Part four – Here be Dragons

From Gili Banta we continued our journey on the Flores Sea and to a rendevous with the Komodo Dragon. These gigantic reptiles were creatures of myth right up to the start of the 20th century because their home was so remote from civilisation. Few westerners had seen them before some animal collectors put a couple on display in America (where they did not prosper) prior to the First World War. No proper scientific examination had been taken of them so they gained a reputation for being unintelligent, lumbering and dangerous. Rumours abounded of their ability to kill people as well as animals and that their very spit could be fatal.

A very young David Attenborough travelled to the Komodo islands in the 1960’s for his zoo quest programme. He managed to capture one but was refused permission for it to be exported back to the UK. However, scientists started taking note of the dragon and subsequent research has turned up some very interesting facts.

Komodo Dragons are a very ancient species of lizard. But why are they so large compared with their smaller cousins which we find so much less threatening? Well, they are, like crocodiles and elephants, part of the ancient megafauna. They developed at a time when megapods roamed the earth and they evolved to be huge because their prey was likewise huge. It always puzzled scientists that these oversized reptiles lived only on a few tiny, remote little islands and nowhere else but it seems that they originally evolved in ancient Australasia, at the time a land of megafauna. Reducing sea levels during ice ages created land bridges between continents and as their prey spread out from Australasia and Asia so did the dragons.

At some point their prey animals died out as sea levels rose again and so too must most of the dragons but a few managed to reach the islands around Komodo – probably by swimming as they are perfectly able to take to water. So this massive beast became a survivor from a bygone age and now only exists on Komodo and the surrounding islands. The population today is about 4-4,500 and now that they are protected it’s a stable, if small, population.

We stepped ashore on Rinca ready for our first encounter. First of all the park ranger told us what to expect and how to behave. Like many a wild animal, dragons can be dangerous and, indeed, on this island a worker was bitten by a dragon which just happened to wander into the toilet block he was using. He was given a course of antibiotics and survived. For our protection our guide carried a long forked stick. You wouldn’t think this would stop a large animal but it appears that the technique is to poke it in the nose with the forked end and this will invariably turn the dragon away. Mind you, for all their lumbering gait they can run very fast so you wouldn’t want to fancy your chances against one unless your name was Bolt.

On our walk we followed our guide with his stick who was, in turn, following a Komodo Dragon as it lumbered along. It was quite amusing that we were being led by the very beast we had come to see.

The dragons we saw on Rinca were quite attenuated to people, though I’m sure there are more in the bush which are somewhat wilder. But we were subsequently taken by dinghy to a beach in the beautiful Horseshoe Bay and out of the trees appeared several dragons which settled down at the water’s edge, perhaps eyeing up a boat full of tasty morsels.

To take our minds off these beasts we were taken to another spot in the bay for some wonderful snorkelling on the reef. There were fantastic sea fans here and a lot of fish and other marine life.

The following day we returned to the sea and began with a snorkel in Manta Alley. Just offshore from Rinca are several large rock formations and in the waters around these Reef Mantas gather. There is a narrow gap between two of these outcrops through which the sea swirls and through which the Mantas patrol seeking their plankton food. The seas were running quite high so it was a slightly challenging snorkel but we did, indeed, see Mantas, their ghostly outline appearing out of the frothy water, mouths agape. These are not as large as the oceanic Manta Rays we have seen on other trips with Chas but their wingspan is still impressive. There was plenty of other sea life to see despite the slightly rough conditions.

The boat was moved towards Komodo Island so that we could berth overnight and be ready to go ashore for our final dragon encounter the following day. In the late afternoon sunshine the plan was for a snorkel on Pink Beach. The sands here contain minerals which make them appear pink, especially from a distance, and so we piled into the water garbed, as usual, in shorties, bathing caps, mask and tube. It has to be said that man may have originally evolved from sea creatures but we are not well adapted to being in the environment of a fish.

Up to this point we had largely managed to snorkel where there were few, if any, other people on pristine reefs. But now we were amongst a lot of other tourist boats – live aboards, though nowhere near as salubrious as ours, and day trips out of nearby Flores. So it was a bit of a shock to find ourselves snorkelling amidst a small flotilla of boats and people. One boat in particular drew my attention – it was belching thick black smoke and seemed to be listing to the port side. There were westerners perched on the foredeck whilst local staff scurried about and it became clear that this vessel was in trouble.

The vessel was now listing quite steeply and I couldn’t quite understand why the passengers were making no attempt to abandon ship – some of them were already in bathing costumes and the water was reasonably shallow. I was also surprised that none of the other boats in the area seemed in the slightest bit concerned about the situation, except for our dinghy crew who went up to ask if they needed help.

By now the port gunwales were close to the waterline and still the passengers were yet to be taken off, although, eventually, a boat did come and get them, but their luggage was still inside the boat, clearly getting soaked. There was a tang of diesel in the air and it was clear the vessel was going to capsize.

We returned to our boat where we asked Celso if there wasn’t something which could be done. By now the unfortunate tourists were gathered on the beach watching the boat keel over completely. It was getting dark, they had no means of getting away, nowhere to shelter and this on Komodo – where there are roaming dragons, of course. In the end, although the park guards were informed by radio, it was down to our staff to go and rescue the stricken boat’s passengers and crew, salvage their possessions and bring them all back to the Mermaid. It transpired the passengers were a group of French people and they were given hot drinks, soap and shampoo so they could have a wash under the showers located on the dive deck, towels to dry themselves, and a ship’s t-shirt each so that they had at least one dry thing to wear. Eventually they were brought up to the main deck so they could share in our food and were then ferried to the ranger station so they could stay in the bungalows there, safe from any harm.

It seems that the boat had tried to get too close to the reef and had become stuck on one of the rocks; as the tide dropped the boat simply keeled over and the following morning as we passed her by, it was clear she was well and truly sunk. I hate to think what damage she might be causing to the reef from leaking fuel, etc.

Our own visit to Komodo island was almost an anticlimax after all the excitement of the previous day. However, we did learn more about the lives of these fascinating creatures. With no megafauna left to eat the dragons have had to turn to more prosaic prey. Timor deer, water buffalo and wild pigs have all found their way onto the island and mankind has brought his own domesticated animals – chicken, goat, cows, dogs. Food enough for hungry dragons which can exist on just one decent meal of meat a month.

Their hunting strategy is quite sophisticated. Big though they are they couldn’t simply bring down something the size of a buffalo like a lion can. So their preferred technique is choose young or weak prey and lunge in with a bite before retreating. The prey won’t usually be struck down by just one bite but a dragon will follow the injured beast, sometimes for days, nipping in giving one bite after another. It was observed that these wounds do not heal but continue to bleed until the poor prey animal eventually weakens and dies, when the dragon can move in to feed. There are two theories about why the wound remains open in this way. One is that there are millions of bacteria in a dragon’s saliva and this causes infection – hence the idea that you can be killed by dragon spit. It is thought that the saliva contains a powerful anti-coagulant and in time the prey will bleed to death. But it has also recently been discovered that dragons are highly unusual in the reptile world because they have venom glands and the poison, though not sufficiently toxic enough in itself to cause death, sufficently weakens prey so that they succumb to their wounds.

One final interesting dragon fact. Like all reptiles dragons are cold blooded and lay eggs rather than having live young. Their nests are scraped out of the soil and mother will guard the nest for about three months before wandering off. Some time later the hatchlings emerge and immediately have to scurry into the nearby trees otherwise they run the risk of being taken by sea eagles and the like and even by other dragons. So, on top of everything else, dragons are by nature cannibalistic!

And here we were, once again walking with a guide armed only with a stick on the lookout for venomous cannibals left over from an era when dinosaurs ruled the earth and with a penchant for biting you to death. Hmmm.

We did find a few of these lovely creatures, one with a yellow H painted on her side. H for Harriet, apparently. Not an attempt to anthropomorphise an otherwise unloveable creature but to identify her for study.

Our walk with dragons also took in some reasonable birdwatching – a lovely cockatoo being a particular highlight. But it was time to say goodbye to the dragons and sail on towards Flores and the end of our journey.

We still had a couple of snorkels to go on the wonderful reefs and there were also whales and dolphins to search for. But the wind had picked up and the swells made scanning the horizon with binoculars very difficult and tiring. The boat was bucking and ploughing through the waves but it was still exhilarating to be at the prow, even if you were occasionally drenched with sea water!

We didn’t get great views of the north side of Flores as we passed by but when the waters calmed down a bit we did find a group of Spotted Dolphin which put on a show, one animal leaping about 4.5 mtrs into the air which seemed a fitting finale to our time on the water.

We had one final treat on our last night. Marcelo had been busy all week making a video of the trip – on board and on land with a steady cam, overheads shots of dolphins and whales using a drone and underwater with an underwater camera. So he dimmed the cabin lights and gave us a wonderful show of our trip. He’s a talented cameraman and the overhead shots in particular showed us views of the animals which we hadn’t been able to see ourselves so it was a great end to a memorable trip. Here’s a selection of his incredible photos.

The crew of the Mermaid were incredibly professional, friendly and probably the best we’ve ever sailed with. Chas was his usual entertaining, amusing and interesting self, dedicated to making our trip as smooth and fulfilling as possible. And the guests really gelled as a group. We met up with Sally and John for the third time – quite by coincidence; we first encountered them on a Maldives trip and then again in the stunning and remote Aldabra archipelago. And our other companions were a wonderful bunch, sharing many travellers tales, helping one another out and just being fun to be with.

Neither Man nor Dragon got slain but, by George, we had a wonderful time! And to round it off there’s a week’s travelling in Flores to come.

4 thoughts on “CHASING DRAGONS”

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