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Komodo Dragons in the Wild - An Adventure in Indonesia

 

My Encounter with Komodo Dragons... in the Wild

My travel bucket list is filled with difficult-to-obtain goals, usually involving remote locations, perfect timing, and a stroke of luck. I had the opportunity to check off a big one when I visited Indonesia:

✔️ See a Komodo dragon in the wild.

These are the fastest, largest and strongest lizards on earth and they're only found on a few tiny islands in southern Indonesia. Their remote isolation only increased my desire to catch a glimpse of one in its natural habitat.

Komodo dragons are essentially the modern-day dinosaur. I’m not kidding when I say that Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time, so embracing the opportunity to visit the real-life Isla Nublar was a given. 

I was temporarily leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand to escape the burning season and decided to relocate to Bali for a month hiatus. I booked a room at a homestay in Ubud, Bali and wanted to kick off Indonesia with a trip down to Komodo National Park. It was a no-brainer: the closest airport, Labuan Bajo, is only an hour away by air from Denpasar, Bali. My boyfriend joined me for an unforgettable experience in one of the most unique places on the planet.


Komodo Dragon Facts via Nat Geo:

  1. Reaching 10 feet in length and more than 300 pounds, Komodo dragons are the heaviest lizards on Earth. 

  2. Komodo dragons have thrived in the harsh climate of Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Islands for millions of years. 

  3.  They are carnivores and will eat almost anything: monkeys, goats, deer, wild boar, water buffalo and even humans.

  4. Komodo dragons are also cannibals. Young Komodo dragons are vulnerable to cannibalism by adults. 10% of a dragon's diet is comprised of its own species.

  5. Animals that escape the jaws of a Komodo will only feel lucky briefly. Dragon saliva teems with over 50 strains of bacteria. Within 24 hours, the stricken creature usually dies of blood poisoning. Dragons calmly follow an escapee for miles as the bacteria takes effect, using their keen sense of smell to hone in on the dying animal.


If you want to see a Komodo dragon roaming free in the wild, your options are limited. These animals only live on a few small islands in southern Indonesia.

We stayed in Labuan Bajo and charted a boat to take us into Komodo National Park.


Destination No. 1  //  Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia

Our adventure began in Labuan Bajo. This is the launching point for Komodo-sighting trips, so this once-small fishing village has now become the base for Komodo National Park tours. The town itself is small, dusty, and can easily be traversed on foot in ten minutes. 

Scattered throughout the town are a handful of restaurants and souvenir shops. The two things you won't have a hard time finding are dive shops and boat tours to take you towards the national park. Komodo archipelago is a paradise for divers, snorkellers, and dragon-seekers.

The pretty: View from our hotel overlooking the ocean.

The pretty: View from our hotel overlooking the ocean.

The ugly: Hacked-off shark fins drying out in the sun. I'd like to think at least the whole shark was eaten. Unfortunately, Indonesia is notorious for being the world leader in shark finning, despite an export ban a few years ago. The good news: Globally, shark fin demand has been decreasing thanks to awareness campaigns and tighter regulations. As demand drops, so do the prices, making the practice of shark-finning no longer as lucrative. Hopefully, sights like this will become even rarer in the future.

The ugly: Hacked-off shark fins drying out in the sun. I'd like to think at least the whole shark was eaten. Unfortunately, Indonesia is notorious for being the world leader in shark finning, despite an export ban a few years ago. The good news: Globally, shark fin demand has been decreasing thanks to awareness campaigns and tighter regulations. As demand drops, so do the prices, making the practice of shark-finning no longer as lucrative. Hopefully, sights like this will become even rarer in the future.

Labuan Bajo has a legendary fish market, so we skipped the limited selection of restaurants and came down to the docks instead with a half-baked plan to find a meal here. Success! We found a vendor who offered to cook us whichever fish we picked out.

Artistic inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places. Like the fish market in Labuan Bajo.

Artistic inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places. Like the fish market in Labuan Bajo.

While Komodo dragons technically live here on Flores Island, they're incredibly rare to stumble upon in the wild. Our next destination, a much smaller island, brought us face-to-face with the animals we were seeking.


Destination No. 2  //  Rinca Island, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Rinca Island in a nutshell: a tropical monsoon mangrove forest transitioning into jagged hills and savannah. AKA a Komodo dragon's paradise. Slight tremors can be felt throughout the island every few weeks and volcanic ash fall occurs periodically. Komodo dragons love extreme heat, and with average temperates of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, Rinca's got it covered.

Our guide met us as soon as we stepped off the boat. He was armed with a pronged bamboo stick and, even more importantly, knowledge of Komodo dragon behavior. He escorted us throughout the island and only left our side for photo ops, like this:

Our guide told us not to be fooled: this dragon was most definitely not sleeping. This is a tactic they use to make prey feel confident about their safety in proximity. Guess we fell for it, too. 

Our guide told us not to be fooled: this dragon was most definitely not sleeping. This is a tactic they use to make prey feel confident about their safety in proximity. Guess we fell for it, too. 

Skulls that have been found scattered throughout the island. All of these guys are victims of the island's dominant predator.

Skulls that have been found scattered throughout the island. All of these guys are victims of the island's dominant predator.

The dry, hot savannah. Unbeknownst to our guide at the time, there was a dragon hidden in the foliage about ten feet behind him when he took this photo. We all jumped when we saw those reptile eyes watching us. It's official... we are Komodo dragon survivors.

The dry, hot savannah. Unbeknownst to our guide at the time, there was a dragon hidden in the foliage about ten feet behind him when he took this photo. We all jumped when we saw those reptile eyes watching us. It's official... we are Komodo dragon survivors.

Hidden dragon #1. This guy was hunting monkeys by the river. Unfortunately for him, the monkeys had spotted him first and were making a ruckus to warn others in the area.

Hidden dragon #1. This guy was hunting monkeys by the river. Unfortunately for him, the monkeys had spotted him first and were making a ruckus to warn others in the area.

Hidden dragon #2. Our guide told us that he was probably waiting for a deer or water buffalo to wander close enough to attack. This rock was right along the trail, so the hunting method seems fairly sound.

Hidden dragon #2. Our guide told us that he was probably waiting for a deer or water buffalo to wander close enough to attack. This rock was right along the trail, so the hunting method seems fairly sound.


Destination No. 3  //  Padar Island, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

From the summit of Padar Island, you can see three distinct beaches: pink sand, white sand, and black sand. Arguably the most beautiful place in Indonesia, Padar Island draws tourists not for its dragon population (which is zero), but instead for this sight:

While we were scrambling up the path for this view, it our boat was getting beached down below. This turned out to be fortunate for us– most travelers only get to spend an hour on this island. Because the tides left us stranded, we got to spend all night here. We Gilligan Islanded it up all night with a bottle of wine from the cabin and this view for sunset.

Jackpot.

Jackpot.

We arrived back on the beach to this unfortunate sight. No amount of strength was able to unwedge our boat from the sandbar it had lodged itself in.

We arrived back on the beach to this unfortunate sight. No amount of strength was able to unwedge our boat from the sandbar it had lodged itself in.

Luckily, we packed a bottle of wine. We hung out up on the dock reading our books at a slant and trying to not spill.

Luckily, we packed a bottle of wine. We hung out up on the dock reading our books at a slant and trying to not spill.

Our sad ship. 😂 This is the reason we spent the whole night (instead of an hour) on Padar Island.

Our sad ship. 😂 This is the reason we spent the whole night (instead of an hour) on Padar Island.

Goodnight, boat. The tides rolled back in during the early morning, freeing us to continue our adventure to The Grand Finale: Komodo Island.

Goodnight, boat. The tides rolled back in during the early morning, freeing us to continue our adventure to The Grand Finale: Komodo Island.


Destination No. 4  //  Komodo Island, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

This is the moment we'd been waiting for! 

Crossing the long dock leading to Komodo Island. As soon as you step foot on the island, a guide is there to meet you. Guest safety is paramount.

Crossing the long dock leading to Komodo Island. As soon as you step foot on the island, a guide is there to meet you. Guest safety is paramount.

Looking back toward the long dock from Komodo Island. This dragon was waiting to greet us upon arrival. This is why you need a guide at all times.

Looking back toward the long dock from Komodo Island. This dragon was waiting to greet us upon arrival. This is why you need a guide at all times.

We found these two hanging out under the shade of a tree. These guys are big enough to no longer need to worry about getting eaten by larger dragons, so they're free to be more social.

We found these two hanging out under the shade of a tree. These guys are big enough to no longer need to worry about getting eaten by larger dragons, so they're free to be more social.

Our guide and our best defense against death by dragon: this stick.

Our guide and our best defense against death by dragon: this stick.

Dragon pile-up! Locals lure them to this area with food, which isn't technically allowed, but seems to be tolerated for the sake of tourist photo-ops.

Dragon pile-up! Locals lure them to this area with food, which isn't technically allowed, but seems to be tolerated for the sake of tourist photo-ops.

We came across this adolescent dragon by the creek. Her drinking break was interrupted when another larger dragon approached. She scurried off before she could become someone else's lunch.

We came across this adolescent dragon by the creek. Her drinking break was interrupted when another larger dragon approached. She scurried off before she could become someone else's lunch.

Check out that tongue! Komodo dragons use their tongues to taste the air and can smell blood from six miles away. (This is helpful for following wounded prey. One venomous bite and you're a goner in days.) I wonder if this one could smell our excitement.

Check out that tongue! Komodo dragons use their tongues to taste the air and can smell blood from six miles away. (This is helpful for following wounded prey. One venomous bite and you're a goner in days.) I wonder if this one could smell our excitement.

"Hi, guys!"

"Hi, guys!"

We also saw a ton of baby Komodo dragons scurrying all over the place, although the guide insisted they were just regular lizards. Whatever.

Adios, Komodo dragons! Until we meet again...