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Here be dragons

Jan 1, 2003

The thunderstorm in the distance built quickly as we motored across the quiet Timor Sea. By the time we arrived at the west end of Flores Island, the storm was well underway. Intense lightning bolts stabbed at the hills, illuminating the geologic hodgepodge of rocky slopes, volcanic ash, and eroded limestone crags that form a confused and tortured landscape. We dropped anchor as thunder echoed and cold rain poured down. The weather and our surroundings combined to make us feel as though we had strayed into a different and sinister world. The mood was fitting, for we'd arrived in the land of the dragons.

These are not the dragons of myth and fable that populate one's childhood, but they are ferocious, carnivorous predators. The earliest scientific description (from 1912) seemed innocuous enough, referring to the dragons as a "Varanus [monitor lizard] species of an unusual size." That's putting it mildly. Lizards they may be, but forget any thoughts of the cute, garden variety that your cat hunts. These lizards grow to nearly 10 feet and regularly dine on goats, deer, and water buffalo. They've also been known to eat people. Such incidents are rare, in part because few people live in this area known as the Lesser Sundas. Those that do live here are mostly fishermen, a livelihood that makes sense when one considers the hazards of farming or hunting while being stalked oneself.

But even the waters of the Lesser Sundas are not free from danger, as currents are swift and turbulent, reaching five knots or more and setting up vicious waves and chop. The currents bring with them cool waters from the deep southern Indian Ocean, and the nutrients in those waters help support the region's rich and diverse undersea life. Sadly, some fishermen have not been content with taking what they can catch, and have turned to using dynamite; the practice is highly destructive, indiscriminately killing fish and other organisms and destroying reefs. Fishermen from as far afield as Java travel to the Lesser Sundas to plunder the islands' marine resources. Fishing in the islands is limited by law to local residents, but enforcement has been lax over the past year as a result of Indonesia's political and ethnic upheavals. We saw and heard dynamite being used by fishermen while we were there, and reports indicate that the corals off southern Komodo Island have been devastated. We observed no reef damage in the areas we snorkeled; instead we marveled at the spectacular diversity of fish and corals.

Swimming among delicate staghorn coral and chasing brilliant yellow butterfly fish, it's easy to forget the dragons that roam the slopes above. It's best not to, though; according to some reports, komodos are adept swimmers. The Lesser Sundas are their world, a fact that's wise to remember.

It's easy to find quiet and isolation here, and these are qualities that should not be taken for granted in densely populated Indonesia. We anchored off several islands that we understood to be "dragon-free," and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have an entire bay to ourselves. The fine white sand beaches provide the passage-weary sailor an opportunity to walk, while the crystal-clear waters are wonderfully cool and refreshing.Living with dragons

Our first visit took place in late October, during the transition between the southeast and northwest monsoons, a time when winds are light to nonexistent. We ran low on diesel as a result, and so journeyed to Komodo village with the hope of refueling. It then became clear how tenuous the human presence in these islands is, and how clearly dominated by the dragons.

The village has the look of a temporary camp, though people have lived here for centuries, having been banished to "Dragon Island" by the Sultan of the Kingdom of Bima, who ruled from nearby Flores Island. Komodo village clings to the side of the island, consisting of a ramshackle collection of huts along the beach, dominated by a shining mosque. Most huts are on stilts, with vertical ladders providing the only access. Since Komodo dragons hunt by ambushing their prey, by clustering their huts along the shore, where there is little vegetation, and building atop poles, the villagers are doing their best to keep the dragons - or ora, as they're called locally - at bay. Much of the villagers' wealth bobs just off the shore in the form of large, spidery motor trimarans that are used for squid fishing. Fortunately for us the trimarans are powered by thumping diesels, and an unlikely looking thatched lean-to proved to be the local fuel depot. Diesel was carefully transferred by means of a scoop from large open drums to our jerry cans, while a curious crowd of villagers looked on. Although the apparent likelihood of seeing a dragon in or near the village tempted us to stay, the deep (70 feet) anchorage, jammed with fishing craft, argued otherwise. Furthermore, we were en route from Australia to Bali and (we thought) Singapore, and we wanted to make the trip before the northwest monsoon became established.Respecting the weather

Indonesia's seasonal monsoons have ruled sailors' lives for generations, allowing them to establish trading routes that spanned thousands of miles, but demanding adherence to a fairly rigid schedule in return. Southeast trade winds dominate in these waters between May and September, and with them come strong west-setting currents. The months of October and November are typically transitional, with little wind, while December through March brings the northwest monsoon, when light to moderate northwesterly winds are accompanied by strong east-setting currents. We set a course for Bali after spending a final night in a secluded cove on the south side of Padar island. One source we'd read mentioned that Padar was free of komodos, ostensibly due to poaching of the deer that are their principal prey, but we wondered about the accuracy of this report after watching a herd of rusa deer traverse the rugged slopes above. The thunder and lightning storms we'd come to associate with the oras kept pace with us as we sailed south of Sumbawa and Lombok, and the storms seemed the dragons' way of saying they had not yet finished with us.

We arrived in Bali on November 1 and soon found that we'd violated the cardinal rule of sailing north: don't be late. Reports were filtering back to Bali (via radio and e-mail) of the thrashing that boats were receiving as they made their way to Singapore and Malaysia. Bali's weather was still typical of the transitional months, but farther west and north the monsoon had arrived, with 25-knot winds and strong currents. We had no desire to battle those conditions for more than 1,000 miles and so made a quick change of plans, deciding instead to return to eastern Indonesia. This allowed a much longer stay in Bali, and we did not depart for the east until mid-January. By then, the northwest monsoon was well established, and we enjoyed favorable winds and currents - and no thunder and lightning - as we returned to the Lesser Sundas, this time via the north sides of Lombok and Sumbawa.

The effect of the change in monsoons was immediately apparent. Hills that had been brown on our first visit were now cloaked in green, giving the islands a much friendlier look. We made our first stop at Gili Banta, a small, uninhabited island northwest of Komodo Island. Banta offers superb snorkeling, and we spent several days exploring the beaches and bays. Once again we saw no people, save a few fishermen who worked the swift currents and rocky ledges with their small trimarans.Searching for komodos

Idyllic as the setting was, the dragons beckoned, and so we set sail for Rinca Island. Although home to fewer dragons than Komodo itself, it still harbors some 1,300 of the beasts and offers a protected anchorage conveniently adjacent to the Rinca outpost of Komodo National Park. Established by the Indonesian government in 1980, the park incorporates the islands of Komodo, Rinca, and Gili Motang, as well as the waters and islets between them. Inland treks in search of dragons are led by park guides, who have given up the grisly practice of staking out goats to be devoured by bands of hungry komodos for the purpose of entertaining groups of tourists. Goats are still employed as lures during regular komodo counts by the park service, but visitors seeking to view the dragons must do without such aids, relying instead on the guide's knowledge of the dragons' haunts and habits. We arrived at Rinca in mid-afternoon after a surprisingly easy trip from Komodo Island. Currents in the Linta Strait between the islands are fast and furious; we found them quite difficult to predict, and impossible to fight. The most reliable approach was to follow the lead of the local fishermen, whose low-powered craft are similarly unable to buck the currents.

We anchored in the sheltered, mangrove-lined cove and then ventured ashore to arrange a dragon expedition. The rangers explained to us that komodos are most easily seen in the cool of the morning, when they are actively hunting; in midday they take their ease in the shade - a wise strategy for any creature, given the heat and humidity. We arranged to meet our guide at 0700 the following morning, and followed the well-worn path back to the cove. The last thing we expected to meet on the way was a dragon, but one was, in fact, waiting for us at the dock: a youngster, no more than three feet in length, busily engaged in eating insects. Young komodos live principally in trees, where they are safe from their larger relations and where the insects they favor are plentiful. Our small dragon posed obligingly for a few photos and then returned to his hunting, and we retreated to the boat in the fading light, not waiting to see who else might emerge as darkness fell.Feeling part of the food chain

We arrived ashore early next morning in time to share a cup of tea with the rangers before setting out. The facilities are simple; a kettle was brought to a boil over an open fire, and their dining hall was no more than a table atop a wooden platform with a roof for shelter from the rain and sun. The rangers told us that dragons were frequent visitors in their camp, and indeed another youngster scampered nearby as we talked. "How big is that one?" we asked. "Kecil," they replied, meaning small. "Dragons in bush much bigger."

We downed our tea, and our guide armed himself with what passes for komodo protection on Rinca: a stick, some five feet long, sporting a forked tip. It looked useless even for keeping a kecil lizard at bay, but what did we know? We gathered our cameras and water bottles, and took to the trail. The path rose, slowly contouring around the hills, dipping in and out of the trees, and passing through sometimes-thick brush. The latter was a bit worrying; while we wanted to see a dragon, we didn't want to walk into his ambush.

Komodos rely primarily on their keen sense of smell - effective at distances of up to four miles - to detect prey. Their forked tongues sample the air, and specialized organs in their mouths analyze the "smell"; a difference in the concentration of the scent from one side of the tongue to the other acts like a direction finder, telling the komodo the bearing to his quarry. But komodos are not given to chasing down prey, preferring instead to lie in ambush, in a technique that's been described as "lurk and lurch." Their powerful limbs and razor-sharp teeth ensure that the lurch often ends in a meal for the dragon.

We stopped in a clearing for a drink of water. Indicating that we should take a rest, our guide slipped into the bush. A moment later we heard an excited yell and ran to catch up. "Big dragon! Come, we follow," our excited guide exclaimed. We snatched cameras out of packs and went in pursuit, with only a niggling doubt about the wisdom of our headlong plunge back into the underbrush. We caught sight of the dragon as he crossed a stream. Described later by our guide as being of average size - about eight feet - he looked enormous to us; there was no question that he was fast and agile. The bank beyond the stream rose steeply, becoming nearly vertical some 50 feet above the water. Hardly slowing as he climbed the first 30 feet, the dragon lost traction as the slope grew steeper, and he could do little more than dislodge rocks and debris as he neared the top. He couldn't manage the final ascent, and stopped a few feet from the rim.

Throwing caution to the wind we followed his tracks, climbing above and below in our quest for a photo. He remained motionless but very aware. If he'd chosen to make a sudden descent we would have been in serious trouble, our guide's forked stick notwithstanding. We encountered the next dragon only a quarter mile down the track. He moved more slowly and paused to give us a few annoyed glances as we ran in pursuit, shutters clicking madly. We flushed a water buffalo out of the brush as we did so, and from their relative positions it seems likely the komodo had been lying in wait for the buffalo. The two disappeared in opposite directions, leaving us to marvel at what we'd seen, our guide grinning widely, exclaiming at our good fortune for having seen two dragons in the same morning.

We left the land of dragons the following day, riding the northwest monsoon north and east to the Spice Islands. The photos we took now help to recall that morning's adrenaline-charged chase, and we're glad to have gotten them. Infinitely more valuable, though, are our memories of those wild islands and their fierce, ancient inhabitants. Now we know the true meaning of the phrase, "Here Be Dragons."


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