Saturday May 21st
Prunella woke at 4am with the boys sound asleep. She had started packing late last night and finished the details now. She then woke the boys to get ready and deposited all the luggage in the the hotel storage except for the trip bags. We had pre-scheduled an early breakfast at 5am and just as we finished the car arrived to whisk us into town. Perfect timing.
There we “tourists” waited outside the booking office, along with many other groups along the street and were moved in various ways to all end up mostly on the same boats. In order to board our floating home we had to walk across a colossal wooden cargo vessel and literally climb aboard, across the plank.
We were pleased to find ourselves onboard a small pretty wooden ship with three levels including an open eating area and sun deck with bean bags. The boys could imagine they were pirates. We were told that due to our family status, we had been given a free upgrade from sleeping on deck, to the dorm below decks. So we stowed our bags and were pleased to find we had the area to ourselves despite the many beds there. Most passengers would sleep on the open deck with a few couples that had private cabin rooms.
Whilst we waited and introduced ourselves to the 10 or so other international passengers on our vessel, we watched the cargo ship being loaded. A reminder that fishing, trade and tourism are the life blood of this community. We tried to not think about health and safety disasters as huge unstable loads were moved with archaic machinery and methods…
And then our ship pulled away from the harbour and out into the Flores sea and the islands of the Komodo National Park came into view. Komodo National Park spans 1,817 km² (603 km2 of it land), between Sumbawa and Flores. It was founded in 1980 and became a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1991. It’s famous dragons plus unique marine biodiversity, makes it a popular destination. It is remote, scorching hot and filled with arid bueaty. Parched islands jut out of the blue sea and when climbed produce breathtaking vistas of uninhabited archipelago. The park consists of Komodo Island, Rinca Island, Padar Island, and numerous smaller islands.
One of the best things about a boat trip of the Komodo National Park is getting to meet the locals. Many of the charming crew are from the local area and most of the island guides live and work on the islands. The dragon guides are highly trained, knowledgable and often multi-lingual. They have a deep understanding of local flora and fauna.
Komodo National Park is home to about 4000 people who live in four villages. Most are fishermen originally from Bima (Sumbawa), Manggarai, South Flores, and South Sulawesi. Those from South Sulawesi are from the Suku Bajau or Bugis ethnic groups. The Suku Bajau were originally nomadic. Descendants of the original people of Komodo, the Ata Modo, still live in Komodo, but their culture and language has now been integrated with the newer migrants. Traditional communities in Komodo, Flores and Sumbawa have been subjected to outside influences and the influence of traditional customs is dwindling. Most children can only attend school till elementary grade four. Fresh water, electricity and medical care are in short supply.
When it became a national park, these Bajau villages had already existed for 70 years. The people were historically under the rule of the Sultanate of Bima on Sumbawa Island, but were so remote that there was little influence here. They are a warm, hardy and kind people who watched over us all, especially the boys – like big brothers or uncles – and I am grateful to have bathed in their presence and felt their connection to this land.
The dragons and the villagers live in a symbiotic relationship. The mostly Muslim peoples on Komodo do not eat the Timor pigs or hunt the deer and water buffalo. This leaves the dragons with the abundant prey that have kept populations slowly growing. As the island population grows and caters more to tourists, these people are well aware that they depend upon the dragons for their livelihoods. The much talked about poachers and dynamite fishermen are not from the islands.
The villagers build their homes on stilts and keep their goats on raised planks as extra precautions. Locals say it’s best to assume an aggressive facade by barking, flailing one’s arms and stomping feet, if you see a dragon. This will, in most cases, deter the dragons as they prefer ambush over a direct confrontation. In the evening, when the dragons are most active, villagers rarely go beyond the glow of outdoor lanterns. Red clothing is avoided since it can be mistaken for blood and attracts attention.
We savoured the anticipation of meeting our first dragons on Rinca…