Somehow, by hook or crook, my tale of adventure with Komodo dragons on Rinca Island in Indonesia managed to win a silver prize for animal encounter in the Solas Best Travel Writing of 2014. I’ve been wanting to win won of these and make it into the annual book for years. Thank you!
2021 Update: I published a video on YouTube about my adventure with Komodo dragons on Rinca Island!
“You’re staying here tonight? Seriously?”
My eyes drifted from the rough, wooden dock where we were standing, up to a set of blue eyes that were examining me with a sense of admiration and adventure.
I explained to a Swiss traveler that I had hired a boat for the night and planned to sleep on the island. Not just any island, Rinca Island — one of the most rough-and-tumble spots in Indonesia. But more on that later.
She couldn’t believe it.
Her blue eyes twinkled with an I-wish-I-was-staying-here-too, and I thoroughly enjoyed the proud moment. Briefly, I felt that I could join the sun-weathered ranks of Indiana Jones, John Wayne, and all the other gritty men who share adventure stories over rot-gut whiskey. A leather hat would soon be in order.
My daydream went away quickly when the girl’s boyfriend or travel partner — I’m not sure which — growled something in German and promptly dragged her onto the deck of a chartered boat. The rumbling hull began to pull away, leaving me in puffs of black diesel smoke.
Head still swollen with pride, and just to make a point, I waved one last time to keep her looking, then stripped off my shirt and jumped into the dark water below the dock. Surely she swooned and he rolled his eyes. At least, I hoped.
The evening’s first stars were just beginning to show overhead and I could smell the petrol that had leaked out of the parked boat. I scraped and washed away the filth and grime left behind by a sweaty day in the field.
Earlier, my 18-year-old guide and I had armed ourselves and then went poking around the tall, yellow grass of the island interior to find Komodo dragons. The choice of armament on the island was pitiful. With a dreadful lack of machetes or pointy objects available, we left base camp armed only with a couple of green sticks. To make matters worse, he had snatched up the longer of the two choices.
Throughout the day, we spotted 12 Komodo dragons in the wild, photographed two stalking a very unlucky buffalo, and even stumbled upon a nest with eggs.
The sizable eggs turned out to be protected by a sizable female, which then charged out of the nearby weeds in a flash of hissing, claws, forked tongue, and the works. Few things are as unsettling as seeing a pissed-off, dinosaur-era creature convinced that you want to consume her young.
With some animal encounters, such as the grizzly I surprised in Alaska the year prior, it’s better to back away slowly. There was no time to ask about proper protocol. When my guide turned and broke into an Olympic-record-breaking sprint, I decided it was best to follow his lead.
“Is this just a typical day on the job for you?” I asked, panting as we reached safety.
“Oh, yes. Big dragon. Every day.” He grinned, nervously trying to light a cigarette with trembling hands. Perhaps I had underestimated the dragons or overestimated my brave guide. He dropped his cigarette when a heavy crash from the weeds sent us into a full sprint again.
The female had tracked our scent and was still in a bad mood.
I thought about the other close calls throughout the day as shadows stretched across the calm water around me.
Because this was the low season, I was literally the only non-Indonesian on the island. Or even in this part of the Indian Ocean [this was 2009, before Rinca became more popular as a destination]. Despite having hammocks and simple bungalows available in a small camp on the island, none of the park rangers — people generally in the know about man-eating lizards — would dare to sleep there. All unanimously preferred to sleep wherever they could on the uncomfortable boats instead. The dragons regularly patrolled the small camp for food scraps and even sometimes became stuck in the outhouse.
An eight-foot-long, venomous lizard cannot possibly be a pleasant sight to see on a sleepy trip to the toilet.
Komodo dragons are one of those animals that probably should have been wiped out with the dinosaurs but somehow missed the memo. Or perhaps they were just too ill-tempered to show up for their own apocalypse. Regardless, they are now endangered. But honestly I can’t see how.
For years, biologists assumed that only the abundant bacteria in the mouths of Komodo dragons poisoned their prey. Only in 2009, the same year I had my encounters with them, did someone get brave enough to look inside the head of one of these vile creatures — perhaps on a lost bet — and discovered a place for venom glands. Not that they need them: a Komodo’s saliva is red and foamy because of the more than 50 strains of bacteria living around sharp teeth.
While most creatures, even the ones with fangs and claws, generally conform to the unspoken they’re-more-scared-of-you-than-you-are-of-them law, not Komodo dragons. They are the only lizards that will attack things larger than themselves, unprovoked, for no good reason at all. When other animals to bully aren’t convenient, they regularly attack — and eat — each other. Or they resort to digging up graves around the island with their long claws to consume human corpses.
Yes, they’re that mean.
The Western world didn’t even know these nightmarish lizards existed until 1911, when a World War I pilot picked one really rotten place to make a crash landing. Rinca Island made headlines again in 2008 when five scuba divers literally missed their boat, were left adrift at sea, and eventually washed up on the island.
Forget all the Hollywood notions of spear fishing, opening coconuts, and frolicking with a well-tanned Brooke Shields or befriending a soccer ball when stranded on an island. Not gonna happen on Rinca. The divers couldn’t even go find help; they were busy enough for two days just fending off the dragons’ welcome party.
Rinca wasn’t your typical honeymoon island destination. Seeing a sizable water buffalo get stripped down to a sticky pile of bones is rarely romantic. No, Rinca Island was a scorching hot, rugged little hellhole of an island that was home to Komodo dragons, their prey, and only a few brave-or-stupid individuals who were crazy enough to coexist with them. This was a place where men weren’t always at the top of the food chain. A place where people had actually been consumed by giant lizards.
As if that wasn’t grotesque enough, cobra snakes occupied every available crevice on the island. I had seen numerous skins on trees while trekking earlier in the day; many were six feet long. The cobras are responsible for more annual deaths than the dragons, but they can’t function in the heat of the day.
The water surrounding the island was home to sharks of all types that came to feed in the most dangerous currents in the world, the exact point where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. Divers have reported being pulled down 30 meters deeper in unexpected currents, and boats are broken apart in pop-up whirlpools.
In other words, Satan himself would have been scared white to sleep on this disagreeable rock of an island that much of the world doesn’t even know exists.
While tour groups flocked to neighboring Komodo Island hoping to photograph dragons, in-the-know travelers came to the smaller and less famous Rinca. But very few ever spent the night. Sometimes people would go a day without seeing any dragons in the wild on Komodo Island, but I had been lucky enough — if you consider being surrounded by carnivorous lizards a good thing – to spot 12 on my outing. That doesn’t count the lazy ones that lounge around camp waiting for the occasional food scraps or a meaty visitor’s leg to nibble on.
As the sky above me cycled through orange colors, the Swiss couple and their English-speaking guides had been smart enough to leave. They would sleep somewhere civilized tonight. Now, I was left only with the boatmen and laborers who maintained the national park. Communication was a challenge for all parties.
My perfect swim ended a perfect day of adventure. Despite numerous encounters, and the Komodos’ best efforts, all important appendages were still attached. No fangs had found their mark. For a few minutes, the lukewarm water was pure bliss — total Zen — then I slowly became aware of an old Indonesian man standing on the boat above me.
He calmly stated as if I could understand, “Hati Hati. Ada ular kobra di sini.”
The old man never blinked as I riffled through my limited mental dictionary of Bahasa Indonesia learned over the last couple of months. Hati hati meant to be careful. Suddenly, comprehension was like a slap in the face:
“There are cobras here.”
I can’t think of any four words that will ruin a state of Zen faster than those. And I didn’t need to be told twice. Seconds later, I was dripping on the deck of our small boat. I studied the old boatman’s facial expression for indications that he was just getting a laugh out of me. They like to do that to tourists.
He never grinned.
I heard once that land-based snakes can’t bite you while in the water, that they have to coil first and push off from the ground; it’s a matter of physics. Regardless, a remote island in Flores, Indonesia, is no place to test a factoid learned while watching late-night Animal Planet. Or to ponder the nuances of herpetology, for that matter — particularly when venom is involved.
Almost on queue, and ridiculously cliché, the first cobra appeared in the exact spot where I had been swimming 45 seconds earlier. It was as long as I am and slithered gracefully through the water without a care in the world.
I watched it glide silently past the boat and wondered if it could climb aboard as easily as I did. Now I understood why the rangers present had kept their sticks nearby.
As I lay on the hard deck, listening to ripples smack against the hull, the sky gave way to night. I saw more shooting stars than I have ever seen in my life. Monkeys screamed from the jungle canopy and I thought about all the Komodos and snakes out there hunting in the blackness.
I felt very alive. And very alone.
I was visiting during the low season, and aside from random chartered excursions like the one that brought the Swiss couple, no boats were running. I had made my own way to Rinca earlier by negotiating in Indonesian with a boatman on the beach at Labuanbajo — the launching point for the national park. His pride and joy was a rickety piece of woodwork held together by generous amounts of twine and bungee cords. Like his peers, he also had no use for life vests or radio equipment.
The Indonesians thought I was mad. Having received the equivalent of $20 for my passage, they were having a time celebrating, getting drunk, playing cards, and making all kinds of noise until the sun came up.
In a moment of genius, I had promised the crew another $10 if and when I got back to Labuanbajo where the rest of my money was waiting in a guesthouse lock box. This was my little insurance plan to prevent being thrown overboard or robbed and subsequently fed to convenient reptiles. It worked, and from the tidbits of what I could understand, they were already gambling the extra $10 on credit with each other.
Before turning in for the night, the boat captain had moved us a few feet away from the dock and dropped anchor. We could still jump from the boat onto the wooden platform if needed, but he didn’t want to take any chances of things clawing, slithering, or sneaking on board while we slept.
I found out later that Komodo dragons can even swim. There wasn’t much sleep to be had in my near future, so I decided to just watch satellites drift by lazily overhead.
Meanwhile, I smeared oil from the leaking motor onto my exposed skin to keep the relentless mosquitoes off, and concentrated on not thinking about the orgy of creatures killing each other both on land and in the water around us. The Indonesian men, which the mosquitoes inexplicably ignored, would get a good laugh out of my dirty face in the morning.
It worked; even the mosquitoes must have figured I looked too ridiculous to mess with at this point.
Somewhere safe, clean, and comfortable, a Swiss beauty was probably snuggled up next to a guy who didn’t have motor oil smeared on his face, and they probably didn’t have to worry about being consumed sometime during the night. But I didn’t care.
The sounds of cobras sliding into the water from the banks, monkeys crying, and Indonesians already fighting over tomorrow’s money were sweeter than ever.