Detours: Komodo Island

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2009, 12:00am

It's 11am and time for the Komodo dragons' morning snack. It's a stiflingly hot day, the ground bone dry and the air rich with the dragons' rancid, meaty smell. Three of the oversized lizards, with their rough skin, beady eyes and huge claws on each gnarled digit, lie in the dust nearby. Sniffing their next meal, they spring into action, turning their heads, drool puddling beneath their open jaws. Not nature's most endearing creatures but quite a sight in the wilds of Indonesia.

We've come to the island of Rinca, two hours by boat from Flores and even closer to Komodo Island, for a chance to see these prehistoric animals and to sail around its World Heritage-listed waters. Escorted by teenage guides bearing little more than wooden poles to ward off their attacks, we walk across the rugged landscape, looking for giant lizards.

Our teen guides act tough, pointing out a large female dragon perched on a two-metre wide nest, her babies peeking over its edges. But even they recoil and warn people away from the young males lounging around the rangers' huts. The infamous practice of feeding the dragons live goats has ceased, but the males continue to live around the huts in the hope of live prey.

Our guide explains how Komodo dragons, locally known as 'ora', are only found on the two small islands of Rinca and Komodo (visitors have a better chance of seeing them on Rinca, as it is smaller and more densely populated). Protected by the law and local mythology that prevents villagers killing them, the dragon population has increased to 2,500 despite attacks on humans, including a toddler who died of sepsis after receiving multiple bites in 2007 and a fruit picker mauled to death by two dragons just last week.

Rinca's landscape is barren. Under a deep blue sky, we walk to the top of a hill and survey jagged brown islands and volcanoes dotted in the ocean. Listed by Unesco as a World Heritage area of 'outstanding universal value' to science and conservation, it's nothing short of spectacular. Some islands appear to have been pushed up overnight, with rough edges jutting out abruptly, while others are perfect cones pushing up from the sea.

Sailing from Rinca to Komodo, we watch small black dolphins play in the bow wave and leap high above the water. Reaching Komodo, we dodge tour groups wearing 'Hunting Komodo Dragon by Camera' T-shirts and trek upwards through the bush. It's like a watercolour painting: yellow and green trees, brown earth and blue sea. And here we see more dragons lolling around the huts, one even lying across a set of stairs. Komodo dragons may be a prehistoric wonder, but, unlike their surroundings, they're hard to love.