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.