Komodo dragons are a deadly type of lizard living naturally on just four islands in the world, all located within the Asian country of Indonesia.
To kill their prey, which range from wild boars to water buffalo, the 7.5-8.5 ft-long dragons use a combination of venom, bacteria-ridden saliva, and a sharp, bite-and-pull motion during an attack. Their fossil record & evolution can even tricky to trace because the dragons will eat each other when they get the chance, bones and all!
As of writing this, their conservation status is considered “vulnerable.” Since 1980, two of the four islands they populate have been made into the aptly-named Komodo National Park, along with almost 30 other smaller islands & spits of sand.
The national park is open to tourists, who pay entry fees and are required to hire guides on Komodo Island and Rinca Island (where the dragons are found). If you’re thinking you wish you could hike around on your own, know that a handful of people have actually died from Komodo bites since the park opened. However if bite victims can be rushed by boat to a hospital with proper antibiotics, they do stand a chance at survival.
Oh yeah, and the guides carry around a trusty wooden stick for your protection.
So you still want to visit Komodo National Park? Read on.
How to Get Around
Since the park is made up of about 30 small islands, you have no choice but to take a boat. The main choice becomes whether you’d like to remain based in Labuan Bajo (the Flores town your flight will fly into) and do day trips into the park, or whether you’d like to try out a liveabroad and spend the night(s) on a boat out at sea.
The quality of these boat trips varies wildly. Many travel blogs seem to recommend you book with a boat company upon arrival, after walking along the piers and negotiating, so you can get much better prices. But I strongly recommend against this. For both value and safety reasons, it is important to book with a reputable company, and you’ll know nothing about a company if you book on-the-spot. This is definitely a case where the cheapest option is not the best.
I personally decided to go for a 2-day/3-night private liveabroad. I’ll get into the reasoning more below, but this option allowed me the most flexibility with dates and the ability to prioritize different islands.
The most incredible variety of sights & experiences await you on different islands. I’ve described some of the most accessible & popular below.
Komodo Island is the largest island in the park, and likely the most famous because of it’s name. This is also the island at the center of 2019 rumors that Komodo National Park could be closing down to visitors due to smugglers stealing 41 lizards to sell for $35,000 each. I cannot begin to imagine how anyone could steal a Komodo dragon!
While getting to know my 3-day guide Fidel, I asked lots of questions about the status of the park. He felt quite confident the park would ultimately remain open because tourism revenue is too important to those that live on the islands.
On that note, I was shocked to learn that villages exist on these islands alongside the Komodo dragons! One of my park guides had been born & raised there, and he once had a school teacher take a leave of absence due to a dragon bite.
And speaking of tourism, the locals certainly prioritize sustainability alongside their economic growth. Fidel explained there had been a plan to erect a resort in the middle of Padar Island, but locals were able to protest construction by occupying the airport runway to stop planes from landing. The government agreed to stop the plans after just one day of the demonstration.
Rinca Island is the second island within the national park that holds Komodo dragons. And in my opinion, it’s actually the better one for trekking to find them. The landscape has dramatic rolling hills. There are almost no trees, giving great dragon-spotting visibility, but also strong, strong rays of sun.
As on Komodo Island, upon arriving to Rinca I first paid the entrance fee and was paired with a guide. He selected a walking stick with a v-shaped branch at the top which would serve as our defense. (If needed, the guides would try to catch the dragons neck in the V to hold them back.) You can choose from a short, medium, or long trek. I considered the beating sun and went with medium.
Our guide went on to share fascinating stories about Komodos. The mother lays eggs about 3 feet underground. From the moment the baby dragons hatch, they are on their own. They dig their way to the surface, then immediately take to the trees. I mentioned before that Komodos will eat each other when given the chance, and baby lizards are a prime target. So baby Komodos actually spend the first ~5 years of their lives living and sleeping in trees! Eating birds, eggs, other types of lizards. Until they are too large for the branches and can hold their own on the ground.
Mating season occurs in June & July, when you can witness males having full on battles over females. So when I visited in November, the season’s babies would have hatched recently.
And something incredibly lucky happened!
Our guide spotted a baby Komodo dragon high up in the trees, basking in the sun.
And the thing about babies, of course, is that they grow up. In this case, they grow into 150-200 lbs monsters that live to be 50-years-old. And we saw plenty of those too.
This little island makes up for its size with pure beauty. It has no major attractions other than a short trek uphill for perfect views and impeccably clear water below to then take a dip and enjoy your new-found paradise.
Kelor Island was our very first stop during the 3-day boat trip because of its close proximity to the port in Labuan Bajo. Before that point, I had been worried that I might find Komodo National Park to be overrun with tourists, as many places throughout Europe and even Bali had been. But when we anchored our boat (and hopped in a rowboat to get to shore), there were just two other visitors in sight.
That trend continued throughout my time in the national park. It does make sense considering you really have to go out of your way to get to this slice of paradise — probably fly longhaul to Bali, then take a domestic flight onward to Labuan Bajo, before catching your boat ride. It was just so incredible to have such perfect sights nearly to myself. A lack of crowds allows you to exist much more in-the-moment during your travels.
Flying Fox Island
So I mentioned before that you have a lot of options in how you explore Komodo National Park: day trips, liveabroads, 1 night, 2 nights, group tour, private tour, etc. I originally considered a 1-night group liveabroad tour. However I realized the itinerary would not include visiting Flying Fox Island at sunset, and I knew that was not something I wanted to miss out on. So I went with a 2-night tour.
Every night at sunset, a smattering of liveabroad boats anchor in Kalong Bay of Flying Fox Island. Then the waiting and anticipation begins, for something magical. Clouds of fruit bats, or flying foxes, begin rising up into the air. Simultaneously, as the skies turn deep pink, they all wake up from their daytime sleep. The colony takes to the skies to go find fruit trees on the Flores mainland, where they will feast for the night.
I laid on the roof deck of the old fisherman’s boat and sipped a Bintang (the local beer), and soaked in the magic: about twenty minutes of endless bats soaring overhead as stars came out to join them. The display was intensely mesmerizing and relaxing, and I snuggled up in my blankets and fell into sleep.
Pink Sand Beach
I’m excited to report that Pink Sand Beach is in fact just what it sounds like!
The pale, rosy color is caused by corals breaking off of nearby reefs from waves over time and washing to shore. The hue appears even deeper as the sun sets.
Padar Island is a very popular place within Komodo National Park because of the fantastic viewpoint you can reach by trekking upward from the pier. It’s not particularly long, but it is demanding as it is straight up and mostly stairs. It’s great to do for sunrise, and not as perfect during midday heat (which is unfortunately when I got there!).
From this famous point, you can see three different colored beaches: black, white, and pink. It is just an incredibly beautiful sight. A pinch-me kind-of-a-place.
This is not in fact an island, but an area where the famous manta rays tend to congregate. You’ll find snorkelers and scuba divers sharing the waters, in search of them.
We spent the afternoon scanning the sea. At any sighting of a manta, we jammed our flippers on and pulled our snorkeling masks over our faces before jumping into the water to swim alongside them. They are such huge, majestic animals, and it was so thrilling to race through the waters with them.
After three sightings, we snorkeled over to a tiny nearby island that was another small slice of perfection. It was literally just a spit of sand rising out of the water, with no one else in sight. This was a place straight out of my dreams.
Komodo National Park is literally a place unlike any other in the world — you won’t find Komodo dragons in the wild anywhere else, for starters!
It is an adventurous destination that will reward and surprise you. You can experience reefs brimming with tropical fish, mountains & beaches in a multitude of colors, and the wonder of real-life dragons and enormous bats taking flight. Sunsets are fiery and daytime waters are turquoise. All experienced with the help of some friendly Indonesian guides & a little fisherman’s boat.
The sheer variety of unparalleled beauty in one place felt surreal. And I hope you get the chance to experience it firsthand.
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