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The Real Jurassic Park : Komodo Island, Indonesia

I don't think it was on the tour. Nothing in the brochure


said anything about meeting a Komodo Dragon on the
tourist path. As I understood it the dragons were supposed
to keep off the tourist path and stick to the underbrush.
After the American tourists reached the ranger station, and
the Indonesian rangers gave them the dead goat, then
they could rip it to shreds and horrify the guests as much
as they pleased. But noooooooooooooooooo, this
overgrown salamander, about eight feet long, had to
horrify the guests before they got to the ranger station.

Fortunately for us, Komodo Dragons are fairly retiring,


and he turned off the path and slithered into the
underbrush. I shouldn't have been all that surprised. After
all, we had been exploring islands of Indonesia for about
two weeks now and this sort of thing was becoming
commonplace.

Maybe it was the Dani tribesman, clad in a loin cloth,


peering at me through the windows at the Biak, New
Guinea airport that first jaded me to the exotica of
Indonesia. We had just boarded a Garuda Airlines 747 out
of Los Angeles nineteen hours earlier, and now I was being
scrutinized by someone I imagined out of Conrad's Heart of
Darkness. He was holding a ten foot long spear, and I had
my IBM laptop strung over my shoulder. Finally, he pointed
to my computer and shouted through the window.
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“You still run MS-DOS on that old 486 ?" he laughed.

“No one uses that old system down here. We all run
Pentium Processors with Windows 95."

No, no, I'm just kidding. He didn't say that at all.


However, it wouldn't really surprise me if he did. For of all
the surprises that lie in store for us in Indonesia, possibly
the biggest surprise of all was just how far this South
Pacific archipelago has come.

That's not to say there aren't places, such as in Asmat


country in the mangrove swamps in southwest New
Guinea, that when someone says they'd love to have you
for dinner, you should definitely decline. But for the most
part the old customs of head-hunting and cannibalism that
have long colored the archetype of our Western
imaginations are remnants of the past. At least that's what
our travel agent in Bangor, Maine told us.

“I'm going back to the ship," an old woman from Santa


Fe said as the Komodo Dragon scurried into the
underbrush. However, when I wished her good luck, she
just stuck to the middle of the pack and kept walking. Our
Indonesian guide, Oswald, had assigned me group leader
to about ten women whose ages ranged from 70 to 90, and
had given me a forked stick about two feet in length to
fend off rogue dragons. The goal of our small band was to
trek the mile from the beach, where zodiacs from the
Society Explorer had deposited us, to a ranger station,
where we were to witness a dragon dinner. Hopefully, it
would be the goat. Oswald was an excellent guide and a
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virtual font of information. As we departed into the interior


of Komodo island, he mentioned that in 1974 a dragon had
eaten a Swiss naturalist. The only thing they ever found of
the guy was his camera and a well-chewed shoe.

Oswald also informed us as we headed off into the


underbrush that we shouldn't spend all our time worrying
about the dragons it was snakes we should watch out for.
There are more poisonous snakes per square foot on
Komodo island than anywhere on earth and their venom
has no known antidotes.

Of course the famous Komodo Dragon of Komodo island


isn't really a dragon at all, but is a monitor lizard, which
means giant lizard. It is the largest lizard in the world,
living on four tropical islands: Rintja, Padar, the
southwestern corner of Flores, and of course, Komodo.

As for its appearance one would think it more at home


on the river Stxy. It is ugly even by lizard standards. With a
thick forked tongue, sinister-looking talons protruding from
each tattoos, and layers of backward-slanting teeth, it
reaches a length of over ten feet and a weight of 300
pounds. It is fast on its feet, is an excellent swimmer, and
the smaller ones can even climb trees. It will hide in the
thick grass alongside the trail of a wild boar or deer and
bring down its prey by attacking the underbelly. Although it
will eat about anything, it prefers carrion.

“At last!," the old woman from Santa Fe complained as


we reached the ranger station. We entered a protected
area and closed the gate behind us, secure in the fact that
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the gate was sturdy enough to keep out a good-sized


Chihuahua. The tourists were now on the inside and the
dragons were on the outside. The rangers then lowered the
carcass of a goat that was hanging from a rope tied to the
branch of a tree. The dragons must had seen all this
before, since the moment the carcass was lowered, several
large dragons scurried out from the underbrush and made
a bee-line for brunch.

“You're going to like this," Oswald said. I was beginning


to think we had become a little blase´ to the raw nature of
Indonesia, but we had never been to a dragon dinner
before.

We had weighed anchor at Bali a week earlier aboard


the Society Explorer, a cruise ship designed to take the
curious traveler away from the usual routes. We wanted to
explore the region east of Bali, known as the Lesser Sundra
Islands, that is one of the least traveled regions on earth.
What we found, however, we never read in the guide
books.

“We're in Bugis territory," my wife said as the Society


Explorer inched its way out of the Bali port of Benoa and
headed east into the Flores Sea. The Bugis, of course, were
the legendary black-sailed pirates that lay in wait for
Portuguese and Dutch spice-trading caravels as they made
their way between Europe and the Moluccas archipelago in
search of nutmeg and cloves. The Bugis were so feared by
the European spice traders that their very name gave rise
to the legendary “boogie man" of our childhood dreams.
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Today, the Bugis prahus still sail these waters, but now
they transport mostly agricultural products and other
staples to and from the outlying islands.

For the next two weeks before returning to Bali we


would cruise the Flores Sea, making stops at the
Indonesian islands of Sartonda, Moyo, Sulawesi, Sogori,
Flores, Lombok, and, of course Komodo.

To the Western mind the Indonesian islands of Borneo,


Celebes, Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea have long
symbolized the essence of high adventure. Geographically,
Indonesia constitutes a vast spread of over 13,000 islands,
curving south and east from the Asian continent towards
Australia. If a map of Indonesia were spread over the
United States, it would extend all the way from California in
the west to Bermuda in the east. Most of Indonesia's 150
million people live on the California-sized island of Java,
which has a population of 100 million.

Although Java has a long way to go before achieving


economic parity with the Asian Tigers of Japan, Taiwan,
Korea, and Singapore, some economists say its time is
coming. As you move eastward from Java, however, to Bali,
and further on to Lombok, and regions beyond, it might be
said you are moving back in time. And by the time you
reach the province of Irian Jaya on the island of New
Guinea, you have reached the wood-age culture of the
Asmats.

“It's hard to believe these waters once held center stage


to the world," my wife remarked as the Society Explorer
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wended its way through the Flores Sea. She was referring,
of course, to the discovery of nutmeg in 1604 in the Banda
islands, which lie to the east of us, and which sparked the
Age of Discovery leading eventually to the discovery of the
New World by Christopher Columbus.

The next day the Society Explorer lay anchor at the tiny
volcanic atoll of Moyo. Going ashore on the ship's zodiacs,
we could see multicolored clownfish swimming among the
coral twenty feet below. On shore about fifty children were
screaming their brains out.

No sooner had I climbed out of the zodiac than a dozen


children grabbed my hands and pulled me around the
village on a conducted tour. Three or four of them would
lead the way, scouting out the next point of interest.
Others would crowd around me, all wanting to hold my
hand. The fact I didn't understand a word they were saying
didn't seem to make any difference. I'd smile at them and
say how beautiful the huts were, and they'd all giggle and
say something back. It wasn't at all clear if I was being
treated as an honored guest or the village idiot.

After my gaggle of guides decided that I had seen


everything, they led me back to the zodiac. By this time
the ship had sent ashore a jug of ice water and I offered to
each of my newly found friends some refreshment. Each
child politely waited his turn as I gave him his glass. None
of them had ever tasted cold water before, or had even
seen an ice cube. They had a great time playing with the
ice cubes before plopping them into their mouths.
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The Society Explorer weighed anchor at sunset and


headed east and north to the amoeba-shaped island of
Sulawesi (Soo-la-wee'-ze). Formerly called Celebes (Sell'-a-
beez) when Indonesia was called the Dutch East Indies, it
provided such a sprawling profile to sailors that for a
hundred years after it was discovered, European
navigators thought it to be a series of islands.

“Beeeeeeeeeeep," our Bugis driver, Halim, laid on the


horn the next day as we rounded what had to be the 500th
curve. Although we were sitting almost smack on the
equator, the temperature was in the 70s as we ascended
several thousand feet into central Sulawesi. And provided
Halim didn't miss one of those hairpin curves and send us
back to sea-level airmail, we would make Torajaland in a
few hours. My only solace as Halim brushed a bus load of
Indonesians with at least a foot to spare was that my wife
and I were sharing the van with an orthopedic surgeon, an
anesthesiologist, the ship's doctor, and a surgical nurse.

To be quite truthful, however, Halim was as adept at


driving his van as his ancestors were with sailing the
wooden prahus, and we arrived safe and sound. Never
once, although we traveled to some pretty remote places,
did I feel unsafe. Indonesia is pushing tourism and to its
credit has organized responsible and intriguing tour
packages.

“That's where the spinal cord enters the skull," the


orthopedic surgeon from Boston was telling my wife as we
gaped at some human skulls lying about inside a Torajan
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death-cave. I felt a little edgy as if we were intruding on


hallowed grounds.

“Let's get out of here," I grabbed my wife by the arm.


“This place is giving me the willies."

“You've seen too many Hollywood movies," she tried to


calm me down. “You're just thinking about that scene out
of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indiana
falls into the cave full of pit vipers and human skulls."

“That's it," I said. “Were outta here."

I will admit my imagination was working overtime during


the drive up to Torajaland, knowing the Torajans had
practiced cannibalism only a few generations ago. Visions
of stew pots overflowing with overzealous missionaries
raced through my mind. What I found, however, were
people so friendly and kind they should be conscripted to
teach manners and civility to the denizens of those cultural
meccas of Paris and New York.

Back at the Komodo dinner, the old woman from Santa


Fe was now complaining about the sanitary standards of
the dragons. By this time it wasn't exactly a secret that the
dragons didn't floss on a daily basis. In fact the particular
dragon that seemed to scare the woman the most was
walking around with a goat's leg sticking repulsively out of
his mouth, and seemed to be sniffing around near her.

“I wanna go back to the ship," she whined. “Where's my


group leader ?" She was, of course, referring to Lord Jim
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with the forked stick. By this time I had seen enough of the
dragon dinner, with the possible exception of seeing one of
the dragons chewing up the old woman, that I called for
our little band to head back to the ship. And with several
“After you," “No, after you," “Please, you first," we headed
off. This time, however, things would be different. If we
met a hungry dragon on the path, there was no need to
panic we had a bargaining chip. We had the old lady from
Santa Fe.

- the end -