The old phrase “Here be dragons” historically indicated dangerous or uncharted territory and Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands with giant Komodo dragons roaming freely are dangerous indeed. Before our stop at Komodo National Park on our Norwegian cruise, we were warned of the dangers posed by the largest species of lizard. Stay with your group; don’t wear red; don’t visit during your menstrual period as they will attack the scent of blood. Although attacks on humans are rare, if provoked, the dragon can run up to 12mph and the venom from a bite can be deadly. By nature somewhat of a scaredy-cat, I approached this excursion with some trepidation.
In 1910, having heard sailors’ tales of large fire-breathing dragons, Lieutenant Steyn van Hensbroek, stationed on the island of Flores in the Dutch East Indies, visited the island, killed a specimen, and took it back to his headquarters for further research. In 1912, the newly discovered species was identified and named and by 1915 the endangered Komodo Dragon was protected by the Dutch government.
Although the Dutch colony declared its independence in 1945, it wasn’t until 1980 that the Republic of Indonesia established Komodo National Park consisting of Komodo, Rinca, and Padar Islands along with a number of smaller islands. The park was originally established to protect the Komodo dragon but its mission has expanded over the years to protect the entire biosphere. In 1986, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today the national park is home to the remaining 5700 dragons living in the wild along with around 4000 human inhabitants who make their living mostly by fishing and tourism.
Our tour took us to Komodo Island but I understand national park tours are also available on Rinca Island. As we approached Komodo Island, the first of three ports we would visit in Indonesia, we were struck by the serene beauty confronting us.
As we walked ashore, we were further stunned by the crystal clear water and colorful coral visible from the pier which explains why this area is also popular for diving.
Tourists arriving on cruise ships can book excursions through their cruise line or independently from purveyors onshore but they must be booked in advance. No one is allowed to leave the ship without proof of a pre-booked tour of the national park. Taking no chances, we booked through the cruise line and met with others in group 4 as instructed.
We had 3 guides for our group; the lead guide provided commentary about the vegetation and other animals on the island in addition to the dragons; the other 2 guides carried large forked sticks which I assumed were for our protection if necessary. (I admit sticks didn’t provide me a great deal of comfort.)
It wasn’t long before we saw dragons. Fortunately, they seemed pretty lethargic in the hot sultry morning and I was grateful to have my fear somewhat assuaged.
When one of the dragons started to move, albeit slowly, guides went into action to make sure they stayed between the animals and tourists.
The Komodo dragon eats both live animals and carrion along with the occasional unfortunate hatchling dragon. Years ago, inhabitants of the island left the remains of their hunted deer for the dragons as a kind of offering. The adverse effect of this custom, however, was to draw the dragons closer to human-occupied areas. Today, hunting deer is prohibited (although poaching persists) and deer, as well as dragons, roam freely.
Following our guided walk, one of our guides directed us to the stalls of local vendors selling souvenirs, recommending one especially. Our friend, Rick, bought a souvenir but we stuck with tipping our guides as we’d brought limited cash from the ship.
Adorable children also flocked to us selling trinkets or asking for tips for photos. Who could resist them? Confronted with obvious need, we wished we had taken more cash ashore.
Our visit to Komodo Island was one of many highlights on this cruise. I survived the experience but came away with my respect for these powerful beasts intact. By summer 2019 we were even happier we had chosen this excursion when I read the park would close to visitors by 2020 because of poaching and so many tourists were affecting the behavior of the dragons. Then by October 2019 the closure was revoked but limits would be placed on the number of visitors allowed in the park and the cost of admission would increase dramatically (some reports said $1000 but I haven’t confirmed this).
In yet another twist, as of this writing on 23 April 2020, the park remains closed for cruise ships until at least 29 May 2020, due to COVID-19.
Based on events from February 2019.