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August 20th, 2011 | Asia

The Dragons of Rinca…

Simon had come down with a cold, and decided to sleep late, leaving me to look for a boat out to Rinca on my own…

I dressed by the light of the early dawn, and went to see if there was any coffee brewing in the hotel kitchen… The Wisata Hotel was a favourite stop for inter-island truckers, and a few of them were up as early as I was, getting ready to head out to Ruteng and even further…

After a large cup of dark mud that serves as coffee in these parts, I wolfed down a banana pancake, and then armed with my cameras and video equipment, walked down to the near-deserted main street of Lubuanbajo, looking for a tour operator… The one I had left my name with the previous night had texted to say their boat was full…

Dawn comes to Labuanbajo Bay...

We cruised down the coast, along a rugged and uninhabited shore...

I walked down towards the harbour area, hoping to find a boat going out to Rinca preferably or all the way to Komodo itself as a last resort… The round trip to Komodo takes six hours by boat from Lubuanbajo, and after the eight hours on a ferry the day before, I needed that like a hole in the head…!!

By sheer luck, the first operator I stopped at advised that they already had two people booked and that there was space on the boat for two more… Each boat usually charges Rp 1 000 000 for a trip to Rinca, divided by the number of passengers it took over, six being the maximum…

Richard and Kate, my companions for the day...

I paid Rp 350 000 (R295.00) for the four hour return boat trip, which included lunch, a litre of water and some snorkeling on the way back… All in all, an excellent deal, considering that I paid $500 to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, and wanted to see Komodo Dragons almost as much as I had wanted to see the Gorillas…!!

I discovered that my companions for the day would be the English couple who I had seen on the ferry the day before, but never got a chance to speak to…

Richard and Kate were medical students on their summer break from Uni, and we introduced ourselves while trying on masks to snorkel with later…

As the sun climbed up from behind the ring of dormant volcanoes to the east of us, we motored out into the bay and set our sights on Rinca…

Our skiff nosed into Loh Buaya on Rinca Island...

The sea was as flat as the pancake I had enjoyed earlier, which pleased Richard no end, as he did not enjoy being bashed about by waves and drenched in sea-spray…

We passed a few remote villages, the houses built on stilts to avoid the high tides, but for the most part the shore we motored by were deserted…

We crossed the open channel separating Flores from Rinca and after half an hour of watching Rinca slide past our port bow, we turned into a long narrow bay and headed for the wooden jetty I could see in the distance..

Four large yachts lay at anchor in the shallow waters, close to the Mangroves that grew on the shore… Two of them were charters from Bali, while another had come all the way from Surabaya in Java… The last one flew the Australian flag…

I felt the familiar stirrings of excitement as we drew closer to our destination… We were all grinning from ear to ear, looking among the Mangroves, hoping to see the animal we had all come from so far away to see… We had been told that although there was a high probability of seeing Dragons on Rinca, it was by no means a certainty…

Some folks choose to visit the Islands of Dragons in style...!!

At the end of the jetty, we were welcomed to Rinca by a group of guides...

There was just one other skiff tied up at the jetty when we landed, and a short while later, we had chosen a guide and were being led along a narrow sandy path towards the Park Headquarters…

The Park Officials at Loh Buaya...

A small cluster of buildings stood in a stand of trees in the shade of a low hill, and as we walked towards them I noticed that there were little markers standing next to individual seedling trees planted along the path…

One in particular caught my attention… It read: “Rotary Club of Knysna, South Africa. 17th June 2011”… It stopped me dead in my tracks… I felt my eyes moisten at the thought of my countrymen planting a tree in this wild and inhospitable place… Good on you guys…!!

Near the park office, we stopped for the obligatory photo op to confirm to all and sundry that we had indeed made it to the Komodo National Park… In the office, a list of additional costs to visit the Park, were read out to us… Rp 40 000 entrance fee, Rp 25 000 camera fee and lastly, Rp 50 000 for the guide, which we could share between the three of us…

I'd ridden a very long way to get this photo... I was in Komodo National Park...!!

We were shown these skulls that had been collected on the island, all victims of Komodo Dragons...

How the heck did they get such an accurate count, I wondered...!!

Nearby stood a small canteen that sold cold drinks and curios and behind it were very basic toilet facilities… A few smaller administrative buildings and a longer dormitory stood sheltered under the spreading branches of large trees…

Guido then took us over to a notice board that described the efforts of the Park Authorities to conserve and protect the local population of Komodo Dragons on Rinca, and then led us to a collection of skulls tied to set of stakes, while he was identifying them, (Buffalo, wild pig, Deer, and horse), Richard, who was standing next to me shouted,

“There’s one over there…!!”

I looked between the skulls and there on a path behind them, just metres away, the largest lizard on earth came waddling into view…

It moved slowly down the path, it’s bright yellow, forked tongue darting in and out of its mouth as it tasted the air around it, taking no notice of us as we hurried over to get a closer look…

When we came to within a few metres of the beast, it stopped and looked over its shoulder at us, almost daring us to come closer…

My first sighting of a wild Komodo Dragon...!!

“Mr. Ronnie, this animal is very dangerous,” Guido advised, “Please do not go any closer…!!”

I had been looking at the Komodo through the screen on my digital camera, and had not realized that I had gotten too close to it… Guido stepped between the lizard and I, brandishing his forked stick at it in case it made a rush at us…

From behind a tree, this one eyed me speculatively...

I stood looking at this amazing creature, in awe at the size of it in comparison to the Nile Monitors I had chased and caught as a young man back in South Africa… The Komodo I stood looking at, a female, was at least three times the size of the biggest one I had ever seen and caught, but I had no intention of improving on my “monitor catching record” of old…!!

Stretching out, this one took a breather, hoping we would move in for a closer inspection...

The largest Komodo Dragon recorded, was over three metres long and weighed a massive 150 kgs…!! It was an ambush predator (as Simon my Swiss friend would discover the following day…!!), and often lay alongside pathways in the bush, waiting for an animal to pass by…

It would then either knock its prey down with its immensely powerful tail, and then rush in and bite it or grab it with its two inch claws… With bigger prey, such as Buffalo, it would slice the animal’s legs tendons with its scalpel-sharp teeth, and then follow the injured animal for days until it was weak enough to attack and begin eating alive…

Komodo are not into table manners…!!

"These claws are made for grabbing, and that's just what they'll do... Come any closer GB, and these claws will grab and hook into you...." At least that was the tune it seemed to be hissing....!!

Contrary to popular local belief, the Komodo’s bite is not poisonous, but the powerful bacteria found in their mouths, lead to infection and eventually incapacitates its prey…

I looked up at the barren hills around me, and but for the camp behind me, this looked like a land lost in time, and its pre-historic looking inhabitants made the picture complete…

We walked on past the bunkhouse where the fifteen guides stationed on Rinca stayed for ten days at a stretch before being relieved, and stumbled into another three Ora, as the Dragons are known locally…

One, a huge male had been in a fight with another recently, and its left front leg had been broken… As it dragged itself over to the little stream nearby to drink, we followed it at a safe distance, our guide telling us that this particular lizard was well known to the rangers, and if anything, was even more foul-tempered than the rest of them…

“So would I be if I had a broken leg…!!” I quipped…

Larger than your average garden lizard...

A large female sauntered past the male, stopping to pear at us for awhile, completely unafraid of our small group… Nearby, a much smaller Ora lay in the shade of a large bush, presumably practicing its ambush tactics…

Young Komodo’s spend the first three years of their lives living in trees to escape the unwanted attention of their larger brethren… They are even in danger from their own mothers, who will think nothing of having her offspring as a snack…

Males fight over the females during the mating season, which is usually between the months of June and September… Scientists have yet to discover why males outnumber females by as many as four to one, but it is easy to understand why there is a bit of fisticuffs come mating season…!!

My favourite shot of the Komodo Dragons... It had been hard work getting here, and this one made it all worth the effort...

Our guide Guido paused at the foot of this Banyan Tree to tell us more about the Dragons...

The females lay their eggs, up to 30 at a time, in a burrow underground, and then guard the nest until the eggs hatch… As soon as they do, she loses all interest in them and goes back to foraging for food…

From then on, the baby Ora are on their own, living off insects, raiding bird’s nests, and eating anything they can find in the trees they hide in…

While we were resting, this wild boar came tripping through the shadows...

We walked through a leafy forested area, watching a small troop of monkeys swinging around in the trees above us… Then while we were resting under the shade cast by a large Banyan Tree, a wild boar tip-toed through the leaf litter on the far side of a small stream that ran between him and us…

Further up the valley, we came to a small pool of water trapped in the now dry river bed, and stopped again to have a drink… The noise of stones clattering against each other made us look up, and there on the opposite side of the pool, just a few metres away, stood a large bull Buffalo…!!

“We are very lucky to see one,” said Guido… “There are only about 80 on the island…”

Ignoring us completely, the buffalo walked forward and drank deeply from the pool…

"Hey Buddy... You seen any of those scaly, forked-tongue, spawn-of-the devil, bastards about...??"

Some people might consider me bull-headed... I'd like to take this opportunity to refute those claims...!!

Looking at this large animal, I was amazed at the thought that it could be attacked by a lizard…!! And that I think is what makes Komodo Dragons such an attraction to us…

On the surface, they look like a very large version of any other lizard, but beneath that scaly exterior is a vicious and effective killer of animals far larger than itself…

We also saw a number of Megapode Birds, a guinea-fowl like bird that builds huge mounds over its eggs which are incubated in animal dung… They were rather skittish and never allowed us close enough to get a decent photo of them…

We climbed up and out of the ravine we had been walking in and then strode out onto the ridge of a mountain, through parched grassland and drought resistant palm trees… All around us you could easily make out the effects of volcanic eruptions from long ago…

“This place is like something from Jurassic Park…!!” said Richard, looking out over the rugged terrain all around us…

Richard, Kate and I followed Guido up onto the ridge above the ravine... There was very little shade to shelter us from the blistering sun...!!

When the waterholes are not dry, Dragons sometimes lie in wait for their prey in them...

Overhead, a pair of Fish Eagles wheeled about in the blue sky, searching for any small animal that might be disturbed by our presence…

Other than that all around us was silent, the landscape baking in the midday heat…

We followed a well worn path all along the ridge to where we could look over the camp and across the bay to Komodo Island in the distance… Rinca lay sprawled out below us, like a spider missing a few legs… It was all rocky headlands and scalloped bays, fringed with Mangroves…

Desolate and beautiful all rolled into one… It was scenes like this that appealed to me most… The starkness of deserts and their sun-baked mountains rowed my boat, rather than lush jungles and palm-fringed beaches…

Further along the trail, we encountered another female Komodo… When I moved in closer to take a photograph of her, she hissed loudly at me and slowly began moving away… I followed her for a short while, Guido Worry-wort dogging my footsteps…

“Oras might look slow, but it is a tactic they use to hunt… They can move very quickly when they want…!!”

“I use the very same tactic myself…!!” I replied… “You should see me operate at meal times…!!”

"You following me, Dude...?? Don't you understand a warning hiss when you hear one...??"

We made our way back down the steep slopes and returned to camp, seeing large crowds milling about waiting to go out on a hike themselves…

I was happy then that we had had the vistas to ourselves earlier… Being among crowds of tourists and students would have spoiled the outing for me for sure…!!

We bought a few bottles of water and sat drinking them at the small canteen, before Richard and I wandered back towards the ranger’s quarters to see if we could find more dragons… Guido came hurrying after us, reminding us that we should never walk without a guide…

Near the staff kitchen, three huge Komodo Dragons lay sunning themselves… We spent another fifteen minutes filming and photographing them…

This one looked at me like I owed him money...!!

Guido keeps this large female at bay with his Dragon Stick...

This is the office where the ranger was so rudely interrupted while doing his paperwork...

In the shade of the camp kitchen, these two Dragons lay waiting for the order they had earlier placed...

Guido showed us the office where a few years ago, while sitting at his desk and filling in his monthly report, a ranger had been attacked by a large and clearly hungry Komodo Dragon…!!

Trapped between the wall and the open door, the ranger had been savaged by the Ora, who refused to back off despite receiving a few well aimed kicks to the head and body…

Hearing his scream for help, other rangers and guides rushed in to subdue the animal, and managed to get it out of the office…

The ranger was flown to Denpasar in Bali and underwent a number of operations to save his leg…

Guido also told us of the Swiss naturalist who disappeared on the island while out walking alone… The place where he had sat down to rest was discovered, and judging by the amount of blood all around,  it became abundantly clear that he had not cut his finger with his Swiss Army Knife…!!

His remains were never found, and the Dragons in the immediate vicinity refused to be questioned on the matter, presumably pleading their version of the Fifth Amendment…!!

On Komodo, where there are small settlements on the western shore, a ten year old boy was killed and partially eaten a few years ago…

On the way back to the jetty, this large Dragon strolled across the path in front of us....!!

While walking back towards our boat, without a guide I might add, a very large Ora crossed the path a short distance ahead of us… From that moment on, we took careful notice of everything around us until we were safely back on the wooden jetty leading to our boat…!!

"Mmmm... Kate, which one is ours again...??"

Lunch was served as soon as we cast off from Loh Buaya...

There were more than a dozen boats tied up there, and once we had found our captain and leapt aboard, he cast off and motored slowly out of the bay, bringing an end to an experience we could only describe as primordial…

We were handed our lunch pack, and sat back to eat while watching the differing colours of the waters around us that spoke of reefs and sand bars…

Komodo is renowned as a world class dive destination, and judging by the many dive operators that have set up shop in Lubuanbajo’s main street, the word must be spreading…

While Richard and Kate lay down to take a nap, I sat smiling to myself and reliving the amazing experience I had just had on Rinca Island…

“I really am living my dreams…!!”, I thought to myself…!!

Leaving Rinca behind us... Rocky shores fringed with the odd stand of Mangroves...

I sat pondering my good fortune while Kate and Richard stretched out to sleep...

Although the experience had been shared with Richard and Kate, essentially, I had been alone… Just like so many times before on this journey, I wished that I had had someone close to me to share it with… My family, my daughters… And now, with Patricia…!! Every day was taking me further and further away from her… This was a new and uneasy feeling that I knew I would have to cope with in the coming weeks and months…

I consoled myself with thoughts of the special places we had been able to visit together recently, and memories of those places brought the smile back to my face…

An hour later, the skipper cut the engine and we came to a gentle stop on the sandy beach of a small island… Other boats were already tied up on the beach, and small groups of people lay sunning themselves on the narrow beach…

Minutes later, we were snorkeling over a shallow reef, among the multi-coloured fish and enormous varieties of both hard and soft corals… The diversity of life in this small bay was breathtaking…

I had my trusty Canon D10 in my pocket as I drifted over a large head of coral and taking it out, dived down to photograph a few clownfish I had seen below me…

I managed to take one blurry photograph before the digital screen went black… I surfaced and switched the camera on and off a few times to see if perhaps the battery had died…

I swam back to the boat, removed the battery and SD card, and lay the camera in the sun to dry, thinking that perhaps a seal had been breached by sea water…

I went back into the water to continue my exploration of the reef, seeing so many things that I would have loved to photograph…

A large blue starfish, making its painstakingly slow way across an open patch of sugar white sand; a massive anemone, inhabited by half a dozen Domino Clownfish, all happily sharing their beautiful host; a big Rock Lobster, tucked into a crevice; and more beautiful reef fish than you could shake a stick at… (If snorkeling with a stick is your thing…!!)

The very last photo taken with my Canon D10... I guess taking over 31 500 photos finally took its toll...!!

After an hour, I was back on the boat trying to bring my D10 back from the dead… All to no avail…!! After having gone “round the clock” more than three times, at 9 999 photos a pop, it had finally given up on me…

I had given my spare camera to a friend in Bali, and now only had my hand held Sony video camera that took very low resolution photographs…

The only camera shop in Lubuanbajo was closed when we docked, and I resigned myself to having to use the Sony until I could buy another camera…

Thankfully, the memory card had not been affected by the leak, and I was able to download the 250 photos I had taken on Rinca…!1

Simon and I went to join Nicolas and Audrey for a celebratory drink or three, as it was Nicolas’s 40th birthday, and after a traditional Indonesian dinner, we said our final goodbyes and exchanged good wishes for the remainder of our respective trips…

They had been great company and we had a few good laughs remembering the previous evening’s comical dining experience…

Simon and I went back to our hotel, where I packed my bags and began preparing myself mentally for the long ride that lay ahead the following day…

“You’re crazy to try and make it to Ende in one day…!!” Simon said, as he turned to face the wall to avoid the light in his eyes…

“Maybe so…” I muttered, “Maybe so…!! But I have a ferry to catch in a few days time and I have over 700 kms to cover before I get to Larantuka…!!”

“Well, it takes 14 hours by bus just to cover the road to Ende, according to the guide book, and by now you know what these roads are like…!!” he mumbled before falling asleep…

I lay awake for a long time, going over the map of Flores in my mind, trying to visualize the trip I was about to attempt in a single day… This is something I usually do when a big day looms ahead of me, and I feel it helps prepare me mentally…

“Bring it on…!!” I said, before committing myself to dreamland too…

 ©GBWT 2011

3 comments to The Dragons of Rinca…

  • Charmz

    I am so glad you had these dreams to see and do wonderful things, because once again you have shared something with me that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would have loved to be on the Rinca Island with you. Thanks for those spectacular photo’s (I know just how close you would have gone to get them) they are scary looking lizards.. Good luck with your next long ride, you will make it in one day!

  • Richard wand

    Hey Ronnie, I enjoyed reading you blog about us. Extremely factual. I am sorry that we didn’t get a chance to meet up for a drink in the evening and what happened to the big fella the next day! We are now back in Bali and on Nusa lembongan. Today Kate and I decided to rent mopeds despite never having driven one before and had a great time belting around the island. Made me very very jealous of your trip. Hope you have a safe trip to Timor and onto auz.
    Richard

  • Hi Richard…!! Thanks for the comment… Great spending the day with you guys, and in such an amazing place…!! I was at the Gardena that same night, but the idiots at the front desk could not give me your room number…!! I left a card for you, hope you got it…!! I am now in Dili, waiting to ship the Big Fella to Oz…. And then get him repaired in Perth…!! Take it easy and safe trip back to Ye Olde Englande….!! R.

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