Chasing the dragons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 1995, 12:00am

BALI is a favoured holiday spot for Hong Kong people - but few realise deadly dragons prowl close by. These beasts - which inspired the Chinese dragon legends and helped propagate the fire-breathing mythical monster in the West - are alive and well and living on a small island just a day's cruise from Bali.

Today's adventurous travellers will need to pinpoint the tiny dot of Komodo Island on a map of Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara province, where ancient European mariners once scrawled 'Here Be Dragons'. The dragons of mysterious Komodo Island may not fly or breathe fire, but they are violent killers of goats, deer, pigs, buffalo, horses ... even the occasional human. An elderly Swiss tourist, Baron Von Reding Biberegg, became the most notable komodo dragon victim in 1974.

It was a blistering hot, dry day and the baron, a man in his mid-60s, had to rest. He took his place in an open area, on a ridge overlooking the notorious Poreng valley, and bade his nature study group to walk on and collect him on their return. All they found of the unfortunate old gentleman was his camera and a disgorged, bloodied shoe.

Thankfully, the baron remains the only tour group member to have become a permanent part of the Komodo legend. Even so, the fascination of these beasts draws increasing numbers of travellers to the region: in a modern-day quest for dragons, people travel from all over the globe to this string of islands.

Komodo is like an epicentre for some of the most fascinating cultures, wildlife and geography in the world. It is in a latent area of Indonesia's Ring of Fire - that volcanic belt which occasionally erupts to remind man that he is but dust, and unto dust he shall return. A relatively short cruise from West Timor is tiny Savu island, where visitors once feared to tread for it is the home of fierce warriors on horseback. The warriors still ride their stumpy Sandalwood steeds, but these days it's mostly to welcome the occasional shipload of tourists. No longer is the stampede of ponies a prelude to visitors being beheaded to adorn bloodied poles around the village.

Suva is also home to one of only four animist tribes remaining in Indonesia. The same villagers who warmly welcome cruise groups with an afternoon of tribal dance and music, plus tempting displays of the ikat (weaved cloth) and handicrafts for sale, otherwise have their lives compelled by mysterious messages from the gods.

Visitors are welcome to stroll up the hill overlooking the village to peer at the giant moon-stones - atop which the village priests hold court under a full moon to decide what the gods want of their people - but under no circumstances are the nearby grass huts to be photographed, for the dead lodged there are entitled to some privacy. Here the villagers are as eager to sell you an ikat sporting elaborate images of shrimps - a symbol of rebirth - as they are to warn you off buying certain snakehead-carved walking sticks with peculiar oyster shell inflections.

It may be superstition, but an Australian cruise passenger who visited in August was wracked by pythonic nightmares on his return home to Sydney. He remains adamant the nightmares only stopped when he threw his Savu walking stick out of the house, late one stormy night ...

Technically, headhunting is no longer the dominant profession on nearby Sumba island either - but you will hardly know it from the way they vigorously tout their own version of ikat, plus all manner of carved wooden trinkets, beetle-nut pouches and jewellery. Although these islands are the fabled source of sandalwood, little of the merchandise thrust at you, although exquisitely carved, is likely to be of this protected material.

The men come at tourists fiercely brandishing cloth strips more colourful than those of Suva. The Sumbanese know the value of the work their women labour over for weeks, so you are bargaining with very tough customers indeed. It's almost a relief to sail off to nearby Komodo Island to face the dragons, ever mindful, as you pace along the dry river bed from the Loh Liang rangers station, that it will not do to end the trip the way the poor baron did.

Komodo dragons kill prey with a lightning-fast sweep of their powerful, reptilian tails. In an instant the three metre-long 200-kilogram dragon follows through by tearing at the victim's mid-section with cold saw-tooth efficiency. Disembowelment is the favoured method. The beast then dines at leisure. Even a near-miss is good enough. The komodo dragon may not breathe the fire of myths, but it certainly breathes death. The monitor lizard's saliva hosts four deadly strains of bacteria which will cause a wound to fester and bring death within days. That electric, flickering forked tongue, emerging like a living wand of fire, has sensory organs at its base which can detect wounded prey as far off as 11 kilometres away.

There is a misconception that, like a crocodile, the komodo dragon can be outrun. Rangers go to great pains even today to point out what folly this is. After all, the reptile specialises in bringing down deer, goats and even horses - so even Carl Lewis may run a poor second. Visitors are told the recommended method of escape is to swiftly climb a tree.

All that remains is to out-wait the dragon - no mean feat, for this beast is also a specialist binger which can go without food for up to three months. A more capable, fascinating killing machine is hard to find anywhere in the world. And yet, there are estimated to be just 3,500 komodos prowling around that mysterious island, so close to one of the world's great tourist resorts.

In a way it was tourism - the voyages of the ancient Chinese sailors, Bugis pirates and European mariners - that brought the monster to light. They carried back such wild tales of these hideous reptiles that the dragon legends prospered. It is ironic the engine of modern tourism - the plane - would accidentally drop in on the dragons and rekindle that fascination early this century.

A Dutch aviator en route to nearby northern Australia developed engine trouble but managed to put down on an inviting Komodo beach. So began a harrowing two days for the flyer, frantically tinkering with his machine, interspersed with long periods of huddling in the cockpit as the dragons prowled. He managed to get his flimsy biplane airborne, leaving a few disenchanted dragons but fascinating the West with his tale.

Particularly interested was the curator of the Bongor Zoo in Jakarta, Van Ouwens, who studied komodos captured by the Dutch military. He officially named it as a distinct and unique species, Varanus Komodoensis, and news of the creatures began to spread. It was as much the prey of the dragons as the beasts themselves which attracted the attention of famous American big game hunter W.D Burden in 1926. The dragons were already protected by an order from the Sultan of Bima, so Burden did not shoot any dragons - but a man he took with him, Willis O'Brien, certainly did.

O'Brien, a cinematographer, was fascinated by Komodo and the monstrous threat hanging over the island's only village, an old penal settlement decreed by the Sultan of Bima. The ominous crags of Komodo's hills, its teeming abundance of wildlife, the phenomenal beauty and danger in its rich waters and the spectre of the giant predators ... all conspired to leave an indelible impression on O'Brien. Visitors to the island today are apt to describe what they see and feel as being 'like something out of a movie' and more often than not refer to King Kong or Jurassic Park.

Little do they know the reality is the other way round, for O'Brien later went on to create and animate the 1931 movie classic, King Kong.

Komodo Island today has lost none of its black magic aura. The village remains, perched precariously on stilts as a defence against the giant lizards. But visitors probably will not get to see it, for while village life has become no less precarious, the existence of the komodos themselves has. And that, too, is largely being blamed on tourism.

Komodo dragons, basking languidly in the sun, seem much less than the ferocious killing machines of legend at first encounter. Being reptiles, their body temperature is thermo-regulated. That means, at the prime visiting times, the komodos are most likely to remain motionless. The most you may receive is the occasional slow-motion blink from a beast as you pass.

To liven things up for tourists, organised feeding of the komodos was a regular feature for many years at a feeding station in the Banungulu area. Groups of expectant visitors would walk quietly along the dry Loh Liang river bed to the feeding area, the rangers leading a goat they had chipped in to buy. At the Bapawana viewing platform, the rangers would slash the goat's throat and lower it by rope to the river bed 10 metres below. A violent, thrashing, snapping dervish of the giant beast congregation would erupt - and shocked visitors would later return to the rangers' area in bilious awe of what they had just witnessed.

The feeding sessions were an aberration in more ways than one, and rangers stopped them when it became apparent a frightening modification of dragon behaviour was taking place.

Usually a lone scavenger and predator, the reptiles were gathering in large groups around the feeding station, lazing about within metres of the ramshackle stick fence which defined the visitors' area. Indonesian and World Wide Fund For Nature researchers became worried the dragons were losing their natural behaviour patterns and fears emerged about the beasts' very survival. Numbers have dropped from an estimated 5,000 to just 3,500 today.

Right now, it is a precarious situation at the feeding station, with hungry dragons still waiting around their next meal while tourists take photographs from behind the stick fence. But authorities are confident the komodos will return to their traditional ways over time - and won't opt to make humans an integral part of their food chain.

Perhaps it's that added element of danger which makes a visit to Komodo so compulsive; certainly, 12,000 tourists visited the island last year. It's reassuring to know funds from your visit will go towards the preservation of this magnificent creature. It's also nice to know feeding the komodo dragons need no longer be such a personal thing as it was for Baron Von Reding Biberegg.

HOW TO GET THERE Details to come to come to come P & O Indonesia Expeditions are operated by Spice Island Cruises. Local representative is P & O Travel Hong Kong, tel: 2956-6888.