COME on! Run for the enclosure. The dragons are coming!'' The guide dashed into the undergrowth, waving his stick at the advancing pack of beasts. A dozen huge reptiles were heading towards us, healthy examples of the world's largest, fiercest lizards. Almost three metres long, with swinging tails and stout, stubby legs, they flicked their forked, yellow tongues over the dry ground, looking horribly hungry. ''Follow me!'' cried the guide. ''Run!'' But the dragons had goats on their minds, and ours was right behind us, strung on a pole and bleating loudly as its carriers sprinted into the undergrowth. The lizards of Indonesia's Komodo island are not nicknamed dragons for nothing. They have an uncanny sense of smell. They can run, jump, swim, walk on two feet and dive into holes. They can also climb trees. As the dragons headed down the middle of our party, scattering us to either side, the goat-bearers ran for their lives. We made it to the enclosure but the dragons were not fooled. They knew their meal would return. They did an abrupt U-turn and slid down into a dried-up river-bed below us, flicking their tongues impatiently. Looking down on them from the comparative safety of the enclosure was hardly any more reassuring. I counted 18 of various sizes, with enormous crocodile mouths and massive, scaly bodies. As the goat's throat was being discreetly cut behind us, the dragons advanced up the bank. I could see their ear-openings, their lidded eyes. The reptiles lunged forward, hissing. I could have touched the folds of their scaly fawn skin. Another step and they would reach the run-down fence. Just as I caught the first whiff of their obnoxious breath, the goat was flung down into the pack. It was not a pretty sight, but it was over quickly. The dragons clambered over each other in their frenzy to get a bite. Within three minutes they were licking bloody lips and sauntering off for a nap. There was not one scrap - not even one hair - of goat left. One does not visit Komodo lightly. In 1974, a Baron von Biberegg fell prey to a dragon while walking in the northeast of the island. All that was found was his hat, his camera and a bloody shoe. He is the most well known victim. But he was by no means the first or last. In 1980, Komodo and the other nearby dragon-inhabited islands of Padar and Rinca were made national parks. They are the only places in the world where Varanus Komodoensis lives in the wild: isolated, volcanic islands east of Bali, trapped amid the whirlpools of the Flores Sea and the riptides of the Sape Strait. Perfect dragon country. Numbers are vague, but there are thought to be 2,000 or so dragons on Komodo, an average of 17 per square kilometre. Chances are pretty high you will meet one. But rules are strict about wandering off; and, after seeing feeding time (held on Wednesday andSunday), many may not like a chance encounter. The guides say dragons are only dangerous when hungry or provoked. But they kept a close eye on us when we set off for a guided tour of the hinterland, where Biberegg met his end. Up into the hills we went, through forests of palms and pandanus, passing several huge earth mounds built by megapodes, which resemble turkeys, that bury their eggs in earth - providing the dragons with one of their favourite foods. On the hilltop, by the white memorial cross to Biberegg, we rested warily. ''Over there is Rinca,'' said our guide, pointing across the sparkling seas. ''If you really want to see dragons in the wild, that's the place to go.'' It seemed a shame to miss the opportunity, now we were in the lair of dragons. Later in the day we walked to Komodo's only village (inhabited by descendants of former convicts banished to the island centuries ago from neighbouring Flores) and found a mannamed Simun to take us in his boat to Rinca. ''It's a good trip,'' he said. ''Lots of sharks and whirlpools, and many tricky currents. And Rinca island is full of dangerous dragons. You will enjoy!'' Next morning, we crammed on to Simun's tiny blue wooden boat and set off through a minefield of whirlpools and strange currents, interspersed with stretches of unreal calm. It was a seascape as disturbing as Komodo's wild volcanic domain and just as deathly quiet. No boats were on these seas. No dolphins and no flying fish. We reached Rinca dazed by the heat and the silence. Tourists rarely go to Rinca, although it is closer to Flores than Komodo. ''Here we do not feed the dragons,'' explained the guide, Luis. ''So you'll be lucky to see any at all. But there are wild horses and buffalo. And it's a pleasant stroll to the hilltop.'' We followed him across an open expanse of savannah and rolling hills. The landscape was gentler than Komodo. I began to relax. ''Look, horses,'' whispered Luis. And the sturdy little animals pricked up their ears and raced away into the wind. The view from the hilltop was spectacular; waves of palm-dotted hills stretching towards a sea of islands. To the east lay Flores, a long hazy outline. I was glad, then, that we had come. I felt lulled by the landscape. On our way back, we slipped into silence. Nothing stirred in the grasslands. But suddenly, Luis froze. ''Dragons,'' he whispered, his voice taut with excitement. ''Big ones, feeding.'' Ahead three huge dragons were tearing a deer apart in the shade of a tree. They raised their heads and hissed, inflating their bodies in fury. ''Careful!'' warned Luis. We slowly moved forwards. One dragon sloped off into the undergrowth. But the other two had their mouths full of deer. We stood and looked at each other. Which was tastier? Deer or man? The dragons carefully dropped the deer from their jaws and hissed again. Man retreated. Now I knew what it was really like to face dragons in the wild. That night, to the sound of the wind in the palms, I dreamed of sparkling seas and a journey of escape. And in the shadows of my dream prowled the black-eyed dragons, flicking their forkedyellow tongues over the dry parched ground: the animal kings of Komodo. How to get there Garuda flies to Bima via Bali, then transfer by boat to Komodo island. Cost: Hongkong-Bali-Bima with return flights is $8,580. Visa: required.