• 001 - the logo.jpg
  • 002 - Hiroshima sunset.jpg
  • 003 - Auschwitz-Birkenau ramp.jpg
  • 004 - Chernobyl contamination.jpg
  • 005 - Darvaza flaming gas crater.jpg
  • 006 - Berlin Wall madness.jpg
  • 007 - Bulgaria - monument at the bottom of Buzludzhy park hill.jpg
  • 008 - Ijen crater.jpg
  • 009 - Aralsk, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 010 - Paris catacombs.jpg
  • 011 - Krakatoa.jpg
  • 012 - Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi.jpg
  • 013 - Uyuni.jpg
  • 014 - DMZ Vietnam.jpg
  • 015 - Colditz Kopie.jpg
  • 016 - Glasgow Necropolis.jpg
  • 017 - Ani.jpg
  • 018 - Kamikaze.jpg
  • 019 - Arlington.jpg
  • 020 - Karosta prison.jpg
  • 021 - Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 022 - Chacabuco ghost town.jpg
  • 023 - Eagle's Nest, Obersalzberg, Berchtesgaden.jpg
  • 024 - Kursk.jpg
  • 025 - Bran castle, Carpathia, Romania.jpg
  • 026 - Bestattungsmuseum Wien.jpg
  • 027 - Pripyat near Chernobyl.jpg
  • 028 - Sedlec ossuary, Czech Republic.jpg
  • 029 - Pyramida Lenin.jpg
  • 030 - Falklands.jpg
  • 031 - Majdanek.jpg
  • 032 - Soufriere volcano, Montserrat.jpg
  • 033 - moai on Easter Island.jpg
  • 034 - Sigoarjo.jpg
  • 035 - Hötensleben.jpg
  • 036 - Natzweiler.jpg
  • 037 - Polygon, Semipalatinsk test site, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 038 - Srebrenica.jpg
  • 039 - Liepaja, Latvia.jpg
  • 040 - Vemork hydroelectric power plant building, Norway.jpg
  • 041 - Enola Gay.jpg
  • 042 - Pentagon 9-11 memorial.jpg
  • 043 - Robben Island prison, South Africa.jpg
  • 044 - Tollund man.jpg
  • 045 - Marienthal tunnel.jpg
  • 046 - Aso, Japan.jpg
  • 047 - Labrador battery Singapore.jpg
  • 048 - Artyom island, Absheron, Azerbaijan.jpg
  • 049 - Treblinka.jpg
  • 050 - Titan II silo.jpg
  • 051 - dosemetering doll, Chernobyl.jpg
  • 052 - Holocaust memorial, Berlin.jpg
  • 053 - Komodo dragon.jpg
  • 054 - cemeterio general, Santiago de Chile.jpg
  • 055 - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Phen, Cambodia.jpg
  • 056 - West Virginia penitentiary.jpg
  • 057 - ovens, Dachau.jpg
  • 058 - Derry, Northern Ireland.jpg
  • 059 - Bulgaria - Buzludzha - workers of all countries unite.jpg
  • 060 - Sachsenhausen.jpg
  • 061 - Tiraspol dom sovietov.jpg
  • 062 - modern-day Pompeii - Plymouth, Montserrat.jpg
  • 063 - Pico de Fogo.jpg
  • 064 - Trinity Day.jpg
  • 065 - Zwentendorf control room.jpg
  • 066 - Wolfschanze.jpg
  • 067 - Hiroshima by night.jpg
  • 068 - mass games, North Korea.jpg
  • 069 - Harrisburg.jpg
  • 070 - Nuremberg.jpg
  • 071 - Mostar.jpg
  • 072 - Tu-22, Riga aviation museum.jpg
  • 073 - Gallipoli, Lone Pine.jpg
  • 074 - Auschwitz-Birkenau - fence.jpg
  • 075 - Darvaza flaming gas crater.jpg
  • 076 - Atatürk Mausoleum, Ankara.jpg
  • 077 - Banda Aceh boats.jpg
  • 078 - AMARG.jpg
  • 079 - Chacabuco ruins.jpg
  • 080 - Bucharest.jpg
  • 081 - Bernauer Straße.jpg
  • 082 - Death Railway, Thailand.jpg
  • 083 - Mandor killing fields.jpg
  • 084 - Kozloduy.jpg
  • 085 - Jerusalem.jpg
  • 086 - Latin Bridge, Sarajevo.jpg
  • 087 - Panmunjom, DMZ, Korea.jpg
  • 088 - Ijen blue flames.jpg
  • 089 - Derry reconsilliation monument.jpg
  • 090 - Ebensee.jpg
  • 091 - Mödlareuth barbed wire.jpg
  • 092 - skull heaps in Sedlec ossuary, Czech Republic.jpg
  • 093 - Nikel.jpg
  • 094 - Vught.jpg
  • 095 - Tital launch control centre.jpg
  • 096 - Dallas Dealy Plaza and Sixth Floor Museum.jpg
  • 097 - Auschwitz I.jpg
  • 098 - Stalin and Lenion, Tirana, Albania.jpg
  • 099 - Podgorica, Montenegro, small arms and light weapons sculpture.jpg
  • 100 - Peenemünde.jpg
  • 101 - Tarrafal.jpg
  • 102 - Kilmainham prison, Dublin.jpg
  • 103 - North Korea.jpg
  • 104 - Mittelbau-Dora.jpg
  • 105 - Chacabuca big sky.jpg
  • 106 - Stutthof, Poland.jpg
  • 107 - Merapi destruction.jpg
  • 108 - Chueung Ek killing fields, Cambodia.jpg
  • 109 - Marienborn former GDR border.jpg
  • 110 - Mig and star, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 111 - Japanese cave East Timor.jpg
  • 112 - Hellfire Pass, Thailand.jpg
  • 113 - Kiev.jpg
  • 114 - Grutas Park, Lithuania.jpg
  • 115 - Zwentendorf reactor core.jpg
  • 116 - two occupations, Tallinn.jpg
  • 117 - Trunyan burial site.jpg
  • 118 - Ushuaia prison.jpg
  • 119 - Buchenwald.jpg
  • 120 - Marienthal with ghost.jpg
  • 121 - Murmansk harbour - with an aircraft carrier.jpg
  • 122 - Berlin Olympiastadion.JPG
  • 123 - Bastille Day, Paris.jpg
  • 124 - Spassk.jpg
  • 125 - Theresienstadt.jpg
  • 126 - B-52s.jpg
  • 127 - Bledug Kuwu.jpg
  • 128 - Friedhof der Namenlosen, Vienna.jpg
  • 129 - Auschwitz-Birkenau barracks.jpg
  • 130 - mummies, Bolivia.jpg
  • 131 - Barringer meteor crater.jpg
  • 132 - Murambi, Rwanda.jpg
  • 133 - NTS.jpg
  • 134 - Mauthausen Soviet monument.jpg
  • 135 - pullution, Kazakhstan.JPG
  • 136 - palm oil madness.jpg
  • 137 - Berlin socialist realism.jpg
  • 138 - Indonesia wildfire.jpg
  • 139 - Pawiak, Warsaw.jpg
  • 140 - flying death, military museum Dresden.JPG
  • 141 - KGB gear.JPG
  • 142 - KZ jacket.JPG
  • 143 - ex-USSR.JPG
  • 144 - Indonesia fruit bats.JPG
  • 145 - Alcatraz.JPG
  • 146 - Chernobyl Museum, Kiev, Ukraine.JPG
  • 147 - Halemaumau lava lake glow, Hawaii.JPG
  • 148 - Rosinenbomber at Tempelhof, Berlin.jpg
  • 149 - Verdun, France.JPG
  • 150 - hospital, Vukovar, Croatia.JPG
  • 151 - the original tomb of Napoleon, St Helena.JPG
  • 152 - Buchenwald, Germany.JPG
  • 153 - Bhopal.JPG
  • 154 - Groß-Rosen, Poland.jpg
  • 155 - at Monino, Russia.jpg
  • 156 - blinking Komodo.jpg
  • 157 - inside Chernobyl NPP.JPG
  • 158 - Mount St Helens, USA.JPG
  • 159 - Maly Trostenec, Minsk, Belarus.jpg
  • 160 - Vucedol skulls, Croatia.JPG
  • 161 - colourful WW1 shells.JPG
  • 162 - Zeljava airbase in Croatia.JPG
  • 163 - rusting wrecks, Chernobyl.JPG
  • 164 - San Bernadine alle Ossa, Milan, Italy.jpg
  • 165 - USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.JPG
  • 166 - Brest Fortress, Belarus.JPG
  • 167 - thousands of bats, Dom Rep.JPG
  • 168 - Hohenschönhausen, Berlin.JPG
  • 169 - Perm-36 gulag site.JPG
  • 170 - Jasenovac, Croatia.JPG
  • 171 - Beelitz Heilstätten.JPG
  • 172 - Kremlin, Moscow.jpg
  • 173 - old arms factory, Dubnica.JPG
  • 174 - Pervomaisc ICBM base, more  missiles, including an SS-18 Satan.jpg
  • 175 - Cellular Jail, Port Blair.jpg
  • 176 - Bunker Valentin, Germany.JPG
  • 177 - control room, Chernobyl NPP.JPG
  • 178 - Lest we Forget, Ypres.JPG
  • 179 - the logo again.jpg

Komodo National Park

  - darkometer rating:  6 -
Komodo Island, Indonesia, which also gives its name to Komodo National Park, is one of only three islands that are home to the infamous Komodo dragon, a unique, endangered, eerily intriguing and in various ways very “dark” species. In fact, seeing Komodo dragons is the only type of wildlife watching that is featured here under the heading of dark tourism. Access to the islands of Komodo and Rinca is by boat only, which can also add yet another element of adventure in these parts ...   
More background info: Here be dragons – that was a phrase used in early exploring seafarers' maps to label bits of uncharted land they spotted but were generally suspicious of. The origin of this may indeed have been the local rumours of fire-spitting dragons on a remote Indonesian island that these explorers may have picked up, but the phrase could also have come about independently of this (perhaps influenced by Chinese dragon myths). 
In any case, the rumours of dragons on Komodo Island were only “confirmed”, so to speak, in the early 20th century by Dutch colonial officials who finally wanted to get to the bottom of all those dragon rumours. They did indeed find them, obtained “specimens” , i.e. killed a couple, and took them away for analysis.
It was quickly discovered, though, that the Komodo “dragon” is not in actual fact a dragon, of course, nor is it related to dinosaurs, but belongs to the group of monitor lizards. Just very, very big ones. Komodos are by far the largest lizards alive today. They can grow to over 10 feet in length, weigh up to 100kg and live for up to 30 years. They can devour up to 50-80% of their body weight in meat or carrion in a single sitting … and their table manners are gross, to say the least (see below). 
So they may not be the winged, fiery dragons of mythology, or gigantic Godzillas of horror-movie culture, but still, with their size, their fearsome looks and gruesome behaviour they are probably as close to a dragon as it gets in the real world. 
They may not be spitting fire, but they are infamous, amongst many other things, for having the foulest breath in the whole animal kingdom. So that too is close enough, really. In fact, their breath, or rather their saliva is deadly! It was long assumed that it was the bacteria in the dragons' saliva that made them so toxic, but later research also revealed that they have proper venom glands secreting a substance that contains anticoagulants. So basically, if a Komodo dragon bites you (or a goat or deer), the wound simply will not heal. So you (or the deer …) will slowly die as a result. Nice one.
The dragons use this evil saliva cocktail to great effect when hunting. Their prey includes unusually large animals such as water buffalo, deer and goats. Thanks to their toxic bite they don't need to get into a fight with their often much larger victims in order to kill them (a buffalo can weigh 500kg!). A swift bite in the leg is all it takes. The dragons can then just sit back and wait. Within a few days their prey will slowly succumb to the festering wound. Then the dragons can come and devour it. What is so unusual about this technique is that the dragon who bites the prey in the first place may not be the same one that later finds the corpse and eats it. Some other dragon may happen upon it first and take advantage of this. Seems unfair, doesn't it? In fact, in that sense they are a bit of Darwinian puzzle too. But this set-up is probably only sustainable because their habitat is so small that the unfairness balances out in the mid to long term. It certainly isn't down to altruism. That is not a word you would associate with these dragons at all. 
They probably instinctively appal the anthropomorphizing human observer because not only do they hunt in this “cowardly” evil fashion, but they then do not honour the hunter's right to its own catch but “steal” each others' prey. On top of that they are also cannibalistic – hence young Komodos live in trees until they are big enough to lose their attractiveness to adults as a little snack and can fend for themselves. AND: they are man-eaters too! They steal and eat human children! Despicable all round, eh?
Of course from THEIR point of view (if they had one) all this is just normal, and no more evil than those naked apes that come along, cut down trees, exploit the resources, pollute the land and watch species become extinct one after the other. So let's leave the guilty-finger-pointing. 
From an evolutionary point of view the Komodo dragons may be a very unlikely relic, but within their habitat their lifestyle makes perfect sense. They are the only large predators on these islands and thus dominate the top of the food chain. There are only a few thousand of them, but numbers are said to be stable. They are endangered only in so far as their habitat is so small and thus vulnerable to environmental change – e.g. by the impact of human presence. Hence their two main home islands Komodo and Rinca were made a National Park in 1980. In 1991 it was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
So the dragons are protected by humans now – but that doesn't mean they wouldn't happily bite the hand that feeds them. Their reputation as man-eaters is a bit overrated, however. Humans are not normally on their menu, but being opportunistic they wouldn't pass on the chance of grabbing an easy meal in the form of an unattended child; and this has indeed happened near the few human settlements within their range. They have on even rarer occasions also attacked adult humans (see below). 
Speaking of the “hands that feed them”. The days when the dragons were fed goats at special feeding stations set up for tourists' viewing are over now. Such a scene was still described, in full gory detail, in the famous account of Komodos by Douglas Adams in “Last Chance to See”. It really must have been a sickening sight to watch Komodos violently ripping apart goats from a hook and devouring every last bit of them. Not only have such horror shows become unsustainable for ethical reasons. It was also not good for the Komodos to allow them to rely on being fed. So the practice was discontinued and the dragons now have to hunt for their own food again, just as they have always been supposed to. 
So when you get to see the dragons today you won't witness them playing a lead role in a gory bloodbath, as if in a little animal Roman Colosseum of sorts. But still, encountering these eerie, fork-tongued, potentially deadly, monster-sized lizards in the wild is definitely a dark kind of wildlife watching. Hence the inclusion here. (The only other type of dark wildlife watching I could think of would be cage diving with sharks – maybe I should add that to this site at some point, come to think of it ...) 
Now, aren't they actually dangerous to encounter in the wild? To a certain degree yes. But that's why you always have to be accompanied by a ranger and why the rangers always carry a forked stick to keep any dragons who may show too much of an interest in their tourist visitors at bay. Most of the time they do not, though, and either ignore you while they go about their own business or they just lie there slumped down lazily in the dust appearing not to take anything much in at all. But let their long sharp claws, powerful tails and toxic teeth be a warning and remember that, even though they may appear docile one minute, they can suddenly spring into action from one second to the next and then move very fast indeed (they can even out-sprint humans). So keep a safe distance and follow the rangers' rules. Then it is not danger tourism
… well, at least not on the islands themselves – the boat ride to get there may be a different story, such as mine – retold below ... 
What there is to see: Well, first and foremost, the dragons, obviously. And encountering these enigmatic and eerie creatures on their home turf from quite close up is indeed an almost indescribably emotional experience – and the emotions are mixed, partly dark, partly exhilarating. It's chilling, exciting, mysterious, a bit unnerving at times, but also an exceptional privilege.  
But before you get a chance to even get near any of them you first have to make your way to Komodo Island. And that's the bigger part of the adventure. At least it was in my case. Here's the story:
We were picked up from our hotel before dawn. You have to get a really early start if you want to make it to Komodo and back in just one day, that much was clear from the outset. At the harbour of Labuan Bajo we were ushered along a pier and onto a boat in the pre-dawn twilight. Still bleary-eyed from a short night we just chucked our stuff in the single simple cabin at the front and while we did so the boat already got moving. 
Chugging out of the harbour and heading out to sea we then started to glance around the boat a bit more with an inspecting eye. After a few moments my wife turned to me and asked quietly: “on a scale of 1 to 10, how safe would you say this boat is?” I looked around a bit more and then replied: “about 2, maybe” …
There were no life vests anywhere in evidence – if they had any at all they must have been stored away out of sight and out of reach and thus rendered useless had there been a need for them. There were no safety instructions of any sort anyway on the part of the skipper or guide – except that when I slid over to sit on the side of the boat where my wife and our guide were sitting he told me I shouldn't – for the sake of the balance of the boat. I thought, well, if weight-distribution is so crucial, what happens if we run into serious waves? It didn't bode well for the assessment of the (lack of) seaworthiness of this little barge. But there was more: 
There was no navigational or communications gear of any kind at all. And as we headed back at night later we found that the boat did not have any lights either, not even the most basic position lights, thus making it a danger to other vessels too in the dark. The boat was under-powered by a struggling two-stroke engine that ran at full throttle and sounded like a constant barrage of machine-gun fire (making any conversation on deck impossible). The little cabin turned out to be a veritable death trap – as soon as the engine was running, the small enclosed space filled with exhaust fumes. So when the sea got rather rough and the skipper motioned us to go inside we refused, rather holding out on deck and getting sprayed with seawater… better be wet and alive than die of asphyxiation. 
But what could we do? We were already out at sea. Too late for complaints. And we really did want to see the dragons. So we just settled down on deck and hoped for the best. Like you do on dodgy planes or in cars or buses that have maniacal drivers behind the wheel. We tried to stop worrying about the boat and enjoy the trip.
And there were stunning views. As the sun crept up, the surrounding small islands were bathed in golden light. We saw fish eagles (ospreys) dipping for prey just a few dozen yards from the boat. A sea turtle poked its head up out of the water. And everything looked just so serene, including the few fishing villages here and there along the coastline.  
Several other boats overtook ours too, and it soon became apparent that every single one of them looked much more comfortable and seaworthy than the one we had ended up on. Some were only slightly better, but quite a few others were veritable luxury yachts and beautiful to look at too. I felt a twinge of envy creeping up inside me …
At least the morning sea was calm. At first. Getting closer to Komodo we witnessed the infamous treacherous currents too. You can spot them from afar. Amidst waters that are as smooth as glass suddenly violent ripples occur that seem to boil the water to a white foam. At least at this stage the waves were not too high for our boat to get into trouble going through these cross-currents. 
Eventually we got to Komodo. There's a long landing stage leading to the shore, and once on land you are greeted by a large, new sculptured sign announcing the Komodo National Park and adding proudly “world heritage site”. 
At the national park office our guide sorted out the paperwork and park fees and then returned with a local ranger to take us around. They also brought a couple of long sticks with forked ends. These were to keep Komodo dragons under control should they get too near or too interested in us. Not being quite sure whether that should alarm us or give us a sense of security, we trotted off on one of the shorter hikes. 
In theory there are a number of different hikes to choose from, including really long and strenuous ones that get you far away from the little park office settlement and into the really wild parts of the island (these, by the way, also cost extra fees – as you cannot go alone and must be accompanied by a park ranger at all times). But we only had so much time, so we were given an easier shorter route.  
I had read that there isn't any guarantee that visitors will definitely see any dragons. In some accounts it sounded like encountering even just two or three of them was regarded a good quota. We, on the other hand, must have been incredibly lucky (and our guide seemed to confirm this impression): we saw more than a dozen dragons, and some of them quite active. 
Our first dragon appeared not far along the track into the scrubby forest. He was actually on the track, literally, as if he was using it. Once he spotted us, however, he scurried off into the undergrowth. Our ranger set off after him and so we followed the dragon for as far as we could, until the thicket became too dense. All the time the creature was eyeing us suspiciously.
A bit later we came to a clearing where a particularly big dragon in a particularly immobile squat awaited us. I got the feeling the ranger had expected him to be here (maybe this used to be a feeding station in the old days when they still let the dragons rip goats apart to give tourists an extra “thrill” – see above). This dragon could have been a stuffed one, plonked down in a surreal posture as if it had just been dropped there. But every so often you could see the eye blinking. But otherwise he remained completely motionless. The ranger poked the dragon's big feet a bit with the forked stick but its limbs remained totally limp. This did, however, give us a good view of what muscular legs and feet they have – and of the long sharp claws at the end of them. 
Lots of deer were scuttling about too. One I spotted standing just off the path staring right at me appeared decidedly battered, with a horn missing and a bloody patch on the side of its belly. Could it be that it had had a run-in with a dragon? If so I was probably looking a doomed animal in the eye that was soon to be a dragon feast … 
As we walked on we saw yet more dragons in the distance, together with more deer that seemed a bit wary but otherwise not overly alarmed by the presence of their sole life-threatening predator in close proximity. We proceeded on our hike up Fregata Hill, from where you get a nice view over the bay. 
Back down at beach level we eventually came to the ranger camp's kitchen building. And here a cluster of four or five dragons were “loitering” about. On the one side of the cabin, two totally immobile dragons formed a cross with their tails. The bigger one of them, the ranger told us, was the oldest one they know of, at least 25 years of age. Hence they refer to him as “Opa” (granddad). He was certainly the biggest of all the dragons we saw. But somehow he looked the least threatening of the lot nevertheless.
On the other side of the cabin, however, two dragons displayed much more agitated and nervous behaviour. They were shifting around and sniffing the air with their big, fleshy forked tongues. Komodos have an acute sense of smell, allegedly even the ability to smell in stereo, as it were, through the two forked ends at the tip of their tongues. They can make out food from miles away (i.e. anything they deem edible, which is pretty much anything at all – but preferably dying buffalo or rotting carrion). No wonder they were so fidgety right here by a kitchen. 
One of the dragons seemed to notice us, stopped sniffing and shifting around and instead just turned in our direction and kept staring at us. That's when their presence gets even eerier by a few notches. They can really stare you out like no other animal I have ever encountered. Our ranger and guide were very alert with their sticks at this point. But the dragon did not move any closer. The other one had meanwhile decided to have a snooze and was calming down. I caught his eye as he was blinking with his inner eyelid (like many reptiles, Komodos have such a “third eyelid”, a pale-blue, translucent so-called nictitating membrane). Another notch up on the eeriness scale … 
On the way back to the pier we spotted several more dragons trotting about, some at quite some speed too. One was walking right ahead of us, even using the footbridge over a small ravine. On the other side he stopped and turned his neck around to give us the “evil” eye – as if to say “sod off and stop following me”.   
Before reboarding our “floating coffin” we were steered towards the local souvenir market on Komodo Island. That was a bit unexpected, but we had a look around all the same. The vendors tried their hardest to sell hard, but we had taken only a small sum of cash along, so couldn't just get into the shopping frenzy they all clearly wanted us to get into. In the end I bought two items – and in the process delivered my best ever performance in haggling! By nature I am normally very inept at that art, but under the circumstances I managed to bargain them down to less than half the initial asking price – simply because that was genuinely all I had. So I procured a T-shirt and a ca. 10-inch carved wooden dragon. The latter was exceptionally well made – leagues above all the others on offer, with his neck cheekily tilted and very, very life-like. So that was the one I really wanted. So I am kind of chuffed with myself for my bargaining skills which seemed to have come out of nowhere all of a sudden. 
The next item on our tour itinerary was supposed to be snorkelling, at a cove known for its “pink beach”. There is indeed a slight rosy tinge to the sand here and there, but “pink” is an exaggeration. And the snorkelling turned out to be a complete farce. A dangerous one at that. The flippers provided didn't fit and fell off the second I got in the water. But the currents were so strong that you had to fight against them … not very relaxing when all you want is to look at the colourful fish and coral below. I had got a taste for snorkelling at Krakatoa and had thus been looking forward to this, but here it was a waste of time and energy and wasn't worth the risk of being carried out to sea by the currents, so we soon gave up and struggled back aboard (not helped by the fact that the boat didn't have a proper ladder either).   
We then headed for Rinca, the other main island of Komodo National Park, where we were to see yet more dragons. En route, the waters got significantly rougher than in the morning on the way to Komodo. The boat was now hacking into the waves and spraying us with seawater. Since using the exhaust-fume-filled cabin was not an option, and I prefer to stay on deck in rough seas anyway, we tried our best to protect ourselves with the towels we had taken along for post-snorkelling. Anyway, we could dry once on land again. And indeed inland Rinca was hot and sunny enough. 
As it turned out there were fewer dragons to be seen on Rinca, but we did encounter some hanging around by the kitchen hut (again) – together with a few dozen life-weary pigeons. Just one swift snap and a pigeon could disappear into a dragon's gob whole before you could say 'coo'.  But nothing happened. 
Further into the overgrown inland we came to a spot that is a breeding site for Komodos. Here females dig holes in the ground to lay their eggs and then stand by to guard them against peckish adult males … because their cannibalism doesn't only include infant dragons (who therefore usually hide in the trees)  but also extends to eggs. There was indeed one female lying on guard as we were there. She looked somewhat less plump than the male ones we had seen before, but still quite an oversized lizard. She eyed us but did not move.  
(By the way, if readers thought that my use of “he” to refer to Komodos up to now had been sexist or anything, think again: there is a severe mismatch between males and females in their current population – another reason why they are endangered – so nine out of ten times the dragon you see strutting about or loitering at kitchens will indeed be a male, even more likely so, as those females who guard their eggs won't be there. Anyway, I was only following the rangers' use of pronouns in reference to certain individuals. And they will know best.)
We hiked around for another hour or so, enjoying the views over the bay and the hills, and even spotted a few wild horses in the distance. Rinca is slightly more lush and scenic and generally has a less eerie aura compared to Komodo. However, one slightly scary thing our ranger here pointed out was dragon poo. Especially the white clumps in it. This, we were educated, were the vestiges of bones, white from calcium. The bones get completely crushed up and pulverized when finally excreted. This means that the dragons' stomachs and intestines are at least as powerful as their jaws, claws and tails. 
Back near the rangers' station we then saw the one dragon that is a feared repeat offender, on record for a double attempt at man-eating. The story goes that this dragon attacked the same ranger twice, on exactly the same date and time of day – only three years apart. Luckily, the ranger survived both occasions, if only narrowly and after lengthy hospital treatment. Scarily, the dragon attacked the ranger while he was doing some paperwork INSIDE his hut – and these huts are all built on stilts, precisely for the purpose of keeping dragons out. But this one didn't read the script and must have managed to climb in all the same. Twice. Cheeky bastard.
And it was this very individual dragon we were looking at now. It was at a distance of perhaps 15 yards or so, more than on other occasions, yet when this dragon suddenly lifted his neck and turned his head towards us it did send a certain chilly shiver down my spine. What if he suddenly decided to leap at us? There wasn't anywhere nearby to take refuge in (or on) quickly enough. But nothing happened. This dragon with the criminal record just stared us out, very effectively, as if sizing us up. But for some reason he must have felt that we weren't worth the effort. 
I admit that I was somewhat relieved when we took our leave and headed back to the boat – past a troupe of macaque monkeys who were grazing in the salt marshes near the mangroves. Do dragons also eat monkeys, I was wondering as we proceeded to the pier … and couldn't see any reason why they would not, given half a chance. 
From Rinca we had a couple of hours sailing ahead of us to get back to Labuan Bajo, and dusk was already approaching. Our guide then suggested that we make another stop, namely by an uninhabited mangrove-covered island en route. Uninhabited by humans, that is, but home to several tens of thousands of fruit bats, a species of giant vegetarian bat also known as flying foxes. And at nightfall these are known to set off communally to go feeding on the mainland. 
As this was simply too cool an opportunity for seeing such a spectacle we eagerly agreed. Our skipper was visibly less keen to make this detour (he probably just wanted to get back asap) but still did as instructed. 
So we joined a few other boats also waiting in the bay as it got darker. Then the bats suddenly started appearing. First just a few, then more and more and yet more, flying in total silence, eventually filling the sky as far as we could see, many passing directly overhead, sometimes so close you could see the shapes of their arms and feet as their wings were made semi-translucent by the setting sun behind them. It was a scene as gothic as it was magical. On the one hand very Hammer-horror-vampire-movie-like, on the other a spectacular part of nature, for real. It carried on for about half an hour, then the constant flight of these giant bats slowly subsided. I was literally left open-mouthed and speechless. 
It really was one of the most awesome natural-world spectacles I have ever encountered anywhere. And that was after just having had several close encounters with dragons! How much cooler could it get. It probably can't. No, really, as far as wildlife watching is concerned, this long day will be hard to beat. 
But before it came to an end, we first had to make our way back to the harbour.  And that meant put-putting through total darkness, except for the lights from some other boats heading the same way – and for a while going past a hill where a wildfire was raging, so that it almost looked like a lava-flow from a volcano (see in the Indonesia photo gallery).  
Finally, we made it back safely to the harbour. Relief again. Back at the hotel we indulged in ordering some overpriced wine. Our nerves called for it – for a whole kaleidoscope of reasons. 
It may have been the dodgiest mode of transport we ever entrusted our lives in, but on balance, after we had survived it, we felt the reward for it had been worth the risks. 
Obviously, not everybody's experience will be like this – in fact, in at least one sense I hope it won't be, namely as far as the boat is concerned (see below!). 
Incidentally, as if to rub it in, we heard the next day about that tourist boat coming from Lombok via Sumbawa that sank en route to Komodo – see under Indonesia (cue word 'ferries'). We even had people sending us an SMS from back home asking if we were alright. 
Such incidents with boats sinking or at least being worryingly unseaworthy are not even rare occurrences in these parts. When you start researching it you find that it is almost the norm and such serious accidents happen again and again, every other year or so. 
Be warned then: do get a decent boat. Don't skimp on safety. But do go – seeing Komodo dragons is one of those top-5 wildlife encounters that are truly life-changing … and if you can get a few tens of thousands gothicy bats flying overhead thrown in for good measure, then it becomes something unforgettable. I am still awe-struck. 
Location: in between the neighbouring islands of Flores and Sumbawa in the eastern part of the string of Indonesian islands called the Lesser Sunda chain.
Google maps locator: [-8.571,119.502
Access and costs: neither easy nor cheap. Highly regulated, time consuming, and in part potentially dangerous (especially if you try to get there on the cheap). This is a truly exotic destination in more than one sense of the word. 
Details: There is no airport on Komodo, and no longer any regular ferries either. So in the absence of any form of public transport you have to either charter a boat or book an organized package tour. Whatever you choose, you have to get to Labuan Bajo on Flores first, which is now THE gateway to Komodo and Rinca. 
Many people opt for live-aboard tours of three or more days that also include diving and snorkelling. The better packages, on decent and safe boats, however, can be quite expensive indeed.  
If you only want to see the dragons you can opt for a day return tour (although even these usually include a stop for snorkelling). These start very early in the morning and return after dark. They are obviously cheaper than multi-day live-aboard trips – but BEWARE: not all boats are properly seaworthy vessels. See my own “adventure” story above
One way of securing a minimum safety standard would be to check out the boats on offer for yourself in Labuan Bajo. But this obviously requires some time and flexibility and being prepared for the possibility of not being able to get any boat (of acceptable standards) at all, if they're all already booked.   
I should emphasize at this point that my experience with the dodgy boat was not supposed to happen. I had booked it as part of a larger itinerary through my trusted SE-Asia specialists Experience Travel Group (cf. under Indonesia and see the sponsored page here). But I'd like to stress that the boat issue was not their fault. Instead it was apparently a combination of a) an attempt to save money, and b) also a misunderstanding on the part of their Indonesian partner company, who had booked this trip from Bali, namely that my asking for a 'dark tourism itinerary' was the same as asking for things to be this “adventurous” (maybe it's the old confusion of dark tourism with danger tourism). Experience Travel have meanwhile assured me that they would not allow this sort of thing to happen again, namely by rather taking care of the boat charter themselves in future and keeping a keen eye on safety standards in doing so.
Be prepared, however, that this will inevitably come with a heavier price tag. I enquired the other day and was told that the base price for a boat chartered through them currently lies in the region of 600 GBP per day – and three days is the minimum charter period. This includes all meals and activities, which are a combination of cruising, diving/snorkelling and a tour of Komodo and Rinca.   
On Komodo Island you have to pay a national park entry fee plus a conservation fee (40,000 IDR and 20 USD, respectively, when I last checked) – but this is usually already included in your tour or boat charter and guide hire costs if prearranged as a package, so you won't have to worry about this (and the associated paperwork). 
Annoyingly, they also charge an extra fee for a photo permit, namely 25,000 IDR, and that not per photographer but per camera! So if you have more extensive gear (and like me do not like to change lenses in the wild) you get discriminated against and have to either pay more or make a decision which camera to take along. I managed to dodge the rule by having one camera round my neck (which I paid the permit for) and a camera bag on my hip, for them to assume that was my one (now empty) camera bag. In reality I had a second camera in there, a super-zoom bridge (see under photography) so that when no official was looking I was able to get this other camera with the much larger zoom range out as well and get better close-ups. 
Labuan Bajo will almost invariably have to be your base before and following your Komodo excursion. The once sleepy little harbour town has experienced a small tourism boom in recent years and hence now offers a few very good accommodation options (see also under combinations), as well as more basic ones, and a similarly decent range of places to eat out in. 
Flights to Labuan Bajo (whose airport is, somewhat confusingly, called “Komodo”) are no longer quite so adventurous as Douglas Adams experienced in the late 1980s. There are now various scheduled connections from/to Denpasar, Bali, some of them even daily. The airlines may not be the best ones but they are fairly cheap and you get no choice anyway.  
Time required: a whole long day (from before dawn to after dark) at the very minimum; or a more relaxed (and potentially safer and more comfortable) two or more days package. Plus a day or two for getting to Labuan Bajo and back.    
Combinations with other dark destinations: Those amazingly gothicy fruit bats have already been mentioned. Komodo itself also has dark aspects other than the dragons. Some also animate: like lots of other deadly creatures – venomous snakes on land (allegedly more per square mile than anywhere else on Earth) and poisonous fish in the sea. 
And then there's the sea itself, of course. The waters around Komodo are notoriously treacherous, with cross-currents and vortices. Add to that the often limited seaworthiness of the boats plying these waters (including tourist boats) and you have another element of adventure – see above! Although that as such does not constitute dark tourism, as I always hasten to add (see under danger tourism).
Other than that, the nearest properly dark destination would be East Timor – some 400 miles (460 km) to the east; but there are no direct connections from Labuan Bajo. Instead you have to go back to Bali and fly from there, twice the distance in the same direction. Seems stupid but that's the only way.
Bali itself also has a couple of dark attractions, of very different types, namely the Bali bombing sites in Kuta on the one hand, and the bizarre and really quite grim Trunyan burial site at Lake Batur in north-eastern Bali. 
For things yet further away see under Indonesia in general. 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Parts of the Komodo experience are of a rather non-dark nature anyway: the scenery, watching wildlife such as eagles, flying fish (see above), etc. and of course there's the marine world just below the surface of the sea. Around Komodo are some of the world's best dive sites, if that's your thing. 
If you'd rather stay above water (voluntarily, I mean) the choices are more limited. Do not expect the same sort of lush green with jungle and cliché rice paddy scenery as you get for instance on inland Bali or Java. Komodo is in fact quite arid and at least in the dry season (when it is the best time to go) rather a parched pale brown colour. Rinca is the same, but Flores offers a wider range of scenery. However, this far east you go out of the reach of the typical mainstream tourist amenities and you may have to rough it a bit more. But for many travellers the draw of the exotic is exactly part of the appeal of these eastern islands. 
Labuan Bajo itself, on the other hand, has grown into a veritable resort town, catering also for the beach holiday lot. I stayed in a rather swish hotel complex before and after my Komodo tour and the hotel was very Western indeed, with large functional rooms and a beach-front swimming pool that was really quite delightful (whether such a pool is also an ecologically sound idea on Flores, though, may be a different issue).
The easiest combination transport-wise, however, remains Bali – with daily scheduled flights to Denpasar to take travellers into what is clearly mainstream-tourism central in Indonesia.   
  • Komodo 01 - getting there is by boatKomodo 01 - getting there is by boat
  • Komodo 02 - approaching the islandKomodo 02 - approaching the island
  • Komodo 03 - arrival at the pierKomodo 03 - arrival at the pier
  • Komodo 04 - national park signKomodo 04 - national park sign
  • Komodo 05 - choice of trailsKomodo 05 - choice of trails
  • Komodo 06 - dangerous businessKomodo 06 - dangerous business
  • Komodo 07 - there is one right on the pathKomodo 07 - there is one right on the path
  • Komodo 08 - trotting through the undergrowthKomodo 08 - trotting through the undergrowth
  • Komodo 09 - big dragonKomodo 09 - big dragon
  • Komodo 10 - with big clawsKomodo 10 - with big claws
  • Komodo 11 - this deer looks like a dragon had a nip at itKomodo 11 - this deer looks like a dragon had a nip at it
  • Komodo 12 - crossed dragons, 25-year-old Opa on the rightKomodo 12 - crossed dragons, 25-year-old Opa on the right
  • Komodo 13 - kitchen hutKomodo 13 - kitchen hut
  • Komodo 14 - sniffing aroundKomodo 14 - sniffing around
  • Komodo 15 - big forked tongueKomodo 15 - big forked tongue
  • Komodo 16 - forked sticks to keep them at bay if necessaryKomodo 16 - forked sticks to keep them at bay if necessary
  • Komodo 17 - you never know when they might pounce on youKomodo 17 - you never know when they might pounce on you
  • Komodo 18 - could be at the blink of an eyeKomodo 18 - could be at the blink of an eye
  • Komodo 19 - dragon using a foot bridgeKomodo 19 - dragon using a foot bridge
  • Komodo 20 - looking backKomodo 20 - looking back
  • Komodo 21 - Fregata Hill overlooking the bayKomodo 21 - Fregata Hill overlooking the bay
  • Komodo 22 - other wildlife includes kingfishersKomodo 22 - other wildlife includes kingfishers
  • Komodo 23 - and plucky deerKomodo 23 - and plucky deer
  • Komodo 24 - the currents are a bit strong for snorkelingKomodo 24 - the currents are a bit strong for snorkeling
  • Komodo 25 - on Rinca islandKomodo 25 - on Rinca island
  • Komodo 26 - where they also have crocodilesKomodo 26 - where they also have crocodiles
  • Komodo 27 - yet more dragonsKomodo 27 - yet more dragons
  • Komodo 28 - RincaKomodo 28 - Rinca
  • Komodo 29 - wild horses on RincaKomodo 29 - wild horses on Rinca
  • Komodo 30 - dragon poo with calcium balls from bones in itKomodo 30 - dragon poo with calcium balls from bones in it
  • Komodo 31 - well-known especially aggressive fellaKomodo 31 - well-known especially aggressive fella
  • Komodo 32 - eagle taking off from RincaKomodo 32 - eagle taking off from Rinca
  • Komodo 33 - evening lightKomodo 33 - evening light
  • Komodo 34 - when the flying foxes come outKomodo 34 - when the flying foxes come out
  • Komodo 35 - they are actually giant fruit batsKomodo 35 - they are actually giant fruit bats
  • Komodo 36 - flying closely overheadKomodo 36 - flying closely overhead
  • Komodo 37 - in their thousandsKomodo 37 - in their thousands
  • Komodo 38 - Hammer-horror-like sceneKomodo 38 - Hammer-horror-like scene

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.
More information Ok