Komodo: the land before time
A flickering tongue tasted the air, and the giant lizard turned in a momentary pause from his lunch. Together with a handful of Australian visitors, we stood on the edge of a mud pit, watching in hushed excitement as a young Komodo dragon feasted on a water buffalo carcass, its horns and bare ribs protruding from the muck.
It was mating season, but on Rinca the dragons were easily found. In a clearing just metres from the visitor centre at Loh Buaya, the ‘Bay of Big Reptiles’, a sizeable female lounged in the shade as two juveniles scurried by. Meanwhile, a larger, heavy-set male lumbered through the undergrowth some distance behind.
Bama and I were shadowing a ranger who had grown up in the island’s sole village. As a child he often saw the dragons chasing goats outside his house, and his fellow residents lived in constant worry that the hungry predators would come after them if the goats escaped. “The dragons took an eight-year-old boy a few months ago,” our ranger said nonchalantly. “They ate his stomach first because it was the softest part.”
The previous night we had flicked through the channels in our Labuan Bajo hotel, watching velociraptors terrorise hapless humans in Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and a particularly gory scene from Kon-Tiki, based on Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia on a balsawood raft. We would be sailing aboard the KLM Fammasena, a single-masted vessel with four tiny cabins, and the irony of both films was not lost on either of us.
Back on Rinca, our stone-faced ranger gripped a colourfully painted rod in one hand. Two-pronged like the tongues of the dragons, it would be our only protection. He assured us the Komodo’s weak point was its nose, and if you struck it with enough force the dragon would temporarily lose consciousness. But that was little comfort when we found out the reptiles could run up to 18 kilometres per hour. “If you’re chased by a Komodo,” another ranger would tell us, “run in a zig-zagging pattern.”
Gonzales, our guide on the Fammasena, regaled us with tales that the dragons could indeed swim, go without food for three months, and drink water only once a year. On Komodo Island, a younger, casually dressed ranger from Labuan Bajo revealed that the world’s largest lizards were cannibalistic creatures. When a Komodo dies, he told us, its carcass is quickly eaten by other dragons. Not even family ties will discourage the cannibalism. “Sometimes, when the mother is guarding the nest and her eggs hatch, she goes after the babies.” The ranger laughed. “Komodos are bad parents.”
But it wasn’t just the brutal (and surprisingly graceful) dragons that left us in awe. The beauty of these islands, covered in tropical savanna, is not restricted to dry land. Below the waves, Komodo was a true wonderland teeming with all kinds of marine life.
Under a threatening grey sky, the Fammasena anchored off Pantai Merah, popularly known as Pink Beach. Neither Bama or I had ever snorkelled before, but as we plunged into the ocean there was little time to reconsider our move. I started out in a panic, treading water and struggling to breathe through the pipe as inane questions flooded my mind. How do I use this mask? Is it tight enough? How can I expel the water in this pipe? I could see that Bama was also having a hard time adjusting to the equipment. He was kicking furiously with his fins, confessing between quickened breaths, “This is my first time snorkelling.”
“Harus berani,” Gonzales replied. You have to be brave.
It is true that fear exists only in the mind. The initial panic eventually gave way to slow, measured breaths as we weaved through the coral gardens, a plethora of shapes and textures unlike anything I had previously seen. To my sheer delight the fingers of soft coral waved with the motion of the currents, and we marveled at the variety of table coral, brain coral, sponges and what appeared to be gorgonian sea fans.
It was at Pink Beach that I began to regret the absence of an underwater camera; the wonders we encountered are burned forever into my memory, but there was no visual record of what we saw in the waters around Komodo National Park – not even our first encounter with a manta ray.
A few days previously, Dino had warned us about the strong currents at Manta Point. “Don’t go if you’re not comfortable,” he said, “you have to be a strong swimmer.” I was confident, but as we neared the open waters of Manta Point, nagging doubts began to take shape. The sea was far choppier than expected, and I wondered if it was a wise decision to push ourselves off the prow. But, encouraged by a sighting from a neighbouring boat, we followed Gonzales as he scouted in the water for signs of the gentle mantas.
At first we could see only dark tufts of coral on the bottom. Then with two fingers Gonzales signalled us to look down into the depths. Crossing into my field of vision, I saw a single manta ray – a dark, majestic phantom of the deep, gliding just above the sea floor. My breathing instantly slowed down, as though I had slipped into a meditative state. In that minute or two there existed only the manta ray; all else – even the choppy conditions overhead – were quickly forgotten.
Manta Point was not the end of our snorkelling adventures. Outside the park boundaries we made one final stop at Kanawa Island, where streaks of sunlight penetrated into the deep blue waters and the sea floor rose to a shelf festooned with hard corals. Here, we were taken aback by the vivid colour of several blue starfish, each one with long arms and a velvety appearance, draped languidly over the coral. Further on, a clownfish was hiding among the protective tentacles of a sea anemone, and I soon found myself hovering above a silvery needlefish as it snatched passing prey in its jaws.
Bama even had the luck of spotting a blacktip reef shark, but it had disappeared before I could do the same. We also saw plentiful numbers of starfish lying in the shallows, all in variations of red, orange and faded peach – their patterns of black protrusions giving them the name ‘chocolate chip sea stars’.
As little boys, my brother and I gained the nickname ‘water babies’ because of our propensity to play with water. We both learned to swim at the age of five, and eventually our continued affection for the sea was borne out in water sports, not least in weekly dragon boat sessions. But it was not until experiencing the seascapes of Komodo, that I finally grasped the true beauty and preciousness of our oceans. ◊