Day 434 – 8 May, 2016
Knowing that a man-eating dragon exists and actually seeing it for yourself are two entirely different things. There are only four islands in the Indonesian archipelago where these giant beasts roam and only two of these are open to the public, Rinca and Komodo Islands. I can’t say this had been a fantasy of mine for my whole life. In reality, I had never really thought much about it at all. Bali wasn’t suiting me so exploring further afield was a logical move.
After a little research, I knew I needed to go to the island of Flores, which is where most tours of Komodo National Park start. It also seemed these excursions don’t run unless you have at least two passengers and I didn’t want to risk going all the way there without a partner. A general shoutout invitation on Facebook (“hey does anyone want to go see Komodo dragons with me?”) amongst people I had met on my travels drew a few responses, but the one that seemed to be the most promising was Aaron. The travel network is amazing. Aaron and I met on Phu Quoc, the island south of Vietnam, back in February. He had just arrived on Bali and was only days away from going home to England. Better yet, he had a lifelong dream of walking with Komodo dragons so it made perfect sense for us to go together.
Aaron and I ended up on different flights to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores as a direct result of the headaches Mercury had given me the previous week. When I boarded my little tiny plane of the Wings Air fleet and sat in my seat in row #3, a kid slightly younger than me tossed a small backpack in the seat next to me and walked away. I didn’t think much of it until several minutes later when the flight attendants started doing their cross checks and he had still not returned to his seat. I turned and looked down the short aisle and the only ones still standing were the flight attendants. The motors were already roaring to life. I rapidly looked back and forth from the backpack (which I was now convinced was ticking) to the aisle and realized I was going to have to make a scene. I hate scenes and confrontation and am perfectly happy to let other people make a scene in times like these. I stood up to get the flight attendant’s attention and calmly motioned to the backpack. I explained that the backpack’s owner had seemingly left it and disembarked from the plane. She didn’t understand. I repeated myself with some charades but was becoming more agitated as she merely encouraged me to take my seat. Finally, she understood and said, “would you like to move to a different seat?” Time stood still while I formed my next words, “Ummm….NO! I would like the backpack OFF the plane!” She wrinkled her nose as if I was terribly inconveniencing her at the same time that the kid walked out of the bathroom. Ok, ok, it turned out to be nothing and it was only a little bit of a scene, but I still don’t think I overreacted in this case and I would guess about five other passengers within earshot agreed with me.
Nevertheless, I arrived safely in Labuan Bajo where Aaron and I went into town to secure our overnight boat tour. I was convinced I wanted to sleep in a cabin rather than the alternative which involved sleeping on the boat deck, but after inquiring with several outfitters they all had the same answer – no cabin boats were operating right now due to low demand. Finally, the last operator we spoke to said he could offer a cabin boat, but that we should be aware that there was no air conditioning. You could hear the tires screeching on the road as I rapidly changed my mind about the cabin. No air conditioning in SE Asia is the worst kind of punishment. I’ve done it but only if there are at least three fans pointed in my direction. We signed up for a slumber party on the boat deck with four other brave companions.
Joining us were Ben and Katie from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, and Jeff and Kim from Canada. I couldn’t have asked for a better group. It’s a little risky to commit to 36 hours held captive on a small longtail boat with random strangers, but I knew when Jeff carried a case of 1/2 liter Bintangs onboard, we had a really fun vibe and everyone was excited about the adventure.
The boat itself was a typical long tail, meaning narrow and old. Our crew was about 3 or 4, although they often stayed hidden, only surfacing to bring our meals. And considering the conditions, the meals were downright delicious. It was often fried banana, fried potato, fried eggplant, a marinated soy chicken concoction, and a limp-looking bowl of stewed vegetables. Imagine my surprise when I noticed one of the crew dipping a rusty metal bucket into the ocean to pull up water that was used for cooking and cleaning. Um….?
As good westerners that we are, the six of us collected all of our rubbish into a bin. Even peanut shells and banana peels went into the bin. But our crew thought all of that plastic and glass and aluminum and organic matter would be better served in the ocean so overboard it went. A huge lump formed in my throat. How can the lack of education be so vast that this behavior is considered normal or acceptable? Not only do the islands not have a proper way to manage their waste with the huge number of visitors they welcome, but also they don’t realize the damage they are doing to the oceans. They don’t realize the harm they cause to the fisheries or the irreparable destruction of the coral reefs. Bleached coral was a common sight in this part of the world, suffocated because of too much CO2 in the water. Many of us know that dead or dying coral reefs are a problem because they sustain a healthy marine ecosystem, but many of the SE Asians don’t know or care. What they will care about is when their fisheries are depleted or when the tourists stop coming because there are no longer nice places to snorkel or dive. They need healthy coral reefs to sustain their way of life and to make money. There is a huge disconnect in the flow of education and sustainable better practices.
In spite of this, I don’t blame our crew. They don’t know any better and they spoke very little English. Their job was to showcase some of the best underwater environments imaginable and at this, they wholly succeeded. As of this writing, the coral remains strong and healthy off the coast of Flores. We snorkeled at some breathtaking sites – vibrant parrotfish, bright blue starfish, lumbering sea turtles, and manta rays bigger than me! Four different snorkel sites in all, including Pink Beach and Manta Point, were the greatest surprise of my Komodo tour. When the dragons are the star attraction, no one mentions the underwater world that is beyond compare. I was head over heels for Komodo National Park and I hadn’t even seen the dragons yet!
And despite all my concerns, sleeping on the boat was an absolute dream. As we made our way from Pink Beach to our secret cove, dolphins darted in and out of our wake. The sheer glee amongst my compatriots was palpable. When we docked in a little cove with no other boats within sight, the sun was just starting to set and there were bats who put on quite the show as they flew off into the coming darkness. When the Bintangs started to run dry, a young entrepreneur rowed over to sell us whatever he might have on board. We didn’t want for anything. When it was time to sleep, our dining table was stacked to one end and large rubber mattresses were laid side by side. We were offered wool blankets, but I found them too itchy and preferred just laying in the open air. The stars. Oh, the stars were incredible! It’s hard to be disappointed to wake up in the wee hours of the morning only to see those little jewels sparkling in the sky.
The next day it was time for the grand finale – spotting Komodo dragons. We visited Komodo Island first. Our guide carried a long stick with a fork-shaped poker on the end in case someone got out of hand. Immediately, we saw the mother of all dragons. A huge beast right along the path, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting victim. We took turns posing while our guide played with camera angles. I didn’t realize how lucky we were to spot such a large Komodo dragon “in the wild.” Besides that one, we also spotted a baby dragon on Komodo and two more smaller ones on Rinca “in the wild.” The largest population of dragons that we saw was congregated under the kitchen cabin. The guide claims that no one feeds them, that they are only “hoping” for food, but it’s hard to be certain. They are treated as family amongst the park’s residents and the rangers, breathren from another age. It was incomparable to be so close to them and I was in awe of the last two days. What an incredible adventure it was to walk with some of the world’s last remaining dinosaurs.