Thursday, March 02, 2006

Field Journals: Walking with Dragons

Travelling to Komodo is literally like travelling back in time.

As soon as you're set adrift from the port of Labuan Bajo, you're not just leaving dry land; you're also turning your back on all preconceived notions of civilization.
Travelling in the company of The Nature Conservancy Indonesia, we journeyed over miles and miles of sea.

I counted the hours by counting the many island chains that passed by.
I've never experienced this feeling before or since - but it actually came to the point where I started to crave dry land, and the sight of a few reassuring stands of forest.

Apart from the occasional palm-fringed beach that marked out tiny fishing communities on the coasts of some of these islands, there were hardly any trees to speak of. The vegetation that clothed these outcrops of land were low-lying scrub and exposed hillside savannahs of grass.
The only signs of life during this voyage were the occasional passing fishermen in their sturdy antique boats, and a few Crested Terns overhead. But we also had a surprise appearance by a pair of Finless Porpoise.

They kept company alongside us for a few minutes, before finally disappearing back into the fathomless blue waters of the Lesser Sundas.

Finally arriving in the cove of Komodo Island itself, I recall the incredible anticipation of actually setting foot on a land I've been reading about since I was old enough to read. This was going to be as close as I was ever going to get to my own personal Jurassic Park experience, and my expectations were obviously high...
Surrounded by a ring of mountains, first impressions of the island are tantalizing, giving a suggestion of something hidden, waiting to be discovered behind those imposing walls of volcanic rock.

I had anticipated a long trek, hauling equipment through the hills before even catching a glimpse of the infamous Dragons. But before we could even unpack our gear at the ranger station, there was a monster waiting to greet us.

Strolling along the beach was the biggest, most impressive looking thing I have ever seen. Ambling along with almost regal nonchalance was a full-grown Komodo Dragon, Varanus komodoensis.

This adult didn't even look our way as we stood in awe a hundred metres or so away. More concerned with soaking up the afternoon Sun, and the off chance of finding something to eat along the tide line, it ambled along as if it had all the time in the world.

Now obviously we weren't the first crew to film dragons, and we're certainly not the last. And here is where the problem (at least for me) lay. Having grown accustomed to the comings and goings of film crews and nurturing a lucrative little tourist trade, the rangers had either knowingly or unintentionally habituated a group of dragons to their living quarters, kitchens and the nearby hostels rented for visitors.

So what did we meet while being introduced to the head warden, but a veritable herd of dragons, dozing beneath the shade of overhanging palms. This was far from what I expected. Rather than fabled killer reptiles with ancient blood running through their veins, we were presented instead with modern-day 'reptilian couch potatoes', looking overweight, overfed and under-excercised - even allowing a small herd of wild pig to tiptoe past them, the shame of it!

(I later found out that one of the largest specimens of V. komodoensis ever recorded, measuring in at over 10ft, was one of these dozing dragons. Well with a diet supplemented with kitchen scraps and who-knows-what, thats hardly a surprise anymore...)

Now I began to realize how film crews before ours had managed to capture such awesome closeups of the dragons. It could well have been just a case of, "Ok, let's just park the boat over here, set up camera on the beach over there, throw some chunks of meat around the place, have a cup of tea and a few sandwiches while the dragons plod over, shoot a few rolls, pack up and head back home."

Kind of demystifies the whole illusion of dangerous wildlife film-making doesn't it?

"I said 'smile' for the camera, not 'eat' the bloody thing"
Well, not to be let down by this somewhat deflating encounter, it was up to me to find some real, wild dragons. And that's how I ended up on the neighbouring island of Rinca, and how my perceptions of this ancient predator were changed completely.

Will the real 'Jurassic Park' please stand up...
Rinca: its a 'dragon eat dragon' world out there

To be continued

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