Holidaying with Komodo Dragons
An encounter with the world’s biggest lizard in Indonesia’s Komodo Islands
Words by Nayantara Jain
Picture by sumer verma
To grow up is to meticulously delineate perception into fact and fantasy. When we are young, Santa Claus climbs down the chimney, mermaids live in technicolour worlds, singing songs with seahorses and princes ride dragons. When we grow up we are expected to understand that Coca-Cola invented Santa and our house has no chimney, girls are not fish and dragons don’t exist. A good vacation is a break from real life and a reconnect to your inner child. Santa regrettably did not make a comeback, but in the Komodo Islands I found a dream spot where dragons really do exist and the underwater world is in fact technicolour. Here I might not have been a mermaid, but I lived on the sea in an old wooden sailing schooner and spent hours underwater.
The Komodo Island National Park is in Indonesia, and in the heart of the Coral Triangle. Here you have some of the oldest corals in the world – they are also the most diverse and the least damaged. When you dive on these reefs, every square inch of space is covered in life – giant waving fan corals nestle pygmy sea horses, cotton candy shaped soft corals in orange and purple have multicoloured feather stars entwined around its branches, large and healthy hard corals provide structure for thousands of fish. It is like the coral is competing with the fish for Most Colourful, and almost winning. Once upon a time many reefs in the world looked like this – to dive in the Komodo Islands is to step back for a moment into a world before climate change and coral bleaching.
There are powerful currents in this part of the world, and while they do tend to hurl the divers around (scary if you’re a beginner in the sport) they also bring in the ocean’s flying carpets – manta rays. We encountered them feeding one morning in the green plankton rich water lit up by sunshine gleams. The 4-metre wide somersaulting mantas spot-lit with open skeletal mouths. On another day we saw them at the ‘spa’, while we clung on to any piece of rubble to avoid being swept away by the current we wondered if we were actually in the same ocean as the mantas who stood still as if in a pond. Poised vertically with wings spread wide, they waited for the little cleaner wrasses and shrimp to pick away dead skin and parasites.
Unlike many other places, the shallow reefs in Komodo are alive and kicking. From the early afternoon to the moment just before dusk when the angle of the sun makes the water golden, was my favorite time to snorkel and kayak in Komodo. Damselfish flit between the branches of staghorn coral and shards of sunlight, baby blue-spotted sting rays rest in the shade and there’s even the occasional lazy hawksbill turtle who doesn’t see the point of diving down deeper when he can graze all he likes so close to the surface. Kayaking and snorkeling in the afternoon means you get the best of both worlds in Komodo – the colourful sea and the vibrant before-sunset sky.
Where there are dragons, there must be magic. If you weren’t convinced of this by the beauty underwater, you definitely will as you pull up to the beach patrolled by these giant reptiles. They move in a threatening serpentine swagger, extending a foot-long forked tongue dripping with venomous saliva every few seconds. Komodo dragons are not found anywhere else in the world, and it’s a wonder they manage to survive even here considering the baby dragons have to drag themselves up to hide in the trees the moment they emerge from their eggs – before mummy and daddy return to the hidden nests to eat them. They must climb pretty high too; when the adults stand up on their sturdy tails they easily reach the lower branches. We visited them on the beach to get a closer look, only getting off the small boat one by one escorted by a guide with a big pole in case the giants were hungry. If you were a boring scientist you would call these animals the world’s biggest lizards – with a little bit of imagination and holiday spirit however, it’s easy to see they are truly, Komodo’s dragons.
The best way to get to Komodo is to fly into Labuan Bajo from Bali Denpasar. From Labuan Bajo you can access the rest of Komodo and there are many day boats that can take you into the national park to dive, snorkel or visit the dragons. For the real Komodo experience however, a ‘liveaboard’ ship is highly recommended.