Labuan Bajo & the Komodo Dragons

From the Gili Islands we travelled to the island of Lombok to catch a flight to the island of Flores, gateway to the islands of Rinca and Komodo, home to the infamous Komodo Dragons.

The Komodo Dragons (and us).

The Komodo Dragons (and us).

Frequent processions of monkeys lined the roads between Bangasal Harbour and Lombok’s capital city, Mataram. We spent the night in the Idoop Hotel, a modern Western style place that was welcome after the primitive room we had endured on Gili Meno. The first night we took a taxi to a recommended seafood restaurant, the taxi cost 10,000 Indonesian Rupiah. On the way back, in a different car the driver tried to charge us a 20,000 Indonesian Rupiah. We hadn’t done the currency conversion at the time so we protested the double rate. The driver wouldn’t move – there was a sticker on the door explaining that anyone travelling a short distance would have to pay the minimum fare. The dispute moved to the hotel reception and despite our argument that the outward leg had cost us 50% less than what the return driver was asking the hotel receptionist told us the driver was not negotiating and we would have to pay…….We paid.

We retreated to the hotel room worked and did a currency conversion to see the extent of our loss. It turned out that we had been protesting over 50 pence! To make matters worse an on-line search confirmed that there is indeed a minimum charge – the first driver just must not have enforced it.

With that minor drama out of the way, the next day we were at Lombok airport to catch short flight to Flores courtesy of Wings Air. The landing was pretty dramatic as the small plane flew in between adjacent luscious green mountains. We landed safely and could see the recently built airport building which has been built in the shape of a Komodo Dragon.

Wings Air to Flores.

Wings Air to Flores.

Komodo Dragons have fascinated me ever since I watched Dr Bryan Fry’s documentary “Secrets of the Dragon”, Wiki describes their fearsome, aggressive characteristics:

Komodo dragon group behaviour in hunting is exceptional in the reptile world. The diet of big Komodo dragons mainly consists of deer, though they also eat considerable amounts of carrion. Komodo dragons also occasionally attack humans in the area of West Manggarai Regency where they live in Indonesia.

We were now on Flores within out own touching distance of the island of Rinca, the main island that the dragons populate. We caught a taxi into the village of Labuan Bajo. I made the mistake of chatting too much to the driver and divulging our plan to get to Rinca. The driver told me, his “friend” could get us there for “cheap price” and without hesitation, he took straight to him. We sat through his friends sales pitch and we politely declined the offer of us leaving a deposit to secure a trip and walked with the backpacks to find a room to stay. We settled in the Surya Hotel it looked respectable from the outside but the interior was a bit rough and ready and we had to fill a bucket to pour down the toilet to flush it – not the best procedure to have to execute during my second bout of food poising which was to come a few days later.

Arriving the Hotel Suraya, Labuan Bajo, Flores.

Arriving at the Hotel Suraya, Labuan Bajo, Flores.

In the evening we hit the tour agents to negotiate our ride to Rinca. When we went in Flores it was low season and there weren’t many tourists about, consequently there are no regular boats leaving the harbour and you have to charter your own. If you can find friends it works out cheaper but we wanted to leave the next morning and we hadn’t had chance to find any other travelling folk.  We didn’t know it at the time but  the tour agents will try to extrapolate as much money from you as he can. They will promise a ride to Rinca in a quality boat with delicious lunch included and even a snorkelling stop on the way back. We paid a fair amount and then I it seems the tour operator just walks to the harbour to charter a boat for us, and of course he will try to find the cheapest boat that he can, in an effort to keep as much of our proceeds to himself. The upshot is that get a naff boast, with a naff lunch – perhaps we could have cut out the middle man?

The harbour at Labuan Bajo.

The harbour at Labuan Bajo.

Just as we left the tour agents office after striking the deal, the agent (“friend” of the taxi driver) from earlier in the day approached us on the street. He had been looking for us, he found other people who wanted to go to Rinca the next day and it would be much cheaper for us to travel together – shucks.

The next morning we arrived at the quayside to see our vessel. As I looked at the ramshackle wooden effort of a boat I had flashbacks to the half sunk vessel that nearly bought us to grief in the Amazon Jungle. The captain came to meet us, a thin deeply tanned man with missing teeth, he wore no shirt or shoes, just a tethered pair of shorts that looked liked he had worn them 24/7 for the entire life of the boat – a long time.

We clambered aboard to meet his extended family, all of whom we learnt would be travelling with us for this tin pot voyage to Rinca. The skinny captain  vaulted below deck and began to turn a lever with vigour, with a increasingly stuttering “pap pap pap” that increased in speed and volume the engine spluttered into life – God it was loud. A plume of thick black smoke escaped from the engine room and drifted towards the tour operator  from the previous night. He was responsible for this state of affairs and he was now stood on the harbour side having come to wave us somewhat sarcastically off.  I felt like a renegotiation was in order but it was to late to hop back to the harbourside, the boat was pushed off its berth and out to the high sea we clattered, not able to hear ourselves think.

DCIM231GOPROThree or so hours later we arrived on Rinca. As we approached the island we could see monkeys running along the beach. We found a guide and asked if we could pay for an extended trek further into the island. Most tourists take a 90 minute walk but I read that if we got deeper into the island we would have more chance of observing the dragons in their natural habitat. We had come along way for this, I was in no hurry to get back on the boat so we paid for a three trek and it turned out to be money well spent.

Monkey on the jetty.

Monkey on the jetty.

Our first encounter with the Dragons was by the guides huts not far from the jetty where we had left our boat. The dragons laze around the huts as they knew it is a potential source of food. There is a good chance they we will be thrown some scraps and on a good day they might get a shot at a tourist or guide.  If you don’t believe me see this account of a guide that survived an attack, our guide knew him. Seeing the dragons was amazing, it had the strangeness of seeing a celebrity in real life, we had seen the dragons lots of times in books, on TV and on-line but now we were face to face with the real thing, amazing. We approached the reptiles with with caution. In the film that I had watched, each tourist was given a stick to fend the giant lizards off if they attacked. The only stick in our trio was held by our guide and when he suggested we got closer for a better picture I agreed only on condition of him lending us his stick.

Dragons milling around the huts.

Dragons milling around the huts.

The trek was brilliant, it was a blinding hot humid day, there was no wind just intense heat beating down on the dusty trail upon which we walked. Do be assured that the intensity of the heat matched the intensity of our watch as we looked out continually to make sure we weren’t about to approach an unseen dragon, I really did feel like I had grown eyes in the back of my head. Matters got more intense when the guide explained that the tape on a particular part of the section had been there for some time. It was there to prevent people taking the trail into the wood as some particularly aggressive dragons were known to frequent the area along with their young.  I watched the guide as he pensively looked up the trail at the other side of the tape. His gazed lasted and I realised he was agonising with the decision of whether to flout the ban and pass the tape, I wasn’t really keen. I got the impression that the guide did these walks often, I think he was a bit bored and I could see that adventure into the dangerous territory would spice things up a bit for him. I would have preferred come sort of consultation at this point but it didn’t arrive, instead the guide walked round the tape and beckoned us to follow him. I looked intensely at Tracy, she looked bemused and shrugged her shoulders, I wasn’t going to lose face so early on so we stiffened our British upper lips and followed reluctantly. The guide hadn’t filled me with confidence so far. He had spent the initial hour explaining that he was a radical Marxist. He showed us us the words “Che Guevara” which had painted onto his stick. He had also been keen to inform me about the mind altering affects of the various magic mushrooms that were found on the island – great, just the person you would want to lead you into aggressive dragon territory.  We walked on and I tried to take my mind off the matter by pondering how many thousands of miles the nearest decent hospital would be.

DCIM231GOPRO

Tracy, the free radical guide and I.

It was a good hour afterwards that we stopped for a welcome drinks break. The guide went off for a “pee pee”. I thought for safety’s sake I should go with him but instead I was left alone with Tracy on a sand bank in the middle of a stream. The sun was still beating down on us I maintained a vigorous lookout.  The guides visit to the bush was interrupted. He soon came rushing back to us to explain that he had found a dragon and it was stalking a couple of water buffaloes.

Watching the prey.

Watching the prey.

It was the most amazing sight, a huge Komodo Dragon stealthy watching a couple of massive water buffaloes that were bathing knee deep in a natural dam in the stream. The dragons will bite their prey and inject a lethal bacteria that is a constant property of their saliva. The bacteria infects the prey and the infection can take up to two weeks before it overwhelms any defence. During the time it takes the prey to die, the dragon will walk behind it, sometimes for up to a fortnight until the body drops and the dragon tucks in. We took lots of photos and just basked in the moment.  As we got closer to the dragon it began to walk slowly up the hillside in front of us and we began to walk quickly off the hillside behind.

IMG_9631The rest of the trek was magnificent, we saw another dragon lying menacingly in the stream just its eyes showing behind a rock as the water lapped over its body and there were plenty of other water buffaloes that went crashing off through the trees as we approached.  We arrived back at the guides hut three ours later and raced off for a cold drink, we were thirsty and exhausted.

We went back to the wooden contraption on the jetty and spluttered back to Labuan Bajo. We were given a packed lunch of cold chicken and rice. I suspect it was the chicken that gave me the food poisoning that I was to suffer for the following three days. On the way back the family slept soundly on the deck and we listened to the engine.

The boat.

The boat.

We weren’t that impressed with Labuan Bajo, Lonely Planet describes it as a spiffed up pleasing place but we thought it was a bit of a dump. There were no pavements  which meant every time you left the hotel it was an ordeal of dodging traffic. We also suffered the wrath of the taxi drivers “friend” whose tour we had rebuked when we arrived. There is only one main street in Labuan Bajo which meant we kept bumping into him during on stay and he had decided to sulk because we had chosen another tour agent instead of him. Given his attitude, my food poisoning and our dislike of Labuan Bajo we were grateful to fly out five days later. The dragon trip though was unforgettable, we will always remember our meeting with the dragons on Rinca Island.

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