Here Be Dragons

 

11 people packed into a small outboard powered open boat drifted towards the sandy shoreline. Sat close to the back, I looked out sideways at the smooth, deserted beach as it approached, squinting beyond the white sand, glaring under the tropical sun, at the harsh volcanic rock formations, the lush and thorny trees rising from the dry grassed slopes, the distant rolling hills, and  back even further, the grey looming crowns of old volcanoes. The chatter in the boat was truly international. Four frenchies, a yank, two Indonesians, three brits and a swiss. It was the cockney-speaking guide and expedition leader Gary whose resonant tones broke through and silenced the gossip:

“Now, move easily, and no loud noises. We don’t want to frighten it.” Silence fell on the boat.

I craned my neck to see through the crowd, struggling for a glimpse of the timid creature apparently on the verge of flight.

A large and well fleshed reptile lay half sprawled on the sand, several metres from the sea’s edge. Over six feet long, with heavily scaled skin, and long toes spreading wide from short, muscular legs, the creature viewed us with a head raised high on its long neck.  It peered down its long blunt snout, and a long pale forked tongue slid sinuously out from its closed mouth, lazily tested the air, and withdrew. It looked calm and assured.

The boat turned to the left, under the animated voluble urgings of one Indonesian to the other, and I viewed the animal more easily, as we moved along the shoreline in the shallows. Its skin was dirty green- grey, the eyes small and cold, and the jaw line appeared to house an impressively large mouth, from which it drooled. Its long heavy tail had left a distinct trail, which wound back into the nearby undergrowth.

At the appointed spot, the boat was grounded in the shallows, and our two Indonesians leapt out, brandishing long forked sticks. We all followed, plunging into the sea up to our knees, or gingerly leaping off the bows onto dry land, depending on our footwear.

The creature lurched to its feet, and, lowering its head almost down to the sand, wet tongue tasting the air in a hypnotic pattern, it slowly swayed forward, body lithely curving in time with its straddle legged gait.

We spread out as it approached, and, looking over the shoulders of the stick brandishing nature guides, began taking photos.

Foiled by the brandished sticks, the reptile ceased its approach, and once again sprawled its body onto the sand, viewing us with raised head and haughty look. There are only so many photos that you can take of a totally immobile animal, and just as interest began to wane, events took another turn. Emerging from the undergrowth behind us, further along the beach, came another of the huge reptiles, and its eager stride pattern suggested some interest in our party. The Indonesian guides split up to cover each reptile, and once again photos were taken, and video footage acquired.

 

The third giant lizard emerged from the verdant edge of the jungle just up beach of us. It took a moment to taste the air with a long forked tongue, and then, lowering its head, began lurching purposely towards out party. The guide guarding the first lizard, left the recumbent reptile to head off this newcomer. We gathered a little closer together, and called a warning to one of our group, who was in danger of being cut off by the advancing reptile. He seized a stick up off the beach, and backed away down towards the sea. Attracted by the movement, the third reptile followed him, only hesitating at the waters edge. This forced our French compatriot to rejoin us by wading through the shallows, one eye on the water wary creature lumbering after him.

 

Safe within the loose cordon of two forked stick wielding nature guides, we peered out at the reptiles encircling us. Emboldened by their calm, lazy attitude, our guides went over to the offensive, waving their sticks, and advancing on the reptiles, attempting to drive them back. The reptiles refused to move. One guide seized the tail of the nearest, and gave it a tweak. Enraged or alarmed by this, the animal was up and moving quickly, blundering across the path of another of his kind. Disturbed in turn, this reptile lurched to its feet. Suddenly everyone needed eyes everywhere as the dynamics of our standoff became very complex. Would the animals back off, or attack!? It was then that the fourth creature emerged at the jungle’s edge, paused, took in the situation, and began lumbering towards our tourist group, and its entourage of giant lizards! Our backs were to the sea, and we were surrounded.

 

Gary began shouting in a mixture of Indonesian and English, his words incomprehensible to most of us, but the response was swift. Behind us, we heard the swift gunning of a marine engine, and the waiting tender raced into the shallows behind us.

“That’s it”, Gary cried. “Back on the boat…NOW!”

All care for the state of our footwear forgotten, we splashed into the water, and waded to the ship’s tender, barking shins on its high sides as we clambered in. The boat’s engine revved, and we slid away from the beach. The four huge reptiles were now sprawled immobile at the water’s edge, heads high, watching with seemingly well concealed dismay as their lunch made a fast exit.

“Well at least we didn’t frighten them!!” came the dry comment from the back of the boat. IMG_4255 small

Moments later, we fell under the cool shadow of the large sailing schooner that was our home for that fortnight, out in the remote wilds of Komodo national marine park, Indonesia. Suddenly, everyone began talking at once, the spell broken, as we recounted our impressions of that extraordinary first encounter with the world’s largest reptile, the Komodo Dragon.