Here be dragons

This week's discovery of a tiny species of apeman which lived on the Indonesian island of Flores has enhanced the region's rich natural history of exotic animals. As Matt Warren discovers, the people might have been small, but the reptiles are monsters...

There is a dragon in the lavatory. It is a giant: nine feet long and broad shouldered, its dark, scaly head like a chunk of aggregate. It is drinking from the bowl and turns in a series of lumbering movements towards me, its forked tongue stabbing at the air. It is staring at me through tiny, reptile eyes; I am biting my lip to check I'm still awake. After travelling for three days, I have had my first experience of a Komodo dragon, in a Third World public convenience.

There is a dragon in the lavatory. It is a giant: nine feet long and broad shouldered, its dark, scaly head like a chunk of aggregate. It is drinking from the bowl and turns in a series of lumbering movements towards me, its forked tongue stabbing at the air. It is staring at me through tiny, reptile eyes; I am biting my lip to check I'm still awake. After travelling for three days, I have had my first experience of a Komodo dragon, in a Third World public convenience.

It is breakfast time on the tiny Indonesian island of Rinca, and the smell of frying eggs hangs in the soggy tropical air. The young dragons, skittish and barely a foot long, have already been attracted by the cooking smells, and dart between trees as they close in on the ranger station. The adults take longer to arrive, trundling out of the forest in a slow, primeval swagger. The dragons rely on their highly toxic saliva to kill their prey, and as they waddle towards the kitchen, strings of drool dribble from their dinosaur jaws.

"We don't feed them, but they come down here every morning anyway," says the ranger. "Even if we did share our food, the big ones weigh 70kg and can eat 80 per cent of their body weight in a single sitting - it's not like an omelette's going to satisfy them."

And so they drink from the lavatory instead. It is an incongruous, but sensational sight. Now all but confined to the tiny neighbouring islands of Komodo and Rinca, the 2,500 remaining dragons are like flotsam from another era, living fossils in the weirdest, most wonderful sense.

Two hours later and we are standing at the summit of a hill overlooking the ranger station and the pretty bay our boat is moored in. Tall, pea-green grasses ebb and flow in the breeze and water buffalo, the dragons' favourite prey, graze in small herds at the forest edge. Up here, the giant reptiles are never far away. They lie in wait for the buffalo and strike with breakneck speed when they stray within range. The dragons' septic bite causes lethal blood poisoning and if they don't bring their prey down in the attack, they patiently follow it until their saliva does.

"Over here!" shouts the ranger. "In the bushes, quick!" He is standing in the shadow of a small copse, with a gigantic dragon an arm's length in front of him and his heavy wooden stick braced defensively between them. It is lying motionless in the pool of shade, but its eyes are as cold as an arctic gale, and its body is tense. As I crane forward to take a photograph, I feel like I'm staring down the muzzle of a cocked gun - and I'm loving every minute of it.

The journey from the frenetic streets of Kuta in Bali began three days earlier, in the back of a coughing bus. Rinca and Komodo are best reached from the large, remote island of Flores - where, it was revealed this week, archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of little humans. For 21st-century Homo sapiens, the slow trip east is a jamboree of four buses and three ferries.

Against the polished, air-con environment of resort-town Bali, this is a walk on Indonesia's wild side. The islands get less developed as you head east, and the ferries between them rustier and ever more clunky. Steaming between Sumbawa and Flores, when Komodo first appears on the horizon and the sea pushes back and forth between a constellation of islets, swirling tides rip and churn beneath the boat.

"I heard about large ferries being sucked under here," says a German backpacker. "There was no warning, they were just dragged down by the currents and swallowed up." It doesn't sound like good news, but the bar on the boat is still open and so we sit on deck in the sunshine, drinking lukewarm beer as Komodo slides past our bows.

At the eastern tip of Flores, the little port of Labuhanbajo is the jumping-off point for the final-leg sailing to Komodo and Rinca. Named Flores (which means "flowers") by the Portuguese who once settled here, this wild, volcanic island is one of Indonesia's most spectacular. Ramshackle Labuhanbajo is little more than a chaotic mishmash of wood and tin, but its setting, around a dramatic bay filled with islets, is the stuff of chocolate-box whimsy.

We leave for Rinca at dawn, as the sea runs red with the rising sun. As we judder out of harbour, the captain hands out cups of strong coffee and opens up the throttle to take us to a stuttering walking pace. The horizon, it seems, will be a long time coming. But as the barren coast drifts past and Komodo and Rinca loom out of the haze, the captain wears a Cheshire-cat grin. "This is where the dragons live," he says.

We dock in a tiny cove on Rinca's northern shore, a postcard setting as evocative of prehistoric times as a trip through Jurassic Park. Exotic birds float high on the thermals and an eerie duvet of hush hugs the landscape. Rinca is the smaller of the dragons' two island habitats, but chances of seeing the reptiles here are higher. Only a handful of tourists visit the island, and we have the ranger station to ourselves, with an invitation to breakfast thrown in. As we settle down under turquoise skies to watch the dragons, every bumpy minute of the journey seems worthwhile.

Although protected by the Komodo National Park (PKA Balai Taman Nasional Komodo), Rinca and Komodo are under pressure. The islands' human population has increased 800 per cent in the last six decades and poaching of some of the dragons' favourite prey is putting the giant reptiles in peril. Kampung Komodo, the main settlement on larger Komodo island, now has 270 houses; in 1958, there were 30. Once stranded at the ends of the earth, the Komodo dragon must increasingly compete with humans, and the outcome is far from certain.

Back on Flores, the buses east, along the single-track roads of the interior, are bumpier than ever: in 24 hours, we have two punctures and run over one goat. But by the time we have checked into a hotel room in the eastern town of Maumere, with a plane ticket back to Bali on the bedside table and the air-con cranked good and high, we feel like we have returned to the 21st century. But there is one final reminder that we are at the untamed end of the modern world. Waiting for the plane back to Bali, we are hit by an earthquake. Maumere was levelled by a quake in 1992, and as soon as the first tremors shiver through the floor, the terminal building empties. We are too slow though, and through shuddering plate-glass windows watch the panicking locals staring back at us.

It is not serious, however, and within an hour, we are aboard the little plane, buzzing back west towards the burger bars of Bali. It is 9am, and somewhere, 30,000-feet below, the dragons are once again following the smell of frying eggs to a group of tourists. Let's just hope they never get tired of it.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly between the UK and Bali on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur, Royal Brunei via Bandar Seri Begawan and Singapore Airlines via Singapore. The slow road from Bali to Labuhanbajo (the jumping off point for Komodo and Rinca) takes two to three days and involves ferries as well as a handful of bumpy bus journeys.

STAYING THERE

Basic accommodation costs 90,000 Rupiahs (£5) per person on both islands through the PHPA parks board (00 62 385 41004; www.komodonationalpark.org).

VISITING

Perama (00 62 370 635928; www.peramatour.com) runs four-day boat trips between Lombok and Flores, via Komodo and Rinca, for 920,000 Rupiahs (£55) per person.

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