Indonesia 1985: Difficult journey to Komodo



Indonesien 1985
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the world’s largest lizard, growing to 3.5 metres long and weighing up to 135 kilograms. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the world’s largest lizard, growing to 3.5 metres long and weighing up to 135 kilograms. This monitor lizard was unknown to science until the early 1900s. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, this species has a very limited distribution, found only on the small Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rintja, and Padar, and possibly in a very small area on the western tip of Flores. Secondly, these small islands were uninhabited until the 1800s, when convicts were deported to Komodo – a dry, inhospitable place with a very limited supply of freshwater. The prisoners were allowed to bring women to the island, and in time a small settlement, Kampong Komodo, was established on the east coast.

To their horror, these people found that giant monsters were living on the island, eating their goats and scaring the wits out of their children. They called this monster boaya darat (’land crocodile’), but when they related stories about these ’crocodiles’ to outsiders, nobody was willing to travel to this dry, remote island, just to look for some crocodiles.

Pearl fishermen, who visited Komodo in the early 1900s, spread a rumour that real dragons were living on the island. (The English may have thought the same thing, when they named it.) Around 1910, reports concerning a ‘giant lizard’ became so persistent that the Dutch director of the Botanical Garden on Java, Mr. P.A. Ouwens, managed to persuade the governor of Flores to send an expedition to Komodo. The result was that Mr. Ouwens was able to describe this gigantic lizard scientifically in 1912.

In my boyhood, I read articles about these monstrous lizards, dreaming to see them myself. Now I have the chance. My companion Jette Wistoft and I are staying on the island of Lombok, and from here it will only take us a few days to travel to Komodo.


Bus race
From Ampenan, on the west coast of Lombok, we board an early bus, leaving for the east coast. On our way, rays from the rising sun lend a pink glow to the peak of the volcano Rinjani – at 3,726 metres altitude the highest mountain on this island. In Labuhan Lombok, we obtain tickets for the ferry between Lombok and Sumbawa, and also for the bus between Alas and Bima, on Sumbawa. On board the ferry, we talk to a man from Flores, who informs us that, due to repairs, the ferry between the town of Sapé and Komodo has been cancelled for an unspecified period of time. We must go to Flores, and from there try to get some means of transportation to Komodo, he says.

In Alas, the ferry passengers disembark and board a line of busses, waiting on the pier. Almost all of them leave at the same time towards Bima, and it seems that all the drivers participate in some kind of competition. They drive like madmen on the narrow road, seemingly obsessed with the thought of getting first to Bima. I ask our driver to slow down, but a few moments later the racing bug seems to take control of him again. Finally, when we almost end up in the ditch, our Indonesian fellow travellers start shouting, and from this moment the driver is able to control himself. We continue our journey at a more sensible speed.

Now we can concentrate on enjoying the landscape. Our trip takes us along the northern coast of Sumbawa. At first, rather dry grassland dominates, with paddy fields in more fertile areas. We observe many grazing horses, water buffaloes, and Bali oxen – a domesticated form of the wild banteng ox (Bos javanicus), which lives in forested areas of Indochina and Indonesia. However, it is almost extinct in the wild. (Read more about the banteng ox on this website, see Animals: Animals as servants of Man – Cattle, banteng and yak.)

Further east, the mountains are clad in lush forest, and the coast is quite rocky, alternating with mangrove swamps and littoral meadows. Darkness is falling, a full moon partly illuminating the landscape.



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The highest mountain on Lombok, the majestic volcano Gunung Rinjani (3,726 m), here seen from Labuhan Lombok. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Outrigger canoe with a sail, near Alas, Sumbawa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Endless negotiations
In Bima, a group of curious, but friendly people gather around us in the dark, and a police officer gets hold of a horse cab, which brings us to a losmen (hotel). The following day we learn that there is no ferry service between Bima and Flores, so we travel by bus to the town of Sapé, a little further east. The landscape along the road is rocky, the vegetation dominated by low shrubs – reminiscent of the garigue vegetation around the Mediterranean.

In a losmen in Sapé, we meet an Englishman and two Swedish girls, who, as it turns out, have been negotiating with a boat owner, who is willing to take them to Komodo, and back again, at a much lower price than the usual charter fee, which is around 400 US $. We join them to the harbour, where the skipper agrees to take us all to Komodo, the final price being 17,000 Rupiah (c. 23 US $) per person.

But now the bureaucratic machinery starts grinding. Police and harbour authorities maintain, that our skipper doesn’t possess a license to carry tourists on board his boat. Meanwhile, a German couple and their Indonesian guide have joined us, and, as it turns out, the guide is a true master of the art of negotiating. After endless discussions, we are finally permitted to leave on board the boat. Meanwhile, the sum of 30,000 Rupiah has changed hands under the table.



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Horse carts are an important means of transportation on Sumbawa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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This woman is selling chillies at a market, Bima. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Young Muslim woman, Sapé. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Boat journey to Komodo
Leaving Sapé, we pass many islets with fishing villages, before entering the open sea. We are headed for a tall, grass-covered island between Sumbawa and Komodo, the latter of which can be glimpsed in the distance. Initially, our skipper intended to sail north of Komodo, heading for the only village on the island, Kampong Komodo, which is situated on the east coast. However, as there is a powerful, south-going current, he decides to head south of the grass-covered island, and of Komodo itself.

Dolphins are frolicking in front of the boat, and many red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) swim about on the water, picking tiny insects from the surface. Several species of seabirds pass over, among them brown booby (Sula leucogaster), sooty tern (Sterna fuscata), and streaked shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas).

We are now close to the west coast of Komodo, which we follow southwards. The climate in this area is quite dry, causing most of the island to be grass-covered. Here and there are small groves of lontar palms (Borassus flabellifer), but forest is limited to the more humid gorges.

Now the sun is setting behind pink clouds, and soon darkness falls. An hour or so later, the moon rises behind Komodo. We are now south of the island, passing islets and skerries. Sometimes we seem to be heading straight towards a rock, but the old man, who keeps a lookout in the stern, always manages to spot an opening that we can pass through. The wake is filled with glinting phosphorescence.

Time passes, and most of us are more or less dozing, when we finally, around 10 P.M., arrive at Kampong Komodo, a cluster of huts, situated in a sheltered cove. The Indonesian passengers disembark, and a lot of cargo is unloaded. The boat then continues a bit further north along the coast, to the national park headquarters. It’s past midnight, before we have been registered and given rooms.



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One of the seamen on board the boat, which we hired for our trip to Komodo Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Indonesien 1985 
Most of Komodo is grass-covered. Here and there are small groves of lontar palms (Borassus flabellifer), but forest is limited to the more humid gorges. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Feeding Komodo dragons
The Komodo dragon feeds on carcasses and the like, but is also able to catch the occasional live prey, e.g. bearded pigs (Sus barbatus) or rusa deer (Cervus timorensis). When tourists arrive, the national park staff will usually use slaughtered goats as bait, to make sure that the tourists see the giant lizards, so the previous night we have bought two goats. (Today, this practice has been banned by the national park authorities.)

We get up early to eat breakfast. The only ‘meals’ available in the restaurant consist of rice or noodles, but the guide, who is accompanying our German fellow travellers, is very generous, distributing left and right from their ample supplies. In the company of a national park ranger, and two men to lead the goats, we walk along the beach, a tame rusa deer following us like a dog. Along the shore, a whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) and two or three common sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) are feeding.

We then leave the beach, making our way into the forest, through shrubs of jujube (Ziziphus), Albizia, Hibiscus, and others. Here we encounter a number of bird species, e.g. green imperial pigeon (Ducula aenea), black-naped oriole (Oriolus chinensis), and the endangered yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea). After another two or three kilometres, we arrive at a clearing, where a large sign announces the following: ”Dangerous area – Watch out – Komodo crossing – Be silent!”

We have reached the feeding area, where a safe enclosure has been constructed for the tourists. (On several occasions, the large lizards have attacked – and eaten – people.) In a dried-out watercourse, a large Komodo dragon is already waiting, and others soon come running. They look so slow and clumsy, but are in fact surprisingly fast and agile, easily able to outrun a person.

Now one of the goats is slaughtered and hung up in a tree, whose branches reach out over the riverbed. The dead animal is lowered, and immediately the giant lizards start fighting furiously to get the best parts of the carcass. They quickly manage to open the belly, gorging themselves on the intestines.

By now, eight of the greedy monsters are gathered around the carcass. Two large lizards, more than 3 metres long, each grab a leg, while an even larger fellow manages to twist off the head of the goat and swallow it. Only tidbits are now remaining, and the other goat is hung up in the tree. When, in no time, the monsters have finished eating this one, too, they lie down in the hot sand, with distended bellies, to start digesting. Now they don’t have to eat for several weeks.

The largest of the lizards are greyish-brown, with pale, diffuse rings down the tail, while younger animals are more colourful, with pale spots on the hindneck and down the sides of the neck, and yellowish rings on the tail. A small one, which the rangers manage to catch, has even brighter colours.



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As we were walking along the beach, a tame rusa deer (Cervus timorensis) followed us like a dog. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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At the feeding area, we were met by this sign. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Eight of the grotesque monsters were gathered around the carcass. They quickly managed to open the belly, gorging themselves on the intestines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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The largest of the monsters twisted off the head of the goat and swallowed it. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Return trip to Sumbawa
Our companions have already had enough of the grotesque show. They want to return to the headquarters and start the journey back towards Sumbawa. I feel that we have hardly arrived, and would like to go on a hike into the hills. But as we cannot afford to charter a boat on our own, we shall have to follow suit.

On our return journey, we travel north around Komodo, where we have a fine view of the islands Rintja and Padar, which are also part of the national park. The strong current is against us most of the way, and our trip to Sapé lasts almost 12 hours. A highlight on the way is two beautiful white-bellied sea-eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster), soaring over us. Darkness falls, and the night is warm, with plenty of heat lightning.



Sven Gillsäter (1959). Öga mot öga, en reseskildring. (In Swedish)



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised October 2017)