Komodo Island: Flores, East Nusa Tenggara
It has been a long time since I set foot on Komodo Island and really must get back there soon as it is a fantastic experience. For those people exploring East Nusa Tenggara, the island of Komodo and its carnivorous residents is a definite ‘must visit’ place.
A lot has been written about the island and I particularly liked the fantastic and detailed write-up I read recently by freelance writer Adji Kurniawan:
Komodo Island: Lizards, legends and natural beauty
Once upon a time, a mystical lady called the Dragon Princess lived on a barren and remote island. She was married to a man named Najo. She conceived and gave birth to an egg she kept in a cave. A komodo dragon hatched out of the egg and was given the name Ora. A child, Gerong, was born at the same time.
As a youth, Gerong went out to hunt deer in a forest. He ran into Ora, who wanted to eat the deer being pursued. Gerong became enraged and was on the verge of killing Ora. The princess appeared at the last moment to remind them that they were twins. Gerong calmed down and behaved kindly toward Ora.
Locals on Komodo Island, Flores, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), believe the story above dates back to time immemorial. The old folk tale about the origin of the giant komodo lizard has become an enduring island legend.
Remembering this myth, islanders treat the lizards they call Ora humanely. They feed aged komodos who are no longer capable of stalking prey, while the youngsters are free to chase deer and other animals in the forest. Thus, there are thousands of these rare dragons today.
The cave where Ora is said to have hatched is called Loang Atawini, on southern Komodo Island. There, the grave of Najo is also highly venerated. The Dragon Princess herself has no burial place, because locals feel certain that she is immortal and comes back when necessary to protect the island.
Komodo village is located around two kilometers west of Long Liang, a local sea terminal and village. Its inhabitants live in closely built houses on stilts, some 200 meters from the sea. With wooden walls and galvanized iron roofs, the large dwellings are usually occupied by several families. Behind their homes are open fields where village youths play football. Motorboats and sampans are moored off the coast. The village also has a mosque.
The island’s barren, wild and remote conditions seem to defy human habitation. But people have lived on Komodo for a long time, long before the island’s conversion into a national park. Hunting and occasional fishing used to be their livelihood. After they moved, they were banned from hunting. Now they are mostly fishermen, with some working as vendors and craftsmen producing wooden komodo replicas.
Komodo villagers consider themselves indigenous to the island because of their decades of occupation and their spiritual bond with the dragons. But are they? That is hard to prove. However, records indicate they are descendants of the Bajau or Bajo ethnic group from South Sulawesi. They settled in Komodo and have since been living in harmony with nature, including komodo lizards.
The old story and the Komodo culture are only part of the charm the island has to offer. Various beautiful places can be found in Komodo National Park (TNK), including Banu Nggulung, Merah Beach, Poreng-Sabieta, Mt. Ara and Mt. Satalibo. Komodo lizards also remain a major magnet bringing tourists to the island.
Komodos are the last surviving monitor lizard species capable of reproduction. The cold-blooded reptiles were first discovered by a Dutchman, JKH Van Steyn, in 1911. They became famous in the world of science in 1912, after researcher and biologist Mayor PA Ouwens in his article “On a Large Varanus Species from the Island of Komodo” gave the dragons a scientific name, Varanus komodoensis.
The prehistoric lizards can reach over three meters long and weigh as much as 90 kilograms. Besides Komodo Island, they are scattered on Rinca Island and a number of surrounding islets. Rinca’s dragons are a bit fiercer, with yellowish skin. Komodos are solitary animals, very seldom seen in groups except in Banu Nggulung.
Banu Nggulung is the location to watch and photograph komodos with ease. Some two kilometers east of Loh Liang, it is 45 minutes’ walk along village paths lined with lush vegetation that for the most part resembles the trees of Darwin, Australia. This is due to the effect of the dry winds that sometimes blow into the area from that country.
Large, wild komodos often appear on the route to Banu Nggulung, poised to devour the unwary. Therefore, visitors are not allowed to walk alone; they must be accompanied by national park guides or forest rangers.
Pantai Merah, which means Red Beach, is among the island’s most gorgeous spots. Tourists often call it Pink Beach. Its name comes from the reddish sand that covers its sloping shore. A favorite of sunbathers, the beach is also an interesting place for swimming, snorkeling, diving and fishing, since it offers a magnificent coral reefs as well as diverse commercial and ornamental fish species. Some tourists claim that its aquarium fish and coral are among the best found in Indonesia.
Komodo Island also boasts a beautiful panorama of two brownish hills, Poreng and Sabieta, with expanses of grassland and rows of palmyra trees. Wild buffaloes frequently graze there, and tourists who are lucky can see blackish adult komodos searching for their prey.
Poreng-Sabieta, 10 kilometers east of Loh Liang, can be reached via a footpath. It has a grave marked with a white cross in memory of a foreign tourist who was swallowed by a komodo dragon. According to reports, the man was taking pictures. He dropped his guard, and the giant lizard assaulted and devoured him. Nothing was left except his hair and the camera. The grave is intended to honor his soul and at the same time serve as a reminder to visitors to remain vigilant.
Another lovely spot is Mt. Ara, which is 510 meters above sea level and has a campground. One can get there via an 8-kilometer path from Loh Liang. Finally, Mt. Satalibo is the farthest destination from Loh Liang. With an altitude of 735 meters, it is the tallest mountain on Komodo. One can see the whole panorama of the island, including the sea and nearby islets, from its summit.
How to reach Komodo kingdom
Komodo Island draws wealthy tourists and backpackers alike. Those with money to spend often visit the island after Bali and Lombok. Spice Island Cruises and Evening Star are among the luxury ships that ply the route.
Tourists who are adventurous or short on cash go by bus, passenger ship and ferry. According to some backpackers, the ferry journey is more challenging because of the storms that frequently break out in Batu Tiga waters, between Labuanbajo and Komodo. The violent storms locals call kala-kala have swallowed a motorboat and a ferry, claiming passengers’ lives.
Labuanbajo, Flores, is the gate to Komodo and the other islands within the Komodo National Park (TNK). The other entrance is Sape, on Sumbawa Island in West Nusa Tenggara. Tourists can take a ferry from Labuanbajo or Sape and disembark in Komodo Island waters before proceeding by sampan to the Loh Liang terminal.
Fishermen’s motorboats or speedboats can also be hired at negotiable fares. It takes 4 hours to travel from Labuanbajo to Loh Liang by motorboat. A speedboat takes only about an hour, but is more expensive. It is cheaper to visit Rinca Island due to its proximity to Labuanbajo.
You can reach Labuanbajo by any major form of transportation. It takes four days by bus or sea from Jakarta. In order to save time, visitors can fly from Jakarta to Mataram, Lombok, and then go by bus to Sape and further by speedboat to Loh Liang.
The Loh Liang tourist village is the gate and ticket counter for Komodo Island. It has complete facilities, such as a forest rangers office, a hostel that houses dozens of guests at reasonable rates, a cafeteria offering typical seafood and a cooperative selling souvenirs. For a tour of Rinca Island, tickets are available in Loh Buaya. Rinca, also providing accommodation, has a five-kilometer path through a hilly area where tourists can see long-tailed monkeys, wild horses and komodos.
Komodo National Park feels like a remote area. That is because its natural and geographic conditions are different from most other regions in the country. Some of its islands are hilly, the results of centuries-long geological shifting. Other islets were formed by coral reaching as high as 200 to 400 meters.
The climate is relatively dry, with average rainfall of 800 to 1,000 millimeters. Its rainy season, which runs from January to April, and its longer dry spell affect the forms and types of flora and fauna. Its vegetation is dominated by grassland interspersed with tamarind, waru (hibiscus), wild cotton, kesambi (lac) and lontar (palmyra) trees.
The park has a combination of mangroves, seasonal and tropical rain forests, which are not as dense as the jungles of Java, Papua, Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Its wildlife has only about 185 species, representing such Asian-Australian transition species as eagles, pigeons, cockatoos, Timorese deer, snakes, wild horses, and komodos. But its marine creatures are diverse: a survey by an international agency found that TNK waters contained around 900 marine biota species, including over 100 fish species like napoleon, groupers, red snappers and rayfish, as well as 260 species of coral, especially Acropora sp. Dolphins, sharks and blue whales are often found, too.
Covering an area of almost 220,000 hectares, the TNK mainly comprises Komodo (33,937 hectares), Rinca (19,625 hectares) and Padar (2,017 hectares), plus Gili Motang and a number of islets and their waters. Flanked by two provincial borders, it lies in the Sape Strait between the western tip of Flores and the eastern tip of Sumbawa.
Given the natural wealth, beauty and unique features of Komodo Island and its adjacent islets, the government declared the entire zone a national park on March 6, 1980, with the primary aim of protecting komodos and their habitat. UNESCO designated it as a Natural World Heritage Site in 1991. Under the Soeharto government, komodo dragons were declared the national animal in 1992. And in 1997, UNESCO declared it a Man and Biosphere Reserve.
Adji Kurniawan, Contributor, Komodo Island