How To Not Get Eaten By Dragons
Perhaps having St George as our patron saint provides us English with a natural interest in dragons. However, George, it seems, did not have great success at ridding the earth of the scaly reptiles, for the komodo dragon exists to this present day on a small collection of islands that make up the Komodo National Park.
Via a series of turbulent flights, I found myself on the docks of Labuan Bajo, a small town on the Indonesian island of Flores, making my own preparations to find wild dragons.
I was negotiating with local sea captains for passage to the island of Rinca, a small island within the national park, but one that I had heard was particularly dragon dense. I bartered with several captains, some unwilling to parley with the price, others offering boats that looked like they would plummet into the depths the moment they were untethered.
A worthy vessel
After speaking to several captains, I found a man who offered the perfect balance of price and quality of boat. That is not to say that his boat inspired confidence, with its flaking paint and decrepit appearance, but it passed my naïve and inexpert evaluation. Moreover, the boat captain was the kind of character you would expect to find in Moby Dick, standing on deck with a harpoon in hand whilst being lashed by a tumultuous sea. The wrinkles on his face were immense chasms of experience, as if each one was the result of salt being carried by wind or rain, only to penetrate the skin and crack and dry in the sun like some great erosion. Through his steely gaze and composure, I knew I could trust this man to take me to the dragons.
I boarded the creaking vessel, the engine twitching as the key turned in the ignition. The labored splutter and stunted purr it produced chipped away at any confidence I had mustered for the three hour sea crossing that lay ahead. The boat veered from side to side in the swell. The barnacle encrusted hull shuddered as it breached oncoming waves and crashed into the effervescent ocean. Like churned milk, the frothy ocean lurched us forwards and onwards. Beneath the rotting, seaweed swathed keel lay a sapphire sea and in front of me, the fabled dragon islands.
A dance of dragons
I could see no dragons from my craft, just a rocky outcrop of raw, jagged land separating the otherwise indistinguishable blues of sky and sea. My short lived relief at traversing the hazardous corals and boarding the makeshift jetty connecting to the mainland ended when I saw my dragon-hunting guide ambling towards me. He carried a two pronged stick by his side.
“What’s the stick for?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“In case dragon gets aggressive,” came the reply, confirming the worst.
Intrigued and naive, I questioned further. “Is the stick strong enough to hold back an adult dragon?”
“If I can hook his neck.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then dragon gets us.”
We walked past an ominous pile of skulls as we began our search. Skulls of water buffalo, deer and macaques formed a morbid, ivory pyramid; fallen prey to the mighty dragon. Anxious and excited, I entered a wild, sun scorched land. Strange trees, topped with pineapple heads of bladed leaves obscured views of precipitous cliffs and azure seas. The island was a primeval lost world and I was half expecting a tyrannosaurus rex to lurch across the horizon.
The island was still and silent other than the portentous sound of leaves scratching and grinding against one another as gusts blew in from the ocean. As butterflies danced across natural puddles formed in the prints left by hoofed animals, it was easy to forget that I was far into the interior of the island now and deep in the territory of the world’s largest lizard.
I had read numerous stories of komodo dragons snatching children and goats from terrified local villages. My guide did little to allay my fears, relaying to me with no sense of irony that just two weeks previous a dragon had snuck into a guide’s office and attacked him. He survived, but was flown out on an emergency flight for medical attention.
A water buffalo wallowing in thick mud relaxed my guard. Knowing that they were prime dragon prey and seeing this one so unperturbed led me to believe that the area was absent of dragons. How foolish. Squat and thick set, a dragon emerged. Encased in spiny, rugged scales, it was a truly primordial beast and a relic from a bygone era. Like the fletching of an arrow, the dragon’s tongue shot out snake-like as it scanned its surrounds. Its sturdy legs seemed to do an entire rotation with each step and its brawny shoulders and enormous jaws left no doubt as to who the alpha hunter on these islands was.
In catching the scent of the dragon, the water buffalo hulked its gargantuan body out of the quagmire it had submerged itself in. In its panic to flee the scene, it struggled out of the mire, slipping and falling to its knees and causing the muddy water to bubble and ooze into the surrounding, sun-baked clay. As it regained its balance, it tilted its head so that its menacing horns pointed forwards, and loped off into the distance.
This left us standing alone in the wilderness, with a dragon four meters in front of us and a stick between us. I looked into the dragons vacant, reptilian eyes. They were devoid of emotion, an empty abyss as if staring into the infinite black of a bottomless well. They provided no warmth or desire or character, only detachment.
Gaining no insight into the dragon’s intentions, all I could do was stay still behind my guide. My heart raced and my mind surged, but above all time slowed as I became lost in the dragon’s black saucer eyes and its intricate scales that adorned a hide seemingly too large for the dragon’s skeleton, causing folds and creases in the dragon’s skin.
After assessing us the dragon slumped to the floor. Fortunately, it had either eaten recently or was simply too hot to hunt this day and my guide’s stick remained motionless by his side, but ever-ready should it be needed to provide whatever little resistance it could muster. We backed away, returning to my ramshackle craft where my captain lay in the shade, ready to take me back to Labuan Bajo.
I felt glad that St George had overlooked this small and unique dragon utopia. I experienced, if just for a day, what it is like to be transported to a world of legend, where walking amongst dragons becomes reality.