Celebrating My Birthday With Komodo Dragons
Celebrating My Birthday With Komodo Dragons
I have always had a thing for alpha predators, and even more so animals that could kill me. I remember having all of these dinosaur toys and books when I was little and daydreaming about seeing T-Rex in the wild. At 10 I had every intention of becoming a palaeontologist although I’m kind of glad I didn’t because I’m sure the Ross Gellar jokes would be incessant! Even now, my favourite animal is the Grizzly Bear, an animal at the top of its food chain near my home in the Canadian Rockies.
So it should come as no surprise that one animal that I’ve always wanted to see live is a predator that hasn’t evolved much in millions of years, is at the top of its food chain, and looks like it could have easily had a starring role in Jurassic Park.
My 31st Birthday
As we made our way down the pier to where our boat was docked; we kept our fingers crossed that our home for the next two days would get us back to Labuan Bajo in one piece. This is a pretty common concern of mine while travelling throughout Southeast Asia and for good reason.
After boarding the boat I couldn’t help but shake my head and just saying, “Yup…seems about right”. There were three life jackets and eleven passengers. It was tiny and didn’t seem big enough to sleep even half of us. Did I mention the first mate was 12 years old? Now although we would have been horrified with this situation back home, in Southeast Asia this is pretty standard, so you roll with it!
Once we pulled out of the harbour at Labuan Bajo, our safety concerns disappeared with the wake behind us when a pod of friendly dolphins welcomed us to their beautiful home of Komodo National Park.
Our first stop was the island of Rinca which, along with Komodo, is home to over 2,000 dragons. On the way there I was so excited that I put on my telephoto lens to scan the shoreline to look for the world’s largest lizard which of course would only appear as a dot in any photo. Nerd alert! After docking at Rinca we passed by a boat with a couple Indonesian men who were tying up a pair of dead deer to bring to shore. We asked our guide (who had just joined us), if they were going to feed the deer to the dragons. He told us no, and explained that they let them hunt for themselves.
After taking the mandatory pictures beside a statue of a dragon (as if the probability of seeing one on our hike was low), we walked toward the hut where you pay the entrance fees. All of a sudden someone yelled, “Stop! Dragon!” We swung around and saw this beast of a lizard laying in the middle of the path that we were headed down. I think we all sort of forgot that the dragons actually roam the island freely.
Wow! I was absolutely stunned with how massive it was. I knew they were big – I’d seen videos of them and had read that they can grow up to 10 feet and weigh up to 150lbs – but seeing just how freaking huge they were in person was something else completely.
I should take this opportunity to explain a bit about why the Komodo Dragon is such a deadly creature. They don’t kill by grabbing onto your neck like a lion or wolf would, they kill by biting your leg while you mindlessly go about your business and then, they wait. Their saliva is a deadly witches’ brew of bacteria which attack the prey’s body after contact and usually within three days; body riddled with agonizing tissue and organ infection. Its at this time, when the prey is perilously weak and near death, that the dragon comes back and devours its prey.
Over the next two hours we trekked the island, constantly scanning the grass and trees for dragons, coming face to face with a number along our hike. Our guide was outstanding, could spot one a hundred metres away. He was an expert on their behaviour and respected them greatly. I should mention that during our entire trek, he had little more than a long walking stick to keep the dragons away. You heard me right, just a long stick that forked out like the tongue of the dragon. I felt surprisingly comfortable with the arrangement; our guide was the picture of calm confidence and alertness to his surroundings. But at the same time…there was a lot of long grass and only one of him! My head was on a swivel for the entire trek…
As we walked back down toward the main visitor centre we noticed that all the other guides and tourists were gathered out in a field staring at a tree. As I got closer I realized what they were all staring at. Someone had strung the deers (from the boat) from a tree and now nearly a dozen dragons were decimating the carcasses. Meanwhile dragons were sprinting in from all over the island to join in on the feast.
One of the guides leaned over to me, shaking his head saying, “This is so wrong…”.
I had to agree. Feeding wildlife, no matter where you are in the world disrupts the ecosystem and changes the relationships the animals have with humans, often times making them less afraid of humans and even aggressive toward them.
Even though I completely agreed with the guide, I couldn’t help but stare in absolute awe at the dragons as they absolutely devoured the deer carcasses.
That night as my birthday was coming to a close one of the young Norwegian girls on our boat found out it was my birthday and asked how old I was.
“Oh my god…you’re almost 40!” …Thanks….
Simultaneously my balls receded and I sprouted 30 new grey hairs…
The next morning after my balls were nice enough to make a return appearance, we sailed to Komodo Island. The island is also supposedly home to the biggest Komodo Dragons in the world. They can grow to a massive 3 metres (10 ft) and weigh up to 70 kilos (150 lbs).
It didn’t take long to find out that they weren’t lying about the size of these prehistoric beasts as a giant male, perhaps the biggest on the island, slowly strutted in front of us.
Earlier in this post I talked about how I felt pretty comfortable with our safety on the island – well, that was until we got to Komodo and started to talking to one of the guides as we trekked through the thick golden brush of the island. He told me that at a handful of people are bitten every year on the island. He then showed me a picture of another guide’s leg who had been bitten within the last year.
It’s easy as you’re walking along to forget that the dragons are everywhere and that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. The picture of the guide, who is very experienced with these animals, really hammered home the fact that these apex predators deserve every bit of respect that goes along with being at the top of the food chain for millions of years.
I have to say, even with the danger factor, I absolutely loved my time here. Coming face-to-face with these deadly predators was not only one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, but it was also the coolest birthday I’ve ever had!