Here be Dragons: Part 2
|The Komodo island|
Ben, in the meantime filled us in with information about Flores and the surrounding islands. He is a huge fan of the President, Joko Widodo, crediting him with trying to develop the far off provinces of Indonesia instead of concentrating only on Java and Sumatra as, he claimed, earlier incumbents did. Ben is Catholic, which, he said, was the main religion in Flores. The name itself came from the Portuguese for flower and it was Portuguese missionaries who had converted his forefathers from their pagan religion. The economy depended on fishing and agriculture, coffee and spice plantations were the lifeblood, though paddy was also grown extensively. The languages also differ, even from region to region within Flores. According to Benjamin, it may be difficult sometimes for somebody from the eastern part of the island to understand the dialect spoken in the West. Nowadays, tourism is becoming an important part of the economy and is being encouraged by the government, though it is a far cry from the tourist paradise that is Bali.
The islands, as I had noticed already, are 70 % grasslands. In fact Flores, which appeared to be covered with trees was also mainly savanna even in his father’s younger days, he told us. In fact it was the encouragement given to grow cash crops that set up plantations that has led to the greening of Flores. This has led, inevitably, to a loss of habitat for the wildlife in that island, but in the other smaller islands they animals were holding on. “How likely was it that we would get to see the dragon?” Shreya asked.
“It is difficult to say” Ben replied.” During the mating season, in July and August they tend to move away toward the highlands and can be difficult to spot, but in the hot season ( now ) they are usually seen, though not always.” We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
|Entrance to the Komodo National Park|
After about three hours of sailing along the sea, we began to approach a large island. This was the Komodo Island and there was nothing to distinguish it from several others that we had already seen. But this was where according the last count around 1200 Komodo dragons lived sharing the space with a solitary fishing village, Timor deer, wild boar and many species of birds and several other species of mammals and reptiles. We scanned the grasslands with binoculars, were there any Komodos out there that we might see? Nothing doing so far and we came alongside a jetty where we disembarked. The long jetty, fairly typical of these parts led us to the fabled island and to an archway to the Komodo Island. We walked towards a set of nondescript wooden buildings which served as the office for the Park authorities. As we neared the main buildings, Ben stopped suddenly and pointed out and there it was! A small dragon, about a couple of years old, we were told. But unmistakably, a komodo dragon. It walked unhurriedly towards a nearby copse of trees and disappeared from sight. We realized that the shade provided by the trees in the office area had attracted not just the dragon but also several Timor deer as well.
We waited until Ben registered our names with the Park authorities. To enter the park it is necessary to be accompanied by a ranger. He is knowledgeable about the animals in the park and is also expected to protect you from any possible attacks from the creatures. While the dragons usually avoid humans, the occasional attack has been recorded and deaths from dragon attacks are not unknown. However, we are assured, this is very uncommon indeed. Our guide naturalist, his name was Uno came and introduced himself. He was very pleased to hear that we were Indian and immediately burst into a surprisingly tuneful song from one of SRKs movies and showed off his Hindi vocabulary. Then, before we set off to find a dragon, he filled us in about the dos and don’ts. We were to walk in a single file, not talk too loudly and never move off by ourselves. He repeatedly warned us that we may not see any Komodos at all, after all, he said, they were wild animals and not at our beck and call. There was also no system of feeding the animals to make wildlife viewing easier.
The walk started along a well-worn path through what was very similar to our central Indian deciduous forest. Unlike the Rain forest where the vegetation I so thick and the undergrowth so luxurious that it is difficult to see anything , here we could see a fair distance on both sides and walking was pleasant as the shade of the trees and the sea breeze created a feeling totally unlike the humid atmosphere of the rain forests of South East Asia. Our luck was really in because as we had walked barely three minutes into the forest, recognizing some old friends among the trees and being introduced to some new ones, the guide stopped suddenly and pointed. And there it was: a large Komodo dragon, exactly as we had picturized it resting just off the path. It seemed to be uninterested in us and sat there quietly as we excitedly pointed and took photographs. It is really like nothing on earth, or I should say, nothing else on earth. The saliva dripping from its enormous jaws, the claws were all reminiscent of one of the dinosaurs that we saw in the movie Jurassic Park.
|The Komodo Dragon|
He indicated that we should proceed further and so we did keeping a healthy distance from the animal though, it is known to run at 15-20 km /hr over short distances so that if it did have bad intentions, it was unlikely that we could have done anything much. Incidentally the only protection we had was a sort of V shaped stick that the guide carried. I was not confident that it could do much against an angry and hungry dragon. Komodos eat roughly once every 10 days. They usually hunt by stealth. A sleepy looking dragon , like the one we just saw lies in the forest floor well camouflaged by the leaf litter until the victim ( usually a water buffalo or a Timor deer ) comes close enough and then attacks, sometimes only getting one good bite in. The victim escapes, but soon sickens from the bacteria introduced into its system by the Komodo. It takes them about two weeks to die and the smell of the dead flesh can be smelt by sensors in the tongues of these creatures form as far as 5 kilometers away. This leads several dragons to the kill which is devoured in a communal feast. Apparently they leave little except the horns behind, digesting all the flesh and bones over the next two weeks before they need to feed again.
Just about 200 meters away, he stopped again. And this time we saw a positive drill of dragons (disclosure: collective noun invented by me). There were at least seven of them, two large males, several females and a smaller sub adult. We stood there wonderstruck and watched them lying there lazily, apparently with nothing on their minds except to nap in the cool shade. The guide said that it was not very usual to see them in such large numbers. However as it was very hot and water was at a premium, its prey tended to gather at a waterhole that was nearby and this drew the dragons here as well. We took pictures and posed at a careful distance while we were photographed with this remarkable creature. An ambition fulfilled!
A sub adult female on the move
The rest of the walk was a little of an anticlimax though we did see one more Komodo later, however there were several species of birds, and tramping through a forest always has its particular charm. As it was afternoon most birds were under cover, but we did see the imperial pigeon, the emerald dove, the blacknaped oriole and the common drongo and some others that I was unable to recognize. The walk was pleasant, as we marched through a forest very reminiscent of the deciduous forests of Central India. The trees were shady, the undergrowth not too heavy and we saw a couple of wild boar slinking away into a gully. They seemed quite shy and why should not they be if so many komodos were in the vicinity. Too soon our walk was over and we were back to the office area where more Timor deer had gathered, probably depending on human protection from the dragons.
Back in the boat, we now went on to another part of the Komodo Island where there is a sandy beach. The beach is unusual as the sand is pink in colour. In the now mellowing sun, it looked many shades of pink. Apparently the currents here break the corals and other coloured objects underwater and grind them into this special type of sand: thus the Pink beach. This area is a good snorkeling area as well and we swam from the boat, anchored a safe 100 meters form the shore to the beach. There were myriad fishes, but to tell the truth, Malaysian snorkeling has spoilt me. The fish here did not seem as numerous or as varied as we have seen in Redang, Perhentian or Tioman island.
|I could get used to this!|
When we were back to the ship, we then set sail for the area near the Rinca island. This was the part of the boat trip that we enjoyed the most. The sun was down so that now we could relax in the top deck, the breeze was ambrosial and the sea was deep blue. We passed myriad islands, some of them windswept and bare, others with a fringe of mangroves; still others were covered with dense forest. The currents here are treacherous, we were told. The navigators of these boats have to be very well versed with their changes so that the boat can have safe passage. Emerald green waters we learnt meant shallow waters, to be avoided. The white tops of waves also were informative: the navigator could read the currents by their changes. As the sun sank into the sea, the colours of the water changed to pink and red and orange. The show lasted for about half an hour until it grew dark.
|Sunset near Rinca island|
By sundown we were near the Rinca Island where we were to anchor that night. Dinner was served, another gargantuan meal featuring all sorts of meats and fish. We realized that the sea air had done wonders for our appetite; we polished off large amounts with aplomb. Several other boats also anchored in our vicinity. This was a favoured place for spending the night we realized. As it grew dark we could hear the conversation from a faraway ship. Often snatches of music drifted to us. The darkness was immense. Soon we could just about see the outline of the island near us, later not even that. However a lot of fish came near our boat and leapt out, making loud splashes. They were attracted by the lights. We tested this by shining a torch to the water. Sure enough, the fish leapt out. This was how night fishing was done, Ben explained. A bright light attracted the fish and then they were easy prey. And the sky! Not in recent times have I seen such a wonderful show. Many constellations I know, and several that I do not, revealed themselves. The Milky Way was clearly seen. I have not seen it since my camping days in Purulia with the Bhoruka Mountaineering Trust, way back in the early nineties. Shreya saw it for the first time in her life. We felt blessed.
When I woke in the morning, it was dawn. The air was absolutely clear. For a moment I thought that we had drifted closer to the shore. Later I realized that the clear morning air had made the land which seemed fairly far away last night seem to be within arm’s reach. The air was cool and the morning breeze was very soothing. We had breakfast and then it was time to cruise to the Rinca Island disembarking point. This island is larger than Komodo Island, and has two villages. Both of these are fishing villages, though many young men are now part of group of naturalist guides. Not all the guides are from these specific islands, there are young lads from other islands as well including Flores Island. They are rotated from post to post spending about a fortnight in each remote island before returning to Flores.
The boat took us to the entrance to the park. Here there are mangroves unlike Komodo Island. The water was full of tiny swordfish and there are crocodiles here, though we did not see any. As we walked to the Rangers’ office, we passed a mangrove forest and then a low lying area which was flooded every high tide. We were walking along a causeway and close by we saw a couple of water buffalo. These looked just like our domestic buffalo, but Ben assured us that they were definitely wild and in the savannah area of Rinca have been known to attack humans. Our luck was in again. Another small Komodo was seen in the distance, this time clambering over the helipad that they have here. But the best was yet to come. As soon as we joined forces with the guide, we realized that there were at least 7 Komodo dragons in the office and living are itself. We were told that this was not uncommon. The fresh food for the rangers (meat and fish) is landed in the morning and the dragons smell them form miles away and make a beeline towards the kitchen. There they were clambering over one another, crawling under the kitchen hut hoping for a free meal. They are however strict instructions not to feed them but this does not prevent them from turning up almost every morning in hope. As we watched, a female Komodo came rushing down a hill to join the party. We realized that they do indeed walk pretty fast when they want to. The feces of the komodo which we got to see now, has a chalky colour, this is because of all the calcium in the bones that they digest. Pythons also have similar wastes, we were told.
Today’s walk was initially along a similar forest as yesterday’s, on the way we spied some guinea fowl and the jungle fowl as well. One interesting thing that we saw was the nest that the Komodos create. The komodos take over a partially built nest of the guinea fowl which nests in a depression in the ground. Having done that the mother Komodo digs deeper and deposits the eggs underground where it incubates for a record 9 months. On hatching the little ones dig themselves out and quickly climb a nearby tree as they are now vulnerable to other predators, not least adult komodos. For a couple of years they live in the trees mainly, before summoning the courage to come to the forest floor after they have reached a size that precludes predation. However these small komodos can and are bullied by even macaques which are plentiful in this island. We saw an amusing incident where a group of macaques were foraging on the ground and a small komodo, (perhaps 2 years old) approached the troupe. The dominant male macaque confronted it and made a demonstration baring its fangs. The komodo made a prudent retreat.
In a later part of the walk we ascended to the highlands. Here the trees were scanty and the land was covered by grasslands, another favoured habitat for the dragons. This is where the water buffalo, and even some feral horses ( which we did not see) tend to spend most of their time and some of them inevitably are preyed on by the reptiles. Here too, we could spot a large komodo sunning itself on the path on which we were walking. As we approached, it walked away along the path itself and later realizing that we were not going away moved reluctantly into the adjacent grassland. It was in this terrain that we also saw the largest of these animals yet, a fully grown adult male, which the guide said had had a large meal recently. This he deduced by the size of its belly which, I must admit, did look fairly bloated. Secure in the knowledge that this satiated animal would be unlikely to interest itself in another meal immediately we came quite close and took photographs and then continued our walk leaving it to digest its meal.
The last leg of our trip was to sail to the Kelor Island. This island, a speck in the Flores sea is well known for its snorkeling. It also has a hillock which, when climbed gives marvelous views of the surrounding seascape. We spent a very enjoyable couple of hours here, first climbing the hill (it was surprisingly difficult) and then snorkeling in the waters around the island. Here the fish were plentiful and of many varieties. In any case swimming after the hard climb was in itself a reward.
Back to the boat for lunch and then back to Labuan Bajo. The trip was over and we were transported back to the airport where Ben said goodbye. We were in high spirits as we lined up for the return flight to Bali. Little did we know that the Indonesian curse was now waiting. The flight, the Nam Air representative told us blandly was three hours late. This meant that we were going to miss our flight from Bali. We tried our best to get tickets to the earlier Garuda Airline flight, but alas it was full. We were then forced to buy new tickets at Bali airport and reached KLIA and Singapore after midnight. My advice: In Indonesia, stick to Garuda: they have some semblance of service. The other airlines are just hit and miss.
|Our Guide Benjamin|
|Our Captain and Benjamin|
The last bit notwithstanding, the trip was marvelous. The arrangements made by Adventure Indonesia were excellent. They delivered exactly as they had promised. The people we met were friendly; the Komodo National Park is one of the finest wildlife experiences I have ever had. It is a bit pricey though, but that is to be expected for such a remote location and because we had a private tour. Sharing in a larger group would cut down costs considerably. If you have been thinking about it, please go for it. It is one of the best short holidays I have ever had. All thanks to my daughter, who organized it, paid for it and took most of the pictures!
Some information :
Garuda, Wing Air and Nam air fly to Labuan Bajo from Bali.
Out trip was organized by Adventure Indonesia: www.adventureindonesia.com