We spotted the dragon stomping towards us with a confident reptilian swagger. Its broad shoulders flexed and its heavy tail swung back and forth with every step. The snake-like face was complete with a long forked tongue that flicked in and out as it tasted the air. Komodo dragons are unique to a handful of islands in Indonesia's Komodo National Park. The world's largest lizards, Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation due to their venomous and reliably lethal bite. We were understandably perturbed to see one of these formidable creatures coming straight for us.
A yell of “Get off the path” broke the awestruck silence and we hastily cleared the way for the approaching dragon. The rangers levelled their forked sticks at the beast, ready to fend off any unwelcome attention. As the lizard advanced, it turned its head towards us, catching our scent on its highly sensitive tongue. While it paused to consider its next move, a ranger took the initiative and used his stick to catapult a broken log into the forest. The projectile crashed into the undergrowth and the dragon turned with an angry hiss, charging towards the log as it rolled away. Seeing how fast they could move gave us a deeper appreciation of how dangerous an angry Komodo dragon could be. We were happy to sneak away while the dragon was distracted.
The Lazy Komodo Dragon
Our next dragon encounter was considerably more sedate. This dragon, though much larger than the first, was comparatively docile. Basking in the sunshine, its brown scaly skin was well camouflaged against the mottled leaf litter on the forest floor. The rangers assured us that the sunbathing dragon wouldn't bother to move so it was safe to approach. A lengthy photo shoot ensued and culminated in a group shot with all 14 of us huddled just a metre or so behind the Komodo dragon.
Walking further through the forest we came across several deer, each solitary and alert as they relaxed in the shade of the trees. One nervous looking fawn stood trembling by the path. As suitable dragon fodder, we didn't think it would last long. We crossed paths with a sturdy looking wild boar that didn't hang around, and even saw another huge but lazy dragon.
Kampung Komodo Village
Kampung Komodo, a village around a kilometre from the pier, is inhabited mainly by Bugis squid fishermen and their families. Their houses, which line the shoreline, are raised up on stilts to protect them from the dragons. The villagers are well prepared to fend off unwelcome dragons with forked sticks or stones but very occasional fatalities still occur. The most recent was in 2007 when a young boy was attacked on the fringes of the village.
The villagers realise that the Komodo dragons attract tourists that spend money on park entrance fees, ranger services and souvenirs. Some of the villagers carve wooden dragons for sale and there is a small market next to the pier where visitors have the chance to purchase these souvenirs. Despite the dangers, the villagers recognise the economic benefits and live in relative harmony with the dragons.
Komodo Dragon Walking Tips
Komodo dragons that are active and walking around can be fairly aggressive. If you can find one that's sunbathing, it's likely to be more relaxed.
Dragon walks in Komodo National Park will always be led by local rangers. Be sure to follow their advice.
While looking for Komodo dragons, keep an eye out for other wildlife as well. We saw deer, wild boar and a local species of friarbird.
How To Get To Komodo National Park
Getting to the back of beyond is not as difficult as you would think.
1. Fly to Bali.
2. Take a domestic flight to Labuan Bajo. Check out Garuda Indonesia for flight options.
3. Most accommodations in and around Labuan Bajo can organise day trips to visit the Komodo National Park. This will often include a guided walk to look for dragons.