There are few expeditions more disquieting than visiting Indonesia’s Komodo Island. Approaching by boat, it appears staggeringly beautiful – the archetypal tropical hideaway. But doubts about the wisdom of what you’re about to do surface as soon as you step ashore and discover that you’re sharing the beach with the local deer population: if they’re too frightened to spend much time in the interior, is it entirely wise for you to do so?
Your unease only grows at the nearby national park office, as you’re briefed about the island’s most notorious inhabitant. From the tip of a tail so mighty that one swish could knock a buffalo off its feet, to a mouth that drips with saliva so foul that most bite victims die from infected wounds rather than the injuries themselves, Komodo dragons are 150kg of pure reptilian malevolence.
They are also – on Komodo at least – quite numerous, and it doesn’t take long before you come across your first dragon, usually basking motionless on a rock or up a tree (among an adult dragon’s more unpleasant habits is a tendency to feed on the young, so adolescents often seek sanctuary in the branches).
So immobile are they during the heat of the day that the only proof that they’re still alive is an occasional flick of the tongue, usually accompanied by a globule of viscous drool that drips and hangs from the side of their mouths. Indeed, it’s this docility that encourages you – possibly against your better judgement – to edge closer, until eventually those of sufficient nerve are almost within touching distance.
And it’s only then, as you crouch nervously on your haunches and examine the loose folds of battle-scarred skin, the dark, eviscerating talons and the cold, dead eyes of this natural-born killer, that you can fully appreciate how fascinating these creatures really are, and that there is nothing, but nothing, so utterly, compellingly revolting on this planet.
Most trips to Komodo (www.komodonationalpark.org) are organized from Labuanbajo, on the coast of neighbouring Flores.