I dunno how much MSG Baro put in that dinner, but it must have been a lot; I was sleep-talking all night long (the brothers, who were also sleeping on the deck, would have either found this incredibly amusing or incredibly frustrating, but they didn't let on either way).
After a banana pancake breakfast, we break camp and putt up the coast of Komodo, past the village to the Park HQ. I'm ferried ashore where I pay the entry fee and get given a guide. I wish I could remember his name, he was pretty good. We set out on a 4km walk, and not far in we see a great monster of a dragon on the path ahead of us. He takes off quickly, so powerful and muscular, and so unlike the slovenly, lazy creatures you see at zoos, that it instantly redefines my understanding of them. I begin to wonder if going out into the scrub with a man armed only with a forked stick is such a good idea!
We see no more dragons on the walk, but we do see drongos, friar birds, orange-footed scrub fowl ("megapode birds"), lesser sulphur-crested cockatoos, orioles, green-winged fruit pigeons, brahminy kites, crows (my first crow in over a year!!!), koels, a flying lizard (!!! - but not flying, just scampering up a tree), wild boars and rusa deer (there was also a herd of deer asleep on the beach when I arrived). The landscape is very much like the Many Peaks Ranges in the Townsville Town Common - tropical savannah and scrub, with monsoon thickets in the gullies. Dominant species include Tamarindus, Murrayia paniculate
(apparently native), Comessonia, Cebia, Sterculia, Annonia, Zyzyphus, Tabernaemontana
, and the Corypha
palm. There's also the small, soft, spinifex-looking grass that was in Townsville, whatever that was. Also, orchids and cycads.
Lolling about in the shade back at the Park headquarters is where I see - and get up close and personal with - my next two Komodo dragons. Crouching down beside them, closer to them than they are long, is a scary experience and one that definitely gives you a feel of their power. Particularly when one decides to pull himself up and walk right past you!
It's about this time that my guide finds out that I'm a "ranger" on Christmas Island. And he actually knows of the place, though because of the refugee situation and not because of the crabs. He takes me over and shows me to all the other guides, and makes me show them all the photos of the place, and of course, the ketam kelapah. They love it! Before leaving, I buy two small wooden dragons, carved out of hibiscus. I'll take my chances with Customs.
At 10am we leave Komodo and motor to a desolate beach on a strait between two islands. After being assured there are no sharks, I jump in for a snorkel. The viz isn't great, but the intense colours of the fish and corals puts CI to shame. And the soft corals! I don't see any hard corals at all. They're incredible! But the current racing through the strait is far stronger than I am comfortable with, so I return to the boat pretty quick. Can't wait to go diving tomorrow.
Lunch is the same spread as dinner was last night, and just as large. Once again, I fail to convince Ali and Baro to eat with me, so I gorge myself just to minimise the wastage. A few hours later we arrive at Rinca, which is the complete opposite of Komodo: lush, green hill-meadows dotted with towering lontar palms, interspersed with monsoon forest along the dry creeks. Even the approach is different - no beach; the island is accessed via an inlet full of mangroves, and then a path through said mangroves forest. I convince (and pay) the ranger in charge to let me do a two hour trek instead of the standard one hour. My guide is Abdul. He's a native of Rinca, probably around my age, with great eyes for spotting dragons. Well, for a start there're five milling around under the guides' quarters, but they're resident so they don't count. It's quite amusing to see all five dragons bolt at top speed towards potential foot when a man empties his slops bucket from the verandah.
Having noticed a bit of bellyache bush and chinee apple about, I ask if they have weed problems here. Abdul is unfamiliar with the concept of weeds but understands what they are after I explain. He is under the impression that everything on the island is native. But given the ecological similarity I've already noted between this place and Townsville, and given that a lot of the plants I'm seeing here are weeds in Townsville, I'm willing to bet that not everything here is native.
In the monsoon forest we spot a female dragon guarding her nest from other dragons that would eat her eggs. Then it's up into the lontar palm meadows where we spot a troupe of macaques. They were introduced, and Abdul suspects them of outcompeting the cockatoos and other large birds that were once present here (there are no monkeys on Komodo, hence the cockatoos, pigeons and honeyeaters). On top of the hill it's all short grass and scattered granite boulders, similar to Mt Stuart in Townsville but with the added presence of numerous soaks. It's on these granite slabs that we find big old Komodo dragons, about 2.5 metres long, basking. They let me get right up close for photos, but it's at this time that my video camera battery dies.
For anyone interested in figures, there are about 1,300 dragons on Rinca and 1,100 on Komodo. These numbers are self regulating and if the populations get much greater than this then cannibalism ensues.
I'm just asking Abdul about the buffaloes when one rises out of a soak - it's wallow - to glare at us balefully. There's about 500 buffaloes on Rinca (all wild), and only a handful on Komodo (semi-wild). They get taken at a rate of around 1 a month. The dragons will take the wild horses as well, of which there are about 50. Pigs, deer, monkeys and other dragons make up the bulk of their diet. In the last 20 years there have only been 2 attacks on humans. Rinca is a great contrast to Komodo. It is an example of how the introduction and abandoning of species has rearranged the ecosystem, but to the advantage of the endangered top-predator.
Floristically, Rinca is very different to Komodo - fewer scrub/savannah species (eg. The tamarinds, commesonias and sterculias), and more monsoon thicket species: Cupaniopsis
, lianas, Oplismenus
, etc. And of course, in the meadows, the stately lontar palms.
I ended up getting longer than my two hours, and am very grateful to have had Abdul as my guide. I had wanted to visit one of the island villages, but on Komodo my guide was too exhausted to take me and on Rinca the nearest village is a two hour boat-ride away. So I give to Abdul to box of pencils, pens, exercise books and some Christmas Island stickers and ask him to give them to the school next time he returns to his village.
And so begins the all-too-quick journey back to Labuan Bajo. Sure, it takes two hours, but I'd be happy if it went on forever. Glass-flat seas, afternoon sun striking the imposing green hills, monkeys playing on the shorelines, turtles scooting about the place... At one point the engine breaks down, but Baro swims under the boat and fixes it. As we motor into the Labuan Bajo harbour, the setting sun turns the islands behind us into a cauldron of fire.
Check into the Gardena Hotel, go back to Reef Seekers to reconfirm my booking and then it's off to find some sunscreen. Michael's prediction that I wouldn't get burned was dead wrong. I'm as red as anything and it hurts like hell. One of the larger stores down in the centre of the town has some.
Dinner at the Gardena's restaurant; ginger-steamed fish with chips and avocado salad. Great feed, but takes forever to arrive. Then off to bed.