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Published: April 11th 2012
Dragons in the Year of the Dragon….
For many years I’ve tried to plan a trip to Komodo National Park. After several attempts, I discovered that traveling in less developed parts of Indonesia means old style travel. I don’t mean horse-and-buggy-old-style, but I do mean the kind of old style where you can’t rely on the internet, trip advisor, or google searches. Somewhere, deep in my memory, there is a hazy vision of buying a plane ticket and landing in a foreign place with no hotel reservations, no tours booked, no transportation planned out. The only information I had to guide my arrival was what I could find in an out-of-date Lonely Planet (or more likely, Let’s Go!) book. After that, it was all adventure. Sadly, the easy availability of travel reviews and booking options have made me a planner, instead of a pioneer.
When I started planning my trip to Flores and Komodo National Park, I did all the usual searches. However, I hit brick walls at every turn. A google map turned up a featureless outline of the island that only gave me the vague location of Labuan Bajo – the city closest to the dragons. No
matter how much I zoomed in, hotels and cafes did not reveal themselves. Trip Advisor had limited hotel options. I wrote to several tour companies about day trips to Komodo National Park and were told they didn’t do regular group tours, but could arrange a charter trip for me. Costs were about $250 a day. That seemed kind of steep for Indonesia and I didn’t really want to go alone. Even a search of travel blogs had some general stories, but few details. It seems that if I was going to do this trip, I was going to have to do it old school – book my air and take a leap of faith that it would all work out.
I did manage to book a hotel, but without reviews or recommendations. I arrived to a fairly new, fairly basic accommodation. In towns like Labuan Bajo, luxury does not mean goose down pillows and personal butler service. It means hot water, a private bathroom, and air conditioning. Fortunately, I had hit the trifecta of luxury! The room was nothing special, but I did have a spectacular view of the town below, the harbor, and distant islands. As soon as
a checked in, I looked for the staff to give me some tips on booking a tour, getting to town, finding some drinking water… But, alas, it seems handing me my key was their final duty for the day. I could find no one to help me. So, I set off to discover on my own.
Within 15 minutes of wandering I had found the town. It consisted of a dusty L-shaped main road. The part of the L that I discovered first had no shops, restaurants, or tour companies. Just when I started to get concerned, I found the 200 meters that comprises their tourist industry. After a quick lunch of delicious beef rendang and a cold beer, I started to see what was available. I stopped into nearly every dive shop and tour company (which is about 12 businesses) to see what was on the plan for the next day. I was seeking a group that I could join in with for a daytrip to see the area. Most did not have anyone currently signed up and told me to check back around 5 PM. I waited this long, so why not wait until 5?
the end, I booked on a boat with two British gentlemen. The cost was about $35 each, which is significantly less than the internet companies were charging. We started off in the morning for the island of Rinca. This is one of the 3 islands in Komodo National Park. However, when compared to the island of Komodo, Rinca is closer to Flores, has more dragons, and is smaller – which makes sightings more likely. It took about 2 hours by slow boat to get there. Once on the island, you pay your fees and are given a guide. This is not a walk you want to take by yourself!
Our guide was very knowledgeable knew everything about the dragons. He carried a big stick (our only protection?!) to keep the beasts away. The first thing he told us – don’t get within 7 meters of them, they will try to trick you by pretending to be asleep and they are quick, clocking in at 18 km per hour. I’m not sure how long they could run this fast, but I was pretty sure it was longer than I could! At that point, we went on a 3 km hike
that would take us through the forest, past several Komodo nests and to a high point – where we could view the island. All three of us were a bit nervous and wary of every log or bump in the dirt that we saw.
During our walk, the guide regaled us with all his facts. This is the last habitat of these endangered creatures. There are less than 3000 of them, but their numbers have been growing since they became protected. I have to say, even thought I found them fascinating, they are fairly horrible creatures. They have very simple lives – they hunt, they eat, they sleep. They are solitary and violent. They will eat any meat they find – buffalo, humans, their young. They consume every bit of what they kill, including the bones. (We know this from the piles of white poo around the island.) They also have been endowed with poisonous saliva. They simply bite and wait. The few houses and buildings on these islands are built up on stilts to avoid unwelcome guests. Two rangers were recently bitten and had to be airlifted to Bali to be treated. To me, these dragons seemed a
lot like dinosaurs that didn’t get the memo they were suppose to have become extinct.
At first, we saw the scavenger dragons that hang around the camp, waiting for scraps. But, as we walked we saw several more – younger, fitter hunters. There was one that was rooting around a nest – which is just holes in the ground covered with dirt – for hatchlings. When Komodo dragons are born, they must immediately scurry up a tree to protect themselves. There is no mother to take care of them. They either learn quickly that adults can’t climb trees or they live very short lives. They spend the next couple of years in the tree, living off geckos and bugs. No wonder they are endangered.
On our way back to Labuan Bajo, we stop off for a bit of swimming and snorkeling in the clear waters that make up the non-island portions of the park. There are many bits of land that dot the water in this area. Any one of them would be a quiet place to spend the day. It was a refreshing and relaxing stop on a warm and sunny day. Once we hit Flores, I
made a beeline for the only spa in town. I signed up for a foot massage and facial. I think I got both, but I promptly fell asleep, so I can’t be sure. At any rate, it was a really good $12 nap.
Overall, this was a worthwhile trip and something I would suggest for anyone traveling in Indonesia. However, even though I keep hear that Komodo National Park’s election to the title of “7 wonders of the natural world” will be a tourist boon for this town, they are far from ready. At nearly every meal, at nearly every restaurant, I ordered something and was told “sorry – finished – we have to get that from Bali”. I was beginning to wonder if Bali only sends supplies once a month, instead of on the many daily, 1 hour flights to Flores. Of course, the unexpected and slightly inconvenient can be part of the charm. Throwing caution to the wind, on my final night I even flagged down a teenager on a motorbike and paid him 50 cents (plus a generous 20% tip) to take me up the hill to my hotel. Old school!
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