Dragon Hunters (Bucket List #48)

Komodo Island, Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia • March 2017 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

“Do you want to go and hunt some dragons?” I asked Fraser, taking a sip of export beer. We had met in the bar area of Bali’s New Seminyak Capsule Hostel approximately only three minutes before, but it was one of those awesome rare occasions where you instantly click with someone; a complete stranger who you feel like you’ve known your whole life.

“The Komodo dragons?” queried my fellow Scot, a smile spreading across his face. “Absolutely, I’ve wanted to see them since I was a kid.” Fraser and I had quickly figured out that we only lived about twenty minutes away from each other back home in Glasgow, but surprisingly had no mutual friends. What we did have, however, were very similar personalities and dry senses of humour. The perfect combination.

“Awesome,” I replied, excited at his enthusiasm. “It says here in my guidebook that the small islands of Komodo and Rinca off the west coast of Flores are the only places in the world where these big giant monitor lizards can be seen. Although there is no accepted reason why the dragons are only found in this small area of Indonesia, it’s thought that their ancestors came from Australia four-million years ago. About 4000 of them live in the wild.”

“Let’s get those plane tickets booked then,” he smiled. “I’m all for spontaneous adventures and this is far too cool an opportunity to turn down.”

With our flight being labelled as 'delayed' on the screens in the domestic departures lounge, we got chatting to a couple of Swiss girls waiting for the same plane to land. The blonde was a rock climber and had been scaling faces and walls all around Asia for the previous two months. As she explained the rush she got every time she dusted her hands in chalk and stepped into that first foothold, I became mesmerised. I love it when people start talking about things that they are genuinely passionate about. A cosmic energy seems to flow out of them and transfix their listeners who, regardless of whether they have any initial interest in the subject, find themselves hanging onto every word. The light in her eyes made me want to ditch my current travel plans, buy a harness and hammock, and go live out my existence in the hills and valleys of Yosemite National Park.

We also met a thirty-five-year-old freelance journalist from the States who had been solo-travelling the world for the previous four years, and boarding the flight one-hour late alongside her I picked her brain for tidbits of knowledge as to how to sustain a life-work balance when on the road. Her answer: Avoid party hostels. My response: Not too lightly.

There were only about twenty people on board the plane, and plonking my arse down in seat 1A I was given a near-perfect view of the safety demonstration. Our air hostess was a beautiful Indonesian woman with enormous fake boobies. So big, in fact, that, when she showed us how to inflate the life vest in the event of an emergency landing at sea, I thought a better option would be to just grab a hold of her artificial delights and use them as a floatation device.

As we went wheels up on the runway, however, I re-focused my attention on the staggering archipelagos and reefs whizzing by below, the country of Indonesia being comprised of over 18,000 individual islands. In what seemed like no time at all we were landing on a solitary runway amongst towering lush green mountains, and as we were taxied into the lone hanger which served as the terminal building a sign welcomed us to Flores' western seaside port town of Labuan Bajo. I’d booked our accommodation on Flores based entirely on its name, so was delighted when I found out that it also offered a free airport pick-up and welcome drink in addition to fully air-conditioned rooms with cable television. Exiting the baggage claim, however, it became immediately apparent why. I started to laugh. At the other side of the carpark, directly across the road from the airport, a sign reading

I’d booked our accommodation on Flores based entirely on its name, so was delighted when I found out that it also offered a free airport pick-up and welcome drink in addition to fully air-conditioned rooms with cable television. Exiting the baggage claim, however, it became immediately apparent as to why. I started to laugh. At the other side of the carpark, directly across the road from the airport, a sign reading Exotic Komodo Hotel shone back at us. “I think we’ll be able to just walk this one,” I laughed.

“There’s a phone call for you, Crobs,” said the receptionist as I sat down for a cup of coffee in the restaurant area.

“For me?” I said, confused. “Who on earth would be calling me at a random hotel in the back-arse-of-nowhere Indonesia? Nobody even knows that I’m here.”

“Someone called Katherine,” she shrugged, handing me the phone. I was still none the wiser.

“Hello?” I cautiously said, putting it to my ear.

“Hi Crobs,” came a slightly familiar voice from the receiver. “Katherine here, the American woman you met on the plane. I was just wondering if you’ve managed to sort out a tour tomorrow to Komodo Island. I’ve been struggling to get on one at such short notice.”

“Ah, hi Katherine,” I said, feeling rather uneasy. I had absolutely no recollection of telling her where Fraser and I had booked to stay that evening. “Unfortunately we got the last two spaces on our boat, so I don’t think I can be of any help.” It's moments like this what little white lies were invented for.

“No worries,” she said, sounding deflated. “I just thought I’d check on the off chance. Have a good time."

“Well, that was fucking creepy,” I sighed, hanging up the phone.

Our alarm clock woke us up before the sound of the cockerels the following morning, and we sleepily shuffled down to the pier where our boat was docked. I felt like a fairy tale prince about to embark on a quest to slay a fire-breathing beast, saving the helpless princess in the process and having her fall in love with me. Happily ever after. The end. As the motors of the unseaworthy vessel coughed into life like an asthmatic chain smoker and revved like a chainsaw, however, I plugged in my earbuds, turned the volume up on my iPod, and came back down to reality. My stomach started to rumble. I really should have tried to squeeze in some breakfast. We had a long journey ahead.

As we chugged out into the vast, calm, ocean, a Spanish girl burst open a packet of chocolate biscuits and began to devour them faster than Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, feeding the occasional one to her boyfriend who had decided to lock his attention into a handheld video games console. Everyone else on the boat then had to look on in disgust as she finished the packet and started nibbling on her man’s ear; clearly still hungry. This needy petting continued until she got the attention she so craved and the pair soon started necking off right there in the middle of the tiny wooden boat. I’m all for romance, but public displays of affection like that are completely uncalled for.

“That was like watching the introduction to an amateur porno,” I laughed when, five hours later, we eventually docked up at Komodo Island. Our ten-strong group had collectively ditched the Spanish couple at the ranger’s office and gone straight to one of the food stalls near the pier for a meal of breakfast; brunch; elevenses; and lunch, rolled into one.

“Thankfully they stopped halfway through the journey when he got seasick overboard,” laughed one of the four Dutchmen we’d shared the ride across with.

“He was an idiot on that journey,” laughed his mate. “I mean how else do you expect that your body will react if you stuff a packet of chocolate biscuits down your pie hole and then transfix your eyes on the bright lights and colours of a games console whilst being rocked around in a bathtub of a boat.”

After fattening ourselves up so that we would be more juicy and attractive pray for the omnivorous dragons, in hindsight maybe not the best idea, we met the park guides who were to lead us into the heart of the island in search of these near-mythical creatures. We were not guaranteed to see any, but the chances were high.

Gathering round, they gave us a spiel about the dangers involved and what we should do in the event of an attack. This was all well and good, but I couldn’t help notice that these guides who, let’s not forget, were being paid to protect us from the deadly 3m long, 100kg, tank-like animals, were holding nothing but a large wooden stick apiece. I would have felt a lot more secure if they been carrying automatic rifles than something that looked like it had been stolen from a Venetian gondolier, especially considering that there is no cure for a Komodo dragon bite. The bacteria in their mouth is so poisonous that one bite from them will lead to septic infections that will eventually kill their victim, but not before up to two weeks of miserable pain. A Gandalf staff the sticks may have been mistaken for, but I highly doubted that a shout of ‘you shall not pass’ would do anything to deter these creatures, especially considering how they treat their family members.

Komodo dragons enjoy eating their young, and juvenile dragons, therefore, have to spend their nursery years living in the trees to avoid becoming a meal for adults; only coming down when they are big enough to protect themselves. This piece of knowledge soon had me glancing upwards as well as into the undergrowth on either side of the path we walked along. Our guide was effectively telling us that they could not only get us from ground level but also by falling down from the sky. This did little to appease my nerves as the path then opened out into a clearing and we saw them for the first time. Two giant Komodo dragons lazing about in an open area where the sun shone through a hole in the jungle canopy.

“It will be safe to go close to this pair,” said our lead guide with remarkable confidence. He did, I suppose, know what he was talking about. “The dragons will feed on large animals up to 100kg in one sitting and then retire for up to one month to digest their massive meal. These two both appear to have eaten very recently so are very unlikely to strike out.

Heeding his warnings and subsequent advice, we slowly shuffled forwards closer and closer towards the dragons, each of us in sheer awe of them. To come within near touching distance of such an evolutionarily adept killing machine sent me into complete awe. And to see them out with the confines and cages of a zoo made it all the more special. Kneeling down behind one of them, I felt like I’d actually hunted down and tamed a proper dragon. All there was next was to find and rescue the princess, wherever she may be.