They might not fly or breathe fire like Game of Thrones dragons, but Indonesia’s giant meat-eating lizards are just as jaw-dropping.
The captain of the small wooden boat I am precariously perched on has just jumped overboard. The first mate, too. It’s 5am and a pink glow is beginning to subtly light the sky above the harbour of Flores, where fishing vessels and tourist skiffs are wedged together like portside parquetry. It’s this jam of boats that’s responsible for my crew’s sudden evacuation into the inky harbour. In our efforts to leave the fishing village and commence our slow chug to the mystical island of Komodo, our craft’s propeller has become hopelessly tangled in ropes draped from neighbouring craft. My expedition to the Indonesian island of Flores, 1000 kilometres due north of Broome, is for one reason: to witness the world’s largest living species of lizard, the Komodo dragon, in its natural environment. While we wait for crew to deal with our stern tangle, our translator John talks to his small group of international travellers about the day’s dragon-centric itinerary. “From here it’s four hours to Komodo,” he explains, before offering information on Komodo National Park. At 1820 square kilometres, the last official count found the park was home to 5422 dragons across five islands. “Komodo dragons are bigger than the other island’s dragons because there’s more food for them,” John says. With our craft freed from its snag, our lean and shirtless crew emerge from the oily black waters looking wet but unruffled. Like many of the hard-working souls in the Flores township of Labuan Bajo, their quiet demeanour rests somewhere between eager and beleaguered. The town of Labuan Bajo presents a similar façade. The easiest launch-pad for international travellers seeking a dragon experience, Flores’ sleek Komodo Airport arrivals lounge dejectedly waits for a tourist rush that’s yet to hit. Rough concrete edging and corrugated iron sheets dubiously doubling as security fences suggest the local authorities lost interest in the project before it could be completed. Even so, amenities on Flores look comparatively space-aged compared to the tiny fishing village Sir David Attenborough encountered on his first visit to the region almost 60 years ago. On his 1957 BBC expedition, the famed naturalist chartered a fishing boat filled with “the stench of rotting fish” to deliver him from Flores to Komodo. His tiny boat “was spun sideways” by wind and whirlpools and the vessel very nearly ended up wrecked on a coral reef. While he brought back the first film footage of the impressive dragons, Indonesian authorities prevented him from exporting the specimens the London Zoo had requested. Our meek vessel is a similar size to Attenborough’s chartered craft, but the sea rarely stirs as we belatedly sputter out of Labuan Bajo harbour and into the open sea. Given the lack of visible safety equipment and life jackets, this is a small mercy. Just last year lives were lost when a tourist vessel capsized on a similar route. As the sun rises lethargically behind us, John points out Komodo to our west. Its dry peaks and ridged, rocky terrain give it the look of a stegosaur hiding under an old brown rug. Park guide Pandros greets us as we disembark on Komodo’s jetty, telling us he’ll take us into the ‘jungle’ for our best chance to spy dragons in their habitat. While this jungle is more of a sparse grove of gnarled tamarind trees than a lush green valley, five minutes into our walk Pandros directs our attention past a group of grazing Timor rusa deer. We hold our breath at the sight of a frowning dragon lying completely still among the leaves, staring at us like a stony sentry. Growing to three metres, the scale of these dragons might not set Steven Spielberg’s heart racing, but Komodo is the closest thing to a real-life Jurassic World. While the dragon isn’t descended from dinosaurs, fossil records suggest the species had its origins in Australia some four million years ago, reaching its current habitat around 900,000 years ago via land bridges. A mature dragon is a formidable beast. Despite weighing up to 100 kilograms, a dragon can swim 500 metres and – during short bursts – run at up to 20 kilometres per hour. The 2012 survey suggested Komodo was home to 2842 of the robust lizards. “They are everywhere because they not have enemy,” Pandros says. “They eat deer, monkey, birds and eggs. They are cannibals too – sometimes they eat each other.” A good feed can keep a dragon sated for months, with the species able to fell large deer thanks to their venomous and bacteria-packed bite. Poisoned prey can take weeks to die, with dragons waiting near flagging victims like scaly angels of death. Although uncommon, human fatalities have also been reported. After an hour of witnessing the island’s famous residents in close proximity, we are lulled into a false sense of security by their seemingly placid nature. As we walk down to the island’s foreshore, our hearts jump when Pandros suddenly shouts “Back! Back!” and thrusts his forked stick towards one surly specimen moving aggressively towards us. The hissing dragon has caught the scent of meat cooking at the island’s only restaurant, flicking its tongue in and out while powering in our direction. “They smell with their tongue like the snake,” Pandros says. “The komodo dragon smell the meat of food, which is why they running here. They have long smell – they can smell meat up to five kilometres.” To avoid being mistaken for a medium rare rump steak, we walk back up the jetty and climb back on board our boat for the journey back to Labuan Bajo. The sun sets on the UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2800 giant lizards disappear back into the shadows, unaware of their standing as one of the most enigmatic species on Earth. Photos: Scott McLennan