|Komodo National Park|
|Tambora wreathed in clouds|
In 1816 the skies went dark across the world. The Year Without A Summer saw global temperatures plummet with crop failures and famine following. There were food riots across Europe and New York's Upper Bay froze over. Mary Shelley was so bored by the torrential rain and chill of that non-existent summer that she wrote Frankenstein and Joseph Smith so hungry that he moved to Palmyra, New York and ended up founding the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints. The cause of this mayhem was Mount Tambora, a neighbour to Satonda in the volcanic chain, scene of the largest volcanic eruption in modern times, an explosion with the force of an 800 megatonne nuclear blast. The violence of that day is wreathed in cloud and jungle vegetation today, with calm seas and twisting clouds over the summit but you can feel the threat in the mountain. Like nowhere else I've been these volcanic islands feel like they are out of time. A glance into the sky and pterodactyls might fly past, squinting into the tree line along the beach you might meet the eye of a raptor or T-Rex himself. There are still dinosaurs here and not just in the imagination.
It's a very singular moment, your first encounter with a Komodo dragon. Some small part of your brain, a tiny shard of genetic memory screams, "Dinosaur!" and there's a nagging feeling you should climb the nearest tree. The largest of the monitor lizards, the dragon has been unchanged for 4 million years. Not quite a dinosaur but it looks old, looks, like the landscape, like it's materialised from another age and that the gulf of time that separates it from you is vast, cold and alien. An off duty guide grabs his forked stick and gestures for me to follow him. He places a hand gently on my shoulder as we approach, indicating we've got close enough. It's mating season and so everyone is a bit frisky and given the startling turn of speed that the animal can turn on when called for, discretion is the greater part of valour in this instance. Up close the animal is untroubled by our appearance, flicking it's vast forked tongue backwards and forwards, teasing an appraisal of us out of the air. Later on the island of Rinca we learn that the animals there are no so tame and are told the story of a sunbathing German tourist dragged away for lunch, a tale so layered with the patina of retelling that I'm pretty sure it's not true. Why are they always German in these sorts of stories? And naked?
Back on Komodo, true to form the rest of the passengers on the boat turned up drenched in sweat not having seen a single dragon. I cheerfully point out one for them that's just appeared by the gift shop. I was not popular.