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Komodo Dragons Can Make Your Skin Crawl


LOHO LIANG, Indonesia — Sometimes it's best not to know too much about a place until after you've been there. Had I known about the stonefish (whose sharp spines inject an agonizing, deadly venom), the blue-banded octopi (one bite and you're a goner) or the sea snakes (ditto), I might never have gone to Komodo Island.

Like a protective moat, the encircling seas conspire to shield this prehistoric retreat from the prying eyes of man.

Tides sluicing back and forth between the deep Indian Ocean and the shallow South China Sea surge through the island-studded straits, creating rip currents, boiling rapids and whirlpools capable of swallowing small boats.

Presuming you land safely on Komodo, your problems are far from over. The place is crawling with poisonous snakes. Scorpions, too.

And then there are the dragons--huge, nightmarish creatures with skin like armor and teeth like knives. They are the last of the dinosaurs, top dog on the local food chain. They wouldn't think twice about killing and eating you or me. But the presence of Komodo dragons is no surprise--that's why you're here.

The dragons, known locally as ora , are the talk of Nusa Tenggara, the lonely chain of islands riding the seas east of Bali. A few are slithering around on Flores, a few on other nearby islands: Rinca and Padar. But here on foreboding Komodo, the dragons rule.

These living fossils from the dawn of the Paleocene epoch, 60 million years ago, are the chief villains in one of nature's longest-running reigns of terror.

The dragons of Komodo slumbered, undisturbed, on their remote island for millennia, more myth than reality. Chinese traders knew of the dragons perhaps as early as the 12th Century, and visited the island to take skins, which were used for native drums.

The Chinese also boiled dragon tails to make medicinal balms for burns and a potion used as "swimming medicine." Local pearlers, too, stopped at the island.

But it wasn't until a Dutch pilot en route to Australia crash-landed on Komodo in 1910 that the rest of the world learned of their existence.

Two years later, the Dutch sent a military expedition from Java to investigate. Two dragons were shot and hauled back to Java, where a researcher correctly identified the buaya darat , or land crocodiles, as wildly overgrown monitor lizards.

Despite Komodo's remoteness (it can be reached only by boat and lies hundreds of miles from Bali, the nearest popular tourist destination), the island attracts a steady trickle of visitors.

Last year, about 5,000 souls braved critters and currents to see these living remnants. Although few visitors find themselves in any real danger, a hint of menace adds an adrenal edge to any outing.

The first glimpse of this island rising from a heaving sea is of a barren and desolate place enclosed by dark, forbidding ramparts. The eroded hulk of an ancient volcano, Komodo--with its black lava towers and ripsaw skyline--looks like some evil fortress. It reeks of sadness, banishment, exile.

Here the luxuriant greenery of Indonesia gives way to a tortured landscape, arid and parched. What precious moisture there is disappears with the scorching, thirsty winds roaring north from the dusty wastes of central Australia. The stingy soil sustains only coarse grass; tangled, tinder-dry thickets, and dried-out scrub.

Skinny lontar palms--their scraggly tops nodding like Medusas--tower overhead. Flying lizards sail through the trees. Giant insects, including foot-long centipedes, skitter along the ground. At dusk, bats dart through the skies, wheeling over the island's dark outer walls.

A lone village clings to precarious existence on the otherwise uninhabited island. Local fishermen subsist on squid caught from their sleek bagans , twin-hulled sailing craft.

Most visitors coast past the dreary village and drift into Loho Liang Bay, the island's best anchorage, and moor their hired boats offshore. Dugout canoes ferry them onto the beach. From there it's a quick walk to the government camp at Loho Liang, where arrangements can be made to visit the interior, lunch on a plate of greasy fried noodles or stay overnight in one of the shabby bungalows in a clearing near the sea.

Warnings are posted everywhere: "Watch for snakes" or "Travel outside visitor centre only with guards." Not so long ago, an elderly Swiss tourist strayed from his group and disappeared; a search party found only his hat, his Hasselblad camera and a bloody shoe.

"He loved nature throughout his life" reads the epitaph on a commemorative white cross. Apparently, nature loved him back. Nowadays, most visitors stick close to their groups.

The big, twice-weekly event on Komodo is a goat buffet for the dragons, hosted by tourists. Most folks make understandably brief visits to Komodo, and because they want to see dragons in action while there, park rangers schedule regular feedings (held as long as there are tourists to buy the food).

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