On our last full day, it was finally time to see the dragons. The main entry point is the Komodo Ranger Station, where there is a large population of Komodo dragons. For millennia, they coexisted with the local Ata Modo ethnic group, whose name translates to “forest dragon people”. Believing themselves to be descended from the same ancestral set of twins as the dragons, the Ata Modo have long left some of what they harvested from fishing, hunting, and farming for their reptilian kin. When the park was established in 1980 to protect dragons, fishing and hunting were prohibited within its boundaries. Since then, many Ata Modo have worked in tourism, as guides and crew members on luxury boats. Komodo, along with Borobudur and Bali, is a hotspot for Indonesian tourism, and there’s no doubt the park brings much-needed income to East Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. But there is still work to be done to balance the needs of the local ecosystem and the local economy.
Our guide, Rahman, his face etched by sea and sun, smiled wickedly as he told us that even with their stubby legs, dragons can run at 20 km/h, slaughter adult water buffaloes and smell blood from more than 10 km away. He waved a forked stick to ward off invading reptiles, but I always kept my eyes peeled for unexpected ambushes.
Although the paths we walked were well marked, the surrounding jungle seemed primitive. Strange sounds echoed here and there. Shadows slipped behind the huge trees. We saw wild boars, jungle birds, cockatoos, a sea eagle circling the cloudless sky. But no dragon. Then, as we reached the beach, Rahman shouted. A young buck, about seven feet long, his claws sharp, his jaws dripping with drool was heading our way. It was exciting to be so close to a living Komodo dragon, even though we were the same distance from the gift shop.
Before starting our final cruise to Labuan Bajo, Yoyok suggested a final swim in the marine life-rich waters around Gili Lawa Darat Island, a few miles north of Komodo. I surrendered to the waves as I drifted over the reef, looking through my diving mask. Below was a dizzying spectrum: flashes of harlequins of cobalt and hot pink, gold and silver, while clownfish, trevallies and parrotfish zigzagged in a flash. And, gliding serenely through the wake like an ancient scrimshawed monolith, a critically endangered white hawksbill seared past.
I got back on the tender, delighted with joy and the feeling that the world still conceals some secrets. I had come looking for the dragons but ended up finding more.
Indonesia by phinisi
The peak time for a cruise in Komodo National Park is from May to September, outside of the monsoon season. Vela also visits several other Indonesian destinations throughout the year, depending on weather conditions and availability.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.