Monday, December 28, 2009

Trip to Komodo: Part II - Komodo National Park (Rinca Island)

It was time to charter a boat to our primary objective. Komodo dragons live exclusively in this part of the world, with most of them on Komodo Island and Rinca Island. Rinca is closer to Labuanbajo and has just as many dragons. So, we left for the docks at 6am to bargain for transport.
Offers we received started at 800,000 rupiah, or about 80 bucks, for return travel. I read in lonely planet that it should cost us between 250,000 and 600,000 so we walked some more. Finally we got several captains in one area and made an offer of 300. One of them stepped up and we agreed to this beauty (on the left) for 350:

Here's the businessman who sold us the ride:

The boat, made of wood like others in the harbor, seemed safe enough. There were some lifejackets, though when we asked about a radio the man grinned and laughed before suggesting "hand phone!" as a solution. Satisfied, we embarked, with visions of dragons dancing in our heads:

Satisfied, that is, until we saw this while making our turn out of the harbor:

Yes, pictured there is a boat of similar construction to our own sinking in broad daylight in the harbor. No one was even paying any attention to this boat. We shook our heads and murmured, as so many other times, "only in Indonesia." I laughed so hard before I realized what this portended for our own journey. But I don't believe in omens, and I guess neither did my compatriots, so we pressed on.

Our captain was a one-man crew:

We hemmed and hawed as the boat pitched and yawed. In fact I spent lots of time discussing the finer points of pitching, yawing, and rolling, and tried to remember other nautical terms. By discussing, I mean I talked about the terms for twenty minutes, and the others looked at me like I had three heads. Nicole sat next to the lifejackets. She doesn't like water. Here she is looking a little skeptical:

As we pulled out into the bay, the shoreline of Flores followed us on our left while various islands passed on our right. Occasionally we saw small fishing villages:

Carrie and Nicole:

After two and a half hours, we arrived in Rinca's bay. We glimpsed dolphins and first laid eyes on the island's rugged hills. I was looking for dragons but saw none:

The dock was smaller than I expected. Rinca is part of Komodo National Park, protected and funded by the government/visiting fees. The area is also a UN-proclaimed World Heritage site:

We spied monkeys among the mangrove in the little bay:

After disembarking, we walked a short distance to the visitor's center area. We were overwhelmed by the bizarre scenery - in particular, the rocky, dusty, dry hills interspersed with tall palm trees. As we entered a low valley area we spied our first dragon napping under a tree. We snapped a few shots and cautiously sneaked by. Our arrival at camp was proudly announced by a dramatic sign:

I guess I'll leave the explanation to this close-up. Only in Indonesia!

They assigned us a guide for a 2-hour circular walk, the longest available. I forget his name, but he was a young guy from Java, very knowledgeable, with endearing English speech patterns. It didn't take long before we happened upon the camp's resident group of dragons:

You'll notice that the guide is carrying a large stick. The stick, as you might guess, is for protection from the oversized monitor lizards. They are capable of and have killed people, though no visitor has even been bitten. The first thing you notice when you see the dragons is how big they are, followed closely by how sedate they are. The dragon pictured above who is actually on his feet (walking?) was the only one we saw move his legs all day. The rest, lying asleep on the ground, appeared dead. Their limbs are extremely flexible, so they sprawl out at impossible angles like a 6-year-old who jumps onto a couch and passes out.

Their laziness relates to an extraordinary and strange lifestyle. They eat about once per month in the wild, and can consume 40% of their body weight in one sitting. The diet consists of water buffalo that can weigh half a ton (that also appear naturally - it's a strange ecosystem), small deer, monkeys, and little else. They usually hunt in the late afternoon, sunning or shading themselves near watering holes until they catch the scent of prey. At night their pulse can sometimes sink to such a slow pace that you can hug one without it waking up. My guide said he had done this (though he confessed he was scared out of his mind in the process).

We headed off into the forest in search of more dragons. Young dragons, until 5 years of age, will spend their time high in trees such as this one, hunting insects, birds, and other lizards. They avoid the ground because adult dragons, including the young's own parents, will eat them if they come upon them:

Which is not to say that an adult dragon couldn't follow you or I up a tree. The dragons possess human-like hands that allow them to climb trees. As a side note, they generally eat the entirety of their prey, bones included, with the exception of the skull - probably because the enormous horns of the water buffalo and the girth of the skull make consumption tiring. The guides on Rinca collect these skulls when they find them and adorn the campsite and other areas:

This one was twenty feet to the right of the tree above. It was covered in flies, and in its dazed state we thought it might be dead. But as we approached an eye opened warily:

We were able to get pretty close - but the only safe way to do this is from behind. This way, the dragons have to at least turn themselves around to get you, buying you time to prepare the stick:

He definitely knew we were back there and didn't like it:

Our roving brought us to this dragon-head-looking rock. Somebody carved out the eye:

Around the corner from that rock, we found our next dragon relaxing in the shade. He too opened a wary eye when we approached:

These mostly dry riverbeds attract water buffalo, and therefore dragons, to the area:

The dragons fill up their massive abdomens in feeding time. As they digest the food, they store much of it in the base of their tails. You can tell just by looking at a dragon whether it has recently eaten (like two dragons ago) or is probably very hungry. I'll let you guess about this guy:

Notice how the thin, deflated tail of the higher dragon (same animal pictured above) dragon compares with the lower:

Dragons can smell blood. Their sense is so acute that they can track menstruating women from more than a kilometer away, if the wind direction is favorable. Our guide went right ahead and asked if any of the girls were menstruating. Indonesians can be quite forward. (Today, I introduced a game called 'Mafia' to one of my classes. In the game, students accuse each other of being mafia members and through argument try to convince their colleagues of their guilt. One of my students made an accusation, and when I asked him, 'Why do you think Fikri is a member of the mafia?' he responded 'he's FAT!') If you were curious, none of them were menstruating, and in groups that do have menstruating women the safest thing is to move them to the center of the group as you walk. If the dragons catch a strong scent of blood, it will send them into a blood frenzy. You can't outrun one in this state; you have to hope the guide is pretty good with the stick. Luckily, the dragons hunt alone.

Dragons also don't share their kills. But a water buffalo is so big, and the sense of smell so acute, that usually 5-7 dragons will consume one buffalo after its killed by stealing the meat from each other. Considering this, eating their young, and hunting alone, you could say the dragons are downright antisocial! Can you spot the dragon in this pic?

I didn't, and nearly walked into it before the guide noticed and said something.

Here's one of the massive buffalo. This one was used to humans, contentedly grazing as we walked by. They only allow guided hiking in a circular area near the campsite. Rinca is large enough that in doing the longest, 2-2.5 hour hike, we probably circled an area 1/50th the total area of the island. The animals living in or near that area become familiar with humans, but the ones on most of the island would run away far before you ever got this close:

You're probably wondering: with that animal being so large, and its horns looking so menacing, how does a dragon, large as it may be, go about taking it down? Seems like a risky endeavor. Well, it turns out that the dragons, hunting alone, are virtually guaranteed success in taking their prey. Our guide said that he had seen a dragon that appeared to have been wounded by water buffalo horns, but that this was extremely rare, and that in his experience dragons were never killed by their prey. To fell the giant beast, dragons bite them on the back of one leg, then the other legs. The crippling wounds slow the animal. The dragon's saliva, teeming with deadly bacteria, slowly work to weaken and eventually kill it. A dragon will follow its prey for 2 or 3 weeks waiting for it to die. If it is less patient, it can simply go for the throat (our guide had apparently seen this as well).

Most of the way through the walk, we reached the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the valley and bay below. You'll notice it's pretty overcast. We were there on the "coldest" day of the year - probably 85 degrees or so. Lonely planet described the island as a "furnace," so I guess you could say we lucked out. Here's the four of us with the stick:

The landscape vaguely reminded more than one of us of Dr. Seuss - specifically, that environmentalist story that was turned into a movie about the trees. Something about the tall coconut trees scattered on the barren rocky hills. It was fantastic and eerie, the kind of place you might expect to find dragons:

On the way back, we all passed out and awoke to a pounding, beautiful rain. This next picture I would call quintessentially Indonesian. Here's our boat driver, talking on his cell phone and yes, steering with his foot. Only in Indonesia:

We wrapped things up at The Lounge, another cool cafe in Labuanbajo. Delicious food and coffee complete with some cool art and trendy lighting:

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