waist and tossed him viciously from side to side,” a national park spokesman, Heru Rudiharto, said.  “The boy died from massive bleeding half an hour later.”

This is the stuff of legends; huge reptiles capable of killing human beings, living on a remote Indonesian island. This may have been the first fatal attack for a while but it is just one of many attacks on people that have resulted in serious injury.

My childhood fascination with nature grew out of watching the behaviour of amphibians. Like many children, I learned about cycles of life by watching frog spawn become tadpoles and finally crawl out of the water on frogs’ legs. This interest naturally extended to the world of reptiles. I read about amphibians and reptiles every day and day dreamed about seeing exotic species in their natural habitat. The Komodo Dragon seemed like the least accessible of these dreams so when I moved to Singapore, with Komodo Island within striking distance, I had to ask myself, “is this a possibility?”

The answer was a resounding yes! I couldn’t find anyone that had made the trip before, but I knew it could be done, and so set about booking the trip to fit with a few days of annual leave. The journey starts with a Garuda Indonesia flight from Singapore to Jakarta. I change airplane and land briefly in Timor before bouncing on to Flores, where the tiny plane lands at Maumere. I hire a car with driver to drive the length of Flores to a charming little fishing village, called Labuan Bajo. Here I would spend a night before taking a boat to Komodo and Rinca, the 2 major islands of the Komodo National Park.

I woke up just before first light. My alarm clock was the town mosque where the muezzin recited the most gentle, haunting and melodious call to prayer that I have ever heard. I was excited at the possibility of seeing a dragon but nervous because every wildlife enthusiast knows that nature gives no guarantees. I shared breakfast  with my guide over a cup of bitter, local coffee. We walked down the hill to the harbour and climbed aboard our boat. This would be home for the next 24 hours.

Our Captain set sail for Komodo, carving a course through pristine, turquoise waters dotted with small vegetated islands. Dolphins were our guide throughout the journey. I have no idea how long the trip took; it is one of those trips where time is of no importance. The boat approached Komodo and my eyes are already fixed on the beaches and hills. The landscape is extraordinary; long golden beaches,  grass carpeted hills with sparse, tropical vegetation met by rainforest, cloaked in low whips of cloud. The only sign of human life is a ranger station at the end of the jetty and a couple of desperately poor local fisherman, selling carved wooden dragons to any passing tourist boat. They found me to be a willing buyer, looking for a souvenir to prove to myself that I was really here.

Komodo Island's Jurasic Park landscape
Komodo Island’s Jurassic Park landscape

I felt like Neil Armstrong as I stepped out of the boat on to the island. Was I actually standing on Komodo Island? How did I get to be so far from home, on such a remote and legendary island?

Upon arrival a guide is assigned, whose job is simple; don’t lose anyone and try not to get a tourist killed by a dragon. I was entirely convinced that my guide wouldn’t get us lost but less so that the 6ft long stick with a forked end that had been cut from a dead tree was really the tool of a dragon slayer.  Never the less, I placed my life in his hands and we set off for the interior of the island. First we headed into the forests, climbing up to the highest point of land. I stood for a while admiring the steaming canopy when a throaty squawk broke the silence as a critically endangered Yellow-crested cockatoo flapped noisily across the trees; my first ever wild cockatoo. After spending some time searching all known dragon hot-spots we continued on to the grasslands. The island was silent, except for small flocks of Zebra finches buzzing from thicket to tussock, feeding on the parched grass seed. A few hours passed and still no dragon. It was time to leave the island and make our way to neighbouring Rinca, a stone’s throw away and another dragon hot spot. Was the islands infamous resident not going to appear?

Stepping off the boat at Rinca was a different experience. Within moments the first dragon appeared. Nothing prepares you for the moment that you see a creature that you had dreamed of seeing since childhood. The emotion brought on by a rush of adrenaline and feeling that you must pinch yourself to prove that you’re not dreaming, but if you are, you don’t want to be cheated of the best part of the dream. As I floated back to earth, the feeling changed to a desire to telephone my dad and tell him or show him where I am standing. I did none of those things.

The huge Komodo lays motionless but alert with tongue tasting the air for signs of food. This predator shows no fear or even the slightest concern at our presence, for it is at the top of the food chain in this remote world. Another dragon lumbers over and the two beasts greet each other with a gentle touch and lay in the sun. The claws are like curved Arabian Janbiya daggers and skin is rough and beaded with armour. This is a formidable creature.

DSC_0167

I allowed some time to pass admiring these beasts before being persuaded to continue exploring Rinca. After a short walk we find ourselves in the company of another guide with a small group of 5 Scandinavian tourists. I wanted to experience the island and her wildlife in solitude, so I suggest that we break off and follow a dry river bed leaving the others to head over the grassy hills. This decision was to transform my Komodo experience.

Within 10 minutes of following the path of dry, cracking earth we round a bend and freeze in our boots. We are standing a few meters from a family of water buffalo. These are huge beasts and well-armed with a crown of horns. We are unbelievably close but they don’t seem to notice us. Their focus is drawn to some boulders in the opposite direction, and they appear nervous. A Komodo dragon steps from behind the rocks and time stand stands still.

Dragon watching buffalo, buffalo watching dragon, us watching dragon and buffalo, nobody moving. The buffalo step nervously from hoof to hoof , snorting and gurgling. The dragon drags himself forward, tongue flicking excitedly and another uneasy stand-off ensues. The adult buffalo position themselves between the dragon and the young calves.

Without warning, the dragon explodes in to a frenzied assault, bursting past the adults; it latches on to the youngest buffalo of the group, throwing it to the ground. We dash for the cover of a dead tree and crouch down. The dragon is a whirlwind of jaws and claws. The cow runs, horns showing, to the defense of her calf. Now the Komodo is latched on to the cow’s nose and blood seems to be everywhere, from the calf, the cow and around the dragon’s jaws.

Savage attack
The swift and savage attack
Helpless onlookers… all of us...
Helpless onlookers… all of us…

The bull turns and steps towards the tree that we are crouching under and stops, looking directly at us. I think he might charge but he doesn’t. He just stands looking at us, seemingly imploring us to intervene. My heart is pumping fast, and I know for sure that stepping into this battle with our trusty forked stick will not bring the salvation that the bull is looking for.

I was always led to believe that the dragon bites its victim and then waits patiently, for days until it dies a slow miserable death by infection of the blood. This is clearly not the case. The Komodo is a savage killing machine, fully equipped with the tools required to kill and butcher a meal whenever it chooses.

The assault continued for some time with long stand-offs during which the dragon appeared to gather its strength. At no stage did the buffalo attempt to escape the scene. During one of these stand-offs the bull mounted the cow as if to mate with her in sorrowful recognition that their child would not survive them. It was unlikely that their child would survive the hour. Throughout the attack it felt like the air was thick with silence. Only the sound of hooves and claws in the dust could be heard and the strained, heaving breath of buffalo. The scene was brutal and pitiful; I had a lump in my throat as I watched this young family’s plight. During moments of the stand-offs the only sound I could hear was the sound one makes in our own ears when we swallow.

Another dragon smells blood
Another dragon smells blood

Before the final act of this one-sided battle was played out, my guide put his hand on my shoulder and said “we need to go. We have been here too long, other dragons will be here soon and excited by the smell of blood. We will be in danger”. I believed him and didn’t need a second asking. We walked for a couple of hundred meters when we were met by a huge dragon, shoulders rolling, body clear of the ground as it hurried towards the scent of fresh blood. The guide recognised this monster as a particularly aggressive lizard and swiftly dragged us on a different path.

We returned to the boat and discussed in excited tones what had just transpired. It seems that I had been fortunate to see such a rare, if somewhat unsettling spectacle.

The boat eased away from the jetty and moored in a bay between Komodo Island and a large mangrove. We ate a delicious, simple meal prepared on the boat and watched the sun drop below the hills. This was the cue for thousands of flying foxes to burst from the trees and head in black chattering clouds towards the fruiting trees of the Indonesian Islands.

Sunset over Komodo Island
The sun sets over Komodo Island

I slept soundly on the deck, under the stars that night. This had been a truly memorable experience that will remain with me for as long as I have a functioning memory. Komodo was everything that I had imagined as a child; a landscape that time had forgotten, where dinosaurs walk the earth, and the brutal struggle between life and death plays out in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Indonesian Archipelago.

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56 Comments

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  1. this piece is great

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great job on a well written piece. Congrats on being freshly pressed. Come check my new post out on Real Life Natural Wife and leave me a comment with your thoughts. Enjoy your day!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very good and insightful article thank you for posting this !!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. fantastic animals!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hai thank you for visited our country. I live in flores and never been in komodo before. Thank you for sharing. I am appreciate it. good blog. Hope to see you up next in Flores.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. ♥♡♥♡ممممممممم

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! As a kid I read and reread a book about scientific adventures. The two that stuck were William Beebe’s development of the bathysphere (the hatch blowing across the deck in an early trial) and the komodo dragons. To know they exist in their native habitat and that you can go see them is incredible. A bucket list experience indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beverly, thanks so much for your comments. I’m very happy that this post took you back to the books you read as a kid. I guess I went there because of my own childhood excitement at the thought of this animal so it is special to read your comment. 🙂

      Like

  8. Great photos, by the way.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Reblogged this on down on rails and commented:
    This super awasome post and enjoy indonesia.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Reblogged this on The Rhubarb Jungle and commented:
    When I was a kid the library was my portal to a different world. If I couldn’t ride a horse across the prairie I could read about it. If I couldn’t go to Africa or the jungles of Borneo, I could read about them. One book that I read and reread was about scientific adventures and adventurers. People like William Beebe and Otis Barton who explored the ocean’s depth in the first bathysphere. And someone who traveled to Komodo Island in eastern Indonesia to see the Komodo dragons.

    Yesterday while cruising through WordPress for interesting writers (you can do this when you’re retired) I came across “Incidental Naturalist.” He went to Komodo which is part of an Indonesian national park and neighboring Rican. He saw Komodo dragons. Big Komodo dragons. Saw one attack and kill a young water buffalo while other members of the herd stood by and watched.

    Several year’s ago, the executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Phil Bronstein, was attacked by a Komodo dragon in its enclosure at the city’s zoo. The visit to the enclosure was a Father’s Day gift by his wife actress Sharon Stone. because he had “always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close.” He escaped with a crushed big toe and severed tendons. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93137&page=1

    This is a great read and gets me as close as I want to get to a Komodo.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This was so good! I read it at the edge of my seat !

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Great post. Wow I would like to visit.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Wow I cannot believe u saw a dragon attack a buffalo u must be really fortunate😊😊😊

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Wow….. very nicely written. Your narration makes me want to go to this island!!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi David. What an experience you had! I went to Komodo and Rinca last year and saw nothing but the dragon’s traces on Komodo. I did see some of them in Rinca, though not as dramatic as what you saw. We went to a mud pool where three Komodo dragons devoured a buffalo carcass.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Amazing story and well documented with photos! You are so lucky to have seen this occur!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Reblogged this on MsAbbyKay and commented:
    Reptiles scare me. Lizards in particular, they seem to haunt me. Given any opportunity they (in my opinion) chase and attack me.
    My Chinese sign is the earth dragon. I feel that this in some way draws them to me, like they sense a distant relation or a kindred spirit.
    The relationship between me and Lizards fascinates me, scares me but fascinates me. So too does the Komodo Dragon, known also as the earth dragon. My Chinese sign.
    That’s why this post fascinated me. I will never dare visit Komodo island but this brought me as close as I may ever get and filled me with awe and wonder.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Great blog. I was there too and was led to believe the same myth about the passive attacks and waiting for the animal to die. I saw many dragons but didn’t witness a kill. Fabulous photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. wow this is amazing! Great photos and even better luck with the viewing!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Reblogged this on kernaghanassociates and commented:
    Dragons are real… Seriously

    Liked by 1 person

  21. What an amazing experience and you tell it so well! We took my 2 year old to the zoo the other day where they had some Komodo dragons. What amazing and absolutely frightening creatures they are. Fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Wow! What a neat experience. I don’t think I would ever want to see a Komodo dragon, let alone see one attack a buffalo. But I thoroughly enjoyed your account of the experience. Great writing. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Really cool. Komodo Dragon’s are so amazing. Definitely a piece of work by God. My little brother loves these beasts!

    Like

  24. Komodo dragons are really amazing i wish i will ever see them.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Komodo in Indonesian?

    Like

  26. I got goosebumps reading this story!! in the end of story, I envy you for having this great experience (me, Indonesian, who have no chance yet to go to the island) 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Impressive creatures these a Komodo dragons, really great pics, nice article, I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. What a superb post.

    Interestingly, only day before yesterday, there was a feature running on one of the National Geographic channels on the Komodo dragon in which the uncle of the 8 year old boy killed, was being interviewed. Another aspect I learnt about this beast was its unerring homing instinct. A dragon which was carried 50 Kms and left on another island was found to have come back by the villagers!

    To me the Komodo dragon seems to be a cross between a crocodile and a snake!

    Shakti

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this kind and informative comment, Shakti! They are truly fascinating creatures. They seem to make the part of the brain tingle that makes children love and fear dinosaurs in equal measures!

      Like

  29. Exotism of Indonesia 🙂
    THUMBS UP!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. hhhmm… so beautiful and owesome

    Like

  31. You were so lucky to witness this…

    Liked by 1 person

  32. This was a fascinating read for me. I have spent time in Indonesia but I have never been drawn to wanting to see the Komodo dragon. I am an avid animal lover but am not keen on reptilians and so never made the effort to go and see the dragons. This account was hard to read. It was well written and I know of course it’s nature at its most pure and raw form but I don’t think I could have actually watched this. Just reading it made me feel very sad. And I happen to really love water buffaloes having encountered them in so many of our travels and life in SEAsia. Intriguing post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your well thought out comment. I love this comment because you really seem to be getting a sense of the emotions that I was feeling. It was very hard to watch and yet impossible to take the eyes away from. You have to love the water buffalo if you have spent time in rural SE Asia as they are integral to everyday life. Indonesia is such an extraordinary country isn’t it? So diverse and such ancient, prehistoric landscapes in some areas. It seems to me to be the only place on earth that an animal like this could exist.

      Like

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