Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
108Trip End Sep 08, 2012
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Where I stayed
While we were climbing the hill one of the crew had gone out in the dugout and caught a rather large squid in the bay. Back on the boat the boys are showing off their catch before preparing it in the galley for cooking later. Now we are motoring through a broad channel surrounded by the dry, golden grassed landscape of the region. The waters here are well known for their strong, swirling currents and famous for the pelagics - large sea creatures - that inhabit the depths
We stop for lunch at a place called Pink Beach, named for its pristine, pink tinged sand, coloured by the red corals found on the reef just offshore. Before we eat, Sheila and I are ferried to shore - the currents are too strong here to risk swimming in - so we can snorkel the reef and spend some time on the silky soft sand. Red beach is the first place since Kuta Lombok where we have encountered other westerners. There is a group of young backpackers sunbathing here, their cruise boat also anchored offshore near ours.
The reef is impressive, though still not as spectacular as the marvel at Gili Meno, and it's good to walk along the soft sand in the dry heat after three days on a hard, rocking boat deck. Back on board the Anal Laut, Sali serves stir-fried squid and rice for lunch as we proceed to nearby Komodo Island.
Komodo Island is a place of dreams and nightmares. Until recently I had never imagined I would ever go there, I didn't even know exactly where it is other than somewhere near Timor; which it is not, relatively speaking
Pulau Komodo is bigger than I expected, a vast untamed island of high, savannah clad hills and thick dry jungle in the valleys. It is 390sq. kms in area and is home to a couple of thousand dragons. It is a National Park and a World heritage Site and you must make landfall at the wooden dock in a wide bay on its eastern coast. We anchor offshore and are ferried to the dock in the dugout, then walk to the Park office where we are signed in, pay our entrance fee and are given a guide. The guides are all local men and we are slightly bemused to see their Dragon defense weapons - a long stick with a 'V' at the end - the idea being that if a dragon attacks they use the V to poke the critter in the nose to keep it at bay - Komodo dragons are a protected species so you can't shoot them if they threaten you!
We have signed up for a two hour trek through the nearby wilderness and the first thing our guide tells us is that we may not actually see any dragons - it's a big island and they roam freely around it, I hope we get lucky
Dragons don't necessarily kill and eat their prey immediately, they only need to administer one bite, anywhere on the body, then they wait for their poisonous, bacteria-ridden saliva to do the rest. We are told that once bitten, a victim can take up to a week to succumb to the poison. In the case of animals, the dragon just bides it time until it's meal dies or is near death, then it gobbles it up, bones and all, leaving just the too large to swallow head as evidence. For humans who are attacked all is not lost, although the only antidote to their bite is antibiotics which, for some unfathomable reason, is only available on Bali. This means an emergency dash by helicopter or plane to hospital in Denpassar, which the victim must pay for himself. Over the years, guides and local natives have perished because they can't afford the airfare or hospital bills
Back at the old waterhole, our guide is trying to goad the big male into some kind of activity, but it's too lazy to move. We take copious photos off it then dash behind the guide as the female wakes up and begins walking off into the bush. We push on, walking along a trail through the shady vegetation. We are some shown some holes in the back of a dry riverbed which we are told are dragon nests. We see a deer limping across a grassy clearing, it's days are numbered as it has already been nipped and will soon be eaten.
The guide points out a splotch of dried, white chalky stuff on the trail - dragon poo. The white is from the calcium of bones. Now we are seeing white stuff everywhere. Our trail takes us out of the forest and up a barren rocky slope where the sun is blistering. We decide not to climb the big hill that constitutes the second hour of our trek, instead, we walk to a crest called Sulphurea Hill, named after the sulphur-crested cockatoos that inhabit the island, and take in a good view of the bay below.
On the way back to the office we pass the waterhole again and the big male is still there. The guide goads him again and he rises up on his front legs, thick drool oozing out of his mouth
That night we anchor in a calm bay, just offshore from one of Komodos few places of human habitation, a stilt-house fishing village, complete with mosque. Several local people come out to our boat in canoes to try and sell us their wares - namely pearl necklaces and carvings of Dragons. It's a peaceful night other than that and we can only sit in wonder as the sun sets over Komodo and the stars come out in force, the Southern Cross most prominent above us.
Early next morning we raise the anchor and motor off to nearby Rinca Island. While Komodo is the most well known home of the dragons, it is Rinca where you really can see the beasts enmasse. It's much smaller than Komodo, hotter, drier and with less vegetation. There are fewer dragons living here but many of them tend to congregate around one of the only inhabited spots, The Camp. We head down a narrow inlet and dock at a wooden wharf where we are met by a guide with a forked stick. Then we walk along a stony path across a tidal mudflat. We spot a dragon a few dozen metres away, walking across the flats as if it owns the place.
At the camp there is a display of skulls - deer, boar and huge horned buffalo. There is also a notice pinned on a board detailing all the dragon attacks on Rinca over the past 10 years or so. There are many 'Survived', but also at least three 'Dead on Side (sic)' (I think they mean 'on site'). Once, the people here used to feed live goats to the dragons for tourist entertainment, that practice has been curtailed but the dragons still come and hang out around the camp kitchen - they can smell food from five kilometres away.
There are loads of the beasts lying about, from a huge spread-eagled male to a very active and velociraptor-like teenager, whose bite is just as deadly as his dad's. Our guide on Rinca is much more cautious and fear-instilling than the dragon baiting Komodo guy. He tells us about his friend who was recently killed defending some tourists from an attack. He tells us of a Swiss tourist who was topped a few years ago when he was attacked from behind while adjusting his tripod.
As we are paying our guide and entrance fee a pair of long skinny tree snakes, entwined in the act of love making fall out of a tree next to us, causing great excitement amongst the guides and giving us the feeling that Rinca is full of surprises
This guide is a cracker, he stops suddenly and points to a large, skeletal tree just off the trail. "See, on the branch, a baby dragon! You are very lucky!" We look hard and sure enough, we can just about make-out a small lizard on a branch. The baby dragons spend their first years up trees because, you may have guessed it, dragons are also cannibals and eat their own without compassion or hesitation. All is not safe up trees however, apparently the local macaque monkeys like nothing more than to play cheeky games with the little lizards, even grabbing their tails and tossing them out of the trees.
Dragon poo on the path! Then, down a side trail we see a fully grown female waddling towards us. When she spots us she stops and raises her head, flicks out her forked tongue and moves forward. We are hustled along the trail then stop and look back. The creature is running toward us in a way that would funny if it wasn't so bloody scary. Swearing and gasps from us as we scurry behind the guide who stand his ground with stick in hand. About 10 metres from us the dragon stops and raises itself up on its front legs, drooling and tongue flicking like she's just stumbled across a roast beef dinner and a bottle of Burgundy
We move on again and then see yet another beast, a male, lumbering along the path ahead of us. We feel surrounded. This old fellow doesn't seem interested in us and we are led right up behind it as it walks along, until it decides that this part of the trail is a good place to have a rest and it just stops, blocking our way. I thought we may have to step over it but the guide says no, "too dangerous", so we retrace our steps back to the camp. On the way we are spooked by a large black Boar then come across a troop of monkeys in a clearing.
As always, monkeys are fun to watch, and they think we are too. The guide tells us that they too are often victim to the dragons but generally they are smart enough to keep together and not turn their backs on a dragon for a second. At last, back at camp, we relax with Cokes, seated safely on a veranda while the dragons sunbathe below. The guide tells us that he only gets paid about 25,000 rupiah a tour (about $2.50) and he may only do a couple of tours a week if he's lucky. He also tells us how he would have to pay for his chopper to Bali if bitten, how local villages must always be vigilant, for their children, their dogs and livestock - life in the land of the dragons is like living in Jurassic Park
We leave the lost world of Rinca and motor down the straits to a tiny island, no more than a small hill, one tree and a white sandy beach. We nose up to the sand and everyone, crew, captain and all dive off the boat and frolic in the warm, crystal clear water for an hour or so before heading off to our end destination, Flores Island.
The port on western Flores is called Labuanbajo. As we approach its jungle clad hills we feel like sailors of old coming into a far flung port in the Spice Islands, which we are, except for the old bit. The bay and harbour is dotted with boats including many sailing vessels, and Labuanbajo itself, as seen from the water, looks like an exotic and romantic vision of a tropical town.
As we tie up at the dock, amongst similar tour boats as ours, dock workers are loading a large old freighter, the Mullahs in the town's mosques are singing the Call to Prayer and we can only guess at what adventures we are going to experience when we finally leave the boat in the morning. This voyage has been everything we hoped for and we feel like we have plunged into a travellers' time warp surround by a world of wonders.