Komodo National Park is home to the world’s largest lizard, the famed Komodo Dragon. Getting there is an adventure in itself but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery and the chance to walk among these giant reptiles.
For most, the journey will begin with a flight or boat ride to Labuan Bajo. Labuan Bajo is a small, hard-scrabble fishing village located at the western end of Flores in the Nusa Tenggara region of east Indonesia. Tourism is relatively new to the area. Choices for accommodation are more limited that developed areas so plan ahead with a reservation if you don’t want to chance it. Some opt for cruises and stay on boats as an alternative. The town has some restaurants and a few bars but its main street is mostly lined with tour agencies offering multi-day cruises, dive excursions and day trips. The pricing was all over the map but itineraries and schedules were fairly uniform. Boats vary between fast motorboat which can get you to several places in a day and more traditional fishing boats that are much slower and have shorter range. In any event, the tour offices are largely middle-men that simply sell a ticket to a waiting boat but provided little flexibility unless you wanted a private tour. Prices for private, small or larger group tours and fast compared to slow boat ran from about $25 to $300 per person. The low end of pricing would be a slow boat, large group ($25 or around 400,000 Indonesia Rupiah per person to fast private which topped out at around $175 or 2,500,000 Indonesia Rupiah per person). The whole idea of bargaining with a middle-man with limited access to information about the boat and the tour (they change itineraries based upon group preferences apparently was a huge turn off to me. Not a tour guy. The idea of being herded to a bunch of sites one after the other with little time to enjoy them isn’t my thing. I went a different route and simply headed to the waterfront in order to hire my own boat. Took me less than 5 minutes to find a slow boat that would take me everywhere I wanted to go for the next three days for a total of 2,000,000 which was three days of touring at less than $150 for two people. Typical american that I am, I supplemented that generously with tips. The boat was comfortable and the captain was amazingly cool bringing food and snacks every day (he was a junk food aficionado like me!) which made the long boat rides really enjoyable!
Getting there is half the fun!
Seriously. I was suspicious. The boat ride from Labuan Bajo to Komodo National Park is about 2 to 3 hours. I’ve been on long boat rides and usually lose interest about an hour in. The trip to the national park by boat is one of the most visually stunning trips imaginable. Green islands with sandy beaches and clear turquoise water are the backdrop to vistas that seem to go on forever. The national park is actually made up of several islands but the three big ones, Komodo, Rinca and Padar are where the dragons live and the biggest draw for visitors. With that said the boat ride might end up being the main event for some since you can simply stop at one of hundreds of deserted beaches along the way to relax, snorkel or enjoy a swim.
First stop Rinca Island
Rinca is the clsest of the islands with several trails where you can explore the park’s wildlife including the dragons. We stopped here for the medium trek but ended up doing the long one. The ticket for two including all taxes and guide was around $20 or 300,000 Indonesian Rupiah. You cannot visit the island without a guide. Both Komodo and Rinca have this stipulation. Padar allows you to visit without a guide. Which is sort of scary but that’s a whole different blog post! The guides are knowledgeable and pleasant. They all carry a dragon stick to ward off any curious ones who might get too close. They also provide some good information about dragon behavior and their environment while having amazing instincts for finding the dragons that might be hiding in the brush. When we visited we saw about 10 dragons on our two hour walk as well as deer, buffalo, monkeys and wild pigs. I doubt we would have “seen” half of what we saw if we were on our own.
The first introduction to the island is a visitor center where several large dragons congregate. From the start you get the feeling that it is clearly their island and people are just visiting. despite the fact that there are a few towns there. The dragons look slow and sluggish but if you get to close (learned that the hard way!) they can move amazingly fast despite their bulk and demeanor. One great lesson I learned from that experiences is how clever the dragons are. I was going in for a shot of a dragon’s claw. The dragon seemed relaxed or asleep with eyes closed and claw turned up before leaping towards me. The guide informed me that that’s how they hunt. By tricking prey into thinking they aren’t paying attention. From the entrance you have a choice of three treks, short, medium and long. We sort of just played it by ear. The guide suggested we start with the short or medium and if we liked the experience could just take the long path at the right time. Needless to say we opted for the long one which took us close to three hours. The short and medium ones can be done in a half hour or hour respectively. Bring water. The place is hot. And while the bulk of the walk is heavily forested and shady there are some parts that are unprotected with strong sun.
While they weren’t visible at every moment, we observed enough of them to the point that they felt omnipresent. Depending upon when you visit you can see a lot of newborns hiding in the trees. We saw mostly juveniles (1-3 years old) as well as a few larger, older ones. They are fairly solitary from birth and cannibalistic so you tend to see them singly but will join together to take down large prey like deer or buffalo. Komodo’s hunt by stealth. They wait patiently for prey to come their way and pounce. So be careful about entering the jungle or going off the path if you do visit.While bites and attacks of humans are rare they do happen. Usually due to poor decision-making on the human’s part and not the result of dragons acting aggressively, For the most part they seemed pretty non-aggressiveand more interested in hiding and waiting for their next meal than anything else. At one point we came to a tree with a series of skeletons that had been hung up after they were picked clean and left by dragons.
Seeing the rest of the park
We opted to see the park in three days on three separate boat rides. That allowed us a day to explore Rinca, another to see Komodo and one day to trek Padar. The tours don’t allow that flexibility. Private cruises do which might be ideal since we were constnatly boating back and forth between Labuan Bajo. Considering how beatiful that boat ride was, I’m not sure it was a huge sacrifice to do it that way. If time is an issue it might make sure sense to do a fast boat group tour. Really depends upon your budget and preferences.
In retrospect the evenings back in Labuan Bajo ended up being a bit of a pleasant highlight as we discovered restaurants and places to see the epic sunsets that unfold in Labuan Bajo’s bay.