Think of really big lizards, and you start to understand why people spend days travelling across Indonesia to get to an arid, inhospitable island in the middle of nowhere.
These descendants of the dinosaurs grow over three metres in length, weigh in at more than 130kg, reputedly eat the occasional tourist and are a seriously endangered species. Their homes, the islands of Komodo and Rincan, situated between the larger islands of Flores and Sumbawa are designated National Parks with limited facilities for tourists. The most common 'easiest' route there is from the resort island of Bali via Lombok and Sumbawa. There are cruise ships following this route but more rugged travellers may choose to put together their own bus and boat combination as they go along.
Either way the journey takes a couple of days in either direction and there is no avoiding the transfer to the Komodo boat - stepping from your boat into another, much smaller boat, at sea. Don't be surprised if you get very wet or find that the ever-helpful crew have put your bag down in a pool of seawater so that you have something to sit on*.
On arrival at Komodo Tourist Camp visitors have to pay a nominal fee for entry to the national park and accommodation. It is best to be very clear about who you are travelling with at this point as the staff seem to allocate rooms on a fairly arbitrary basis. Rooms are basic and the most up-to-date reports are that rats can still be found in abundance. After a hard day's dragon-hunting why not pass the evening watching the rodents frolicking in the rafters of the restaurant?
The dragons living close to the camp are fairly used to people and often wander innocuously between the cabins, but no trip to Komodo is complete without seeing them in the wild. There are regular guided walks (pay and register in advance) but visitors are not allowed to go out into the jungle without an escort - there is a story told about a Swiss photographer who disappeared on the island. His camera was recovered, but when the films were developed they showed only landscape shots. He didn't see the people-eaters hiding in the bushes1.
Another popular story is that live goats used to be lowered into a gorge where they are ripped to pieces in front of the public. Despite the excellent photo opportunities this creates, the practice has now been discontinued as it discourages the dragons from hunting. On the other hand, policies do change, and the situation may well be different from one day to the next.
Dragons generally sleep a lot and it is not unusual to come across a big crowd all taking it easy under a tree, the chances of anything exciting happening are low - but not too low, as shown by the following eyewitness account.
Eyewitness Account of Dragons Feeding
We were guided out to the enclosure where tourists used to watch the goat sacrifice, but as they don't do that anymore we were reduced to making baa noises and waving a red sarong at a big crowd of sleeping reptiles. (They tell you not to wear anything red in case it gets mistaken for blood!) Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens, said a guy who had been there three days.
There was a TV crew on the island who had been out every day for two weeks to film the same scene. When we arrived we found them in the camp, standing over a sleeping three metre lizard and filming each other nudging it with their toes (but very gently). Today was their last day and they stayed behind, drinking warm beer and grumbling.
Suddenly one of the guides called to us to hurry and as we came around a bend in the path we found the sleeping dragon from the camp with its jaws clamped around the throat of a wild deer. It took absolutely no notice of us and as we watched it first suffocated and then disembowelled its prey. They have sharp teeth and claws but their legs are too short and too far from the head to grip anything - so they eat by simply grabbing a mouthful and then shaking the whole carcass from side to side until it rips free. All with a circle of cooing tourists standing around and taking photos. Honestly, we were close enough to touch and our only protection was the little skinny guy with a pronged stick.
After a while a second, smaller, dragon appeared and made its way through the crowd by the simple expedient of snapping at everybody within reach. The two then played tug-of-war with the, by now very dead, deer for a while before deciding to chase people instead. Being chased by something with more legs and bigger teeth than you is no fun at all and I have nothing but respect for the little skinny guy with the pronged stick who placed himself in the line of fire and literally turned around a monster twice his size and weight. When everybody came down from the trees and rock walls where we had sought sanctuary we also noticed that while we had been watching the show the sun had set and it was getting extremely dark in a jungle that was home to over 1000 more of them...
There was no more grumbling that night, except from the TV crew who missed the whole thing.