Kayaking a narrow channel between two voluptuous volcanic islands, I gaze up steep hillsides pleated with lime-green savannah grasses. Spindly lontar palms totter over gouged orange cliffs. In the mangroves, macaque monkeys fish for crabs with their tails. I haven’t seen a Komodo dragon, yet the landscape on Rinca Island feels eerily Jurassic.
A gaggle of elfin-like guides from the local sea gypsy village awaits visitors on the pier. Their dragon-defence arsenal is pronged wooden sticks. Right on cue, at the entrance to Komodo National Park, two three-metre dragons lumber toward us. Long, pink, forked tongues dart in and out of jaws drooling with saliva.
A particularly large specimen, its scaly skin stretched tight over a rounded belly, has a yellow splotch on his back.
“That’s the sign of a man-eating dragon,” our guide explains helpfully. “He killed a policeman last year.”
The bite from a dragon’s 60 jagged shark-like teeth is apparently not as lethal as the infection-inducing cocktail of bacteria that swirls around the mouth of the world’s largest lizard.
Komodo dragons are the product of island gigantism, where monster versions of regular animals evolve because they have no predators, no competitors and nowhere to go. There are only up to 5000 dragons left in the world and they live only on four islands in these parts.
We are all fascinated, it seems, by the enormous, the tiny and the bizarre. Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and now one of the New7Wonders of Nature, has all this and more.
“Komodo Island, and nearby Flores Islands are, both in evolutionary and ecological terms, transitional zones where the extraordinary exists,” says my guide Peter Miller, founder of No Roads Expeditions, an Australian-owned adventure company and the sole kayak operator in the park.
“It is a place where animals are either much larger (the Komodo dragon) or much smaller (the now extinct miniature elephant and the so-called ‘hobbit’ man). It’s a real Alice-in-Wonderland scenario, where things are not quite what they seem.”
Peter and I are standing on a beach gazing across a glassy aquamarine sea and out of the blue leaps a giant manta ray – its white underbelly less than 20 metres away. It does it again, to confirm we aren’t hallucinating.
While the prehistoric-clawed Komodo dragons have captured the imagination of wildlife enthusiasts worldwide, the Komodo National Park also protects the most diverse marine environment on Earth, the epicentre of the Coral Triangle.
Its underwater treasures – 1000 species of tropical fish, 260 species of coral as well as whale sharks, dolphins, turtles, rays and dugongs – are nourished by powerful tidal flows of nutrient-rich waters between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. There is terrific snorkelling close to shore at places like the renowned Pink Beach as well as some of the best dive sites on the planet, such as the wall dive at Batu Bolong.
This is an excerpt from the Autumn 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (Australia & New Zealand). Read more when you buy our app or the magazine: natgeotraveller.com.au/subscribe