Established in 1980, Komodo National Park encompasses the three main islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar along with dozens of smaller islands, islets and barren rocks. Originally a terrestrial national park set up to protect the Komodo dragon, over time it expanded to include what lies beneath and it is now a massive terrestrial and marine national park encompassing almost 2,000 square kilometres.
While the Komodo dragons remain the best-known image of the park -- they brand the park's official logo -- and are the main reason most come to visit, they are equalled in their beauty by the undersea wonderworld that surrounds the park's islands.
Within the park's boundaries, visitors will be able to experience some of the best snorkelling and diving in the entire Indonesian archipelago and enjoy a rugged, stunning landscape that is truly an experience to behold.
Relatively easily visited from Labuan Bajo or one of the islands in the Flores Sea such as Kanawa on either a daytrip or overnight liveaboard, the majority of visitors approach the park to see both the dragons and to enjoy the beaches and snorkelling. Few come just to see the dragons -- once you get underwater you'll see why.
As with many national parks in Indonesia, it hasn't been plain sailing for Komodo National Park. The fishing boats you see -- even the small one- and two-person sampans -- are fishing illegally and unfortunately unsustainable practices continue whenever the dive and tourist boats are out of sight. As for outside the park boundaries, in the words of one dive operator in Labuan Bajo, "it's a free for all and fabulous example of unsustainable and profoundly damaging fishing practices at work".
Many dive enthusiasts believe that the situation has worsened in the last few years since the US-based Nature Conservancy was pulled out of managing the national park after a dispute with the Indonesian government over where funds should be directed. While there is a system in place for dive boats to photograph trespassing boats and report them to the authorities, it appears to have less than perfect results.
While some of the fishermen have come from other Indonesian islands, others have fished these waters for generations -- well before the establishment of the national park -- it was not clear what programmes are in place to provide alternatives for the fishing communities.
Protection and development issues aside, the main decision a first-time visitor needs to make is should they visit Komodo or Rinca (or both...)? Both are home to dragons, though those on Komodo are thought to be larger (more deer to munch on), while those on Rinca are seen to be more aggressive (as our researcher found out). The trip to Komodo is also a lot longer than one to Rinca if you're coming from Labuan Bajo.
In both cases, outside of mating season, you're pretty sure to see at least a few Komodo dragons -- perhaps not capturing and eating a buffalo but rather hanging around a park kitchen waiting for scraps. But really, it doesn't matter where you see them -- as, unless they're chasing you down the path, they'll most likely be laying there doing little other than watching you with their very beady little eyes.
Komodo is the largest of the islands in Komodo National Park and it's also the furthest from the port town of Labuan Bajo. Because of the distance, it's typical for a trip to Komodo to include a number of snorkelling stops. In our case we stopped at Batu Bolong (snorkelling) and Makassar Reef (snorkelling with manta rays) on the way to the park and at Pink Beach (a pink beach and snorkelling) and Mesa Island (a fishing village island) on the way back. From Kanawa that was close to 12 hours all told. It's a long day.
On the island itself, there are three trekking options -- short, medium or long. As we had young kids with us we did the short trek and it took about 45 minutes. Our travel companions did the medium trip which took them about an hour and a half. In both cases we saw seven dragons in total -- most of them around the park restaurant -- they're stupid, but not that stupid!
The short trek takes you to a waterhole where we saw two dragons and it's here that the medium trek diverts, taking in a viewpoint over the bay. Regardless of which trail you take, taking a guide is mandatory. They carry a pronged stick should the dragons decide to cause some dramas.
Komodo's topography is impressive and slowly cruising by that was as memorable as encountering the dragons.
Rinca is closer to Labuan Bajo than better-known Komodo, and is considered to be a better bet for a dragon sighting to boot.
On our visit, we had to run from a dragon on a forest trail, which added a certain amount of adrenaline to the experience. We also spotted a beautiful -- and deadly -- green tree viper, a long-tailed macaque, and many birds, including the curious mound-building megapod. Nature here is beautiful, but it certainly isn't harmless.
Spottings of seemingly stuffed dragons are almost a certainty most times of the year, as they like to doze around the park headquarters, likely attracted by the smell of food from the cafeteria. However, seeing a Komodo in the forest is not guaranteed, especially during the mating season. Sleepy dragons, it should be emphasised, are by no means harmless dragons.
You will have a choice of a short, a medium or a long trek from the Loh Buaya landing site. The medium trek takes about an hour and a half and is the default option for most dive trips incorporating a Rinca visit.
As on Komodo, guides are armed with big, forked sticks, but are not otherwise enabled to stop an attack, which do happen at times. The Komodos of Rinca are reported to be a bit more bitey than their Komodo counterparts, which translates into a more interesting but potentially heart-pounding visit. (We were briefly chased by one of the carnivorous reptiles, which was certainly memorable.)
Stick with your guide, don't touch the animals, and you should seriously reconsider bringing small children along for the ride (though we did take ours and neither was eaten). This is definitely not your innocuous local zoo, and people do get hurt if they're not paying attention or are even just unlucky.
Many dive operations will include a quick Rinca visit as part of a package scuba and snorkelling day trip. Make sure to establish with your dive operator which fees they have already taken care of. Finding non-diving or snorkelling trips to Rinca, which will allow for a longer visit, can be difficult. The truly dragon obsessed may consider shelling out for a private charter instead. Prices vary, but remember: in many ways, you do get what you pay for.
Komodo National Park visitors must pay for an entrance fee, a camera fee and a guide fee -- guides are non-optional, a reality you will quickly appreciate upon seeing the size of these sometimes not-so-lethargic giant reptiles.
By Stuart McDonald.