South Africans on dragon safari

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
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Trip End Apr 05, 2006


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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, September 10, 2005

Early on Thursday morning, 8 September, we made our escape from crazy Kuta and boarded a Merpati flight to Labuanbajo on the eastern island of Flores. For the duration of the two-hour flight we enjoyed excellent views of the string of islands to the east of Bali, including Lombok, Sumbawa. We were amused to hear two fellow passengers talk Afrikaans to each other, and of course said "Haai, hoe gaan dit?" when we arrived at the other end.

This turned out to be a very fortuitous meeting. Tasha and Suzaan, both Capetonians too, were on a two-day flying visit from Bali to see dragons of Komodo and Rinca, and were hoping to charter a boat to the islands. We ended up staying in the same guesthouse in Labuanbajo, and booked a two-day boat charter together. Labuanbajo itself is a pictursque little fishing village surrounded by rocky, arid hills; in the afternoon, after making our boat arrangements, Rich and I walked down to a quiet beach for a relaxing swim.

So, on Friday morning 9 September, we chugged out of the harbour aboard Mitra Bajo Prima, an attractive wooden fishing boat modified for passengers. The big, shaded deck and three super-friendly staff immediately won our confidence and affection... we just knew we'd be having a great time. And we were right. For the two days we were aboard, we were pampered and fed extremely well. Everything ran to plan, including the dragon-spotting...

After anchoring in a little bay for some snorkeling, swimming and a spot of lunch, we docked at pier on Komodo island. A short walk took us to the park rangers' huts, where, lo and behold, a few massive beasts were resting in the shade. One of them wore a radio collar, and we were told that these big boyz tend to hang around the camp, waiting for hand-outs and scraps. Even though they were strictly speaking not the 'real thing' ie. wild, some frantic camera-snapping followed.... they really are as monstrous, menacing and ugly as one expects them to be. We kept a safe distance.

A ranger, armed with nothing but a forked stick to ward off agressive dragons, took us on a 5km circular walk up a dry riverbed and to the top of a hill - a great chance to get a feel for the landscape and see some of the birdlife on the island. The vegetation is scrubby and many of the trees are leafless, with this being the dry season (in these tropical savannahs, trees tend to lose their leaves in the dry season, the opposite of trees in, say, Europe). However, evergreen palm trees dot the landscape, and beautiful pink orchids bloom up in the branches of some larger trees.

We walked up to the spot in the riverbed where rangers used to feed the dragons daily until a few years ago... though that practice has now stopped, some animals supposedly still hang around the area. Unfortunately we saw none, but our guide pointed out 'dragon hotels' - the burrows in the riverbed where they sleep. Along the way, we saw some of the abundant bird- and other wildlife - a beautiful golden oriole, several megapodes, and a sea eagle with chick, as well as some deer.

We anchored for the night close to Komodo, in the lee of another small island, and enjoyed a superb dinner prepared by the star crew, along with a few drinks. The crew brought out some comfy foam matresses from below, and we made our beds on the deck - bliss!

The real highlight of our dragon-spotting safari was the next day, when we visited Rinca. The island is smaller than Komodo and also part of the national park - it has a slightly better record for wild dragon sightings, a fact we experienced for ourselves that day. At the pier and the rangers' camp, a number of tame dragons again met us, and we set off on an exploratory walk with a ranger. Within minutes, he was pointing out a wild dragon female guarding her next beside the path.

We climbed a little and, on a hillside beside a dry riverbed, spotted a huge specimen strolling along through the dry grass. Excited, we snuck up on him and followed him down into the riverbed towards a water-hole, where a buffalo was standing in the shade. Our guide explained that dragons often waited at the water-hole to ambush prey such as wild cattle or deer (it takes a few dragons to bring down a water buffalo). Of course, we were praying this chap would go for the buffalo, so we could witness a dragon kill first-hand! Before long, to our delight, another dragon came along the riverbed, and the two slowly and awkwardly skirted around each other - they clearly were not hunting allies.

We watched their silent, steady movements for about 40 minutes before continuing uphill. The sightings continued: we spied another large creature ambling along through the grassland up ahead, and our guide, along with one of the boat crew who had joined us, rushed toward it and started herding it in our direction. What a hilarious sight - two blokes trotting after a giant lizard, waving a stick at it. We got close enough for some excellent photos, and started making our way downhill back to the rangers' camp.

Just like Komodo, the savannah of Rinca is dry this time of year, but dotted with the green of palm trees. From the hilltop, we enjoyed magnificent views down to the impossibly blue sea. The contrast between the golden colour of dry scrub with blue sea is very striking indeed.

On the way back to Labuanbajo, we stopped in at another little island with a long, sandy beach for some more snorkeling and swimming. We docked just after 2pm and said a quick goodbye to Tasha and Suzaan, who were flying back to Bali that very afternoon. We'd shared the most amazing safari experience!
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