Komodo Dragon on Rinca Island

Komodo National Park: One of the Great Wildlife Spectacles on Earth

Indonesia, Wildlife Photography

Coral Komodo

When I was a kid in school learning about Komodo dragons, those mythical giant lizards that live on a few tropical islands far off in the exotic land of Indonesia, I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that I’d go there someday. I dreamed of traveling to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. When my imagination was really stretched, I thought going to Europe would be cool. But Indonesia and Komodo? Never.

So, as our boat departed Labuan Bajo at sunrise and took off towards the tawny, rugged islands that are home to Komodo dragons, I felt a certain excitement that is sometimes lost on a jaded traveler. We were going somewhere special.

I could lie to you and talk about our death defying adventures encountering giant lizards or regale you with tales of  swimming with sharks, but the fact is that our trip to Komodo was a soft adventure that was more akin to a vacation than to traveling. We often try to see unique cultures or trek to far off places. This trip was pure fun, with snorkeling, short hikes, camping on the beach, hot Bintang beer and days spent cruising around on the water. Our two days in Komodo were the highlight of our two months in Indonesia, and that is saying something because we had two awesome months in Indonesia!

Trekking with Dragons

Our first stop on the boat tour was Komodo Island, where we joined a park ranger for a short hike around the forest in hopes of spotting dragons. I had read several blogs that described these hikes as underwhelming, with Komodo dragons lounging about near the ranger station in an almost zoo-like setting. Perhaps we got lucky, because on the two hikes we did in the forests we saw some cool stuff.

During our walk on Komodo Island we came upon a water hole surrounded by wild boars and deer who were all giving a wide berth to a huge dragon that was greedily lounging in the water supply. As we stopped to watch the dragon, our guide asked how many others we could see. After a closer look around, we saw four dragons that hitherto had been invisible to us. (Note: Komodo dragons are exactly the same color as the trees.)

The next day on Rinca Island, we saw a mother Komodo protecting her nest. It was near a spot where a park ranger had been attacked by a dragon recently. This added a touch of excitement to the hike.

For a wild animal, one bite from a Komodo dragon is fatal due to the toxic brew of venom and bacteria that gets in the bloodstream. It usually takes a few days for the animal to succumb to death. We saw an emaciated water buffalo with a large bite-mark on his hindquarters just waiting to die. The Komodos hunt independently but will join together to feast on the carcass as soon as the buffalo dies.

Perhaps the highlight of the dragon safaris came at the very end. A girl in our group inadvertently got too close to a dragon who was sleeping under a building at the ranger station. In nature’s universal way of saying STAY THE #$%^ AWAY!, the dragon opened his mouth and hissed angrily. Of course, we all ran towards him with our cameras.

Komodo dragon attack

Komodo’s Underwater Spectacle

After our morning trek, we cooled off with a snorkeling excursion around Pink Beach. Although Komodo is home to dragons, rugged mountains and drop-dead gorgeous beaches, the real highlight of our trip was the underwater world. If I were an underwater photographer, in this space you’d see photos of sea turtles, manta rays, toothy barracudas, kaleidoscopic corals, and myriad species of colorful fish. Alas, I am not. I am lucky that I didn’t drown, so taking photos in addition is out of the question.

So you will have to take my word that snorkeling was the highlight of our trip. (For great underwater photos, check out Indah Susanti’s blog. She is an Indonesian with awesome undersea photos.)

Komodo dive spot

The currents were raging around this tiny island. As a result, the protected side was a refuge of thousands of fish.

Komodo snorkeling.

Komodo snorkeling spot.

Camping on the beach

At the end of day one, we retreated to our campsite where we ate fish, watched a stunning sunset and drank hot beer around a campfire. Pure bliss. At night we pulled our beds out of the tent and slept under the stars. The moon and stars were so bright, it was almost difficult to fall asleep.

Camping near Komodo National Park

Camping near Komodo National Park.

Campsite on Komodo

Not a bad place to camp.

Day 2: More Swimming, Dragons and a Village Visit

The morning of day two brought close encounters with manta rays and a swim to a spectacular deserted island – you know, just another routine day in Komodo. One of the guys in our group had the brilliant idea of doing a jumping photo on the deserted island. This may be one of my favorite pics from the trip.

Komodo National Park

Flores XP Facebook

The tour company liked our photo also.

Shortly before sunset, we visited Rinca village where we toured the town and visited the school. All the houses are on stilts, you know, to keep the dragons out. The lone exception is the school which is protected by a concrete wall. Unfortunately, a few years ago (before the wall was built) an eight-year old boy was eaten by a dragon at school. (As if middle-school didn’t suck enough, with bullies, acne, puberty and demanding teachers, these kids have to worry about getting eaten by a dragon too!)

It was an interesting visit to the village that gave us a glimpse into the lives of the people that call these remote islands home.

At sunset we anchored near a mangrove island that is home to thousands of bats. Each night at dusk, they take flight, going inland to hunt insects. As we waited in the silence, a few bats took flight across the red sky, then a few more, then a few more. Eventually, the squeaking of bats and the beating of wings filled the air.

We set sail for Labuan Bajo under a dome of stars, with bats flying by high overhead. It was a beautiful end to two great days in Komodo. I had no idea that traveling to this remote land would be so much fun.

Rinca island sunset

Waiting for sunset and the bats near Rinca Island.

Rinca island bats

Thousands of bats flying out of the mangroves at night.

What are some of the great wildlife spectacles you’ve seen? 

Note: we did our tour through Flores XP, a company owned by a Italian-Indonesian couple that I’d highly recommend.

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

59 thoughts on “Komodo National Park: One of the Great Wildlife Spectacles on Earth”

  1. Fabulous post Jeff. I’ve also recently read other posts about Komodo – I so want to go there! Love the jumping picture! And the one of the dragon with its mouth open is very cool.
    Great wildlife spectacles? I hardly know where to begin – King penguins on Tierra del Fuego (http://alisonanddon.com/2013/12/15/feathers-ferries-tierra-whatever-and-penguins/), flamingoes, vizcachas, and vicuñas in the High Desert of Bolivia (http://alisonanddon.com/2014/01/20/unboliviable-the-high-desert-and-altiplano-of-bolivia/) and kangaroos and native parrots in Australia (http://alisonanddon.com/2015/03/05/family-and-kangaroos-and-christmas-and-cockatoos-a-little-bit-about-canberra/). All these encounters were so special and memorable because we were able to get so close to the wildlife in their natural environment. And of course I have to mention snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef – just extraordinary, though like you I don’t have any pics.

    • Alison,

      Those are some interesting pics for wildlife spectacles. The penguins on Tierra del Fuego must be cool. I saw the flamingoes many years ago – that is really special. Thanks for sharing.

  2. A beautiful adventure in an amazing spot! I’ve never seen a Komodo Dragon before, but I’m a huge reptile fan, so I’m sure it would be a very pleasant encounter. Thank you for the virtual tour! Lovely pictures 🙂

  3. Simply awesome! Most of your adventures I am happy to live vicariously through your post, but this is one that flat out makes me jealous! Wonderful images as always. Love the jumping shot. How many times did you have to shoot that to get everyone off the ground?

    • Laura, I’d highly recommend a visit. It is a 2 hour flight from Bali, which I am afraid will make it over-run in a few years. For the jumping shot, I think we nailed it the first time, but I know we took about 10 shots just to be sure.

  4. What an amazing adventure! I love when travel takes us to places of discovery & the unbeaten path. Must admit I wouldn’t want to live in close proximity to those dragons though. YIKES!!

    • There is a legend about the dragons that make them sort of sacred, so they don’t kill them. But yes, it is close proximity and it does lead to deaths sometimes.

  5. Wow Jeff the photos of the Komodo dragons are eye popping! I love the jumping one for sure but I can’t help but go back to review what looks like something out of Jurassic Park!

  6. Just found your blog and excited to read more—sounds like you have some fantastic stories! (Loved the bear spray one, btw!) Komodo looks amazing, and a bit of a far cry from Alaska.

    • Komodo is a lot different from Alaska, and that is why we went. We wanted somewhere warm and cheap and Indonesia was perfect for that!

      I have been working on part 4 of the bear spray stores – I’m glad you enjoyed. 🙂

      • I’d just love to go to Indonesia sometime. There’s an article in the latest issue of Alert Diver that’s all about Komodo, so between that and your post it’s got me super interested!
        Looking forward to Part 4 of the bear spray stories!

      • I think Komodo is a great place to dive, but the currents are really strong there. We snorkeled in three other locations besides Komodo and they were all four really special, so you can’t go wrong in Indonesia. Plus, it is a cheap country that is safe with super friendly locals.

  7. This is fabulous, Jeff! I loved your shots of the dragons – and how you got one with his mouth wide open! Bama and I weren’t as lucky on Komodo Island: we only saw deer and wild boar but we did spot a number on Rinca. They are surprisingly graceful and beautiful, aren’t they?

    I would have liked to do the village visit as well… one of the rangers told us about that poor eight year old boy. He even mentioned growing up and seeing Komodo dragons chasing goats outside his house!

    • James, after reading your posts, I was happy that we had a different experience. I felt lucky for that. They really are beautiful and majestic now that you mention it. I can’t imagine growing up in such proximity to something that might eat me!

  8. What a great adventure! I feel badly for the buffalo that got bitten and was just waiting to die. What would happen if a tourist were to get bitten on the tour? Would he/she suffer the same fate? The camping looks awesome!
    You have definitely put Indonesia on the travel wishlist for us. Thanks for sharing!

    • Alison and Matt, Indonesia is easily one of our favorite countries, and I’d put it ahead of all its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Definitely go!

      I think if a person got bitten and got treatment right away, they’d have a good chance of surviving, assuming they weren’t eaten on the spot. They harbor a bunch of bacteria that infects the wound, and new research suggests they have some venom also. Nasty stuff.

  9. Those dragon shots are wonderful especially the hissing kind! I’ve seen nothing like that – those creatures are in a league of their own.

    • The animals we have in Alaska and Canada are furry, have claws and sharp teeth, but nothing as dinosaurian as those. That hissing was intense. I was hoping it would eat someone in our group so I could get some dramatic photos. 🙂

  10. Kat says:

    Great pics..I went to Komodo in 2009 but unfortunately my photos from the trip were gone – the USB drive was corrupted, etc – so I only managed to salvage 3 pics from the trip 😦 Reading your post brought back good memories – thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Kat, that is so sad about your photos! I know someday I will have the same issue and that is scary.

      I bet Labuan Bajo has changed a lot in 5 years. We should get some investors and build a hotel there now – that place is about to boom!

  11. Jeff, well…here are just more great shots and dialogue as usual. You have a great way with words, and a natural eye for photography. And luck…that open-mouthed dragon! I truly love the jumping shot…yeah, not your normal artistic style, but such fun. I went to Komodo in 1987. My greatest memory was a komodo pie (like cow pie…poop) that was all white from the calcium undigested (and a few bits of bone). Also, now that you asked about wildlife spectacles: my latest post is about the condors in the Peruvian Andes, 10-foot wingspans, no claws, no open-mouth photos. But I do mention poop.

    • Those Komodo droppings were crazy, right? Bone in the poop shows just how they bit through and digest anything. I wonder how much the area has changed, and how much it will change in the near future.

      Thank you for the kind words – I appreciate it.

      • I’m a little worried. My comments to you, and my last post, and other comments to others have all centered around some scatological preoccupation. But yeah, no wonder that animal has survived on the planet so long—millenia. Did they have a “viewing” area when you were there, or you just walked into the forest? When I was there, they had a circled area stringed off for us to stand inside! One strand of string between us and those teeth. Not many people spent the night (I did), three or four small boats at the dock.

      • I thought you were joking, but when I googled “poop in India,” your blog was first on the list!! I’m going to google “poop in Peru”…see if I come up.

        The dragons: for me, the one or two at the ranger station were like tame. It was the ones in the jungle that were hungry and active…and scary. I did get close enough to touch one’s tail (stupid stupid stupid, but I couldn’t help myself, and I was behind the string!!??). The scales were hard, like metal or saddle leather.

      • Dude, you are really not smart for touching a Komodo tail, but that is kind of bad ass also. Thank you for the report on the texture of the dragon tail.

      • Not smart…tell me about it.
        I recently saw a video of a guy creeping up to an alligator, his arm outstretched to pet the thing on the head! Alligator leaped up, grabbed his arm, hung there. The guy had a smile for a moment while his arm was inside. Then he didn’t have a smile. Fade to black.

      • I spent a few years in Florida, and I saw people do some really stupid stuff with gators, almost as stupid as what they do with bears and moose in Alaska!

  12. I, too, remember watching wildlife docs about the Komodo dragons and feeling like they were just otherworldly…like something so remote that I’d never be able to see them. Haven’t yet, but from your post, it seems completely worth doing. Amazing images, and the colour of that water…WOW!

    • Shelley,

      I’d highly recommend Indonesia and Komodo to anyone. It is a spectacular area, and not hard to get to nowadays as there are direct flights from Bali for about $100.

  13. Seeing Komodo Dragons in the forest, sleeping under bright stars, snorkeling with mantas and all those amazing sea creatures, witnessing flying foxes foraging for food, visiting a village with friendly children…Jeff, it couldn’t be better than that!!! I’m glad you and Kristi had a really great time in Komodo, since it’s a land you long dreamed to visit.

    Unfortunately no one was crazy enough to get close to any dragons when we where there. Hence no photo of the dragons with their mouth wide open. 🙂

    • Bama, Komodo is really special. It was our favorite place in Indonesia, and that is saying something because we loved Indonesia.

      The girls didn’t see the dragon, really none of us did, until it started hissing. Scary!

  14. Girl Gone Expat says:

    Amazing amazing landscape, beautiful beached and so much wildlife! Stunning! Love the hissing Komodo dragon picture (hopefully taken with a telephoto lens). I am starting to think I should also find job that allows me to travel 4 months each year!!

  15. We didn’t make it to Komodo Jeff. It was certainly on the list, but as you know, it isn’t a place you just drop by. As always, excellent photos. ~James

    • Thanks James. It does take some effort to get there, but they just finished a new airport so it is much easier. I will be interested to see what happens over the next 10-20 years. It might be a great place to buy land as a tourist boom is on the way!

  16. Hard to compete with the amazing Komodo dragon stories and photos – what an incredible experience. Sounds like you also had a great tour operator – thanks for sharing.

    • Carol,

      Komodo was absolutely one of our favorite all time places. We did have a great tour operator. I think they are the only people who do camping. I will be interested to see it in 10-20 years as it is on the cusp of booming.

  17. kiefer07 says:

    This is quite an unreal animal. I was writing a blog post about it for an online travel agency called Nezasa and learned that it was described as fire-breathing and 23 feet long when it was first sighted by outsiders in the early 1910s. One of the more fascinating blog posts I’ve had the pleasure to write and hope you’ll take the time to check it out: http://blog.nezasa.com/blog/2015/04/16/komodo-dragon-worlds-largest-lizard/

  18. Ah… you’re bringing back great memories to me ❤ This has also been one of my favourite places in our world trip! The underwater world is spectacular and the landscapes do compete with Ireland, just add a bit more sunshine and blue to the sea;) Fantastic!

  19. Pingback: Trekking Rinjani Tips and Advice | Planet Bell

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