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Running for My Life on Komodo Island

Posted by: $author Updated: May 7, 2009 - 8:55 PM

Here is my journal entry from that memorable day:

2/25/09 – Komodo Island

This morning was a scenic sail-in to Slawi Bay, Komodo, Indonesia.  Mist surrounded the volcanic island with 2000-foot craggy mountains, brilliant green from recent rains.  As the haze lifted, the sun shined brightly and intensely and I eagerly joined others on an Island Trek in search of Komodo dragons.  The oldest fossils of these creatures date back 130 million years, and they have been nearly extinct for millions of years, except on Komodo and a few neighboring islands.

Komodo is one of the 17,508 islands that make up the Republic of Indonesia.  The residents of this island are mostly descendants of former convicts, exiled to the island.  But the more famous and notable residents are the Komodo dragons, neither a dinosaur nor a dragon, but rather a type of fierce monitor lizard.  About 1,500 of them roam the island freely in the Komodo National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), where they are a protected species.  These are the world’s largest lizards, which grow to an average of between 6 to 10 feet long and weigh an average of 150 pounds, but some reach up to 300 pounds.  The dragons’ diet consists mainly of Timor deer, goats, and wild boar, but the dragons will hunt an ambush birds, snakes, monkeys, and wild horses.  Most shocking is that they practice cannibalism, feasting on each other.

This trip came with serious warnings:  More important than their size, Komodo dragon jaws are very powerful, and both their teeth and talons are as sharp as razor blades.  Their saliva hosts a deadly bacterium that quickly infects and disables prey. Their tails also are dangerous weapons and can deliver a strong blow.  We were told that the dragons rarely attack humans; however, they could gobble down an adult in a matter of minutes. Their jaws are hinged much like those of a snake, making it easy to swallow large animals.  Agile and swift, the dragons have been clocked at speeds of 12 miles per hour, so we were advised not to venture too close.  We were also told that they normally will not attack unless provoked. 

Visitors are not allowed to explore the island freely.  Instead, a trained park guide must accompany them.  Each of our slender Indonesian guides was armed with a primitive weapon, a branch about 8 feet long and 1 ½ inches in diameter, with a forked end.  The guide assigned to my group explained that the sticks were used to poke the animals in the nose, which is their most sensitive area, and that they were along to protect us.

Before the steamy trek began, we were given another incentive to stay with the group and to follow the rules.  One guide lost his hand a couple years ago.  The day before our visit, a dragon wandered into the park ranger’s office and attacked him.  The injuries were severe, and the man was transported to Java for partial leg amputation.  I began to wonder if this trip was a good idea.

But mostly, it seemed like a peaceful place. The uneven dirt path took us through an aromatic field of lemon balm, past orchids blooming from curly stems attached to tall palms, as well as other native trees. There were sounds of all sorts of birds – squawking cockatoos, Imperial pigeons, orioles, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, and noisy friarbirds – with enormous crows flying overhead.  We did not encounter any of the deadly snakes, including cobras that also inhabit the island.  But we did see several giant insects, including enormous spiders.

Additional park guides, armed with the forked sticks, were stationed every 20 feet or so along the uneven walking path.  Some stations also included large first-aid boxes, and propped against trees were stretchers made of red canvas and branches.  Simple first-aid equipment considering the risks.

After about half an hour, we came to the most popular viewing area, the Vanu Nggulang, a dried riverbed, the dragons’ local watering hole.  I had strategically booked the morning jaunt, assuming that monsters would wake hungry and feast, followed by a nap during the afternoon heat.

Sure enough, as we came around the bend, there were two very large adult grayish-green dragons with a very prehistoric, dinosaur-like look.   We were advised to stay behind a row of 12 more guides, all armed with the forked sticks.  My group shot our cameras with abandon, feeling lucky to have encountered two of the giant creatures, both of which appeared to be lazy and tired.

When one of the dragons began to slowly creep toward our group, one guide casually prodded his neck with the stick encouraging him to return to the center of the riverbed area.  The creature continued to crawl slowly as he looked side to side. But, this dragon obviously had enough and wanted to get away.  He turned on a dime and began to move quickly toward us.  Our group split apart, most going to the left.  One other man and I moved to the right.

But then, the dragon began to sprint – directly toward me.  All the warnings rushed through my mind as I turned to run from the path into the dense underbrush.  I raced and so did my mind as I wondered how I could outrun the monster.  I heard the Indonesian guides behind me yelling.  The next thing I knew, my right foot caught on a low branch.  I fell face down onto the ground.  The frenzy behind me continued. I felt a crush on top of me, which I imagined to be the dragon.  I screamed.  What a relief to find that it was the other group member who also tripped and fell.  The dragon had run past, just a foot or so from us.

Whew!  Heart pounding - shaken up - all limbs and digits intact.  But the adventure had not yet come to an end.  The medic (exaggerated term considering the simplicity of his equipment) came running to examine me.  Despite my insistence that I was just fine, a major concern was the blood running from the area where the branch had punctured my leg.  The dragons have a keen sense of smell and are attracted to blood.  Yikes! 

Bandages in place, we continued the trek.  I hiked right next to one of the stick-armed guards for protection just in case another creature should charge toward our path from the surrounding jungle and undergrowth.  The guards were also constantly checking the tree canopy above us because that is where the baby dragons live in fear that the adults will eat them.  But there were no further dragon encounters.

Later:  3/25/09 -  An Indonesian fisherman stopped on Komodo Island to pick sugar-apples.  He fell from the tree and was fatally mauled by two Komodo dragons. According to the story, this was the "latest in a string of attacks on humans by the world's largest lizard species." 

I have no plans to return to Komodo Island.  Instead, I will limit my running to the safe environment of Lake Harriet.

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