Chasing the Dragon
November 1982. "Take me to your leader." I'd always wanted to say that. Now was the perfect time. I'd woken up on a boat, an outrigger, moored on a beach on the island of Komodo. A Komodan (?) man was sitting on his haunches waiting for someone on the boat to wake up.
We'd arrived in the middle of the night. We being the captain, his deckhand and me. I'd found the captain in a bar in Labuhanbajo, a port on the island of Flores the night before. He was heading from Flores to the next big island, Sumbawa, and for a fee, would stop off at Komodo.
We left late afternoon and stopped early evening at a very small island and moored on the stilts of a hut by the coast. A friend or relative of the captain lived there. We dined with him. That is him and us eating rice with boiled eggs and boiled water (still warm), a pack of kids sat in front of us giggling and all the women in the separate kitchen at the back of the hut. This was a Muslim island close to Catholic Flores that we'd just left. As the special guest I got two eggs
instead of one.
The man on the beach took me through the one street of houses on stilts, animals and waste underneath, to the head man's hut. Here I was charged £20 for a young, live goat to be taken to the Komodo dragons as a bait. It was explained, by an English speaking assistant (son?), not the wizened head man, that I also needed to pay for someone to slaughter the goat, then someone to assist him in carrying it. Plus a guide. And a protection person to ward off any aggressive dragons. The people of Komodo are descended from the original convicts who were exiled here......
Off we went along the beach goat hanging upside down from a stick between two carriers. I felt like a great white hunter with his entourage. Reaching a wooded area a little inland we came to hut where the solitary park warden lived. He had to be paid too.
We were heading for a natural pit from where it was safe (ish) to watch the dragons. Halfway there one of the dragons ran across the path in front of us. Not a big one but it was.... FAST!
They normally hunt water buffalo and deer but in the last 40 years there have been 24 attacks on humans and 5 fatalities. At the pit there were already a couple of dragons waiting around. The goat was quietly dispatched and two villagers threw rocks at the dragons to drive them away so they could hang the dripping goat up.
They soon came. Six of them. some big, some massive, fighting to tear the goat apart. They looked like scarred land versions of great white sharks. Lizards acting like a pack of wolves.
There was nothing left of the goat. The biggest dragon ate the head, horns and all, and stormed off with the rib cage at the end.
We left after I'd taken countless pictures, some from only a few feet. I shooed the entourage away, swam in the sea and drank water.
Back on the boat expecting to arrive at our destination at 3pm. (It turned out to be 7pm).
More rice and shady brown water which I drank anyway. In the moonlight we hit the waves and got very wet. I put my rain top on and settled down to try to sleep.
I was soon out of this slumber when the boat began to sink. Frantically the captain took over the bailing from the boy. I noticed the outriggers were two feet below the water. I wondered whether I should take my green bag (valuables) and attempt to swim to shore. I looked for the nearest land. It was miles away.
The boy went past me and threw all the firewood overboard and then dug stuff out of the bottom of the boat and jettisoned that too. We made it, but only just. I was drenched and gave up on the idea of sleep. Arriving at another stilted sea side village, I paid the captain as he peed in the water below a hut. Grumpy and damp I walked from port to the small town of Sape reflecting on the experience. I hadn't been afraid. It was like being a in a film scene. Not unhappy that they'd had to work for the inflated price they'd charged me to take to me to see the Komodo dragons - a priceless experience. Sumbawa had a very different, Indian-like, muslim feel to it. Especially in the grey moonlight with Islamic music and calls to prayer coming from several sources. I found a Losman to stay but needed a beer too. Not the hot water I was brought. I asked a group on the verandah where they'd brought their beers and soft drinks. Closed they said - have some of ours. I did. Lots. It was good to talk again. They were a ferry crew, protestants due to some German connection, from Northern Sulawesi.
The captain sent a jeep for more beer.
It was warm but welcome.
Not so much the next morning.
This was in 1982. It took me two weeks travelling.
These days you can make it a day trip from Bali.