Destination: Komodo National Park, Indonesia

AFTER soaking up the high life in Bali, many tourists set their sights on the altogether more remote Komodo National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the few places Komodo dragons still live in the wild, and around 20,000 visitors find their way here every year.

Komodo National Park

A Komodo dragon. Pic: AP.

There are several islands in the park, with the major facilities on Komodo and Rincah (pronounced: ‘reen-cha’) islands. The reptilian celebrities are formidable beasts. They feast on deer and even buffalo, and a 2009 study revealed that their toxic bite is actually the result of venomous glands rather than septic saliva. These creatures run, swim and dive faster than humans.

Needless to say, visitors have to exercise caution. Stick-wielding guides are mandatory, and all guests have to purchase an Aetna insurance policy at the ranger station. That said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of place, and all it takes is common sense and a wide berth to safely view these amazing animals.

A Day in the Life
If you only have one day to see the park, you’ll get the most out of it by booking a well-organized tour from Labuan Bajo. Rincah Island is closer than Komodo, so it makes more sense as part of an express tour. Rincah has more dragons per square mile than Komodo, so spotting here is easiest.

After the boat docks, it takes around 15 minutes to walk to the ranger station. You’ll have to sit in on an orientation meeting where you learn about the park, the dragons and the dangers in between. Visitors pay a three-day entrance fee (no discounts for single-day visitors) before they’re assigned a guide.

The best place to spot a dragon depends on the animals’ recent behavior and the season. Your guide will know where to go and will brief you at a big map of the park. Banugulung viewing area is a good choice if you want to take photographs and don’t have much time.

Best of the Rest
The park’s name ensures the dragons are first on everyone’s mind, but the underwater world in the park is just as remarkable. Some visitors come on live-aboard boats and spend the entire holiday diving or snorkeling, and for the right kind of traveler, this is far more exciting than stomping around the island in search of lizards.

A day is barely enough time to see it all, but efficient tour guides can make it happen. Boats are all-inclusive and take one to two hours to reach dive sites from Labuan Bajo. Single-day tours usually squeeze in two dives, but they can also arrange some combination of snorkeling and dragon-spotting, depending on the group’s requirements.

The astounding diversity of marine life around Komodo includes whale sharks and manta rays. Three- to five-day tours are worth it for anyone who can spare the time.

Komodo National Park, Kanawa Island

Komodo National Park, Kanawa Island. Pic: Wikipedia.

Hidden Gems
For divers, there are two excellent submerged rocks that are close enough to the surface to reap the benefits of that tropical sun. Even at low tide, Angel Rock and Dead Man’s Rock are under a meter of water, so you could breeze right past them without knowing what you’re missing. Chances are, your guide will take you to one of these diving spots, but it’s worth checking to make sure.

On land, something you really don’t want to miss is dragon feeding. Rangers do this on a daily basis, and you’ll most likely catch it as long as your group sets out early enough in the morning. Be advised: watching these creatures tear into a goat carcass is not for the squeamish.

There are basic guesthouses on Komodo and Rincah islands, though even that sounds like an overstatement. These are rock-bottom bungalows and bunkhouses operated by the park. They’re on stilts as a safety measure, but the dragons can still climb the rungs of the stairs. Few visitors stay in the park, opting instead to spend the night offshore on a live-aboard or at Labuan Bajo.

The live-aboard boats can usually accommodate up to 16 passengers not inclusive of crew. The fare is not bad when you consider everything that it includes. The best boats have air-conditioned rooms, comfortable beds and lounging areas.

Otherwise, visitors stay at Labuan Bajo. Basic guesthouses cost just a few dollars with a fan, or about twice as much with air conditioning. Nicer hotels housed in colonial building are also in the area. These are priced on par with basic hotels in the west, but they feature better service and posh amenities.

Komodo National Park at night
Suffice it to say that there is no nightlife on Komodo and Rincah islands. This is not the kind of environment a person wants to venture out into after dark. Life is different for passengers on a live-aboard boat. The biggest boats are outfitted with recreation quarters where guests can get together for drinks and conversation. Your tour guide may stock drinks and extra snacks for you to purchase, so be sure to ask before setting out.

Life at Labuan Bajo is more in line with the traditional island getaway. Hotels operate their own restaurants and bars that stay open relatively late, but there aren’t any discotheques in the area. Instead, tourists usually hang out a beach bar to watch the sunset. Morning comes early for those about to visit Komodo, while bed-time can’t come early enough for those who’ve just gotten back from a multi-day diving tour.

Retail Therapy
Komodo National Park isn’t exactly developed, so there’s not much to shop for here. Die-hard shoppers can spend half an hour at one of the gift shops attached to Loh Liang or Rincah ranger stations. All that’s available here is tourist kitsch like tee-shirts and badges for your backpack. The one item that really stands out is wooden Komodo dragon figurines that are carved by hand.

The same kinds of souvenirs are available at Labuan Bajo for less, but there’s something to be said for buying a carving of a Komodo dragon from Komodo National Park. At least a portion of the money feeds back into the park this way. Merchants from Komodo Village also set up stalls on the beach, giving you a chance to refine those bargaining skills.

Indonesia Komodo National Park

Give the reptiles a wide birth, they can outrun a human. Pic: AP.

Ferries set out from Flores or Sape, with a few coming all the way from Bali. Flores is the most popular launching point, because it has a minor airstrip at Labuan Bajo with flights to Bali. Connecting from Flores to Komodo National Park requires a little more than two hours at sea.

In the old days, visiting Komodo meant you had to have a private yacht or an expense account, or at least know someone who did. These days, it’s easy and affordable to join organized tours. Independent travelers have to accept their fate in this case, as there’s no practical way to get here or see the island apart from some variation on a package tour.

That said, it is possible to work out your own details. You’ll have to either fly to Flores from Bali or else endure the 36-hour ferry. From Labuan Bajo, you can charter a boat to Loh Liang ranger station on Komodo Island where you can hire a guide. Trying to see the park without a guide is neither prudent nor legal. These dragons occasionally charge, after all.

Basically, you have two options for getting around: your feet or a boat. Realistically, it will be some combination of the two. If you’ve booked a live-aboard boat, you’ll spend plenty of time shuttling around. Day visitors usually hike to the Banugulung viewing area and back.