Since the days of Magellan, the islands of Komodo have been the stuff of legend — mythical dragons, smoldering volcanoes, spectacular sea creatures and stunning coral reefs sprawled like underwater metropolises. Explore the primeval landscapes where dragons still rule
The majority of travelers visiting Indonesia may never venture beyond Bali. But with over 14,000 islands, the archipelago offers a world of adventure beyond the “Island of the Gods”. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years as a photographer in and around Bali, but nothing gets me more excited than the chance to venture into the remote corners of this endlessly fascinating country. When my friend Jos and his wife Lida ask me to join them on a once-in-a-lifetime traverse of the Komodo National Park, I drop everything to make the trip.
The weeks before our adventure pass quickly, and before I know it we’ve made our way from Bali — flying eastward for an hour-and-a-half
over Lombok, Sumbawa and Sumba — to Labuan Bajo. This little outpost on the west coast of the island of Flores is the jump-off point to the Komodo National Park. We drive from the airport and through the little coastal town. At the seaside markets the fish are nearly sold out. European tourists, exhausted but glowing — possibly from a day of diving — amble out of dive shops onto the decks of nearby restaurants.
We board the Seven Seas, an old-school phinisi schooner that was built by hand in Sulawesi. With black sails and a beautiful teak hull, our boat feels like it’s been lifted directly from the pages of Treasure Island.
An old-school vessel fitted with modern comforts — like cushioned beds and a toilet — seems like the only way to explore a hauntingly primeval landscape. We sail out of Labuan Bajo port, as twilight fades to the inky blackness of night. A warm salt breeze sings through the rigging of the twin masts. I decide to reconnect with my childhood dream of becoming a pirate and sleep outside on the deck of the ship. Throughout the night, a cathedral of galaxies and stars spins overhead.
Komodo National Park
Unlike the emerald rice terraces Bali is best known for, the 29 islands of Komodo National Park are mostly covered in an ochre thatch of dense grass, dotted by windblown trees and surrounded by sapphire-blue coral reefs. It’s a huge area, sprawling over more than 1,700km2. The park was founded in 1980 to protect its most famous resident, the Komodo dragon, and has since been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Twilight gives way to a canvas of deepest indigo as the sun sets, and the outline of the Milky Way comes into focus. With a clear, cloudless sky and just the faintest sliver of silver moon, conditions are nearly perfect for stargazing and astrophotography.
Setting up my camera and tripod, I try a few test shots. Even on the tiny LCD screen I can see the beauty of the night sky. I spend another
hour on the beach taking photos, excitedly checking the result after each long exposure.
Enjoying the timeless beauty of a starry sky is an experience many of us — living in our sleepless modern cities with artificial lighting — no longer have. As I pack up my camera gear to return to the boat for dinner, I can’t help but think how much we would benefit from a daily reminder of just how small we and our little blue planet really are.
Meeting the dragons
“Thar be dragons”. It’s the classic 15th century pirate’s warning, scrawled on ancient maps, marking the edge of the known world. Beyond these borders lurk man-eating dragons and other terrors, both real and imagined.
Centuries later, we know that the dragons of Komodo Island are very real, and even the most jaded traveler can’t help but feel his pulse quicken during an encounter with these massive lizards.
We arrive at Rinca Island, one of the larger islands, in the early hours of our fourth day. Through the dreamy mist of early morning, we can see the hulking outlines of the legendary beast we seek.
Komodo dragons reach lengths of up to 2.6m, weigh in at more than 90kg, and are equipped with a lethal bite that carries a deadly dose of poison and toxic bacteria. Even the pirates and explorers of old knew to keep a respectful distance.
Big John — one of our guides from Flores — has had a lot of experience with these creatures and is on hand to guide us in a personal encounter with them on the beach. I set up my camera with a wireless trigger so I can photograph them from up close without risking their nasty fangs.
The first dragon approaches hungrily as soon as my tripod hits the sand, stalking me with a lurching gait propelled by scaly feet tipped
with terrifyingly long claws. Backing away from the beast, I trigger the first few photos in the series. The dragon turns its head sharply, searching for the source of the clicking sound.
Locking on to the camera, the beast approaches my helpless Canon SLR. Its snakelike tongue searches the air for clues, trying to figure out if the machine is edible. It’s already drooling a lethal stew of toxins and bacteria. I’m still triggering the shutter release as it stops inches away from the camera and licks the glass of the lens.
It’s another half hour of marveling at the lizards before I cautiously liberate my camera and scurry back to the safety of the boat.
The other stars of Komodo
Dragons aren’t the only wonder the Komodo National Park has to offer. We spend days drift diving and snorkeling, looking for manta rays around the rocky channels where the gentle creatures congregate to feed on tiny fish and shrimp. Known to be among the most intelligent of all the elasmobranch species, mantas can span up to nine meters. They often approach humans curiously, swimming in a swirling orbit to investigate you up close.
The Tetawa Kecil Island is an underwater dreamscape in the afternoon light, taking my breath away with some of the most pristine branching coral I’ve ever seen. Confetti-colored schools of anthias dance against a backdrop of cobalt blue. Reef sharks knife across the shallows, gliding effortlessly in their hunt for easy prey.
Then there’s the Fish Bowl, one of the most famous dive sites in the park; its deep blue channel creates a fast current, making it perfect for seeing everything from sharks to shimmering schools of fish. It’s a spectacular sight to behold.
Located out in the main channel, Castle Rock — a craggy seamount rising from the depths of the Flores Sea — is a magnet for a mind-boggling array of fish species from sharks to tuna to huge schools of trevallies and jacks. Swimming to 30m, we’re surrounded by reef sharks, gliding warily by us as they circle the rock. With the current trying to pull us out into the open blue water, it’s an effort to hold our positions in the swirling depths.
Back on land, the Komodo National Park generously treats visitors to beautiful sunrises. A group of us decide to hike to the peak of Gili Lawa Darat for a panoramic view. The trail is steep and dusty, but within a half-hour of brisk hiking we’ve reached the pinnacle. We’re rewarded with an incredible view topside — an archipelago of small islands further out, ringed by sandy shorelines bright in the sun, surrounded by clear waters.
As our trip comes to a close, we elect to do a farewell hike to the peak of Padar Island — the most iconic landscape in the entire park. The sun slips below the western horizon, casting long shadows across the rugged landscape that brings out the contours of the island in the last photos we’ll create in Komodo.
For nearly two weeks we’ve rekindled the spirit of adventure and exploration that inspired ancient mariners to leave the safety of their home ports and push beyond known boundaries to the very edges of the map. I’m thankful that even in our modern, hyper-connected world, there are still places like Komodo where we can experience that timeless human wonder at the unknown.
This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Smile magazine.