The article is quoted from “The Telegraph” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk). Text by Gavin Bell.
When I was a boy, I saw dragons. They didn’t actually fly or breathe fire, but in every other respect they were the stuff of legends, with razor-sharp claws, fearsome teeth and fiery tongues. What’s more, they lived in an exotic, far-off land – and they ate people.
I was nine years old when I sat enthralled by black-and-white images of these monstrous creatures, brought to television screens in the 1950s by a young David Attenborough in Zoo Quest for a Dragon. It was as if he had travelled through time and space to a distant planet. He might well have done, because the lairs of the Komodo dragons of eastern Indonesia are as remote and hard to reach as they were half a century ago. First you fly to Bali, then catch a local flight over the islands of Lombok and Sumbawa to a ramshackle fishing village on the western tip of Flores that could be from a Somerset Maugham novel.
There you can charter an old wooden boat for a trip of anything from three to six hours to the parched islands frazzled by the sun that are home to the gargantuan man-eating reptiles known locally as ora. The bad news is that many of the vessels for hire are barely seaworthy, few if any have lifejackets, and the Sape Strait in which the islands lie is notorious for fierce rip tides and whirlpools. The good news is, there is an alternative.
Cruising the Java Sea is a dreamboat called Silolona, an authentic replica of gaff-rigged schooners that plied the Spice Islands trade long before Europeans turned up in the 16th century. Laden with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, the high-prowed vessels called phinisi followed the trade winds from the Moluccas to Madagascar and the African coast, returning with cargoes of iron, ivory and slaves.
On Silolona, spices are confined to the Asian fusion cuisine. Hand-built by traditional boat-builders in a mangrove swamp in southern Sulawesi and launched in 2004, she carries up to 10 guests in considerable style and luxury, in staterooms worthy of a five-star hotel. One of her current itineraries, I was delighted to discover, is to the land of the Komodo dragons.
Still, it’s a long way to go, and it makes sense to break the journey in Bali, at somewhere like Kayumanis Private Estates’ signature establishment in a coconut grove a short drive from the airport. There is no communal swimming pool because each of the private villas has its own, along with bath and shower al fresco in fragrant gardens and masseuses on call to ease the aches and pains of long-haul travel. The Zen-like calm is the perfect cure for jet lag.
Thus refreshed, I enjoy the onward flight over cloud-piercing volcanoes to Lubuan Bajo on Flores. From the air, the twin masts of Silolona are visible above a flotilla of outrigger fishing boats in a bay framed by low hills. On closer inspection she looks like a pantomime pirate ship, a floating stage set for Peter Pan. But this is a sturdy, ocean-going vessel built to German Lloyd specifications.
Constructed of ironwood, and trimmed in teak and a gleaming red-hued wood called lengua, she is superb testimony to traditional boat-building skills and arguably among the most handsome oriental sailing ships afloat.
An old salt once declared that a sailing ship is the closest thing to dreams made by the hands of man. In this case, it was dreamed up by Patti Seery, an American architect inspired by Indonesian culture and art who had a vision of blending ancient and modern in a ship imbued with the romance of the past but equipped with a 680hp turbo-diesel engine to supplement her seven black sails.
“She is about history and traditions,” says Seery proudly. “She tells of ancient legends.” In local lore, Silolona was a woman of surpassing beauty whose husband saved the world from global warming by hurling a golden spear at the sun. His return is eagerly awaited.
Time begins to slow as we raise anchor and set sail for the Komodo archipelago, and soon it seems to be slipping backwards. The islands rising from the Flores Sea are geological dinosaurs, with ochre hills clothed in savannah and dry monsoon forests that look unchanged since the dawn of time.
Only the two largest islands have small fishing communities, which means there are dozens of deserted islets, coves and beaches offering a Robinson Crusoe experience. The crew of Silolona add useful touches like beach umbrellas and chilled champagne for temporary castaways deposited on pristine beaches for the afternoon.
The west coast of Padar is your classic desert-island idyll. Nobody lives there, and hardly anyone visits because strong currents make it hard to anchor. While Silolona cruises offshore, we explore a sweeping crescent of rose-tinted sand framed by wooded hills and dramatic sea stacks. The pink hue comes from crushed coral fragments, and the high tide line is a cornucopia of exotic shells and corals. It is absurdly picturesque, and a French woman in our party declares it the most beautiful beach she has ever seen.
That evening we decamp barefoot to a sandy cove on a nearby island for an aperitif and sushi made from jackfish freshly caught by the crew. As darkness falls and moonlight glitters on the water, the only sounds we hear are of waves lapping on the shore. And the occasional clink of a champagne glass.
Patti has another treat in store for guests unfamiliar with sailing in tropical waters: stars in the sea. The trick is to cruise around in a tender boat at night, trail a hand in the inky-black water, and watch the phosphorescence swirling from it like a galaxy of stars. The ultimate spectacle is the “mermaid effect”, caused when women swim at night and glittering lights cascade from their hair.
By day, the protected coastal waters of Komodo National Park are equally spectacular. While the islands may seem arid and lifeless during the long dry season, a few yards away lies an aquatic world teeming with exotic life.
Eastern Indonesia is renowned for world-class dive sites, and Silolona is fully equipped for divers. In these shallow waters, though, a mask and snorkel are all that are required to explore coral reefs of wondrous variety and beauty. In this silent, slow-motion realm, one becomes an aviator gliding above colonies of bizarre creatures busying themselves in the tasks of survival. Turtles swim serenely among shoals of brilliantly-hued fish posing as parrots, trumpets and angels, all unconcerned by our presence.
Occasionally, denizens of the deep appear briefly in our world. On a beach excursion, we are escorted by a school of dolphins leaping out of the water around us like smiling torpedoes. In a stretch of turbulent water, what appears to be a whirlpool materialises as a sperm whale, blowing and breaking the surface with ponderous majesty. Above us, as we approach Komodo Island, a pair of sea eagles squabble over a catch.
At the entrance to the Loh Liang ranger station on Komodo Island there should be a sign, preferably in Gothic script, warning visitors: “Here be dragons”. One might reasonably expect another declaring: “All ye who enter here, abandon hope”. Disappointingly, there isn’t. Instead, there is an information board stipulating that visitors should be accompanied by guides at all times.
Some years ago, an elderly Swiss nobleman ignored this advice and strayed from a group being escorted in the hills. All they found of Baron Rudolf von Redding at first were his camera and spectacles – and then vestiges of his hair and nails in dragon droppings.
There are an estimated 2,500 dragons on Komodo and two neighbouring islands, all of them cold-blooded predators.
Varanus komodoensis is actually a monitor lizard, the world’s biggest, growing up to 12ft long from snout to tail and weighing nearly 18 stone. It can smell blood at six miles, run at 14mph, and swallow a goat whole. They do not make good pets.
Our guide, Rinos, armed with a long wooden stick, cheerfully informs us he is not afraid of dragons, only wary. “It is quite difficult to predict their attitude,” he says. “Sometimes they look so calm, but if they smell blood they run very fast.”
With this image in mind, we set off in a remarkably compact group with Rinos leading the way. The forest of tamarind and palm trees is home to deer, wild pig and buffalo, all of which feature on the dragons’ menu du jour. We catch glimpses of deer in sun-dappled clearings and see the ominous spoor of giant claw marks in a dry river bed. In the woods of Bambi, monsters lurk.
We don’t see any, until we approach the rangers’ kitchen. At first we don’t spot the 10ft reptile sprawled in the dust, but fortunately Rinos does and brings us to a halt. Six feet away, the immobile beast is watching us with black, expressionless eyes.
It looks every bit as fearsome as its reputation. A scaly hide, ugly head raised as if to strike, long yellow tongue flicking the air: it is the embodiment of menace. We retreat to the dubious safety of a wooden staircase, just in time. Rinos prods the ground near it, and it whips around with lightning speed to confront him. He backs off slowly, and the creature resumes its watchful pose.
Next day we visit the island of Rinca, which is wilder, with resident troops of monkeys. In the park office I notice dark smears high on a wall. They are the bloodstains of a ranger who was attacked by a dragon while sitting at his desk, and who escaped by leaping on to a cupboard and out of a window.
When our guide asks us to stay together on the trail, he is scrupulously obeyed. At one point he gestures towards a network of holes in the ground, which he says is a dragon’s nest, likely to contain eggs. We are peering at the site when he points behind me and says softly: “Don’t move.” I look around, and find I am being observed at close quarters by a large dragon. I hear Attenborough’s familiar, hushed tones: “The female is at her most dangerous when guarding her young.” The guide raises his stick and instructs me to step slowly towards him. This takes an eternity, but it appeases mummy dragon, who regards my retreat balefully, without stirring.
Surprisingly, there are people living in the lands of the dragons, and remarkably few get eaten. They build fences around their villages, and chase away any dragons that approach with sticks and stones – but danger remains all around them. Last year, a farmer was attacked while picking fruit in a forest, and by the time his screams brought friends running to help, he was dead and half-eaten.
The largest village is Kampung Komodo, a fishing community that scratches a living from catching squid on moonless nights and carving wooden dragons for tourists. It is a lively, friendly jumble of wooden houses on stilts and dirt streets teeming with people – and its artisans are nothing if not inventive. I am offered a carved dragon wearing a scuba tank, which strikes me as an appalling prospect.
After the excitement of close encounters of the scary kind, it is bliss to return to the comforts of Silolona. Her magical effect is most pronounced at night, when lanterns form pinpricks of light on the dark wood, and illuminate the outlines of her high prow. Then it is as if she is a stage, awaiting the entrance of actors – cue Captain Hook chasing Peter Pan.
On the last evening of our Indonesian adventure, the crew prepares a barbecue for us on a deserted beach. Lamps of burning oil are placed in holes dug in the sand, and local fishermen join our seamen in singing and playing guitars by the light of a campfire. Chinese lanterns are lit, and they drift high into the night sky. Silolona, her lights sparkling on the dark water, looks more than ever like a ship of dreams.
This is my kind of Zoo Quest.