For me, one of the greatest opportunities that travel offers is the chance to see wild animals in their natural habitat. So when we planned to spend a few weeks in Bali, I knew we had to make a detour to Komodo National Park in Indonesia – the only place you can see the Komodo dragon in the wild – for our one chance to come face to face with them for ourselves.
Up until then, my only knowledge of Komodo dragons came from my television screen. Even from watching them in the comfort of my living room sofa, the world’s largest lizards were as intimidating as they were fascinating. I can still vividly remember the first nature documentary I saw, and the dread I felt in my chest as I watched a group of dragons stalking a helpless water buffalo, waiting for it to slowly die from a small venomous bite they’d inflicted on its ankle several weeks earlier. Wildlife documentaries always leave me feeling sad. I hate seeing animals being eaten, but I also don’t want to see predators to starve, such is the dilemma of an animal lover that never wants to see any of them suffer.
The gateway to Komodo National Park is Labuan Bajo, a small fishing town that’s mainly visited by tourists like me who come in search of the giant lizards. From the airport to the main street that’s overflowed with boat tour companies, photos of Komodo dragons are everywhere you look.
We flew from Bali to Labuan Bajo to join the Le Pirate Explorer boat, a small group tour I’d booked nearly a year in advance, to spend what would be three of the best days of my life.
Our first stop? Rinca.
Our catamaran anchored by a small forest of trees by the island. As our little motorboat ferried our group of 10 to the nearby pier, we were told not to swim here as there were sometimes saltwater crocodiles. I kept my hands out of the water as we crossed, and asked if Komodo dragons could swim too. Worryingly, the answer was yes.
We walked inland from the wooden pier and passed under a large archway. On either side, two big statues of the reptiles stood against them as if holding up the structure which read ‘Welcome to Los Buaya, Komodo National Park’.
The narrow concrete path led us across a flat dry grassland towards the entrance where we met two local ranger guides. Along with helping us to spot Komodo dragons on our trek, and sharing their knowledge about them, they were also tasked with keeping us safe. With scenes of the documentary playing in my mind, I wondered if we might need something more than just the long wooden sticks they carried to fend off a dragon.
And it wasn’t long before we needed protecting, because as soon as we set off, we came face to face with our first Komodo dragon.
From across the field under the shadow of a tree, it came striding towards us, its tongue slithering in and out of its mouth. It crawled out into the midday sun with an exaggerated walk, its front and hind legs swinging out widely from the side to side in opposite directions.
I backed away slowly as it approached us, and watched as it turned and crossed the open field into the trees. To our left by the gift shop, two more dragons laid in the shade at the base of a tree. We approached them slowly while still keeping our distance, and couldn’t believe our luck that we had been able to spot Komodo dragons so easily. I learnt from our ranger that the bigger dragon here was probably around 25 years old, and that aside from seeking shade, they only tend to come out close to humans when they could smell food.
We set off for our medium length trek around the island, and it wasn’t long before we came encountered another group of Komodo dragons resting in the shade.
There are around 1,500 Komodo dragons on Rinca who share the island with other wildlife such as water buffalo, deer, boars, monkeys, birds, and of course, the locals.
We followed our ranger closely as he led us further inland through the forest, and we stopped by a clearing in the trees where there were several holes in the ground. These were nests where female Komodo dragons came to lay their eggs, and incredibly, then return again each year.
They only use one nest, but the dragons dig several holes in the ground as decoys to protect their eggs. Baby dragons hatch in April, and will spend most of their early years in trees to hide from predators, as well as hungry adult Komodo dragons!
Our visit was in the summer months which coincided with the beginning of the mating season, and during this time, our ranger said he sees many male dragons fighting with each other in order to mate with females.
We continued our walk uphill out of the forest and into the sloping grassland, once again feeling the hot midday sun on our skin.
Standing over the tops of the trees we had just come through, you could really see just how beautifully green Rinca was.
Eventually, we reached the top of the hill to a little wooden gazebo at the peak, a lookout with the ocean on one side, and the island’s rolling hills on the other.
Perhaps it was because I never stood very close to one, or because I’d built them up in my mind as giant, terrifying lizards, but actually, the Komodo dragons we saw weren’t as big or scary as I had anticipated. They were just like any other animal trying to survive, and as long as we left them alone, a big walking stick was more than what we needed to safely walk alongside them.
- Entry to Rinca costs 120,000 IDR / £7 / $8.50 each, this includes a one-two hour guided walk of the island with two rangers
- For safety reasons, it is not possible to visit the island unguided
- A fee for Komodo National Park also applies at 405,000 IDR / £23 / $28.50
- You can take day trips to Rinca from Labuan Bajo, but I can highly recommend a multi-day boat tour to see some of the other incredible places in the area. Check back for my separate guide to sailing the Komodo islands.
- There’s some reports online that say women can’t visit Komodo National Park while on their periods, because the dragons will be attracted to the scent of blood. Given that nobody asked any of our group if this was the case, nor where there any signs on the island etc, I’d say this was an exaggeration.