Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have a thing for mythical beasts as reflections of the human soul. Chimera, basilisk, huma, garuda. Now, if only I could see one. But a handful of real-life creatures so capture the human imagination that they may as well be mythical. The Komodo dragon must top that list. Even its name — the hard “k” like Kafka, the elemental “o” triply repeated like a chant, the way it contains the holy Sanskrit syllable “om” — evokes something primal in the brain.
Last year I found myself standing on a pebbly beach on the island of Komodo, engaged in a staring contest with the eponymous beast. It was not eight feet away. I looked straight into its cold eyes, hypnotized by its beige, forked, darting tongue. And it was coming toward me.
I had flown into Labuan Bajo from Bali on a propeller plane. The airport for the one-street town, base camp for most Komodo trips, was too small for jets to land. But at least it had an airport. On the western edge of the Indonesian island of Flores, Labuan Bajo would be a sleepy fishing village but for its proximity to Komodo National Park. Now dive shops, tour agencies, and even a quartet of Italian restaurants (no, really) took up much of the main street. From the air, the surrounding islands were so green as to look oily, rising from the crystalline sea. And although it was clearly my imagination at work, these patches of land resembled for me the heads and bodies of lizards.
I signed up for a two-day boat trip into the park for the princely sum of 800,000 Indonesian rupiahs, roughly $60, with the promise of a porthole toilet and sleeping one night on the deck. As for the capacity of the boat, various agents gave me answers ranging from eight to ten, even though all the boats seemed identical — thin, wooden, painted white, a little frail-looking vessel with a canopy over the passenger seating, a little rooftop space for the captain at night, and kitchen and toilet in the back. The next morning when I showed up at the dock, I found that we would be a group of four — thankfully, as imagining ten on the boat besides the captain and first mate brought to mind images of seafaring from back when sailors got scurvy. Our little boat went by the gentle moniker of “Tiga Putri” or the “Three Daughters.”
My companions were a young Russian couple, Andrei and Yulia, tech people from Moscow, and Magritta, a middle-aged woman from the Spanish island of Minorca. All had passed through Bali as I did, but the subset of travelers who made their way out here had something distinct about them compared to the typical Bali tourist lining up for the nightclub after getting a nice sunburn on the beach. Andrei and Yulia spoke pretty good English and had none of the dourness stereotypical of the Russians. And despite their Slavic pallor and software developers’ physique, they were ready to rough it. Magritta looked like she could have been a bodybuilder ten years ago and told tales of diving around the world. Her charred skin and pair of tattoos on her back and belly attested to these adventures.
We’d all come here dragon-chasing, literally. The fascination was hardly new. People have been fascinated with Komodo dragons since the Western world first heard about them in 1910, when rumors of “land crocodiles” reached the colonial administrators of Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.
In 1926, William Douglas Burden, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, set sail with a party of adventurers to these islands with the aim of capturing one of these dragons. They returned with two live ones and put them on display at the Bronx Zoo. The dead specimens they brought back can still be seen at the AMNH. Their journey, including the idea of having a woman in the party (Burden’s wife went along) and the sensation that the creatures produced in New York society, inspired the film King Kong.
We found them at the very first stop, after a couple hours’ boat ride. Loh Buaya, meaning “crocodile bay,” was the gateway to the island of Rinca (pronounced “Rincha”). A helpful wooden sign read: “Be Carefull [sic] Crocodile Area.” Rinca was the “other” large island included in Komodo National Park, which actually encompassed a couple dozen islands as well as the surrounding sea.
A ranger came out to greet us and brought us to the visitors center. But even before we got there, right inside the park grounds, Magritta let out a cry. Twenty-five feet away a juvenile dragon was scurrying into the bushes. The ranger was just about to tell us that we would see dragons inside, but now he paused and shrugged. “Ah, you already see one here,” he said, faintly annoyed at the interruption to his prepared speech.
Inside, near the visitors center, there was a spot where seeing dragons was “guaranteed.” Guaranteed because the creatures gathered around the rangers’ kitchen. “They smell food and come here,” the ranger said. “We don’t feed them,” he added, “they smell food.” Methinks the lady doth protest too much? You really don’t feed them, but they’re always here? Lonely Planet’s verdict was, “You do the math.”
When we arrived, four eight- or nine-feet long dragons, two male and two female, lay in the shadow cast by the kitchen hut. The sun was brilliant above, and reptiles like to lie in shade. One dragon left his back claw in the sun, and it looked to me oddly mammalian but for the two-inch curved black nails. He got up momentarily to retract this one foot out of sunlight. Then he made a hissing sound like a hot iron letting out steam. The ranger told me that it meant that the dragon was angry about his personal space being encroached upon. By us? For a second I took a step backward. No, he said, by one of the other dragons climbing on top of him.
I had good reason not to want to get in the face of one of these predators. Komodo dragons attack and eat large mammals including humans. Typically they ambush their prey, but certainly a foolish tourist approaching with eyes wide open would do for dinner as well. In 1974, a Swiss tourist, Baron Rudolf von Reding Biberegg (seriously his name), disappeared on Komodo Island and was presumed killed by a dragon. Today a white cross atop a mountain pass commemorated the lost aristocrat. Reports of additional attacks on humans made the press from time to time. Every year, the ranger said, some local villager got bitten. And if the teeth aren’t enough, the dragon’s bite is known to carry both venom and virulent bacteria that can lead to sepsis in the victim.
“That’s why we bring this,” the ranger said, lifting up the wooden stick in his hand with a forked top just like the lizard’s tongue, meant to hold the dragon at bay. It seemed flimsy.
After a short trek and spotting another juvenile dragon, we set sail for Komodo proper. Compared to Rinca, where the dragons seemed the only show in town, Komodo Island had on it an Edenic abundance of wildlife. Colorful birds perched on treetops. Wild boars roamed the bushes and cooled themselves in muddy watering holes. A half dozen deer, one large male with a broken antler among them, greeted us on the beach as we docked.
Another ranger carrying another wooden stick led us on another trek. Under a big tree and near a watering hole, he stopped and pointed somewhere in the shade. “Dragon,” he said.
“Where?” was our collective response. After several more moments of him pointing and us squinting we finally spotted the beast. This was how they lay in wait and ambushed their preys — the watering hole was a perfect trap for some unsuspecting boar.
Having traversed the ridges and circled back to the visitors center area, we found another full-sized dragon hiding under a wooden pavilion. “So,” Magritta said, “they can wander out here where people are.” Her tone was half of amusement and half of fear.
We were heading back to the dock, and the ranger was about to bid us farewell, when he suddenly picked up the pace. “On the beach!” he said, for the first time sounding as excited as the rest of us. We half ran out there and then stalked the dragon as she ambled at a leisurely pace along the shore.
The ranger paused to explain that it was not every day that you saw them on the beach. Engrossed in his own talk, he was looking at us instead of the lizard. She turned and began walking toward us.
I had momentarily got caught up in the romance of this stroll on the beach with a dragon and forgot to be afraid. When I came to my senses, the ranger turned his gaze back to where it should have been. “Oh, move back, move back,” he said, startled. I wondered what would happen to a ranger’s career prospects if he ever “lost” a tourist. We retreated, and then the dragon changed course, now headed toward a deer kneeling under a tree. The deer eyed the predator warily, got up, and ran.
Our dragon chase, the reason we all came, was over. But the magic of Komodo was not. At dusk we weighed anchored near some mangroves. As the sunlight faded, bats the size of seagulls flew out and over us, like a scene out of Bram Stoker’s Transylvania. The captain insisted on calling them “flying foxes.” After dinner we laid out mattresses on the deck. It had rained for a short time earlier, just enough for me to take a shower in it in my swimming trunks. But now the sky was clear, and a full moon was rising, like a bronze cymbal, bright enough to obscure nearby stars. A gentle sea breeze lulled me to a surprisingly good night’s sleep. The next day, when we awoke at dawn, the moon was still so bright that bleary-eyed Magritta asked me whether it was the moon or the sun.
We went snorkeling to be reminded that the Komodo dragon was hardly the only mesmerizing creature here. Manta rays swam close enough to touch, and close enough to the surface to see without even getting in the water. Four or five of them at a time, with their six-feet wingspans, surrounded me with their graceful, balletic gyrations before drifting apart again. At another stretch of reefs I found another member of the ray family, this time the bluespotted ribbontail ray, more threatening with its venomous sting than the gentle manta. Just as I was excited about the new ray with its beautiful blue dots, Andrei told me that he saw a shark. I thought he was kidding, but then a small shark, three feet or so, darted right past me. I swore into my snorkel. The many tropical fish were hardly worth mentioning.
The Three Daughters chugged its way back to port, past the luxury hotel on an island, to the Labuan Bajo of dive shops and tour agencies and Italian restaurants. The modern, industrialized, totalizing world intruded inexorably. But behind our boat, behind us, the Komodo dragons — along with their companion rays and sharks — for now, still held onto their bizarre, primeval, beautiful, deadly world. For now, the dragons remained creatures of myth in a mythic home. For now.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."