Traveling to Komodo Island is something which has conjured images of Indiana Jones style exploring for quite a long time. It just seems like the sort of place people shouldn’t go. Somewhere wild, unexplored and dangerous. It is after all called the Land of the Dragon. With such a perceived reputation, there couldn’t be a better endorsement for us to visit.
Starting from Bali, our journey consisted of a series of inter-island ferries, buses and bemos (local shuttle buses) before arriving at the ultimate destination of Labuan Bajo, Flores. Going straight from Bali, this was roughly what our journey looked like: shuttle bus from Ubud, Bali to the port city of Padangbai. Wait. Catch the 4-5 hour (slow) ferry between Bali and Lombok islands. Shuttle bus from the Lombok port town 30-40 minutes to the city of Mataram. Wait. Catch the overnight bus from Mataram which first drives the remaining 2 hours across Lombok and then rolls onto ferry #2.
Board the two hour ferry crossing to the island of Sumbawa. From the ferry port, we re-boarded the bus and attempted to sleep on the 9-hour drive across most of the island of Sumbawa to the town of Bima. At Bima (around 4 am), transfer to a bemo for the remaining 2-hour drive across Sumbawa to the port town of Sape. Wait. Walk aboard ferry #3 and claim one of the ‘for rent’ mattresses. Watch movie on Kindle. Realize at the end of the movie that the ferry has not yet left port… Eat a cup of noodles, quit worrying about the time and then sleep for the remaining 7-hour ferry ride (once it starts).
The ferry end point is the town of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores – the jumping off point to Komodo National Park. Between all the different types of transport and the waiting game between catching each next leg, the journey took us about 40 hours in total. The cost for this local transport ran about $45 pp but the experience was priceless.
Taking this route definitely posed a few challenges, but it also gave a nice overview of real Indonesian life. A handful of backpackers take the bus/ferry route but the majority of travelers are local, which means it is perfectly normal to have a sack of live ducks under your seat and giant bags of rice in the isles. They, too, are making their way across the islands from one town to the next. The only thing to do is smile and enjoy the ride. Walk over the rice bags as you board the bus and allow the quiet clucking of the ducks to gently lull you to sleep. Slightly harder to smile through was the 3 am wakeup call to pumping, club-mix, dance music as the drivers changed shifts. Again, smile and enjoy the prequel to the 4 am call to prayer and watch as the people make their way through each small town to their local mosque. If it weren’t for the club-mix, we might have missed this.
Once in Labuan Bajo, there are a number of tour operators and independent boats with which to bargain to secure a trip to Komodo National Park. The only way to arrive there is by boat. Our bargaining skills earned us a 2 day/1 night trip aboard a small boat with 3 other travelers at $60 pp including food. The itinerary included stops on both Rinca and Komodo islands to trek with a park ranger and see the dragons as well as several snorkeling stops, including a swim with manta rays. The boat is an adventure all in itself as you eat, sleep, play and travel ‘on deck’ for the duration of the trip.
Komodo National Park is an incredible place as much for its unique animal life as for its history. Composed of 3 large islands (Komodo, Rinca and Padar), as well as a portion of Flores island and 26 smaller islands, it was first declared a national park in 1980 with the goal of protecting the Komodo monitor lizard (Komodo dragon). It has since been expanded to protect the surrounding marine environment, which is recognized worldwide for its amazing biodiversity. What is so interesting about the Komodo dragon is it wasn’t discovered by the modern, scientific world until 1910! It’s mind bending a creature so large and non-elusive could remain undiscovered for so long.
There are only approximately 4,000-5,000 Komodo dragons in existence in the wild and their population is limited to only 5 Indonesian islands; Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motong, Gili Dasami and along the northwestern coast of Flores. As the largest monitor lizard in the world, they can reach lengths of up to 10 feet (3 m) and weigh in at over 150 pounds (70 kg). They are carnivorous and though they predominantly eat carrion, they will hunt live prey when necessary including deer and water buffalo.
As the islands of Komodo and Rinca are inhabited, we were curious to know if there were ever conflicts between the dragons and the people living on the islands. Our guide on Rinca was born and raised on the island and told us numerous accounts of people which had been bitten and/or killed each year. The preferred hunting method of the dragons is to hide and ambush their prey lunging forward to bite unsuspecting legs. Following these stories, we all walked a bit slower and more carefully, particularly through the tall grasses on the island trails.
We were fortunate to find both a juvenile and a massive adult dragon during our hike on Rinca. The adult was probably around 8 feet (2.5 m) from snout to tail and was making his way down our hiking trail. With our guide ahead of us wielding his forked stick as protection, we followed the dragon for a bit until he made a sudden stop. Then, he turned around and started walking back up the trail heading straight for our small group. The guide became quite excited urging us all to walk quickly away from the approaching dragon as they can run up to 12 mph for short bursts when interested. However, after a few paces our way, this one turned off into the woods which worked out much better for us in the end.
There is a small but steady stream of tourists making the boat trip to Komodo National Park every day. As the region becomes increasingly developed (particularly as a diving destination), an increasing number of people are traveling here – having both advantages and disadvantages for the local people and the park. We feel very fortunate to have been able to see Komodo as it is now and hope it will maintain its mysterious allure as the Land of the Dragon.