Komodo Island: The People and the Dragons of Flores, Indonesia (Part I)

8°35'21.1"S 119°28'21.7"E
8°35’21.1″S 119°28’21.7″E

The town of Labuanbajo on the west coast of Flores, Indonesia is not the best impression to one of the most beautiful regions of the world. In other words, it doesn’t give Flores the justice it deserves. Upon our arrival via ferry boat (a long journey involving buses and boats from Surabaya), we arrived weary and ready for rest. Labuanbajo is located on the coast and is a long strip, lined with hotels, restaurants, dive shops, etc. catering to the constant droves of tourists that arrive to see the infamous dragons on Komodo and Rinca Islands, (listed as a World Heritage site in 1991.)

We scoped out a few hotels in the area and came across a hostel called Cool Corner, backpacker hostel. We asked the man there if we could check out the room and were led to a tiny space packed with bunk beds. The man that was in charge was a local Indonesian that seemed a bit flustered and even maybe a bit overwhelmed by the influx of tourists looking for accommodation.

Long story short, we ended up staying there after comparing the prices of other hotels/hostels in the area. It was US$7 per person per night, which is a bargain compared to the rates of other places in the region. We unpacked and after a much needed rest, we had noticed a sign up in the hostel saying there was a tour available to the Island of Rinca & Komodo for 2 days, 1 night at an affordable price.

Cool Corner, Backpacker Hostel, located on the main street in Labuanbajo.
Cool Corner Backpacker Hostel, located on the main street in Labuanbajo.

Upon inquiring, and again price hunting in town, we set up the tour through the owner of the hostel. The only thing it did not include was a mask & snorkel, (and some of the park fees) which we ended up renting down the street for about US$15 each for the 2 days. The itinerary for the trip was the following: Hop onto the boat by 8:00 am, sail to Rinca Island which housed a plethora of Komodo dragons, sail to a place called Pink Beach for some snorkeling, and then sail to Komodo Island to stay the night in a local villagers house.

Day 2 consisted of visiting Komodo Island & the dragons there, then going snorkeling with the Manta Rays at Manta Point, before heading back to Labuanbajo in the afternoon.

The sign describing the Komodo Island adventures. Inquire within...
The sign describing the Komodo Island adventures. Inquire within…

Come morning, we awoke early to catch our boat ride to Rinca Island. Our boat captain arrived at the hostel on time, and led us to the dock where our little rickety (albeit questionable) boat was waiting for us. We hopped onboard and noticed very soon after that there were no life jackets onboard. We looked at each other with a bit of anxiety, but basically hoped for the best. If we make it, we make it, we said to ourselves.

The boat captain who was about 25 years old and his 12 year old skipper were both very friendly and laid back, which helped to put us at ease. It was perfect weather at that time, and we were excited to be about to head out and see these giant lizards. Komodo dragons are very dangerous creatures, and some of the most dangerous lizards in the world.

They can grow to be up to 3 meters (10 feet) in length and weigh up to 70 kilograms (150 pounds) each. They can run as fast as 12 mph (20km/h) at a time. So, don’t expect to get away quickly if they decide you look good to eat!

Chilling out in the rickety little boat...
Chilling out in the rickety little boat…

The boat ride was relatively long and arduous, as the boat we were on was very slow and I must say was also as loud as hell! It was powered by an outboard motor that had to be ‘cranked’ to be started, as were most boats there were puttering around in SE Asia. The motor also reeked of spilled gasoline and oil as these types of engines tended to have gasket issues abound. So, combined with the noise, smell, and crampness of the boat, you would think that this was an awful experience.

Uncomfortable yes, but an amazing experience to be had. To be sailing around between amazing scattered islands and seeing incredible scenery like no other, made for a nice experience indeed. All other minor ‘issues’ melted away. At least for now.

Rinca Island entrance to the National Park.
Rinca Island entrance to the National Park.

The island of Rinca is home to the more ‘aggressive’ Komodo dragons probably due to the fact that it is the smaller of the two main islands that the Komodo’s live on. Before we even went to Labuanbajo, we had heard stories from other tourists and locals of a recent attack on Rinca island. Not an attack on a tourist, but on one of the rangers stationed there.

Apparently a dragon had wandered into the main office, and charged one of the men working there. It grabbed his leg and bit it, taking a chunk out of his calf before being chased off by the other rangers in the area. Needless to say, we were pretty nervous about our arrival on the island after hearing about all of this.

When we did arrive at the docks off the coast of Rinca, we were told by our boat captain to walk to the main office and we would be greeted by the rangers stationed there. No one was there to escort us to the station, which I found surprising, and so we walked cautiously and hoped to not run into any mean lizards on the way.

We eventually met some rangers there in the office, asking us for the appropriate dues that we had to pay for each category of payment required. In other words, we were nickeled and dimed for our visit of the dragons. You must pay separately for the boat mooring, camera fees, and for the guide, and the actual park fee. All in all, it was worth it in the end and ran about US$15 per person.

I must warn you though, if you are a cameraman or film crew, you will be expected to pay much more for your visit, almost double or more in fact.

Sign near the entrance to the headquarters.
Sign near the entrance to the headquarters.

After we payed, we met our personal guide to the park. He was a very upbeat fellow that was very enthusiastic about his career choice on the island. He explained to us the dangers of the Komodo dragons and reiterated to be extremely cautious. We asked about the incident we had heard about involving the ranger being bitten and he confirmed that it was a true story. Yikes.

He mentioned that the Komodo dragons were very aggressive (especially on Rinca) and were unpredictable creatures. The man that was bitten by the dragon didn’t even know that the dragon would attack him, and had no warning (and he worked with the dragons daily!) However, the ones in Rinca were notably smaller than the ones on Komodo that we saw later, and this probably contributed to their aggressive/competitive nature.

Our guide then showed us a map of the area and briefed us upon where we were to go. We agreed that we wanted to see the dragons in a more ‘natural’ environment but were told that we might be disappointed due to the time of day. The dragons prefer to hunt in the morning time, and most of the ‘hot spots’ would be empty by the time we reached them, as to no fault of our own.

On our way to the wooded paths leading to other parts of the island, we came across the mess hall for the rangers housed on Rinca. Underneath were 5 Komodo dragons with not a care in the world. Cautiously, we observed from about 20 feet away. Our guide then borrowed my camera to take a shot of us in the background of a snoozing Komodo.

Apparently it was not uncommon to see them here, and in fact, was where we saw most of the dragons on the island.

Komodo dragons chilling under the mess hall on Rinca Island.
Komodo dragons chilling under the mess hall on Rinca Island.
A shot taken by our brave tour guide near the mess hall.
A shot taken by our brave tour guide near the mess hall.

After a few pictures, we headed off into the wooded area of the hike, being reminded to be cautious and observe where we walked. A dragon could come out of nowhere, and one in fact did. It happened to be a juvenile, only about 3 feet long, head to tail. This was to be a rare sight, and our guide mentioned that we were lucky to have seen it at all. The juvenile dragons usually hide in the trees to avoid being eaten by the larger dragons, as they are known to do. We were also not far from where the female Komodo laid their eggs in the sand.

We continued along the path after the juvenile dragon walked away in a hurry, and arrived at a clearing at the top of a hill. Starting to feel the heat of the Indonesian tropical sun, we drudged uphill to a vantage point showing a panoramic view of Rinca Island and the surrounding landscape. We headed back downhill and started hiking back to the headquarters.

The juvenile dragon on the path...
The juvenile dragon on the path…

Our tour came to an end and our guide said that he would walk us back to our boat and make sure we made it in one piece. Just before we made it back to the docks, I looked over and saw a dragon hanging out in a swampy area near the shore. ‘He’s there to eat the crabs’ our guide said. It had amazed me at how camouflaged he was in the brush and it was a nice reminder as to how sneaky the dragons could be. If it weren’t for his flicking tongue, I would never had seen him.

After arriving at our boat, we tipped our guide and thanked him before heading to our next destination called Pink Beach. We putted along and were grinning ear to ear after having survived our first encounters with Komodo dragons. An incredible experience to be walking alongside such amazing animals. They had reminded me of wild dogs, but were much more unpredictable. It’s hard to ‘read’ a lizard versus a canine.

Our local guide we were assigned to, with his forked stick for protection.
Our local guide we were assigned to, with his forked stick for protection.
Sweeping vistas on Rinca Island.
Sweeping vistas on Rinca Island.
*This post is a part of a series. Click on the link to read more of the story. – Komodo Island: The People and the Dragons of Flores, Indonesia (Part II)