The Dragon’s Lair: Visiting Komodo Dragons

Dragons don’t just exist in the Game of Thrones. They can also be found on a few islands in Komodo National Park, just off the coast of Flores in Indonesia. Revered by the locals and enmeshed in lore, this protected species might not spew fire or wreak destruction from on high, but they certainly pack a deadly bite.

About the Dragons

Komodo dragons don’t swim if they have to. They are like giant solar panels, soaking up the heat of the sun as they go about their day. At night, they curl up in caves, holes or under tree roots, seeking warmth. A dragon will only swim to another island if there’s a fire and they have to escape, look for food or mate with a female dragon. Otherwise, it’s near-suicide for a dragon to brave the cold water.

As the apex predator in their domain, the dragons often resort to eating their young in order to keep the population stable. Baby dragons know this instinctively from the moment they hatch so they race up trees to hide, often for their first few years. If they have to come down to eat, they will cover themselves with faeces to hide their scent. Up in the trees, they snack on geckos and small insects.

Fast Facts 

Komodo dragon fossils in Australia date back over four million years ago and are estimated to have been up to 9m in length. Female dragons have the ability to reproduce through parthenogenesis, which is when a female can reproduce without fertilisation from a male. The Komodo dragon has an incredible sense of smell and can detect a dead animal from almost 10km away.

Visiting the Dragons

A visit to the dragons is usually paired with snorkelling and diving in the azure waters surrounding the islands. A variety of marine life is on display, and you can spot hawksbill turtles, manta rays and the odd hammerhead shark if the currents (and fish) are in your favour.

The real stars of the show are the park’s namesake komodo dragons themselves. Measuring up to 3.7m in length, they can move at speeds of over 20 km/h – more than fast enough to catch deer, wild pigs or even a human.

There are around 3,300 komodo dragons spread across the five neighbouring islands of Flores, Gili Dasami, Gili Motang, Komodo and Rinca, with the largest numbers found on Komodo and Rinca.

The geography of the park’s outlying islands is vastly different from the mainland (ie. Flores). At first glance, the hills of Komodo Island are like a miniature landscape out of the late Jurassic period. Covered by low scrub and occasional trees, the view from afar is a sprawl of low peaks and rugged valleys covered in soft brown moss.

Short, medium or long treks can be organised on each island, and after paying for all the different permits, it costs around Rp250,000 (roughly SGD$25) per visit. However, dragon sightings are not a given, particularly during mating season.

If you are lucky enough to spot a dragon, local guides are experts at helping you get selfies that look like you’re practically petting the dragons.

Climbing Kelimutu

You can easily combine a trip to Komodo National Park with a climbing trip to Mt. Kelimutu. Accessible via the town of Labuanbajo, the volcanic mountain is located on the eastern end of the island. While not the tallest peak on the island (the honour goes to Mt. Kelibara at 1,731m), it is famous for its crater lakes that change colour depending on the time of day.

While it’s a popular island for liveaboard circuits, the island’s lush interior, smoking volcanoes, spectacular rice fields and hidden beaches have so far managed to hide from large-scale mainstream tourism.

Depending on when you go, the colours range from blue to green, and sometimes white, black, and even red. Scientifically, the colours of the lakes change due to several factors including the sunlight, microorganisms, reflections of the walls, as well as varying chemicals.

From the town of Moni, the easiest access is an 11km drive up – via a shared truck or motorcycle taxi (ojek) – to the main carpark, followed by a 1km walk (about 30 minutes) to the foot of the 127 steps leading to the edge of the crater. You can also walk the entire way up, which takes roughly 3 hours.

Getting There

There are daily flights from Denpasar (Bali) or Jakarta to Labuan Bajo on Flores. If you’re travelling overland, there are daily buses from Ende, or you can hire local transport over the rutted road from Bajawa or Moni. Coinciding with the beginning and end of the dry season, April-May or October-November are the best times to visit the park.

As the main access point for Komodo National Park, numerous boat operators depart daily from Labuan Bajo for both day-trips and multi-day liveaboards with some operators also offering accommodation options such as eco-lodges just outside the national park.

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