The Time I Celebrated My 30th with Coldblooded Man-Eating Dragons

Last year’s birthday was a blast. We tore up some sand dunes at Huacafuckingchina and sipped our way through Peru’s Pisco making capital (Pisco). 29 would have been tough to beat, but this year is my 30th, so we had to go big. Prehistoric big. So big it can eat you big. Komodo Dragon big.

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that a visit to Komodo National Park has topped my travel wish list for years. I blame it on my parents’ subscription to Zoo Books when I was a kid. Those magazines opened my eyes to a whole wide world of exotic animals. Ever since, I’ve had an affinity for the unusual.

Luckily my parents were pretty receptive to their young lad’s burgeoning animal hobby. Aside from snakes (my dad HATES snakes) my ‘rents let me do my herpetological thing. Leopard geckos, wild blue bellied Californian lizards, bearded dragons, monitor lizards, turtles, and many, many frogs all fell into my possession at one point or another. As a kid my perfect Sunday involved a visit to the comic book store and the Reptile Room in Hayward. My first job was as a stock boy at PetSmart. My first love was the blue-eyed blonde haired aquarium girl. Our first kiss was behind the hamster cages. My go-to first date spot through my early 20s was the East Bay Vivarium (sexy I know, but more importantly cheap!). If you didn’t know before this brief history lesson: I like LOVE lizards.

cliffMe with some childhood friends

When you like lizards, are facing a milestone birthday, and your fiancée (who has probably never even been to a pet store) asks what you want for your birthday, the only reasonable answer is: a trip half way around the world to see the largest, most badass, most man eating lizards on the planet. And that’s exactly what we set out (16 months ago) to do.

It took us three flights to get from Borneo to Labuan Bajo, Flores, the main port of call for Komodo National Park. We based ourselves on Kanawa Island, an hour rickety boat closer to the park. Most people come to Kanawa for the absolutely spectacular marine life, but before I could hand myself over to the snorkel gods, we had some dragon spotting to do.

Komodo_2Watch where you swim, Komodo dragons can dive 15 meters

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Komodo Island has a bit of a Jurassic Park feel. It has some serious infrastructure, but is falling into disrepair. We docked at a concrete jetty built for cruise ships, but strangely enough our 20′ wooden boat was the only one there. According to park rangers, a 400 person cruise ship from North America was expected the next day. Lucky we came when we did.

Upon entering the park you’re assigned a ranger/guide. Every group of four tourists requires one ranger to accompany them at all times. Each ranger carries a 10′ long stick and, presumably, a large set of balls. The rangers are first to admit that Komodo Dragon could easily use their forked sticks as a toothpick, and they tell us that if a dragon gets aggressive your best bet is to climb a tree.

About 15 minutes into the hike we approached “the watering hole”, the most likely place to spot a Komodo Dragon in the middle of a hot Indonesian day.  Our guide held up his hand like a well-trained traffic cop, pointed through the brush and told us to shut it.

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He was huge. Even bigger than I’d imagined. And it was clear that we were in his house. Komodo Dragons can live well into their 30s, weigh upwards of 100 kilograms, and can reach over 3 meters in length. This guys meet all those stats. And, like a honey badger, Komodo dragons just don’t give a fuck. He sat almost motionless, totally unaffected by our presence. To him, we did not present a threat, that was clear.

Things got more interesting when another adult male sidled into the first’s plot of shade.

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Hisses and sudden head jerks got our ranger’s attention. He told us to stand absolutely still and whispered that we might see a fight, I crossed my fingers.

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But as fast and it started, the situation diffused. The dragons hissed at each other on and off for a few minutes, but ultimately agreed that there was enough shade to go round.

IMG_5748With claws like these, I would not like to get in a fist fight with this bad boy

Our guide took the opportunity to remind us of just how deadly these creatures are. A bite from their serrated bacteria ridden teeth can kill a man in minutes. Komodo Dragons carry between 50 – 80 different strands of bacteria as their venom. Once bitten, you might get away, but not far. Their hunting technique is to infect prey with their bite, wait for it to die, and then come collect the festering bounty at their leisure.

Komodo dragons are most docile right after they eat. We have the sneaking suspicion that the rangers occasionally toss some of the larger dragons a sacrificial goat or two . Doing so would keep the dragons close by the ranger station and docile, and keep tourists happy.

IMG_5749After our detailed explanation of how the dragons kill, we started to pay more attention to these signs

Komodo Island is home to several species, all of which fall under the dragons on the food chain. We were impressed by how rich the wildlife is—deer and wild boar roamed with almost as much confidence as the dragons. Even the dragons could get quite close (reinforcing our goat-feeding theory).

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You might think that Komodo Dragons only exist on Komodo Island, but there is in fact a second island that the dragons call home, Rinca. After a couple of days soaking up Kanawa vibes, we visited the smaller sister island.

Rinca has a slightly different vibe from Komodo. It’s more relaxed, less built up, and sees a lot less tourists. Due to some evolutionary mystery, the dragons on Rinca are significantly smaller than on Komodo.

IMG_5993Looking down on Rinca Bay

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We noticed that the Komodo Dragons on Rinca seemed (at least to us) to look healthier and more colorful than their Komodo cousins. We asked a ranger about it, but he didn’t seem to think there was any difference.

IMG_5960A couple basking in the sun

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IMG_5904Dragon yoga

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Twice on our Rinca hike we spotted adolescent dragons. They were slim, speedy, and fantastically colorful. It’s a shame the older dragons seem to loose their colorful spots and stripes. I wanted to pick up and play with one of these little guys, but our ranger reminded me that they carry as much bacteria in their bite as the full-grown dragons. I settled for some close up shots instead.

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Kneeling next to a 200 lb. lizard on Komodo gave me butterflies and goose bumps like being a kid all over again. Now all I want for my birthday is a renewed subscription to Zoo Books.

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