The Komodo archipelago harbours a fierce and forbidding creature, writes John Borthwick.
These dragons are nothing like the napalm-breathing stingers in television's Game of Thrones. No, the ones that are eyeballing us, and vice versa, are earthbound, actual and far more fatal than the flying Zippo lighters from Thrones.
A komodo dragon's bite burns worse than fire. The septic saliva of varanus komodoensis, the world's largest lizard, contains 50 different bacteria, plus venom and an anticoagulant.
One chomp and thereafter life - usually for a water buffalo, boar or deer - is nasty, brutish and short. The fleeing prey is soon crippled by its infected wound. When it falls, the end is a messy repast. As my guide says: "The dragons hunt alone but eat together."
The good news is that humans very rarely fall victim to these prehistoric lizards, now known colloquially as "komodos", that populate several islands off the western tip of Flores in eastern Indonesia.
Perhaps the 16th-century Portuguese navigators were being ironic when they named Flores. They dubbed this slender, 400-kilometre-long island as "Cabo das Flores" (Cape of Flowers) but, at least at its western end, Flores seems almost flower-free, a beautiful but arid Eden.
Flores is Indonesian tourism's "next big thing". After just over an hour's flight eastwards from Bali you land at Labuan Bajo, capital of western Flores, and its flash, new airport terminal. It's then a short drive to town, where the harbour still looks like something out of a Joseph Conrad story.
Hemmed by old volcanic peaks and conical islands, Labuan Bajo's port is busy with traditional, high-prowed phinisi, live-aboard dive boats, inter-island ferries and small local craft that were known inelegantly in Conrad's day as bumboats. Blazing lava sunsets wash over the harbour and are best seen from an eccentric, A-frame restaurant called Tree Top that surveys it all.
Cold beer, good salads and post-Conradian Wi-Fi are on the menu.
The town's main street, Jalan Soekarno Hatta, is a rambling gauntlet of lodges, dive shops, cafes, church and travel agents. Tellingly, already a real estate agency is pitching property sales at foreigners.
But we're not here to shop or linger. Boarding Plataran Felicia, an authentic, 25-metre phinisi that's outfitted for diving and cruising, we cast off for our cruise.
Slipping south-west through the sleeping-dog islands of the Komodo archipelago, in three hours we reach Loh Buaya (Crocodile Bay) on Rinca Island, part of the World Heritage-listed Komodo National Park.
Ashore we meet our guide, Aris, who arrives armed with a forked wooden pole. It's not quite St George's dragon-slaying lance but hopefully enough to keep at bay any three-metre, 90-kilogram saurian should its ancient bloodlust kick in.
"There be dragons," ancient sea charts used to warn.
So, how will we find our first komodo? With it ravenously dispatching a wild boar?
Or perhaps lying camouflaged, ready to ambush a villager or straggling tourist? (As they say here: "You never see the dragon that gets you.") No. We find half a dozen komodos, clad in what looks like grubby, ill-fitting armour, lazing in the shade beneath the park rangers' station mess, sniffing for meat and blood. They are slumped, with one eye on passing bipeds - that's us - lips drooling toxic goo and with forked tongues darting like a politician in and out of favour.
Built like garden lizards on a million-year steroid diet, they have a sort of spring-loaded lassitude that says: "Come one step closer and I might eat you alive."
Having evolved while hunting 300-kilogram dwarf stegadons (pygmy elephants), a dragon would have little problem dispatching a camera-encumbered homo turisticus.
Aris once saw 13 of them eat a live buffalo.
The dragons no doubt enjoyed snacking on our early human cousins, the metre-high "hobbits" known as Homo floresiensis who lived in the caves at Liang Bua on Flores. According to researchers, these unique hobbits evolved long fingers and toes, possibly in order to scamper up trees while escaping from dragons.
They also had a brain that evolved to think and strategise, and perhaps to talk, so they could hunt stegadons. Resembling not so much Eden as a Jurassic colosseum, prehistoric Flores shire would have seen hobbits and stegadons hunting each other while dragons chased them both.
Modern humans turned up and soon wiped out the hobbits about 12,000 years ago. The stegadons also shuffled off to the Jurassic parking lot, leaving us homo sapiens to contemplate the last dragons standing. They, too, are now on the red list of endangered species, with one of their main food sources, deer, diminishing because of poaching.
"We love them and they love us," says Aris, referring to the local myth of Putri Naga, the Dragon Princess, who bore twins, one human, and one dragon.
Rather than seeing these apex predators as foe, the Komodo Islanders view them as their siblings. As we trek through the forest, Aris shares more dragon lore. There are an estimated 2500 of these toxic shockers on Rinca Island and another 2800 on Komodo. They are highly carnivorous and with an acute sense of smell can locate prey several kilometres away.
(Memo: don't nick yourself while shaving just before visiting here.)
Back on board our phinisi we start motoring again while drinks and snacks are served.
This handsome, schooner-prowed craft, built on traditional lines in Sulawesi, has a crew of seven, plenty of shaded deck space and four airconditioned cabins down below.
As the tropical dusk falls we head to Pulau Kalong and wait just off its mangrove shore.
When the sun drops, thousands of flying foxes swarm out of the island's tunnels, washing over the fiery sky like tides of tiny Batmen as they head out for a night's feasting.
We move to anchor for the night and then next morning continue on to Komodo Island, the most-visited destination in Flores.
In 2011 its national park joined a very select list when voted as one of our planet's "Seven New Wonders of Nature". Besides its most famous resident, the park is also home to more than 1000 species of fish and some 350 reef-building corals.
It's time to get wet and discover them. We go ashore in Felicia's runabout on the extraordinary Pantai Merah - Pink Beach - so named because its sands are washed apricot-pink with finely granulated red corals.
I pull on a mask and fins, and slip into the shallows, and immediately understand where all the Flores flowers have gone - under water.
I'm drifting above reefs with the most luminescent palette, in corals and fish, that I've seen anywhere, including the Andaman Sea.
Turquoise waters above, bommies below, and all around a panoply of hard and soft corals. Grappling for descriptions, I end up with little but similes - about coral fans, lace, pin cushions, feathers - that ineptly suggest we're in a submarine haberdashery shop.
Fusiliers, snapper, plump grouper, parrotfish and wrasse zip by. A sea turtle scuds across the sandy floor of a channel. And this is just at 10 metres. Below me a coral-encrusted wall drops three times that distance into inky depths that flicker with scores of brilliant fish.
While Komodo National Park is regarded as one of the world's finest diving destinations, there are plenty of other dive and snorkel sites on Flores, including many close to Labuan Bajo.
Farther afield, the 17 Islands Riung Marine Park in West Flores and Maumere Bay (with more than 30 dive sites) in East Flores offer hugely diverse reefs, plus the bonus of no crowds.
We go ashore again, this time on Komodo Island, via a large pier built at Loh Liang for cruise ships, although none are in port today.
Komodo National Park was founded in 1980 and received UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1991. At its headquarters we meet another guide, Arman, who leads us on a long hike through not only the domain of dragons, macaques and other creatures, but also of some 128 bird species.
"In fact, about 50 to 60 per cent of the species here we share with Australia," he tells us as we stand, fittingly, on Sulphurea Hill, named for the sulphur-crested cockatoos so familiar in both Australia and Indonesia east of the Wallace Line.
Following Arman through sparse bushlands of tamarind trees and tall sago palms, we come to an earth mound where the female komodos bury their eggs, up to 30 at a time.
After nine months' gestation, the newborn dragons, just 30 centimetres long, immediately climb a tree to avoid being devoured by their relatives.
We watch a large dragon prowl slowly through the scrub. Its gait and physique resemble a nightclub bouncer doing push-ups. Just add a tux and call it "Sir". Moving with its body raised from the ground, we can see the massive musculature that ripples below its chain mail-like body armour.
A mature dragon (they can live to about 50) can swallow a pig whole — and then not eat for a month while it digests its ample dinner. Then, someone asks the inevitable question: "Has anyone been eaten recently by a dragon?" Arman recalls only two people perishing here. About six years ago a young village boy who wandered off a jungle path was bitten and succumbed to his wounds.
The only tourist he mentions is a Swiss who became separated from a cruise ship excursion in 1974. When a head-count later showed him missing from the walking group, a search party set out. The only leftovers were his sunglasses and camera.
There, indeed, be dragons.
The writer was a guest of Plataran Hotels & Resorts.
Garuda Indonesia flies from Sydney and Melbourne direct to Denpasar, Bali; round trip fare from about $761 and $727, respectively, including tax. Garuda has daily flights to Labuan Bajo, Flores; round trip fare about $208 including tax. On Garuda flights you can obtain your tourist visa ($28) on board.
Flores-Komodo phinisi excursions, for divers and non-divers, on Plataran Felicia and its sister boats range from day trips to three and five-night excursions. Prices vary according to itinerary, occupancy, vessel and activities; plataran.com. Flores is a year-round destination, although some mainland sites are difficult to reach during the December to February monsoon; some dive sites might also be affected.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE
Three islands - Kanawa, Seraya Kecil and Bidadari - are easily reached from Labuan Bajo. They have sandy beaches, basic bungalow accommodation and small restaurants, but bring your own snorkelling gear.
The unique, web-shaped rice fields known as lingko are found at Cara village near Ruteng in East Manggarai region. Note: Flores roads can be rough and road travel slow.
KELIMUTU CRATER LAKES
There are extraordinary, tri-coloured crater lakes in Kelimutu National Park, Ende region, Central Flores.
CACI WHIP FIGHTING
This symbolic whip combat ritual (described as "a bloody game") takes place in Manggarai region during the Penti feast of mid-November.
Hand-woven Florinese ikat, made with all-natural materials, is the best local souvenir, along with an inevitable carved, wooden komodo dragon.
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