For most travellers exploring the vast archipelago of Indonesia, Flores and Komodo National Park seem just a little out of the way, especially as many choose to stay around Bali for the most part (why??). Flying there is pretty easy, but a tad pricey for those on a tight budget. Which also excludes the multi-day boat tours from Lombok for many. A cheaper option is to take the overland route, involving several bus and ferry journeys, taking a total of 24 hours. That’s if you’re lucky and don’t experience any delays, break downs or bad weather! So why go to all the trouble? For me, that’s an easy answer: KOMODO DRAGONS.
As a zoologist, I love searching out a place’s native wildlife in their natural habitat. Similar to my time in Australia, the chance to see a species unique only to that part of the world was something I simply couldn’t pass up. So after persuading a recently-acquired travel buddy (let’s call her R) it was worth the trip, we rocked up to the airport to book some last-minute tickets. As we then discovered, buying last-minute tickets at the airport generally means having to stretch your budget even further. But what the heck. The phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ was ringing round in our brains.
We arrived in Labuan Bajo, the main town on the island of Flores, with very little in the way of a plan. After asking the lady at the info desk where the cheapest accommodation in town could be found, she immediately answered ‘Cool Corner’. A little too quickly, but I ignored that. A short taxi drive later and we’re standing outside a dodgy-looking alley off one of the main streets. We warily wandered to an open doorway leading into a small entrance room. There’s a toilet immediately to our right and a closed door in front of us. ‘This must be to the reception, right?’ I was thinking. However, on opening the door I was greeted by bunk beds and sleeping backpackers. We’re totally confused, but then the owner/manager/whatever-he-was popped up and ushered us into the room. Turns out this one square area with six bunk-beds is the ENTIRE HOSTEL. ‘Hesistant’ is one word to describe how we felt. But sure, we’re on an adventure, right? We looked at each other and shrugged. He took our money, scribbled our names into a tattered notebook and that was us checked in. It’s actually pretty hilarious, looking back.
Our first step was to figure out how we were going to see these dragons we came so far to find. With so many tour agencies in town, it was very easy. The biggest choice you have to make is whether to do a one-day trip to Rinca Island, or go the extra distance to Komodo Island itself. Both islands are within Komodo National Park, and as both R and I tend to get seasick, we chose the shorter boat trip to Rinca. The adventure was on.
The next morning, bright and early, we set off with two other girls from the “hostel”. I was ridiculously excited, although I think my yawns may have masked that fact. With only the four of us on the boat, it was a very relaxing trip on very calm waters. Within two hours, we arrived at a tiny harbour. We were about to step foot on Komodo National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage site ticked off my list. You could tell that all four of us were mentally crossing our fingers, hoping we’d be able to find at least one komodo dragon. Little did we know it would be so easy. Rangers, doubling as tour guides in the park, played cards under a ‘Welcome to Komodo National Park’ sign – clearly there weren’t many tourists about. Within thirty seconds, we found a “small” dragon lying in wait on some rocks right by the jetty. Small is a relative term here. This guy was only 1.5 metres long, in comparison to the 3 metres many dragons grow to. Mezmerised, we inched closer. The dragon appeared not to notice us, but that didn’t stop our ranger – Paolo – from motioning us back when we stepped a little too close for comfort. Having seen one dragon already, I was pretty satisfied with the day! Then, about five minutes later, the ranger showed us two more dragons lounging under a building nearby. One of them was a real monster, the full 3 meters long, and with a painted stripe on his back to indicate this dragon was more aggressive than the others. Oh, lovely.
Three dragons, that was enough for us, right? We didn’t need to see any more.
After going through all the ridiculous park fees, including the park entry, island entry, hiking and wildlife spotting fees (if I’d promised to shut my eyes, do you think I could have gotten a discount?), we were taken to the rangers’ cook house. Not for an early lunch, unfortunately, but to see the EIGHT dragons lounging around underneath the building. The stilts were a very clever idea.
Surprising fact about komodo dragons #1: they really like to cuddle.
Dragons were marvelled at, selfies were taken, then it was off on a short jungle trek. Though my legs (and lungs) burned from the walk up to the top of the hill, the view over Rinca and the surrounding islands was breathtaking – the good kind of breathtaking. Back down in the trees, we found yet another dragon. Paolo took us to a known nesting area, where he made a swift retreat after realising the nest was occupied! A female had been chilling in the large hollow, and we may have disturbed her. Luckily for us, she decided that making some rearrangements to the nest was more important than chasing off the intruders. This moment felt special, as we had finally found a dragon in the wild, and not lazing about near the humans.
Surprising fact about Komodo Dragons #2: when babies hatch, they make a run for the trees to avoid being eaten…by their parents.
Two hours on the island, then it was time to leave. Buzzing from our experience there, we headed back to our little boat and the long (and eventful – maybe one day I’ll tell you about it) journey home. Looking back, it’s no surprise that my time in Komodo National Park was one of my best experiences of 2016.
On a side note – Labuan Bajo airport has one of the prettiest landings I’ve ever experienced. Do you agree?
Welcome to This Wild Life of Mine (previously known as Life of Dearbh)
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.