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May 28, 2019, Indonesia

On a dragon’s trail

Wu Shangyuan meets the famous — and venomous — inhabitants of Komodo National Park

Wu Shangyuan

There is just something about the mighty Komodo dragon that draws a nature enthusiast’s interest.

It could be its sheer size — adult males can grow up to 3m long and weigh more than 100kg — coupled with scaly skin in a shade of greenish grey.

Or perhaps it is the creature’s steady gait as it moves confidently among trees. It can be swift when it spots a prey, speeding up to an astonishing 20km per hour.

Maybe its reputation as a ferocious hunter is the reason. It can deliver a fatal bite that can spread close to 60 types of bacteria to kill its victim, and is known to eat its own kind. So intrigued am I by the Komodo dragon that I made its habitat on the Indonesian island of Komodo one of my must-see destinations.

And when my travel partner and I visited it earlier this year, we were treated to more than a few sightings of the creature.

Island of dragons

When we arrived in Labuan Bajo, a town on the eastern side of the island of Flores (about 1.5 hours away by boat from Komodo National Park), we spent our first day there checking out available day trip options.

We picked two tour packages (which amounted to more than $200 per person) — a full-day tour with six stops, including Komodo Island to see the Komodo dragons; and a half-day tour with a stop in Rinca Island, where sightings of these creatures are known to be plentiful.

During our trip at Komodo, we noticed that the two guides in our group were armed with long walking sticks — forked at the end to ward off potential attacks. We knew then that we would be in for a wild ride.

We caught our first glimpse of a mighty male Komodo dragon lazing under the shade of a tree at a watering hole. One of our guides gestured for us to approach the creature quietly and we moved forward till we were a safe distance from it. He also reassured us that it was not in an attack mode, otherwise it would already be standing up and raising its head.

We were then given the go-ahead to squat behind it — at a distance — for that mandatory photo everyone takes with the dragons on Komodo. The dragon shuffled a little as our group bustled around it, but it did not pose any danger to us.

Rinca Island showed more signs of dragon activity. We saw one swagger down a small hill in a confident strut, tongue slithering out every so often, to lie down next to two other dragons.

Then we caught a rare sighting of a female dragon digging into the soil to build a nest — with help from two scrubfowls in a seemingly unlikely team effort. Helping Komodo dragons in this digging endeavour is actually in their nature, even at the risk of being eaten by them.

We were lucky to witness that on our first trip to the island, and it made our trip all the more memorable.

Action-packed adventure

Following the trails of Komodo dragons aside, we also went on excursions to pristine beaches for snorkelling activities, and hiking trips to view scenic spots.

One of the places we visited was Padar Island for our hiking adventure. During our boat ride there, we took in gorgeous sights of the surrounding mountainous islands in luscious shades of green. But that was just the preview of better things ahead.

As we gathered pace during our ascent up the neatly carved steps, we were treated to a spectacular view of the islands of Komodo National Park. Each island is home to a mountain range that rises skyward from the clear waters.

Besides hiking, we went swimming in the clear turquoise waters at Pantai Merah (or Pink Beach), one of seven pink beaches in the world. It was lovely to dig our toes into the pink sand and go snorkelling to admire the extensive coral and sea life.

Another beautiful sandy paradise we visited was Taka Makassar, a sandbar that seemed to rise miraculously from the waters, splitting the turquoise sea with a strip of white sand — perfect for sunbathing.

Also noteworthy was Manta Point, where we could choose to don life jackets to swim with manta rays. Strong swimmers among us dived and took selfies with them on Go Pro cameras.

Whether on land or at sea, we had a wonderful time getting to know more about wildlife and basking in the beauty of Mother Nature.

GETTING THERE

■ When you fly from Singapore to Labuan Bajo, be prepared for connections in Jakarta or Surabaya, with a two- to four-hour layover.

Traveller’s tips 

■ When encountering the Komodo dragon, do not make sudden movements, run, or use sticks to prod it.

It might seem lazy, but it can strike suddenly and fatally when provoked.

■ Be sure to look for half-day tours that offer an evening stop at Kalong Island where you will see thousands of flying foxes take flight to Flores Island in search of food.

■ You may want to plan a visit soon as the Indonesian government may be closing off Komodo island for a year in 2020 to start a conservation programme.

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