Zaandam, those lizards are big …

It’s fitting that my close encounter with the Komodo dragon has taken place as we herald in the Year of the Dragon.

As you will have read from my earlier blog posts, we’ve been sailing from Sydney to Singapore on board the Holland America Line cruise ship, Zaandam.

One of the motivating factors for me in undertaking this cruise was the opportunity to see the Komodo dragon in its natural habitat.

It’s been a long-held dream of mine to go to Komodo but this remote island in Indonesia isn’t the easiest place in the world to get to. When I saw that it was one of the ports of call for the Zaandam, the cruise had my name written all over it.

Why the fascination with this creature, which is really just an enormous monitor lizard? Well, for starters, it’s the largest lizard on the planet, all 70 kilos or so of it. Some have been known to grow up to 3 metres long.

It’s an impressive looking animal, being a relic of the dinosaur era with a ferocious looking tongue that it spits out constantly. It emits a toxic venom that can kill an adult (and it’s a cannibalistic animal that eats its own young). Needless to say, the young ones spend a lot of time up in the trees to avoid being eaten.

The Komodo dragon feeds mainly on water buffalo, deer and other prey – we saw a couple of deer sitting nonchalantly in the sun, oblivious to the fate that would most likely await them.

It will generally steer clear of humans but let’s not forget it is a wild animal, so there’s no guarantee. I can’t begin to tell you what a rush of adrenalin it was to see this mammoth animal rushing up the path toward our tour group, before it was herded out of the way by a ranger armed only with a long forked stick.

“Get off the path,” roared the guides before we were just as suddenly ordered to get back on the path as the animal decided on a detour.

Interestingly, we were warned in a letter to all passengers that we should not go ashore at Komodo if we had open wounds or cuts, or if female guests were experiencing their menstrual cycle. This is because the animal has a keen sense of smell that can detect blood for several miles.

According to our affable guide, Yuyen, there are about 1200 Komodo dragons still in existence on the Indonesian islands, though Wikipedia puts the number between 4000 and 5000. In Yuyen’s experience, you’re actually more likely to see them on neighbouring Rinca Island.

But it’s to Komodo Island we’ve come and so here we are, getting up close and personal with not just one, but six, of these creatures in the wild.

Later in the day, we visited Kampung Komodo, the only village on the island, populated by just one or two thousand people who lead a pretty well subsistence lifestyle, living in ramshackle houses on stilts near the water’s edge (or in many cases with the water flowing right in underneath, so that their fishing boats can be easily launched).

They survive almost entirely on fishing and life is extremely tough for them, especially since the declaration of Komodo National Park, as it has limited the resources they can gather. So as with many communities around the world that are similarly challenged, tourism provides a much-needed source of revenue.


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