Off the east coast of Sumbawa lies Komodo National Park, a group of parched but majestic islands, home to the Komodo dragon, or ora as it is known locally, which lives nowhere else. The south coast of the main island is lined with impressive, mostly dormant volcanoes, the north with mainly dusty plains, irrigated to create rice paddies around the major settlements. The two most-visited islands in the national park are Komodo and Rinca.
Most visitors to Komodo Island offload at the PHPA camp at Loh Liang, where you’ll find all the facilities. Although the practice of feeding live goats to the dragons stopped a long time ago, you may still feel as if you’ve stepped straight into Jurassic Park if your visit coincides with big tour groups. That said, the longer treks around the island, especially out of high season, should guarantee you some peace and quiet, and with a good guide you can enjoy the full primordial experience.
The full-day’s walk from the PHPA camp to the top of Gunung Ara, the highest point on the island, doesn’t promise dragon sightings, but it is absolutely extraordinary. It’s an arduous, excruciatingly hot march, but you’ll see scores of unusual plants, animals and birdlife, such as sulphur-crested cockatoos, brush turkeys and the megapode bird, which builds huge ground nests where its eggs are incubated in warm dung. Bring water and wear decent boots.
There are also regular guided walks from the PHPA camp to the Banunggulung river bed and to Sebita, one of the mangrove forests that are vital for providing shelter and food for the island’s populations of bats, birds, crabs and fish.
The seas around Komodo, though home to spectacular coral reefs and an abundance of fish, are laced with riptides, whirlpools, sea snakes, sea-wasp jellyfish and a healthy shark population, so stick to recommended snorkelling locations such as the excellent Pantai Merah. Many boat operators will include at least one snorkelling stop on visits to the island. If you visit between October and January, you may be lucky enough to catch sight of migrating whales.
With its proximity to Labuanbajo, Rinca is now receiving as many visitors as Komodo, if not more, and given that the dragon populations are denser and there’s less cover, you’re much more likely to catch sight of them here. Rinca consists mostly of parched grassland covering steep slopes, drought-resistant lontar palms and huge patches of flowering cacti and other hardy shrubs. The PHPA camp at Loh buaya has just four rooms and a small café. There are a couple of well-trodden treks and at the right time (mornings and late afternoons) you shouldn’t have any problems spotting dragons, monkeys, buffalo, deer and wild pigs.
Varanus komodoensis, the Komodo dragon, is the largest extant lizard in the world. The biggest recorded specimen was well over 3m long and weighed a mammoth 150kg, but most fully grown males are around 2m and 60kg. The dragon usually strikes down prey with its immensely powerful tail or slices the leg tendons with scalpel-sharp fangs. Once the animal is incapacitated, the dragon eviscerates it, feeding on its intestines while it slowly dies. With larger prey, the dragon may simply bite the animal, then trail it until the wound becomes fatally infected from the reptile’s toxic saliva.
The best way to reach Komodo and Rinca is by organizing a trip from Labuanbajo on Flores, although there are also cruises to Sumbawa, Komodo and Flores from Lombok. A host of agencies compete for tourists, so it’s worth shopping around or asking for recommendations. Most people are content with a day-trip to Rinca. A multi-day trip that includes both Komodo and Rinca is worth it if only to see for yourself just how different, scenically, the two islands are. It’s also possible to visit both islands independently by chartering a boat from Labuanbajo, though rough waters can make small fishing boats a bit risky.
The PHPA charges for entry to the park (both islands); in addition there are guide fees. These fees are rarely included in the price negotiated with the boat owner/travel agent, so be sure to bring enough money and plenty of small change. On all excursions around the islands a guide is necessary: they have sharp eyes and excellent knowledge of the area. Treks around the national park should reward you with sightings of wild horses, deer, wild pigs and, on Rinca, macaques, but trekking on both islands can be hot and tiring, so make sure you wear decent footwear and take plenty of water.
There is accommodation on Komodo and Rinca, comprising a handful of simple rooms on Rinca and a fairly nice hotel on Komodo. Some people bring their own food (which the cafés will cook for you) but the island’s cafés serve noodles, omelettes and pancakes.