Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Here be Dragons...

Komodo National Park
The zodiac slows to a stop and we jump out, grabbing the sides we start hauling the inflatable up onto the beach. In the shade of a makeshift gazebo three men watch as we heave the boat up through the gentle surf and the skipper secures the anchor into the sand. He raises a hand, waddles up and sits with them. Another zodiac pulls up along side and assorted cabin boys, deck hands and a couple of kids from the galley jump out, football boots tied together by the laces swinging from their necks. A football is punted onto the beach and an enthusiastic and surprisingly skilful game of four a side breaks out. The skipped looks on ruefully. A torn Achilles tendon from another game on the beach a few months ago had ended his playing career. He smiles as I pass him and the welcoming committee. "No dragons here", he says playfully, "you'll not have to run" and gestures to my knee and the livid scar from surgery a few months prior, "..hopefully". "I'll out run you", I say, and he laughs translating for the three men of the welcoming committee, who smirk. One of the men, describing himself as the harbour master and sporting a rather natty uniform poses for a photo and another who must be in his 70's shimmies up a tree to pick fruit for the boat. We leave them to lengthy negotiations for the fruit and a prodigious, if mysterious, bag of green leaves and walk the kilometre or so up hill to the water filled volcanic caldera that crowns Satonda, tiny offerings of bleached coral and stones hanging from trees by twine marking the way. Wishes and prayers to the spirits of the still waters that fill the volcano.

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.

Komodo Dragon
The visitor centre on the island of Komodo is a solid wooden structure with a raised verandah where you can order a thick powdery Balinese coffee and hang out with the national park rangers. The rest of the dive boat have gone up the trail with a guide, a young guy armed with a forked stick for fending off any inquisitive  dragons. I'd been warned that the trail was hard going in the heat and that I was better off staying with the crew given my knee was still healing. In a whispered aside I was told that I probably stood a better chance of spotting a dragon that way anyway as the resident population were quite used to humans and often lumbered past the coffee stand. Drinking the bitter dusty coffee and sharing a smoke with the skipper and one of the dive guides, an irascible Brummie by the name of John, we didn't have to wait too long for a two metre female to stroll past the verandah.

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.


Daniel said...

This is an excellent post... I love the panoramic pictures, and hope I can swing seeing a Komodo Dragon someday. Thanks for sharing.

Pakistan Society of Nuclear Medicine - PSNM said...

ohhh yup great post.and lovely pics.

tahoe treasure chest said...

What a bunch of beautiful creatures, thank you so much for sharing this!