And there I was, face to face with the fearsome Komodo dragon. I was kneeling on the jungle ground, my body dripping with sweat from the heat. Utterly exhausted from the rugged hike, a 10-kilogram backpack still strapped to my back, and I was staring this mighty creature in the eyes.
The features of the dragon up close were striking. The fine pattern of its scales. The long curved nails. The deeply forked tongue flicking in and out. There were only some branches and sparse, dry foliage separating me and this powerful creature.
Komodo dragons can run at speeds up to 40 kph, the ranger’s words rang in my ears.
Suddenly, the dragon gaped its mouth open and my thoughts flashed to something else the ranger had told us. They have a venomous bite in addition to the 60 some odd types of deadly bacteria in their saliva, he had announced casually.
I could just make out the saliva dripping out of its open mouth and I knew that the Komodo dragon would be on me in an instant.
I squeezed my eyes shut in terror and winced, waiting for the inevitable bite from its deadly jaws.
Oh, God. This is it. Why did the ranger let me go so close? Why? Why?
One second passed.
The bite never came.
I gingerly opened my eyes again. The dragon was still sitting there, as menacingly as before. As still as before. It hadn’t moved an inch.
Maybe I wasn’t going to die after all.
I should mention the fact that I was in a group of around fifteen other people and that the ranger guiding us was just a few meters away, his trusty forked stick in hand. Earlier, he had assured us that this simple wooden tool was enough to protect us from these deadly creatures — he could use it to push the dragons away if they approached. And, looking between the fragile stick and the confident, smiling face of the ranger, I couldn’t help but trust his words.
Ok, so my tendency to concoct worst-case scenarios in the blink of an eye reared its head again and I was overreacting. Probably.
Still, I inched my way back through the crowd, using the people in front of me as a human shield so that if the dragon did decide to attack, I wouldn’t be the first one it bit.
I learned later that the Komodo dragon we had encountered was a small female, around 15 years old, and she was guarding her nest. The chance of her leaving it to come closer to us was slim to none. Only if one of us had made a move towards the nest would there have been trouble.
Fun fact: While female dragons have the natural tendency to protect the nest and their eggs, it’s a different story with their babies. Once the baby Komodo dragons are born, they make their way up trees, hiding in the foliage and subsisting on caterpillars, bird’s eggs, and other small animals until they grow bigger. They do this to avoid being eaten by bigger Komodo dragons on the ground — including their mother. Harsh.
But let’s rewind back to the beginning.
I had landed in the small fishing town of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. This was going to be our base for exploring Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. This park is made up of three major islands — Komodo Island, Rinca Island, and Padar Island — and 26 smaller ones, totalling 603 square kilometres of land.
The main draw for exploring the rugged and relatively untouched islands of Komodo National Park?
To encounter the mighty and fearsome Komodo dragons of Indonesia, of course! As the world’s largest lizard, Komodo dragons can grow up to 3 meters long and weight up to 90 kilograms. This is the only region in the world where you can find them in the wild. The most recent estimate has put the population of wild Komodo dragons at around 3000 and they are only found on the five Indonesia islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, and Gili Dasani within Komodo National Park, and on the island of Flores.
One of our guides going into Komodo National Park was named Kefin, who we fondly nicknamed Komodo Kevin. In addition to giving us some interesting facts about the Komodo dragons, he also gave detailed safety tips prior to entering the park that both eased my mind and increased my worry.
Stay together. Keep your voices low. Avoid eye contact with the Komodo dragon (I guess I shouldn’t have been staring that female dragon in the eyes.). If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Oh, and one more thing. If you have any open cuts and, for the girls, if you’re having your period, let us know. Komodo dragons can smell blood up to 18 kilometres away. You will smell like food.
If you let the rangers know, they can keep an extra eye on you during the treks.
Komodo Kevin also seemed to take great enjoyment in describing gruesome stories of Komodo dragons attacking and killing people. A tourist who had wandered off. A local child playing outside. A ranger who was ambushed in his office. Not exactly comforting but intriguing all the same.
We left Labuan Bajo in a speedboat and headed into Komodo National Park. As the rugged volcanic peaks of the islands appeared in the distance, I felt a mixture of both excitement and trepidation at the thought of meeting the fearsome Komodo dragons of Indonesia in person. We were greeted by ever more brilliant views of hilly islands jutting up hundreds of meters above the waters. Komodo Island, at its highest point, is over 700 meters above sea level! It was absolutely surreal — like I was stepping back in time, back to the age of the dinosaurs. I was stoked to start exploring.
We had been hiking on Rinca Island along the Medium Trek, reaching 100 meters in elevation at its highest point, when I had the… memorable encounter with the Komodo dragon I described above. Quite memorable indeed.
A short while later…
Another encounter with Komodo dragons on Rinca Island
They were the definition of lazy.
As we approached the end of the trail, I spotted four Komodo dragons in front of us, each splayed out languidly, their limbs at what seemed like awkward angles, their heads resting on the ground.
There was probably around thirty people milling around the dragons, each trying to get a good shot without anyone else in them. Everyone was talking loudly and excitedly, quite the opposite of the “keep your voices low” the rangers had told us.
Why were we being allowed to get so close to the Komodo dragons? Where were the rangers? I looked around. One was helping people take photos and another was standing a distance away, observing everyone and gauging the scene.
How were they supposed to protect us with their sticks if they are standing so far away? I wondered. The ranger looked on calmly.
Our ranger then told us that we could take photos with the dragons here. He even offered to help me and so I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
Take a step closer, he said. Just a little bit closer. You can go even closer.
Photo via Nala Rinaldo.
And while I did do just that, there was still always the thought in the back of my mind that they could be on me in a split second.
Ok, stop overthinking. I told myself. These rangers have grown up with Komodo dragons right on their doorsteps and know what they’re doing.
Then someone asked one of the rangers if any tourists had been attacked by Komodo dragons in the past.
Yes, he replied.
If you go too close to them, they will attack.
And here I was a few meters away, with a ranger taking my photo and the Komodo dragon in between me and him. There were people closer still, with their backs against the dragons trying to get a good shot. There were also people sticking GoPro cameras right up to the dragons’ faces, literally just centimetres away.
How close was too close???
I never did find out. The dragons did not attack that day and we all left in one piece.
It was only halfway through observing the Komodo dragons at this location that I learned that the dragons had just eaten a huge meal of meat. Their stomachs were full and happy, and so they wouldn’t attack. Probably.
Encounter with Komodo dragons on Komodo Island
The ranger opened the bag, grabbed a fish, and threw it in the air. Suddenly, the oh-so-lazy Komodo dragon was not so lazy anymore. It was as if he had awoken from a deep slumber, ravenous. He strode forward, attacked the fish, and devoured it.
It was feeding time.
There were three rangers and around twenty of us in a makeshift half-circle, watching as one of the rangers fed the Komodo dragon. He was trying to lead the dragon onto the sunny beach so we could get better photos.
Several times, as suddenly as the dragon had initially gotten up, he would turn around and head in the opposite direction. We would all gasp in horror. The two other rangers, positioned between us and the dragons, remained holding their wooden sticks calmly and reminded us to keep a safe distance. Each time the dragon turned around, the rangers scratched at the ground and this seemed to keep him at bay. The pushing function of the forked wooden sticks did not have to be used that day.
Almost-encounter with a Komodo dragon??
I lifted my head from the table and looked in all directions. I needed to go to the toilet and I was looking for a park ranger.
Before entering the park, we had been warned to never go to the toilets without a ranger. Even here at the edge of the island, by the building where we were having lunch, the Komodo dragons roam.
I caught the eye of Komodo Kevin a short distance away and pointed towards the toilets. He gave me a nod.
I went down from the raised platform of the building onto a short staircase, then snuck a quick peek under the wooden platform — we had spotted small dragons lying under these previously!
No dragons to be found.
And so I hopped onto the ground and made my way over to the toilets with Komodo Kevin keeping an eye on me a short distance away.
The toilets consist of a small building with two open doors, one for the males and one for the females. Inside, there were a couple of stalls and a sink. I made my way inside, proceeded to the squat toilet so common in Southeast Asia, and closed the stall door behind me.
Suddenly, I heard a rustling on the other side of the door. This was not a human rustling.
My stomach churned and filled with butterflies. Of course, my thoughts rushed straight to worst-case scenarios. I could see the headlines now: Girl eaten by Komodo dragon in toilets. (Side note: Komodo dragons have been known to not only kill humans but eat them as well!)
Did a Komodo dragon come in? Why do the toilets have an opened door into the building? One definitely came in.
Komodo Kevin was still outside, far away, and unable to protect me.
As I hid in the stall, I remembered this one story we were told. A building door left open overnight. A ranger going into work the next morning. The dragon waiting under his desk. Leg bite. Hand bite. Blood. Lots of it. More dragons rushing towards the smell of blood.
While all of this was going through my head, I finally noticed that the rustling had stopped. After a while, I gingerly opened the door a crack and peeked out. No dragons in sight.
After waiting and listening for a while longer, I opened the door all the way and ventured out. No dragons.
To this day, I still don’t know what caused the rustling. Perhaps it was a Komodo dragon, perhaps it was just the wind. I guess, I’ll never know.
Also, to ease your mind, the ranger attacked in the above story was rushed to a hospital and luckily, did survive. He now still works in Komodo National Park, though only in the office and not directly with the animals.
Now, although this post is full of slightly alarming stories involving (or not involving) Komodo dragons, I hope I haven’t turned you off from travelling to Komodo National Park. I absolutely loved my time there and getting to encounter Komodo dragons in their natural habitat was incredible. These stories I have recounted were passing thoughts and for the majority of the time, I felt completely safe with the park rangers. With that said, keep in mind that Komodo dragons are still wild animals and cannot be controlled. Follow the rangers’ safety instructions, don’t provoke the Komodo dragons, and enjoy the encounters. Komodo National Park is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience and one to remember forever.
Do you want to meet the mighty Komodo dragons in person?
Stay tuned for my Komodo National Park guide where I detail how to get here, where to stay, how to get around, and more amazing things to do in the area! I’ll be sharing highlights of Komodo National Park other than Komodo dragons such as Pink Beach and Padar Island (sneak peek below!), things to do around the Komodo islands including snorkelling and scuba diving, and more places to visit on the surrounding island of Flores.
Photo via Nala Rinaldo.
Are you going to Indonesia and looking for more places to visit? Check out 4 amazing places you have to visit in Indonesia!
Have you had any scary encounters with animals? Share them in the comments below!
A special thank you to the Indonesia Tourism Board for inviting me on such an amazing trip to Wonderful Indonesia!