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The Bloody Dangers of Komodo National Park

back to May-June Issue
By Shawna Turner
Photos by Mike Therriault

The tone was set the minute we boarded The Idola. Capitain Jai, our guide for the next three days, was hung-over. He shook the Arak-induced cobwebs from his head as he gave us a briefing of what our tour would entail. Snorkeling, trekking, manta rays. And the reason we had all committed to living on a tattered boat for 3 days: the Komodo dragon.

Komodo National Park, Indonesia, is home to over 2000 komodo dragons. Half inhabit the island of Rinca, while the other half run wild on the island of Komodo. There are no guarantees that you’ll see the beast while hiking through the park but the scenery alone is enough to get you there.

We spent the first two days snorkeling and enjoying life on the boat. For those equally comfortable in the water as on land, the park is host to some of the world’s finest dive sites. As promised, we reached Manta Point and spent an hour swimming with manta rays. These giant, graceful creatures gliding through the water are not to be missed.

We saved the trek on Komodo Island for the third and final day.
Disembarking the boat, we walk to the ranger station to meet the guides.
“Not guaranteed to see the dragon,” they remind us as we pay our 40,000 rupiah (US$5) entrance fee.

There are four of us and we agree to give the 3-hour ‘hard’ trek a try. For this, we’ll need two guides. These two and two sticks will be our protection against attacks from the deadly beasts. One guide assures us we are unlikely to be attacked, but goes on to tell stories of villagers being killed, and of a recent near-death strike involving an off-duty ranger at his desk.

With our guards up, we set off. Just outside the camp kitchen leading out to the trail, there are half a dozen dragons. No matter how calm they look digesting their latest meal and basking in the sun, their sheer size convinces you to keep your distance. Komodo dragons - the largest living species of lizard - can grow up to 3 m long and weigh up to 300lb. Their long, thick tails, strong legs, serrated teeth and razor sharp claws make this fearsome lizard the perfect predator for large prey such as the water buffalo.

Keeping our distance we pose for a couple of pictures before heading into the jungle.

Our guide informs us that the trail, now overgrown, hasn’t been used in three months. We make our way through the jungle. Muddy and full of scrapes we step out into the savanna. It’s hot. We’re tired and thirsty and dripping with sweat, but we are only a third of the way through. The next two hours are an intense trek up and over the mountain through waist high, snake infested grass.

Finishing the trek we find ourselves out in an open mud flat. Relieved at having avoided the deadly snakes that call this island home we express our slight disappointment in not seeing any dragons in the wild. Then we turn the corner and there it is. A dragon. A huge dragon. A huge, wild dragon that hasn’t seen anyone in 3 months.

We slow down. We shut up. The dragon looks our way and with two licks of his tongue and four thick legs firmly planted, he lifts his massive frame. Claws spread out like daggers, his head snaps towards us, while his enormous tail swing out to the side. He’s the biggest dragon we’ve seen and his eyes say it all - he’s been waiting for us.

“Don’t run,” the guide says calmly. We all take three steps back. “DON”T RUN,” the guide says with more urgency as the dragon takes three massive steps forward. We look around, there’s no where to go. We retreat. Ten clumsy steps back towards a half dying tree. The dragon senses fear. He takes ten quick, powerful strides forward. His eyes are on us. He’s hungry.

He pauses, ready to strike.

The second guide comes around the corner and heads straight towards the dragon with his stick. The beast holds his ground, calculating. After a long pause he decides it’s not worth it and boldly walks back towards his resting place.

Hearts pounding, we timidly walk towards each other, away from the dragon. Once we’re sure the beast has lost interest, we exhale.
The guide turns to us, “are any of you menstruating”?
And then, barley audible, “I am,” escapes my mouth.
“I am too”, Danielle, blurts out.
We exchange a shy smile, feeling a shared responsibility for the attack that almost happened.

The Komodo dragon, in addition to its ferocious bite that could rip off a limb, the multitude of deadly bacteria that accompany that bite, and the strong tail that can knock a full grown deer on its rear, can smell blood from 5 km away. And the smell of blood makes these killers all the more aggressive.

We were lucky this dragon decided we weren’t worth the hassle.

The trek is over and the guides now have to retrace their steps. It’s time to part ways. We’re standing in the middle of nowhere, 20 meters from the dragon and 300 meters from the end of the dock where the boat should be waiting. The guides leave us like four sitting ducks. Looking over our shoulders we make our way towards the dock. We see the boat in the distance and settle down to wait for our pick up. Capitain Jai can’t make it all the way in. The tide’s out. We’ll have to swim out to the boat. Komodos can’t swim can they? Of course they can. They hunt fish.