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Dragon Quest: Komodo Dragons make an Exotic Indonesian Detour

It wasn't easy to get there, but Komodo's dragons were unforgettable.

[Editor's Note: While this story has rather more of the compalining tourist in it than I usually run, the rarity of the adventure and the place make it worthwhile, in my opinion. I hope you'll agree.]

I'd seen Komodo dragons occasionally in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel, and I recall a vivid story from a children's encyclopedia about a dragon attacking a deer--its jaws were strong enough to break the deer's leg--but one tends to relegate that sort of thing to the stuff that legends are made of.

Komodo dragons do indeed exist. Most of them live in Indonesia on a small, arid island just west of Flores called Komodo. The dragons used to range all over Flores and the other islands in the region, but due to habitat loss they've found themselves restricted to a fairly small area around Komodo. The island itself is a national park and attracts a modest number of tourists.

Komodo is not the sort of place you happen upon unexpectedly. You have to work to get there.

I set out from Japan in December with the intention of going if it could be done easily. It was a dream I had had for years, but one of those things you don't expect ever to come true.

My quest for dragons began in earnest in Bali, where I decided that I might as well commit myself to the week or so it would take to travel to dragon-land. It is possible to get to Komodo by public transportation, but bus and boat services are unreliable and my time was limited. I bought a tour with Perama, an Indonesian travel company. They run two groups a week to Komodo for 100,000 rp per person. This includes meals and lodging (after a fashion) for 3 days and 2 nights as well as transportation. Tours leave every Wednesday and Sunday.

The advertised itinerary was as follows: Day 1: depart from Mataram, Lombok, at 10 a.m. Bus tour of Lombok island, stopping to visit a village marketplace, see some native dance, check out a pottery village, etc. In the afternoon, take boat to "resort island," cookout, snorkeling, sleeping on the island. Day 2: get on the boat and head east to Sumbawa, stopping occasionally to snorkel. Night spent on the boat as we continued our trek eastward. Day 3: more snorkeling, more boat, arrive at Komodo in the afternoon. There the tour ended. After that, we would pay for our own accommodation and leave the island as we chose after viewing the lizards.

I was dubious at first about all the "activities" that seemed to be included; basically I just wanted to get to Komodo as expeditiously as possible. What I didn't realize is that all the stuff they had planned was just a way of dressing up three solid days of almost continuous arduous travel. Day 1's "tour of Lombok island" was really us driving across the island in a tiny bus and stopping every couple of hours so we didn't go nuts. Travel in that part of Indonesia, Nusa Tenggara, is not easy, no matter how organized the travel folks claim to be.

Because the tour left from Mataram in the morning, I had to take the ferry from Bali to Lombok the previous day. That morning my fellow travellers and I assembled at the Perama office in a downpour, and waited about an hour for all the members of our group to arrive. I suppose I should not have been surprised to discover that the tour was overbooked; when we were all packed into the bus there was not a seat empty. The interior of this bus was not "luxurious" or "well-appointed;" the school buses I used to ride to school were roomier. I myself didn't find the quarters too troublesome, but since most of my companions were Big Tall Guys, there was some complaining.

We headed off into the wilderness. We didn't get far because we stopped to visit a market on the outskirts of town. The most remarkable thing about it was the great stench produced by heaps and mounds of dried fish. I bought some rambutans, spiky red fruits that I had seen previously only in the "fruit from Mars" section of the Kroger back home. These came complete with their own branch and the ants that still lived on it. It wouldn't have been fair to keep all those ants for myself so I shared them out on the bus.

Onward we drove into the rain. We stopped briefly at a town that makes stuff out of bamboo and sells it to tourists; I sure they bless the day the road went through their village. One little girl tried to cheat me on some woven rings, but her mother made sure I got the full value of my rupiah. I wouldn't have known any better.

Next stop was for lunch and traditional dancing. The folks at that village had all teamed up to put on a show for us tourists in someone's garage. Most of the males played an instrument of some kind, from grandpa who played with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth to a two-year-old who had his very own gong to beat. The townspeople were of course interested in us foreigners, but they were also enthusiastic about the performance that their friends were putting on. Touching, really. Two men, one of whom appeared to be in drag, performed a couple of dances that appeared to depict domestic quarrels, though I had no way of knowing for sure. A beautiful young woman invited us to dance with her one by one; she took our hands, looked beseechingly into our eyes, and sang something that sounded significant but was utterly incomprehensible to me. It was kind of weird.

In the late afternoon we came to the east coast of Lombok. We stopped for tea, and that's when our guide announced to us that, due to a bad storm that was on its way, we would not spend the next night on the boat traveling to Komodo. Instead we would ride the boat to central Sumbawa, ride the same bus we had been riding all day to the east coast of the island, and take a different boat to Komodo the next day. Everyone freaked; after a day on that purgatorial bus, spending an entire night on it sounded like torture. It seemed unfair, especially when Perama had advertised a sea voyage.

Grumbling, we boarded the boat to head to the island where we would spend the night. In the rain, the interior of the vessel really wasn't big enough to hold us all, and many of my companions proved quite aggressive about grabbing seats or food before I could get to them. (This was a problem the whole trip. Most of my fellow-travellers were Germans, which may or may not be significant.)

The island was very nice, though I wouldn't call it a "resort." It was about 100 square meters and looked as if it couldn't possible contain any fresh water. Accommodations were 2 bamboo huts with shell floors - comfy! - but there were mats and mattresses for those fast enough to grab them.

The guides cooked us a delicious dinner; all of the food on the trip was excellent, though there was often not enough of it. We ate under a tarp with the rain dripping or pouring on us, depending on where we sat. After-dinner conversation was going nicely until the gale-force winds hit and threatened to blow everything down. We retired to our huts and slept as well as we could with the wind howling.

The next day, the weather was great. The tour company kept a supply of masks and snorkels on the island, so we grabbed them and checked out the underwater scenery. It was quite beautiful, with lots of colorful coral, fish, and seaweed. It got a little scary, though, when the waves kicked up and we found ourselves swimming back to shore at a much shallower point. So shallow, in fact, that I had to learn to swim without breaking the surface of the water to avoid getting flayed by sharp coral. I also saw what I think was a stonefish; I've heard they'll kill you in a matter of minutes. Maybe I was wrong, though.

Snorkeling done, we got back on the boat and headed east to Sumbawa. The sky stayed clear all day long, which made everyone very dubious about the storm that was supposed to keep us off the water that night. To make up for depriving us of the boat trip, the guides took us to a village built on a big pile of coral. There were children everywhere; the word overpopulation took on a new and very clear meaning for me that day. The kids all asked us for pens. Pens??

We stayed on the boat until sundown, when we arrived at Sumbawa Besar. The bus we had ridden on Lombok the day before was waiting for us; I guess the driver brought it over on the ferry while we were on the boat all day. It was actually sort of cool driving across Sumbawa in the dark. The full moon lit things pretty well and gave the landscape a black and white movie quality. In every town we passed, people were sitting in the road. We figured that must be what they do for fun in Sumbawa. Vehicles don't drive by that frequently, so they don't interfere with the sitting as much as you might expect.

At about 2:30 a.m. we arrived in Bima. I think just about everyone had fallen asleep, but when we stopped they all started complaining again. The guides had told us they would put us in a hotel for a few hours, but somehow no one had arranged anything yet. The Perama guy there in Bima dragged himself out of bed and, after a lot of futzing around, we were delivered to a hotel at 3:30. It was glorious to lie in a bed.

After a few hours of sleep, we hit the road again for the two hour trip to the coast. On the way we stopped at a market. I wanted to buy a knife, so I asked a guide to help me. He didn't understand the word "knife," so Julio, an Italian guy traveling with a Sanskrit-Italian translation of the Bhagvadgita, exclaimed "Knife! Ah, cutello!" That cleared things up immediately for the Indonesian.

At the port we got onto a different Perama boat that looked a lot like the first one. There was some delay for bureaucratic reasons, but we finally headed off on the last leg of our journey, the six hour trip to Komodo. We arrived in the early evening. Our boat was too big to park at the dock, so the guides pulled out a dug-out canoe and said they would ferry us over. This canoe was big enough for three people and there were more than twenty of us; I tossed my bag to a friend, jumped overboard, and swam to shore instead. I didn't remember the Lonely Planet's warning about sea snakes until the next day.

Komodo is a national park. It has a camp set up for tourists; when you pay for a room, you also pay the park fee. The accommodations were not too bad, all things considered. Every room comes equipped with a mosquito coil and some candles; supposedly the electricity goes out at 10 p.m., but I was going to sleep too early those days to notice. There was a restaurant in the camp, and there seemed to be only one guy working there. It was so crowded that night that the only thing left on the menu by the end of the evening was fried rice. The Lonely Planet recommends that you bring your own food to Komodo; good idea.

The next morning was dragon day! I saw a dragon first thing. I walked down to the restaurant and noticed a group of people staring at the place I had just passed. Right there in the mud, not 2 meters away from where I had walked, was a Komodo dragon! Apparently it had come to hang out. A small crowd assembled to take pictures of it as it squatted in the rain. One guy had the bright idea of climbing a wall next to it to get an aerial shot and dropped his camera. Quick as a flash the beast darted over. It licked the camera but must have decided it was inedible, and returned to its phlegmatic pose.

After breakfast we followed our guide out into the jungle to view more lizards. The rain poured down and made the mud slick and sticky. We passed a sign with the comforting words "Danger. Komodo Crossing. Be Silent." As silently as we could manage, we tiptoed by and reached a shelter. On the wall was a poster containing information about Komodo dragons, including the illuminating comment that they are "as graceful as tree trunks." There was a crowd of people there so it was a bit of a struggle to find a good place to see the dragons.

I finally forced my way to the front, and there they were! About twenty lizards crouched in a mud puddle about five meters below us, all in a heap. They didn't appear to be very bright, or even particularly deadly. The park people fed them a goat at that shelter every Saturday; even though this was a Wednesday, the pack of lizards had assembled just in case a magical goat should appear. I heard that the park had plans to stop feeding them, to make the environment more natural. That would be an improvement, I think. The arena was disappointingly zoo-like. Some of the lizards had definite bulges around their middles.

Some facts about Komodo dragons: They are the largest lizards in the world. Crocodiles and alligators are different, though I can't remember exactly how. The young live in trees for their first few years so that the older ones don't eat them. The big ones eat deer, horses, goats, and the occasional human. A few years ago a journalist was taking a picture of one dragon and another one snuck up behind him and got him. Sometimes dragons go swimming in the ocean. They sleep in holes when it's dark, so I guess it's safe to wander the island at night. Their bites are poisonous because of all the rotten meat stuck in their teeth; sometimes they can bit an animal but not kill it, and it will eventually die of gangrene. I suppose they eat it then.

Dragon-viewing completed, I just wanted to get back to semi-civilization. From Komodo you can take a ferry to either Flores or Sumbawa, but I paid another 50,000 rp to take the Perama boat back to Bima. I could have taken it all the way back to Mataram, but I couldn't fact another 36 hours on that bus. I decided to get back to Bima and fly to Surabaya the next day.

Back on the boat, I discovered that our Indonesian guides had taken apart the starter motor. I watched them put it back together and got mildly worried when there were some parts left over. The repair job obviously hadn't worked, because as a next step, the guides got a long rope, tied it to the engine, and had a bunch of men pull it repeatedly. We ate lunch. We wondered how it would be spending another night with the dragons. Finally one of the Germans stepped in, repaired the motor, and got us started. Thank goodness! The ride back to Sumbawa was quite pleasant, since the boat was no longer crowded and there was finally more than enough food for everyone. I got back to Bima, spent the night in a hotel, and flew to Java the next day.

Overall impressions: if I were to go again, I might not go on a tour. It might be more fun or less frustrating not to have to compete with fellow travelers and be tied into an itinerary that allows no time to rest or see anything along the way. Then again, it was convenient to have all food, transport, and accommodations taken care of. The only thing I really didn't like was that there were too many people in the group, a hazard of traveling during the high season. On the other hand, getting to know my international group of traveling companions was fun. And as I mentioned before, the food was delicious. It was also very fresh; there being no refrigeration, we traveled with several live chickens. A couple of hours before a meal, a cook would grab one, take it to the back of the boat, and then we would have chicken at lunch or dinner. There was enough non-meat food for vegetarians to survive.

Other lessons: in the rainy season it's difficult (impossible) to get your clothes to dry. You get very dirty riding on a boat, especially if you spend a lot of time up top where the exhaust can hit you. Carry some food with you. Don't yell at the guide if things go wrong; it will only make him hate you. Bring strong sunscreen and use it diligently. Consider going to Flores; I didn't and I sort of wish I had.

If you are looking for "a good time" with lots of parties, booze, goats, tattoo parlors, and what have you, don't go. You won't find them. But if you want to go someplace that will wear you out and that is completely unlike most peoples' vacations, then consider Komodo.

Amy Hackney Blackwell is an attorney and writer in Greenville, SC. She has lived and traveled extensively in Asia and Europe. Her work has appeared in Parachutist and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She also does commentaries for public radio.

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