a dragon of a time on Rinca

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June 24th 2009
Published: June 25th 2009
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The bus from Ruteng took an hour less to Labuanbajo than it had on the trip up. I’m not sure if it was better to get the ride over with faster so it would just be over, or if longer would have been better as it would have been somewhat less nauseating and we wouldn’t have almost been taken out by trucks on two of the blind hairpin bends. The chap in the seat in front of me threw up four times during the trip!

In Labuanbajo I’m staying at the Gardena Hotel which is where most tourists stay - and there are a lot of tourists in this town (it being the gateway to Komodo). At this time of year, at least, its advisable to arrange your hotel ahead of arrival as everywhere seems to be fully booked (I just got a room on lucky chance). Labuanbajo is stinking hot and it doesn’t strike me as a very friendly place. Its very different to the other places I’ve been in Sumba, Timor or Flores. In fact it reminds me of a smaller dirtier version of Kuta on Bali, where everyone is just out to get as much money from the tourists as they can. In the main the only people who show smiles are those working in the tourist industry piling people onto Komodo and Rinca. There’s only one ATM in Labuanbajo which is inconveniently located at the opposite end of town to my hotel, but contrary to what I had heard pre-arrival it doesn’t only take local cards so that’s a relief. There are mosquitoes everywhere; on my first night I neglected to utilise a mosquito net and got bitten 21 times, and not little bites either, great big welt-like bites. Nasty. Blackouts seem to be regular. And there is a mosque right next door which broadcasts ultra-loud chanting through speakers, starting at 4.30am! On the plus side there was a tokay gecko living in my bathroom. At the supermarket I had to buy a Pocari Sweat to see how it tasted - it turns out its like a very weak L&P (for overseas readers, that would translate as a very weak fizzy lemonade). I’ve also seen the first feral pigeons of the trip: not exactly a thing of earth-shatteringness but its just interesting because usually you see them in every single town you go to anywhere on the planet.

I didn’t do much the first day in town, just went for a short walk in the late afternoon to see if I could see any birds south of town. I came across what appeared to have once been some sort of beachside park but which is now neglected and overgrown and inhabited by some rather unpleasant-looking feral dogs. Not many birds to speak of. At the hotel I sorted out a boat to the island of Rinca for the next day. Most of the town is geared towards getting tourists out to see the Komodo dragons; there are tour operators every few metres down the main road. At the hotel three guests had already organised a boat to take them over to Rinca and then to the resort island of Seraya Island, so another girl and I both joined in the Rinca section of the trip. With the five of us the price per person was only 140,000 (about NZ$25 or so). To that has to be added the National Park permit fee of US$15 for 1-3 days (US$25 for 4-8 days which is what I got because I’m going to Komodo as well in a few days), 20,000 rupiah for the entry fee to the park and another 20,000 rupiah "retribution fee" whatever that means (both doubled to 40,000 if getting a 4-8 day ticket). However there wasn’t a camera fee which I had read there was, so that’s something.

The boat ride (on the “Prima Dona”) took just two hours to Rinca. I had originally been planning on staying overnight on the island, but it was easier to just come back the same day. I’m running a bit over-schedule on this leg of my trip and the longer I spend in the Lesser Sundas the shorter the length of time I get in Sulawesi, due to having to be out of Indonesia on a specific date for visa reasons. So therefore I did Rinca as a day trip which worked out quite well. You only get about three hours on the island but the dragons are easy to see in that time and there is little birdlife there. The only reason I wanted to stay overnight was to try and search out a little rat called Komodomys which was only discovered in 1981 and as yet has only been found on Rinca, but the likelihood is that I wouldn’t be able to find it anyway so it was a small sacrifice.

Douglas Adams in his book “Last Chance To See” made the observation that the landscape of Komodo is reminiscent of the Komodo dragons themselves, in the way the brown barren hills are all rounded and pleated like the bodies and limbs of the dragons, and he is absolutely right. All the islands around the area look the same, and it takes very little imagination to see the dragon characteristics of the land-forms. The dragons of course are really giant monitor lizards which subsist on buffaloes, deer and pigs. On Rinca you walk up to the reception area where you get the permits and a room if you’re staying overnight, and there are dragons lying all around the huts like big scaly dogs. Its sort of like seeing them in a zoo in-as-much as they aren’t doing anything at all, just lying there in the shade, relaxing, gloomily watching the barred doves pecking around in the sand by their heads. Oh look another lot of tourists, they think, opening an eye to take a quick look then back to sleep again. You are required to have a National Park guide with you any time you are walking on Rinca or Komodo. There are a couple of trails near the “settlement” at Loh Buaya so the group of us went for a two hour ramble along a well-prescribed track, passing other lots of tourist groups with regularity. The Komodo dragon has a lot of mystique about it but it is really very easy to get to the islands (just a short inexpensive flight from Bali to Labuanbajo then a short boat trip) and probably thousands of tourists do it every year. Yet this sort of cheapens the experience. Seeing the dragons should be an awe-inspiring experience but the island is so thick with tourists that it becomes a rather pedestrian thing walking there with everyone else, pointing at a dragon, pointing at a macaque, pointing at a buffalo. I’m very glad I went and I did enjoy it a lot but it wasn’t the way I would have liked the moment to be. Apart for seeing the dragons sleeping round the huts, we also saw quite a few “in the wild” as it were, out in the bush, including a group languidly surrounding a buffalo with a great rip in its hindquarters where a dragon had nailed it. The buffalo was taking its stand in the middle of a waterhole while the dragons basically just sat around on the banks looking at it, waiting for it to die. Like a tourist in Labuanbajo surrounded by tour operators.

After we left Rinca we stopped off for snorkelling on some tiny island I can’t remember the name of, where I went for a walk in the forlorn hope there might be Nicobar pigeons somewhere on there. Turned out the island was privately owned and regular people were only allowed on the beach which measured all of fifty metres in length. I found a path leading off the beach but someone came along and told me to leave because only guests of Reefseekers Bungalows were allowed up there (even though he also admitted the bungalows were still being built and the place wouldn’t be open till next year). Then we dropped off the others at Seraya lsland and I travelled back to Labuanbajo on the Prima Dona in the dark through the disappointingly non-phosphorescent sea, almost half-expecting to run aground in the maze of islands and reefs and have to spend the night on a sinking boat. Once back at the harbour I had a fun obstacle course jumping from my boat to another one, climbing through that to its front, then jumping to another boat and then another, and then shinning up a too-delicate ladder to get onto the wharf, all in the dark.

I keep getting my loyal readers asking about the progress of the no-shampoo regime for my hair. Well for the first three weeks (including the several days before I left New Zealand) it was getting pretty grim, very very greasy and I think a bit smelly, but because its always in a plait when I travel and under a cap it wasn’t too bad. Now its sort of gone like straw. Not really greasy at all, just very weird-feeling. It’ll be interesting to see how it is in a few more weeks time. But like I said it always looks fine because its in a plait.

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