The prospect of getting close to dragons was playing havoc with my appetite. I picked halfheartedly at my breakfast as our boat swung at anchor off the most legendary of Indonesia’s Spice Islands.
We’d made a spectacular dawn approach to the island of Komodo, sailing past scattered silhouettes of volcanic outcrops that broke the surface of the sea like giant, ragged teeth. As the sky shifted from an inky purple to soft pink some wag on deck cried out, “Welcome to Jurassic Park”.
Over many centuries these fabled islands have lured adventurers and fortune hunters. They came in search of sandalwood and beeswax, cinnamon, mace, cloves and nutmeg. My interest was more prosaic. I wanted to see one of the biggest and ugliest reptiles on the planet.
We began our hike into the island’s dry and dusty interior. I jumped nervously at every rustle and crackle in the surrounding bush.
I felt a bit like I was on a foot safari in Africa, but here on Komodo no-one carried a rifle for protection. Then I saw my first Komodo dragon, lying motionless in deep shade. It moved its head to regard us with a baleful reptilian stare and when it raised itself for a better look a tangible shiver ran through our small group.
Komodo dragons up close look like baggy-skinned, green-brown lizards on steroids. They’re more bulky than crocodiles and move slowly with a shambling gait, although they can accelerate alarmingly over a brief distance. Any creature so formidably armed, which includes a foul, poisonous saliva in addition to mighty claws, deserves tremendous respect and, preferably, is to be photographed using a telephoto lens.
We followed our guide to a place where several of the fearsome creatures were lounging in a large, shallow depression surrounded by thickets. As we watched, a pair of small deer ventured from among the trees to forage within metres of the elongated predators. Normally prey, the deer showed no fear. Maybe they knew the dragons had, just like us, already had breakfast?
The basking lizards gave the impression they might languish all day. The only regular activity was the flickering of their great tongues as they sampled scents in the air. But then the arrival of a man carrying a sack stirred them into action. The sack was filled with chunks of meat. It explained the dragons’ lack of interest in a small deer for brunch.
This feeding was a far more palatable sight for us that the usual dragon feast of a live goat tethered to a post then left to await its inevitable, terrible fate.
The dragons on Komodo island roam free but, because they get fed regularly as part of the tourist experience, groups of them tend to congregate in one spot waiting for the next dinner gong. My Komodo experience was not as thrilling as encountering these prehistoric relics at random in the bush. But who in their right mind would want to accidentally bump into a dragon?