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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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