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A hike in the wild to meet the dragons

Visiting Indonesia’s Komodo National Park is like walking into a Robinson Crusoe fantasy

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 19:28 IST
Indonesia

The coloured coral reef at the Komodo National Park in Indonesia(Getty Images)

Visiting Indonesia’s Komodo National Park is like walking into a Robinson Crusoe fantasy

I was smitten with the idea of visiting Indonesia’s Komodo National Park the minute I learned that it is patrolled by the world’s largest monitor lizard. These, up to three-metres-long dragons, can potentially swallow prey as big as a goat, and intimidate larger animals (including writers). But they defend themselves only when threatened or knocked on the head with a selfie-stick.

INTO THE WILD

Komodo National Park (a cluster of 29 islands) takes some getting to. I take a flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo, then wake the next morning at the crack of dawn for a five-hour journey by boat to Komodo Island. There’s much to love about the experience: the departure from a pier dotted with fishing boats, the sight of a fresh food market waking up, sunrise on the waters, schools of dolphins along the way.

An aerial view of the island 'Pulau Padar' at the Komodo National Park. (Getty Images)

The fact that Komodo National Park has been recently declared one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, and that the dragon is a protected beast, doesn’t adequately prepare you for your first encounter with this Robinson Crusoe fantasy. So a guide must accompany every exploration. Armed with a forked staff, we walk slowly into dragon territory, along a carefully demarcated hiking trail. You can choose a trail depending on your fitness; the longer the trail, the more dragon behaviour you understand.

A Komodo Dragon, which can grow up to three metres tall, sits on its hind legs. (Shutterstock)

A flurry of camera shutters tells me a sighting has been made. Lying in a bush is the massive body, scaly back, and dagger-sharp claws of the Komodo (locally known as ora), who sticks out its forked tongue. A short walk away, a baby ora crosses our path. It looks warily around and creeps forward. “Survival of the fittest,” the guide mutters. “Mature ora are cannibalistic; so the young live in the branches of trees, usually until they grow to at least one metre in length.”

CORALED OFF

The guide tells that to tackle larger prey, the ora bites the animal and then lurks in the neighbourhood, waiting for the bacteria from their mouth to take effect. In two weeks or so, the creature dies and the ora gets its feast.

A visitor photographs nearly life-size Komodo dragon wood carvings. (AFP)

But he also wants you to see more than the Komodo. So don’t neglect the wild boar and megapodes (chicken with small heads and large feet).

A trip to this place is far from being an urban unwind. Komodo is part of the coral triangle – the biological hotspot of marine biodiversity. That means the pink sand that fringes the beaches, born of the red coral offshore, sees no traveller in pursuit of a tan.

With the convergence of warm and cold currents, conditions are favourable for the rich plankton soup that attracts sharks, manta rays and blue whales.

A manta ray swimming through a current-swept channel. (Getty Images)

GIFT OF THE PRESENT

Snorkelling or taking a boat around the coral beaches, the friends you see are silently companionable. Here an eagle ray. There a pygmy seahorse. Everywhere a blue-ringed octopus or a clown frogfish.

On the journey back to Labuan Bajo, I’ve stopped taking photos, giving myself over to experience rather than memories. A co-passenger lost his wedding ring while snorkelling, but his attention is only on the beauty of the present.

Now it dawns on me: our attitudes have been re-configured by Komodo National Park.

From HT Brunch, September 18, 2016

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