Here be dragons!!!
25.04.2012 - 27.04.2012 31 °C
Firstly, I’d like to quash a vicious rumour started by my own father. My lovely straw hat is very much still alive and will feature extensively in this blog.
We have decided to head east across Nusa Tengarra towards Flores. We weighed up the options for onward travel:
a. Overland in public bus and ferry combo – dangerous roads, takes a long time, no sleep…
b. Island hopping on a boat – numerous sinking incidents, tales of floating cockroach infested piles of junk, no sleep…
In the end we book a two night, three day trip with Perama. The travel forums are a bit like Marmite. Some people though it was the best thing they had ever done and some thought it was the worst. Justin freaks himself out with a forum entry from one of the passengers of a Perama boat that crashed into a reef and sank a couple of years ago. The incident took place in the height of the wet season though, which all the locals have told us to avoid boat travel during. We stop reading the forums in case we find anything else – the trip is booked and there is no going back. Probably not one to mention to the parents before we head off though (sorry mums, dads and mums mum).
We head off in a bus with 18 people from Europe and Australia. Amusingly our first stop is the Mataram Mall to buy essentials. We visited the mall the day before to buy essential chocolate supplies, so we head to McDonalds to make use of their free wifi. I also make use of the McFlurry machine for breakfast number dua (much to Justin’s horror).
On the way to the harbour we visit a couple of local villages, including the basic boatyard where our boat was made. The questions start – when was it made, who made it, how long will it be seaworthy for, what happens if x or y goes wrong, why is this boat being made out of rotten wood..? I can see Justin turning a whiter shade of white and I think we are all relieved when we leave the boatmakers yard.
We arrive at the harbour. The boat is pretty much as expected having read through all the blogs – basic and a bit rough around the edges. But, it is clean and the crew are helpful and friendly.
We head off into choppy waters. It doesn’t take us very long to reach our first stop, an island just off Lombok’s coast. We need to board a smaller boat to go to shore, which is brought around to the door. The crew attempt to hold it still. Unfortunately the waves aren’t helping as the small boat slams violently against our boat several times. “Okay two groups, who wants to go first?” By this point we’ve all backed away from the door a little and one guy asks if he can stay on the boat. In the end though we all MTFU and make the short trip across to the island.
There’s a nice quiet beach and we go snorkelling. The coral, as in many areas around Indonesia, has been dynamite fished to shreds. Mounds of blown up dead coral litter the sea floor. It is very sad to see the devastation and frustrating to think about how short-sighted the fishermen who use these destructive methods are. Perama run a number of socio-economic projects and 20% of their profits are ploughed back into local projects, in particular environmental protection and social enterprise projects. They are running a coral replant scheme and in the areas where new coral has started to grow back there are lots of little fish swimming around. Black clouds are starting to ominously move in and we head for a dinner of yummy barbequed tuna and campfire-cooked corn on the cob.
Back on the boat we bed down for a night on our deck mattress. The boat lists from side to side and the winds whip around the sleeping area sheeting. I spend the night dozing in and out of sleep. Justin unfortunately spends the night wide-awake. One too many bedtime forums about shipwrecks and storms.
Our next day is spent cruising in calm waters along the coast of Sumbawa. We visit saltwater island lakes, go snorkelling in clear blue oceans and relax on beautiful deserted beaches, with only a group of locals to stare at us. I try a bit of Bahasa Indonesian, but Sumbawa has two different languages. Unfortunately we end up having the same conversation over and over again:
“Hello Mister, where you from?”
“Tottenham Hotspur?” – blank look, end of conversation.
I know what you are thinking…Sumbawhere? According to Wikipedia (bible number 2!) Sumbawa is 15,448 km2 (three times the size of Lombok) with a population of around 1.33 million. This is one of the poorer islands in Indonesia. The majority of the population are farmers, although there is a massive gold and copper mine (one of the biggest copper mines in the world) being run by an American company with some interesting environmental records according to the press reports. Many of the island residents are at risk of starvation when crops fail. Tourism is a small part of the economy - there is snorkeling, world class surf spots and volcanoes to climb (I might wait a few years before suggesting another volcano climb to Justin though).
Sumbawa is a volcanic island – part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’. As we flew over Sumbawa on our way back to Bali we went very close to Mount Tambora, with its massive caldera. It was very cool to see it from the air. When we visited the museum in Lombok the guide took me over to a model of Sumbawa’s Mount Tambora. “As a geographer you’ll know this volcano.” I looked at it a bit blankly. “April 1815 – most destructive volcanic eruption in modern history?”. “Really," I reply "What about Krakatoa?” The guide looks at me and says “This was four times bigger and it killed about 80,000 people.” “Seriously?”. “Seriously. We call it Pompeii of the East. An entire kingdom was wiped out.”
I’ve had a look around on the web. One of my geographer lecturers from Cambridge has written quite a few papers on this area (I promise I was attending your lectures and not rowing). Mount Tambora launched 100 cubic kilometres of ash into the upper atmosphere. 1816 is known as the "year without a summer”. Agricultural crops failed and livestock died in much of the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in the worst famine of the 19th century. Apparently the eruption can also be linked to the invention of the bicycle, as the cost of maintaining horses rose, because of the cost of horse food and the death of many horses during the famine. Well you learn something new everyday!
After another tasty meal and several Bintang beers we settle down for the night. We will be sailing through the night, reaching Komodo Island the next morning. We need to sail through this section during daylight hours because the currents are a bit weird (not a technical geographical term, but they were 'a bit wierd'). The guide runs through all the do's and don’ts for our trip to the island, including a request for any women who are having a period to stay on board because the dragons can smell you several miles off (now there is something they don’t mention in the tourist pamphlet!).
The sea is calm and the sky is clear of cloud. We decide to sleep on the front deck under the beautiful stars. In the early hours a bright flash of light wakes me up. Still half asleep I get up to try to turn the lights off. It’s only when a second flash goes off followed by a low rumble of thunder that I realise it’s a thunderstorm. I stand on the side of the boat and watch as a third flash lights up the whole sky, showing a sheet of heavy rain in front of our boat. The crew have started to run about pushing down rain covers and strapping down sections of the boat. I head back to bed and sleep until sunrise. Justin’s bed has been tidied away and all his stuff is packed away. Confused I wander around the boat until I find a sleep deprived Justin cradling a cup of tea. No more travel forums for Justin!
UNESCO World Heritage Site number seven. Komodo National Park is between Sumbawa and Flores. It was created in 1980 to originally conserve the habitats of the Komodo dragon, but over the years has extended to protect the biodiversity (sea and land) of this amazing area. You can find out all about the conservation programmes and challenges faced at: www.komodonationalpark.org
The scenery around is incredible. Island after island covered in Savannah rather than the forest-covered mainland. We moor of Komodo Island and head to the visitor centre where we meet our rangers for the morning.
They give us some background on the conservation programme as well as safety arrangements. We must walk in groups. We must not wander off on our own. We must not touch the dragons (this gets a laugh, but the rangers look serious). We must not approach the dragons without a ranger and his sharp pointy stick (fork-shaped stick used to hold Komodo heads, which are very sensitive, as the rest of the body is as hard as stone). We must tell the ranger if at any point we cut ourselves. We must do exactly as the rangers tell us.
The ranger plunges into the story of the tourist who did not listen, wandering off into the savannah to get a closer picture. “…and all we found was his camera.” the ranger said in a hushed tone. “Were the pictures any good?” one of our group asks, which gets a good laugh. The ranger talk is serious though. Komodo dragons are powerful and dangerous animals and deserve respect.
As the largest living species of lizards Komodo dragons can grow up to around 3 meters and weigh up to 70kg (or more if they’ve just eaten a goat whole). They can run at speeds of up to 20km as well as being able to swim around 500m. The Komodo dragon has a tail as long as its body and 60 serrated teeth, which deliver bacteria filled (possibly venomous – the scientific jury is still out on this one) bites. A slow, painful death…unless you get swallowed whole, which only takes 20 minutes. They have been known to attack and kill humans…although they mainly eat small mammals/birds, deer and carrion. Luckily for tourists they can survive on 12 meals a year and spend most of the morning slowly warming up.
We head off in groups through the savannah and forest. Birds call in the treetops, the landscape is unusual and the plants are very different to anything we have seen so far. A bush rustles to our right. “What is it?” says Justin to the ranger. The ranger peers through the undergrowth with his stick out in front before turning around and saying “Chicken!”. Excluding the chickens it does feel like the land that time forgot. No wonder the first western expeditions to the Komodo Islands are rumoured to have inspired the original King Kong movie.
We reach a clearing and the ranger at the front makes a signal for us to stay close together. Here be dragons! Three huge male dragons sit warming up. One moves very slowly across the clearing. It is very hard to imagine these animals running up to 20km/h, but they do. They swing their heads from side to side, letting their enormous forked tongue taste the air - hopefully not for the next meal. What is really amazing is the sheer size of a) the tail b) the claws. They’re enormous.
We start taking pictures. The guides have obviously done this before, urging us to go and stand behind the dragon before stooping down on the ground to take a picture that makes you look like you are riding a Komodo dragon. Awesome. The rangers start quoting facts and figures; including some that we haven’t been able to confirm a) they have three eyes b) they have two penises. If anyone has any info on this please email us.
"So what happens if your stick doesn’t work?” asks one of our group. “You climb a tree very quickly.” replies the Ranger. The dragon nearest to us lets out a low hissing noise and everyone immediately looks around for the nearest tree. Justin’s is a four-foot twig of a tree, which everyone finds very funny.
We head off for a really nice walk around the park before returning to the Ranger Station. Another guide comes over to tell us a Komodo dragon is “having breakfast”. We head over to the spot and watch for 30 minutes as the dragon rips, drags and shakes a deer carcass, at one point rapping it around a tree to get some extra leverage.
Komodo Dragon having a good chomp on dead deer...might not be suitable for children or people who cry when Bambi's mother dies
We are all so mesmerised by this that we don’t notice a number of dragons chilling in the long grass behind us. One of our group, busy taking photos, starts to walk backwards straight towards one. The ranger closes in with his stick. “What’s the matter?” the group member asks. The ranger points at the Komodo dragon a couple of feet behind him. I’ve never seen anyone move so quick.
Our time is up and we head back to the boat with wonderful memories of a fantastic trip. A couple of American college boys from a different boat hang back without their ranger. “Hey, look at me. I’m touching a Komodo dragon.” one of the lads says crouching down and reaching out his hand towards the dragons tail. The dragon looks around and his giant forked tongue flicks out. Needless to say college boy backed off pretty quick. What a muppet!
Our final boat stop is the beautiful Pink Beach, where the sand is pink! We pop on our snorkeling gear and head out to some of the best coral and fish shoals I’ve ever seen. No dynamite fishing here and what a difference it makes. Giant fish and coral everywhere.
We arrive in the port town of Labuanbajo, Flores. After booking into a hotel we head back to the boat for some dingin Bintangs with our group. A wonderful way to end an amazing experience.
Adapted from wiki…
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis to Latin speakers or ora to the locals), is the largest living species of lizard. Komodo Dragons can grow up to a maximum of three meters and on average weigh up to 70kg. They managed to get so big because of something called ‘island gigantism’ – basically they are at the top of the food chain on the islands, although it could be because they are distant relatives of a now extinct giant lizard family isolated by rising sea levels in the last ice age. They are only found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar.
The Komodo dragon has a tail as long as its body, as well as about 60 frequently replaced serrated teeth that can measure up to 2.5 centimetres in length. Its saliva is frequently blood-tinged, because its teeth are almost completely covered by tissue that is naturally lacerated during feeding. This creates an ideal culture for the bacteria that live in its mouth.
Komodo dragons are carnivores. They hunt and ambush prey including invertebrates, birds, and mammals. Their group behaviour in hunting is exceptional in the reptile world. The diet of big Komodo dragons mainly consists of deer and carrion. For smaller prey up to the size of a goat, their loosely articulated jaws, flexible skull, and expandable stomach allow it to swallow its prey whole. but swallowing is still a long process (15–20 minutes to swallow a goat). A Komodo dragon may attempt to speed up the process by ramming the carcass against a tree to force it down its throat, sometimes ramming so forcefully that the tree is knocked down.
After eating up to 80 percent of its body weight in one meal, it drags itself to a sunny location to speed digestion, as the food could rot and poison the dragon if left undigested for too long. Because of their slow metabolism, large dragons can survive on as little as 12 meals a year. After digestion, the Komodo dragon regurgitates a mass of horns, hair, and teeth known as the gastric pellet, which is covered in malodorous mucus…nice! Komodo poo is white because dragons cannot digest calcium.
Mating begins between May and August, and the eggs are laid in September. About twenty eggs are deposited in abandoned megapode nests or in a self-dug nesting hole. The eggs are incubated for seven to eight months, hatching in April, when insects are most plentiful. Young Komodo dragons are vulnerable from being eaten by predators, other Komodo dragons and their own mothers, so they live in trees for a number of years. They can live for up to 50 years.
There are approximately 4,000 to 5,000 living Komodo dragons in the wild. In the wild their range has contracted due to human activities and they are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. They are protected under Indonesian law, and Komodo National Park was founded to aid protection efforts.
The Komodo dragon does not have an acute sense of hearing, despite its visible earholes. The Komodo dragon uses its long, yellow, deeply forked tongue to detect, taste, and smell. With the help of a favorable wind and its habit of swinging its head from side to side as it walks, Komodo dragons may be able to detect its next meal from 4–9.5 km away.
Komodo dragons are solitary, coming together only to breed and eat. They are capable of running rapidly in brief sprints up to 20 kilometres per hour (12 mph), diving up to 4.5 metres (15 ft), and swim around 500m.
Dragons need to sunbathe every morning and hunt in the afternoon once they’ve warmed up. They sleep in burrows at night to conserve body heat.