Eragon (but with a D. And Komodo in front)

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September 5th 2011
Published: September 15th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Komodo IslandKomodo IslandKomodo Island

just like a dragon's spine!
To recap a little from the last post: in Ruteng I met a French birder called Marc travelling with his girlfriend and her sister, Peggy and Nathalie. They were coincidentally going to Labuanbajo on the same day I was so we decided to team up, especially for the trip to Komodo thereby making it more affordable for us all. First however we went to Golo Lusang for a morning birding session (this was back on the 2nd of September), they after shortwings and myself after parrots. Neither of us found what we were looking for, but we did discover that while the passenger vehicles were constant in the morning they dried up around ten. To cut a long story short, we had a little trouble getting back to Ruteng and didn't make it back to the hotel to check-out until 2pm (check-out was at 12 but fortunately they were nice enough not to charge us for another night), and not to Labuanbajo till 6.30pm.

After Flores I had been intending to go to Sumba to try and find all the birds I missed in 2009 but Marc and the girls had just come from there and informed me of the price increases at the guesthouse in Lewa, particularly a 700,000 rupiah transport fee to find the citron-crested cockatoos there, and I realised my budget wouldn't allow it. Therefore on the bus ride to Labuanbajo I formulated a new plan. Instead of going to Sumba and then West Timor, I would spend an extra week in Flores - allowing me to continue rat-hunting and also to visit Riung to see these big lizards that occur there - and then go by ferry from Ende to West Timor. The Pelni office in Labuanbajo told me when I asked there that no ferries went from Ende to Kupang but on their own website it says there is one at 9pm on the 12th, so that's what I'll count on. At worst I'll just fly from Ende to Kupang . I had also been wanting to change my flight to Kuala Lumpur from Bali to Makassar (because I don't like Bali, and then I could say I've been to Sulawesi three times!) but Air Asia won't allow route changes so Bali it stays. Once in Kuala Lumpur on the 20th I'm off to Taman Negara (tapirs ahoy!). So basically what all that means is that apart for the 13 days in Sulawesi at the start, almost the entire Indonesian part of this trip will be spent in Flores. I think I must like it here.

The morning after we arrived in Labuanbajo, Marc and I went to Puarlolo, taking a couple of motorbikes at 5.30 in the dawning. Puarlolo is where everyone goes to see the endemic Flores monarch flycatcher ("everyone" in this context being birders, because other sorts of people don't matter). I had gone there in 2009 but only once and not until the afternoon due to the annoying bus system, so I didn't see any monarchs then. This time was completely different. We easily found a number of pairs and watched them for some time. They really are very nice birds. We also found an obliging elegant pitta who sat in a tree and called for ages, and a male paradise flycatcher, all white apart for the dark head, with long streamer-like tail feathers. Like a little forest angel he was. Then we walked off down the road a bit to see if we could spot any Flores hawk-eagles but it was too hot so I piked out and caught a passenger truck back to Labuanbajo. Marc acted like a proper birder and eventually found a distant pair flying over the hills.

The next morning was D-Day (the D stands for Dragons!). The Komodo trip was for two days and cost 2.2 million rupiah (split between the four of us it cost me just under NZ$80 which was a bargain). In 2009 I went to Rinca and saw the dragons there, but I couldn't find anyone to share the cost of a boat to Komodo so never got there. All the travel guidebooks say that Komodo is very crowded with tourists while Rinca is empty and peaceful, so naturally all the tourists now go to Rinca which has the added attraction of being closer to Labuanbajo and therefore cheaper. The standard two-day trip goes first to Rinca then Komodo, and the next day home via some snorkelling sites. Marc was more interested in the lesser sulphur-crested cockatoos on Komodo than the dragons themselves so they opted to miss Rinca out of the trip and go onto Komodo twice (afternoon and evening). The boat was somewhat smaller than we had anticipated, the same size in fact as the one I had been to Rinca on in 2009; actually it looked like the exact same boat. An hour into the three hour ride the boat started weaving a bit erratically, then the captain came up from below deck, his hands covered in oil, and announced that one of the engines had broken and we would have to return to Labuanbajo. Gotta love Indonesia. However after a bit of discussion on his cellphone he changed his mind and said we would continue after all, but we would be a bit slower than usual. I guess if the second engine broke down, we'd be going even slower. There wasn't much of interest on the sea that day, although we did see a couple of leaping eagle rays which was exciting. Some dolphins showed up but they were so far away that we could barely make them out let alone identify them.

First stop on Komodo was Pantai Merah ("Red Beach") where the sand is pink because it is made from red coral skeletons excreted by parrotfish. Few tourists go to Komodo from Labuanbajo but there are several boats that make a 5-8 day trip from Bali to Labuanbajo and they all stop at Komodo. Pantai Merah is one of the standard snorkelling spots so it was a bit weird the first stop on Komodo being a beach with a whole lot of girls in bikinis. Marc and the girls went snorkelling; I stayed on the boat and went to sleep. That done, and lunch eaten, we sailed round to the Komodo HQ and went ashore. Pantai Merah aside, there really was nobody on the island. We got our obligatory guide and went for a wander, and we were literally the only visitors there. Quite a contrast with my zoo-like Rinca visit where you were passing other groups of tourists every 15 minutes.

It is hot in Labuanbajo - it is very very hot on Komodo! The area the tourists are taken is through a very dry forest comprised mostly of tamarinds, baobabs and palms. The lesser sulphur-crested cockatoos are common here. They have been trapped out through most of their formerly-wide range, with the ones on Komodo probably being the last viable population. Green junglefowl are also very common, as are green imperial pigeons (Marc also saw a pied imperial but I didn't). The spot-necked doves here are huge incidentally: it sounds stupid but the first one I saw as it flew into a nearby tree I thought at first was one of the imperial pigeons! The only mammals seen were rusa deer and wild pigs (both introduced hundreds or possibly thousands of years ago). There are feral water buffalo on the island too, but not around the visitor area. We just saw one dragon in the forest, and when we ended up back at the HQ there were four or five there near the huts. Despite the number of tourists it does seem like the dragons are easier to find on Rinca than Komodo.

The night was spent on the boat about half an hour from the HQ, near an area of mangroves that flying foxes roost in. Unfortunately by the time they decided to fly it was too dark to see anything but silhouettes, but from size alone they can't have been anything else but Pteropus vampyrus.

The next morning we returned to Komodo for more cockatoo-watching. Strangely enough we didn't see any scrubfowl on the island although they should have been easy to find. We did see
guide and Komodo dragonguide and Komodo dragonguide and Komodo dragon

the guide is holding a toothpick for the dragon to get bits of tourist out from between his dentures
a female koel (basically a big cuckoo), and near the HQ a fantastic little Russell's pit viper (actually smaller than I would have expected). Best of all though was when Marc spotted four beach thick-knees quite a distance away on the beach (naturally). We checked them out through his scope but decided a closer view was called for on account of their awesomeness. We managed to get pretty close without spooking them and got excellent views. I've never seen the species before and Marc only once. They sort of remind me of a cross between a bustard and a sunbittern (you might need to Google them to see what I mean). When a pair of sea eagles flew past all four thick-knees tipped their heads up to the sky and swivelled in unison to watch the eagles. Funny birds.

On the way back to Labuanbajo we stopped at a dive site called Manta Point. A bevy of boats slowly circled the area watching out for mantas. When we spotted one Marc leapt overboard and swam after it. He was a little slower than the manta but got a good look at it I think. The girls and I stayed on board. I was quite tempted to risk drowning to say I'd swum with mantas but decided I still needed to see a giant rat so drowning wasn't an option. I can still say I've seen them at least. In contrast to the trip out to Komodo, the return one was brimming over with life. At Manta Point we saw a number of Bulwer's petrels and more later, totalling at least 15 or so. Petrels aren't too exciting off a NZ boat, but off an Indonesian boat they're pretty rare. Great crested terns were in abundance and apparently there were also black-naped and bearded terns but to me they looked like little dots on the horizon. Great-billed herons seemed very common in the area, and we also saw a few green turtles, a pair of unidentified dolphins that surfaced briefly, and another that could only have been an Irrawaddy dolphin (but it was so brief and I'm not 100% sure, so I'm not counting it). Dolphins really are very hard to see here, not at all accommodating to sightseers!

So that was the Komodo trip done with an excellent time had by all. I totally think I could live a life on the ocean waves. Apart for seasickness, drowning and the occasional attack by giant octopus (Octopus giganteus Verrill 1897) there doesn't seem to be any downside. If you have a sailboat you don't even need any money for fuel. For food you can catch fish and squid, and maybe an albatross at Thanksgiving. To combat scurvy you can eat sea cucumbers and sea gooseberries. Ah yes, my plans shall come to pass!

In 2009 I wrote about the ease of getting to see the dragons on Rinca/Komodo, and it bears repeating. There's a bit of a mystique about Komodo dragons and most people would probably think it would be a huge undertaking to see them, but basically you just take a short plane ride from Bali to Labuanbajo, then a boat to the islands. Easy-peasy. Do it now.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Komodo dragon on the moveKomodo dragon on the move
Komodo dragon on the move

I quite like this photo. Its not sharply in focus but I like the angle (I was lying on the ground in front of the dragon to get it)

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