There be dragons here!

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.

indo map

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.

dragon headI 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?

komodo dragon_0001The 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?

Krakatoa – a dangerous adventure

krak mapI’ve been most fortunate not to have suffered any great misfortune when travelling. But I have had a few close shaves. I can thank my lucky stars I didn’t drown in Indonesia many years ago.

It was the year of the 100th anniversary of the eruption of Krakatoa. We set out from the coastal village of Carita in West Java, five backpackers in a narrow perahu powered by a tiny outboard motor and steered by a poker-faced fisherman.

We hoped to climb Anak Krakatoa – “Child of Krakatoa” – the volcano rising up slowly in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra on the exact spot where the original Krakatoa had blown itself to bits a century earlier.

Between my feet was a new camera bag filled with equipment recently bought in Singapore. The 100th anniversary seemed a likely story I could easily sell, especially with some photos of the new volcano.

Krakatoa’s eruption on 27th August, 1883, was the most destructive explosion of our time, a bang so loud it was reportedly heard in Alice Springs in the middle of Australia! Several cubic kilometres of rock and dust was blasted into the atmosphere. The resultant tidal wave, 36m high, killed an estimated 36,000 people in villages on Java and Sumatra.

Our crossing took a couple of hours. The new volcano, created by small, irregular eruptions since 1927, already rose 200m above the sea. From its slopes I could see remnants of the original Krakatoa poking from the sea at three distant points.

krakatau-mapIt was a torrid climb up to the crater of Anak Krakatoa, sinking ankle deep in the steep, crunchy surface of black cinders. By the time we returned to the boat we were exhausted and slightly sun-struck. The shivers began once we set sail.

The first squall struck within an hour. Black clouds appeared overhead and the afternoon grew cold. Light rain quickly turned into tropical deluge. The wind picked up pace and the sky darkened alarmingly as the situation grew more ominous. The five of us huddled in the bottom of the boat, shivering with the rain lashing our backs. The fisherman wrestled with the tiller, staring impassively ahead, refusing to meet our worried glances.

The sea grew angrier. Our tiny craft was tossed on heaving swells. We grew quiet and very afraid. Not a flicker of emotion crossed the fisherman’s face as he battled the storm. It seemed he was also rigid with fear. Drowning in the Sunda Strait seemed certain.

I thought about family and friends and that no-one would ever know what had happened to me. My passport was in my money belt strapped around my waist. All that was left in my backpack at the guesthouse in Carita was anonymous clothing. Tight-lipped and grim-faced we five sodden passengers clutched each other as the boat pitched and rolled perilously. At times we prayed out loud.

Our peril seemed to last forever but finally the storm abated, leaving us drenched and cold yet elated at our survival. After what seemed like endless hours we reached land only to discover that we’d been blown far south of our departure point.

The sand seemed to heave continuously under our feet as we trudged north along the beach, mildly hysterical at our good fortune at being alive. Not even my drenched camera bag with its brand new but probably ruined contents really seemed to matter.