Komodo, land of the dragons

By Nancy Gresham
This item appears on page 26 of the December 2013 issue.

My husband, Ron, and I are inveterate travelers, having been on 67 cruises and all seven continents. We also are enthusiastic viewers of nature programs and have long been fascinated by the huge lizards on the island of Komodo in Indonesia. So when we found that “The Great Barrier Reef Experience” cruise with Holland America Line (Seattle, WA; 877/932-4259) stopped there, we immediately booked it through our travel agent.

The 16-day cruise aboard the Volendam, Nov. 24-Dec. 10, 2012, left from Sydney and made stops in Australia at Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and Darwin as well as in Indonesia at Komodo Island, Lombok and Java, ending in Singapore, where we opted for a 4-day extension in that city. 

Komodo dragons and one of the guards. Photo by Ronald Dohanick

Including airfare from Tampa, Florida, and the three nights in Singapore, the cruise cost $12,529 for the two of us.

Komodo is one of many islands off the coast of Flores in the Lesser Sunda Islands. The ship offered two tours: one to a stilted fishing village and the other to see the dragons in the national park. Shore excursions cost about $150 per person. No one could go ashore unless booked on a tour.

Komodo is not a pretty island and lacks the lushness of its neighbors. It is dry, rocky and dusty, with a few scrubby trees and bushes and some palms. The only tree of any value is the kapok tree, whose fluffy pods are used for stuffing life jackets and the like. Komodo Island is, without a doubt, the hottest place I have ever been.

Disembarking from tenders onto a long pier, we were divided into groups of about a dozen people each. Wandering away alone was strictly forbidden. 

We had a guide and three guards who carried long, 2-pronged wooden poles. Although the poles did not look like they could be very effective against so large a lizard, we presumed they knew what they were doing, since they haven’t lost a visitor in over 20 years. (On that occasion, a Swiss tourist left the group to roam alone. Only his sunglasses and camera were found.)

We walked down a rough, dusty path for about a quarter of a mile and came upon a group of eight dragons resting in the shade. There are no fences on the island and we were allowed to get within 20 feet of them to take pictures. They seemed very lethargic, well fed and not the least bit interested in us, thank goodness.

These dragons were about eight feet long and dark greenish black. Komodo dragons can weigh up to 300 pounds. Their jaws and tails are very powerful, and they have razor-sharp teeth and talons. 

Komodo dragons

They feed on deer (which were wandering so close to us that we could almost pet them), goats and even on each other. Their saliva contains a deadly bacteria which quickly infects and disables their prey. There is some speculation that they may also be venomous. They will not usually attack unless they are hungry or provoked, and they can run up to 12 miles an hour.

These dragons are the last of their kind and are, of course, protected. Outside of Komodo and a few neighboring islands, they have been extinct for millions of years. We felt like we were looking at small dinosaurs. The island also boasts poisonous snakes and 6-inch-long spiders, though we did not see any.

We walked about a mile in almost an hour, stopping frequently as the guide gave us information about the flora and fauna. When we got back to where we had started, the villagers had set up tents and stalls and were aggressively selling souvenirs and T-shirts. 

The tour was quite an informative and interesting adventure which we shall never forget. It is, however, not for persons with mobility problems. 

Although Komodo was our main objective, we loved the entire cruise itinerary. The coastline and islands of eastern Australia were beautiful, and the Australian Outback had giant termite mounds and beautiful waterfalls. On Java, the monumental Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the fantastic island city-state of Singapore is not to be missed. 

Yes, it required a very long flight (ours made longer by a 7-hour layover in Dallas), with several airport changes, but the trip was well worth it.

A word about the Volendam — from all outward appearances, it is a beautifully appointed ship. The food and service were very good, and the entertainment was excellent. 

Unfortunately, there were constant electrical and plumbing problems, with toilets either not working or overflowing. Even more serious, the ship lost power between Java and Singapore and we drifted in the wrong direction for 1½ hours — with no electricity, no flushing toilets and no air-conditioning in the equatorial heat — before the problem was rectified.